Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The 21 Day Genealogy Challenge - Day 12: What to do with old family letters.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
 -- Mark Twain

Welcome to day 12 of the 21 Day Genealogy Challenge!  Have you come across old letters belonging to family members who passed away?  Pretty interesting, aren’t they?  Today we are going to explore those old letters you may have found among your inherited family possessions.  


Who hasn’t wished to inherit an ancestral journal?  While your grandparents may not have kept a journal, chances are he or she wrote and received letters.  Personally, I think letters might be as good as a journal.  To some extent, letters may be even better than a journal because there is another party providing feedback and information in response to a letter received or an activity that took place involving the recipient.


Unlike pictures that may not have any identification, letters for the most part indicate who the two parties are.  Should you be fortunate enough to have the envelope that contained the letter, you will find location clues.  Unless the letter was hand delivered or the original envelope lost, the address of the receiver should be there, giving you an indication of where your ancestor lived or, at any rate, where he or she was receiving mail.

If there is no return address on the front or back of the envelope, take a look at the postal mark.  If the mark is legible, you will not only have the location of where the letter was sent, but you now have a date for the letter.  Keep in mind, people can mail letters while traveling, as well as mail a letter they wrote months earlier.  But for the most part, the clues on the envelope will give you a starting point to continue research.

Let’s take a look at a letter that my grandfather received back in 1941.  Looking at the envelope I can see that he was living in Barnesville, Georgia.  Because I knew my grandmother (his wife) when she was living, I know that she was born and raised in Barnesville, Georgia.  So, this envelope tells me that 1.) My grandparents were living in Barnesville in 1941, or 2.) My grandparents were visiting my great-grandparents who were living in Barnesville in 1941. 

Notice that my grandfather is receiving mail at a post office box.  Personally, I had no idea that P.O. boxes existed in the 1940s.  This may be something I will want to follow up to research as part of the history aspect of genealogy.  The fact that he has a post office box and the envelope doesn’t state that the mail is being received for my granddad by another party, leads me to believe that my grandparents may have been in a transitional phase, meaning they were “between houses.”  If the P.O. Box had belonged to his in-laws, the envelope might have been addressed to Mr. Frank Watts, c/o Judson Wilson (or his wife Ollie).  But there is no such indication on the envelope.

There is no return address on the envelope, however, the postal mark tells us that the letter went through a post office in Alexandria, Virginia at 2:30pm.  My grandfather’s mother, Agie Lackey Watts, was a telephone operator at the train station across from the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia.  So, without even opening the letter, I might make an assumption that granddad was receiving a letter from his mother while she was living and working in Alexandria.

The picture on the envelope has me stymied.  I know that granddad worked in Florida before he married my grandmother.  Was this envelope part of a stationary set he picked up while down South?  Or, could it be part of tourist information left at the train station where my great-grandmother, Agie, worked?  I don’t know, and the paper used to write the letter doesn't answer this question; however, it does give a clue to her location of employment.

More Clues


Looking at back side of the paper Agie used to write her letter, we see that the pages are in fact telephone call sheets for the “Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac RailRoad Co.”  I have never seen these before, and because I know my great-grandmother was a telephone operator most of her adult life, it is interesting for me to have a peek inside her “office,” so to speak.

 Agie names a few people within her letter.  Some of the names I recognize as siblings: Nola, Paul and Cap.  (Note: Agie Lackey was the fifth of 18 children!)  The information she tells about what is going with her family back in North Carolina gives me a peek into her family life.  The fact that she states that her mother “tells her,” gives the clue that in 1941, my great-great-grandmother, Evie Sharpe Lackey, is still living.

Agie talks about the hours she is working at “the Yard,” as her Rail Road location was called.    But she also mentions tending to a man whose appendix burst.  The name she reveals is new to me and one I will further research.  Was he a co-worker?  A friend of the family?  And why is she tending to him?  Did she take on side work as a nurse?

Unfortunately the letter does not talk much about Granddaddy’s situation in Georgia.  All his mother says to him is that she was glad they chatted on the phone recently, and states “do your best with your job.”  

Take Notes and Analyze

You can see there are quite a few clues in this short letter from a mother to her son.  By taking notes, I can go back into my family tree and fill in some blank areas.  But now I see that I have some new questions to answer.  Who is the man my great-grandmother was tending to?  A few other individuals mentioned in the letter were foreign to me, so I will want to follow up on their names, as well.  It is possible that in the boxes of letters I inherited, there may be a response from Granddad to his mother.  In the meantime, I can research these unknown individuals the same way I research my other ancestors.
Scan and Transcribe

Now that you have reviewed your ancestor’s letter and taken some notes, you will want to take the time to scan the letter for the purpose of preserving the information it contains.  After scanning, you can do a variety of things: 

  • You will want to save a copy of the digitized letters on a thumb drive or a removable hard drive.  Keeping only one copy on your laptop or desktop computer runs the risk of loss through computer damage.  In the event you buy a new system, you may forget to transfer all your programs and documents over to the new computer.  So, think of the external devices as an insurance policy for any photos or letters you scanned for your genealogy.

  • After you have scanned the letters, you will want to label the images according to page number, date and to whom the letter was written, and who the letter was from.

  •  Transcribe the letters the best that you can.  If you cannot read a word, then in the transcription place [?] or [illegible], so that the reader understands the word was illegible.  Include your name and the date that the letter was transcribed for record keeping purposes.

  • Share.  If the letter appears to have some genealogical information that would benefit other family members doing research, then attach a copy of the letter to your family tree.  Remember to tag the ancestors mentioned within the letter. 


If the thought of transcribing your ancestral letters seems overwhelming, or perhaps not a task you are up to at this time, there are companies that will transcribe letters and journals for a fee.  One company in particular is LegacyScribes.  While this is a cloud based site, you are in control of the privacy aspect.  LegacyScribes offers the option to share your ancestor’s journals and letters on the genealogy site FamilySearch.  To learn more, visit

Another option you may consider is to have another family member transcribe the letters for you.  Or, perhaps some local youth looking to do service.  While script writing is not taught in many schools today, it would be a wonderful way to teach cursive writing while sharing a bit of family history!

Here is Your Five Point Review:

·       Take a close look at the envelope that contains the letter to your ancestor.  What information can you glean from the addresses and postal mark?
·       Read the letter closely and take notes.  Do you recognize the names of individuals mentioned in the letter?  Do any of the events discussed in the letter jog your memory of stories you heard?
·       Scan the letter and keep a copy of the scan on a thumb drive or removable hard drive as a back-up for safe keeping.
·       Transcribe the letter.  If transcribing the letter is not something you want to do, or if you find difficulty in reading the handwriting, you may want to seek assistance for this part of your project.
·       Share your findings with other family members.  These are their ancestors, too, and if they are interested in family history, chances are they will be thrilled to read these letters.

Congratulations! You have completed day 12 of the 21 Day Genealogy Challenge!  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them in the Blog Comment section below.  Invite your friends to join this challenge by sharing this blog with them on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.  The share icons are just below this blog entry.

Thank you for joining this challenge and remember…..

History not shared is History forgotten!