Embedded within those letters are references to far more letters than those that remain.These new discoveries have transformed the way modern scholars approach Native history.Jennifer Monaghan remind us, and access to the technologies of literacy (the right quill for a pen, proper ink, a flat surface for writing, light, paper, and, of course, the leisure to compose a letter) was a challenge for many of the Native correspondents of New England.There was always the fear of letters getting lost, stolen, misunderstood, or misplaced—especially with the formal mechanism of the postal system involved, as Eve Bannet and Lindsay O’Neill have both suggested.This formal portrait of Samson Occom is one of a handful of images of the Native New England writers whose letters and papers have come down to us today.While here he is stiffly posed, clearly his daughter and his brother-in-law had a very different, intimate sense of this man, as we can see through their letters.
Rather than establishing which is which, the Yale Indian Papers Project is an ambitious attempt to provide a more comprehensive digital repository for papers from multiple archives (Yale University, the British Library, the Connecticut State Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Massachusetts Archives, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and the New London County Historical Society) documenting some element of Native New England for the last 400 years.
Mine is probably the last generation in this country to have a felt experience of epistolary exchange now that electronic media have largely replaced handwritten exchanges as the communication mode of choice.
Of course my experience of epistolarity is hardly the same as the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Native American subjects of my book, , for whom the only tie to family—sometimes for years at a stretch—was the letters that passed between them.
Even so, the class barriers to epistolarity that scholars have tended to assume were there have been challenged in several important recent publications, and evidence of what scholar Susan Whyman calls “epistolary literacy” has been recovered from a range of transatlantic archives: letters among servants and between members of nearly impoverished families form part of the expanding world of the familiar letter.
Whyman argues that the expansion of letter writing had a democratizing effect, and that the array of letters among the “lower and middling sort” suggests a far greater network of informal literacy training than had been previously understood.