History lives on in letters at the Montana Historical Society

Posted at 10:04 AM, May 15, 2018

HELENA – When a loved one has passed away or an elderly parent is downsizing to move into smaller living quarters  relatives are often charged with figuring out what to do with those belongings.

That can include correspondence saved and tucked away for decades — and those papers can live on if they’re donated to the Montana Historical Society.

"So what he’s essentially doing is asking Hausmer to send him some newspaper clippings and so forth about why the righteous vigilantes decided that it was necessary to hang slaves."

That’s the basis of a letter sent by Mark Twain in 1870 to the then head of the historical society asking for background information for his autobiography Roughing It.

It’s just one of thousands of letters in care at the Montana Historical Society. While famous or well-known people may make up a fraction of those, most are written by everyday Montanans chronicling their lives for loved ones and friends. 

"People want to know, historians want to know, academics want to know, just regular people want to know how everyday people carried on their lives and dealt with the various aspects of their lives," senior manuscript archivist Rich Aarstad said.

Reference historian Zoe Ann Stoltz is passionate about preserving that every day history. she frequents estate sales looking for historical items – and says families often hold on to envelopes to show stamp collectors, but they rarely consider the value of the letter itself.

"Inevitably they come back, ‘but my family isn’t important.’ And I beg to differ, all of our families are important," Stoltz said who recently came across this exact scenario and she continued communicating with the family.

"My impression was, once they realized that yes, their family’s story was important, I was able to correspond with her through email and within two weeks I was picking up this wonderful box of history," Stoltz said.

The letter showed the chronicling of a life unfolding — starting when the couple met at a play in Butte.

"She is from Butte, he is from a ranch outside Helmville.  And in 1938, they start corresponding.  And this collection goes through, their courtship, their early marriage and the last letters I’ve read he is mailing from Germany and Paris, it’s 1945 and he’s in Europe," Stoltz said.

Aarstad says once those letters are entrusted to them, their job is making it so they can be found down the road.

"To look at the collection and look at it through the eyes of who is going to be interested in that collection and in the process of doing that, identify subject terms that are going to bring that collection to the forefront when somebody does a search," Aarstad explained. "The case is made that it’s that depth of what the life was like that really matters, that provides the meat and the context for the times they lived in."

"There is no better place to understand the mark that they made then reading letters," Stoltz concluded.