From the start, I dreamed of finding Hannibal’s letters. I knew it was a long shot and had pretty much given up hope. Besides, the letters were not something critical to Hattie’s story, at least that is what I thought. Then, through a bit of serendipity, a breakthrough occurred in July of this year. I had been corresponding with a distant relative Judy who I am related to through Charlotte Wickham, Hannibal’s wife. William Wickham Sr, Charlotte’s grandfather, was the first white settler of the southern Seneca Lake region in upstate New York. The Wickham family has a long history of reunions and has a certain pride in the family’s status in the area. My mother and her sister attended a summer reunion picnic some years ago. COVID put an end to the annual event and after getting an email stating such it also mentioned a changing of the family historian and keeper of family records. I was glad to hear that since the previous one was of no help and not particularly responsive.
I took that as an opportunity to email Judy one of the women mentioned in the email. I told her what I was up to and that I was looking for any info about Charlotte and Hannibal. She was very prompt in getting back to me and eager to help. One of her messages mentioned a woman who might have some information on Hannibal, maybe even letters. She told me she had contacted the woman and told her what I was looking for. A week or so later she said wrote me all excited saying the woman in question was my cousin Lois Phelps Brown! Lois and I haven’t seen each other in over 50 years. Apparently, Lois was in the process of moving and would be in touch with me once she was settled. I couldn’t believe that I actually might put my hands on Hannibal’s letters.
I was home visiting my parents in upstate NY in August and told my mother about what had happened. She said that out of the blue she got a postcard from Lois indicating her new mailing address. I immediately composed a letter to her and dropped it in the mail. A week or so later I got a letter from her. She was of course surprised to hear from me after all these years. She said she did have Hannibal’s letters. Her father Donald Phelps had given them to her shortly before he died. Lois told me that her husband of many years Rich had died of COVID early in the epidemic and she had moved in with her daughter in the Cobleskill area of New York State. The letters were in storage and she promised to send copies at some point. I was thrilled but disappointed that I would have to wait. Lois was still reeling from the loss of her husband, I had to remain sensitive to her plight.
During that trip home I dropped in on my mother’s sister to see what materials she might have since she and my mother had split the family archives of photos and such. I had my scanner with me and proceeded to scan a bunch of old family photos. She gave me a CD that a distant family member she had corresponded within 2008 about family genealogy. She told me she didn’t have a CD drive to read the disc and told me to take it and send her anything worth keeping once I back to the west coast. When I opened the CD at home I immediately noticed a file: Transcript of Hannibal Howell Letters. I couldn’t believe it, there it was, a Word doc transcription of his letters. At the time, I had no idea who made the transcript. Did Lois do if wondered? I sent Lois an email and she replied that indeed she had made the transcript but was uncertain how the woman had gotten ahold of the document. I thanked her profusely for her efforts and once again mentioned how much I’d love to have a copy of the originals. We wrote back and forth a few more times exchanging tidbits of family history. I think we both enjoyed getting reacquainted.
In early October I emailed her and told her I’d finished the first draft of the book and had included one of Hannibal’s letters from her transcription. I once again mentioned how important having copies would be to the book project. A week or so later she wrote and asked for my address.
Below is a letter Hannibal wrote in Feb 1862 from a place called Pratts Point near Washington DC. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see his handwriting. Simply amazing.
Note: the letter’s greeting, “Dear Brother” is not addressed to one of Hannibal’s brothers but to Mortimer Lafayette Wickham ( see the envelope), one of Charlotte’s brothers.