The Sarle letters were written by poor, minimally-educated young women and document the hardships and concerns of their lives. Therein lies their value, for society's humbler citizens, particularly females, generally leave little for the historical record. Dorcas and Rhobe did not write detailed, descriptive letters, but they were frank about their problems and their feelings, and the result is a sense of how very difficult life was, and how subject to the uncontrollable forces of weather, war, health, the larger economy, and just plain luck. One readily understands the comfort and appeal of religious faith in the face of such harsh realities. Both women also valued education and saw to it that their children attended school.
The letters in this collection were written from 1807-1826; most between 1810 and 1819. They are addressed to Joseph Sarle but were intended for the entire family and usually include notes to specific family members. Dorcas and Rhobe each wrote nine letters, with other family members often sharing in the writing. There is one letter written solely by Anna Arnold Cole, one by a Thomas Sarle, Jr., who appears to have been a nephew of Joseph Sarle. The handwriting and language of this letter suggest that Thomas may have received a better education than others in the family.
A recurring subject of the correspondence is the possibility of the senior Sarles moving to New York State. All of the writers strongly encourage Joseph Sarle to sell his property in Rhode Island and move the family north, where there is land to be had cheaply. He evidently seriously considered doing so but never made the move. Other than this, topics generally relate to family and farming -- weather, childbirth, health, marital and inter-family relations, crop prospects and prices, religion. Two letters (one each by Dorcas and Rhobe) discuss British military action in the area during the War of 1812. Rhobe writes on February 28, 1813, that "the Brittish come a crost and take our village and Did a Good Deil of Dammage and take about 63 Prisners and how many thay killed I Donot no..." The Knights' horse was stolen, but Mr. Arnold, who was taken prisoner and immediately paroled, had gone to retrieve it or to be paid by the state for it.
Beginning in 1814, when the area was swept by a Methodist-fuelled revival, Dorcas comments on religious matters. Her letter of January 26, 1814 thanks her father "for Learning me to read So that I Can read the scriptures." Rhobe was more skeptical, and warned her parents not to "think [it] Strangs if Dorcas Don't Send you no Letters for tha have so much Churching to Do in that Clas that She cant git time." Her sister's conversion proved genuine, however, for the last letter, written in 1826, shows that her faith was still strong.
The Knights' marital problems are discussed at length by both sisters. In August, 1819 Dorcas wrote to her parents that when George Knight returned home he had "...Laid on the floor with his head on his pack and rhobe did not ofer him t[he] bed and he says rhobe has not slept with him in three years..." Rhobe denies this, and bitterly criticizes her husband for leaving her and the five children "not a mouthful of met nor a morsel of Bread or milk only what we was beholden to Strangers for..." She calls Dorcas "the old Devil" for talking "so mean" to her and making upsetting accusations. [1819 Sept. 26] Their letters also discuss the debt dispute between George Knight and Ichabod Arnold.
The last letter, written by Dorcas in 1826, is an (unintended) epilogue to this collection, and bears the news that George Knight has died, permitting Rhobe to remarry to Parvis Round. She also writes about the Knight and Arnold children and grandchildren, and of her own continuing religious convictions and hopes.