American Experience

Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight

When I was a kid, my father told our family stories about serving in the Navy. One of his memories that stuck with me was his description of the stars and skies while he was in the middle of the ocean. Sailors develop a keen sense of where they are going and what kind of weather may be coming.

More reliable than sailor folklore are the daily weather and ocean data kept in the U.S. Navy logbooks preserved at the National Archives. To the untrained eye, these big books full of handwritten notes on water temperature, sea levels and weather might seem like artifacts stuck in time. But for current day climate scientists, these logbooks––kept for nearly two centuries––are a treasure trove.

Over time, U.S. logbooks reveal important patterns and insight into the climate of our past and what it means for our future. But before scientists can uncover this data, they need to be digitized and transformed from old handwriting into a language supercomputers can read and analyze. That’s where the Archives comes in.

The National Archives––in a collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Washington and the National Archives Foundation––is digitizing thousands of pages from logbooks covering decades, and making them available to scientists and the public. As records become available, we will ask citizen archivists to help transcribe them so the data can be analyzed.

Join me for a discussion of the project and the launch of education and outreach materials to help students and the public learn about this work. Today at 5 p.m. (ET), NOAA climate scientist Kevin Wood and his colleagues will give you insight into how the National Archives is helping predict the weather of tomorrow.

In this week’s edition, I invite you to explore Navy exploration found in the National Archives holdings. Don’t forget to check out our new website here.

Anchors aweigh!

Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation

Putting the Puzzle Together

How Naval History Becomes the Climate Science of Tomorrow

Handle with Care

Centuries-old logbooks are handled with the utmost care by the National Archives Innovation Hub. Each logbook is thoroughly inspected for mold, torn pages or obscured words and sent to the conservation team if that’s needed. Then an imaging team images and processes the Navy records, which are audited and delivered for inclusion to the National Archives online catalog. From there, it’s up to citizen archivists to transcribe the information within the log books from handwriting to a digital format computers can understand. Not as easy as it sounds to digitize these hundreds of logbooks, huh!

Black Men in Navy Blue

Thanks to digitized U.S. Navy muster rolls, we have access to new information about the crew members of each naval vessel. These muster rolls include a full list of the onboard sailors, including “contraband,” which referred to black crew members who escaped slavery and served in the Navy.

One World War II naval vessel, the USS Mason had a majority all-black crew, and their responsibility as a protection escort ship can be seen through the many deck log pages that are now available online. The USS Mason (DE-529) was commissioned on March 20, 1944, with a crew of 150 African-American enlisted men and six officers. The vessel was part of the Evarts-class destroyer escort, with the responsibility of providing protection for other naval vessels in the Atlantic Ocean.

The USS Mason was involved in several convoys across the Atlantic Ocean during the war. A few of the escorts included journeys to Belfast, Ireland and Plymouth, England. On one particular convoy in the Atlantic, the USS Mason was damaged during a severe storm in 1944. The African-American crew repaired the ship and was able to continue with their voyage. These men did not received any letters of commendation for this act until 1994.

New Year’s Day Deck Log

The Navy had a longstanding tradition of writing the first deck log of the New Year in verse. Some used Edgar Allen Poe’s style, some opted for “T’was the night before Christmas style, and some even tried their hand at writing in their own (sometimes even throwing in a doodle or two). But whatever their style, they always managed to communicate the day’s information about the ship’s location, weather conditions and observations.

[Learn More]

Withstanding the Test of Time

U.S. Navy deck logs dating as far back as the late 1700s are a treasure trove for climate scientists. But the great amount of time spent poring through their individual pages can sometimes yield rather unusual data. This 1891USRC Corwin entry mentions flora and fauna from its Pacific expedition––including some actual flowers! Perfectly preserved, the pressed dried flowers even made their way into the digitized records.

The National Archives working with the American Horticultural Society and the Department of Agriculture to identify the flowers.

[Learn more]

The Seas of Knowledge Digitization project is supported by the Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The grant program is made possible by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Join us for an online fundraiser supporting the launch of our Rights and Justice Fund. This program on racism and social justice will support the Foundation’s mission and provide vital funding for research, public programs, exhibitions and educational materials focused on the stories of African Americans and people of color, as found in the records of the National Archives.

Last Week and More

We want to bring the Archives to you. If you missed last week or our content in the past, have no fear! We’ve collected everything we’ve dug up from holdings. Click on an icon below to learn more!

  • We the People
  • History Pix
  • Archives Encore
  • History Quirks
  • Patent Pending
  • Cooking Club

Live Interactive Programming

While the National Archives has remained closed, the National Archives Foundation has begun hosting a variety of live programming including interviews with historians and authors as well as a celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Check out our past programs below and stay tuned for upcoming adventures in history!

Want to be the first to know these fun facts from the depths of the Archives holdings? Sign up for our newsletter and get your weekly dose of history right in your inbox!

Join Newsletter

And if you have a favorite fun memory of the National Archives, or love history and just want to share, post on social media using #ArchivesAtHome and we’ll give you a shout-out!

The National Archives Foundation strives to inspire citizens to explore the past and cultivate a deeper understanding of their civic history and civic responsibility. Join the Foundation today and learn how you can help support our mission!