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McQueen Family Letters

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The Letters

The McQueen Family Papers consists of over 1200 letters and other documents (including diaries, account books, artwork, teaching licenses and photographs) covering the period from 1866 to 1930. Rooted in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, the McQueens were a highly mobile family and their letters survive today as remarkable documents of Canadian social history. They speak not only to the private lives and relationships of the writers but also place the family in the larger context of Canada in the early years of Confederation.

At the centre of the collection is the extensive correspondence among seven McQueen children and their parents, beginning in the 1870s when the oldest children left their rural Pictou County home to study and work. The letters that the McQueens wrote to each other are intimate and lively, revealing much about family strategies for survival in early industrializing Canada. Five of the six daughters became school teachers, two of them moving to British Columbia in the late 1880s to seek better paying positions. The only surviving son sought his fortunes in New York where he initially had contacts with the publisher George Munro. Whether married or single, living near home or far away, they remained vigilant of each other's well-being. Single children were especially conscious of their responsibility for the financial stability of their parents and dependent siblings.

The McQueen correspondence provides a highly nuanced sense of how tradition and modernity were negotiated by farm families confronted with the new values and practices of the industrial age. Economic pressures and possibilities prompted the migration of children about which their parents expressed deep ambivalence. As deeply-committed Presbyterians, they responded to accidents, mental illness, economic setbacks and early death at first with deep soul-searching and ultimately with resignation. When four of the daughters established their own families, the letters provide intimate details about attitudes and practices relating to courtship, marriage, child bearing and rearing, domesticity, sickness and well-being. The letters also chart the developing personalities of the writers across time and space. As we read through the over 1,000,000 words of text, a family narrative emerges that is both unique and at the same time representative of the experiences of many rural families in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The letters are also splendid artifacts of the human urge to communicate. As Sandra Barry reminded us as she transcribed the letters, there exists a fundamental mystery about human communication that needs to be acknowledged. She asks us to "think of Eliza sitting in lamplight leisurely writing a long epistle with her feet on the oven door 'toasting her toes;' or of Mary Bell at her desk at the Morris St. School hurriedly scribbling a note at recess; or of Annie reluctantly accounting for her days at Normal School while she thinks more about an outing with her friends." Why did they bother to write so many letters? To say that they were literate and the beneficiaries of improvements in communication technology, which at the time relied on pen, pencil, paper and post, tells only half the story. The complicated bonds of family life in the second half of the nineteenth century, so well documented here, offer keys to understanding why the McQueens wrote so many letters and why they and their descendants preserved them.