Thursday, July 7, 2011

Solving a Puzzle

            One of the incidental pleasures of working on old documents is solving puzzles. Often that means identifying a person either unnamed or named only by a first or last name, and often it means establishing a date where none is given. Many such puzzles are doomed to remain unsolved, but the satisfaction of figuring out the answer is like the thrill of decoding a clue in a cryptic crossword. Here’s an example that I enjoyed recently.
            A letter from Anna Maria (Saunders) Preston (1825-1911), written from Abingdon, Virginia, to her mother Alice (Watts) Saunders (1793-1867), at her home at Flat Creek, Campbell County, Virginia, tells of a difficult journey home from a visit with her uncle and cousins, Edward Watts (1779-1859) and his family, at Oaklands, in Roanoke County, Virginia.

Soon after leaving Christiansburg our driver made a reckless & sudden attempt to pass the front stage, the horses in this stage became frightened at his noisy approach, started off suddenly, the wheels struck our leaders, who shied off violently, & before we hardly knew what had happened, we were thrown down a bank 15 or 20 feet high.

            Luckily, no one was killed. The writer and her husband, Thomas Lewis Preston (1812-1903), sustained bruises and cuts, and were badly shaken, but no worse. Some other passengers suffered fractures; one had to be taken to a near-by house to be cared for, while the rest rode on, some moaning with pain. They learned that the driver had a record of drunken driving, and Mr Preston determined to sue the company.
            The letter is dated Abingdon, Monday the 17th

No month, no year. If you substituted large trucks for horses, it could have been this year. The road they were traveling is pretty much the same as I-81, which the Washington Post described in horrific terms in a 2009 article headlined “Accident-Plagued Interstate 81 in Virginia”. But there were some clues to narrow the range of possible years. Toward the end of the letter, the author writes: 

Give much love to Papa, Caryetta & my brothers.

The writer’s father, Fleming Saunders (b. 1778), died on 26 May 1858. Caryetta was her sister-in-law, Caryetta (Davis) Saunders (1825-1894), who married Robert Chancellor Saunders (1827-1902) on 28 May 1851. So this letter must have been written between 1851 and 1858.

Gravestone of Fleming Saunders 
(replacement carved in late 20th century)

            There are also clues to the month. It was spring, but the weather was terrible:
The weather has been very unfavorable for gardening, the hail storm injured the shrubbery & destroyed all the peaches. We will have apples, I suppose. Yesterday it commenced snowing & today we have a deep snow upon the ground, & the weather very uncomfortably cold. What a terrible spring. I expect to be very busy, as soon as I can get out. There is a great deal to have done. Tell Washington we have delightful asparagus. 

These indications point strongly to the month of April. Turning now to a perpetual calendar, I find that 17 April was a Monday only in the year 1854 within the required range.
            That is strong evidence, but I needed some confirmation. If the weather was that bad, it was probably mentioned elsewhere. And here I was fortunate; among the Watts papers at the Historical Society of Western Virginia, there is a letter from the addressee of this one, Alice (Watts) Saunders, written at Flat Creek, on 18 April 1854, to her brother Edward Watts at Oaklands, asking, 

 Have you ever seen such dreadful weather in April?

Never has news of dreadful weather been so welcome to me!

The letters quoted in this post belong to the Historical Society of Western Virginia.
The letter from Anna Maria (Saunders) Preston is Flat Creek Collection 83202-83205.
The letter from Alice (Watts) Saunders is Watts Letters 2007.32.84.

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