Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Preserving the News from Home

I married a first generation American.  He is the only member of his family to live here in the United States, everyone else lives in Spain or Puerto Rico.  I remember years ago we used to write to family members because a long distance phone call to Spain was so expensive.  Later, the prices of the phone calls dropped and we could call more often.  In the 1990s we started emailing, and in the last few years we've used messaging and Facebook.  For the past year or two we have used Skype to make a video call to my mother-in-law.  Skype is free so we are able to do this almost every morning before my husband goes to work.  What changes I've seen in the past thirty years of our marriage!

While researching my family tree, I've seen many changes in correspondence over the centuries.  My background is almost all English, and most of my ancestors arrived in New England with the Great Migration, before 1640 with the Puritans.  I have no surviving letters, but there is evidence of correspondence in court records and town histories.  Some of these ancestors even traveled back and forth from England to Massachusetts many times.  At least one died on a voyage back to England when the ship disappeared (Reverend Thomas Mayhew (about 1620 – November 1657)).    How did the family, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, learn about this loss? 

I’m sure that many immigrants never heard from their families again once they arrived in America.  But we can’t be sure of that, can we?  My ancestor, Peter Hoogerzeil (1803 – 1889), stowed away on a Rotterdam, Netherlands ship to come to America in the 1820s.  He married the ship captain’s daughter.  How do I know this? Because of letters he wrote home to his family in the Netherlands.  Since he was a mariner, he traveled back and forth to the Netherlands very often, and his letters survived into the 20th century.  

My uncle served in occupied Europe after World War II.  When he was in the Netherlands he dropped in to visit his Hogerzeil cousins in Dordrect.  They welcomed him with open arms, over 100 years after Peter Hoogerzeil left Dordrect, because of the family correspondence that went on over all those years. 
2nd from left, Uncle "Buddy" Joseph Gilman Allen, 
in Dordrect, Netherlands with Hogerzeil cousins

In the 1824 in Boston, Massachusetts my 4th great grand aunt, Mary Lambert Jones (1803 – 1889) married Captain John Dominis, a ship captain.  They decided to remove from Boston and from Schenectady, New York to Honolulu, Hawaii in the 1830s.  The correspondence between Mary and her sisters and family in Boston was carefully preserved in the Hawaii State Archives.  Most of this correspondence is spread out over the last forty years of her life, after the death of her husband in 1846, at sea.

Can you imagine how long it took for letters to arrive from Hawaii to Boston in the 1840s and 1850s?  There was no formal postal system, and letters were given to ships sailing to New England on an honor system.  Even so, I’m not sure when the first news of the death of Captain Dominis reached the family.  I did find this newspaper clipping dated 24 May 1847 from the Salem Register.    The ship had disappeared four or five months earlier.  

I wonder if letters from home were accepted joyfully?  Or were they dreaded because such rare and infrequent correspondence probably carried news from home of who had died since the last letter, or who was ill, or who had disappeared at sea (it was a family of mariners).   Some of the letters to Mary Dominis were from her sisters asking her to return to Boston, but she only came home once after she was widowed, and she died in Hawaii in 1889.  Here is one from her niece in Boston written in 1848, shortly after she was widowed. 

                                          Dorchester  Aug. 13th 1848
Dear Cousin
I found looking over my letters the other day
that I am in debt to you for two.  I thought that I must
do my best to pay you by writing to you this opportunity
I am at Aunt Agnes’ visiting they have a very pleasant
place near Granite Bridge the house is old fashioned
but very good the fireplaces about two yard long wide
and a yard and a half long the panes of glass in the
windows about as large as a sheet of note paper.
I suppose that you have almost set up business for your
self.  How do you like the house  I should like to see it
very much as I understand it is the handsomest on
the Island.  Sarah Ann is in Boston visiting I suppose
she will write to you this opportunity  we miss her
and the children very much she has two very pretty
little girls  I know that you long to see them.
Aunt Lee has left Charter St. at last and gone to
Bridgewater to live they have quite a farm I believe
keep cows hens etc.  Uncle William and Aunt Agnes send
love to your mother and she will write if she has
time but she has such a family that if the vessel
sails tomorrow she will not be able to. Do you… 

Later in the 1800s letters were carried to Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands) with more frequency, and they tended to be light hearted and chatty, such as this one below from San Francisco in 1865 to Mary Dominis from her eight year old niece:

                  San Francisco, Jan. 22th, 1865

Dear Auntie,

I have got your letter,
you told me to tell you what I got on
Christmas, I got a doll, it was dressed like
redriding hood, a little wash tub and board,
a pair of gloves, a basket, and a pair of
gold sleeve buttons.  Mama has had a fire
ever since she has been here.  Mama has
a blue silk, with tails way down to the
bottom of her dress.  Mrs. Chase sent us
some pictures of our house.  On Saturday
I went to the circus.  We go to ride almost
every day.  I go to school.  I love some
friends boarding here.  Give my love
to Lydia, Jhon, Tom and Willie.

            Good bye from Annie B. Aldrich

Do you have letters from your immigrant ancestors? Or from your ancestors who removed from one city to another, perhaps moving West across the United States?

With the advent of the telephone, internet and video calling, how do we preserve these conversations now?

1 comment:

  1. I do have letters my grandparents and parents wrote home. Nothing further back than the early 1900s. I worry about how we are going to preserve an informal picture of life now with the disposable conversations we have.


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