Back to School: A Letter From Immaculate Conception Academy, 1873 – Part I

At this time of year, as many students return to school, we thought it appropriate to share one of the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center’s latest acquisitions: a March, 1873 letter from a student at the Immaculate Conception Academy in Davenport to her father, E.M. Sala, in West Point, Iowa.



Imma Conception, Davenport, Iowa, Mar. 5, 1873

Dear Pa,

I received your kind letter and was so glad to hear from you, as it was the first letter I had from you since you were here.

We were examined last week, and I will get a certificate in all of my studies; when we receive our certificates I will send you mine, for I know you will be glad to see one.

Lizzie Blacksmith is coming to live with Mary, because she is not able to do her own work. I think I will write to her this week. Please excuse the shortness of this letter, as I have nothing more of interest. I will conclude with fondest love to all.

Your loving child,

Ada Sala


This letter raises some interesting questions about both the relationships among Sala family members and the experience of a student at the Immaculate Conception Academy in the early 1870’s. In seeking answers, we may demonstrate the use of some of the resources available here in the Special Collections department of the library. This week, we uncover some information about the family; next week, in Part II, we will discuss the Academy. Grab a pencil and paper — it’s time to be “schooled” in family and local history research!

Ada Sala is about 15 years old when she writes this letter to her father in 1873. We know this because we have searched her name in the Ancestry Library Edition database (available to patrons at all three Davenport library locations) and found her listed in the US Federal Census records for 1860 at age 2 and in 1870 at age 12. Therefore, she was likely born in the year 1858.

The census data for these years gives us further information about her father: his first name was Eli,  he was a physician by profession, and about 57 years old when he received Ada’s letter. We also learn that both he and his wife Susan were born on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border; the family included four boys and three girls; in 1860, they resided in West Point, Iowa, and by 1870 they had moved to Patch Grove, Wisconsin.

A.T. Andreas’ Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Chicago: Andreas Atlas Co., 1875.

Historical Atlas of Wisconsin…Milwaukee: Snyder, Van Vechten & Co., 1878.

Wondering why Ada’s letter was addressed to only one parent, we searched Ancestry for “Susan Sala” to find that she had died on February 18, 1872, about a year earlier. This piece of information comes from the images of Grant County, Wisconsin (the location of Patch Grove) probate records made available on the database.

Information from Ancestry has also helped us to determine that the “Mary” Ada refers to in the letter as being “not able to do her own work,” was likely her older sister, then struggling with her first pregnancy. Marriage records from Grant County, Wisconsin show that Mary Sala married a Henry Boggess in Patch Grove in 1871. The 1880 US Federal Census shows Henry Boggess living in Rock Island, Illinois with his wife Mary and 6-year-old daughter Vinnie. A family tree created by an Ancestry user (another feature of the database) gives Vinnie’s date of birth as August of 1873 in Rock Island, five months after Ada’s mention of Mary’s difficulties.

Library of Congress Map Division

Was the “Lizzie Blacksmith” who Ada said was “coming to live with Mary” the Elizabeth Black Smitte from a German immigrant family living in Franklin (1870 US Census), the town adjacent to West Point in Lee County, Iowa who later married Joseph Greenwood (on September 7, 1873, according to county marriage records) in Rock Island, Illinois? Perhaps Lizzie and Mary had been friends from when the Salas lived in West Point, or Lizzie was otherwise known to the family (as a servant?) through Ada and Mary’s older brothers still living there? Again, with the many types of records it provides, the Ancestry database allows us to suggest these possible relationships.

A.T. Andreas’ Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Chicago: Andreas Atlas Co., 1875.

We continue our lesson next week with a closer look at the Immaculate Conception Academy at the time when Ada Sala wrote her letter. Until then, please complete this homework assignment: visit the library and explore your own family history with Ancestry Library Edition!

(posted by Katie)

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