Friday, January 22, 2010

In Praise of Pack-Rats

By Kim

Now f
or the secret. Well, here it comes, but put on your sober face. Does thee recollect when it happen[ed]? It was on the day of Uncle B’s funeral. I had a letter on that day, just after tea I went in the nursery to read it. I had not set there long before I heard someone come to the door, looked up, and who should I see but J. Spencer. I said walk in, little thinking he would mind me so good. He came in, got a chair, came set down beside me and went to talking. I was almost scared to death, sat there trembling. He sat as composed as you please, so we staid there and jabbered for about an hour when I ask him to excuse me for a moment. I cut myself upstairs and you may well think I did not trust myself within the confines of the nursery very soon again. That day he sent me an orange. But dear Martha, you see I could not help it. I trembled and was so afraid that Miriam or some one else would come in.

Now Martha, if you show this to anyone I shall never forgive you…

Amanda Akin to Martha Angell – April 22, 1842

To 21st century eyes this may not look like much of a secret, but in 1842 Amanda, then fifteen, could have had her reputation ruined if “Miriam” or anyone else happened to find her alone with a gentleman. She would only have made such a risqué confession to a trusted friend. Martha likely kept her confidence, but she also saved the letter, as she saved many other letters from friends and relatives. I imagine she tucked them all away in a special box, perhaps re-reading them when the long winters prevented visitors from coming to call. She became Martha Niles in 1850 and the relics of her girlhood travelled with her, perhaps consigned to the bottom of a truck, unmolested through the births of four children and the death of her husband. Years later her belongings moved to a larger, grander home a few miles away in North Chatham, NY, until her second husband, too, died. By then Martha was elderly, her health failing, and she retired to her daughter Katie’s home in Stratford, Ontario until her death in 1910 at the age of eighty-three.

The letters survived. They may have remained with Katie for some time, or perhaps Katie sent them immediately to her niece, Madonna, then living in Toronto with her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens. (They are my great-grandparents as well as the subjects of my work-in-progress.) Madonna both adored her grandmother and shared her trait of saving everything. Not only did she guard Martha’s treasures, but she clearly told her children about them. When Carl and Madonna moved to England they let the mortgage lapse on their house. They told their grown children to go and collect any sentimental items in the home and leave the rest. Many things were overlooked, but the letters were rescued.

They were in Madonna’s possession when she died in San Clemente, CA in 1976. She willed them to her daughter, Chloris, my grandmother, who was perhaps the most fanatical pack-rat in the history of the human race. Everything Chloris kept, her daughters Nonna and Siegie also saved because “Momma must have had her reasons for keeping it.” Boxes containing everything from old manuscripts to the registration papers for a long-dead poodle remained in Aunt Nonna’s attic for twenty years after her mother’s death. When the time came to remodel the house, Siegie suggested they send everything to me because, as family historian, I would “know what was important.”

Imagine my shock when I opened one of the boxes, pulled out an ordinary file folder and a letter from 1836 dropped onto my lap. There were about fifty letters total, all written before 1850. Despite having been passed around for a century and a half, the ink is clear, the paper barely yellowed, and they are infused with the mildly musty scent of an antique bookstore. I skimmed a couple of them, but the mid-nineteenth-century handwriting made for slow reading. With a new baby to care for, I was short on time. As I did with so many other documents that did not directly relate to my book on Carl and Madonna, I sorted the letters by author, placed them in acid free sleeves, and returned them to my aunts.

After I began writing The Oak Lovers I realized historical fiction is my calling and regretted my haste. It’s true that the letters all date to well before the book I’m working on and only one was written by someone in my own family, but someday I’ll finish this book and need new characters, new stories. I asked for the letters back, explaining that they really should be scanned, transcribed, and footnoted rather than just preserved. The family agreed, relieved to hand that task, along with the letters, back over to me. All are curious about what they contain, but none has taken the time to decipher them. I suspect I’m the first person in generations to read them.

Over the last couple of months I’ve transcribed over half of them in my spare (HA!) time. Most are written by teenaged girls and are full of school-girl crushes and gossip. What makes this remarkable, other than for the idea that a teenager is a teenager no matter the century, is that most girls had little or no schooling in the 1840s. Yet here were a circle of girls, all Quakers, most from rural farm families, who were clearly well educated and widely read. Their handwriting was a work of art and their prose more refined than most college educated people today.

There are two friends of Martha’s I find particularly interesting. The first was a young gentleman named Charles Scholefield. As he was neither a relation nor a suitor, it is odd that a correspondence was allowed between them, yet sixteen of his letters were saved. After a little digging I discovered that the same Charles Scholefield who filled pages with romantic descriptions of sunsets or treatises on why the white men were wrong to treat the Mohawk so poorly, became one of the first legislators from Oneida County, NY. He was a celebrated lawyer, very handsome, married a seventeen-year-old at the age of forty, and was a Major in the Civil War.

Within a paragraph of my first letter by Amanda Akin, I knew I had found a friend. I should die of despair if I was obliged to write a formal, sentimental letter, she writes. What I wish for in a letter is the picture of my friend’s mind. I want to know what she is doing and saying, to have her show me the inside of her heart without disguise. I have this feeling when I write letters. If I seek wisdom and lofty sentiments, I can find them in books.

Here was a girl who was both of her time and somehow beyond it. She doesn’t hide behind formality in her letters. She’s frank, teasing, feisty and, most importantly, relatable. She has a distinct voice – every writer’s dream. Within the last few days I’ve discovered snippets about her remarkable life. I won’t go into great detail, as she may very well end up a character in a future book, but I will say that the Civil War, Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln come into play.

Amanda would little have imagined when she penned her “epistles” that Martha’s 3x great-grandchild would wish that she had followed through on her threat to write the name of Martha’s crush on the top of each page to prevent her from showing the letters to anyone.

Each letter offers a glimpse of the past that, at most, only a handful of people have ever seen. For a historian, there’s no greater pleasure than such a discovery. For a writer there’s nothing more inspiring than hearing a voice so clearly in your mind that you simply must know the speaker. I would never have heard this one if it weren’t for the five generations of pack-rats that came before me, each one of them finding the letters and making a conscious decision to save them. I carry on the family tradition with pride.


  1. This is amazing!! How fortunate you are (and we by proxy) to have these pictures of history. We have lost our oral traditions and so much of our past is gone. I beg you to do something with these!

  2. Hi Dreamstate,

    Oh, believe me I'll do something! To start I am scanning and transcribing the letters, as they will not last forever. Since I have done a lot of genealogy, I know of many people are who are mentioned in the letters. I intend to put my transcribed letters in date order and footnote everything - names, places, etc. This historian in me thinks this is fun.

    I have also found descendants of Amanda and think I may have found one for Charles as well. The original letters aren't mine, but I am offering copies of the transcriptions and scans to them and anyone else who may want them. In Amanda's case, the Akin Free Library in her home town likely will want copies.

    Last, of course, I will probably use some of these people as characters in a future book. I need to finish the one I'm currently working on first, though!

  3. You are so lucky to have those letters intact. My Parents wrote each other 3 times a day when they were first married and Dad was working away from home. They filled an old blue trunk. One night they apparently sat down, read them all and burned them after. All I have is the trunk. However, after my Mother died he had a lady friend who kept all his letters and she gave them to me with the idea that I publish them, something I have still to do. Maxine

  4. Hi Maxine,

    Your Dad sounds like quite a romantic! Thank you so much for giving me those old photos he kept of my grandmother and my great-aunt (who were his friends.) Having read his article about his time at Big Trees with Carl and Madonna and the rest of the family, I think you should publish those letters, if you think he would have wanted that. He was a good writer and, I believe, a good person as well. I'm sure you miss him every day.

  5. Hi Kim, I just wanted to let you know I read your blog, and I really enjoyed it. I think that is so awesome that your family saved those letters all these years and took such great care of them! I also enjoy reading about days gone by,as long as I don't have to remember the dates of anything! I can definitely see your wheels turning for many more books as soon as you finish the one you are working on... It is hard to believe when looking at our society that people were ever that timid about being alone with the opposite sex...for the reason of there is only one reason they would feel that fear...but it is amazing that with no education and such that they wrote such interesting letters and were able to save them...I still think it would be awesome to be able to live like that,even if only for a month or so...

  6. Hi Diane,

    Martha, my 3 x great grandmother, came from a large Quaker family living in a rural section of upstate New York (Columbia County). While it was the 1840's and they were a farming family, all the girls were educated. Martha herself went to boarding school for at least a couple of years, which I believe was unusual for girls of her background. She also attended Spencertown Academy, which was just down the street from where she lived. I wonder if the emphasis on education in the Angell family was a Quaker trait. (If anyone knows if that's the case, please chime in.) Her friends, Charles Scholefield and Amanda Akin, were both educated as well. Neither of them were from farming families, though. Amanda's father was a judge and Charles' was a minister.

  7. Hi Kim,

    What a winfall! Isn't it interesting that when we love something like history, it just falls into our laps! These letters are 'gold' and will enrich you someday! As always, I enjoy reading what you write. I was particularly interested to learn Madonna came from Quaker stock! Herman Ahren's sister, Carolyn married a man from a Quaker background too.


  8. I am very intrigued by the intensity and directness of Amanda Akin. She would be an interesting character in a novel. That small keyhole into the way she thinks and expresses herself has definitely left me wanting to learn more.

    I envy the penmanship of previous generations. I assist kids with fine-motor deficits it seems that as each generation advances, writing skills are declining. Too many video games and television.

    Also, you are a productive and constructive pack rat, and our ancestors unknowingly were. I love reading these blogs-very amusing. I hope you are finding a great publisher that will expose your work to a broad audience.

    Katrina Nunez

    Katrina Nunez

  9. Kim:
    Thanking you for your interest and kind thoughts shared concerning my ancestor Amanda Akin. Having written a book herself and counting on your future work, assures Amanda has and will continue to live on long since her passing. Please carry on your excellent research, thank your lucky stars for those pack rats, and never lose your interest in history.

  10. Paula - Yes, Madonna came from a long line of Quakers. I had no idea what "old colonial" stock she came from until I started researching her line in order to join the DAR. At least four different ones go back to the 1620's and she is a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Two signers of the Declaration of Independance are distant cousins. There's even some evidence she's a Mayflower descendant. Likely, as I have found ancestors that were in Plymouth around that time.

    Katrina - Amanda drew me into her world in less than a paragraph. I could very nearly hear her. Her writing is far less formal than many of the other correspondants and she's less inclined to go on for a full page about why she didn't write sooner or, worse, describe every nuance of a sunset in the tone of a poor imitation of Byron or Shelley. Her handwriting is beautiful, though there are a lot of inkblots and crossed out words. You can tell she wrote things down exactly as she thought them and that she struggled to write as fast as she thought. I am much like her when I write letters, so I can relate. Oh, and about the handwriting, I agree it is becoming a lost art. Sasha (in 3rd grade) said they haven't even started learning cursive yet and I wonder if they ever will. I may have to teach her myself, as I don't want it to be a skill lost on my children.

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  12. Terry,

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting on the post! For the benefit of everyone else, I should explain that I have actively tried to find descendants/relatives of everyone who wrote letters to Martha so I could at least offer copies of the letters in case they wished to read them. In the case of Amanda it turned out to be an easy thing. I simply googled her and found out there was a memorial for her set up on - one of my favorite websites. It turned out that Terry (a cousin of Amanda's) set up the memorial. I saw the identical last name and wrote him at once.

    Terry, there is no worry that I will lose my passion for history. Like writing, it is an addiction for me. There are so many stories to be told, extraordinary people who deserve to be remembered and celebrated. With each letter I finish transcribing, I am more convinced Amanda is one of them.

  13. No doubt you're in your element here. Historical fiction based on family stories fits you like a second skin. And you have such a beautiful way of bringing these tales to life. I'm certain one day Amanda will be a main character in one of your books.

  14. Larry Akin10 March, 2010

    I read over your blog and I loved it. I especially loved the Amanda Akin philosophy bit about what she wants in a letter. Pretty deep for a teenager.


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