Letters are Windows to the Past

Smithsonian Institution. Repository: National Postal Museum

My Great Grandmother Bessie Barney Bonnett LeClair was trying to make a new start in 1918. She had divorced her first husband Abner Bonnett and had just married William LeClair. The envelope shown below housed a letter from her husband Abner pleading for one more chance as he promised to “change his Ways.” They did get back together long enough to have one more child, their sixth before they finally divorced in 1914.


Envelope for letter from Abner to his wife Bessie. Note the simple address used.

In the partially illustrated letter below written October 6, 1918, Bessie seems happy with her new marriage and baby son. In the letter written to her oldest daughter Florence Bonnett Tromblee, who also had a young baby Bessie says in part,

Sunday, Oct. 6th

Dear Florence, baby 

I have just laid baby down, he has been napping _ _ _ _ aches. He is getting fat he will be seven weeks old Wed. I got your letter and was oh so glad to hear you were all well.

Letter written by my Great Grandmother Bessie Barney Bonnett LeClair.

Bessie also in this letter talks about fixing up their new place with wallpaper and painting the ceilings. She also varnished the icebox and a writing desk. I would guess this letter was written on that newly varnished desk. However, a happy life was to elude Bessie as just fifteen days after writing this letter she was to become a casualty of the Influenza epidemic of 1918 at the young age of 36. This may be the last letter Bessie ever wrote; it is certainly one of the last. This letter was one of a collection of letters I received from Julia Tromblee, the daughter-in-law of the letter’s recipient Florence Tromblee. Julia and I never knew of each other and met when we noticed each others family trees on ancestry.com

Letter concerning Samuel Dakin and his newspaper.

The letter shown above was not written by a relative but was written about a relative. The letter is dated 1825 and concerns Samuel Dakin, a cousin of mine. Samuel and his partner William J Bacon purchased the newspapers the “Utica Sentinel” and the “Columbian Gazette” and combined them into one newspaper. In part the letter says;

“… We feel confident that the paper under their direction will be ably & successfully conducted. The public are deeply interested that the respectability of their public journal should be sustained, and we feel gratified at the prospect, that the varied talents of the editors of the present paper will give to it a character which will entitle it to the most liberal encouragement, and in that belief, we earnestly write to it the patronage support of your friends.”

The letter was signed by many of the leading citizens of Utica, New York at the time. The signatures continue onto another sheet of paper. Many buildings and streets are today named after some of the people who put their names to this letter of endorsement. I was able to get copies of this letter and many others from the Dakin family from the archives at Hamilton College where many from that branch of the family attended.


World War Two letter from Robert Lyon to his mother Alice Slinn Lyon.

The partial letter above is from an extensive collection of letters written mostly by my wife’s father Robert Lyon to his mother during his military service in World War Two. At the time this letter was written he was still stationed stateside. In part the letter says;

“I was going to hi myself to Denver to-night, but as it came out I’m on the litter detail. You see they select a few of the students every night to stay on the post for the next twenty-four hours, to carry wounded soldiers from the train to the hospital. We all hope they don’t appear, but anyway none of the fellows here have ever experienced such a thing yet.”

Robert was to experience such a thing when he found himself in combat in Italy. His letters give great insight as to what he was going through and of his thoughts at the time.

You do not need letters to give you a peep into the past. I have old school report cards, driver licenses, pay stubs, postcards, certificates of achievements, greeting cards, and many other types of written records. Shown below is a birthday card and envelope from my wife’s grandmother to her great-grandmother. Many of these greeting cards have a short message and for many perhaps the only signature they will have of a relative. Besides looking at these old cards is fun.

Birthday card from Ruby Gonya Monty to her mother Lottie.

The next letter illustrated below is part of a four-page letter. This copy of the letter was sent to me by a person that I met due to a DNA match. The letter was written by Page Cole and concerned the family of his wife, Mary Bushey Cole. Mary’s mother Mary Deloria Vincent Bushey Lajoy was my great aunt the sister of my grandfather Willis Deloria. As you can see from Mary’s many different last names she was married many times. Page was writing to a great-granddaughter of Mary who was trying to make sense of the family relationships. In the letter Page is assuring the great-granddaughter that all of Mary’s children were from her first marriage. The letter reads in part;

“Now Mary was the youngest. Mary was born on the 27th of April and was baptized in St. Peters Church in Plattsburgh on the 19th of May 1900. We have the original certificate of baptism, so the three children had to have the same father.” 

Letter written by Page Cole regarding his wife’s Mary’s mother Mary Deloria and family history


From this letter, I learned about Mary Deloria’s first husband, Edward Vincent. I had never heard of him until I read this letter. This was a four-page letter that was full of family history that I knew nothing about. I learned about name changes (not just from marriages) dates of death, and births also ages being lied about and why.

These letters have allowed me to understand better and tell the story of my family. With the exception of the birthday card which came from my wife’s parents papers all the letters shown were from other people and places. Even the collection of war letters from my wife’s father were from other people freely sharing and giving what they had. My wife had no idea that these letters existed until her cousin handed her a large archive box containing these letters. We all must search for and reach out to family and share what we have. By doing this, we will build a better family history.

For Better or for Worse comic strip. Used with permission.


How frail and ephemeral is the material substance of letters, which makes their very survival so hazardous. Print has a permanence of its own, though it may not be much worth preserving, but a letter! Conveyed by uncertain transportation, over which the sender has no control; committed to a single individual who may be careless or inappreciative; left to the mercy of future generations, of families maybe anxious to suppress the past, of the accidents of removals and house-cleanings, or of mere ignorance. How often it has been by the veriest chance that they have survived at all.

Elizabeth Drew





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39 Responses to Letters are Windows to the Past

  1. judyg1953 says:

    Charles, you are so right about letters. I cherish the WWII letters home from my 1st cousin who died in WWII – his father and then his brother lovingly saved them and I inherited them. Also my grandmother’s cards to my mother – I love the idea of seeing her handwriting and wonder what she was doing as she wrote them. I fear our digital letters will be lost in the wind.

    • chmjr2 says:

      I am glad that your family have saved and treasured those World War Two letters. As I stated in the blog we have many letters written by my wife’s father fro that war. I do worry what will happen to them in the future. You can’t depend that someone in the family will be there or willing to look after them.

  2. Peter Klopp says:

    The title of your post says it all. Letters are windows to the past in a way that vital statistics no matter how useful they may be can never produce. Birth dates, wedding dates, funeral dates are nothing compared to a heart-felt letter from a loved one. The love story which I presently publish is 95% based on actual letters and fortunately have been preserved to this very day. You can consider yourself lucky to have the treasure of letters and cards at your disposal. Have a great day!

    • chmjr2 says:

      You were very smart to preserve your letters, something I wish I had done. I would love to have the letters my wife and I wrote to each other during college and when I was in the service. I do feel very lucky to have the letters and such that I do have.

  3. Oh how I wish I had even one or two of the letters my parents or grandparents wrote. Alas, all written correspondence has been lost or destroyed along the way. Both my grandfathers, at least two of my uncles, and my father served in the British forces (army, navy or air force) during the first or the second world war. Nothing survives of their written communications.
    When we came to Australia in 1954, my mother kept up a regular correspondence with her best friend back in England. In those letters would have been all the hopes, fears and joys of our first years here, as well as details of our everyday lives. A few years later, Mum’s friend pulled out the suitcase full of letters from Mum, read through them all again, and then took them outside and burned them! What a loss!
    Dad’s R.A.F. flight log book that he recorded all his flights and movements in between 1941 and 1946, was caught in floodwaters about twenty years after we arrived in Australia. It was so badly damaged it was unsalvageable. Another loss of a record of incalculable value.
    The e-communication we rely on so much these days is ephemeral. If we lose emails due to a computer crash, or we upgrade to another machine, those records could be easily overlooked and lost. I keep hard copies of any emails that seem to have information of any importance. Yes, I end up with lots of files, but they are a resource that would be there if the electronic world died.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Letters and written records are so hard to find and then keep. I really do marvel that the ones I have found have survived. I think as a back up we should all have digital backup. I also have a file of emails that I keep as you do.

  4. Deb Hoskins says:

    The hard to read part isn’t napping it is..having awful stomach..aches.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you so much! I have worked on that passage for a few years now, and you came up with the answer with ease.

      • Deb Hoskins says:

        Your welcome! Just thought I saw something, and up it popped. She had very nice handwriting, something else that is going by the wayside.

  5. dlpedit says:

    You nailed it on an issue that I (and other historians) have been greatly concerned about. Today’s reliance on digital this and electronic that is going to leave coming generations with no hard evidence to examine and understand. Although I use a computer and e-mail and read books on Kindle occasionally, I still prefer to put my hands on the real stuff!

    Your several letters in this post remind me of the value of my own “ephemera”: WW II letters (both V-Mail and one four-page, handwritten) from my uncle, my mother’s (and my) old report cards, my mother’s high school autograph books, etc. Without those things, I’d be clueless about much of my relatives’ pasts. It also makes me wish that when I was younger and those people were still with us I had been more aware and willing to ask questions! Today, I ask the questions, but those people aren’t here to answer. I can only go by the few bits and pieces of ephemera I have. Here’s to hoping that our children will come to relish–before it’s too late–the vanishing ephemera of our own generation.

    • chmjr2 says:

      I also wish I had asked more questions when I had the chance. Now all I can work with are the facts in official records and what I can learn from letters and such that has survived. I sometimes wonder if histories written about our current times will suffer and be lacking in some detail because of the lack of written records such as letters and dairies.

  6. Amy says:

    These letters are such invaluable treasures. My favorite is the one you received after finding the daughter-in-law of your GGM Bessie. How incredible that you two found each other and that she had this letter.

    I grew up with a mother who threw things out as soon as they were read. I had to hide all my letters in a box in a drawer so she couldn’t clear them away! So I have no old letters (except my own). A few cousins I found through genealogy shared letters they had from their direct ancestors, but I have no letters from any of my own. You are so fortunate to have all of these!

    • chmjr2 says:

      I do realize how fortunate I am in having these letters or copies of them. Not only did this lady have a treasure trove of letters that she shared with me, she had photographs of all the people some which I had no idea what they looked like.
      I wish I had thought to save my letters like you did, but I was not that smart.

      • Amy says:

        Someday your descendants will be longing for those letters! 🙂

        But at least you have these old one and photographs—how fortunate!

  7. chattykerry says:

    It is so lovely to look at old letters and the changes in handwriting styles.

  8. I agree with you about letters and other kinds of documents such as report cards, pay stubs, airline tickets and so on. From them we create a visual and narrative scrapbook that brings to life the moments those bits and pieces were from. They also help us understand the bigger narrative in progress at that time.

    My maternal Grandmother saved greeting cards and other miscellaneous items connected to the birth of her first son. They tell so much about that baby and his impact on the family. I am incorporating them into the family history just as you are doing with the letters. I hope you continue to be the beneficiary of such positive encounters and exchanges with your newly found and newly reconnected relatives.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post. The comic strip is so true today. I will soon be retiring from public ed (HS) and have seen the demise of letter’s and work on paper to everything including math on the computer/ school supplied laptops for all. I use to say to students in a study lab when they had nothing to do, ‘write a letter to your grandma.’ Now they just pull out their cell phones and lap tops and watch you tube video’s. One of the saddest parts is students are losing the ability to even write manually. Back to letters from the past ~ priceless!

    • chmjr2 says:

      I agree with you that letter writing is fast becoming a lost art. I think that future generations will not have this vast treasure to help them learn about history and even their own ancestors.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I appreciate the generosity of fellow genealogists. You are the recipient of some of that generosity. Thanks for sharing your trove of letters.

  11. Eilene Lyon says:

    I agree about sharing the letters and other ephemera in our collections as much as possible. I’ve been so fortunate in being the recipient of such gifts as well. Nothing can tell me more about my ancestors than things they wrote in personal communications with loved ones.

  12. The Wife says:

    What a treasure! Thank you for sharing. I still love writing letters, by hand,and carefully keep all letters that arrive here. It’s such an important thing to do…

  13. KerryCan says:

    I love old ephemera, too–even did a couple posts two years ago about a diary I found at a garage sale on Point au Roche! Your point about losing the written records, as we do everything on the computer, is very concerning and applies to photos, too. Since we mostly never print the pictures we take, what will become of them . . . .?

    • chmjr2 says:

      I found your blog on the diary and it was great. Whatever happen to the diary? You found a story of youth, love, war, family, and the finial act of growing old and death. I only wish I could make more of those great finds.

      • KerryCan says:

        Thanks, Charlie–I thought that would be right up your alley! The diary must be around here somewhere but I’m not sure where I stashed it. I know I would never have been able to throw it away. If I can find it, shall I send it to you?

      • chmjr2 says:

        It would be nice to read and look over. Perhaps they have some relatives that may want the diary.

  14. I wish I would have more of my letters from my family…especially since it is now a lost art. enjoyed your blog.

    • chmjr2 says:

      I also wish I had more, but is that not always the case? We all should write more letters. I understand that less and less greeting cards also are being sent. But I should talk as I can’t remember the last time I sent a letter.

  15. Val says:

    It’s lovely to have access to so many old letters and cards, etc. I have a lot from one branch of my family, but wish I had some from the others side. What I do have, also, are a whole collection of an unknown family’s photos and some letters (mostly from children in the family to the parents) and I have been trying to track them down so that I can reunite them with their real owners. Haven’t had any luck yet, though. I bought them specifically to try and reunite them as sellers otherwise just split up the collection and sell them on individually which I think is a crying shame.

    I’m a Brit and one of the things that fascinates me is the American… what is it, habit? Tradition?… of keeping all the different married and other names. Is this how people referred to themselves on a daily basis, or just in writing?

    • chmjr2 says:

      I also have at times been able to return old letters and photographs that have lost their way. I hope you are able to find the right owners for the photos and letters you mentioned. I am not sure what you meant by keeping all the different married names, so I can’t at this time give you an answer.

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