Thursday, May 10, 2012

Rechel Miller's Letter to Her American Sister: Hawick, Scotland, May 1888

by G. Jack Urso

In 1988, my mother, an inveterate book collector, gave me a couple boxes of old books odds and ends she had picked up while living in Delhi, New York. A housekeeper in a rural community, she accepted payment in a variety of ways, including eggs, hay, and old books, among many other things.
I didn’t have the shelf space, but being a lover of books myself, I figured one day I would get through them. I put the box in a closet and promptly forgot about them.
A couple years later I finally went through the collection. While flipping through an old book, a letter fell out of the pages. Over a hundred years old, and written in a firm, strong cursive, it is a letter from a woman in Scotland to her American sibling, informing her of the recent passing of their mother:

Page 2                                               Page 1
Page 3                                                  Page 4
I have transcribed the letter below, retaining original spelling and grammar:

56 High Street
May 31, 1888
Dear Sister

I am very sorry to inform you that Mothers dead she died within a few days illness, and Thank God she is in Heaven among the Blest, She was 2 years with me and she was very helpless she could not do nothing for herself.
She was saved and very happy She said that she had hold of the Saviour[‘s] hand to take her to cross the cold river of Death. Praise God she is not dead but sleepeth in the arms of Jesus the world[‘]s redeemer. Bless him He died for all and some day or other I shall meet her on the shining streets in the Heavenly City where we shall meet to part no more. Thank God we are all well in body. And I pray that this letter will find you all well in body and soul

I pray that you have found the pearl of great Price. And ready to meet Mother when the Lord shall call you. Their [sic] is coming on a Great Day of recking [sic] when every one of us will recieve [sic] a just-reward, And if we have lived for Christ we shall reign with Him for ever and if we have lived for ourselves we shall be eternally cast out of his presence. Dear Sister I am sorry that I have not got mother card* [see note below], we could not get it taken because she was never able to go out. Dear Sister I have not heard anything of Christiana for over 20 years and we have not had any word from Astratia for over 4 years and I cannot say anything about them. I hope you will write by return of Post to let us know how you are getting on. No more at Present
no time
God Bless You
Your Sister
Rechel Miller
56 High Street
Hawick Rodburgh. Scotland

* This word, card, is unclear in the original text (see image above, page 3) and is my interpretation. Photographic post cards relatives and friends took of themselves to send to each other were common in the late 19th century. That the mother had been ill and unable to leave the home to have a picture taken is an educated guess about what the text infers. 

56 High Street, Hawick, Scotland, still exists:

56 High Street, Hawick, Scotland (Google Maps Street View, 2010).
You can access the street view on Google Maps by clicking here. Today, it is home to the shop of Robert Pringle, butcher, on the first floor. It is in that building, on one of the upper floors, that Rechel Miller took care of her ailing mother until she crossed "the cold river of death."

The two women referred to in the letter — Christiana and Astratia, who have not been heard from in many years — are these Rechel's other sisters? One can only guess. The news that Christiana has not been heard from in over twenty years could mean that she emigrated herself to some far-distant land, succumbed to illness, or perhaps holds a deep-seated grudge that compelled her to leave Hawick all those years ago. One cannot resist a little speculation with such a historical fragment. There is so much written between the lines that will forever remain unknown, including the likely recipient of Rechel's letter in America.

With her mother recently passed, and two other likely family members gone without a word, I imagine Rechel Miller may have felt quite alone that May of 1888.
My research uncovered genealogy forums in which I discovered that a Miller family from Hawick, Scotland emigrated to the Catskill Mountains in New York State’s Delaware County, where Delhi is located and where my mother was living when she obtained the book that contained the letter. Therefore, it seems logical that Rechel Miller is likely related to that branch.  
The surname Miller, however, is quite common in Scotland and I found references to a Rachel Miller and a Retchel Miller from around the same time period in Hawick, but alas nothing definitive to connect Rechel Miller to any of them. Of course, spelling was not as consistent as it was today, particularly with hand-written records, and there may be little difference in the pronunciation of Rechel Rachel and Ratchel with a Scottish accent, so a couple of them they could be the same person. Also, it may simply be that more than one Miller family, unrelated to each other, emigrated from Hawick to Delaware County in the 19th century and her family’s history is now lost to time.

Rechel Miller’s letter does give us a valuable look at the patterns of human migration and the burden left on the families who remained in the country of their birth. What we can tell from her handwriting is that she has a firm, strong hand, likely a woman in the prime of life, and with a decidedly religious bent. Her cursive is very good, but marked by noticeable grammatical and spelling errors, suggesting a formal, though limited education.
Rechel’s burden in caring for her invalid mother must have been great indeed. Speaking from personal experience, taking care of an infirmed parent is a challenge in the 21st century and one can only imagine the financial and emotional burden Rechel had to carry alone, without the assistance of health insurance and social service or siblings to help share the load.

It was by a sheer coincidence that the letter fell into my hands almost exactly 100 years to the day Rechel Miller wrote it. 
Emigration often leads to a better life for the people who take the chance, but for those who remain, without the support of those relatives who left, the impact would likely have increased financial burdens and family responsibilities while reducing their personal wealth and expectations of care and comfort in their own old age. At a time when senior services were virtually unknown, the elderly generally remained with their children or siblings, if they were lucky – and many were not. With her sisters gone and mother now deceased, who would take care of Rechel in her own senior years must have weighed heavily on her mind at the time she wrote this letter. Her reference to “we” in the letter suggests Rechel was not alone, and I do hope she passed her years in the warmth and security of the love only family can share.
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for returning a small piece of the experiences of this branch of the Miller family to life. I have always enjoyed these stories, how an individual's, or a family's story, is resurrected.