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Family Letters (reprinted from October 2020)
Before my maternal grandfather arrived in the United States to seek a new life and job opportunities that weren't available to many young men from the moors of rural Devon (the Hatherleigh and Torrington areas weren't as trendy in the late 1880s as they are now), he shipped out to Argentina which until then had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. His timing couldn't have been worse.
About the time of his arrival or shortly afterwards, there was a major wheat crop failure, a collapse of many of the major banks and all of it leading to the panic of 1893 and widespread political unrest. This was also about the time of the rise of populism in the United States, and in both Argentina and the U.S. (with its heavily indebted mid-western farmers and southern sharecroppers) working class distress was at the center of it all (see: Frank, Thomas. The People, No: A Short History of Anti-Populism).
I have long paid close attention to old letters and manuscripts (for both personal and professional reasons), so it shouldn't come as a surprise that I've saved quite a few from my grandfather (John Ernest Jones, or J. Ernest Jones as he was known to his business associates, Ernie by close friends and family), the emigrant from Devon, who after a sojourn in Argentina eventually made a good life for himself in Gloversville, NY. In one of them he's writing to his mother back in England...
Oficina del Southern Cross
1689 Calle Cangallo,
“...It is a good many weeks since I heard from you... many changes have happened since I wrote you last from the Camps. As you will see by my address above, I am in the city of Buenos Aires again. Fortunately I struck a fairly good berth the first day I was in town, but the country is in a very bad state just now, and will be I suppose for a year or two to come. Last week 600 British Emigrants (mostly Irish) arrived in the city from the Camp down South, where they had been trying to exist for the past two or three years, but utterly failed... they were at the brink of starvation when the British Consul took the matter in hand and rescued them, so now they are in the Emigrants' house in this city entirely without means.
Since these poor people came in, 2oo Dutch Emigrants came in as well from another part of the camp in the same condition, utterly destitute. People are leaving this country as fast as the ships can take them. Last week 5,000 left for other parts. The Country is fairly bankrupt – all the public works are suspended and the State Banks are closed! I wrote to Jackson about going to South Africa after I received your letter about two months since, but I have not heard from him so I think he must have caught the “yellow jack”, as he went north after I went to the Camp, as yellow fever has been clearing off the people up toward Rio Janeiro [sic] at the rate of 1000 a week...
… The Revolution in Chile is still going on in full swing, and the Revolutionists are winning, Colonel North the English Nitrate King is said to be helping them, so I expect Balmaceda's life is not worth much now... I am glad I am in the City again, in the camp... it was very lonely cut off from all civilization entirely but here in the City I have several acquaintances and am living now with two old chums that I knew on the Pacifico Railway a year ago. I am going out to Belgrano this afternoon to see another chum who came out on the same ship as I did....”
The letter is undated, but must have been written sometime between late January and September 19, 1891. José Manuel Balmaceda was among the founders of the populist Liberal party which advocated for more personal, political and religious freedom and also the restriction of executive power. He instituted a massive program of public works which included the building of schools, railway expansion and increased spending on the army and navy, all of which led to allegations of corruption that ultimately put him at odds with the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. Ironically, he was unwilling to yield his own executive power and as a result the leaders of both legislative bodies sailed north to Tarapacá (location of the Chilean nitrate deposits) where they organized a successful revolution (mentioned in the letter above) that ended in Balmaceda's overthrow and death by suicide on September 19.
Eventually Ernest Jones located in upstate New York and after s few years as a salaried employee in the glove supplies industry, he established a silk fabric manufacturing operation and a leather importing business in Gloversville. He also testified at the hearings that resulted in the Smoot-Hawley Tarrif Act of 1930.
Unpublished letters such as these are not simply forms of human expression from the past, but sometimes record important micro-events that taken collectively can contribute a great deal towards our understanding of history. They have the potential to survive for generations to come (until trashed by impatient estate executors ), while e-mails and social media postings are mostly forgotten and almost never preserved in any form.
Years ago, I was hired by a college library to appraise a collection of letters from a farmer/lawyer/politician from the Lake Champlain area. The period covered ranged from about 1770 to 1810 and during that time he served as one of the members of the Committee of Safety, the Poughkeepsie Convention, a member of the House of Representatives in the 2nd and 3rd Congress of the United States, and various other posts when he wasn't otherwise occupied tending to the family farm. In one letter to his wife, written during a Congressional session, he prepares a “to do” list for the coming winter saying that at the minute Washington is in the middle of a somewhat boring and “repetitious” speech and that he's taking advantage of the time to write home, etc. And this was just one letter among hundreds – absolute gold for future historians, if they know where to look.
For me, the experience of reading through interesting early unpublished correspondence is as close as I've ever gotten to time-travel. For example, I think much of the appeal of Dr. Who and his Tardis, for all these years, has had to do with imaginary time travel – the opportunity to do the real thing through the magic of reading hand-written letters from the past is something that will be increasingly denied to people in the future.