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Letter Writing in America

by Kathryn Burke







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A typical western Post Office in 19th-century America.  Photograph taken in Pembina, Dakota Territory, 1863.
Above:
A typical western Post Office in 19th-century America. Photograph taken in Pembina, Dakota Territory, 1863.

 




Letters of Westward Expansion

In the decades following the Revolution and the establishment of the new government of the United States, Americans in all walks of life were beginning to move around the country. Some were part of the great western expansion, some transplanted themselves because of religious duties, and some moved from farms to cities in search of better employment. Letters connected all of these migrants with the homes they had left behind, and helped to build an interconnecting network of people across the vast new country that was developing. News from home, news from the frontier, news from the city—all of these things traveled by post, and letters became the tie that bound together a disparate and radically changing country during the years before the Civil War.

Many Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century saw the newly acquired territories in the west as an opportunity to start a new life. This prospect was particularly attractive to those who were having a difficult time making an honest living in the towns, cities and farms of the east coast. Joseph Bentley and his wife, Anna Briggs, were both born into prosperous Quaker families in Maryland, but bad investments, lack of business savvy and the debts Anna’s father left at his death made the option of moving west quite appealing. In 1826 Joseph, Anna and their four small children set out for land they had purchased in the Ohio Territory. Anna, who had always been very close to her family and her mother in particular, wrote several times during the journey. These letters were the beginning of a lifelong correspondence between Anna and her family in Maryland, a correspondence she doggedly pursued so that “as I am journeying on through time in my distant habitation I may keep up a kind of acquaintance and not feel like a stranger in my own dear native land, if ever I should visit it again.”

Anna’s stipulation, “if ever I should visit it again,” was entirely appropriate, given the difficulties of travel in the early nineteenth century. In her first letters Anna wrote of the children walking for long stretches across the Appalachian Mountains on their way to Ohio, and it does not seem like a journey the family would be likely to repeat any time soon. As it turned out, Anna did not see her mother again until 1847, when she returned home for a visit and to share the news that she was now a grandmother. The regular correspondence between Anna and her family had allowed them to remain close for all those years, but it also gave family members living back east a very thorough picture of life on the Ohio frontier. In an early letter to her mother, Anna explained her letter-writing philosophy: “Don’t fear repetition, but just give daily concerns, the affairs of the neighborhood, the sayings and doings of the children . . . .” Her letters are full of details not only about her children and husband but about the duties of a frontier wife, the hardships and unexpected pleasures of living in such an undeveloped place, and the Quaker community in which she and Joseph settled. Not only did this attention to detail keep Anna’s family in Maryland abreast of all her news, it also provides excellent insight for modern readers into a bygone way of American life.

Another group of Americans who were often willing to settle in the wild western territories in the early nineteenth century were Christian missionaries. Missionaries heard tales of the “heathen” natives who lived throughout the unsettled portions of the country and believed that it was their religious duty to spread Christianity across the land. One such missionary family were the Whitmans, who traveled from upstate New York to the Oregon Territory in 1836. Devout Presbyterians, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman believed that relocation was their opportunity to spread the word of God to the heathens, and set out on a journey that would take six months to complete. The Whitmans and another family of missionaries traveled from New York to St. Louis by steamboat, then trekked across the rest of the country until they came to the place they had chosen for their mission, in modern-day Walla Walla, Washington.

Throughout the entire journey (during which Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains), Narcissa wrote letters to her mother and sister in New York. Letters written after the party had passed the last outpost of civilization in St. Louis had to wait until the group encountered a traveling trader or surveyor who might take their missives to the nearest post office. These letters often took a long time to reach their destination in New York. Once settled in Walla Walla Narcissa’s letters to her mother were much more frequent, and because the arduous journey was over Narcissa had time to reflect on what her bold new step might mean. “My dear Mother,” she wrote on December 5, 1836, roughly three months since the Whitmans had arrived in Washington, “I have been thinking of my beloved parents tonight; of the parting scene, and of the probability that I shall never see those dear faces again while I live.”

Sadly, this projection was correct. After eleven seemingly successful years, the Whitmans’ ministry to the Cayuse tribe came to an abrupt end in 1847. Enraged by the decimation of their people due to diseases brought by the white settlers, the natives attacked the mission settlement in November of 1847, killing fourteen people including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. In a letter to Narcissa’s parents the Whitman’s longtime friend Rev. H. H. Spaulding described the event: “They were inhumanly butchered by their own, up to the last moment, beloved Indians, for whom their warm human hearts had prayed for years . . . .” Spaulding’s letter was written in April, nearly five months after the massacre, but the intervening time had not lessened the pain he felt at having to deliver such a blow to Narcissa’s parents. At one point he exclaimed, “Oh, what have I done? Can the aged mother read and live? I thought to withhold the worst facts, but then they would go to you from other sources, and the uncertainty would be worse than the reality. Pardon me if I have erred.”

Letters of this kind were all too common on the frontier, where the death rate was high and the possibility of news traveling by any other route remote. This did not make such letters any easier to compose, however. As Narcissa herself wrote seven years before in a letter informing her parents of the death of her daughter Alice, “I have never found it so trying to commence writing to my friends at home as at this time, simply because of the late afflictive dispensation of Providence towards us, which renders me almost incapable of writing, from excessive feeling, the moment my thoughts return to the subject.” Because they were the sole means of communication for Americans who moved westward during the early nineteenth century, letters had the power both to warm the heart with good news and to break it with bad. [For more information on the Whitmans and their mission, see First Hand History at www.1st-hand-history.org/Whitman/letters.htm]

While some Americans played an active role in expanding the nation westward, a different kind of expansion was occurring on farms in the east. Traditionally, children of farmers worked hard their whole lives to support the family farm, eventually leading to sons inheriting the farms from their fathers and daughters marrying the sons of other farmers to perpetuate the cycle. In the early nineteenth century, however, asfactories began to appear in towns on the Eastern seaboard, another employment opportunity opened up. Factory managers looking for a large labor force began recruiting young women from the farms to come live in the city and work for them. Letters from these mill hands to their families reveal the nature of their lives away from the farm, and explain why factory work was an attractive alternative to living at home.

Before 1820 spinning and weaving were done by farmwomen, each for her individual family. The emergence of textile factories in New England put an end to this practice in general, but the development of thread and cloth remained women’s work in the minds of Americans. This made farmers’ daughters the ideal choice for textile factory workers. Contrary to the media messages prevalent at the time, many of these young women enjoyed factory work. Lowell Factory mill hand Mary Paul, in a letter dated December 21, 1845, wrote, “I get along very well with my work. I can doff as fast as any girl in our room . . . . I think that the factory is the best place for me, and if any girl wants employment I advise them to come to Lowell.”

The factory hours, though exceedingly long by today’s standards (5 a.m. to 7 p.m., with breaks for meals), were not very different from the amount of time young women traditionally spent laboring on their fathers’ farms, and unlike the work they did at home there was payment involved. Many mill hands did not have to work outside the home to support their family, as was the custom in European factories, but were able to save or spend their money as they saw fit. Wages went toward anything from dowries to new clothes to college tuition, and in their letters many girls expressed their joy that their parents had allowed them to come to the factories.

Letters between mill hands and their relatives back on the farm not only helped families stay close, but also kept the working girls informed about any major familial news. Most mill hands worked for a duration of three to five years before marrying, and given their demanding schedules it was difficult to find time for a visit home. Letters from the farm, therefore, became their principle way of getting news about their families—births, deaths, weddings, etc. Olive Sawyer Brown penned the following message to her mill hand cousin Sabrina Bennett in 1840: “I take my pen this eve with feelings too painful to describe to inform you of the death of my beloved brother Jeremiah. He died in Lowell the 14 th of October with the Typhus Fever . . . . John is in Boston. He was married this fall . . . .” In a missive dated December, 1849, Louisa Sawyer, Olive’s sister and a mill hand at Lowell, outlined the usual method for the delivery of the girls’ letters: “I am going to send this by a Lady that boards with me . . . . She is a fine Lady and you would like to get acquainted with her I think.”

These letters, written by girls living in eastern cities that were not so very far away from the farms where they grew up, most likely arrived at their intended destinations fairly quickly. Letters of Americans living on the frontiers of civilization, on the other hand, could take up to several months to deliver, as they often had to take circuitous routes to get where they were going. In the 1830s, when the Whitmans were setting up their mission in Walla Walla, there were no overland mail systems in the Oregon Territory. The likeliest way for Narcissa Whitman’s letters to reach her family in New York was for them to be taken to Astoria, the closest port in the territory, and sent by clipper ship around South America’s Cape Horn to the eastern seaboard on the other side of the continent. This journey usually lasted around three months, but it was a much more reliable method of mail delivery than waiting for a trader or surveyor traveling east to take the letters to a town with an established post office. Closer to the east coast, the early letters of Anna Briggs Bentley in Columbiana County, Ohio would have been carried by post rider to the nearest river stop, sent by steamboat down the river, first to Pittsburgh and then to Montgomery County in Maryland, where Anna’s family lived.

As the nineteenth century neared its midpoint, a new system of transportation promised great things for the postal industry. This innovation was the railroad, which was already starting to run cars with mail service between certain specific locations in 1832. The Railway Mail Service would go on to embody transcontinental post straight up through World War II, but this powerful growth in its popularity did not really begin until after the Civil War, when the energies of the nation could be turned to the completion and standardization of railroad service.

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