Before the advent of the telephone and electronic means of contact such as e-mail, letter writing was the primary means of communication. A letter can tell us much about an individual. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are common in letters written by individuals with little education. Letters can also tell us about society in general. For instance, letters from immigrants to family members back home describe what it was like to be a farmer in nineteenth century Ontario.

A great many of the letters used on this website come from the letterbooks of Charles Hutchinson, a prominent lawyer in London. Before the advent of photocopiers and computers, copies of letters had to be made by hand. For a lawyer, business person or other professional, as well as government officials such as the Chief Emigrant Officer, it was important to retain copies of incoming and outgoing letters for record keeping. This was the purpose of the letterbooks. In general, these letters are not considered private since they were used for record keeping rather than personal purposes. Hutchinson’s letterbooks are more like official government records than private letters. The paper in many of these documents is very thin and fragile, and over time the ink has often bled through the page making them very difficult to read. Fortunately, copies of Hutchinson’s letterbooks appear in the Donnelly Family Papers at the University of Western Ontario Archives.

This website also contains personal letters such as those that trace the love affair between Margaret Thompson and William Donnelly. The writers of letters such as these never intended for their letters to be scrutinized by the public and most certainly never imagined that their letters would be preserved in an archive like the National Arcvhies of Canada. These are very useful to the historian interested in the social history of an era.

As with any other type of source, perhaps even more so, historians must be cautious when they utilize letters (especially private letters) as a source. Sometimes letters are not dated or signed. It is often difficult to read a person’s handwriting and many of the letters have suffered from decay. More importantly, writers of letters might forget details, exaggerate, or even outright lie.

Archives typically collect the private letters of important individuals like prime ministers, but it is less common to see the letters of lesser-known individuals systematically preserved. Sometimes though, individuals or their family members do donate personal letters to an archive.