Letter Scavenger Hunt!

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee

By Katie Hall

Katie here,

To switch things up a bit, I thought it would be a fun challenge to go into the Lee Family Digital Archive and pull letters from this week in history—kind of like a scavenger hunt. I certainly was met with an eclectic range: a handful of letters from Robert E. Lee discussing military tactics, reports and proposals, as well as personal letters among the family that relate to their whereabouts and ordinary affairs during the Civil War.

Most intriguing to me was a letter dated 1866 July 4 from Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee to Frances Nottingham. Within the letter, Mary Lee offers her friend medicinal cure suggestions for her affliction of chills by way of “ague & fever powders”. I couldn’t help but wonder what those powders might contain, as much of pre-20th and 21st century medicines and cures were not exactly reliable or based on the sound science and practices we have today. For example, many of the so-called remedies published in Western Druggist, Vol. 18, in the way of tasteless ague and fever cures were often concoctions of different salts, sugars, alcohol, and occasionally chemicals like quinine sulphate, which actually is still used to help treat malaria. Sometimes they were on the right track. Other times, not.

As fascinating as early medicine is to me, what really grabbed my attention was the fond exchange of human hair between the women! The letter is from the Victorian era, when it wasn’t so uncommon to give a loved one or dear friend a lock of hair for them to remember you by, or (rather bizarrely to us) for fastening the hair into a piece of jewelry or watch. For those still curious, this particular letter follows one prior from Mary Lee to Frances Nottingham, in which more intimate details are expressed and for what purposes the locks are being sent.

That’s all for Week 6. Have a happy 4th of July!



Not exactly what I was expecting for a Fourth of July letter, but a neat read, nonetheless.


Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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