I’m holding a letter in my hands that is older than the Declaration of Independence.
The paper is surprisingly substantial and the writing clear, but I’m really glad my hands are clean. I’m one of the volunteers helping local historian, Patricia Shillingburg, catalog and transcribe a treasure trove of letters that describe a distant past on Shelter Island; a time when the American Revolution was brewing, and when a letter to a sister or brother often contained casual references to enslaved household servants.
The letters, 762 of them, were given to the Shelter Island Public Library in 1917, where they were preserved, but largely unexamined for decades. In 1976, the Library gave the letters to the Shelter Island Historical Society, where they were removed from scrapbooks and remounted in large binders to protect them.
Historical Society archivist, Phyllis Wallace, then turned to Patricia Shillingburg, asking her to take on the job of transcribing and cataloging. Ms. Shillingburg recruited a team of readers, including volunteers Emily Hallman, Olivia Land (age 15), Joanne Sherman, Pat Yourdon and alternates Dianne Bailey and Christina Cunningham.
Most of the letters were sent to, or written by, Thomas Dering between the 1740s and the 1820s. Thomas Dering and his wife, Mary Sylvester, lived at Sylvester Manor for much of this time, and had three children, Sylvester, Nathan and Henry Packer.
Although this was a tumultuous period in American history, particularly on Long Island, which was occupied by the British in 1775, the letters are full of everyday life — courtship and marriage, sickness and death, and children.
In a letter from Nehemiah Barker of Mattituck, schoolmaster, to Mary and Thomas Dering on August 12, 1767, Barker shared his observations about nine year old Sylvester Dering on his first days away from home: “He soon began to shed tears and said no more or less of his grievances but that he was tired. We soon dismissed him with Samuel Paine to the bed where he slept away his sorrows, rose with a countenance which became quite cheerful by school time when he had more companions. “
The letters also give rare glimpses into how early Americans saw themselves in comparison to Europeans. Charles Storer, who had recently graduated from Harvard, wrote to Thomas Dering on December 31, 1782 from Paris: “I am at length arrived in the kingdom of France, the region of diversions and pleasure, where all the gay world resorts … a jumble of idleness, folly and extravagances rolling in feathers, lace and gilded carriages — a curious sight but best viewed at a distance.”
Patricia Shillingburg predicts that she and her team will complete the cataloging and transcription of the letters by early fall. “I am so blessed by the fine people who came to read the letters” she said.
Blessed also are the readers, to hold these letters in their hands, as they must have been held and read over 200 years ago.