Reflections on Another Time:  Letters from the Nineteenth Century: from Newberry Library, Chicago

  During 2020 and 2021, as the COVID 19 pandemic has raged across the globe, I found some solace in transcribing old letters and diaries from the nineteenth century. These scanned documents, held at the Newberry Library in Chicago have offered me a fascinating glimpse into the lives of three families who moved west from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. As I typed their writings, trying hard to interpret some difficult handwriting - their voices, their personalities and their strong religious faith came through, enriching my life and providing researchers the ability to read and study these documents.

 The time-period was the 1840’s-1860’s, a time before electricity, a time when some of the writing was done by candlelight. Transportation in those days was by horse & carriage, steamboats, and then railroads.  It was exciting as I clicked page after page to type their words: what will happen next?

The following are some reflections and themes found among the three families, including extracts from their letters. Their spelling was kept intact.

Writing and the Mail – Letters between family members and friends were an Important means of communication in the days before telephones. They were packed with family news, advice, and solace to those mourning a loss. Paper was scarce and words were often written up the side of the page, and even upside down.

Religion – Every family I worked on was deeply religious. Nearly everyone went to church on the Sabbath, sometimes several times a week. They talked about their faith in God – His love and protection during good times and bad.

Health and Illness – Illness and death were constantly discussed, and in relation to their their strong belief in God who watches over all.


1.  LeMoyne Family – John V. Lemoyne Letters, Newberry Library, Chicago

The LeMoyne family was from Washington, Pennsylvania. John V. was born in 1828, son of Francis Julius LeMoyne (a well-known abolitionist) and Madeline Romaine Bureau. After studying law in Pittsburgh, John moved to Chicago where he practiced law for many years. Madeline's letters to John discussed farm life at home, family events, and her undying love for her son and his family.

A few extracts from about 1861 demonstrate her deep religious faith:


2.  Robert Everett Family Robert Everett and Elizabeth Roberts Everett Letters, Newberry Library, Chicago

Robert Everett was born in 1791 in Wales and emigrated to America in 1823 where he became Pastor of the Welsh Congregational church in Utica, Oneida Co., New York. He published Y Cenhadwr Americanaidd (The American Missionary) for the Welsh people in the East and Midwest.  He traveled frequently, preaching throughout and writing detailed letters to his wife Elizabeth and eleven children about his journeys. 


3.   Metcalf Family – Isaac Stevens Metcalf Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago

Isaac S. Metcalf from Milo, Maine and Antoinette (Putnam) from Dunbarton, New Hampshire married in July 1852 and moved to Du Quoin, Illinois while Isaac was a surveyor and engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad. He had an Engineering degree from Bowdoin College, and first worked on the Vermont & Massachusetts railroad.

Isaac traveled extensively on his job, writing to his wife about every other day. His letters were sometimes filled with details about his work, the scenery, and railroad accidents. In other letters, he was very tender and protective of his wife, advising her to not tire herself out. Despite being away so much, he fathered 12 children with Antoinette, and 6 more with his second wife. It is no wonder he was overly protective!

Their lives were filled with joy, but there were heartbreaks too. Their first two children, Mayo age 3 and William 1 died within a week in September 1856, back in New Hampshire.[1]  Mother Anna Metcalf wrote: “This is a time of sorrow…O God make us submissive and Patient under thy repeated shakes & if consistent with thy Holy will stay thine hand.“   After this, they moved to Elyria, Ohio to be near Isaac’s sister Lucy, wife of Samuel Winkley Furber.

During Isaac’s many trips away from home, he almost always went to church on the Sabbath, in many different cities. He wrote to Antoinette (Nettie) most Sabbath evenings, describing each church, sometimes several in a day, of different denominations.

The following are extracts from Isaac’s letters:

Nettie also traveled - back to New England every summer to visit family and friends. She wrote detailed descriptions of family life - her love of nature, health concerns, books, and visiting neighbors. She was also deeply religious.