The History Center Excursion Navigation
Pioneer Women - Be a Curator!

The Curators at Work: 1863 Letter

Photo of cottage home 1880's

What does this letter tell us about the Kelsey family?

"Cottage Home" Iowa
September 20, 1863

Dear Brother & Sister,

Yours of August 1st was duly received but the babies were sick by spells, sometimes one and sometimes the other, then both. I thought I would wait a little to see how the case would turn. As they had no teeth I supposed they were undergoing the process of teething.

Sometimes they would have very bad diarrhea accompanied by a good deal of fever. Sometimes with vomiting etc. Louise being delicately formed and apparently very frail was not able to endure. Aug 21st she left us, a weeping circle, to join the throng of happy ones in the Spirit Land.

What do you think Jane meant when she wrote, "August 21st she left us, a weeping circle, to join the throng of happy ones in the Spirit Land"?

She had been better for a few days while Louis was worse. I had succeeded in removing her diarrhea and hoped she would be better. Through Wednesday night she cried out occasionally as though in extreme pain. Thursday seemed weak and not inclined to amuse herself at all. She took not much notice of playthings.

In the afternoon she commenced coughing attended with very laborious breathing. Through the afternoon and evening I applied mustard occasionally thinking perhaps inflammation of the lungs has set in. The symptoms did not abate. Rather they increased. Whenever she attempted to cough she would scream as though suffering extreme pain. At midnight James got up and got me some smartweed while I kindled the fire and made preparations to administer fomentations. All the while the conviction was silently stealing over me that she would not be with us long.

What types of medicine were used to treat their sick child? How does this compare to the medical treatment you receive when you get a severe cold today?

As James was very weary threshing and expected to go at it again in the morning, I told him he had better lie down while I attended to the baby. As I laid the hot flannel on the first time I breathed a prayer that it might relieve her at least. Her cough immediately subsided and she gave but little indication of pain. I attempted to pray for her restoration but I could not. I could find no words to express any such desire. So I bowed before the evil that I saw was smiting me and prayed for resignation.

How did religion influence Jane Kelsey's life?

Here I had my trial alone with my God and my dying child. The fiery ordeal was passed. Though weeping, my soul was calm and peaceful. She gradually failed. Life was ebbing out. At three I observed her sight was gone. After a while I called James between 5 and 6. I called the children to see their sister die, but she lingered till nearly noon.

Jane took care of her sick dying child by herself. Why didn't she call a doctor? Why did her husband go to bed instead of staying up with her?

As I watched her, I felt the full force of the words "Suffering almost over", and I could not help but feel glad for her though it was going to make such a breach in our family circle for she was really a little sunbeam that for a brief space has shone upon us. Her patient, calm look and ways often reminded me of Mother. She needs no more of our care. The Eye that never sleeps watches over her. The hand that never tires supplies all her wants. And as I know she cannot return to me I often ask myself the question shall I go to her? Oh that I may not miss of seeing her in Heaven.

Louis has become better, much better indeed, but this afternoon symptom rather unfavorable again. No teeth yet. The rest of the family are well, and are blessed with good substantial appetites. I can hardly get enough bread baked or potatoes enough cleaned.

9 O'clock Monday evening--James has just taken the baby to bed. All are still. I took off my shoes thinking I too would retire. I thought of my letter, stepped to the secretary and now I am sitting by the table in the dining room close by the bedroom door. I thought if I were at the old house at home I should not retire quite so early judging by the sittings we had when I was there.

What were a woman's responsibilities during pioneer times?

A son-in-law of Mr. Witmer (Philip Newhouse by name) was here last week. I think he said he left Wheatfield the 7th, got to Cedar Rapids the tenth, and is now living on this side of the river. Mr. Witmer intends to move on in the spring. Mr. N. had not seen any one of the friends proper. He was down in the north woods a few days before he started but did not go to Robinson's. I want Mr. Witmer to see some of you before he comes, either at his home or yours or both. Then it will seem as though I had seen you myself.

How did the crops that were grown in 1854 compare with the crops that are grown in Iowa today?

James has been rigging his molasses mill today. Intends to start it tomorrow. I am afraid molasses will be a poor show this season. It has not been very favorable for cane. We have had too many frosts to make it very good…

What important event in American history was going on in 1863? What did Jane mean when she wrote about "drafting."

…There has been no drafting about here, it is thought by some there will not be. You ask how I feel about it. I felt as though I could not be left. It would be very unjust to oblige my husband to go. But I have rested quite easy so far this time for, he being a married man between 35 & 45 it is quite likely he will not be called out this time, unless there should be order for another draft. If it comes to the worst that he must go I must do the best I can. He would have been in the field at the first call, had he not thought his services were required here.

How old was John Kelsey in 1863?

I see you keep up the visiting yet, visit a little for me once in a while. I have about 1/2 of my dried fruit yet in very good condition. I seldom get any of it but I think of the time when we were all gathered around the well-filled baskets in the old kitchen, and I "cut off ten". Our number gradually diminished, till but 4 of us were left. And now but one out of that large family sits under the shade of the old balsam tree.

What is the main message Jane wanted to tell in this letter?

Sometimes I think it cannot be but that you must be lonely indeed as you take a retrosptive view of the past. I often feel lonely when I think of our diminished number here, especially when I look into the trundle bed. Louise slept with Ettie, after it came warm weather, close by the side of our bed. I now count but three girls in the trundle bed. There is a vacant place. Johnnie Hiker and Eric sleep in the other bedroom.

Write soon,
H.J. Kelsey

Why did Jane write in the margin of her letter sheet?Based on this letter, what can you tell about the kinds of food pioneer families usually ate? How did they get their food?

* This letter has been edited slightly to make it more readable for 21st century readers. The challenges of transcribing a 19th century handwritten letter include changes in spelling, punctuation and usage.














Additional text for letter written in the margin

Bottom of Journal