Most of the letters (1-25) were written by John Boynton; 23 to his father Isaac, one each to brother-in-law Herman Huntington and sister Hannah. They cover his career as a student and teacher in various locales. The letters reveal Boynton to have been a perceptive, thoughtful young man with strong religious and temperance views and a New Englander's dislike of slavery. His rather strait-laced temperament was relieved by a light-hearted sense of humor and a love of boyish pursuits --hunting, fishing, playing ball. He was warmly appreciative of home and family, and one of his letters (14) muses on the imagined family scene he is missing, speculating on the activities and thoughts of each family member.
Boynton's letters from Mississippi (19-25) are the highlight of the collection. In them he expresses his disapproval of slavery and of southern culture in general (particularly its loose religious ways), while admitting a fondness for the weather, the hunting, the landscape, and the unaffected friendliness of southerners. It is interesting to note that, for one who voices such distaste of slavery, Boynton is clearly racially prejudiced, and does not seem to object to having a servant assigned to him. On a stop-over at a Maryland tobacco plantation, having arrived at night, he records his reactions of the next morning: "Creation. Niggers as thick as toads after a shower. ... Negroes among [the tobacco fields] in every direction. It reminded me, as I looked out upon his fields, of what I have witnessed at home -- a platter of baked beans with a large quantity of black ones among them. No reflections on baked beans by the way."
In Mississippi, he describes the scene from his bedroom window: "There are ten Negroes to every one white person. The labor here is done altogether by slaves. ... about 90 Negroes in the field picking cotton. About an equal number of men & women, some children. You would also see a white man with a whip in his hand following in the rear." Noting the comfort of his situation, he writes that "A Negro boy about 15 years old is at my command any moment. He comes into my room every night about 9 o'clock with his blanket, blacks my boots & shoes, sleeps on the floor in my room, builds me a fire, if I need one in the morning before I am up; brings a pitcher of fresh water, etc. While I am at breakfast he makes my bed, sweeps my room & puts all things in order." Still, Boynton expresses a repugnance of slavery, and looks forward to the day when " I may inhale the pure air of Freedom!" He tires of the constant talk of "land and Negroes," the mania for profit, the violence and lawlessness, and the disregard for religion and the Sabbath. "The sabbath in Mississippi is hell in minerature [sic]. All sorts of games from the horserace & cock-fight down to playing of marbles is engaged in upon Sunday." While he enjoyed his sojourn and much appreciated the high salaries paid to teachers, Boynton never intended to settle in the south. Sadly, he lived only a short while after returning to home and family.
The Boynton papers document the lives of other family members in far less detail. They are mentioned or addressed in John's letters, and are writers and recipients of the twelve letters in the collection which post-date his death. John addressed most letters to father Isaac, a brick-maker, but often inquired after or included messages for his mother, Sibyl; brothers David, Henry, and Royal; and sisters Hannah, Harriet, and Sibyl. A daughter of Hannah Boynton Haynes, Elmira Spaulding, is also represented in the collection.
The rest of the letters (26-38) are to and from other members of the Boynton family and relate largely to family matters, brother Henry's school teaching career, and religion. One poignant letter (30) records the grief of a mother at the death of her baby daughter, as she consoles herself with the thought of her child in heaven. An undated letter from Elmira Spaulding to her mother Hannah Boynton Haynes (36) discusses her life as a millworker in Leominster, Mass.