What’s in a Letter? More than you think.

“Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How can we use letters to reshape our history? We may be surprised to learn how rich a source they can be. As an example, here is a transcription of single page of a letter—one that is part of a larger story of Ellsworth M. Clark hitchhiking his way through Southern Idaho and Wyoming in the summer of 1934. He was to be married to his fiancée Dorothy Smith that August, and was desperately seeking work as a school teacher in the height of the Great Depression:

This morning I came  over to Montpelier with the County Sheriff. I was in Montpelier for almost one hour before I found out Wm Clark was not coming over here. From the garage where he worked. I walked up past Munks (Mildred is now home), but I believe they were yet in bed so no one came to the door. Not knowing how I would get over here, I walked towards the canyon until I got out of town. I waited for about an hour and caught a ride over with a big truck. As there are very few cars going on that road, I consider myself very lucky to get a ride so soon. I was back on top of mail sacks and boxes of groceries etc. The wind tangled my hair until I thought I’d never get it combed out. Arrived in Afton about 12:30 and just had time to shave & clean up for dinner. Aunt Louise & family have treated me very fine. You should see the swell bedroom I am to have tonight.

After dinner I called on Mr. Crook, the Superintendent of Schools. He was not home, but his wife said she to at a ballgame or church, she didn’t know. He will be back at home about 5:30, at which time I will interview the Gentleman.

June is leaving Paris for Salt Lake today. I think she left about noon. Suppose you will see her before I will.

The weather is somewhat cool up here

Aside from containing fun details about riding in the back of a truck, this letter is more than just a story: it contains people, places, and events. For example, this page contains six people, four places, a date, and a few subjects:

Names:
County Sheriff [Bear Lake County, Idaho]
Wm Clark [William O. Clark KWCZ-3G6​]
Mildred Vilate Munk [KWCB-M92​]
Aunt Louie [Louisa Mary Shepherd Call KWJZ-HL8]
Mr. Crook
Mrs. Crook

Places:
Montpelier, Idaho
Afton, Wyoming
Paris, Idaho
Salt Lake City, Utah

Date:
9 June, 1934

Subjects:
Great Depression
Hitchhiking
Job search

Each person tag represents an opportunity to share this source as on their family trees such FamilySearch Memories. The date provides a mark on a timeline for that individual, and the locations can help form a map that is also linked to that person.  Finally, subject tags illustrate what is contained on this page that will enrich our view of history with this new perspective.

If this much information can be indexed from a single page, imagine what we could derive from an entire letter? An entire collection of letters? This is why transcribing and tagging is the key to unlocking our histories and the stories contained therein.

sample 1

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