The Brownell Papers consist of letters written to the Brownell family in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Louisiana, New York City, Cuba, and France between 1842 and 1899. The largest part of the collection (296 letters) are letters to Charles Brownell and his wife Henrietta [Nettie] from Charles' mother [Mummy] and his three brothers, Edward [Ned], Henry, and Clarence, often written with notes added and sent on as a "round robin" correspondence which ended with Charles.
The collection contains 105 letters written by Ned, with an additional 11 notes in other family members' letters. They cover the years 1849-1874. His earliest letters start when he is finishing medical school in New Orleans and continue with his move to rural Louisiana, near Alexandria and Plaisance. These are high-spirited letters with humorous pen and ink drawings of his adventures chasing wild horses (January 29, 1855); mishaps while duck and geese hunting at Lake Catahoula (November 12, 1855, November 10, 1856); and futile attempts to flag down a river steamer (January 29, 1855). But his letters also deal with the problems involved in setting up a medical practice at the same time he, a Northerner, is trying his hand at cotton cultivation. He has married a southern woman of French descent whose father is a slave owner (19 slaves in 1850 and 30 in 1860). Ned describes bringing up his bilingual children in a culture very different from his own. The marriage is in trouble, and by 1858, he has sold out his cotton interests and is considering his brother Clarence's offer to take over Clarence's practice in East Hartford, Connecticut. He moves to Cloutierville, Louisiana, for awhile, but by June of 1866, is involved in legal separation hearings and working with his brothers on a testimony about his wife's "violent scenes and words.” Both during his practice in Louisiana and later in Rhode Island, his letters describe his patients and treatments tried (cotton gin accident resulting in amputation of a slave's arm - October 26, 1857, treating yellow fever and typhoid - October 14, 1853 and January 12, 1855). He also suggests treatments for family members with diphtheria (n.d. November 8), excessive menstrual bleeding (December 17, 1866), prolapsed uterus after childbirth (February 8 ), and a prescription for a cholera prevention pill (n.d. September 27). He made a trip to Florida with his dying brother Henry in 1871-1872, in the hopes that the warmer climate might make Henry feel more comfortable.
Only nineteen letters and seven notes are from Clarence Brownell. Seven of these are affectionate letters to his friend Henrietta Angell [Pierce] [Brownell], before and during her first unhappy marriage. The rest of his letters are to his family and include descriptions of his 1861 visit to Ned and family in Cloutierville, his excitement and satisfaction in building a boat in his workshop, and playing chess by mail with brother Charles. The most interesting is a letter describing his travels in Egypt. He went by horseback from Alexandria to Cairo, 130 miles across the Delta. A map he drew while with the Pethernick Expedition on the White Nile was sent home posthumously ([May 12] 1862). On it he notes their location by date and the location of certain flora and fauna.
Seventy-four letters and twenty-nine notes are from Lucia D. Brownell ("Mummy"), most of them dealing with local affairs, real estate arrangements, and concerns for her sons' health. Ten of these letters are notable for their mentions of mediums and the spirit world. After the death of her son Clarence in Egypt, Mummy, Ned, and Henry become interested in reports of mediums and "spiritual pictures.” One item is a copy of a letter that a medium claims was dictated to him by Clarence's ghost [n.d., misc. medium]. Ned describes watching a medium who claimed to see "words in fiery letters in the illuminated smoke of my cigar when I puffed" [13 May]. Mummy makes several visits to a medium (November- December 1862) ending when the medium is proved a fake.
One hundred letters and 30 notes are written by Henry H. Brownell. They mostly come from Hartford, Connecticut, but a few are from Bristol, Rhode Island. He describes visiting Ned and his family in Louisiana in the 1850's, and accompanying Ned on three of his annual duck and geese hunting expeditions to Lake Catahoula. He seems to have acted as agent for the sale of his brother Charles' paintings when Charles was away in Cuba or Europe - "two little Charter Oaks for $20." [n.d. December 26]. Other letters deal with business matters concerning an inheritance from his grandfather De Wolf involving real estate that he and Charles shared, but unequally. These letters contain little mention of Henry's own writing of poetry and the publication of his books.
Another part of the Brownell Papers consists of three batches of letters from abroad - the Procter Wright letters from Europe, the Charles and Nettie Brownell letters from Europe, and the Don Martin Ibarra letters from Cuba and Spain. Procter Wright wrote 25 letters (1876-1884) to Mrs. Charles Brownell (Nettie) from Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. He gives good descriptions of his walking and climbing tours (the height of the peaks, the flora, local people, and history), as well as his visits to various cities with architecture and local customs described. A few letters discuss religion, including matters of purgatory [April 28, 1880] and creation/Darwinisn [August 18, 1883]. Wright also mentions the death of the artist Jean Louis Hamon, and the auction of his things [July 26, 1876, December 28, 1876]. He reminds Henrietta how much he treasures Charles' painting of "Witches' Cork Tree" that the Brownell's had given him some years earlier [April 9, 1883].
The twenty letters written by Charles and Nettie in Europe (1872-1874) to family at home talk of their travels, their children, and anything unusual that catches their eye - "Creche" day care system in France [August 20, 1873] or a trip to the "Crystal Palace" in London [August 29, 1873]. Charles has made small pen and ink drawings on three of the letters - a bird on a branch [July 28 1872], an Egyptian "cartouche" [May 6, 1873], and a dental molar [March 27, 1874]. Three other letterheads have hand tinted designs - an animal head [August 9, 1872], a ship [May 8, 1874], and boys on a ship's mast [May 13, 1874]. Two letterheads have landscape lithographs by Henry Besley - "St. Michael's Mount from Lower Tremenheere" [August 20, 1873] , "Penzance from Guvul" and "St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall" [August 22, 1873].
The Don Martin Ibarra letters (1855-1872) consist of 86 letters written in Spanish to Charles Brownell. They are mainly from Cuba, but the last several are from Barcelona, Spain. They are warm letters to a good friend and "compadre,” but also contain figures on the production of sugar from at least two "ingenios" or sugar mills near the Cardenas area of Cuba.
A small group of 17 letters from the poet Lucy Larcom (1862-1870, n.d.) were written to Henrietta Angell Pierce Brownell [Mrs. Charles Brownell], and cover the years of Larcom's decision to stop teaching school and to concentrate her energy on her own writing. Her September 19, 1868 letter mentions proofreading a volume for publication, "my cricket-chirpings of verse.”
Eight letters from Henrietta S. Dana (1861-1863) in New Haven, Connecticut, to Henrietta A. Pierce [Brownell] mention Mrs. Dana helping her famous Yale professor husband by taking dictation from him for his most recent book, "Manuel of Geology" [April 7, 1862]. Her letters also describe the death of two of their children from diphtheria, and her safely nursing one other child through it [December 21, 1861].
Twenty-five letters from Esther Pierce to her divorced and remarried mother, Henrietta Brownell, were written from 1875-1877, when Esther was 14-16 years old and living with her father, Dr. George Pierce, in Providence. Several years earlier, she had been living with her mother and her step-father, Charles Brownell, and had accompanied them on their trip to Europe. Her nickname was "Kit,” and she is frequently mentioned in her mother's letters. The letters from Esther [Kit] tell of a trip to Canada, local people and visits, and her new clothes, sometimes with accompanying pen and ink drawings. Two letters include swatches of fabric [February 6, 1876 and April 23, 1876].