This collection consists of the correspondence of the Reed and Blackmer families spanning a period from the mid-19th century to shortly after World War I. The greatest strengths of this collection are the early letters pertaining to education in New York State, and the letters written from family members in the west to their New York State relations. Letters from Michigan in the 1850s, Kansas and Indian Territory in the 1880s and 90s, and the smattering from Illinois and Wisconsin, all give expression to the emigrants' specific experiences.
Many of the early letters are from students and young teachers in New York State, where there were many pockets of culture and education. Lucinda Green, a student at the academy in East Bloomfield, was taking intellectual philosophy in 1849. One of the lectures she described was delivered by photographer John Moran, who "exhibited some pictures with the magic lanterns some of which were very comical" (1850 January 26). Another correspondent, James Bigelow, detailed his professors, particularly the female ones, and activities at Alfred University in Allegany County. James Cole, a medical student, taught school in Ontario County, and Scott Hicks was a student at the Buffalo Medical College. Lizzie, Martha, and Marshall Reed attended the seminary and academy in Canandaigua, and Lizzie described such highlights as the infant drummer's concert: "he drummed beautifully, he was only three years old," and hearing a Jew preach: "His dialect was so different from ours that I could scarcely understand a word he said" (1851 [November] 7, 1852 November 21). Harriet Pennell's cousin Paul taught in Naples, and Harriet herself probably attended the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, Livingston County.
Of all the letters from the west, the handful from Lynus Tyler to Dudley Reed are the most entertaining. Tyler was an enthusiastic, but less-than-eloquent correspondent from rural Macomb County, where he had a 200 acre farm. He tried to entice Reed to migrate with descriptions of the abundance of women and deer: "Mary Bennet is not married yet but she wants to bea dud come and get her for you cannot doo enny better her post adress is Romeo Macomb Co. Mich" (1851 June 22). He assured Dud he would "keep the girls from a hurting you" when he came out (1851 February 9). After Dudley married "Miss Anna," Tyler, who now had an 80 acre farm in Barry County, toned down his enthusiasms for the local women, but still tried to get his friend to come farm in Michigan by praising the land as well as the game (1852 August 1).
The other Michigan correspondents also urged their relations to join them, and discussed farming, hunting, and family news in great detail. During their early years in Michigan, enthusiasm for their adopted home flowed through every line, but this waned somewhat after 1857, when a barn burned, a child died, and crops failed. Samuel even spent some time in the Jackson jail in the 1870s.
Frank Blackmer's letters written while he worked as a sheep drover in 1880 are unfortunately brief, but his brother John's fairly regular letters over a twelve-year span provide an excellent portrait of a man permanently poised between home and the great unknown. For over a decade, he worked in Kansas and the Indian Territory, never making quite enough money, and never making up his mind whether to head further west, as he dearly wanted to, or to head home to New York, which was also a powerful draw. He wrote repeatedly that he had been "a blamed fool for staying around these parts for the last two years when I might have seen a good deal of country last spring I started out & went several counties west when I might have gone to California just as well..." (1886 November 7). Even as he complained about the hardships of his peripatetic, single life, and berated himself for not moving, he continued to linger in that part of the world.
The letters written back home by New Yorkers visiting western relations are as important as those written by the transplants themselves. In the mid-1880s, Bess Blackmer spent her school holidays visiting her Michigan relatives -- Pennells, Wilmarths, and Clarks -- in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. By writing to her mother about her trip, she reacquainted her with people whose images had undoubtedly dimmed over the years. In 1891, Harriet took her own first trip west, stopping in Kansas, Illinois, and Michigan to spend time with family she had not seen in decades. She might have thought this first trip would also be her last, but her daughter Hattie was stricken with typhoid in Grand Rapids two years later, and her mother again traveled west, to nurse her and escort her home. These visits reaffirmed the bonds between long distance kin that otherwise might have withered, as letters full of local news grew less and less relevant to those far away.
One of the many fascinating single letters in this collection was written by Orren Short, from Michigan. In the 1850s, there was a fairly commonly held view that handwriting analysis was a means of diagnosing health complaints. After receiving -- and analyzing -- a letter from his sister Anna, Orren wrote to her husband Dudley Reed, and effectively requested that they stop having sex.
Reverting to his true calling, farmer Orren went on to discuss his wheat crop.
I also should judge by her writing that she is very poor. that there is difficulty by irregularity of the female organs. Great care should be taken to avoid overworking, or to great an excess of any indulgence that might irritate the female private organs. But few females ever recover wholly after becoming irregular in their monthly purgations, or by to great a flow, without abstaining wholly from sexual intercourse with their husbands for a length of time. Perhaps my views are not right in regard to Anna's case, if not please pardon me. If correct, please give it a trial (1856 September 7).
Other caches of correspondence include the letters Bess wrote home to her mother from Ohio-Wesleyan (1884-1886), detailing her classes, activities, and clothing needs; Lizzie Reed's sporadic letters to her brother Dudley, exhorting him to strop drinking and save his soul; and the 20th century material. This last portion of the collection consists of letters written to (the somehow related) Newton C. Rogers (A.E.F. Air Corps, France) from family members in New York and air corps friends in France. In patriotic and optimistic tones, these letters discuss news of friends and family "over here" and a bit of bravado and news of the fates of comrades from elsewhere "over there."