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
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
Writing and the Mail – Letters between
family members and friends were an Important means of communication in the days
before telephones. They often began with “I haven’t heard from you”, and were packed with family news,
business dealings, 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
- “I am thankful you are all well, but hope you won't be satisfied
with the well-being of the body as it is the least part of you, care for the
better part dear Johnny, and all will be well, only think how short a time you
are to be here and try to conceive the duration of eternity, how the soul
shudders at the comparison…We have seem to have been particularly called to the
reflexion of such things, by the frequent and sudden deaths we have had, let us
improve such warnings and also prepare to meet our God”.
“God bless & keep you &
me and direct us to do right. As ever dear Johnny your loving Mother.”
“So much excitement, and sadness…I cannot but feel that we are
suffering the judgements of God, for our great national Sin [slavery], of
refusing to recognise the humanity of one of the families of the earth.”
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
- Robert to daughters Jane and
Anna, 1857: “Our dear Lizzy is gone she died last Sabbath morning about 1/4
past 3… she said she had no dread of death as she used to have. Thus calmly
& hopefully did she leave all earthly scenes, to ascend as we trust to
brighter scenes…May we all listen to the warning given us as a family circle.”
- May 23, 1858. “My Dear Wife
& children - Arrived in Cin[cinnati]. Saturday afternoon about 5 1/2 where
we met with Mr. Edwards and several of the brethren at the Depot - preached
that evening - and three times yesterday to a full and attentive audience - the
Methodists and Baptists having given up their services to attend with us…I
expected a letter from home this morning - but it did not come. Love to all at
home - from your affectionate Pa - R. Everett.”
- To daughter Anna in 1858: “The revival in Remsen [Oneida Co., NY]
and Steuben has given us much spiritual enjoyment. We have tried to pray more
in secret than before - and here we have found the promise, ‘I will meet with
thee there’ sweetly realised and fulfilled. O it is sweet and profitable to
meet the Savior in secret prayer. We have found that promise also sweet and
- Robert to his sister back in
Wales, 1877: “Our race now will be soon run, and our Heavenly Home reached in
safety I trust. Where we have all a hope to meet again. The Ocean separates us
here, and age and other things that gives us no hope of meeting in this world,
but there these things will be removed…the Lord has promised to ‘enlarge our
greatness and comfort us on every side’. Let us trust more to his precious
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.
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
1848: “Is it a sin for a man to
have a hundred thousand dollars? I believe it is! What right or title has he to
it when thousands of his fellows have not food, clothing & education?...
Has any one man a right to own 50 thousand acres of land? Has God ever given
man such right? Can Man give man such right?”
- 1860: from Cairo, Illinois: “I found many crowding into the Catholic Church, and a few to
the Methodist, where I found a Sabbath School at the close of which the
Presbyterian Minister, Rev Mr. Bartlett, announced…he should preach this
morning... Between S.S. [Sabbath School] & preaching time I stepped into
the Catholic Church - They are a very devout people, even more so than the
- July, 1860 when Nettie was visiting New Hampshire, he wrote
“I hope having got fairly rested from your journey you feel much better. Do not
stay in the house & especially sew too much. Be out of doors…What you want
is the greatest amount of outdoor exercise you can have without fatigue.” She
gave birth in January 1861.
- 1863: “My Dear One: How troubled do you think I was, and am, when the end of
the week came and passed,and I got no letter from home. How I did want to hear from you all.
How I conjured up visions of [son] Wilder sick, or Mary sick; However I
take good heart of hope.”
- 1866: “Mr. Wilbur preached this morning from ‘The Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you’
Closing with very fervent invocations of blessing and peace, there were many tearful faces
among his Audience.”
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.
- “How delightful it is to see those in the morning of life,
choosing their Savior for their friend. Piety is always lovely, but I often
think it is.”
- “This earth is so fair. It has
sometimes seemed sad to me to think of ever leaving it. Sin only mars its
beauty, and what a sad and humbling thought it is that we must always, while we
live here, be sinners.. But God ‘knoweth our frame and remembereth that we are
dust’. Through Christ we may conquer, and hope to find in Heaven where no sin
can enter, a rich reward for all.”
- “Everything in Nature looks now
fresh & bright - as if no blight ever came - as if there were no time to
die - But oh how soon these glorious things must wither & die!...They have
lived their little hour and passed away - frail fading emblems of our fleeting
life! What a lesson ye teach.”
Yes, what a lesson all these
writings teach! In these Twenty-first century times of uncertainty and
division, they give us perspective.
Isaac Stevens Metcalf. Metcalf Genealogy, privately published, 1902; pg.