American Letters [023]

American Letter

The term “American Letter” refers not to a specific letter, but rather to a class of letters, starting in Famine times through the early part of the 20th Century.  These were letters from American emigres from Ireland to their families, siblings, and friends who remained in Ireland.  First, and foremost, they communicated family matters.  Births, deaths, significant events, and gossip that would help maintain the familial bonds. Since the Irish were often sponsored to the New World by a relative or close friend, their stories might  also be included.

Many of the letters pleaded for the rest of the family to join them. Life was better here than in Ireland.  There was hope, and opportunity for those who worked for it.  Most important, there was Freedom.  This is not to say all was ideal.  The old adage “ When the Irish were coming to America, they heard the streets were paved with gold.  When they got here, they learned three things:
    1.  The streets were not paved with gold;
    2.  They weren’t paved at all;
    3.  They were the ones to pave them.”

These American letters often contained a voucher or check that could be translated into English pounds.  The money could be used for food and shelter, but also to buy a boat ticket to Boston or New York.  “Bring Mother along if her health is good” might be seen in a letter to a brother.  “… Let us know when the boat is scheduled to arrive …” so “… we can meet you when it clears Quarantine…” helped calm the fears of timid souls. Travel at the time took two to three weeks.  Accommodations were not luxurious; contagious diseases were common, and death was a possibility.

One of the main means of money transfer in the days when only the rich had checking accounts, were private guarantors whose commercial paper was easily converted into pounds at most banks.  One of the better known, Patrick Donahoe of Boston, originally of Munnery, Co. Cavan, was also the founder of The Boston Pilot, arguably the most influential Catholic newspaper in the U.S. at the time. Donahoe was also the founder of the Emigrant Savings Bank, and raised several regiments for the Irish Brigade during the US Civil War.

These letters were part of the story of emigration to America.  They illustrate the strong family ties and the desire to maintain them in a new environment.  These letters are also part of the story of America where people could improve their lives and live in a free environment.  Their successes aided Irish integration into American life.

“American Letters in the Irish Famine”, Nichelson, G, Gibbons Stamp Monthly, January 2006, p.68-70.
Wikipedia: Donahoe, Ireland Famine, Boston Pilot.

[Author’s Note] As a small boy, I can remember reading one to my great-grandmother – it was well worn, and ragged after being reread and refolded numerous times.