A Mystery in Manuscripts

By James Labosier

Among the History of Medicine’s manuscript collections rests a small group of letters and diaries from Army Surgeon Jonathan Letterman. However, these papers, donated to the Library in 1924 by Dr. Joseph T. Smith, Jr., a Baltimore physician and Letterman’s nephew, include two diaries which Letterman did not write. There is some tantalizing evidence in the historical record which places Letterman in the proximity of the activities documented in the diaries and he almost certainly personally knew some of the persons who traveled with the diaries’ author. How they made their way into this set of documents and who actually did write them is a mystery.

A wide landscape with low mountins in the background and the ruins of a large fort.

Fort Union National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service

Both diaries, written by the same person, detail the daily adventures, sights, and people encountered during month-long trips along the Santa Fe trail between Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Fort Union, New Mexico in May and September of 1860. But it is clear that that person could not be Dr. Letterman—official Army records prove he was stationed elsewhere during the periods the trips took place.  It is true that by December, 1859, Jonathan Letterman was assigned to Fort Union, New Mexico as assistant surgeon. But for more than a year, he had been on detached service with General John Garland’s expedition on the Great Plains. And in January 1860, he was transferred from Fort Union to Fort Tejon, California, where he arrived on February 29, 1860.

A group of about 30 soldiers in uniform stand and sit on a rock outcrop.

Group of Soldiers Near the Arsenal, Fort Union.
Courtesy National Park Service

The earlier of the two diaries begins as a group—including recruits for New Mexico regiments and 160 horses for the mounted service—depart from Fort Leavenworth on May 30, 1860. During the 37-day trek over the north fork of the Santa Fe Trail the diary’s author carefully notes the distances traveled each day and the availability of fresh water and grass for forage at each place they camped. He seems interested in the physical composition of the land, noting limestone and sandstone formations. The journey ends at Fort Union on July 5. Throughout the entire journal the author has given no overt clue to his own identity.

Official army post returns (monthly summaries of activities submitted by Army outposts to the War Department) verify that Dr. Letterman was on detached service from Fort Tejon on the Mojave river during May and June and had been since early April.

The diary’s author notes of the expedition: “Lt Pegram in command Capt. M Ferran A.Q.M.” This is likely Captain John C. McFerran, an officer from Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, who had been transferred to New Mexico. Captain McFerran was formally assigned to Fort Union and reported on July 18, thirteen days after the expedition arrived. McFerran may have been acquainted with Dr. Letterman since he had previously been assigned to Fort Union at the same time and had in fact been transferred out of Fort Union on January 5, 1860, the same day that Letterman had been transferred.  Could McFerran be the author?

Another curious fact is that an assistant surgeon, Joseph C. Bailey, had been transferred from Fort Crittenden, Utah to Fort Union in May. His whereabouts are unaccounted for during the month of June, but he reports for his assignment at Fort Union a few days after Captain McFerran.  It is not unlikely that Dr. Letterman and Dr. Bailey, both medical men, would be acquainted. Could Bailey be the author?

The second diary begins as a group numbering over 100 leaves Fort Union on September 27, 1860. Documentation from army post returns verifies that Jonathan Letterman was present at Fort Tejon during September and October. Captain McFerran again travels with the group. He had been relieved of his position at Fort Union on September 18 and reassigned to Albuquerque. Joseph C. Bailey, however, could not have been on this trip. In August he had been detached to a Comanche expedition. He returned to Fort Union on October 15, when the military party being documented was en route along the Santa Fe Trail to Fort Leavenworth.

During this trip the author implies that he is a military surgeon when he mentions visiting some of his patients. But when this dusty group reaches the walls of Fort Leavenworth 52 days later on October 29, the diary’s reader still has no clue as to the name of its author. Monthly reports from army posts in California, New Mexico, Utah, and Kansas prove that he could not have been Jonathan Letterman. We are left with the hope that an inquisitive researcher may be able to identify the author of these diaries and perhaps also tell us how they came into the possession of Dr. Letterman’s heirs. If that researcher is you, or someone you know, we invite you to share what you know about the diarist by commenting below.

James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives & Modern Manuscript in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.