The 74 letters and 2 documents of the John W. Clark papers offer a dynamic illustration of early 19th-century frontier life in western New York. The early years of the collection, beginning in 1822 and ending in 1824, consist of 43 letters to and from Dr. Bryant Burwell, a physician and Clark's brother-in-law, and 2 letters to Dr. Clark's sister Ann Burwell (1823 December 15, 1824 February 18). The 30 letters to Dr. Burwell and the 2 letters to Ann convey Clark's emphatic faith in the prospects of Buffalo, and his wish for the Burwells to join him there. Clark's letters describe the success of his medical practice, specific operations and cases, and the growth of the village and surrounding areas. The Erie Canal and the opportunities it promises play an important role in many of the letters. Clark periodically adopts a philosophical tone. He addresses the education of women (1823 December 15, 1824 February 13) and Universalism (1824 July 6, 1827 February 14), for example.
Dr. Bryant Burwell's 13 letters to Clark suggest a more tempered and conservative character than that of his brother-in-law. Burwell is reluctant to abandon the familiarity and comfort of Norway, N.Y. He accepts Clark's praise of Buffalo in stride; hesitancy and planning preface the Burwells' move to Buffalo in the fall of 1824. Bryant Burwell does not abandon his conservatism when he decides to move; several of his letters urge Clark to be frugal in his preparations for the family's arrival (1824 August 15). Clark acknowledges his penchant for elegance and promises to plan modestly (1824 August 25). Notes and greetings from Clark's sisters, Ann and Sarah, are often included in Burwell's letters (1824 April 21, 1824 June 5, 1824 July 23, 1824 September 29).
Notable and unusual instances in Clark and Burwell's correspondence include: an Indian medical student whom Clark describes as an intelligent gentleman (1823 April 29, 1824 February 15), the introduction of stomach pumping (1824 May 26), the Buffalo Literary and Scientific Academy (1824 Aug 3), and the death of Dr. Burwell's youngest son and Clark's namesake (1824 March 2, 1824 September 29). Four letters from Clark to his parents also belong to these years of the collection.
The latter half of this collection includes 27 letters from Dr. Clark to his parents in Newport, NY. Two are addressed to his mother, Sally Clark (1824, February 13, 1827 February 14), and two include notes to his sisters (1827 September 22, 1829 August 6). Dr. Clark's letters between 1825 and 1831 demonstrate his waning interest in medicine and his growing enthusiasm for the more lucrative enterprise of Buffalo real estate. Unintentionally, the letters are comically self-assured. Clark repeatedly predicts his boundless financial success, though there is no evidence of it. Clark's letters to his parents portray the growth of Buffalo. He celebrates the influx of Europeans to Buffalo, and enthusiastically offers evidence of the city's potential (1831 September 29); census and city directories of the time corroborate his descriptions. Mentions of road planning, bank and business openings, and civic happenings and constructions accompany Clark's accounts of his real estate ventures. His letters often include the price of properties, and rents.
Much of the family's genealogy is gleaned from the second half of the collection. Noteworthy letters and instances include Clark's views on bigotry and education (1830 August 22), the Buffalo Female Seminary (1830 August 22), and the anticipated visit of Charles X to Buffalo (1830 September 22). This collection also includes two documents Clark created that describe the location and worth of his properties. A letter from Dr. Burwell to Stephen Clark (1825 August 1), John's father, and a letter to Nathan Burwell (1827 August 26) are also included in the collection.