There are some really hidden treasures in all these letters and indecipherable cursive. I hit one today that was just SO cool to discover I have to share.  I used to write newspaper columns about this sort of thing.

So I'm working on page 666 and 667 of the Roosevelt papers, series 1, letters and related materials, puzzling over what the heck is that word and this word and what is Teddy being invited to and it occurs to me that we have a Date on the letter, May 1, 1901, when (indecipherable squiggle) is required by law to start and it is clear from the letter that Teddy is being invited to be at that, whatever it is.

The person who did the first try at transcribing this guessed it was signed by someone named Mark Williams.

Nice guess.  I agreed at first. Cursive writing will fool you.  But I got curious: What was this letter about?

OK, in 1901 Teddy was an important guy and his whereabouts were often in the press.  He would only be invited to important things. What was happening on May 1 in 1901 that he would be at?

Well, in 1901 he was Vice President of the US.First and last pages of John Milburn's letter to TR

NYTimesMachine finds that, on May 2, 1901, there was a story about the opening of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo the previous day.

Buffalo?  That letter was written by a guy in Buffalo.

Google the address 1168 Delaware Ave., Buffalo NY.

Wow--historic stuff!  In 1901 it is the residence of John G. Milburn, president of the board of directors of the Pan-American Exposition of '01. (Indecipherable squiggle) starts with what looks like a cursive capital E, or at least John Milburn's version of one.

So the president of the Exposition is asking the vice president of the US to come help kick off the festivities. And, yes, if you ponder the signature on the letter that is a capital G. in the middle, which makes the rest of the signature make sense as John G. Milburn.

It gets better.

Roosevelt isn't mentioned in the news account in the NY Times.  He wasn't particularly excited about being Vice President, it seems, so even though Milburn said his attendance was critical and would be the key to the festival's success, he apparently didn't go, or if he did the Times ignored him?  Hard to believe.

Who did go? President McKinley, in September.  He stayed with the Milburns and on Sept. 6 he was shot at the Exposition and taken --  yup -- to the Milburn house. The Milburns moved elsewhere and McKinley lingered there in their house until the 14th when he died. His funeral was held there on the 16.

At which point the Milburns got their house back and Teddy became President.

The house went through the usual devolution of stately homes of the Victorian period, passing through various owners and being turned into apartments and finally demolition in 1957.

There's a marker at the curb, but I've been tingling for the last hour at all the connections in this one simple letter.

Charlie Trentelman

Ogden, Utah

  • That's fine Charlie. I had done some collaboration with someone else in the past and it worked well. We were both equally adept at the cursive but it we helped here and there with words we couldn't get. If you ever feel I can help just let me know.


  • hey henry,

    Thanks -- I think I have this one pretty close but I appreciate the offer of help -- Cursive can get very creative very quickly, I find.  I just got done watching a video on deciphering cuneiform writing and the process is not dissimilar at some times.

    Pretty interesting who did and did not write clearly.  Very rich guys seem to think it is your job to figure out what they wrote to you even if you are the vice president.  On the other hand, a black kid writing Teddy asking for help finding a job had penmanship that was absolutely clear and readable.

    But I never would have found Milburn without the historic research.  I mean, look at that signature...who knew?

    One thing I find helpful -- which I am sure you do -- is to find all pages of the letters and study them all, not just the one on the immediate screen.  This gives you a wider scope.  Pretty interesting how many ways people wrote p and g.


  • Interesting historical letter, Charles. I just started working in TR. If you have trouble with any pages or words, feel free to post them here. I have been doing this a while and have become adept at deciphering chicken scratch as my handwriting is similar. Again, thanks for posting. If you want me to check this page, you can post the link here.

    Take care,


  • So, here's the text of the letter:  And I see now that he was inviting Teddy to visit on the 15th, or whenever.  The NYTimes reports he did attend and make remarks on the 20th.

    1168 Delaware Avenue

    Buffalo New York

    March 18th - 1901

    My dear Mr. Roosevelt:

    The time fixed by law

    for the opening of the Exposition

    is May 1st. That time, as

    are all agreed here, is a little

    too early for the formal

    ceremonies owing to the

    backwardness of our spring.

    The first simultaneous

    telephonic communications

    from the President, The

    Governor General [of] Canada,

    and several of the Presidents

    of the other republics

    signalizing the opening, It is

    proposed to have the opening

    ceremonies on May 14th

    or 15th and for them we

    wish the Vice President, as the

    central figure. Our idea

    is to write for that occasion

    the English and Mexican Ambassadors,

    the South and Central American Ministers,

    And the Governor of the State,

    and not only to invite them

    but to secure their presence

    so far as is possible - We

    propose to make it a

    splendid occasion -

    I write to ask if you

    will honor us with your presence

    at that time and formally

    open the Exposition.  If another

    day will be more convenient we

    can easily make the change.

    I need not say how earnestly

    we all desire your presence

    and how necessary we regard it.

    It is in our eyes a matter of

    vital importance. The enthusiams

    your presence will amass will

    mark as nothing else can do

    the Exposition in its successful

    career. And most appropriately

    that part falls to  you as you

    have been from the beginning

    one of its greatest and most

    helpful friends. Personally

    I will be gratified beyond any words

    of mine to express….

    After hearing from you the

    performance of the day when [?]

    contacts with a rebuttal to you.

    I will only add now that

    Mrs. Milburn and I will be

    delighted to have you and

    Mrs. Roosevelt stop with us

    during your visit, and [?]

    on which we [?] expect.

    Give my kindest regards to

    Mrs. Roosevelt.

    And please we are sincerely yours,

    John G. Milburn