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Item of the Week: From Cousin to Cousin in 1838

Thu, 09/07/2023 - 10:20

From the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection

On Sept. 6, 1838, Joanna Livingston Van Wyck (1812-1903) wrote to Margaret Gardiner (1822-1857), her cousin on Gardiner’s Island, as part of an ongoing correspondence.

Joanna’s mother, Mary Smith Gardiner Van Wyck (1788-1858), was the sister of Margaret’s father, New York State Senator David Gardiner (1784-1844). Joanna’s family lived in the village of Sing Sing (now known as Ossining) in Westchester County, and her letter contains many references to a sister, Eliza (1818-1865), who apparently continued a regular correspondence with Margaret’s sister, Julia (1820-1889).

It’s worth noting that Joanna is a decade older than the 16-year-old cousin she writes to, but other family letters suggest that Margaret was regarded as the most reliable letter writer in her immediate family.

Much of Joanna’s letter is filled with family news, including from “Cortlandt,” presumably Philip Cortlandt Van Wyck (1815-1842), her brother, who was at sea. Cortlandt wrote a letter dated April 10, and it took almost five months to reach Joanna, a span nearly unimaginable in the modern era of text messages and video calls.

The rest of Joanna’s letter describes a Methodist camp meeting in the woods outside Sing Sing that caused “great consternation” in her village. Joanna reported six or seven steamboats arriving daily, and they appeared “crowded.” Even though her family did not belong to the Methodist Church, Joanna visited the camp multiple times.

“We have a tent, Eliza and some others have gone up this morning to spend the day,” Joanna wrote to Margaret. “I think I shall go up in the afternoon.” She describes Eliza’s group as “a picnic party” and shares her own observations from visiting the day before with

“some gentlemen from the city,” who were “much amused with the preaching.”

Joanna’s description focused on the crowds. “I do not think I ever saw a greater crowd,” she wrote, admitting the excursion tired her out.

Joanna closes by expressing regrets that her Gardiner cousins had not made their usual summer trip to visit the Van Wycks in Westchester: “I hope you intend visiting us . . . this fall.”

Andrea Meyer, a librarian and archivist, is head of collection for the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection.



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