The James Sterling letter book contains 164 pages and 175 letters in all, spanning July 1761 to October 1765. Sterling wrote all the letters while at Fort Detroit, and they deal mainly with business and occasional local political matters. His letters provide a picture of the fur trade and the consumer needs of Indians, French civilians, and the British military, as well as the day-to-day concerns of a prominent trader at Fort Detroit.
The volume opens with a 6-page record of a council held "at the Wiandot Town near Detroit" by the deputies of the Six Nations (Iroquois) in order to convince members of the Ottawa, Wyandotte, Ojibwa (Chippewa), and Potawatomi tribes to ally themselves with the French. Sterling acted as interpreter during the meeting, and kept its minutes. The document records the Iroquois' grievances with the British, whom they accused of having "Disrespect" for them and their lands, adding "their Behaviour towards us gives us the greatest Reason to believe that they intend to Cutt us off intirely." The Iroquois urged the more western tribes to take quick action against the British and stated that "our Warriors are already prepared." The document contains long quotes from several speakers, including an Iroquois deputy and a "Captain Campbell," likely Donald Campbell, who expressed astonishment at the belligerent attitude of the Iroquois toward the British. The following day, the western tribes reported the meeting to the British, maintaining their loyalty.
Sterling's outgoing letters commence on July 20, 1761. He mainly wrote them to trading partners and clients, discussing details of shipments, prices (generally calculated in beaver pelts), and the availability of goods. On page 11 of the book, in a letter to Captain Walter Rutherford [August 27, 1761?], Sterling listed numerous items for sale along with their prices in pelts. These include shrouds, blankets, shirts, buckskins, wampum, brass kettles, gun powder, knives, bed lace, and thread. Letters also shed light on the destinations and methods of the transportation of goods. In the first years of the correspondence, goods were shipped by fleets of bateaux, sometimes belonging to the military. Later, several schooners and sloops plied Lakes Erie and Huron, and went as far north as St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste-Marie. All goods had to be portaged at Niagara ("The Carrying Place"), while those to and from Albany were similarly reloaded at Oswego on Lake Ontario.
Sterling sometimes encountered problems with other traders and colleagues, including unscrupulousness, drunkenness, and offensive treatment of Native Americans, which alienated them as trading partners. He criticized John Collbeck, the commissary at Fort Niagara, for allowing his staff and servants to drink without restraint and for keeping a "seraglio of Indians Squahs in the same condition" of intoxication (January 10, 1762). On May 31, 1762, he complained to his partner, James Syme, that goods had arrived from New York "wet, dirty, and broken." Other hazards included storms and theft, which Sterling noted on several occasions.
A few letters detail the events of Pontiac's War as well as its effect on trade. On July 25, 1763, Sterling noted the capture of Fort Venango in Pennsylvania and the continuation of the siege at Fort Detroit, and hoped for relief from the army. On August 7, 1763, he described the Battle of Bloody Run as "the damn'd Drubbing the Savage Bougres gave us" and lamented the death of an aide-de-camp, "Capt. Delyelle." In other letters, he reported that trade with Native Americans had been prohibited by British officials (August 7, 1763), and gave an account of an attack on the schooner Huron by 340 Native Americans, resulting in the death of its commander, Captain Walter Horsey (September 8, 1763). The volume contains a gap in the correspondence between October 1763 and September 1764.
The volume also contains occasional references to Sterling's personal life. In a letter of February 26, 1765, Sterling informed his associate, John Duncan, that he had married Angélique Cuillerier, "the best interpreter of Indian languages in Detroit;" her dowry of 1,000 pounds included houses in Fort Detroit. Sterling also frequently referenced his brother, John Sterling, who was stationed at Niagara. James did not feel that John was capable of running the operation there, but called him dependable.