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Digital Exhibit: The Chapin-McNeil Family Letters

By E. Elizabeth Watkins, Sean Blocher-McTigue, William Givens, and Connor Monson

Life on the homestead wasn’t easy for early members of Champaign County, never mind the looming Civil War just around the corner. As the country became more and more divided politically, the deadliest war in American history overtook the lives of average citizens, affecting access to provisions and eventually instating a military draft.

Though the Chapin-McNeil family faced plenty of hardships and losses themselves, their correspondence is proof of the resilience of early settlers. We are proud to present the Chapin-McNeil Family Letters digital exhibit.

E. Schwartze, “November 29,” Champaign County History Museum Digital Exhibits, accessed January 11, 2024,

Lucinda Dorcas McNeil, the family’s ‘matriarch’ and primary recipient of many of the letters in our collection, served as the Chapin-McNeil’s emotional linchpin; throughout the letters, family members often requested that she visit them out-of-state at a time when interstate travel was much more difficult and treacherous than it is today.

The Chapin-McNeil letters also provide valuable insight into the daily lives of homemakers–in other words, women. Female perspectives during this period are often lost among the devastation brought about by the war. Through their correspondence, we are offered an intimate look into women’s mental health as they dealt with the plethora of responsibilities thrust upon them when their husbands were absent–either due to conscription or from working to provide for their families.

Follow the Chapin-McNeils from the 1850s to the turn of the century as they navigate the harsh realities of homesteading, the war, family drama, illness, and more. Click here to visit CCHM’s digital exhibit:

This exhibit was curated by former museum manager Connor Monson, co-written by Elizabeth Watkins and William Givens, and research was carried out by Virginia Haverstic and Sean McTigue.


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