1855: John Langdon Sibley to Amanda Bartlett Harris


John Langdon Sibley in 1856

This very interesting letter was written in 1855 by John Langdon Sibley (1804-1885) of Cambridge, Massachusetts to children’s author, Amanda Bartlett Harris (1824-1917) who resided in Warner, New Hampshire. Sibley received his undergraduate education at Harvard University and later worked as Librarian at Harvard. He was born in Union, Knox county, Maine — the son of Jonathan Sibley (1773-1874) and Persis Morse (1772-1847).

The letter describes Sibley’s time spent perusing old newspapers of the New York Historical Society Library collecting biographical material and obituary notices for the graduates of Harvard University which would later be used in his publication of the Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University. Sibley tells Harris of a chance encounter with author “Minnie Myrtle” (Nancy Cummings Johnson) at the library and shares the substance of his conversation with her — particularly her first volume of Indian history entitled, The Iroquois, Or the Bright Side of Indian Character (1855) in which she wrote in her introduction that it was her objective to dispel the “ignorance and prejudice” associated with Indians. Further in the letter Sibley talks about his writing style and mentions two of his works: History of the Town of Union (1851) and Father Abbey’s Will. The letter is very well written and filled with much literary content. It is signed at the end by Sibley using his initials.

Addressed to Miss Amanda B. Harris, Warner, New Hampshire

Cambridge [Massachusetts]
28 February 1855 ¹

Miss A. B. Harris,

I spent about four weeks in New York City & when I returned on the last Friday in February, I found an accumulation of letters, among which was one from you requiring attention. I am dispatching replies so as to be as nearly ready as I can be for the pressures of business at the beginning of the term.

You have probably seen so many New Yorkers who have described the wonders there in detail that I can give but little that will be novel or interesting. I spent most of my time in the library of the New York Historical Society exploring old newspapers & volumes for notices & obituaries of graduates of Harvard College. There I found the first 209 Nos. (5 only wanting) of The Boston Newsletter — a little weekly paper, the first ever published in America [1704], of which probably but few copies were printed. Of course it covered a period of about four years. I examined a great number of volumes of newspapers during the last century of which there is a remarkably good collection. Their character differs much from the modern. The sheets are small, much of them occupied with political movements in Great Britain & other countries, & it is particularly noticeable that all abound with details of crimes, trials, executions, gratifying to a morbid curiosity. The cruelties of tortures within a century past, the convictions on testimony which, I was often convinced, would now lead a jury to acquittals without even leaving their seats, & the protestations of innocence when brought to the horrible punishment for treason, frequently aroused my feelings of compassion for the victims & my gratitude at the better administration of law & charity at the present day.

As I followed along the volumes chronologically, the gradual improvement became apparent considerably so before the revolution & then the papers — both Whig & Tory — are filled with contemporary events affecting the welfare of America & England. I experienced indescribable sensations in reading through the Seven Years War & subsequently the Revolutionary, the flying rumors which preceded events, then the additional information from new express riders, the the confirmation of what was true & the rejection of the exaggerations which always accompany early rumors. Then came conjectures as to movements & plans of enemies, expectations as to continuance of the war or as to peace — all making a glorious uncertainty & keeping everybody on the qui vive at the time — all passed by & now become a matter of sober history.

The librarian of the Society is George H[enry] Moore, born at Concord [New Hampshire], an enthusiast in antiquarianism & American history & consequently exactly the man for the place. The library contains Gen. Gates’s U.S. papers, the best portrait of Alexander Hamilton, a variety of pictures & curiosities, & perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 of books on America. A new building is about to be erected.²

Here, without any introduction, I accidentally became acquainted with Minnie Myrtle who write for the Home Journal, New York Times, National Era, &c. & who lately, at the urgency of Baker & Scribner, publishers, has collected her fragments & made an unpretending little book with the title, Myrtle Wreath. Some persons think she follows in the wake of Fanny Fern but though reminding one of her, she is very different. Her pieces are very short, all facts prettily put together, still not perfect or assuming to be wise or performed narratives. They are interesting though simple, & appear designed throughout to be useful. In conversing with her, I thought she appeared to abound in good old-fashioned common sense. She is so deaf that it was necessary to raise my voice & speak very distinctly. She is a native of Vermont, spent two years in a missionary family among the Six Nations, became greatly interested in the Indian character, had for her chamber mate a little Indian girl, says the Indians are capable of cultivation, that they have always been misjudged, that they ought not to be compared with civilized & christianized nations, but with heathen nations, & from this standpoint she has prepared a little book on their inner life, avoiding their wars &c., & it will be printed probably sometime in the year. I found she was well “posted up” on the books pertaining to Indians. [Henry Rowe] Schoolcraft‘s huge volumes, now in process of publication, she says are undigested, not methodical, abound in repetitions, & have no index. If this book succeeds, she intends to pursue her investigations in regard to the other tribes. She is unmarried. Her name is N. C. Johnson, & she supports herself without difficulty with her pen. In one or two of her pieces in newspapers, I noticed that she advocated the doctrine that every woman should support herself — a doctrine not very common in cities. Thus I have filled up my letter without meaning to say one word about old newspapers when I began & not more than three lines about Minnie Myrtle. However, I will keep on.

If you always write as well as in your last, when two children are continually asking questions, it will not impair your style to have them always at hand. The list of books you send is prodigious. If all the domestic matters are thoroughly attended to, the greater the marvel that you have done so much. It is something which I do not comprehend. Wither there must be some deficiency somewhere, or the case is the most remarkable I have ever known. Still I know nothing about it & have no right to judge but from your letters & printed tales. How thoroughly or how superficially or how rapidly you read, I can only guess except what you say. My article to which you allude is indicative of the manner in which I generally prepare my papers for printing. The article was reprinted in the Brunswick newspaper. The Duyckincks of New York are writing (& the new work is now in print) an Encyclopedia of American Literature in two large 800 vols. They reprint the poetry from the newspaper & take very freely from a part of the notes. I find they allude in one of their paragraphs very handsomely to my History of Union, a work which cost me all the time I could spare in five years, every part of which I rewrote & some parts of it were rewritten six or seven times, after all which the style is very stiff & ungraceful. I always interline & erase & generally rewrite whatever I print even in newspapers. I find it requires time to classify & arrange materials & that half & more than half the effect depends upon a clear method of arrangement. I had quite a puzzle to arrange & methodize the scattered items in Father Abby’s Will but a vastly greater one with the bulky collection of fragmentary papers about the history.

My aunts, Mrs. [Nancy (Sibley)] Bean [1791-1870] & Mrs. [Polly (Sibley)] Eastman [b. 1794], particularly the former, have expressed a desire when I have occasionally been at Warner, to hear from me. I am not aware that either of my letters has ever contained a word that I have any objection to let them see, & it is not probable they ever will. Still I leave it to you to read them or not to [read] them occasionally, as you see fit. The topics being literary, they may or may not take interest in them. There is nothing private so far as I am concerned which you may not let them see, even to the taking home of the letters if they care enough about them to borrow them. There is considerable pen among the Sibleys & Aunt Bean has a good share of it intermingled with her good sense. I think she might be pleased with reading Father Abby if she were informed what a conglomeration of stuff is to be disposed of by the time one is finishing his college course. Still, take your own course about it.

The Cantabs ³ say they have had “dreadful cold weather” while I have been away, but I was in such warm dwellings in New York that I was unconscious of the cold without. How dreadfully the Mink Hills must look in such cold weather. Can Nova Zembla or Spitzbergen work more drearily in winter? The reflection from their icy summits is enough to put out one’s eyes almost. And yet how many, many a happy hour have I enjoyed at the foot, both in summer & winter, in days lang syne, some thirty-five years ago when Waterton was peopled with young persons then of my age & my uncle had a large family of pleasant playmates! Now how different! It will not be often that I shall see the spot again. Age & disruption by death of old associates & associations, & new associations & situations & employments, & a _____ disinclination to leave the rooms where we feel most at home check the roaming propensity as we grow old — particularly when movements are attended with in convenience. At fifty, a man begins to feel that he is running down hill so fast that he must soon be brought to its foot. Nature is beginning to send the earthly robe which clothes the spirit & bid him be ready to go away. My paper is filled — I hardly know with what. So goodbye. — J. L. S.

¹ John Langdon Sibley kept a diary a great portion of his life and they are housed at Harvard University. If we look at February 1855, we find the following entries describing his trip to New York City and return to Cambridge:

January 30, 1855

             Tuesday. At the N.Y. Historical Society Library, began the examination of the Boston Newsletter, of which the first 209 Nos are complete, wanting only Nos 27, 138, 139, 140, 141, for the purpose of making extracts respecting graduates of Harvard University.

 February 2, 1855

             Began the examination of a volume of the News-Letter Nos 1397-1509 from Nov 5, 1730 to Dec 28, 1732 complete, bound with the New England Journal Nos. 198 to 301 wanting No 206, with which is bound No 572 of the Boston Gazette for Nov 30, 1730. The vol is owned by Mr. [George H.] Moore the librarian, who says he gave fifty dollars for it.

 February 3, 1855

             Saturday. Began on American Weekly Mercury published by Bradford at Philadelphia a file not quite perfect from Jan 4, 1732-3 to April 8, 1736. Subsequently examined the New York Mercury from June 4, 1753 to Dec 25, 1769 wanting No 386 Jan 7, 1760, 421, Sept 8, & 435, Dec. 15, 1760, 501, 512, 513, 535, March 8, May 24, 31, Nov 1 & 22, 1762, 667, 681, 684, etc. Also an imperfect file (quite without names of deaths) of the N.Y. Gazette from May 11, 1730 to May 26, 1740. The N.Y. Post Boy of which I began examination at No 30 July 25, 1743, an imperfect file, is of no special value for my purpose, neither is the Flying Post, an English newspaper published about 1696.

February 6, 1855

            Tuesday. This evening attended the monthly meeting of the N.Y. H. Society & heard a paper by Lieut. Gov. Lawrence which he is to publish as a Memoir prefixed to the writings of Henry Wheaton, LL.D. After the exercises there were over the members of the Society repaired to the library where were refreshments.

February 22, 1855

            Thursday. Great celebration of Washington’s birthday. Most of my time here has been diligently employed in examining newspapers for information & obituaries of graduates of Harvard University. The volumes which I have examined I have checked with a pencil under the No. of the paper at the beginning of them. On the 15th, with Col. Thos. F. DeVoe, attended an opera for the first time. Miss Pyne was the principal character in the performance, which was of Cinderella. Generally the performance was unobjectionable & well sustained; but some of the fairy dancers did not exhibit much modesty. On the 20th attended the performances by Christy’s minstrels. The performers are whites, crocked for the occasion, who imitate blacks in their musical exercises & language & acting. The house was crowded & I am told it is always crowded. Ten or twelve years ago the father of the present Christy began this kind of entertainment. He had made his fortune & retired & the young man is now making his.

            On the afternoon of Washington‘s birthday, accompanied by Prof. Martyn Paine, M.D., in a hack went to Pier, No. 3, on North River, & at 4 o’clock left in a steamboat for Boston via Fall River.

February 23, 1855

            Arrived in Boston about daylight, leaving several volumes which I have procured for the Library, to be sent by & by, by Dr. Paine.

February 26, 1855

            Monday. In the college library.

February 27, 1855

            Tuesday. Went to Salem. Dr. Henry Wheatland as active as ever in the Essex Institute & in the cause of education. Called on old friends, the Andrews, Gavett, etc. & spent the night with George D. Phippen, as usual, after taking dinner with the Andrews & tea with Judge Waters. (H.U. 1816).

February 28, 1855

            Wednesday. Find in the library of the Essex Institute valuable collections of newspapers, spend a considerable portion of the forenoon in copying obituaries & notices of graduates, from the earliest volume of the Essex Gazette published in 1768 & 1769. –Dined at my classmate Treadwell’s. Spent an hour with classmate Cole. At the library saw Read, a Quaker who graduated at Harvard in 1831? but who from scruples declined taking a degree, consequently his name is not with his classmates in the Triennial Catalogue. Returned to Cambridge.

² The first permanent home of the New York Historical Society stood on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and East 11 Street. Described as an “Italian-Roman-Doric style of building,” it was two stories high and built of sandstone. The building was erected in 1855-57 and served as the Society’s home until 1908.

³ “Contab” is short for Cantabrigian, a member of the University of Cambridge or a resident of Cambridge.



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