A Young History-Lover Gets An Amazing Surprise In The Mail

by Laura Caseley
Laura is a writer, illustrator, and artist living in New York City.

In March, Sienna and her mother, Ashley Hackshaw, visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a historical center where visitors can immerse themselves in colonial-era life.

There, little Sienna learned how people in the 1770s lived, worked, and played. Tourists can also learn about the early days of the U.S., and the dramatic events leading up to the American Revolution.

It’s an amazing place to visit — but as you’ll see, it’s made even more amazing by the dedication, kindness, and enthusiasm of the people who work there.

On her family’s visit, Sienna got a chance to meet Aubrey, one of the historical site’s employees.

Sitting on the steps of the wigmaker’s shop, Aubrey taught Sienna a secret code used by the colonists during the Revolution to pass messages undetected.

And if there’s one thing that people throughout history have loved, it’s learning to make and decipher secret codes. People have created codes of all kinds, even huge ones using living trees!

But for Sienna, history was about to come to life in a totally unexpected and amazing way…

Read on to see what a memorable trip she really had!



Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is an entire town reconstructed to look just as it did in the 1770s, at the beginning of the American Revolution.

You can stroll down the streets, check out the shops and homes, and talk to some costumed locals.

Ashley Hackshaw along with her husband and daughter, Sienna, visited Williamsburg, taking in the very sights people might have seen more than 200 years ago.

Here, Ashley and Sienna pose with James Madison and his horse, Homer.

“My favorite thing about Williamsburg is how some of the workers never break character,” Ashley says. “It’s like taking a time machine straight back to colonial times.”

But there was one lesson in particular that made the biggest impact on Sienna…

Ashley posted this picture of Sienna and one of the Williamsburg employees, Aubrey, sitting on the steps of the wigmaker’s shop — where Aubrey taught Sienna a secret code known as the Pigpen cipher.

Aubrey has been working at Colonial Williamsburg since the age of 11, and is known for her enthusiasm and big heart.

On learning the cipher, Sienna quickly got busy writing a letter to Aubrey in character, requesting more bullets for the militia.

Ashley noticed that she even included her address, and wondered if Sienna was actually expecting a letter. She worried that Sienna might be disappointed not to get a message back…

But two weeks after they came home from Williamsburg, they received a strange, stitched-up package to “Agent Sienna” from “A Friend in Colonial Williamsburg.”

Inside? A hand-embroidered handkerchief, two musket balls from the blacksmith (as requested), and a message in Pigpen cipher!

Aubrey had taken the time to not only mail little Sienna her requested musket balls, but a special secret message — all within a hand-stitched envelope!

The Pigpen cipher, also known as the masonic or tic-tac-toe cipher, uses a grid to replace letters so that a message may be written in secret.

This key shows a common version of the Pigpen cipher, but because it’s hundreds of years old, many versions exist.

To use it, you would take the fragment of the grid around the corresponding letter and use it in place of that letter.

So the resulting secret message would look like this.

The cipher dates back to the 18th century, and was used in the American Revolution by the American forces, as well as in the Civil War almost a century later.

This particular Pigpen sample reads:

“This is an example of Pigpen cipher text. Pigpen cipher text is also known as Freemason’s cipher due to the prolific use by the Freemasons. While use and translation is fairly simple and straightforward, this language can be fun to throw around at parties and with friends. Have fun!”

Hackshaw is grateful to Aubrey’s dedication, and for making Sienna’s trip into the past all the more memorable.

Aubrey herself is pleased that her package was so well received, too. “[Sienna] put her address on it, and I thought, ‘you know, it’ll only take 10 minutes to do,'” she said.

And we’re glad she did! It’s little moments like this that make for the greatest memories, and turn kids like Sienna into lifelong lovers of history!

SHARE this adorable story with your friends, and see if you can write some secret messages!