Thursday, August 23, 2012

Yorkshire to New York to Michigan in Letters

Ronald Hill draws on an amazing collection of letters and other saved family documents in following James Snowden (1805-1869) across the Atlantic to New York and the Erie Canal in 1833 and on to Kent County, Michigan, in 1843, all in the lead article of the current New York Genealogical and Biographical Record.

Publishing annotated letters is a sub-genre of genealogy writing that doesn't seem to get much attention, but it presents an ongoing tension between the imperatives of understanding and readability. The author needs to explain to today's readers the many items, now mysterious, that were familiar to the original correspondents. Full explanation of everything would clog up the story; none at all would leave the letters barely comprehensible. Hill follows a middle path.

There is no outstanding genealogical problem here, just a great deal of life as lived 175 years ago, give or take. A cousin and friends left New York for Pittsburgh in 1837; one friend had a certificate that no bank would cash due to the ongoing financial panic. There is much description of masonry jobs or the lack thereof; a page-long account of the death of James's wife's sister; a family tiff over money; and a lament that needs no explanation at all: in 1842 James wrote to his wife of a rental property, "It would all moast be as well to set it on fier when we have got the things out as to pretend to rent it."

Eventually James gave up stonecutting and became a farmer in Michigan, accumulating a compact 280 acres in Alpine Township, Kent County. Family papers include four years of Snowden's farm accounts  -- showing, as Hill explains, that Snowden was able to do much better as a farmer. Another installment is promised.

Ronald Hill, "James Snowden, Stonecutter on the Erie Canal: Part 1 -- The Snowden Letters," New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, vol. 143, no. 2 (July 2012): 165-85.

Harold Henderson, "Yorkshire to New York to Michigan in Letters," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 23 August 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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