A Spring Cleaning Idea by P. Davidson-Peters

Spring has finally arrived.  The weather is warming, the birds are nesting, the flowers are blooming, and many have probably begun their Spring cleaning. 

Sometimes that means cleaning out closets and drawers, and happily packing away those heavy winter clothes.  For me, it signaled a time to begin unpacking my office.  After a year of shuffling my office from one room to another as we continue work on our home, I was finally able to unpack about a dozen boxes of books.  Yes, it's progress, but there are still another dozen boxes and six file drawers of research papers I've somehow accumulated over the last twenty years.  It's a tedious process trying to decide what to keep, what to scan, what photos might look nice on the walls, and which might be included in photo journals.

I suspect our ancestors did their Spring cleaning as well - which leaves me wondering what they might have thrown into the “Old & Useless” pile that is now forever lost to us.  Fortunately, many of our ancestors held onto “important” things like photos, letters, insurance policies, and land records. If you were lucky, your family didn't move about too much and were easy to track in the census and town records. But if they moved often, letters addressed to them can provide significant and specific information, even if the contents seem mundane.  By putting these letters in chronological order you can begin to see the migration they made from one home to another. Even if they remained in the same city from one census year to another, an exact address can tell you if they moved from one ward or district to another. 

In 1992 when I first began to sort through the family letters which had escaped the “Spring Cleaning” of generations before, I began to transcribe them on my computer (in the days of DOS) and assigned them a file name which automatically put them in chronological order. Beginning with the year, I then designated a letter for each month of the year, added by the two-digit day. For example, a letter written February 7, 1867 would have been saved as 1867B07, and a letter written April 18, 1895 would have been 1895D18. This method is still in use by me and works extremely well.  Better, in fact, since the operating systems moved from DOS to Windows.  Now file names can consist of more than eight digits which enables me to add extra info to help identify the file either by name, place, recipient or author.  For instance, 1867C03-MO or 1867C03-Mossman would distinguish its point of origin or destination as Missouri and/or written or received from a Mossman ancestor. 

Using letters written to and from my 4th great grandmother, Eleanor (Mossman) Ballard, I was able to track her as far back as 1827 when she and her husband had received a letter from her brother George and wife.  This was addressed from Grayson Co., Virginia to "Mr. Anthony Ballard, State of Illinois, Sangamon Post Office."  In October of 1830, she was still married and residing in Springfield when she received a letter from her sister Mina McMillen which mentioned “Father's Death,” and relief that “my Nease and her Dear little Infant” were spared.  The following year another letter from Mina and John McMillen was addressed to Anthony Ballard, State of Illinois, Sangamon County, Springfield from Austinville, VA and mentioned the birth of Mina's daughter, “Marthy Jane” and that she now had six daughters, including one set of twins.

From these two letters I could easily determine that Eleanor was still in Springfield, Illinois.  I located her in the 1830 household of her husband, but in the 1840 census she, and not her husband, is listed as head of household with two young children.  Though it was not discussed in any of these letters, Eleanor and her husband had parted.  Their youngest son Mossman remained in Springfield with his mother and he and his family were enumerated on the following line.  

Eleanor's 1865 letter to granddaughter Clarissa
Despite all the leads, I have not yet located Eleanor in the 1850 census records though it seems likely she would have been living with a family member.  Her ex-husband, Christopher Anthony Ballard, had moved more than a thousand miles away and was living with his second wife Louisa and young son in Goliad, Texas.  Exactly where Eleanor was during that time has not been learned, but in 1859 she received a letter addressed to her in Canton, Missouri from her son Mossman Ballard who was then living in Volcano, California.  This letter led me to locate her in the 1860 census, and in March of 1865 she had written a letter from Canton to her granddaughter Clarissa who was then residing in St. Louis.  Post-war conditions in Missouri were somewhat dangerous, but as noted in the letter, Eleanor felt it safe enough for them to travel and expressed how she wished they could come see her, that her daughter Margaret Meredith was coming and that "We will mete you at the boat, theare will be no danger."

Because it was customary when writing letters to include the date and place before the salutation, these addresses can be quite valuable to historians and genealogists.  Putting letters in chronological order not only  locates the recipient from decade to decade, but the author of the letter as well.  The contents themselves, though seemingly unimportant, often mention births, deaths, marriages, and sickness among family and friends which can then be verified in other records.

With the advances of technology and the popularity of electronic mail, the art of letter writing has become a lost art, and so I encourage those who have letters to hold onto them.  Put them in chronological order.  Store them in an acid free storage box, or include them in your photo journals for the generations to come.  Your descendants will be thanking you a hundred years later.

Had these letters not been spared and treasured by Eleanor's descendants, I would have never known the smaller details of her life. Tucked inside the letters I also found her obituary, clipped from a newspaper.  Though brief in its summary of her life, particulars such as her place of birth having been Berwick Upon-Tweed, England, and her arrival in America at age four, corroborated the information contained in the letters.  At the time of her death on 08 Feb 1875, Eleanor had made her home with her daughter, Caroline Pilcher, where she had been living and had been enumerated in the 1870 census.  Eleanor, daughter of Archibald and Margaret (Young), died at the age of eighty-four years, two months, and nine days.  Her husband, who was mentioned in the obituary as "having gone to Texas on business where he died" preceded her in death by more than a dozen years.

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