Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Bell Letters from Iowa (1850 – 56) and from Missouri (1856 – 67)

Rebecca Chandler (3559), the sister of William Chandler (3562), married Alexander Bell in Ross County, Ohio in March 1817. An early letter dated 1836 is addressed from Vermillion County, Illinois to William in Chillicothe, Ohio. Between 1850 and 1856, Rebecca and her children Martha and Anna wrote a number of letters from Iowa to William Chandler (3562) and to Sarah Blain (3705) in Chillicothe, Ohio. The Bells moved to Grundy County, Missouri in 1856 and continued to write to Chillicothe relatives until 1867.

The Bell letters contain a number of recurring comments and themes. The 1850 letter refers to Iowans leaving the state for California, perhaps as a result of the discovery of gold in 1849. It also mentions that others passing through Iowa on the way west have purchased many goods and have caused an increase in prices.

Their letters refer frequently to the concept of “chasing old bachelors,” noting that it is easier to catch a buffalo. The Bell girls find this to be untrue and talk of frequent suitors. The topic of marriage, and of the girls’ particular prospects, runs through all of their letters from 1850 to 1867.

Reports about the family; about farming, land, and crops; and about the prices of goods are common in the letters. The weather is frequently mentioned, one letter offering an early description of an ice storm that downs tree branches and causes the closing of the girls’ school. Health conditions in Iowa are far from good in the 1850s and are often mentioned. The building of railroads in Iowa receives favorable comment and provides an excuse to encourage those in Ohio to come visit the prairie.

In 1854 Alexander Bell visits the Kansas Territory, a trip noted in a letter. The wording used very closely resembles “A Journey through Kansas,” an 1854 publication describing the bounty of the Kansas Territory and encouraging northerners to settle the area to keep it from becoming a slave state. Both the 1854 letter and an 1856 letter which mentions “A Journey through Kansas” suggest the growing unrest that foreshadows the Missouri Compromise and the Civil War.

Rebecca Bell and members of her family move to Grundy County, Missouri in 1856. The move and subsequent purchase of a suitable farm are described. Again, land and crops and prices are frequent topics of the letters. The letters discuss the approaching war and the views of the Bells regarding slavery. They are sprinkled with stories of everyday events: a distraught women who drowns herself; the building of a new rail line from Hannibal to St. Joseph, Missouri; Alexander Bell needing to plow land himself for the lack of available help as the Civil War begins; the sound of cannon from the battle of Lexington, Missouri – more than 100 miles distant.

The final letter in 1867 completes the circle of chasing old bachelors. Sarah Slane (the recipient in Chillicothe) has married, while Anna Bell writes that she has no companion, knows many who have married unhappily, and seems committed to a life as an old maid. There is no indication whatsoever that Anna would marry in six months from the date of the letter, and would eventually have four children. Regardless, Anna speaks with conviction of the beauty of the prairie and offers no regrets about her life in the western countries.

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