By Elaine and Carl Seliskar
During a time when paper was scarce, travel was infrequent, and there was as yet no established postal service, people still kept in touch by writing letters. Those who moved away as well as those who stayed behind didn’t let long distances keep them apart. Sending letters during the early 1800s was very slow and unreliable and letters were few and far between.
The first settlers arrived here from Northampton, Massachusetts in 1808 and once they left their home in New England there was no ready means for communication with those left behind. Family and friends back home had no idea whether those early settlers survived the long overland journey safely, if they had trouble along the way, if there were any injuries or illnesses, or if they finally reached their chosen homestead. All they could do was wait to hear some news.
The only means of communication was, by necessity, done by writing letters. Early means of exchanging handwritten letters was done by people who were travelling back and forth. As new settlers began to arrive they brought with them letters from family members in New England or if someone returned, they took letters back with them. This travel back and forth, slow as it was, provided the only opportunity for family members to communicate with each other.
A handwritten letter from loved ones was a welcome relief, especially since in the very early years it would have taken many weeks or even months for it to travel one way.
The letter shown here clearly demonstrates how thrifty people needed to be when writing a letter. This particular letter was large and folded into many smaller sections before it was sent. Paper was scarce and considered a luxury in many instances, and people tended to use whatever paper they could acquire. Most letters were written on small, single pieces of paper and every bit of space was used.
When the bottom of the page was reached they continued writing around the edges – no space was left blank. Sometimes one piece of paper would contain greetings written by more than one family member.
In planning how the letter would be written it was done so that a portion of the paper was left blank. Then the finished letter would be folded multiple times so that the blank portions would be on the front and back sides, serving as the envelope.
Envelopes from that time period were tiny by our standards, with most of them being approximately 2 ½ x 5 inches in size. A single sheet letter was folded many times enabling it to fit into the tiny envelope.
The well-worn envelope shown here is dated December 20, 1825. There were no postage stamps and not much of a local address was needed in a small town such as Huntsburg. Letters sent in these small envelopes tell us that everyone knew everyone else and there was no need to add any other information except the name of the town and sometimes the county or state. It was fairly certain the recipient would receive their mail as soon as it was convenient to deliver it to their homestead.
Letters contained many requests pleading for someone to come visit for a few weeks or months. Those who had moved away missed their family and friends. They were busy with their new lives but lonely and so badly wanted news from home.
Letters always described the state of everyone’s health and it was not uncommon for the person writing the letter to describe in great detail someone’s current ailment. The death of a family member was also reported in great detail. In most instances, people died of illnesses that seemed either relatively simple or mysterious at best. The anguish and despair of those who lived during this time is very sobering and sad as is evidenced in their letters.
Some letters contained stories about the shortage of money and they appeared to have loaned funds to each other quite regularly. Land was cheap by our standards, but a bad year’s crop could be devastating if it was the sole source of income for a family.
With the absence of modern communication devices, people could only rely on writing letters or waiting until they next saw someone in person, perhaps at church or at other local events. Communicating with friends or family who lived only a short distance away was done primarily by letter-writing.
The little pioneer town of Huntsburg became a close-knit community of settlers who left their homes, families and friends in New England beginning in 1808 but they never gave up on communicating with those they left behind. Parents missed their sons, daughters and grandchildren who had moved west to start a new life, while those who moved away were missing those left behind.People were always desperate for news and enthusiastically wrote letters back and forth. With the slowness of travel across great distances many weeks and months went by with no news, and when a letter did arrive it was read over and over many times and shared with everyone. In many cases, a letter to one person or family contained news and messages to others who had come from the same area.
Our ancestors highly valued the written word, whether it was in much loved books or handwritten letters from family and friends. We have them to thank for allowing us to see into their world through the many letters they lovingly saved for future generations.