Monday, January 20, 2014

Sumner County - "Emily Sell: Letters of a Kansas Homesteader's Wife"

On Monday, January 27th, Elaine Clark, Sumner County Historical Society Prairie Letters’ Project Director, will present the program, “Emily Sell: Letters of a Kansas Homesteader’s Wife” to SCHGS members and guests at the Wellington Senior Citizen Center, 308 South Washington, Wellington, Kansas, at 6:30 p.m. For bad weather cancellation information, contact Jane Moore at 620-447-3266

In 2012 the Sumner County Historical and Genealogical Society received a notebook containing letters written primarily in the 1870’s by Emily Sell, one of Sumner County’s earliest settlers.

SCHGS President, Jane Moore, shared the letters with Elaine Clark, and they soon realized that they were holding a treasure trove of first-hand accounts of the everyday life of the wife of a Kansas homesteader.

Moore said that the Sells homesteaded in the Rome, Kansas area in the 1870’s, and 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.

“There have been histories written about other areas of Sumner County during this time period,” said Elaine Clark, adding “but very few collections of letters have been discovered which give a first-person perspective.”

 “That makes this collection of letters a priceless, irreplaceable piece of Kansas history,” Clark said.

Because of the historic value of the letters, the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), a nonprofit organization that supports community-
based cultural programs,, awarded the 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.

Since receiving the grant, Clark said that she has spent 194 hours transcribing the letters, and preparing them for publication. Clark will share details about the entire process: the acquisition of the letters, the transcription, the research, and the preparation for turning them into the book with SCHGS members and guests.

Clark said that when she first held the letters in her hand “I just stood there and wondered what her life was like.”

Now, Clark knows.

“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,” Clark said, adding that for some, it was a life that included hunger, deprivation, and early death.

It was hard to put the letters down,” Clark said, “I kept wanting to transcribe the next one to see what was new in the life of Emily.”

“I kept wanting things to get better for her,” Clark said, adding that for her, the saddest event in Emily’s letter was the death of her toddler child.

“I've transcribed letters that probably would have languished in someone’s closet, or worse yet, been destroyed,” Clark said, “It gives future generations a glimpse into the life of a homesteader in the early days of Sumner County.”

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