Letters from Forgotten Ancestors

This, That
and t’Other

Mission Statement

Rather than being satisfied with just tombstone dates and old empty court minutes, we hope to demonstrate the humanity of our pioneer ancestors, and in their own words. The personal letters of those pioneers truly speak to us. Yes, we will find some of these letters to be frustrating, for it will be like trying to read a page torn from a book ~ no beginning, no end. Yet, the letters are vignettes into the past. Through these little windows in time, we hope to show you that those folks were more that a date on a rock.
This project started with Tennessee letters but quickly grew to Southern U.S. letters. It could well have been called “Of Life and Times in the Old South.” Later, the letters from America Writes Home were added here, so now this project covers all states.
Certainly, some inspiration for this project comes from Dr. Wayne C. Moore’s outstanding book, Looking Back At Tennessee, A Photographic Retrospective. While Dr Moore’s book will show you photographs of the old Tennesseans, this project will allow the old Tennesseans, southern pioneers, and other Americans speak to you.

Contributions to this Project

Our source letters will be obtained from private collections held by postal historians, public archives, and private family holdings. Contributions are solicited and are welcome. Please contact the host if you have a pre-1923 letter that might be appropriate here. Postal historians are urged to share their holdings with us. While we do not need to use your original letters, we will need good quality photocopies, and your transcription is welcome.

Criteria for submitting a letter:

1. The letter must be dated pre-1923. Sorry, but there must be a cut-off time.

2. You must own the original letter, or have permission from the owner to publish the letter. You must document (cite) your source.

3. You must submit complete photocopies to me of all sides of the original letter, including postal markings. Please specify the color of any handstamp postal marking.

4. You must transcribe the letter. Please *paste* the transcription directly into your e-mail. Please do not attach files to your e-mail. If we can use your letter, you may be asked to submit a photocopy. Your transcription may be corrected. Your transcription will bear your copyright.

5. All “HTML” coding will be done by me and other “Volunteers.” Please do not submit coded pages.

6. You may submit notes on the letter, however, we are not going to publish pages of personal family history here, just to support one letter. Keep the notes short. Your notes may be edited.

7. Letters from public archives may be contributed, however, photocopies and documentation must be submitted.

8. Professional Archivists, County Historians, Postal Historians, Professional Genealogists, etc., should specify their status.

9. Submit to: Fred Smoot

Subject matter may include: pioneer times (1700’s), family life, a salesman’s view as he covers his territory, fair treatment of slaves, mistreatment of slaves, abolitionist topics, etc., First People topics (American Indians), Evangelism, land speculation, schools, students, lawsuits, military life, and more.
Death of children or parents, disease (Cholera, Yellow Fever, etc.) murder, lynching, slavery, Trail of Tears issues, are all subjects for publication here. Love letters and wedding letters may be used. What will not be used are letters such as bank receipts, accounting lists, simple orders for goods, etc.

Transcription Criteria

When we transcribe the letters, we will tell it like it is. A serious effort will be made to maintain accuracy in original spelling. Words like Negro will be used because it (and black) were used in those old letters. African American does not seem to be used back then, so I expect you will not see it in our letters. African, however was occasionally used so it will in time appear. I will not edit-out parts of letters, but if there is some compelling reason that something should be edited because of your family considerations, contact me. As a genealogist, my two considerations are truth and proof.

Talkin’ “ Southern”

You will see in some of the letters that the authors wrote as they talked. The older speech habits of the south reflect the language heritage of the Scotch- Irish, older English, and a little German thrown in for good measure. Because of the agrarian nature of the old south, and with a slower pace than the industrial north, many older speech patterns and words just did not change.
There is an excellent paper on old southern words that are still in use. Please visit Judy Henley Phillips’ Franklin Co. TN “ Dictionary of Mountain Talk”.
Then there is the Dictionary of American Regional English that might help define an old word (information on those books below).

A Few Good Books on Pertinent Subjects

American Stampless Cover Catalog, Volume I., 5th Edition, 1997. ISBN: 1-877998-10-9. David G. Phillips Publishing Co. North Miami FL. This what every collector should know of early US postal markings, from a time before we had no postage stamps. Leonard Hartmann at the Philatelic Biblipole should stock this book.

Dictionary of American Regional English. Frederic G. Cassidy, Chief Editor. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Here we can find archaic words that are in old letters, land records, etc., but out of use today. Unfortunately, only the first 3 Volumes have been printed, up through letter “N”. These books are available at good libraries. Volume III is currently in print. Volume IV should be published about the year 2002.

Free at Last. Ira Berlin, et al, Editors. New Press. ISBN 1-56584-015-1. This book is an anthology of letters on slavery, freedom and the Civil War.

Looking Back At Tennessee, A Photographic Retrospective. Wayne C. Moore with Mark Herbison. Hillsboro Press, Franklin TN. ISBN: 1-57736-014-1. Byron Sistler may stock this book.

News from the Land of Freedom. Walter D. Kamphoefner, et al, Editors. Cornell University Press. ISBN:0-8014-2523-9. This book is an anthology of old letters written by German emigrants to the United States. This book is not about Tennessee, but rather the American experience.

Tennessee Postoffices and Postmaster Appointments, 1789-1984. D. R. Frazier. Statistical information on Tennessee’s postoffice. This book is very hard to find, it is possible that George E. Webb at Tennessee Books and Autographs, and Leonard Hartmann at Philatelic Biblipole are the only booksellers with any in stock.

Bookmongers & History Hawkers

George E. Webb, Jr. Mr. Webb is the Secretary ~ Treasurer of the Tennessee Postal History Society and owner of Tennessee Books and Autographs in Rogersville, Hawkins County TN. He offers a wide assortment of Tennesseana, including old letters. He is a very knowledgeable Postal Historian in addition to his other accomplishments. This link is for his e-mail.
Byron Sistler and Associates The Sistler family are Nashville, TN booksellers, specializing in current books on Genealogy.
Leonard Hartmann, Philatelic Biblipole Mr Hartmann is a Louisville, KY bookseller, specializing in Postal History. A few minutes browsing through his Web Page will demonstrate much about Postal History.

A Little Glossary of Postal Terms

Cover: An envelope or wrapper. A cover went around the letter.
Docket: Notes placed on a cover or letter usually by the postmaster, or addressee often for filing purposes.
Manuscript: Hand written.
Rate: The cost of mailing the letter. Rate information is useful to collectors, as the rates did change and if an undated cover showed the rate, the collector could place the time span of the cover. This is a specialized but well documented field. See rates.
Stampless: With out stamps. Prior to 1847, the US had no adhesive postage stamps.

The Covers

Whenever a letter comes to us with postal markings, those markings will be recorded with the transcription. Unfortunately, through the years, many letters have been separated from their covers. The United States Post Office issued its first postage stamp in 1847. Incidentally, the US Postmaster General in 1847 was Cave Johnson, a Tennessean. Prior to that time all U. S. letters were sent with “stampless covers.” Stampless covers were still in use long after 1847, especially by rural post offices. Also, those rural post offices often lacked a handstamp devise, so they would simply mark the town name in the postmaster’s hand, or as postal historians call it, a “manuscript” postmark.
Covers are important to genealogists because they can give more proof to an enclosed letter. If a letter has no cover and says only “Dear Brother . . .”, then we have a problem; but if there is a cover, it may identify the brother.

Buying, Selling, and the Value of Letters

We are not soliciting to purchase your old family letters. While I do collect postal history items, this is an improper place for me even discuss the subject.
The TNGenWeb does not allow any direct commercialism. If you are interested in selling old letters and other family “paper” antiquities, contact a professional like George E. Webb Jr. I have found Mr Webb to be honorable.
Please remember that all dealers buy at a wholesale level. If you want to sell things at a dealers price, then you must become a dealer.
Generally speaking, antique shops are not highly knowledgeable about postal history. Seek out professional opinions and more than one opinion is recommended.
The value of any item is determined by demand. In other words; the price that you can obtain. In the field of postal history there are many considerations that drive up the price. Here are the main culprits for keeping the price high: stamp collectors, postal history collectors, letter and manuscript collectors, and autograph collectors. If we could find one, a Tennessee territorial (Territory South of the River Ohio, 1790-1796) stampless cover with the original letter and a good autograph would bring maybe a four figure price, while a nondescript later stampless cover with a unimportant letter could go for as little a $5.00.

The Care of an Old Letter.

Keep all letters, etc, out of direct sunlight.
Make a color copy if you want to display a letter.
Keep ‘em dry.
Keep ‘em away from insects, other vermin and pets.
Store in archival material. Get profession advise on archival material.
Store in a secure place.

Repair the letters. Really superior items can be professionally repaired.
Use cellophane tape. Over the years, this stuff will leave a nasty stain.
Remove stamps from the cover. This will reduce the value of the cover considerably
And, by the way, don’t polish old coins!

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This page last updated on Thursday, August 13, 2015