We keep an eye on eBay down at the museum in case anything interesting pops up, and from time to time, something does. A case in point is a letter that Henry J. Moore sat down to write on May 14, 1846 to his cousin back in Monroe County, N.Y. He mailed it from Oswego where his family had settled, and thereby rescued himself from historical oblivion.
We could read a bit of Moore’s letter on-line, but it’s difficult using eBay’s “mouse over” magnification “feature,” sort of like trying to look at a giant billboard through the wrong end of a telescope. But from what we could tell, the letter contained some really interesting information about breaking the prairie sod with yokes of oxen and citizens volunteering and marching off to fight in the Mexican War. It was enough for us to allocate the bulk of our annual budget for purchasing artifacts and archival items to the auction, and, I am happy to say, we were successful. Not only that, but the seller gave us a $35 discount when he found out the letter was going into the collections of the Little White School Museum here in Oswego.
The letter, when it arrived at the museum, was found to be in fragile condition. What collectors call a folded stampless cover, the letter had been written by young Henry G. Moore, folded into its own envelope, and then secured with a large drop of hot red wax and impressed with a seal. He took it to the Oswego Post Office and paid 10-cents to mail it back to New York. In those days, there were no stamps, so Postmaster W.O. Parke simply wrote “10” on the envelope and then canceled it by writing “Oswego, Ills.” and “June 18” in the lower left corner of the front.
After arriving in New York, Moore’s cousin, James M. Cusick, stopped down at his local post office and retrieved his letter—there was no such thing as home or rural mail delivery in those days—and somehow it was saved for posterity, ending up in a large collection of stampless covers that were put up on eBay for sale.
Over the years, the letter had been folded and unfolded many times, causing it to separate along many of the folds. So the first thing we did with it was to encapsulate it in Mylar—which is NOT to be confused with laminating. Laminating uses heat, glue, and un-archival plastic sheets to encase paper and it destroys the historical integrity of documents. Encapsulating involves securing documents in a Mylar sandwich sealed along the edges with archival quality double-faced tape. The corners are left un-taped and open to allow the documents to breath, (hopefully) preventing mold and mildew from forming. And since the document itself is not glued or otherwise fastened, encapsulating is simple to undo with a sharp scissors.
Once the letter was encapsulated, we scanned it and then transcribed it. We then could make some conclusions about both the writer and the times in which he was writing. For instance, young Henry’s family was farming outside Oswego, and he reports that they had, by the time he wrote back home to his cousin on May 14, 1846, that they had broken 145 acres for planting. Plowing was proceeding at about two acres per day using a breaking plow and six oxen, he said.
He also missed his cousin, James, and urged him to make a visit to what was then the western frontier. Further, Henry urged anyone coming west to “bring a girl for the girls is [s]carse this time [of] year.”
The other big news that spring was that war with Mexico had broken out and that President James K. Polk had issued a call for 50,000 troops. Moore told his cousin that “out of our county of Kendall there was 32 listed and have gon last Mondy, Lawyer Dogg [Dodge] for the Capt.”
Translating from Moore’s somewhat eccentric spelling and usage, he was saying that Abram R. Dodge, an Oswego lawyer, was leading a company of 32 Kendall County men off to war. The community had heard the word about the war via newspapers brought in via stagecoach, and a mass meeting was held at the schoolhouse, then located on Madison Street just south of the modern Church of the Good Shepherd in Oswego. Oswego was then the county seat of Kendall County, but a courthouse had yet to be completed. Speaking in favor of forming a local unit to fight the war, according to the account left by the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks in his 1877 history of Kendall County, was Dodge, and another prominent lawyer, Alonzo B. Smith.
Dodge apparently decided to lead the group himself, and they set off by wagons driven by local volunteers, taking the troops to Alton, where they were sworn into federal service.
Young Henry, however, decided not to go, although he assured Cusick that “I expect that our flags will wave triumfent over all mexico soon,” adding, “I might have had a comishon to went along.”
While the community gave the troops a good send-off Moore reported that the families of those marching off were greatly saddened: “it was trying times that morning; the tears of children the sobs of affectionate wife tryde there Patriotism.”
So with a successful bid on eBay, we found out that in 1846 it was common to be able to plow about two acres of virgin prairie a day using three yokes of oxen, that 32 Kendall County men marched off to fight in the Mexican War in 1846, and that those who came west greatly missed their friends and family members left behind. Unfortunately, we know very little about the balance of young Henry’s life. Age 26 when the 1850 U.S. Census was taken in Oswego, he drops off the historical landscape, leaving only a letter for us by which to remember him.