Travelling Letters, Travelling Bodies: Reflections from the Huntington Library

Published: Posted on

The project team have recently returned from two weeks researching at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The Huntington contains several important collections of eighteenth-century British correspondence, many of which found their way across the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, with later waves of acquisitions arriving in more recent decades. Many of these letters, like the project team, and some of the hundreds of scholars of eighteenth-century Britain who visit the Huntington each year, have travelled thousands of miles to reach their destination.

The Munger Research Centre, Huntington Library, San Marino [Author Photo]

Some of these collections, like the letters of Colonel James F. Mercer, were written by Britons who had themselves travelled across the Atlantic. In October 1754, Mercer wrote from London to his brother in Perth, detailing his intention ‘to set out for America’ on a commission.[1] He sailed to Virginia shortly afterwards, and travelled to Oswego County, New York, in charge of two New England regiments. During this time, and until he was killed in 1756, he wrote back home to friends and family in London and Scotland.[2] Mercer’s friend and correspondent in London, James Grahame, kept many of these letters in an attempt to posthumously clear Mercer’s name following the loss of the Oswego Fort of which he had been in command. Other letters were preserved by the grandson of James Mercer’s brother William, and remained in Scottish private collections until they travelled back to North America, where they had first been composed, in the twentieth century.[3]

In January 1755, shortly after his arrival in York, Virginia, Mercer wrote to his brother William:

‘I am at last here in good health & just ready to set out on a journy of at least 1000 miles to the northward. you shall hear from me as occasion offers from the Different Ports I touch at. neither Prosperity nor adversity time nor distance can remove you from my heart.’[4]

Mercer anticipated the expanse that still lay ahead of him, recognising the physical distance that separated him from his brother, but also the strong affective bond that continued to connect them even where regular correspondence could not.

Despite warnings about the difficulties of regular communication, in April 1755 James Grahame of London wrote anxiously to Mercer’s brother:

‘I have not heard from America since I last wrote you nor have any ships arrived from Boston for several months past which makes me hourly expect one.’[5]

But by June of that year Mercer, in New York, appeared equally despondent about the lack of news from Britain:

‘Tho I have not one line from you since I left Portsmouth I know you have not forgot me thats I think impossible all our ships from London are arrived but one in that I expect my treasure letters from you & my other friends.’[6]

This exchange of mutually-prized correspondence continued until James’s last letters of July 1756, when he reported that he was ‘well and in good spirits’ and urged his brother to ‘be sure to write me by Every Packett’.[7] In September Grahame wrote to Mercer’s brother to provide reassurance (perhaps for them both) about the infrequency of letters:

‘I have not had one Letter from America these three months from any Person whatsoever I take it for granted your Brother is well […] His great distance from New York from whence the Pacquets Sail being at least 500 miles & the Communication not always open are probably the causes we don’t hear so regularly from him’.[8]

But by this point James had been dead a month, killed instantly by a cannonball to the head. It was not until November that Mercer’s friend and brother were able to confirm their fears, which arrived in a September-dated note, and included a particularly cruel blow in the postscript: ‘your letters wer sent but did not reach Mercer’.[9]

* * *

Not all of the letters held by the Huntington Library have a North American connection, travelled great distances in the eighteenth century, or indeed discuss or represent bodies that travelled great distances themselves. Many collections contain letters that were exchanged solely within the British Isles, and often within a relatively small corner of it. Indeed, much of the correspondence of the Stutterd family, despite including itinerant Baptist preachers, was exchanged within West Yorkshire. While the distances that the Stutterd letters travelled could amount to just a few dozen miles as opposed to the thousands that divided the Mercers, this did not mean that feelings of separation, homesickness, or concern in response to absent letters were felt any less acutely. In 1796 Thomas wrote from West Yorkshire to his brother John in Colne, Lancashire (a distance of some fifty miles):

‘It is now a considerable time since I have been favoured with a line from you […] I should like to be informed how you do, & Betty. My mind is not easy respecting your situation at Colne.’[10]

Writing from Marlborough to Huddersfield in September 1792, Thomas expresses his deep concern at having not heard from Mary:

‘My Dear Wife, I have not yet reced one Letter from you. I am disappointed. I am concerned. I am uneasy. I was more so till this morning that I reced a very kind & instructive letter from T. Blanchard, dated the 2d Inst at the close of it he says “your family are all well” – a precious sentence indeed! It chears my Spirits in some measure but not so effectually as if I had news from yourself.’[11]

The nature of Thomas’s calling ensured he was frequently away from home, but he repeatedly notes that separation from his family, and a delay in receiving letters from them, made him feel uneasy and had a bearing upon his state of mind and spirits.[12] By modern standards Thomas may not have travelled so far from his West Yorkshire home, but the distance was still keenly felt, and letters from family were just as cherished as Mercer’s ‘treasure letters’. Indeed, it was the Stutterd letters themselves that were destined to travel great distances. The collection found itself divided after the death of those who had filled its pages, with an initial lot of personal papers being purchased at auction by the Huntington in 1985. Many of the other Stutterd letters remained in West Yorkshire, and as part of a Baptist church collection a few miles from where they had been written, for around two hundred years, until they too made their way to California in 2010, and were reunited with papers written by the same hands. What would the Stutterds have thought of their correspondence making a journey of some five thousand miles, far beyond the distance that any of them had travelled in their lifetimes?

Many of the British letters in the Huntington Library had an afterlife of travel, which began, or continued, for decades after they had first been passed from the pen of the writer to the hand of the recipient. A paper trail of more recent letters traces their journey. A note written by Thomas Bewick in 1804 is accompanied by a typewritten letter of 1906, written by a Henry E. Sherwin of Cleveland, who reports:

‘I have been on the other side of the Atlantic for between three and four months, and spent considerable time in London. I rummaged around among the book shops some, and in one place I found the enclosed […] the letter might be worth a place in your archive.’ [13]

For centuries the manuscripts that form many of the collections of eighteenth-century British correspondence at the Huntington have been travelling between Britain and North America, occasionally joined by those who wrote them, often followed by those interested in reading them once more.    

[1] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(20), James F Mercer to William Mercer, 10 October 1754.

[2] Olga Tsapina, ‘In the Back of God’s Elbow’, Huntington Frontiers Blog, December 28 2018,

[3] Christies, live auction 14376| lot 219, French & Indian War – Mercer, James (d. 1756),  

[4] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(28), James F Mercer to William Mercer, 10 January 1755.

[5] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(32), James Grahame to William Mercer, 29 April 1755.

[6] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(34), James F Mercer to James Grahame, 9 June 1755.

[7] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(51), James F Mercer to William Mercer, 8 July 1756.

[8] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(52), James Grahame to William Mercer, 2 September 1756.

[9] Huntington Library, Mercer Box 1(54), James Robertson to Willam Mercer, 20 September 1756.

[10] Huntington Library, MSS SFP706, Thomas Stutterd to John Stutterd, 29 Nov 1796.

[11] Huntington Library, MSS SFP496, Thomas Stutterd to Mary Stutterd, 6 September 1792.

[12] Karen Harvey, ‘Epochs of Embodiment: Men, Women and the Material Body’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 42 (2019) 462.

[13] Huntington Library, HM 27524 Thomas Bewick to Unknown, May 16 1804 Newcastle, also a letter from A Sherwin to J S. Wood, enclosing Bewick letter, 1906.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *