The Value of Old-Fashioned Letters

Old Post Office, Washington, D.C.

Over the past several weeks, I have discovered the joys of reading old letters. These letters have been sent to me by my mother-in-law, her cousin, ones I found in a trunk, and several that I copied from the National Archives while I was looking at pension records. It amazes me how much you can see into a person’s life with just a simple letter.

Each one has given me a glimpse into a moment in time. The way each person wrote tells me so much about their personality and the circumstances they were living in. I have read letters from mothers begging to hear from their sons, sons writing on the battlefield asking for word from home, veterans pleading for money from the government to help their families and people sending heartfelt condolences to friends. I have been transcribing a letter a day for the last several weeks, and I think I have several months to go before I will be finished. That is, if I ever do finish; now that my family knows I am doing this project, who knows how many more I will be sent?

In addition to reading letters that have historical importance (such as one from a Union Army camp), most of the letters are to and from relatives that lived on opposite coasts. They told about each other’s daily lives, family history, exciting developments, and town gossip. This past December, when I was at home, I held in my hands the letters that my mother-in-law possesses, letters written in the early 1900s, and thought to myself “Wow, what history! What a legacy for our kids.” I had an even larger sense of connection and awe when I held the letter written by my great-grand-uncle, Lemuel Kelley, while he was waiting for orders in Front Royal, Virginia on June 14, 1862, to his father, my third-great-grandfather Lemuel Kelley. This letter is located at the National Archives in the pension record my third-great grandfather filed after his son, and his financial supporter, died. The feelings I had from holding that paper in my hands, knowing that my ancestor had held it and kept it for 20 years, is indescribable.

Reading all of these letters made me think about what my children and grandchildren will read from me? Letter writing has gone by the wayside for texts, emails, and phone calls in recent years. The only letters that I have in my possession from my life are little love notes that my husband and I wrote to each other in high school. Yes, I am one of those few who actually married their high school sweetheart. Sometimes I pull those notes and letters out of the shoebox I keep them in and think it may be best to pitch them. Other times I think about how these notes and letters show how much, and for how long, we have loved and cared for each other. I may just have to suck up my pride and hide them away to be found long after I am gone and my kids can’t see me blush.

On the email front, I have thousands going back almost 10 years. The ones from college and the first few years of marriage are all gone, but I have personal emails from 2004 to the present. Short ones, long ones, more love notes, business letters, family letters, and who knows what else is in there. Every time I think I should go through and weed out my inbox I have this overwhelming worry that I may delete forever something that could be important or needed one day. However, I can’t keep everything and I will eventually need to go through it all. I don’t think my kids need my grocery lists, do you?

Overall, I am very happy I have all these correspondences and that I get to share these people with so many others. I am sending the transcripts to family as well as placing them on my personal blog. It is my contribution to the history of our families and also the towns they came from—places like Swanville, Maine; Pioneer, Washington; and Loogootee, Indiana. It is my hope that others will enjoy them and be able to see them as the wonderful treasure I do.

Photo from the Library of Congress

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.

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