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In Which We Delve Far Too Deeply into Petty Augers, Only to Find No One Is Left Reading

July 12th, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe · 2 Comments

The other day, alert reader Marc Anderson noticed the phrase “Petty Auger” in one of Landon Carter’s diary entries. “I’m assuming the transcriber was not familiar with near the same name ‘periauger’? … the boat,” Anderson wrote, referring to the fact that the word means dugout canoe, such as what is being constructed by the Indians in the image above. In other words, according to Anderson, the editor of Carter’s diaries, Jack P. Greene, likely misread Carter’s handwriting and came up with this corrupted version of a word that, since 1776, has been lost. There is another possibility, though. Perhaps “Petty Auger” was a corruption that existed then, but was based on the sound of the word and not on sloppy handwriting. So which was it?

First, allow me to acknowledge that the number of you who made the jump from paragraph 1 to paragraph 2 of this blog post must be exceedingly small. Smaller still is the number of people who, like my colleague Sue Perdue, are inclined to seek out the exact spot in the Greene-edited diaries where the infraction supposedly occurred (Vol. 2, page 1,055) and scan it for annotations, brow-furrowing suggestively, and even muttering a bit. While not a member of the Encyclopedia Virginia staff, Sue is a close confidante of the project and, at times, its scholarly conscience. She is director of Documents Compass at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the current president of the Association for Documentary Editing. She takes an Erasmus-like interest in original sources, and on the subject of “Petty Auger” e-mailed the following after a day spent poking around:

There are at least four variations of the spelling in the Early Republic: petty-augur, pettiauger, pettiaugre, and pirogue. Even without checking the original, I think it almost certain that Landon Carter’s original reference was to Petty Augur and not to some version of the word more closely resembling its actual original spelling of piraugua, or “Perry Augur,” as your [commenter] maintains. Carter and his contemporaries had adopted sort of a phonetic approximation (okay, corruption) of the original, the closest version they used being: pirogue. What I find interesting is that the editors of the Washington Papers chose this last spelling: pirogue, when writing about the vessel in their own words, never offering this other spelling.

Examples aplenty:

1. “I loaded a Petty-Augur with several Goods and merchandizes to the Amount of five thousand nine hundred and forty one Livres and fifteen Sols in Peltry” [Joseph St. Marie to Winthrop Sargent, 22 July 1790, Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, p. 151]

2. “A New York Carpenter must be employed in Chusing them, as they go by different Names in different Colonies, I could wish that they were sent up in a Pettiauger fitted with as Many Oars as possible, and under the Care of an Officer and a Party of Good Oarsmen”  with the following annotation A “pettiauger” is apparently a pirogue (piragua; periagua), a form of large dugout. [General Philip Schuyler to George Washington, 11 May 1776, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 4, p. 281

3. Nathaniel Greene to George Washington, November 1776: “I have directed Col. Tupper to load a number of the Petty Augres and flat bottom Boats and send them up to Peeks Kill” With the following annotation: “A pettiauger apparently is a pirogue, a type of large dugout”

4. Reference in the Ratification of the Constitution Series, Massachusetts, volume 4, p. 29: In the document the word was spelled “pettiaugre”; annotation from “Pettiaugre” is a corruption of piragua, “an open flat-bottomed schooner-rigged vessel; a sort of two-masted sailing barge, used in America and the W[est] Indies” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Enough said.

IMAGE: Lintrium conficiendorum ratio (A Method of Making Canoes; ca. 1590) by Theodor de Bry

Tags: Feedback · Landon Carter's Diary · Virginia History

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marc // Jul 12, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Now I feel like that Japanese admiral after bombing Pearl Harbor… It seems I have awakened a “sleeping Giant”.

  • 2 Peter // Jul 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    For what it is worth, “Petty Augur” is not one of the errors corrected by Rhys Isaac in the 2nd edition of the diary.

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