Tag Archives: family photographs

A Window into the Past: Ancestors’ Letters as Genealogical Records

So, say you’ve inherited a large stack of family photographs showing ancestors who are far up your family tree – such as great-grandparents, or their siblings, cousins, or close family friends.  As you stare into the moment in time captured in that cabinet card or tin type photograph, do you ever wonder what their voices sounded like, or what sort of accent they spoke with?  Do you wonder what words they chose when they spoke?  Or what perspective they brought to their life experiences?  Or even what activities filled a day in their lives?

In some very rare cases, a home movie might surface, allowing you a glimpse of your ancestors (or someone else’s) living through some long-ago day.  For most of us, though, home movies from that far back just don’t exist (and likely never existed).  But, if we’re looking to learn more about the faces in our old photographs, we might be able to rely on letters that have survived through the decades.  Letters provide a sense of immediacy, a glimpse into a moment or day otherwise completely lost to living memory – and it’s all captured in the yellowed pages that you hold in your hands.

I was fortunate to marry into a family who saved . . . everything – photographs, family bibles, letters, journals, Christmas cards, insurance bills . . . and, yes, even old tissues – you know, the ones from long ago that came in shades of hot pink and cool blue.  I’m not sure when those came off the market, but it’s been some time.  I view these as a testament to how dedicated they were in saving just about everything for posterity.

The photographs and family bibles are great, but the letters really go the furthest when I try to flesh out the names, dates, faces, and personalities that have emerged on that side of the family.  Letters can tell you a lot about what words and expressions ancestors used when they spoke, how they pronounced them, what an average day was like for them, and what perspective they brought to their everyday lives.

A Page from the 1900 US Federal Census

In this page from the 1900 US Federal Census, the Hamlett Family appears in Lines 30-35

The Hamlett Family posed for this photograph several years after the 1899 letter was written. Frank is the older man standing in back, at left. Mae stands to the immediate left of her brother, in the photograph's center.

Among the many letters I’ve come across in my in-laws’ collection of family artifacts, was the one below, written in the first days of 1899, by an 11-year-old girl to her father, who was, quite literally, a traveling preacher.  Tessie Mae Hamlett (‘Mae’ to the family) was the second-oldest daughter of the four children of William Franklin Hamlett and his wife, Samantha Ann (Peck) Hamlett.  When the letter was written, the family lived in Americus, Indiana, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana.  The attached page from the 1900 US Federal Census shows the family, just 17 months later, in June 1900.

Frank Hamlett, as he’s come to be known by his descendants, was a preacher in his mid-40’s at the time of the letter.  Mae, just a few days past her 11th birthday, wrote the letter below that reached him at some location whose name has been lost to history.

Below, I’ve attached the front and back of the letter, as well as a transcription.

The Front Page of the Jan. 3, 1899 Letter

From Americus, Indiana – Jan. 3, 1899

Dear papa:

I thought I would write to you this evening to let you know that we are as well as usual and hope this may find you the same.  George and Ann was up to day.  Aunt Susie is sick.  She has got a swelling on her hip.  They butchered to day that little pig. It weighed 125 pounds when it was dressed.

Bessie got a letter from Bennie Pepper to day.  He got home all right.  George said to tell you that he got a letter from worth judgement to day.  Bessie is making her a apron and manson is fixing her shoes.  Manson got mad at Bessie on Saturday but he wasn’t mad long.

We was at Kurkehains saturday night.  We popped pop corn, had lots of fun.  Well, papa, when are you coming home?

We have not heard from Jessie Emmons since they went home.   They left here friday morning about 6 o’clock in the morning and it was 10 o’clock before they got to go

Tessie Mae closes the January 1899 letter on Page 2.

away.

Well, I guess this is all for this time so good night, answer soon, good by.

Tessie Mae to papa

As I typed up the transcription, I kept the original word choice, but not the misspellings, since they appeared to be more the product of an 11-year-old girl learning her spelling than that of a true guide to her pronunciation.  This isn’t always the case, though, especially with letters written by adults.  It’s interesting to see how much contact Mae had with her family.  She makes mention to Bessie, her older sister, an Aunt Susie, and Jesse Emmons, an uncle, who lived with them at the time of the 1900 census, several months later.  There’s a bit of a rural feel to the letter too, encouraged by the talk of the butchered pig.  There’s also talk of clothing made at home – an apron, by her sister, Bessie.  And, perhaps most interesting, there are hints at the way Mae talked, when she notes “we was up at Kurkehains saturday night.”

Letters, sometimes tucked in with stacks of photographs inherited from older family members, or pressed within the pages of yellowed family bibles, provide valuable insight into the lives of ancestors and help us understand them as whole people, and not just sets of names and dates.  After reading some of our Hamlett family letters, I began to get a sense of what their voices sounded like, the accent they might have spoken with, and what words they used when they spoke.  It’s not as telling as a video or a face-to-face interview, but with the upper branches of a family tree, letters may be one of the best available and sometimes most overlooked resources.

Readers, have you come across some interesting family letters from long ago?  Did they help you learn some interesting facts about your ancestors?