National Genealogical Society
A Journal for Today's Family Historian

Volume 97, Number 2, June 2009

The Family Letters: A Portrait of an American Family Through Letters From the 18th to the 20th Century. Edited by John T. B. Mudge. Published by The Durand Press; 25 Lamphire Hill; Lyme, NH 03678-3108;;  2008. ISBN 978-0-9708324-5-0. xiv, 970 pp. Appendixes, illustrations, index. Hardback. $80.00 (Shipping: $6.00).

This book is a treasure—nearly one thousand pages of transcribed original documents recording six generations of an American family from an eighteenth-century Continental Army officer at Valley Forge, through politicians, soldiers, and farmers, to an early twentieth-century Denver lawyer.

Mudge begins with “An Annotated Genealogy,” a collection of abbreviated lineages from letter writers to their progenitors—Thomas Hobson and John Wise of Virginia; Phineas Whiteside of Pennsylvania; Thomas Thayer of Massachusetts; and John McKies of New York. As the author readily admits, these sketches are not compiled genealogies, but merely enough information to place the writers in genealogical context. He also includes narratives on each progenitor and limited information on the Jennings, Littleton, Scarburgh, Bowman, Cropper and Thoroughgood families.

Twenty-two chapters begin with introductions setting a scene, offering historical context, and listing writers and the places where they mailed their letters. Next are the voluminous letter
transcriptions supplemented by excerpts from diaries, memoirs, obituaries, and family—authored books, articles, and poems.

Each chapter is a non-fiction story in itself. Letters are arranged chronologically with themes like “A Young Lawyer Goes West,” “Henry W. Hobson and the Practice of Law,” and “A Widow and Her Children.” Far from prosaic, these letters tell engaging, compelling tales. Useful sidebars introduce collateral individuals,
offer historical background, and explain terms. Appendixes include a family history timeline, handwriting samples, photographs, and a bibliography. The index covers individuals and selected events and places.

Genealogists often rue the lack of family letters, but having too many letters also poses problems: How to present them? How to make them interesting? Mudge’s answer was to transcribe, edit, and organize them chronologically and thematically and let the letter writers speak for themselves. Genealogists may find he provided material to enhance their family narratives; social historians should be ecstatic.

Willis H. White, CG
Herndon, Virginia


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