JMC Joins the Army: A Closer Look

I love primary sources. Not only can you learn interesting information—that may include actual, accurate, facts (with allowances for misspellings and such)—but primary sources often convey a flavor or sense of the moment and suggest additional lines of inquiry. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Jonathan M. Clark’s 1833 U. S. Army enlistment paper as featured in our earlier post “Jonathan Joins the Army” and see what we can infer from the information there.

First of all, how do we know this Utica, New York, enlistment belongs to “our” Jonathan M. Clark? Census and other records show that there are plenty of Clarks from New England, born about the same time as our JMC, some of whom served in the army, and some of whom came to the Michigan/Wisconsin Territory in the early 1830s. My research shows there may even have been a second, unrelated, “Jonathan M. Clark” in the Territory at about the same time. So how do we connect our JMC with this 1833 army recruit?

I spent quite some time working on this issue with Clark descendant Liz Hickman. We looked at the JMC facts and documents that we had at our disposal: birth place, birth year, profession and, especially, JMC’s signature. Some of the facts were more firmly established than others, but most importantly, we had several authentic JMC signatures from Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s that could be compared to the 1833 army enlistment signature.

We concluded that the shapes of the capital J, M and C at the start (or as an initial for) his first, middle and last names were relatively consistent and characteristic. And, for the final “K” in Clark, Jonathan used a particularly distinctive version of one of the several cursive forms of the letter K that were typical at that time, to which he often added a long, thick swipe of the pen at the end of the letter. Depending on the document, this extra flourish on the K is more or less prominent, but the shape of the K, and usually the extra flourish at the end are consistent features of his signature and, we believe, make a firm connection between the 1833 army recruit and the Mequon resident of the 1840s and 1850s. I’ll write a post discussing and illustrating JMC’s signatures in the near future.

The 1833 enlistment paper also allows us to infer a birthdate for Jonathan. Based on the different handwriting and ink thicknesses, it appears that JMC gave his enlistment information to army Capt. John Clitz on Thursday, September 19, 1833, and then returned to swear the oath and sign the document in front of E. [Ezra] S. Barnum, Justice of the Peace, on Saturday, September 28, 1833.  So on Thursday, September 19, 1833, when Jonathan gave his age as twenty-two years, it could have meant he had just turned twenty-two that day, or he could be as much as twenty-two years, 364 days old. Thus—if JMC’s recollection was correct, and the recruiting officer’s math was accurate (and neither assumption is assured throughout the nineteenth-century)—this would give Jonathan a birthdate sometime between Thursday, September 20, 1810 and Thursday, September 19, 1811.* (Keep this in mind when in future posts we investigate additional birth date and year information for JMC.)

The enlistment form also adds detail to what we know about Jonathan’s physical appearance. Click the link to his portrait photograph and imagine hazel eyes, light brown hair, dark complexion, and a height of five feet 7 1/4 inches, “free from all bodily defects and mortal infirmity” (i.e. chronic or terminal illness) that would prohibit him from performing the duties of a soldier. All these characteristics seem to agree with the photograph except, perhaps, “dark complexion.” (Could it be that a deep “farmer’s tan” of his youth faded in the decade or two that passed between 1833 and when we assume the later photograph was taken?) And—we’re happy to note—Jonathan M. Clark was “entirely sober” when he enlisted in the Army of the United States of America.

Finally, take note Jonathan’s stated place of birth: Derby, Vermont. As far as we know, Jonathan always claimed Vermont birth. But exactly where he was born and where he was raised remain mysteries. Look for future posts about early Derby and its neighbor town of Stanstead, Lower Canada (present-day Quebec), and connections between other families from those areas and Washington and Ozaukee counties.

*Yep, all three dates in this paragraph were Thursdays. I checked.