Letter Books 3 and 10 are available in print, along with two themed collections of letters.
In 1773 or 1774, at about the age of twenty-three, Judith Sargent Stevens (later, Murray) decided to start making copies of her outgoing correspondence to family, friends, political leaders, and business acquaintances. As a self-taught student of history, she knew the importance of documentation. She understood that momentous political and intellectual change was taking place. She had the resources and literacy skills to do the work. And so, she began to create what would become twenty volumes of letters—left behind for future generations.
She was serious and methodical in her approach. Knowing this would be a multi-volume, multi-year effort, she began her first letter book, labeled Letter Book 1, with a statement telling her readers that she “committed to the flames, nearly all my letters, written previous to the year one thousand, seven hundred, and seventy-four.” At the end of the statement, she explained her desire to “commend these volumes of letters to affectionate posterity.”
Judith's keeping of letter books was highly unusual for an eighteenth-century woman. Most women, even if they were literate, did not believe their thoughts and experiences were worth recording.
As far as we know, Judith Sargent Murray is the only woman from this period of time to keep letter books for a long and consistent period of time.
She left the first few pages of each letter book blank, so that when each volume was full she could go back and create a table of contents. For most of the letter books, in the table of contents she listed the number of each letter, the recipient of the letter, and the page number on which the letter appears.
By the time Judith completed her last letter book, in 1818, at the age of sixty-seven, she had created twenty volumes and copied approximately 2,500 letters.
History is forever indebted to the Reverend Gordon Gibson for locating these letter books in 1984. He found them in an ante bellum mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, called Arlington. Judith had died at another Natchez mansion called Oak Point in 1820, after moving there from her home in Boston to live with her daughter, Julia Maria, who had married a Natchez planter named Adam Lewis Bingaman. To this day, no one knows how the letter books made their way from Oak Point to Arlington.
Reverend Gibson convinced the owner of the letter books to donate them to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) in Jackson, Mississippi. MDAH had them preserved and published on microfilm in 1986 under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The original manuscripts remain housed in the Jackson facility, but the microfilm is available for purchase.
It is the work of the Judith Sargent Murray Society to transcribe, index, and publish all twenty letter books to make this valuable resource more readily available. Two letter books in their entirety are available from History Smiths
, along with two smaller, theme-based books of the letters.
Already, the authors David McCullough, Cokie Roberts, Susan Branson, Joseph Garland, and Carol Berkin have incorporated Bonnie Hurd Smith's transcriptions of the letters into their work. Historic house museums where Judith visited have used her work as well, including Historic New England's Governor John Langdon House
in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Sayward-Wheeler House
in York, Maine.
Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the
president and CEO of History Smiths,
a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their
own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community
outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status
reputation in the communities they serve.