TOPEKA – The Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) recently awarded Sumner County Historical & Genealogical Society of Wellington a $3,500 grant for the “Prairie Letters: Written in Rural Kansas in the Late Nineteenth Century” project.
Jane Moore, SCHGS president said that in 2012 the Sumner County Historical and Genealogical Society received a notebook containing the “Prairie Letters,” letters that had been written primarily in the 1870’s by Emily Sell, one of Kansas’ earliest setters. Sell homesteaded in the Rome, Kansas area with her husband. Moore said that even though Kansas was opened to settlement in 1854 and became a state in 1861, there were only 22 white people living in Sumner County by 1870 (The Sumner County Story, Paul and Gwendoline Sanders, 1966, p. 9). Sumner County was not fully organized until Nov. 7, 1871.
“When I saw that the first letters were dated 1870, and learned that there were only about 22 white people living in Sumner County in 1870, I couldn’t imagine what life must have been like for those early settlers,” said Elaine Clark, Prairie Letters Project Director and grant author.
There have been histories written about other areas of Sumner County during this time period, but very few collections of letters have been discovered which give a first-person perspective,” Clark said, “that makes this collection of letters a priceless, irreplaceable piece of Kansas history.”
“Transcription and preservation of these letters will give future historians, researchers, genealogists, and those interested in early settlement of the Midwest a first-person account of the hardships and difficulties of early homesteaders,” said Moore.
“Historical details about settlement in the Rome, Kansas, area are sketchy, but the town was officially organized in 1884,” Moore said, adding that SCHGS members involved in transcribing Emily’s letters to friends and family are eager to learn about early-day settlement of Sumner County through the eyes and viewpoint of the homesteader and his wife.
Clark said she and her husband, Larry Clark, traveled to Jordan Cemetery recently to view and photograph Emily’s grave stone.
“I stood there and wondered what her life was like,” Clark said, adding that “these letters reveal much about the early days of Sumner County and the hardships and sorrows that families endured. We tend to take food, warmth, air conditioning, doctors and medical care for granted, but these letters share the facts of everyday life for Kansas’ early settlers, babies that died because no doctors were available, weeks that go by before getting letters from family and friends, and children who can’t get an education because they live too far from school or they are needed to work on the farm.”
“These situations would seem foreign to today’s young people,” Clark said.
Clark said that some of the letters are almost unreadable because of fading, so it is imperative for the SCHGS to transcribe these letters as soon as possible.
“This Heritage Grant from the Kansas Humanities Council will assist in preserving this treasure,” Clark said, “I can hardly wait to do the transcribing.”
Clark added that as the project progresses and they learn more about the contents of the letters, they will share information on the website at www.ksschgs.com, blog at www.ks-schgs.blogspot.com, SCHGS Facebook page and in area publications.
“KHC Heritage grants encourage the preservation of local cultural resources,” said Julie Mulvihill, executive director of the Kansas Humanities Council. “This transcription project will preserve these one-of-a-kind primary source documents for generations to come. What a treat to find out what stories these letters will tell.”
The Kansas Humanities Council is a nonprofit organization that supports community-
based cultural programs, serves as a financial resource through an active
grant-making program, and encourages Kansans to engage in the civic and cultural
life of their communities. For more information, visit www.kansashumanities.org.