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Home » About » Blog » The Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks: First-hand insights from the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars
At the beginning of March 2021, a grand total of 59 new finding aids for Graphics Division collections were made available online. While the vast majority of these finding aids were produced for collections that already had pre-existing catalog records, six of them were completely new additions for previously un-cataloged materials.
Among these six collections with brand new finding aids, the Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks are particularly noteworthy specimens. Consisting of seven scrapbook volumes, this collection chronicles the early military career of an ambitious young soldier who served as a U.S. Army officer during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1874, Grosvenor Lowery Townsend first joined the New York National Guard before entering the regular U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. Serving in Cuba as well as completing two separate tours in the Philippines, Townsend steadily rose through the ranks and had reached the level of Colonel by the time of his retirement.

Portrait of Grosvenor Lowery Townsend in uniform. Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 6, pg. 89.

Box containing all seven volumes of the Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks.

The Townsend Scrapbooks are chock-full of a wide array of materials, including newspaper and military journal clippings, copies of military orders, military event programs, items related to military education, memorabilia and ephemera, maps, photographs, insignia, telegrams, letters, documents, and more. Due to the fragility of many items, a page-by-page inventory of the collection has been produced to give researchers a clearer picture of what is present without necessarily having to explore every nook and cranny of each volume physically.
Volumes 1 through 3 mostly contain materials related to Townsend’s time in the 7th New York National Guard Regiment from 1893 to 1898, while subsequent volumes mainly document his service with the U.S. Army 1st and 23rd Infantry Regiments during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. From the outset of the Spanish-American War, Townsend was eager to serve his country and desperate to prove himself in combat. Yet when news of the war first broke, he and other 7th NYNG members were initially prohibited from individually enlisting in the regular U.S. Army. Apparently, there were concerns that the regiment would be irreparably dissolved unless members were able to enlist altogether as a unit. Townsend was eventually allowed to enlist by himself and managed to secure a position as Captain of Company M in the 201st New York Volunteers before being appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army 1st Infantry in April of 1899. By the time Townsend arrived in Cuba, the conflict had for the most part concluded and his duties mainly consisted of administrative work in the towns of Pinar del Río and Guanajay. However, Townsend soon found himself being ordered to the Philippines in the fall of 1900, where he would be thrust headlong into the midst of a hotly contested guerrilla war.

Page containing three images taken in Pinar del Rio, Cuba in July, 1899. Townsend himself likely took these and many other photographs that are present in the collection. Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 4, pg. 40.

Townsend’s personal correspondence detailing his war-time experiences provide valuable insight into the American occupation of the Philippines. Letters from his first tour, where he was mainly employed in the capacity of Inspector of Customs for the island of Samar in the Eastern Visayas, illuminate the personal feelings of a young man experiencing the thrills and horrors of war for the first time in his life. He excitedly wrote home on April 17th 1901 with a description of the first time he had ever been shot at, proudly informing his mother Emma that his company “have at last had a scrap” and that he was unharmed during the brief skirmish. In this same letter, Townsend also admitted to having mortally wounded an unarmed Filipino man by shooting him in the back with his revolver after the individual had refused several commands to stop running. Despite understanding that this man was “not an insurrecto,” Townsend rationalized the slaying by stating that the man had a “bad reputation” before chillingly signing off with the comment “There will be no more running.” Regarding another incident during an ambush on Samar in July of 1901, Townsend wrote about the frightful moment he was stabbed in the arm by a Filipino man “just as my second shot took the top of his head off.” The inhumane handling of Filipino prisoners is alluded to in a letter dated July 16 1901, with reference being made to an apprehended mayor of Guiuan who Townsend believed would end up being shot after “trying to escape.” The implication here could either have been that this man had a well-known history of escape attempts, or worse, that the Americans felt it might be necessary to execute him and stage a fake escape attempt in order to provide cover for their actions. Townsend’s detachment narrowly avoided being sent to Balangiga right before the infamous battle that took place there on September 28th, 1901 which resulted in the deaths of 54 Americans. He felt compelled to write to his mother immediately after hearing news of the massacre in order to quell any panic she may have felt knowing that her son might have been among the slain.

April 17, 1901 letter to Townsend’s mother Emma describing his first experience of coming under live enemy fire. Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 5, pg. 56.

Hand-drawn map from April 17, 1901 detailing the area surrounding the town of Guiuan in southeastern Samar. Includes references to locations of where an American deserter was supposedly killed, where an ambush occurred, and where Townsend came under live fire for the first time (across the bridge north of Mercedes, marked by the small flag symbol). Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 5, pg. 55.

Numerous newspaper and journal clippings illustrate how the U.S. Army’s conduct was being represented to the American public. Precious little sympathy is afforded to the Philippines, a nation that fell under the yoke of Spanish rule for almost three-and-a-half centuries only to see their long-awaited opportunity to establish independence ironically thwarted by the United States. The people of the Philippines were more often than not portrayed negatively as deceitful and untrustworthy. One article in the New York Herald from October 20, 1901 discussed the ongoing unrest in Samar and described the estimated 200,000 natives of Samar as “willing to do anything to advance their interests. They may live for months in the neighborhood of troops, and seem to accept the situation, admitting that American rule is what is best for them and taking the oath of allegiance. They may be sincere or they may be wearing a mask, waiting for the first opportunity to throw it off and change from amigos to enemigos.” A clipping of an extremely derogatory poem titled “The Gentle Filipino” also helps to underscore just how prevalent racist attitudes towards Filipinos were throughout the conflict.

Loose issue of Manila Times newspaper from October 20, 1901, with front page article detailing counterinsurgency operations underway in Samar. This article also references an earlier incident from July during which Townsend was stabbed in the arm. Interestingly, the article’s portrayal of this event differs from what Townsend wrote about it. According to the article, it was one “Dr. Pinto” who came to Townsend’s rescue by shooting the attacker dead. In Townsend’s written account of this event, he claims to have shot his assailant twice at point blank range after his gun initially misfired. Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 5, pg. 76.

Undated clipping (possibly from March/April, 1901) showing map of the Philippine archipelago. Individual islands were color-coded to illustrate which regions were “Peaceful and safe for Americans” and which regions were unsafe due to ongoing resistance or because of the presence of “savage tribes.” Townsend spent much of his first tour in the Philippines involved in operations on the island of Samar. Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 5, pg. 46.

Many of the photographs that are present in the collection appear to have been taken by Townsend personally, possibly with a box camera. Among the plethora of images taken during his time in the Philippines, one set from his first tour touches on a peculiar aspect of photographic history. A cluster of eight images in Volume 5 document a visit by a group of curious tribesmen who had sailed to Samar from the nearby island of Palau in order to interact with American troops. The Palauan group happened to visit the encampment where Townsend was stationed, and he jumped at the chance to photograph the men on shore as well as during a demonstration of their sailboat. Townsend relayed the experience of the Palauan visit in a letter home in which he described the fanfare that the group’s presence generated among the Americans. He also mentioned that the Palauans were tattooed extensively, and yet if you look at the photographs he took (and which he intended to send home as soon as they were developed), there does not appear to be a single tattoo on anyone’s body. At first, I did not know what to make of this. Was Townsend deliberately exaggerating his description? If so, wouldn’t he have realized his mother would probably notice that the individuals in the photographs don’t have any tattoos? In fact, it appears that the reason for this strange inconsistency may boil down to technological circumstances. New Zealand-based photographer Michael Bradley recently conducted a study during which he photographed Maori men and women with traditional tattoos using both modern digital methods as well as 19th-century wet plate technology. Bradley found that while these tattoos showed up perfectly in the modern photos, they were rendered completely invisible in the wet plate attempts due to a lack of sensitivity to specific pigments present in the tattoo ink. It is possible that the equipment used by Townsend when photographing the Palauans was also equally incapable of properly capturing their tattoos.

Group portrait by G. L. Townsend of Palauan tribesmen who visited the American camp at Guiuan, Samar. In a letter to his mother dated April 20, 1901, Townsend described the group as consisting of ten men, the majority of whom “were tattooed all over.” Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 5, pg. 58.

Group portrait by G. L. Townsend of Palauan tribesmen demonstrating the boat they used to sail from Palau to Guiuan. Grosvenor L. Townsend Scrapbooks, Vol. 5, pg. 59.

On the whole, researchers should find the Townsend Scrapbooks to be a phenomenal trove of information that can support numerous angles of scholarship in the history of Philippine-American relations, the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, and a great many aspects of United States Army organization and culture around the turn of the 20th century.

Jakob Dopp
Graphics Cataloger