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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  10/19/2005

Letters from Near and Far

In an era of email and instant messaging we forget that our ancestors' communications with their distant family and friends likely was done on paper via mail. Have you considered what written materials your relative might have left behind? This week's column discusses letters, postcards, and journals and how they might offer you with an entirely different view of your family.

Reading Between Johann's Lines
Johann Ufkes wrote a letter home to his family upon his arrival in America in 1869. This letter was analyzed in a "Beyond the Index" column several years ago.

Unfortunately, I do not know if the letter exists; the only proof of its existence is a translation appearing in an old family history. Like many such letters of this era, it was short and did not contain vast amounts of genealogical data (after all, Johann had not married yet and the family already knew everything there was to know). The purpose of the letter was to let his family know he had arrived in America safely and was settled with his sister's family, not to leave a record for his descendants. Johann ends the letter by saying he does not have much time to write and that he who does not work "will have as much money as he weighs."

The Lindblom Letters
Letters home can detail tragedy as well. This series of writings date from the early 1880s and were penned by a Swedish immigrant to some of his children who had remained in Sweden. An email correspondent made me aware of these items (Johanna Sund is my wife's aunt).

Carl Victor Lindblom and his wife Johanna Sund immigrated in May of 1881 with six of their children. On 21 August of that same year, Johanna died and Carl Victor moved shortly after to Davenport, Iowa, leaving some of his children with others in Ottawa. The letters he wrote home detail his struggles in America and his desire to see all his children together and doing well. Carl's letters home stop when he is killed in an accident in May of 1883.

Goldenstein Postcard
A cousin of my grandmother obtained a postcard from his mother, a daughter of Focke Goldenstein upon his arrival in Europe in 1910. Goldenstein originally emigrated from Germany some thirty years earlier and was making a return voyage home to visit remaining family members. His short note written in France to his father-in-law B[ernard] Dirks, indicates that the sea was rough and that Goldenstein's brother and his wife were heading to Germany the next day.

Finding These Items
Letters and other forms of written communication rarely just land in the genealogist's lap or come unsolicited in an email. While some findings are certainly serendipitous, active searching combined with some luck is usually required. Family members are the first people to contact in a search for such materials. It will be necessary to broaden your search to include extended and distant family members.

If your great-great-grandfather wrote letters to his first cousin, those letters (if they still exist) may have worked their way to your even more distant cousin. Do not assume that such materials do not exist or that your family did not maintain contact with family "back home." In some cases, the ties of family and "home" were very strong and contact may have been kept throughout the immigrant's life.

Even those who were born in the United States and moved across country might have kept sporadic contact with those who did not leave. I recently learned of the existence of a collection of cards and letters written to my third great-grandmother, including one item from my great-grandmother. It can happen. Ask around. Keep your ears open.

Materials may be located outside the family. Local or regional archives may have letters, diaries, and other written materials in their collection. It never hurts to ask. County historical or genealogical societies may be aware of the location of other items of this type.

One of my ancestors wrote over ten letters which were published in an early twentieth-century newspaper. In them he mentions attending the funeral of one of his son-in-law's relatives and the Christmas Eve wedding of his oldest daughter. How were these letters found? By reading the newspaper on microfilm and nearly dropping my jaw when I saw the ancestor's name as the byline.

Consider searching on eBay as well for your ancestor's name. There are always a number of paper items listed for sale, including the occasional diary, journal, or letter. You may find transcribed letters posted online after performing a search of your ancestor's name in a search engine. One relative's Civil War pension file contains letters from two of his comrades. One man apparently wrote the letters himself and discusses helping the veteran's father on his farm in the 1860s. Is it possible that one of your relative's military buddies asked him for a letter in support of a pension application?

Using These Items
The location of letter or other written record is always a cause for celebration, but the genealogist is always off to the next find wondering what additional records could be searched. The items discussed this week immediately suggest passenger lists and census records. Other records may be hinted at by clues mentioned in other writings. Consider transcribing the letter and sending it to appropriate local genealogical or historical societies, either for inclusion in their archives or publication in their quarterly or newsletter. This can be a great way to preserve the material for future generations.

Do Not Assume
For a long time, I assumed none of my ancestors left behind any paper. After all, they were not rich or famous or inclined to keep diaries or journals. However, the longer I research, the more I realize that there is a chance that some paper might have been left behind. The trick is to look for it before it no longer exists.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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