Letters shed light on missionary life

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In 1839, Hannah Whitcomb arrived in Tuscarora Village, a small Native American community near Niagara Falls, New York to begin her work as missionary to the Tuscarora Indians. For the next two decades, she lived with the tribe, married one of its chiefs, raised five children, and wrote dozens of letters that chronicle everything from her day-to-day life to tribal history.

Nearly two dozen of those letters, written by and to Whitcomb (later Hannah Chew), were recently presented to Houghton Library by two of her descendants, Ann Wigle and her son, John. The letters form a unique personal record of what life was like for early-19th century missionaries, and will complement existing Houghton collections, particularly the archive of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), who sent Hannah Whitcomb to the Tuscarora.

The nation’s first organized missionary society, ABCFM was formed in 1810, and sent thousands of missionaries all over the world, including India, China, Thailand, Africa and the Middle East. Hundreds of missionaries – including Whitcomb – were also sent to spread the Gospel to Native American populations throughout the U.S.

“Most of what we have in the archive are the official records of the organization, or letters that missionaries were required to write about their activities, and send back to the Board Commissioners,” said Leslie Morris, Houghton Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts. “That information is fabulous for anthropologists and other scholars. Often, however, we don’t have the more personal side of the missionaries’ life. We are always interested in material that helps broaden the official perspective.”

Dated from 1841 to 1865, Whitcomb’s letters were handed down from one generation to the next until Ann and John Wigle approached family members with a plan to turn the letters over to Houghton, where they could be preserved.

“We realized they are delicate, and they need to be protected,” John Wigle said, of the letters. “They’re too valuable to be stuck in a closet. We suspect that there are more letters out there, and hopefully people will come forward with them, because they should all be together.”

Whitcomb’s letters, however, weren’t the only Tuscarora-related material to come to Houghton last week.

Tuscarora tribal elder Neil Patterson Sr. agreed to leave a minute book, an organizational record kept by the mission that details meetings and includes records of deaths and excommunications, at Houghton, where it will receive conservation treatment, and will be copied for use in the Houghton Reading Room.