Post written by Rachel Schimke, a spring intern at N-YHS who processed the Peter Curtenius Papers.
This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, a conflict that is often overshadowed by the more celebrated wars in our nation’s history. The newly processed Peter Curtenius Papers offer invaluable information for researchers interested in this lesser-known war, particularly the role that New York played in the conflict.
Curtenius was appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of New York by Thomas Jefferson in 1806. He served in this position until near the end of the War of 1812, at which time his successor John Smith took over. During their tenures as marshals, much of Curtenius and Smith’s duties involved overseeing British citizens living in New York. They corresponded often with the Department of State (led by James Monroe), receiving frequent instructions regarding these British “aliens.” A letter from James Monroe to Peter Curtenius on October 21, 1812, shortly after the outbreak of the war, requests that Curtenius order the nine British officers living in New York City to “retire forthwith into the country, to such place, not less than forty miles distant from the city… Should they refuse or decline to obey this order, you will take them into custody as prisoners of war.” The same letter also asks Curtenius to pay “very strict attention” to “all other alien enemies.”
What did this “very strict attention” entail? As marshals, Curtenius and Smith were in charge of maintaining registers of the approximately 1,500 British citizens living in New York (about half of whom lived in New York City) during the War of 1812. Even British heads of households who had been living in New York for many years or had applied for naturalization were required to report to the marshal. One British resident, a 58-year-old man who was a weaver by trade, had lived in the United States for 35 years when he reported to Curtenius in September 1812. These registers, located in the Peter Curtenius Papers and the New-York Historical Society’s other War of 1812 manuscript collections, are rich in sociological information, as they list the names of the British “aliens,” their age, occupation, place of residence, length of time in the United States, their family/marital status, and whether they had applied for naturalization.
Less than three decades after the United States became independent, our young nation once again found itself doing battle with Great Britain. As we acknowledge the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, it is interesting to reflect back on how the conflict affected not just Americans on the home front, but their British neighbors, as well.