Lorraine Watkins, with the help of her brother David, has assembled and transcribed a treasury of family letters. Having done a little of this kind of thing myself, I know how many hours of unseen work (and thought) have to go into such a project.
These letters span 100 years from 1843 to the mid 20th century. They bring us the members of the Clark, Hirst and Watkins families, unvarnished and – mostly – unafraid. They are people in their time, unknowing of the times to come.
Religion is important but doesn’t always work.
[Orenus Hart, 1852] The Methodists have just closed a protracted meeting at the Center in their usually noisy Manner. March 3rd After two weeks meeting by night & by day they have succeeded in taking 24 under their charge. For some six months nine of whom they immersed… & some 7 or 8 have lost their good feelings already.
A son and brother goes to the California gold fields.
[R. P. Hirst, 1854] The company with which I am compelled to associate is good company for this country but not moral. Society here is entirely different from that in the states. People have come here as a general thing for the sole purpose of making money…. All the energies of the man both of mind & body are brought to bear on this one point with an intensity that perfectly astonishes one until he becomes familiar with California life.
Money is especially important to a widow with many children and few other resources.
[Mary M. Clark, 1869] I fear that I never shall get up there. I have lost so much property since the death of your Dear Uncle that I don’t expect that I can come. If I could sell out and get a reasonable price for what I have here and had someone to go with me through the Indian Territory believe I would go next spring…. Your cousin Tommy is nearly 18 years old and he is a brave boy.
I could give more excerpts, but they cannot provide the flavor of years of letters which include the insightful and the mundane, along with all the business of daily life: illness, birth of children, death in the family, education, travel, success and failure. Visit the Prairie Tree website for more about this remarkable family and the letters we can all appreciate.
Many have written the story of the immigrant, the hopeful stranger who arrives in a new land. For example, in Hungarian Memories I have told the story of my husband, who arrived in New York from Hungary in 1946. The Prairie Tree letters tell of a different immigrant experience and one that is congruent with my own roots. The forebears came early, met and married one another and moved out in the 19th century to populate a new land which, in many ways, was just a strange to them as New York was to Julius.