Reuben Hatch Missionary Letters

by Ed Riding, Church History Library
12 October 2021

Read about the unique missionary letters that Reuben Hatch, an early Church member, sent home while serving in the Southern States Mission.

In November 2020, the Acquisitions team at the Church History Library was contacted about a collection of letters written by an early Latter-day Saint named Reuben Hatch. Reuben served in the Southern States Mission at the end of the 19th century. What made the letters especially unique, though, was that Reuben wrote them on leaves. Not leaves of paper—actual plant leaves, plucked from trees and bushes in Virginia, where he spent most of his mission. We eagerly accepted the donation, which has now been cataloged and digitized (MS 33365) and is available for viewing in the Church History Catalog.

Some background: Reuben Hatch (July 23, 1859–November 28, 1945) was raised near present-day Bountiful, Utah. At the age of 36, he accepted a mission call and was assigned to the Southern States Mission, headquartered at the time in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He arrived on January 23, 1896, and was sent by his mission president, Elias S. Kimball, to Virginia. Reuben would serve there until September 1898, when he returned to Utah.

But why leaves? Family lore has it that Reuben sometimes did not have enough money for paper, so he would take leaves from wherever he served and inscribe messages on them. It is unknown how many of these leaves were sent home as actual letters, but 26 of the leaves—or fragments of leaves—remained in the family’s possession and have been passed down from generation to generation until now. Before the Church History Library received the leaves, they had been kept in a cardboard box for generations. Surprisingly, some of the leaves are in very good condition for being 123–25 years old!

While some pieces of this collection are just that—broken, fragmented pieces—and some leaves do not feature any writing,1 several leaves have brief statements conveying the author’s feelings and observations. The leaves aren’t large enough to contain extensive mission field news, like some other missionary correspondence collections at the library, but they do capture emotional moments in the life of a missionary who was far from home.

Some of Reuben’s missionary companions are mentioned on the leaves too; occasionally, they even add a few words themselves. In all, four Southern States missionaries from the photo below appear in the collection: Reuben himself (A, in the center of the group—he’s the one with the large mustache), Rufus Day (B, directly above him), Elisha Brown (C, two rows below Reuben in the front), and Joseph Osguthorpe (D, to the far right of Reuben).

“Southern States missionaries at Virginia Conference (13 July 1896).” Photo courtesy Church History Library Missionary Database.

Now these leaves are preserved physically and digitally. Here are some of the “letters” that Reuben sent to his family in Utah:

On this leaf, dated December 9, 1897, Hatch writes, “I write this in memery of my wife Birth day while I am in the old Dominion state meney a mile from home May her Days be meney and hapy.”

Here, Reuben writes about Joseph Osguthorpe, who appears to have been Reuben’s missionary companion at the time: “June 22/1898 in the wood near Afton [Virginia]. Osguthorpe is a sleep We are weary.” Osguthorpe served in the Southern States Mission from May 1896 to December 1898.

Either Reuben or Rufus Day (who was likely serving as Reuben’s missionary companion at the time) decorated this leaf. It shows a bird holding a banner reading “Purity” in its beak; the word “Utah” is above it. The rest of the message says, “To our home in the west. R. Hatch and Rufus Day Fillmore.”

This is another leaf bearing Rufus Day’s name. When its handwriting is compared with the previous leaf, it appears Rufus may have been the author of both. It reads: “April 4 1896. Success to the Virginia Conference. May the Harvest reaped from this vinyard be great. Rufus Day.” In those days, missions were divided up into conferences instead of zones, the term used today.

Identical messages appear on both sides of this leaf, written by either Reuben or Elisha Brown (presumably Reuben’s missionary companion at the time): “Elders Reuben Hatch and Elisha Brown traveling together among the Sunday Schools of the Virginia Conference October [7, 1897] now at Collierstown, Rockbridge County Va.” Elisha hailed from Draper, Utah, United States, and served from June 1896 to March 1899.

The other leaves contain similarly brief messages; some feature only dates, places, or the name of their species (“Maple”).

We are grateful to Reuben’s descendants for donating his letters to the Church History Library. Collections like these provide valuable insight into the story of the restored gospel. If you have materials you believe offer broad historical significance to the Church, please consider contacting our acquisitions specialists.

Top image: “Elders who arrived at Chattanooga” (PH 3793), featuring Reuben Hatch, who stands second from the left in the second row from the back.