Why Your Mother Was Right

Remember when she made you write letters, especially to thank people for all those gifts and to learn social graces? 

Evidently officials in Early State Records had the same lessons. 

Before scanning, copying or even carbon paper in typewriters, there were letterbooks.   A letterbook was typically kept by officials to house correspondence and generally included both copies of the official’s letters as well as the responses.  Often this book contained the day-to-day information of governing, with a wealth of information about the personality and style of the owner. 

One of the first letterbooks in the Early State Record collection was found in LLMC #20664, the 1646-1664 correspondence of the New Netherland Directors and Council, which was written in Dutch.  Although a challenge for English-speaking researchers, a thorough table of contents in English explained the content of these documents.  For example, on August 3, 1646, William Bradford, governor of New Plymouth, sent a congratulatory letter to Director Peter Stuyvesant on his arrival as director.  Later, on June 25, 1647, Director Stuyvesant contacted Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, with a claim for the land between the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers.  He then proposed that the dispute be resolved by neutral parties.    In response, on August 17, 1647, Governor Winthrop apologized for his late response due to illness, and indicated that he had placed Stuyvesant’s letter before the commissioners of the United Colony.  (LLMC # 20664). 

Contemporaneous assessments of historical events can also be found in these letterbooks.  In LLMC #39014 (1771, p. 288-289), North Carolina Governor William Tyron informed the Earl of Hillsborough on May 18, 1771 that his Majesty’s army defeated the citizen uprising against excessive taxes and for local control, known as the War of the Regulators.  Tryon then described the action, which began “before twelve o’clock on Thursday the 16th instant five miles to the westward of Great Alamance River, on the road leading from Hillsborough to Salisbury.” With the action lasting two hours, the governor reported sixty soldiers died, only one of which was an officer.  He also indicated his hope that the loyal subjects would be duly favored by England for their support.   

In a subsequent August 1, 1771 letter sent to the Earl of Hillsborough from New York, Tryon expanded on the details of the battle of Alamance and aftermath.  He concluded that following the army’s success, the former rebellious inhabitants “chearfully pay their taxes,” as they are “much happier by loosing the victory.”  Of course, by this time, Tyron had moved from North Carolina to assume his new role as Governor of New York.[1]

Correspondence in governor’s letterbooks can also provide a temperature of the times, as found in LLMC #35733, in the volume beginning 1857.   In correspondence February 13 and 15, 1860 between the House of Delegates and then Maryland Governor Thomas Holiday Hicks, a committee appointed by the House inquired if Hicks “privately or officially” congratulated Representative William Pennington of New Jersey following a long and divided election as Speaker of the House.   If official, the House viewed his action as placing Maryland, a pro-slavery state, in a “false position.”  In response, Governor Hicks admonished the House and refused to provide an answer as contrary to the respect each branch of government deserved.  

While politically Hicks was pro-slavery, he was also against secession; a subsequent correspondence during April and May 1861 provided information of both the turmoil in Maryland at the start of the Civil War and citizens’ reaction to the policies and events of those times.  In letters dated May 8th (LLMC #35733. 1857, pp. 215-216), he denied a prior account that he, the Mayor of Baltimore, and Marshal of the Police of Baltimore agreed to destroy bridges so federal troops could not enter the city[2]  to both the editors of The American, and the members of the Senate.  However, he then followed this denial with a letter to President Lincoln to complain about the federal troops who seized canal boats destined for Georgetown and Washington during their march on Harper’s Ferry.  Nevertheless, he also advised the president about an illegal seizure of the United States Custom House in Oxford, Talbot County by a county resident and the Hick’s subsequent instruction to the State Attorney to take appropriate action (p. 216).  From these letters, a researcher can find evidence of both Governor Hicks’s objections to the war, yet support of the Union. 

Apart from official business of the government, some letterbooks reveal more personal information.  William Penn’s private letterbook from 1667-1675 (LLMC #35636) primarily concerned the philosophy of the Society of Friends.   Again, researchers are assisted by explanatory notes prefixed to the manuscript, as well as an index of the various letters.  In his official capacity (LLMC #35637, covering the period of 1681-1701), he issued instructions and sent letters to various officials, including Lord Baltimore regarding a boundary dispute with the Maryland Colony.   All of these letters give researchers a better understanding of the man and his abilities to oversee his proprietorship in Pennsylvania.  (See also, LLMC #35638, which covered the Penn family generally, and comingled both private and public correspondence from 1729 to 1775; and LLMC #35462, which covered official correspondence of the Penn family from 1683-1817). 

Ultimately, whether these letterbooks contained the exciting or mundane, researchers using the Early State Records collection can find more information about events and the leaders of those times. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

And to all those mothers, happy Mother’s Day - keep on teaching those important lessons to the next generation of researchers! 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 


[1] Of course, as LLMC #20891 demonstrated, his victory in North Carolina paled following his December 6, 1775 address from the Duchess of Gordon in the New York, which expressed his anxiety over the calamities of the country.  While he remained in the colonies as a governor and then major general until 1780, this time he supported the losing side. 

[2] A strongly pro-slavery city which favored the South.