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