“It's fascinating what 50 bucks will get you at the county recorder's office” is one of my favorite lines from the movie Sneakers. The same can be said about the under-utilized archives across our nation that are teeming with the diaries, letters, invitations, bills of sale, receipts, deeds, etc. of countless individuals.
Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to discover that my fourth great grandmother left sixteen extant letters and that they were available at the Benjamin F. Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh State University, Plattsburgh, New York. Eunice Jones wrote these letters to her sister and brother-in-law between the years 1853 and 1859, and thankfully they were saved. Eunice spent the last years of her life and is buried very close to my home, but she was just a name and a date. With these letters, I can hear from her in her own words. Her thoughts, feelings, sorrows, and her loneliness ring out regardless of the passage of time. Equally thrilling was the discovery of the names of her other children. Up until I received the letters I only knew the names of four of her children; with the letters four other children were discovered. In one letter Eunice wrote of her sorrow at the death of her elderly mother. In another letter she described their new home, room by room, in Coral, Illinois. Often she mentions her children, making cheese, crop prices, and in every letter mentions how much she misses her extended family back in New York.
Other members of this family also wrote letters to Betsey and Daniel Thew, including a niece Bettie Huston. She lived near Eunice and where her letters end in 1859, Bettie’s were just beginning. She often mentions her aunt, uncle, and cousins. Bettie certainly didn’t mince words when she had an opinion, which makes her letters fun to read and I’m treated to an outsider-looking-in opinion on the family’s conversion to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In case you couldn’t guess, she didn’t approve. Bettie also chronicled the last illness and death of her beloved Aunt Eunice. It’s not often one is able to find a first-hand account of the death of an ancestor. I felt like the proverbial fly on the wall.
I’ve discovered wonderful things in many different archives across the United States, but these letters, with their first-hand accounts of different events, are my greatest of the great. In fact, I think it is time to reread them again.