The Phelps-Lyon papers feature all that one would expect of a family correspondence -- birth, death, marriage, sickness, religion, housekeeping, making a living, and socializing. About half of these letters to and from various family members chronicle such matters in homey style, generally without a lot of detail. The other half represent those who left home, and had other tales to tell -- of cholera and yellow fever, the Wisconsin prairie, rough characters in the gold fields, bloody Civil War battles. Their experiences of unfamiliar worlds form a vivid contrast to the daily work and rituals of the family circle.
Four letters from Sarah Phelps Cook to her aunt Adaline Phelps Lyon and her grandmother Margaret Bigelow Phelps, written in 1868-1869, are typical "domestic correspondence." They discuss church and visiting, new babies, dress-making, fourth of July and Christmas, weddings and funerals -- the range of family and community concerns which comprised a woman's world in this era, place and socio-economic setting. Men's home-based letters, such as those of Phineas Lyon, Sr. to son Thomas in 1831 and 1833, are less focused on the social, although they include gossip and news of illness and accident. Of central concern are economic issues such as business conditions, prospects for crops, building of houses, and the like.
Thomas Lyon recorded his impressions of exotic Louisiana in three letters dating from the 1830's. The young man was articulate and insightful, if somewhat misinformed in health matters. In October, 1833 he writes that news of the cholera outbreak is exaggerated. "I have witnessed many cases of cholera and have no doubt that people are more frightened by the suddenness of death and the howling and yelling of those taken than by the number of deaths. ... I have seen enough of the cholera and yellow fever to convince me that neither is infectious." Thomas was not impressed with New Orleans, finding it "a miserable looking place of business all mud and tobacco smoke. The streets full of Negroes and mulattoes, Mexican, Spaniards, and Indians, every man with a segar in his mouth and a bunch of them stuck in his hat band and perhaps his pockets full into the bargain."
Another son of Phineas Sr. and Sarah, Elijah Lyon, wrote four letters from Illinois and Wisconsin in 1837-1838. With the enthusiastic optimism of the newcomer he describes the fine land and abundant crops, plentiful wildlife, ready money and high wages, and healthy climate of these up-and-coming areas. Moreover, the native Indian population is obligingly selling out and moving on. He writes from Green Lake, Wisconsin in November , 1837: "... the fatest [venison] I ever saw is brought almost every day by the Indians and sold very cheap which with their furs make somewhat of a chance of speculation a few families of Winebagoes still take up their residence about here though the greater part of the tribe have gone beyond the Wisconsin river having sold all their lands this side."
Amos B. Phelps corresponded with girlfriend Elizabeth Pacey while prospecting for gold in California from 1851 to 1854. Amos, a level-headed and temperate young man, cast a critical eye on the squalid living conditions and degraded specimens of humanity he found in the gold fields. In these 20 letters he makes up for clumsy grammar and spelling with sharp observation. He writes from Placerville in December, 1851: "There is all kinds of beings here and from all parts of the world. As for calling them men, they are not, only in form and I do think that some of them have not as much intellect as a dumb brute. ... There is thousands of men that would go home if they could raise the money, but when they get a few dollars they go to gambling in hopes of making a pile in a short time. But instead they loos all they have. As for me, I am determined not to go in the way of temptation." The young man's resolve was strengthened by his wish to return home and marry Elizabeth, and their on again-off again courtship takes up much of the correspondence.
The scenery within Amos's view likewise did not impress: "immagine yourself standing on the top of a high mountain in a vast willderness. Then extend your eyes in all directions and you will see vast wilderness covered with lofty pines ... and miners with pick and shovel stragling in every direction to find the precious juel. Then take a peep down into the ravines and you will see men of all descriptions at work diging the ravine still deeper. Then take a look at the sides of the mountains and there you will see caves that men are diging and under mineing them. Then take a look into some valey and you will see a city built of staves. Then take a squint inside and you are satisfide that it is not a [sic] very pleasant to behold. Such is the scenery, Elizabeth, that I am obligd to look upon. But I care not if I am able to get a good pile of gold and return in safety to Michigan." He did return in safety, though without the pile of gold, married Miss Pacey, and settled down to life as a Michigan farmer.
Phelps's nephew Edgar had his adventures in the more dangerous setting of the Civil War battlefield, and described them in three letters to his uncle Amos and eight to his aunt Adaline Phelps Lyon. In November of 1862 he writes of his experiences in the Fredericksburg campaign, cheerfully stating that he doesn't expect much hard fighting before they get to Richmond, "where we will give them hail columbia and make our winter quarters in the city." By December, engaged in battle at Fredericksburg, perhaps he was learning that it would not be so easy: "I can judge we have gained nothing yet but have lost a great number killed and wounded. There was one of the fourth here just now he says that they are very strongly fortified and we can never drive them out unless we charge on them in a mass. You need not worry about us I guess that we will come out all right." He next writes home from Mississippi. Two letters of June and July, 1863 describe the siege of Vicksburg and fighting at Jackson. An October 1863 letter from Knoxville, Tennessee discusses rampant pro-Union sentiment among the civilians, and one written in December of that year describes in detail the fighting at Fort Sanders the previous month. Photocopies of Edgar's service records included with the collection reveal that he did not "come out all right," but died from an infected wound on June 6, 1864.
Two letters from Phineas Lyon, Sr. to son Thomas, and two to Phineas from an old New York State neighbor, Wells Rathburn, are interesting examples of Quaker writing style. Rathburn's July 1, 1851 letter bemoans the dispersal and shrinking of the Quaker community. The collection also includes a printed epistle of the yearly London Friends meeting for 1804; an 1822 yearly meeting document was transferred to the Books Division.
Folder one contains extensive genealogical material on the Lyon and Phelps families which is helpful in identifying the cast of characters and their relationships