Letters: The Family Archive

William Ellis spent most of his life trying to avoid official record keepers, for any effort to set down information about his background or ethnicity threatened his ability to present himself in whatever way best suited his purposes at a particular moment in time. He kept no journal or diary; nor is there a portrait of him together with his wife, Maud Sherwood. Sherwood, in her own variation on Ellis’s life of reinvention, often told acquaintances that she was a descendant of minor British nobility, despite in fact being born to working-class parents in Jersey City. (One reason for her obfuscations may be that Maud was white, which made her marriage to Ellis illegal in much of the U.S. at the time; even in New York, where intermarriage was not illegal, it remained a major transgression against the color line.)

Among the most candidate documents from Ellis’s life that survive are the handful of letters that he wrote to his relatives, which were carefully protected for decades by family members and reproduced here with their permission.

On those rare, unavoidable moments when documents about his life or the lives of his family members were created, Ellis took pains to ensure that the written record reflected his public persona. His efforts ensured that he and his children not only passed in daily, face-to-face encounters with outsiders, but also that they passed in the archive as well, becoming officially white in the records that truly mattered: the census, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and the like.