A few days ago, I stumbled across a group of letters in the Marshall Family Papers written to and from John H. Marshall, a Kentuckian involved in William Walker’s brief rule of Nicaragua in 1856-1857. Marshall’s letter home from Nicaragua, rich in detail about Walker’s government and conditions in Latin America, inspired an article that will appear in the next issue of The Filson newsmagazine. As I worked on that piece, I began to think about what can be learned from even a brief series of letters. These five letters written between August 1856 and January 1857 provide a snapshot of family life in the mid-nineteenth century.
A popular misconception about nineteenth century families is that all members stayed close to home. Not only do these five letters disprove that notion, but they reveal just how far family members lived from one another. Four of the five letters are written by members of the Marshall family. One is from John H. Marshall, living in Nicaragua, to his father, Thomas A. Marshall, in Lexington, Kentucky. Another is from John’s brother, Humphrey, living in San Francisco, and a third was sent by John’s sister, Nanette, from Lexington. Finally, William C. Smedes wrote the letter informing his father-in-law, Thomas Marshall, of John’s death. Smedes lived in Mississippi. In these four letters alone, we learn that four of Thomas A. Marshall’s five children lived in locations separated by thousands of miles. However, family members sometimes moved together. The letters also reveal that before immigrating to Nicaragua, John Marshall lived in San Francisco with his brother, Humphrey.
This small group of letters also reveals the way news spread and how slowly some information traveled. Two letters written in September 1856 indicate how long it could take for news to arrive. Written by John’s brother, Humphrey, and friend, William Maxson, both letters inquire after conditions in Nicaragua and express interest in relocating to the Latin American country if prospects were good. Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, Walker’s regime was on its last legs as opposition forces and disease decimated his army. In November 1856, John H. Marshall died on his return from Nicaragua. Yet, his family didn’t learn of his death until maybe as much as two months later. Sadly, John’s sister, Nannette, wrote him more than a month after his death, obviously unaware of his passing. Based on the envelope, which is addressed to him as part of “General Walker’s Army” in Nicaragua, she didn’t even know that he had resigned his post to return to the United States. The first documentation of their learning was William Smedes’s January 1857 letter to John’s father. Smedes reveals that he learned of Marshall’s death from a Col. Kewen, whom Maxson had mentioned in his letter as traveling to Nicaragua and who was the bearer of his letter to Marshall.
Even if the letters contained no information about William Walker and American involvement in Latin America, they would prove valuable to researchers. This sort of information is often overlooked in favor of descriptions of battles or references to prominent people, but it is just as important when trying to understand life in the past.