The Smell of Old Paper

Yes, online research is convenient and it gets better as more original source documents become available online every year–see my previous post for an example. But research conducted only with online resources or secondary documents is incomplete. Besides, researching original documents is just more fun and satisfying. First, there’s the chase. You cannot flit around the world at the speed of Internet Protocol packets to find documents that exist only on paper–you must find them the old fashioned way, maybe by telephone, more likely by letter or personal travel. The most valuable documents, of course, are the ones no one else has studied because they are not indexed or even catalogued. Second, there is a pleasure in handling documents one, two, three centuries old. Their smell is unique, not musty–they’ve been in a climate controlled room–but pleasant. Then there is the penmanship. Few today can equal it, certainly not I. Third, there is that moment when you learn something that you’re certain no one else in the world knows. Sure, maybe almost no one else cares, but someone does.

David Kokernot said, and many writers have repeated, that he served as an officer chasing smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1830s. He would have worked for the Collector of Customs in New Orleans who, in turn, worked for the Treasury Department in Washington. After a year spent searching for the federal documents that would be generated by that activity, I found correspondence between those two offices resting in a field office of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas. No amount of phone calls or emails had produced a catalog of the collection, which fills many boxes, until I walked into the archives on October 30, 2006. That catalog, which resided in the computer of one archivist at the time, nowhere else, saved me days of work.

David Kokernot did sail with the Revenue Cutter Service–once. The history of his service can be pieced together by careful examination of those correspondence files. Pictured here is just one letter between Washington and New Orleans that mentions charges against Kokernot and the officers of the Revenue Cutter Ingham. You’ll have to go to Ft. Worth or buy my book to learn the rest of the story. Sorry, the book is not available yet, but here is a record of my progress on it.


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