Love letters written by a long-distance couple, a diary belonging to a teenage girl, and a photo album originating from the Civil War are just a few of the hundreds of artifacts that Chelsey Brown has returned to their rightful owners. The heirloom hunter, who started doing returns in 2021, has reunited people around the world with their lost items.
“The most incredible stories and the most incredible humans I’ve come across are behind these artifacts,” Brown, 30, told Nice News.
It all began when the interior decorator was thrifting at flea markets for her clients.
“My dad is a genealogist, so growing up, I always had this connection with genealogy, and it would break my heart every time I would pass a box of family heirlooms at the flea market — like letters, diaries, jewelry, you name it — because I know that those items should be with their rightful families,” she said. “One day I just decided to take what my dad taught me, what I knew about researching, and see if I could start returning these artifacts to families. And once I started, I never stopped.”
When she finds an artifact that features a name on it, Brown puts the name in a genealogy database. She then uses census records, marriage certificates, obituaries, newspaper articles, or draft cards to hopefully track down the family of the person it once belonged to.
“Every single artifact tells such a different story,” said Brown, who has recently begun dealing with larger, more expansive artifacts, such as pieces connected to past wars. “I actually favor the letters and the diaries more than any other artifacts because they can tell you things that no record ever could.”
Some of those letters feature extraordinary love stories, such as the collection belonging to Claude and Marie Smith that was discovered during a home renovation in the 1990s.
While Brown never had those specific letters in her possession, she was able to help the person who found them return the collection to the late couple’s daughter. “That was just such a special return because … the daughter never knew that her parents wrote letters back and forth to each other during World War II,” explained Brown. “It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime surprise for this family.”
The New York City-based author, who uses her own money to purchase and ship the items, is selling a time capsule journal that’s available for preorder through the end of May, so anyone can record their family’s history. The sales from the journal will also “fund purchasing more heirlooms and being able to return [the] items to their rightful families,” said Brown.
In addition to making an impact on the families who’ve received their relatives’ lost items, Brown has also become a sensation on social media. With more than 240,000 followers on TikTok, she’s able to share her love of history with younger generations while telling the long-lost stories behind the artifacts she finds.
“I’m inspiring a new demographic and a new generation to get involved or to become more interested in history and family history,” she said. “It’s exciting to see where this project will be 10 years from now because I only see it growing.”