Earlier this month I participated in a panel discussion on the intersection of postal history and genealogical research. The other panelists were Lynn Heidelbaugh and Tom Paone, the authors of the book Between Home and the Front: Civil War Letters of the Walters Family, and Jim Miller, an expert in philatelic genealogy. I helped Tom and Lynn with genealogy research when they were putting the book together. It was a wonderful event and I wanted to share the notes I made as I prepared for one of the questions I was asked.
How have letters played a role in your research? What kind of information can they provide?
Letters can contain a wealth of information. I find letter writers are less guarded when writing to family. You can find biographical information, friend and family relationships, what they did and what they liked. You can also make conclusions about your ancestors education from their letters.
Let me share a few examples.
An immigrant ancestor wrote to her sister in Ireland in 1822 communicating the details of her recent surgery for breast cancer. This is great biographical information. Other letters indicate that she had health problems over the years.
I found another ancestor using clues from a letter. This ancestor was recorded as John Holden but I could find nothing about him. I knew he died while his wife Jane was quite young. The letter itself only mentions Jane by name but provided information such as the family had recently moved from Chester, SC, and that they moved because he was drinking a lot. Some time later I came across an obituary for a James Holden who died in North Carolina and had recently lived in Chester, SC. This led me to other documents and a headstone that confirm his relationship in my tree.
Another example is a collection of letters that my great-grandmother wrote to my great-grandfather in the years before they were married. They lived in different towns but had family in the town the other lived. She relates local news, her outings and vacations, getting electricity at her house, sighting Halley’s Comet and even books she was reading. A few years into their correspondence she started addressing him as Dear Harvester. It was initially thought that this was because he was a farmer but a closer reading showed that she had read a book called The Harvester and she thought that he was like the Harvester. I read the book and it was fun to see what characteristics she thought he had, which allowed me to get to know them both.
Letters also vary in their tone and purpose according to who your ancestor was writing to. In the 1890s, my ancestor spent several years trying to obtain a widow’s pension for her mother after belatedly learning about pensions for survivors of Civil War soldiers. There are many letters in the pension file that describe the hardships the family had faced over the years: working at a young age, illness, needed operations, loss of fingers from a work accident, and one case of injury from slipping on a banana peel. These letters were trying to win the sympathy of the pension officers and so describe only hardships, giving them a different tone than letters between family and friends.