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[Detail] The David Hilton family near Weissert, Nebraska. 1887.

Editing the Oblinger Letters

The Oblinger letters employed the vernacular of the day and place in which they were written. While the letter-writers were essentially literate, they were not necessarily well schooled in writing. In order to make sense of each letter, the reader must supply a good deal of punctuation and interpret the spelling of common and not-so-common words (the editors provide useful information and definitions of some of the language used in the letters). This situation provides an opportunity to focus explicitly on punctuation and spelling (not to mention penmanship) as tools for communicating effectively.

As noted in the discussion of Editorial Procedures for Transcription of Letters, Samuel Oblinger (Uriah's father) used almost no punctuation in his letters. Thus, attempting to edit his letters for a modern reader would be an interesting challenge. As a class, select one of Samuel's letters. Work with a partner to analyze the letter, using the following questions as a guide:

  • What problems does the lack of punctuation cause in reading the letter?
  • What other clues might you use to tell where sentences begin and end? Are these clues present in Samuel's letter?
  • Add punctuation to the letter as if you were creating a version of it for use by fifth-grade history students. Try reading the letter aloud as you work. Does this help you decide where to place punctuation?
  • As you work on the letter, what other problems do you encounter in trying to understand its meaning? Add footnotes to the letter to make it easier for the fifth-grade history student to understand.
  • Compare your punctuated and footnoted version of the letter with that of another pair of students. What similarities do you notice? What differences? What are the reasons for the differences? Which version do you prefer?
  • Has this exercise changed the way you think about punctuation? Why or why not? Has it helped you understand the challenges historians face in interpreting documents written in the style of other times and places?