by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Communication is so quick and convenient (until, that is, our devices don’t work as they should) that we tend to forget that it wasn’t all that long ago that people commonly wrote letters and sent postcards via snail mail for much of their interaction with others. Our texts, tweets, emails and other forms of electronic communication are also, generally, short bursts of information, while a phone call can be more substantive, but also more ephemeral.
Reading letters from days of yore (in our case, before our interpretive period’s end at 1930) can be a fascinating way to compare and contrast how people communicated then from now. Today’s post highlights a letter from the Homestead’s collection written on this date in 1856 by Cynthia Temple to her brother F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, though she still referred to him as Pliny, his birth name (a baptismal name of Francisco was bestowed on him in 1845 when he married Antonia Margarita Temple, changing his moniker to F.P.F.)
Cynthia was born in 1818 and was the second youngest of the large Temple family, with F.P.F. being the youngest by four more years. She remained at the family’s ancestral home in Reading, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles north of Boston. Because of the proximity in age, it may be that the two were particularly close.
There was another reason, though, why the two corresponded, because Cynthia, as the youngest and unmarried daughter, stayed home to care for her mother, Lucinda Parker Temple. F.P.F. was keenly interested, naturally, in the welfare of his mother and so made sure that he kept tabs on what was happening back home, including sending financial assistance to his family.
The missive began with Cynthia’s acknowledgement of receipt of F.P.F.’s letter of a month prior, which arrived four days prior to her reply. It is notable that, because we have some surviving examples in the museum’s holding of letters between F.P.F. and his family from the early 1840s, the speed with which correspondence was delivered had been greatly improved.
Instead of several months, via sailing ships, material could be received within several weeks because of the steamship, which plied the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, with inland transport at several location in Mexico and Central America, or through better inland transportation networks (the Butterfield Stage route and the Pony Express, however, were a few years off yet.)
Cynthia then talked about her health, which had, evidently, always been delicate. Given the prevalence, generally as well as specifically within the Temple family, of lung problems, this may have been the issue, especially she mentioned that “my cough is quite troublesome, and I have but little strength.”
It was likely because of her condition that F.P.F. invited her to travel out to California, especially now that Mrs. Temple had recently passed away, her death occurring on 24 April 1856, just a few months prior to the writing of the letter. An acquaintance of the family was leaving Massachusetts for California and F.P.F. encouraged his sister, now that she no longer had the responsibility of caring for their mother, to come west. Her reply, however, was:
Most gladly would I avail myself of the opportunity would my health allow of it and I could make myself useful. As my health is at present, I should not dare to take so long a tour with one that is unacquainted with the delicate state of my health.
Because of F.P.F.’s continuing kindness and offer for her to join him in California (the Temples resided at their spacious adobe home at Rancho La Merced, several miles west of the Workman House and Homestead), Cynthia expressed “Ten Thousand thanks to you my dear Brother for all your kind wishes and liberal acts towards me.” One of the latter, obviously mentioned in his July letter to her, concerned F.P.F.’s request to Cynthia to have a tombstone for their parents made and erected at the family burial plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading.
And for this last token of respect we can ever show our Honored Parents, may God bless you tenfold. It shall be got up according to your wishes in as neat and workmanlike manner as we can obtain.
She then returned to the idea of the journey west, observing “I sometimes have a ray of hope that I may yet see California, but I think the chances are against me.” It was her commitment to take care of their mother that kept her at home. otherwise “I should have been in California e’er my health had failed.” She expressed her religious conviction, however, that there was no regret for staying to care for Mrs. Temple.
It wasn’t just the assistance rendered by F.P.F. that helped the Temples remaining in the east. Cynthia reported that “Brother J has ordered his agent to forward to Mr. Bancroft a Draft in my favor of $500,” to assist her in living expenses and, perhaps, costs associated with Mrs. Temple’s burial.
“Brother J” was Jonathan Temple, the eldest of the family, being the first child with their father, Jonathan, Sr.’s first wife, Lydia Pratt. Jonathan was in California over a dozen years when F.P.F. journeyed out in 1841 (this discussed in a recent post here) to meet his elder brother for the first time; they were 26 years apart in age.
For all of this beneficence, Cynthia wrote, “I know I am not worthy of such kindness as you and brother J have bestowed on me.” Because she was over twenty years younger than Jonathan and appears to have left Massachusetts before her birth, she observed, “From my first meeting him, he has taken almost a Father’s interest in, and care of me.” She again invoked her religious faith in stating, “May God reward you both abundantly here, and hereafter a crown of eternal glory.”
She then turned to the question of whether F.P.F. would consider a visit back home, it being fifteen years since his departure to California, which was to be a trip of about a year’s duration but became permanent. With the death of their mother, Cynthia noted, “the centre of attraction is gone,” but she went on to state that she and family friends would be happy to see him again. Meantime, she hoped to have an ambrotype photograph taken and sent out to California.
The remainder of the letter concerned news of family, including the likelihood of brother Seth (1810-1880) selling his home as well as dealing with his wife’s health issues. She then closed by imploring F.P.F. to write sooner than every six months and expressed that “I would love to see your boys” and inquired “how much would it cost to have them taken in a group [photograph] with sister Margarita holding Johnny?” John Harrison Temple, the fifth child, all boys, of F.P.F. and Margarita, was born on 27 April, three days after the death of his grandmother. The other sons were Thomas, then 10 years old; Francis, who was 8; William, age 5; and David, who was 3, but died just a few days before Christmas in 1856.
Another point to make is about having photographs taken. The technology was still under twenty years old to that date and, although much progress had been made in terms of producing images and lowering costs, they had to be professionally done and were still relatively expensive. Moreover, in frontier Los Angeles, photographers were not at all common and there may not have been anyone in town to take images in 1856. Obviously, if Cynthia and F.P.F. were alive today, it would be seconds to snap a photo with a phone and then text the image. Then again, daguerreotypes from the mid-1850s still survive and how long will ephemera digital photos be with us?
Cynthia’s missive, especially the talk of their mother’s recent death and her own health problems, is especially poignant, because she only lived five months longer, passing away on 6 January 1857 (and this just over a couple of weeks after F.P.F.’s son, David.) That’s another point of comparison: mortality rates among children and life expectancy for adults were far different then than now. Letters of that period are frequently filled with inquiries of and reports on the health of the writers, recipients and their family and friends, because death was much more unexpected and sudden.
The Homestead is fortunate to have access to letters, including this one, from the 1840s through the 1920s that help put more of a human face on the Workman and Temple families. Look for more examples in future posts!