Early American Letter Writing

In the early days of American exploration letters were a crucial means of communicating with wealthy sponsors back in Europe. These sponsors were often monarchs or noblemen, rich enough to finance oceanic exploration and personally interested in the establishment of new and better trade routes. In order to make sure these funds were being well spent, explorers were called upon to make regular reports on their findings to their European sponsors. They did so via letters, which were carried back across the ocean while the explorers continued investigating the new lands.

Refer to caption
William Buckland indenture image, Virtual Jamestown,
Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia

Most of these early American letters described the New World as a paradise beyond human imagining. In one sense this is because the cultures and climates the explorers observed were so wildly different from anything they had seen in Europe that the allure of the exotic overwhelmed their senses. There is, however, another reason to expect the abundant enthusiasm and imagery that appear in the explorers’ letters. While fleet admirals and conquistadors might have been in the exploration business at least partly for personal glory and sheer curiosity, European sponsors were mostly concerned with the increase in their wealth new lands might provide. In order to continue their financial support for such expeditions, the sponsors needed to be constantly reassured that their investment would reap rewards.

For this reason, letters coming back from the New World invariably spoke of Eden-like surroundings, abundant food and resources, and friendly, compliant natives who seemed practically to yearn for conversion to Christianity. In a letter to the treasurer of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus extolled the beauty of islands he had claimed for Spain and the intelligence and generosity of their people. He further reassured his sponsors by claiming that “ . . . their Highnesses can see that I shall give them as much gold as they want if their Highnesses will render me a little help . . . . and I shall find a thousand other things of value . . . .”

Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian merchant and explorer who gave his name to the Americas, also wrote letters detailing his experiences in the new world. Though Vespucci is more critical of the natives he encountered, the image of abundance and easy domination permeates his letter entitled “Mundus Novus,” originally sent to Lorenzo de Medici. He says, “The land in those parts is very fertile and pleasing, abounding in numerous hills and mountains, boundless valleys and mighty rivers . . . . Many of these [trees] yield fruits delectable to the taste and beneficial to the human body . . . . They have there no metals of any description except gold, of which those regions have a great plenty . . . .” While Vespucci’s discoveries were significant, his most important contribution to the exploration of the new world was most likely his letters, which were published in Europe shortly after they were written. These letters were the first glimpse many Europeans had of the new world, and they helped to popularize the idea of its existence as a separate continent heretofore unknown.

As colonies began to develop in North America, letters became much-needed ties between family members in the new world and those still at home. In the early days of colonization, the various North American settlements had very little to do with one another. Because they represented very different demographic groups with very different histories and goals, early settlers were not particularly interested in communicating with other settlements. Most correspondence, therefore, took place across the ocean, uniting families and sharing the news of everyday life in the colonies.

Often even immediate families were separated by the long journey. Husbands looking for a better life sailed to the new world with the promise that, when they were settled and secure, their wives and children would come to join them. For these long-distance families letters were the only means of communication, and were therefore precious. John Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote to his wife Margaret, who was pregnant and had remained in England: “I praise the good Lord, though we see much mortality, sickness, and trouble, yet (such is His mercy) myself and most of my family, are yet living, and in health, and enjoy prosperity enough.” Survival in the colonies was difficult enough without the burden of separation from loved ones, and Winthrop echoed the sentiments of many colonists when he ended his letter, “I am sorry to part with thee so soon, seeing we meet so seldom . . . . I long for the time, when I may see thy sweet face again, and the faces of my dear children.”

In the Jamestown settlement letters served a similar purpose, connecting families that fate and circumstances had distanced. At the opposite end of the social spectrum from the Massachusetts governor was Richard Frethorne, an indentured servant in Jamestown. In 1623 he wrote to his parents, who still lived in England, and told them of the hardships he was enduring in his indenture: “I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death . . . . I do protest unto you that I have eaten more in [one] day at home than I have allowed me here for a week.” Frethorne’s letter became an entreaty to his parents; he pleaded that “if you love me you will redeem me suddenly, for which I do entreat and beg. And if you cannot get the merchants to redeem me for some little money, then for God's sake get a gathering or entreat some good folks to lay out some little sum of money in meal and cheese and butter and beef.” This kind of communication became essential for those in the new world who were facing a rough kind of life for which nothing in England could have prepared them. [For more letters and information from the Jamestown settlement, see the Virtual Jamestown project at www.virtualjamestown.org (accessed in 2005)]

Letters of the Revolutionary War »

Letters of Westward Expansion »

Civil War Letters »

Immigrant Letters and Letters of Social Reform »

World War I Letters »

Letters of the Great Migration and the Depression »

World War II Letters »

Letter Writing in the Twentieth Century »