A Letter Home

This week was really interesting: we got to actually transcribe a letter from 1776. The letter writer, Nelson Woolsey, was a free black man with a good bit of wealth. I believe he was a merchant, and his penmanship and phraseology indicate a high level of education. Woolsey is driving a supply wagon during the Revolutionary War, and the events of the letter seem to take place between New Jersey and New York. Woolsey is a Patriot, for he writes about seeing Tories, and he is also a bit of a poet, as you will see below.

I was a bit nervous when we started with the translation project; I’ve seen reproductions of old letters and they can be incredibly hard to read. In order to prepare, I read the textbooks, and then I worked through some copies of Jane Austen’s writing (which helped me transition from my Victorian Lit homework over to this as well!) Jane’s letters and journals were hard to make out, and the textbooks helped me translate, but they also made me even more afraid of deciphering the handwriting I was sure to encounter.


Thankfully, when I got online to transcribe, I found Woolsey to have wonderful handwriting, with very clearly formed letters and a consistent hand. I fairly flew through the two pages of text I was assigned and even thought about doing an extra page for fun. In order to see the letters best, I opened the PDF file and used my Mac to zoom in so the entire screen was taken up by the letter. After reading through once, I put the letter on half the screen and Microsoft Word on the other half in order to read and transcribe. From there, I was able to zoom in on words I was unsure about. Many of the phrases came clear through zooming in, getting another pair of eyes (I had my historian boyfriend take a look at several pieces), and using common sense and knowledge of the phraseology of the time. I am really glad I am taking this Victorian class, because reading those rather archaic novels helped me interpret some of the phrases Woolsey used. You can find the pieces I transcribed here and here.

A few words tripped me up: Woolsey used the phrase “mud and mire” at one point, which I have heard (though not from old hymns as I originally thought, but from Psalm 40) but not seen actually used. The salutation is entirely unreadable, sadly, so we can’t see who he was writing to. Dr. May and Andrew both puzzled over it, but we are left without even a good guess. The abbreviation Stand absolutely confused me; I guessed it as Starn, but Dr. May told us it was the abbreviation for Stanford. The symbol used in place of “&” looks remarkably like an “I,” which also tripped me up in one place, but thankfully my partner for this project was able to catch the mistake.

Another hard part of the project was deciding how “diplomatic,” or similar to the original in spelling, punctuation, and even letter formation, we wanted the transcription to be. Should we stick to the original as best as possible, or provide clarification for modern readers? Several people in class voted for no changes, but I support making things clear– after all, why transcribe if it is still not going to accessible? In the end, we decided to keep it as close to the original as possible (I even used Microsoft Word to restore some of the superscripts) but we did allow for brackets for clarity when needed. This means the original punctuation and spelling are all intact– so don’t judge us! (I might be persuaded to adopt a more-punctuation, less-diplomatic approach with my personal transcriptions though…)

You can read the entire letter done by our class below:

[Watermark] OGR [/Watermark]

Dear shipe(?) more(?) Page 1 Christmas & New Year

As you well know that I am no Genius at writing upon a subject call’d nothing. I shall make it the business of this letter to give you the history of my March which I fear will be but imperfect— 19 Decem – 23rd Marchd from Pecks hill with 1700 Men & 80 Baggage Waggons Commanded by the Hon’ble Major Gen Lee crossed the Hudson & Marchd on two miles when we halted, the baggage being in arear & no inhabitants we were obliged to stay out in the rain, all but myself– I having a good no inhabitants we were obliged to stay out in the rain, all but myself– I having good coverd waggon well painted lay very Comfortble 4th March’d down to the lower part of Haverstraw Bay where we encamped for we heard that the Enemy were within 12 miles of us here the General sent of a Scout of 300 Men Commanded by Colo Webb of Stamd[Stanford] to go down to Hachinsack & make discoveres & try to bring off some Prisoners 5th this day after a tedious march of 15 miles thro mud & mire we arrived at Cakeat or new hamps [New Hempstead]. Here we found the People very ill-natur’d & not willing to assist the Provencials (as they called us) in the least upon which I made myself heartily welcome to any thing and ev’ry thing they had, 7th Lay by all day it being rainy 8th Proceeded (sic) as far as Ramapough where we found the People still unfriendly Consequently lived well 9th This day march’d as far as Pumpton Plains (Pompton Plains) where I got good quarters

Page 2

the land here is extremely fertile and & the most beautiful wheat fields I ever beheld. I rode between two Grand mountains which are about a mile apart between those in the Plains about 2 miles in length as a land & not a stone or stump these fields are cover’d with fine Green wheat & reflection of the sun which then near going down made the Prospect very beautiful 10th had a very agreeable march on the banks of Passaick River on the night that is a very high mountain loaded with majestic Oak & the ground coverd with a long green moss which is see at a great distance, on the left is an extensive tract of meadows very rich the bank of the river is preserved by a romantic row of Hemlocks the bottom of the flood is of clean white pebbles & every little way there is a pretty fall- I really beleive it was the place where Damon wrote: Bathe on my fair!

I wish I was a Poet born

I’d echo with my sylvan horn

The beauties of the plain

The floods shou’d hear the poet say

That all was beautifull and gay

And hills repeat ye strain

The Rocks woud listen to my song

The birds woud round the songster throng

To hear the welcome Tale

Each word shd be a Gluttons feast

I’d charm the ear of man and beast

If I describ’d the Vale–

Let it Suffice to say, that it affords a most beautiful piece of Perspective.

Over & Over

Page 3

Colo Webb return’d with his party that went out the fourth but bro’t no material news except that the Tories had all fled & he’d bro’t off 19 of their horses at night we encamped at Chatham on the 12 we march’d to Morris town where I met with Mr & Mrs Miller who were very kind to me I lay by all day at Mr Thomas Doughtys; he use’d to know my Mother & Uncles, & gives his love to them 12th we march’d as far as Mine brook & encamped, this night the British light Horse were in & about our Camp Con. C Lee lay about 2 miles in the rear of the Army & I with the Military Chest & all the [illegible] about one, in the Morning […] between 8 & 9 o’Clock the Light shone under the command of Colo Harcount Surrounded the house G. Lee was in & made him Prisoner & had they known where I was they might have taken me & the Cash with ease & safety if there had been only 15 good men with the Genl they might have defended the house (a stone one) to this home 15th & 16th Continued marching on the right of the 16th made a forc’d march & crossed the Delaware at Easton 10 miles above Philadelphia the Occasion of this was, we heard that the enemy had done the same after us, the night before & were within 6 miles of us but this inteligence proved false 17th as we were now safe we rested this day & the 18th month to Bethlehem the Cotton place

Over & over

Page 4

The finest place I was ever in the best People in short. I beleive they are the nighest perfection of any people on the continents, it requires an abler pen than mine to describe the place, the People their Laws & Customs their Manners Religion & Curiosities. however I’ll give them a touch. Aby (?) the Place it is situated on the banks of the west branch of Delaware & Consists of about Seventy large stone houses, the river is about 60 yards wide & fordable opposite the town is a range of Mountains at of which & arow of level fields & is as pretty a a prospect as W.V., they are remarkable for their hospitality & kindness, as they can speak but little English they seem to be rather reserv’d, their Religion is Lutheran; their Customs & Curiosities I cant seperate, their Greatest Curiosity is their Convent or sister house, the Priest Conducted me thro the whole house, in the first apartment was about twenty five healthy girls spinning Cotton & flax in the next there were 35 weaving Handkerchiefs & but I cou’d not purchase any in the next 35 more nitting (sic)! fast fast! fast! I was then conducted in to a beautiful room where there was 40 Angels 20 of them had each a small Quilting frame before her. working tambour upon Musling which they did very dextrously & curiously they have a small piece of ivory about the size of Quill with a little hook in the end which they fasten they’r (sic) cotton to. with this I see them do 2 inches in one minute

New leaf

Page 5

here’s new leaf

the others were painting, some flower pots. […] some landscapes & some taking likenesses, I went to one end of the room and view’d their performances in course & when I got almost thro the whole I perceiv’d that one of them had a face hid under her hand, which as I was looking at her work I quickly pull’d out from under it & found it to be myself (I asked her if it was not,) which she conferd with down cast modesty — I was then led thro a large hall in to a room on the right. This was their lodging room it contain’d 60 single beds (I shou’d like to crept in & squat) in the center of the wall is a Grate with a lamp hanging in it that the air need not be unhealthy — next […] is the Church .. There is 15 beautiful pieces of Painting that reparesents our saviour from his birth to his Assention, whilst I was in the Church they all came in to attend public-private duty where no male is allowed to be present, but out of Politeness to me as a stranger they let me stay to hear the music precceding their devotions.. the band consisted of an Organ a Base Viol a bassoon 2 french horns 2 Guittars 1 Harpsicord 6 Violins and 4 German flutes, these all but the Organ were played by beautiful Girls of about 18 dress’d in white Cotton sacks & peticoats with blue ribbands round their Waists; I then went to the Brother house

Page 6

where are all kinds of Mechanics at work in the same order as in the Sister house– next was they’r burying yard, There is two long rows of Graves the males on one side the females on the other they lay feet to feet the Graves are about 2 feet apart at the head of each is a square stone 8 Inches high with the persons name & age, none of those […] Inscriptions that we have– here the Parson gave me his blessing & told me to behave like a Good Soldier Jesus Christ, & then parted with greatly to my satisfaction in this Society there is but one farmer to supply the whole with milk Grain & I went to him & desird to see his Curiosity which he readily consented to, he first came in to a stable, a clean He in [is] middle & on each hand 20 of the finest Cows I ever saw I pass’d thro this in a room where was 30 Women Washing & then in to another Cow stable the same as the first, Not to forget the milk maids who in summertime have their cows all tied up in a row & they dress in green with flop’d straw hats & a garland of flowers on their heads, go forth to milking follow’d by a band of music he likewise keeps all the horses for the town, farewell Farmer – I then went to the waterworks which supplies the whole town with water this & an oil & flax mill are al (sic) carried by an artificial

Page 7

stream or Canal which is brot from the river and emptys in to it again-in this way least you should be dull this being cut out of flat land makes a Beautiful island of about 2 Acres and is improved as a garden, it is so romantic that you cant look at it without laughing-

So much for Bethlehem where no person can resist the temptation to be good-

19th March’d to Buckingham & tarried the 20th & the reach’d Newton where I now am in Glover Quarter which good Colo Palfrey Provided for me before I come–

I long to hear from you all, but coud not expect it till I got settled, & how long I shall be so I know not, how do you all do tell me a long story in your next & I mention my new flame- or I shall think you neglect her. Polly did it bytimes & has show’d her good judgment in what she said, your dear Gary is Married to miss Nancy Lour-

Remember me to all friends affectionately & particularly my mother I hope she’s lost her anxiety for me in great measure it wou’d make me much happier to hear that she car’d less about me.

Turn over ye last time

Page 8

I’ll mention my most valuable friends who you must give my love & duty to

My mother

Uncles John &Jo

Coz [Cousin] John

Sylvester (?) Daay (?)

Uncle & Aunt Wolles

[B] Polly ___d

Doctor Cogswell

Sal & Nab if at home

Ben Wells wou’d be in the list only he’s my rival

Don’t forget the servants give […] of service to Jack Jupiter & Sam and Fowler & little ned– Sylvia & is Fab (?) dead?

all this time I love you almost the best


Nel S Woolsey

Now that I am an expert primary text reader, I think I will curl up with some Shakespeare this weekend, original text of course.

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