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The Diary of Michael Shiner
Slave and Freeman at the Washington Navy Yard

Transcribed and edited by : John Sharp ©

  The Diary of Michael Shiner
Slave and Freeman at the Washington Navy Yard

Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard


  Michael G. Shiner is famous for his diary chronicling events at the Washington Navy Yard and the District of Columbia from 1813 to 1869. Among the diary's better known passages are Michael Shiner's accounts of the War of 1812, the 1833 abduction of his family by slave dealers, and the strike of 1835. In Michael Shiner's lifetime (1805-1880), few if any of his acquaintances or family knew of his diary. It is only within the last few decades that scholars and historians have begun to examine the manuscript more closely. The Michael Shiner manuscript was acquired by the Library of Congress sometime after 1905 (the exact date and provenance is uncertain). Except for the more celebrated passages mentioned above, there is no complete transcription of Michael Shiner's diary. What follows is my effort to place Michael Shiner before a wider audience by providing a complete transcription of his manuscript.

Michael Shiner was born in Maryland in 1805 and his early years were spent enslaved. In January 1828 he was sold to Thomas Howard (the Chief Clerk at Washington Navy Yard). Thomas Howard had Michael Shiner leased out to the WNY Paint Shop where over the next decade Michael Shiner learned his trade. Upon Thomas Howard's death in 1832 a provision in Thomas Howard's will stipulated that Michael Shiner was to be manumitted in eight years making his manumission date circa 1840 (his exact manumission date is unknown).

To gain his freedom, Michael Shiner most likely had to come to some financial arrangement with the Howard family; such arrangements were often known as ’working out” or purchasing one's freedom for a specified sum. (See Thomas Howard's will in notes for 1832.) The 1850 District of Columbia census enumerated Michael Shiner as living in Ward 6 and in that year he was listed as a free Blackman, age 46 years. His family was listed as: Jane 19 years (2nd wife), Sarah 12, Isaac 5 and Braxton 6 months. Michael Shiner continued to work at WNY until 1869 and in his later years he became prosperous and was a leader in the black community. He died in 1880 at the age of 75 during an outbreak of smallpox.

When Michael Shiner opens his diary in 1813, the year of the British invasion of North America, we know from other evidence that in 1813 that he was just eight or nine years old. So, what we have for this first section of his manuscript, is an important narrative memoir, which is Michael Shiner's recollections of important events as seen in his youth, but written down much later. What Michael Shiner wrote down in ’his book” was for his own recollection. In the manuscript he concentrates primarily on the public events in his life along with some limited but important personal incidents.

Many of Michael Shiner's observations can be compared with other contemporary records and in each case they ring genuine; from his description of the gleam of British soldiers' bayonets to his recounting of painful conversations with such people as ’Mrs. Reid” (see August 1814). Some of his early passages do strongly suggest they were later reworked to provide additional detail, such as the lengthy descriptions of the District of Columbia militia units, the colors of the soldier's uniforms and the names of their unit members. Much of this information detailed in the diary, including the unit member's names, would only have been listed after the events had been recorded. On occasions Michael Shiner appears to have read and incorporated contemporary newspaper accounts such as those found in the Washington Intelligencer for some events (e.g., U.S. Mexican War 1846 -1848 and the Civil War 1861-1865).

After describing the British troop withdrawal at the conclusion of the War of 1812, Michael Shiner goes on to other entries describing the daily routine at the Navy Yard and provides illuminating details of early conditions and attitudes at WNY toward slaves and freeman. The Shiner diary also allows some glimpses of military/civilian relationships and the struggles of civilian workers for better pay and conditions of employment.

Michael Shiner provides a valuable account of the volatility of the early Distinct of Columbia; especially the crucial events of the year 1835. Here we have important account of WNY labor strike which sadly and rapidly morphed into the ’Snow Storm” of 1835; a bitter race riot that required the active intervention of President Andrew Jackson and a strong contingent of U.S. Marines to finally bring under control.

Occasionally to relieve the pressure and pain of his everyday existence Michael Shiner, like many ship yard workers, drank too much and when he did (24 & 25 December 1828, June 17, 1831 & September 1, 1835) he records some very close calls. As a result of these near catastrophes he took the temperance pledge on December 4, 1836 and gave up liquor for good. Michael Shiner's diary includes vivid descriptions of other perils early workers endured. In one particular harrowing incident (February 20, 1829) while working in a small boat he fell overboard, nearly drown in the icy cold waters of the Potomac River and as a result later came close to freezing to death as he and his colleagues desperately searched for a fire. In other passages he casts a careful eye to the heavens where he records notable celestial events such as total eclipses of the sun on February 12, 1831 and June 26 1855, and the Denali Comet of 1858.

Lastly, what I believe the manuscript conveys best is Michael Shiner's genuine love of the Washington Navy Yard, his city and his country; all of this is evident throughout his manuscript (see June 1, 1861). The donor of the Michael Shiner manuscript to the Library of Congress annotated it with the following tribute which I think best captures the man and his work: ’This book is a very valuable book and is very interesting. It is worthy of perusal. The author, Michael Shiner, was a Patriot may he rest in peace.” (Michael Shiner manuscript postscript undated.)

  The Context of the Michael Shiner's Diary, Slavery and the Organizational
Structure of the Washington Navy Yard 1820 -1865
  Michael Shiner's diary depicts a world which while similar to ours in many surface aspects is vastly different. That our national past ’is another country” is today readily accepted and has become something of a cliché, yet it must be stressed that for much of the first century and a half of the Washington Navy Yard's existence, those who worked in the Yard's shops and offices lived in an environment that was often dramatically dissimilar to our present. Throughout much of the fifty-six years covered in Michael Shiner's manuscript for the thousands of labors and mechanics who toiled at the Washington Navy Yard, poverty and financial insecurity were not vague conditions, slavery was a legal institution, and the majority of the adult population of Washington D.C. had only limited or no political rights. In the Shiner Diary we gain a window on the values and attitudes of his era. Here we see reflected, the conflict of beliefs and ideas by citizens of the District of Columbia, some who advocated strict social hierarchy and deference to ones ’betters”, while mechanics and workers white and black, free and enslaved, sought a more inclusive and just society.

The early Washington Navy Yard reflected the larger stratified society. At the very pinnacle of the naval yard was the Washington Navy Yard's Commandants (e.g., men like Commodores Thomas Tingey and Isaac Hull). Directly below the Commandant was another senior officer who acted much like a modern executive officer. This officer provided the workforce with day to day direction through implementing orders, and insured the Commandant's wishes were carried out. During most of this period that officer was a senior First Lieutenant although in some instances, a naval Captain (e.g., John Cassin) performed these duties.

From its beginnings in 1799, WNY civilians out numbered military members and for much of this period only a small cadre of naval officers were assigned to the yard at any one time. Some officers such as Maraduke Dove (Sailing Master) or David Eaton (Boatswain) were assigned for long periods because they possessed special technical skills critical to the manufacture of sailing vessels.

While the WNY Commandant in theory exercised almost unlimited authority over matters related to naval officers, enlisted personnel and the civilian workforce; in practice there were both institutional and customary checks on his discretion. At the top of the civilian workforce were the yard clerks. Their jobs were primarily administrative nature. A clerk such as Thomas Howard (Michael Shiner's master from 1828), who was the Chief Clerk, was near the very top of WNY civilian hierarchy and was paid a fixed or annual salary. As Chief Clerk, Thomas Howard had considerable responsibility in a position which shared little relation to our modern clerical employees. Thomas Howard was responsible for the WNY's official correspondence, the conduct and recording of the daily musters and the review of all official outgoing correspondence. Most importantly, Howard and other clerks often acted for the Commandant on budget, contracting and administrative issues; here they exercised wide discretion within their particular domains. Thomas Howard's steady salary rather then per diem wage meant he enjoyed a modicum of financial security and access to a wider social sphere than the mechanics and laborers. The clerks could often afford to rent or own a house, keep horses, employ servants and in some cases own slaves. The 1830 census for the District of Columbia reflects that Thomas Howard owned his home, supported a large family, and had four other slaves in addition to Michael Shiner.

A further distinction between clerks such as Thomas Howard and the WNY mechanics and laborers was political. The early District of Columbia's municipal charter, narrowly defined voters, as white male property owners, this effectively excluded most all white mechanics and laborers and all blacks and all women. This limited form of white male suffrage would continue until 1848 with black males remaining effectively excluded from the franchise until after the civil war and women until the passage of 19th amendment in 1920.

The next tier in the civilian hierarchy (below the Chief Clerk), were the Master Mechanics. Each trade had a Master Mechanic. These individuals were recognized experts in their specialty and usually had many years of trade experience. Master Mechanics often supervised large numbers of employees. Men such as Benjamin King (Master Blacksmith) or Phillip Inch (Master Painter and Michael Shiner's day t o day supervisor), controlled large numbers of employees. Within each WNY shop it was the Master Mechanic who gave overall work direction through the Quarterman and Lead man to the tradesman. Most importantly, Master Mechanics had the power to hire and dismiss mechanics and laborers. Next in order of importance came the Quarterman (leader of several work crews) then the lead man (or crew leader), next came the trade mechanics. Mechanics were skilled tradesman who had successfully completed a five or six year trade apprenticeship in their field. Each trade had trainees or apprentices who were young workers in training. Each apprentice had signed a binding legal agreement to return designated service for trade knowledge. Laborers were below the mechanics, and were unskilled men who performed heavy but necessary work such as digging, pile driving, and pulling or hauling of ships and ship parts.

From the nation's founding, slavery was an integral and legally recognized part of the new United States, and slaves made up a significant but generally unacknowledged part of the yard antebellum workforce. At the WNY most African-Americans (free and enslaved) were confined to unpleasant, less skilled work (e.g., laborer, caulking or working in the anchor shop). White workers frequently resented and feared their African-American coworkers and were especially apprehensive of those enslaved, and many saw this as a direct threat to their livelihood (WNY Blacksmith's petition circa 1805).

White workers and free and enslaved African Americans worked together in uneasy tension at the WNY. Michael Shiner's diary entries capture this tension, especially in the dramatic events of the 1830's where he describes his own precarious survival. In times of apparent danger or political upheaval such as the ’Snow Storm” (See Michael Shiner account of the events of 1835-1836 and the election of 1857), many of the yard's white workers resorted to violence and riot to intimidate enslaved and free African-Americans. The daily reality of this oppression is also reflected in Shiner's diary.

Many of the Yard's early leader's, both officers and senior civilians, owned slaves and benefited directly from their labor. Some leaders such as the first and second WNY Commandants Thomas Tingey and Isaac Hull used their slaves as household servants while other figures of more entrepreneurial disposition like Naval Constructor Josiah Fox and WNY Chief Clerk Thomas Howard had their slaves leased directly to the navy.

While the 1830's naval regulations prohibited officers from holding slaves except as servants, custom deemed otherwise. A report from Commandant Isaac Hull to the Board of Naval Commissioners gives some sense of how the issues of slavery were construed:

’I have understood from Captain Shubrick that when you were last in the Navy Yard you enquired of him whether Slaves belonging to Officers were employed at the Yard and at the same time informed him there was a positive order against employing Slaves belonging to Officers. I have caused a search to be made but can not find any such order either by circular or by letter receipted for this yard and I have found all the Slaves now in the yard and many others that I discharged since I took the Command here, I took it for granted they were employed by Special Permission and that permission given because while men could not be found to work in the Anchor Shop. I now have the honor to forward a list of all the Slaves now employed in the Yard. Those belonging to the ordinary might be discharged and White Men or free Blacks taken to fill their places but I fear we could not find a set of men White or Black or men even Slaves belonging to poor people outside the yard to do the work the men now do in the Anchor Shops. The competent mechanics have long known them and I have no cause to complain, on the contrary, I consider them the hardest working men in the yard and as they understand their work they can do much more work in a day than new hands could and I should suppose it would require many weeks if not months to get a g ang of hands for the Anchor Shop to do the work that is now done.” (Hull, 5 April 1830, RG 45)

In a previous report, Hull had listed a total of 13 slaves employed at the Washington Navy Yard (Hull, 8 May 1829, RG 45). Isaac Hull's list does not include slaves of masters such as Thomas Howard and Benjamin King who had leased out their slaves to work at the yard and allowed them a portion of their wages for their own personal use.

Some time between the years 1840-1850, Michael Shiner was manumitted and as a new freeman was able to exercise some limited control over crucial aspects of his existence. Despite the District of Columbia's severe restrictions on freeman and the everyday racial prejudice and limited opportunities for advancement he experienced, Michael Shiner's Diary entries continued to reflect his profound religious faith, essential optimism and his hope for a more just future. Today his privately recorded thoughts and reflections are precious legacy that allow us a window in which we can catch glimpses of his world.

  Notes on this transcription
The holographic manuscript that is the Michael Shiner Diary is now located in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. The Shiner manuscript contains 186 numbered pages. Pages 1-119 are in Michael Shiner's unique handwriting. The writing from the middle of page119 to page 179 is a different hand and appears to have been transcribed in the more polished style of Michael Shiner's step grandson Louis Alexander. There is some evidence that Louis Alexander took charge of preparing the manuscript for the purpose of selling it some years after Michael Shiner's death. Pages 180-186 of the manuscript are once again in Michael Shiner's singular script. In addition to transcribed diary entries Louis Alexander prepared eight more pages for a chronological index with the corresponding manuscript page numbers. The page numbers recorded by Louis Alexander no longer correspond due to transcription from the holographic manuscript. For the most part Michael Shiner kept his recollections in chronological order. However, for some of the earlier years (especially the 1820's), he placed material clearly in a space simply because he had run out of room. In most of those instances I have placed the passage under the appropriate year.

While Michael Shiner had little or no formal education and his handwriting can be difficult to decipher, he could write a vigorous, colorful prose. His spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization were very much his own and I have done my best to transcribe his words as he wrote them. Michael Shiner wrote his recollections in a small shop note book and to save space divided pages 14-33 into two sections with a vertical line running down the middle of the page. When making entries on some occasions Michael Shiner wrote using alternate left-to-right and right-to-left lines or what philologists like to refer to as boustrophedon. This method of writing presents significant challenges to transcribers since Michael Shiner rarely if ever used punctuation or paragraphs and some of his sentences are not always linked to his adjoining column. In transcribing these passages from the manuscript I have striven to find his meaning and have kept editorial annotations to the minimum sufficient for reader comprehension. To insure greater readability I have organized some of Michael Shiners longer pages into paragraphs and introduced nominal punctuation. Because of Michael Shiner's departure from the normal rules of grammar provide us insight into his thought and speech patterns I have quoted his words as written without the intrusive [sic] to indicate an error. I n a very few cases, where it was necessary for clarity, I have silently made some changes in spelling. Lastly I have added a few notes in brackets to identify some of the personalities and incidents mentioned.

A photo of the original manuscript can be seen at the Library of Congress website:
Library of Congress photo of the original manuscript

In the course of transcribing this manuscript I have incurred many debts of gratitude. First I owe a special thanks and appreciation to Dr. Edward Marolda, Senior Historian and Dr. Regina Akers, Archivist both of the Naval Historical Center. Dr. Marolda's excellent work: The Washington Navy Yard an Illustrated History, Naval Historical Center, Washington DC 1999 which included Dr. Atkins article An African American's Reflections, first introduced me to Michael Shiner.

Mr. Glen Helm, Director of the Navy Library, took a generous interest in this project and made the resources of that wonderful institution available. My thanks to him and his hospitable staff for letting me make digital images of rare naval documents; this made my trip from California to the Navy Yard a pleasure. Ms. Gail Munro, Head of the Navy Art Collection, Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard generously contributed the information for the notes on Michael Shiner's 1822 visit to the 4th Street Ebenezer Methodist Church, the Reverend Yelveton T. Payton and Methodist church practices.

My thanks once again goes to my former boss and mentor Dr. Vincent Vaccaro, now Senior Civilian Personnel Advisor, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Department of the Navy, for his early support, sage advice, help and encouragement in this project. Thanks again to Mr. Stephen Payton my former colleague (no relation to the Reverend Payton) at the Washington Navy Yard who assisted me with some of the early research on Michael Shiner.

Wayne Hinton of, kindly helped edit an earlier version of extracts from Michael Shiner which was posted on his District of Columbia web site. I also want to thank the Library of Congress Manuscript Division staff, who were exceptionally accommodating in making it possible for me to obtain the microfilm of the Michael Shiner manuscript used in this transcription, and for answering my questions regarding the manuscript history and provenance. My thanks also to Dr. Joseph E. Bisson of San Joaquin Delta College for his magnificent class in U.S. History that provided me numerous insights into the political and racial issues of the 19th century.

My thanks to Congressional Cemetery which is the final resting place of many early WNY military and civilian employees who's names are recorded in Michael Shiner's Diary. Their Cemetery website is a superb and is simply one of the great tools for research on WNY and District of Columbia.

My particular thanks must go to Mr. Charles W. Johnson of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., as he has done on many previous occasions; he once again graciously gave me his valuable time and unrivaled knowledge of the incredible NARA archival resources. Essential as well to the preparation of this transcription of Michael Shiner's Dairy were the wonderful staff at the Martin Luther King Library, Washingtoniana Division Washington DC. I want to thank MLK Archivist Ryan Semmes for his knowledge and kindness in answering my many questions and the help of his superb staff in locating documents relating to the probate of Michael Shiner's estate.


My deepest gratitude belongs to my wife and dearest friend Gene Kerr Sharp who has endured the pleasures, pains and privileges of being so long in Michael Shiner's company.

Stockton California
Memorial Day 2007
  John G. Sharp  

Some books on the District of Columbia and or slavery that I found useful in my research.

Slavery in the District of Columbia, Tremian, Mary, GB. Putnam and Sons, New York 1898.

Washington A History of the Capital, 1800 -1950 Green, Constance McLauglin Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey 1962.

The Secret City A History of Race Relations in the Nations Capital Green, Constance McLauglin Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey 1967.

For more on the Washington Navy Yard and early African American workers see my: History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce 1799-1962 Vindolanda Press, Stockton Ca 2005. This volume has full bibliography for works cited in the preface and is now available in PDF Form at the Navy Historical Center web site

For further information on the life of Michael Shiner see
Michael Shiner 1805 -1880 Slave, Freeman and Entrepreneur.

  Contents       or       Diary - first page of transcription

  Photograph of Page 119

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