Adding the dramatic effect
When I read novels these days, I notice that the authors are writing their stories almost as if they are describing how they want it to look in a movie. With this in mind, I began to think about the “special effects” that could accompany some of the older letters I have found.
One letter I have was written by my husband’s great-great grandmother, Lydia Lamb Lindsey, in 1877. On first read, the letter helps define the Kansas geography of some of the ancestors, but it doesn’t say a whole lot about genealogy facts. It is, however, very rich in character.
First, let me introduce you to Lydia. She was born in 1815 in North Carolina to a Quaker family, and she actually was removed from the Quaker membership when she married out of that faith to David Duncan Lindsey. They had ten children, two of whom are mentioned in this letter—middle son David and youngest child Joe.
Below is a transcription of the four-page letter Lydia wrote to Joe and his wife Ella. As you can see, the original is very faded. I confess that I have added some capitals and punctuation to make it easier for you to read.
Oswego, June 11th 1877
Dear Joe & Ella
We are all as well as common to day except Florence, she is not very well. I received a card from you last week, was glad to hear from you. We expected to go on to David’s last Saturday and then down to see you but it rained so much and the creeks are so high I don’t know when we can get to go. I sent David a letter to Sylvendale last Monday and told him not to try to come to Parson after us if it rained all week, and we heard the creeks were so high that there was
no chance of crossing. So we gave it up and contented ourselves to stay here till better weather comes. There is a back [way?] from here to Cherryvale. Do you know how near it goes to where you live? I thought perhaps it crossed the creek not far from you but I don’t know and can’t find out. If it does, we would go on it. We wanted to go to Springfield next week if the river gets down but it is still raising yet, was 8 inches higher this morning than it was last night. The old settlers say it has not been this high in ten years. The folks that live in the bottom are having a hard time of it. The water is over their corn fields and some of them have to move out. Have you heard anything from your father? We had a card from him written last Monday. He was at Topeka but expected to start next day down here and we have not heard from him since. I am in hopes he has not started yet. The mails have not been very regular since the high water. I heard the water was over
the railroad for about three miles up at Osage Mission so they could not run the cars. How has the creek been out at your house? Has it been over any of your corn? Has the creek run down yet or are they still past fording? Write and tell us all you know about it. We talk of going up to Turner’s this week if we can’t get any farther. The folks over home were all well the last letter we had.
Write soon. Lydia Lindsey
All of the places mentioned in the letter are in Kansas, most in Labette County. Oswego is approximately 20 miles from Parsons which, in turn, is about 20 miles from Cherryvale in Montgomery County. Sylvendale might be Sylvan Dale, a community which has disappeared from the maps but was likely near Parsons. The creek lying between Lydia’s family and her sons is Labette Creek, and the river, just east of Oswego, is the Neosho River. That water would have to be crossed for a trip to Springfield.
One thing about this letter that interests me is the planned travel. Without the interference of the rain, Lydia and David had plans to travel nearly 200 miles in the coming week, first to Parsons, then Cherryvale, then Springfield, MO. Travel by train is the most likely method for their plans, but that is still quite a journey in 1877. Lydia does mention that the water was up over the railroad in places, and she mentions that her son, David, should not come to Parsons to collect them, indicating that they probably did not have individual transportation. On the other hand, she is asking about a back way to get to son Joe’s place, which gives the feel that a different sort of transportation may have been available.
On the surface, this is not all that interesting a letter. If you wanted to write Lydia into a story, would you have any doubt about what she was feeling? Frustration at her travel plans being disrupted? Worry? Fear? How would you have her act in a movie? When drawing her personality, keep in mind that she was writing to her son, but she didn’t sign the letter “Mom” or “Mother”. She signed it “Lydia Lindsey.” What, if anything, does that say about her demeanor?
Try reading the letter again with film and special effects in mind. Can’t you just hear the water lapping at the edges of the corn fields? Can you see Lydia walking out onto the squishy ground to check on their crops? It is important to make the story interesting without changing facts.
Let’s add a little more dramatic effect. Imagine Lydia standing in the kitchen, face lined with worry, rain pelting on the roof, wind blowing the torrential downpour onto the windows, panes rattling. She looks out at the dark June day, intensely watching the roiling clouds, fretting about deep puddles that dot the fields of young corn. The river is rising…