A tiny, faded diary from the U.S-Mexican War of 1846 that is very difficult to read is now accessible to the public thanks to a pilot project undertaken by Special Collections in Southwestern’s A. Frank Smith Library Center.

The diary was the first Special Collections put online for transcription using a new software program that enables the public to participate in transcribing history.

The software, called FromThePage, was developed by Austin resident Ben Brumfield to enable his family to jointly transcribe his great-great-grandmother’s diary. It is now available free to others who want to transcribe handwritten documents online – a new trend known as “crowdsourcing transcription.”

In addition to enabling users to transcribe documents, FromThePage enables volunteers to add footnotes and discuss difficult passages that might need refinement. The resulting text is hosted on the web along with images of the original handwritten pages.

“The value comes when transcribers are knowledgeable and add notes and commentary,” said Kathryn Stallard, head of Special Collections.

Southwestern is one of the first institutions to use FromThePage to enable volunteers to transcribe historical documents. The first project Stallard decided to use it for was to transcribe and annotate the 1846 Mexican War diary and papers of Zenas W. Matthews, who served as a private under Captain Christopher. B. Acklin’s Company B of Colonel John C. Hays’ First Texas Mounted Riflemen.

Stallard said she selected the diary because it had high research value but was almost impossible for researchers to use in its original form.

“Although Matthews wrote in English, the writing is small and the spelling is eccentric – as was usual then,” Stallard said. “Our public transcription project opens the diary to a broad audience, including young people who would find the script challenging.”

In fact, Stallard said she has already had an inquiry from the mother of a 15-year-old who was looking for primary source material on the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846.

Matthew’s 44-page diary begins as he is leaving to join General Zachary Taylor’s army on the Rio Grande and includes descriptions of the Siege of Monterrey and the taking of the Bishop’s Palace. Papers included with the diary are Matthews’ 1846 honorable discharge signed by C. B. Acklin and Col. John C. Hays, an 1849 letter signed by Hays certifying that Matthews served and was honorably discharged, and an 1887 Declaration for Service Pension.

Southwestern was fortunate to find an extremely knowledgeable volunteer to take on the transcription project. Scott Patrick, a retired Texas history enthusiast who is president general elect of the San Jacinto Descendants, said he undertook the project to repay Southwestern for providing him with a document he wanted related to the Battle of San Jacinto.

“When I began, it seemed as if it was more than I could handle due to the poor condition of the diary,” Patrick said. “Then after several visits to the site, it seemed as if I could read Zenas’s handwriting much better. I even began revisiting earlier pages that I had transcribed and found many new facts that I missed the first time around.”

Patrick was able to add many valuable footnotes to the diary. For example, on the first page of the diary, Matthews said he “Stayed at Parson Kenneys” on his way to join up. Patrick added that this is a reference to Rev. John Wesley Kenney, one of the first great pioneer Methodist ministers in Texas.

In addition to learning how the software worked, Patrick said his work transcribing the diary made him realize how many men who were mentioned in the Mexican War of 1846 had also played a role in the Battle of San Jacinto, or were in fact his cousins.  

Patrick said that while many other diaries from the Mexican War exist, none were written by a regular volunteer soldier, much less a Texan Volunteer. “I feel that it is a very important piece of our heritage and that it helps to paint a much better picture of day-to-day life of the early Texans and what made them so great,” Patrick said.

Matthew’s diary can now be found online at http://fromthepage.com/ZenasMatthews. Brumfield, the software developer, showed the online transcription in a presentation he gave at the January 2012 meeting of the American Historical Association.

“This is such an exciting project,” he said. “I’ve read a lot of Texas history myself, but had no idea about how the memory of the Texas Revolution haunted the participants in the Mexican War until Scott had transcribed the Zenas Matthews diary.”

Stallard said she hopes to put more manuscripts Special Collections owns online for transcription, including some diaries from the early Methodist circuit riders, the letters from a British citizen who participated in the Texan Santa Fe expedition of 1841, and an early Arabic medical manuscript.