A Letter from an Ancestor
By Susan Phelps
“In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives.”
~ Anatole Broyard
On May 9, 1887, the Reverend Charles Smith sat down in his home in Plover, Wisconsin, to write a letter to his sister Charlotte and her husband Robert Hooker. It was a human moment, a family moment. He wrote two pages and sent them off to Minnesota where Charlotte and Robert were living. For whatever reason, this particular letter got saved, preserved, cherished by the family. It made its way through the years and finally ended up with a genealogist named Jerry Dreher who was kind enough to share it with others in the family.
Let’s look at page one of Charles’ letter.
From the collection of Jerry Dreher
Charles spent most of the first page apologizing for not having answered a letter. He had obviously been chastised, presumably by his sister, for failing to respond to her letter in a timely manner. Letters were so important for the sharing of family information. Sometimes letters were the only form of communication. The telephone didn’t exist yet. Families like the Smiths, who were close knit, relied on letters when distance kept them apart.
Here is the transcription of page one:
Plover May 9th 1887
My Dear Brother & Sister.
Your letter dated April 28th was not received by me until May 7th. I take the first opportunity to reply to it. If I have omitted to answer a letter from you I am not aware of it. I keep a record of all letters I answer but may have neglected to write because I have so many letters to write, it is possible I have failed in your case, but be sure that no intentional omission was made by me. I am completely overrun with work this spring as I could not get any one to work our small place & as now I keep only one Horse. I have to get along the best I can in my crippled condition, and I cannot hire help because I have no means of paying for it — so with Maria’s help I am doing what I can to raise something to support us. & still believing as I do that “God helps those who try to help themselves,” I shall get in what I can & try to take care of it. At present we are not alone, as our Nellie has had a very severe sickness & has been obliged to leave Merrill where she lived because of the malarial state of the Town site.
Consider what this page contains. The apologetic nature reveals things about the personalities of both Charles and his sister. First Charles cites the delay in the mail delivery. Then he relates his method of keeping track of letters received. He is careful to say that there was no intentional delay on his part. Then he falls back on the excuse of being really busy and having difficulty because of poverty and his “crippled” condition. Those are a lot of excuses to use up all in one letter. This indicates to me that Charlotte most likely had a dominant personality and that Charles was anxious to mollify her. You can almost hear him sigh.
Charlotte Smith Hooker from the collection of Jerry Dreher.
Once finished with the excuses, Charles gets to the meat of the letter–the family news. This part of the letter is a family historian’s dream. Beginning here and into page two, Charles mentions all of his children except for his son Charles Albert, who is conspicuously missing from the narrative. One possible explanation for this is that Charles Albert was living in Minnesota, geographically closer to Charlotte than to his parents, Charles and Maria. A more likely explanation is that Charles and Maria had not had a recent letter from son Charles Albert.
Charles’ daughter, Nellie, was living with him and Maria. Nellie was ill. I’m not sure what is meant by the “malarial” state of the town. Certainly, the climate in May in Wisconsin would be unlikely to resemble the tropical or subtropical conditions that are usually associated with the mosquito that carries malaria. There must have been disease in the town, possibly a spring flu or diphtheria. It is also likely that Nellie had Rheumatoid arthritis.
From the collection of Jerry Dreher
She [Nellie] has two children. They are staying with us while her Husband is on the Log drive. She has some very poor days–her disease is mainly Rheumatic with its attendant kindred ailments.
Using this clue from the letter and a little research, we find that Nellie’s two children were Elsie, nearly five years old, and Lester, only seven months old. Nellie’s husband, John Lytle, was employed in one of the two main industries in the area–logging and railroading. Very sad to tell, Lester did not survive to the end of the year, contracting and dying from diphtheria.
Just now too our Mary is visiting us as she has been very sick with diptheriatic complaints & also her Boy whom it has pleased God to take to that blessed world where such separations are unknown.
This sentence refers to daughter Mary Smith Phelps who had just lost her son Roland in March to diphtheria. Mary had also been ill with the disease. Research also shows that Mary was about five months pregnant when this letter was written.
Alice & family are well. They live at the Point, & so does Mary when at home. Their Husbands work in the repairs Department of the Central R R.
Alice was yet another daughter. She was married to George “Ham” Lytle. Mary’s husband was Adelbert A. Phelps. The “Point” refers to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a major railroad junction.
Ida & family are at Hurley in the Iron region & Josiah is also there, and expects to send for his family (who are living on our place) in a few days.
Charles mentions a fourth daughter, Ida, in the next sentence. Ida was married to Louis Seeber, and at the time this letter was written, she and her family were living in Hurley, Wisconsin. Josiah, Charles and Maria’s oldest son, is also mentioned as living in Hurley. Josiah’s wife Helen and three children, Orah, Charles, and Forrest, were staying with Charles and Maria while Josiah began working in Hurley.
Sylvia & family & Sarah & hers are on their places, 3 miles from us.
These were the last two daughters, Sylvia and her husband Downer Hale were living near Plover, as were Sarah and her husband William Langton.
The remainder of the letter discusses that which is nearly as important to Charles as his children: the church.
We have now a Church building about 2 miles from us. It is not finished off, but we held a service in it yesterday & organized a Sunday School. We shall have preaching once in 2 Weeks by our Pastor & at some other times probably. Give our kindest regards to all the children & say we shall be very glad at all times to hear from any of them as well as your selves & shall not intensionally omit to answer. & accept our love to yourselves.
Yours truly C&M Smith
Charles was able to convey a lot of information in a small amount of space. Of course, he did not include some of the details that further research disclosed, but I’m sure Charlotte got the idea. She had probably already heard of the death of Mary’s child and knew of Nellie’s illness. Nevertheless, the short sentences put her in touch with the lives of her other nieces and nephew, as well as with her brother and sister-in-law. Did it give her all the news she wanted? Probably not. Yet it did tell her about the well-being of her relatives and, perhaps just as important, where each one of them could be found.
The written letter was such an important form of communication to these ancestors. Now, these same letters give us valuable clues to their lives–the proximity of their homes, the reliance on family, the types of employment they had, the joy of building a church, the sorrow of burying a child.
This letter gives us more than facts and events. It gives clues to personality and education. For example, very few words are misspelled, and Charles’ handwriting is legible in time where many never learned how to write. We sense his age, his infirmity, his gratefulness to his wife, and his devotion to family.
We live in an age of texting, phoning, instant messaging, and email. What will our great grandchildren have available to lead themselves back to us? We no longer need to write letters to communicate, but putting pen to paper once in a while is really a good idea. Think of it as a gift to your children.
For the featured image above I wanted to use a photo of a letter. Susan chose well for this piece. The photo below is one I absolutely love. I cannot verify these family members except to say the picture came from my Butterfield/Smith album, my great grandma Orah’s family. Comparing facial features with other family photos, my guess is these are the Smith siblings mentioned in the letter profiled above. Karen