If you unexpectedly discovered a large collection of family letters spanning almost a century, what would you do with them? How would you preserve them? What would you learn from them? How would you share them with other family members? My friend Karen inherited over sixty family letters from an aunt who discovered in her garage. They needed immediate attention, so despite her busy life, Karen took on the project of figuring out what to do with these treasures.
Karen first told me about the letters in the fall of 2016. We discussed possible ways to share the letters with family. Every so often Karen would update me with her progress. What has since transpired is remarkable. Karen learned how to preserve the letters and with the help of other family members engineered a family transcription project to make the letters accessible to all. In this article Karen shares her story. Stay tuned for another post where we’ll learn specifics for setting up a similar project for our own family.
Voices from the past: A Family Letter Transcription Project – Part One
Researching my family history has been a long and slow process for both my mother and myself for decades. We knew that our family were frontier farmers, ordinary people who worked hard. But when we recently became aware that many of them were homesteaders we truly realized why there was so little information. Many of them lived and worked in places where the typical record-keeping traditions of society were being put into place. Each tiny tidbit I’ve found has been thrilling and exciting, feeding my desire to know those who came before me, shaping who I am and will become.There are very few heirlooms or pieces of their lives passed down through the family since frontier farmers used everything they had until it was completely worn out. So I was completely surprised when my delighted mother called me around the beginning of September 2016. She was ecstatic. Her sister in Colorado had reorganized her garage and found a pile of old letters. My dear aunt thought they were remarkable, but didn’t know what to do with them. She recognized very few of the names on them. Knowing her sister, my mother, was into this kind of thing, she mailed them to her in Oregon. Over the phone I heard my mother opening them, exclaiming over the dates, 1921, 1894, 1863. One from 1828.
My mother didn’t recognize most of the names either, but noted the names of her mother and grandmother in the most recent ones, and then that of her great grandmother, Caroline Wells. With this information I jumped onto familysearch.org to look up our pedigree, and started finding the names of the authors. Soon I pulled out a large piece of engineering paper to sketch out a color coded pedigree with ancestors, their siblings (because who would you write to?), spouses, and their children (who do you write about?). This helped us put together the names and relationships of the people in the letters. The color coding helped visually organize the information so the chart wasn’t too confusing–my main line in black, siblings to my main line people in blue, spouses in orange and children in pencil–I was running out of room and needed to write with something smaller than the colored kids markers I pulled out of an art drawer.
I visited my mother a few weeks later, and since she was so busy caring for family members she lent these precious, tiny letters to me. I brought them from Oregon to Utah and my sister and I scanned in all 62 items after some tutoring from my techie-minded husband. He helped us post them so that we could share them with our extended family in Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska.
Realizing how delicate and precious these letters were, we went to the Special Collections Department at BYU where they were very friendly and helpful. They took us into a lab and looked at the letters with us, teaching us how to care for and preserve them. We were very worried about how stiff and delicate they were, crackling as we opened them, but they reassured us that with proper care they could easily be saved. The staff commented on how remarkable it was that the letters were in such amazing condition.
Generally a garage is the last place they should be stored, but my aunt was unaware of their existence. She had a very clean garage and we were blessed because the climate of southwestern Colorado where she now lives is very dry, making it an ideal place to be preserved. Garages typically have serious risks to paper documents thru wildly fluctuating temperatures. They can be damp or wet, and are often visited by insects and small rodents who find paper and even the ink tempting meal fare. All three risk factors can permanently damage or destroy paper. As most of the letters are more than 150 years old, having survived a family moving from New York to Iowa, Colorado, Idaho, back to Colorado, Washington State, and to Colorado again, we felt the amazing blessing of their survival and desired to preserve them for our family.
The BYU Special Collections team gave us detailed information on how to care for the letters. The techniques were simple and could be done at home by following simple, low tech steps. I built a hydration chamber for them so that I could safely press the letters before storing them in safe vinyl sleeves. I found all my needed supplies in local stores at low cost and by following their directions carefully, have letters we can easily view without damaging them. We also consulted with the head of the BYU transcription department so we could learn how to better transcribe and collaborate in the transcription process.
With the additional help of my brother in Alaska, I have been able to share not only the letters but information on how to transcribe them, how to care for old family documents if anyone finds more, the messy but helpful pedigree sheet I drew, and biographical information I’ve been able to find online from hints found within the letters themselves.
We’ve had family members come together from five different states to collaborate on various levels, all of whom feel drawn together by our common ancestors who worked so very hard to build a life for not only themselves, but the generations to come. As we read the letters, many of us have been moved to tears over the love the family members showed for each other, the sacrifices they made to help each other and the younger generations they were raising. We’ve cried with them as they express the pain they feel as they strive to overcome the loss of loved ones–death was a frequent visitor, too often taking providers in the prime of their lives.
We love the heartfelt expressions of love such as an absent father asking his wife to “Kiss Carrie lots of times for me . . .”. At the time he was already dying slowly with a disease the doctors could not stop, and we feel his grief and sense of failure as he tried to make sure his young family was provided for, as much as he could manage before he died when little Carrie was three. Carrie herself would also lose her husband, finishing the raising of her family without his hard-working help.
Daily, I am thankful for these voices from the past that live vividly on the page, the hands that repeatedly folded and kept these dear memories through numerous decades, loving these letters and the stories they tell. Little did they know that their actions are now changing generations they never knew. We are drawn to them, caring for them, inspired by them. As we read of them overcoming challenges, coping with financial and health problems, accidents and death, forgiving each other, we are reminded of the pricelessness of our current relationships, relationships we too often take for granted. I am amazed at the power of these voices from the dead generations that are bringing our far-flung family together, renewing ties, remembering not only the ones that have passed on but each other living today.
Thanks, Karen, for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Stay tuned for the next post about how Karen organized the family transcription project.