"September 15, 1849 – My Dear William, I often dream of you at night and Fanny and I talk much of you during the day."
This is the opening line of a letter that Frances Seward wrote to her young son when she and her husband, William H. Seward, were away in Washington, DC. Also enclosed was a small drawing from the boy's younger sister, Fanny.
The letter is one of thousands in the University of Rochester's William Henry Seward Papers, a massive manuscript collection spanning about 350,000 pages of letters, diary entries, scrapbooks, and household papers. Yale University and the Library of Congress both wanted the collection, but it was bequeathed to UR by Seward's grandson, William Henry Seward III.
Seward is often remembered for his role in the US purchase of Alaska. But his influence, most historians agree, was much greater. He was a trial attorney, state senator, US senator, governor of New York, and an influential secretary of state to President Abraham Lincoln. Seward was targeted for assassination along with Lincoln, but survived with serious injuries.
After four years of painstakingly detailed work, the Seward Family Digital Archive Project, a record of life during what is arguably one of the most intriguing times in US history, is live at www.sewardproject.org. The site is still a work in progress.
The formidable project has been made easier by an unusual multigenerational collaboration between UR history students, faculty, and volunteers, some of whom are residents at the Highlands at Pittsford retirement community.
All of the letters were digitized, transcribed, and entered into a computer. But the ornate cursive writing can be difficult to read and some of the phrasing is dated. The UR students can read cursive, but there's a learning curve. The Highlands residents are more familiar with the ornate handwriting, and are better versed in the waning art of writing letters. Together, the students and seniors have been able to assemble an intimate family portrait of the Sewards.
Historians often rely on government records and public documents when writing biographies, says Thomas Slaughter, a UR history professor who is overseeing the Seward project, because the information is accessible. But personal accounts often uncover unique perspectives of the people and the times in which they lived, he says.
For instance, even though there were major advancements in transportation during Seward's time, travel by road could still be long and grueling. Louisa Cornelia Seward wrote to her sister-in-law, Frances Seward, about how in the middle of a trip, she and another family member had to "procure wheels" for their sleigh. "Rode from Sallisbury home on bare ground in a cutter. I never can forget how it made my teeth ache," she wrote in the 1828 letter.
The letters also helped people stay informed about the progress of diseases such as cholera and smallpox. In one letter, William H. Seward asks his family if cholera had reached Auburn, their hometown.
The letters also mention the "panic of 1837" in which the whole economy essentially fell apart. In a letter dated May 27, 1837, Seward writes to his brother, Benjamin, "The panic and pressure having reached its crisis in New York seems to be carrying no less than its full measure of terror through the country."
But there are lighter moments, too, says Serenity Sutherland, a Ph.D. candidate at the UR. The family papers include, for example, letters from pets to the Seward children.
The collection also expands historians' understanding of gender, class, and race roles during the era. In a letter dated January 16, 1861, for example, Frances Seward writes, "The alteration of the Constitution to perpetuate slavery – the enforcement of a Law to recapture a poor, suffering fugitive, giving half of the Frontier of a free Country to the curse of slavery – these compromises cannot be approved by God."
Seward supported abolition, Slaughter says, but he was also a pragmatist concerned with the preservation of the Union. The Seward women, the papers show, tweaked him on moral grounds.
"They were always hitting him from the left," Slaughter says.
Reading the handwriting in the collection is just one of the project's hurdles. The students must also research countless words and phrases that are no longer used in contemporary language.
For example, a "bathorse" might refer to a horse used to carry luggage, and to "bat the horse" might mean to prepare the horse to carry luggage.
And each person had his or her own distinct handwriting style that must be deciphered, says Margaret Becket, a retired UR librarian and volunteer for the Seward project.
Keeping track of the people in the letters is another issue, she says. If Frances Seward wrote, for example, that her son is happy, Becket says, "Well, which son are we talking about now?"
And how the letters were written and opened could create problems, too. The ink might have faded or smudged, and the wax seals might have removed some words when the letter was opened.
A letter that hangs in the digital project work room at the UR was written with sentences flowing from left to right, and then the letter was turned and the writing continued from left to right on the same side of the paper, creating a crisscross pattern of sentences.
Lyn Nelson, 85, a resident at the Highlands and a volunteer transcriber says that she and a fellow resident, Allan Anderson, 83, had no problem reading the handwriting in the Seward letters. The challenge for them, they say, has more to do with their lack of computer skills. But volunteering on the project has helped, they say.
"In the beginning, oh my, it was so painful," Nelson says.
"They were incredibly patient with our thick fingered-ness," Anderson says. "I was so afraid I would hit something and eliminate everything."