Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Letters from Illinois to England 1850

More than a quarter of the current 64-page Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly is given over to letters describing northern Illinois as of 160 years ago. "The Letters of John Wightwick of Tenterden, Kent, England and St. Charles, Kane County, Illinois," was contributed by descendant Lillian S. DeHart of New York.

Part of the family emigrated in 1850; the eight letters were mostly written in that year but extend up to 1853 when some of the family were in Chicago. The writers exchanged family information, Methodist exhortations, descriptions of American life, and pleas for loans so that they could not only purchase land but get a house and fence on it. The Americans, John commented 10 August 1850,

generally have three meals a day, animal food at every meal. They seldom have anything cold, Their stoves are exceedingly hand and convenient. Can bake bread or cakes in a very short time, fit for the table in an hour for instance. As the farmers keep cows and poultry there are many eggs, custard pudding, cream etc. etc., ice cream etc. . . . As this part of Illinois is an infant state there is not much fruit at present. The trees are all young, . . . They do not farm very well. They do not plough their ground very well, plough only about 3 or 4 inches in general and harrow very little so their land is very rough . . . they will find they must manage their land instead of throwing it away instead.
Clearly just transcribing the letters was a labor of love, as they were written cross-hatch style first across the paper and then up and down over the previous writing. Annotations are sparse.

The whole business of publishing old letters tends to be a bit random, and this reader would have appreciated more annotations as to who was speaking to whom in the family, and any other Illinois and England context that was known. But as I know from working in this genre, that is a pit as bottomless as genealogy itself!

Those of us with less articulate English ancestors in the Midwest at this date will greatly appreciate this glimpse of how the Wightwicks saw their new home. Join ISGS and get your copy of the whole thing!

Lillian S. DeHart, comp., "The Letters of John Wightwick of Tenterden, Kent, England and St. Charles, Kane County, Illinois," Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 13-30, 48.

Harold Henderson, “Letters from Illinois to England 1850,” Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 April 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific article if you mention this post online.]

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