Lost letters tell family tales


By James F. Burns - [email protected]



It was a minor miracle that the lost letters from the 1790s were neither burned nor buried. Perhaps it was God’s guidance that intervened to save them—a close call by any measure.

Aunt Josie died in 1928. A childless widow and the last of her generation, her house was being emptied out for auction when my dad happened by on his motorcycle. Curiosity carried him inside and up the stairs to a back bedroom. And there on the closet floor he found a small box of nine very old letters—that workers would soon have pitched onto a bonfire.

Four decades later, a cousin’s barn was being torn down to make way for a new one. As a mound of hay was being moved, someone’s sharp ear detected a metallic tinkle. A search led to the discovery of a small metal box under the hay mound—with nine equally old letters. Both of these remarkable finds—at the house and the barn—were made in Ohio.

The rag-paper epistles were written to a son in America by his parents, brother, and an uncle in the north of Ireland from 1792 to 1827. A peasant-poor Scotch-Irish farm family, the letters tell the story of faith, grit, and gusto overcoming adversity in forging our frontier values. The letters strongly reflect concern for our welfare in the world to come while wrestling with the one we live in.

James Burns arrived from Belfast with a letter of introduction to his Uncle Alexander who was homesteading in western Pennsylvania. Uncle Alex had been whisked away from Ireland by the British Navy, shanghaied in 1754 before jumping ship in New York harbor seven years later. He fought the Brits in the Revolution, escaped Indian captivity after a massacre, and then settled down.

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May 7, 1792. Dear Brother Alexander, The bearer of this letter is my eldest son. As you under Providence will be Father, Mother, and uncle to him, his mother and I hope you will let him want for nothing that you can confer on him. We recommend him to God and your care.

Your loving brother till death, James Burns

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July 31,1793. Dear James, Your mother hopes your will remember who is your great preserver. Take care of what company you keep and remember the Sabbath that you may thrive the better all week.

Your loving father, James Burns

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May 5, 1794. Dear Child, Mind your duties to God and read His Word on the Lord’s Day. Let us know the affairs of America—it is reported that you have trouble with the Indians. We are willing to know the truth.

Your loving parents, James & Jane Burns

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The family farm in Ireland was near the village of Markethill in County Armagh, an epicenter of sectarian violence that would resurface as Northern Ireland’s terrorist troubles in our era.

In the 1790s, this violent feud became infused with a nascent Irish nationalism that was subsumed within a wider Anglo-French conflict and then the Napoleonic Wars.

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July 11, 1796. Dear Brother, There has been great Troubles here between protestant Orangemen and papist Deffenders, severals killed in their various scuffels and some of both parties executed. The truth is there was faults on both sides, bringing Trouble on peaceable people. That is often the case, the innocent suffer with the guilty.

Your loving brother till death, Alexander Burns

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Nov. 12, 1796. Dear Son, We are looking every day for an invasion from France and the most part of Ireland are uniting together under the name of United Irishmen and striving for liberty.

The war must be supported and if people grumble, they are counted as rebels, hurried away, and tried for treason.

Wishing for your welfare, James Burns

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May 10, 1797. Dear Son, We are under the severity of a military law occasioned by the unfortunate war that our Minister continues with the French. People are prevented from consulting with others or entering into any combination against government. Sickness proves mortal to many here—may God enable us to take notice of these warnings.

Your death father, James Burns

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Oct. 18, 1797. Dear Child, Fearing that if the French invade, the Liberty men would join them, our government made an act to disarm the people and for all take the oath of allegiance. Houses were burned, some sent to gaol, some shot on the spot. Give my love to your uncle

and aunt and let Lodwick McCarroll know that his brother Tom died last May.

Your loving father, James Burns

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The United Irishmen movement would climax in a failed but bloody uprising in 1798, claiming

more than 15,000 lives. The war with France would drag on, and the government remained wary of underground movements. The family letters now more reflected their own story, a sad one with the parents’ health flagging as did son James’ writing letters home. His last letter of Nov. 1796 was carried back from Washington County, Pa., by a James Hosack, returning to claim inherited land. This letter became a benchmark for the parents who also continued to voice constant concern for everyone’s soul.

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May 10, 1799. Dear Son, Although you and I are far distant from each other, yet we should not forget each other’s eternal welfare. Seek God earnestly at a throne of grace, relying only upon Jesus Christ for Salvation. We are all hastening from time to Eternity. Our Kingdom appears to (still) be involved in trouble.

Your loving father and mother, James and Jane Burns

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May 13, 1801. Dear Son and Daughter, Our neighbours are all getting letters from their family but we’ve had none from you since James Hosack came here. We heard an account from John Hog’s letter that you have changed your way of living into a married state. Be mindefull of your duty both to God and man for Eternal Happiness.

Your mother and father till death, James & Jane Burns

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April 9, 1802. Dear Son and Daughter, Vast tyranny, oppressive war, famine, and sore sickness has prevailed in this country. Your mother and myself is greatly failed since you left us.

Your loving father and mother, James & Jane Burns

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Feb. 22, 1803. Dear Son, We have not received any account from your since James Hosack came to Ireland. Dear son, shun bad company and eccess in drink. The melincholey effects

of drunkness has been the death of many a man here of late. I have been very bad since seized with a gravel [kidney stone] attack.

Your loving father, James Burns

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A list of our family letters made by my grandfather had no 1804 letter. Thus when I picked up the last letter in the stack and read an 1804 date—and with a Pennsylvania heading—I realized that I was holding in hand a letter that son James had finally written home to his parents. I literally had a surrealistic experience of hearing my ancestor’s whispery voice from the past as I read this remarkable letter. How the letter got back to America is as much a mystery as its escaping my grandfather’s list.

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Oct. 19, 1804. Morris Township, Greene County, & State of Pennsylvania

Honoured Father and Mother, I was married Feb. 1799 to a young woman of the name

of Elizabeth Hair of a respectable family and soon after purchased seventy acres of land from which by good industry I can make a tolerable living. We have two children, a fine garrel named Jane three years old, a fine boy Alexander one year old.

Religion in America has underwent a universal change. At a Sabbath Day meeting as many as one hundred generally women would fall prostrate to the earth hollowing and shouting, some for mercy, some for one thing or another. The ablest Divines [ministers] do not know what to think concerning their movement. All allow it is heavy conviction but has very little hope of conversion.

The people have formed a plan called Camp Meeting which continues for several days.

I think it inconsistant with religion, for women and men lyes in barns and in the woods altogether. I believe too many goes to these meetings intending nothing but debauchery.

I was informed by a man lately from Kentucky that in the course of two years 340 bastards

was the malincolly effects of these meetings.

Dear mother & father, hope with the assistance of Divine Providence that I shall be able

to live near to the advice of your letter dated Feb. 22d, 1803. And it ever shall be my sincere prayer that we all shall meet in the mansions of neverending felicity, never again to be separated.

Dear father & mother, accept of our best wishes and kind love. Jas. & Elizabeth Burns

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I wept as I read this letter, for I was aware of two sets of birth-death dates that James

had no knowledge of when he finally wrote home, viz., Jane Burns, 1801-1805, and Alexander Burns, 1804-1805. Thus his two beloved children died less than a year after he finally put pen to paper. A raging frontier fever likely swept through their area, taking its toll on the most vulnerable, the very young. Jane died on Sept. 25, her little brother clinging to life another ten days before expiring on Oct. 5, 1805. The deeply grieving parents buried their children and would later move to Ohio for a fresh start. In the meantime, they received a letter from brother Alexander. Though written before the children died, James and Elizabeth read it only after these tragic deaths due to the long delay in the transmittal of transatlantic letters. The first letter of condolences would then come from an uncle back in Markethill.

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June 20, 1805. Dear Brother and sister, We have the melincolly account of your father’s death to send you. He died May 9th of a very severe gravol which he labored long under but bour with fortitude and resignation till the last. Your mother is doing very poorly. Your doleful account of religion (suggests that) an enthuseastick spirit of delusion of which the Devel is the author has beguiled mankind. Still let us bless God. We have our Bibles and look to him to give us an understanding heart to know his mind and will, made known therein, and grace to form our lives and conversations agreeable to it. Your mother is much obliged to you for the name of your daughter and I for the name of your son. As God has given you a famley we hope you will bring them up in his feare and service and guard against the degeneracey of the times. By your father’s will he has left you one geanue to buy your wife a coat.

Your loving brother till death, Alexander Burns

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May 17, 1806. Dear Nephew, I am sorry to hear of the deaths of your two children. But still I hope you are in the way of your duty, that is to submit to God’s will and to be thankful for every dispensation of his providence which he is pleased to send your way, that is to say the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord. We are still enguaged in a bloody war and although the sword has not reached us yet the miserable effects has. For there is one heavy tax after another and the very windows and cur dogs are not exempt from it. These things has put me in a great mind to go to America.

Our kind love, James & Margaret Harshy

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James and Elizabeth endured a long lonely winter made bearable by the anticipation of new life, a son John being born in the spring of 1806. They waited a full year for him to be strong enough for an overland trip to Wheeling and then down the Ohio River by flatboat to Clermont County, Ohio. The next letter was carried over by Hannah Acheson, a neighbor coming to join her uncle Thomas Acheson in Washington, Pa. Hannah was chaperoned on her voyage by a much-admired local minister, the Rev. Thomas Campbell whose son Alexander later became engaged to Hannah. The Campbells founded a new denomination in this country, the Disciples of Christ church in which both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were raised the next century. Alexander Campbell founded Bethany College and gained national fame as an author, abolitionist, and debater.

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April 1, 1807. Dear Brother and Sister, Be thankful you and I live in peace while other places

is tormented with war and bloodshed. Dear brother, I caution you to consider your latter end before it bees too late. God Almighty has told us to seek first the kingdom of heaven and rightiousness and all other things, that is temporal blessings, will be added unto them. Your mother is declining fast. Sister Sarah intends coming over to you as soon as possible after her mother’s death. This letter is coming to you by the hand of Miss Hannah Acheson.

Your loving brother till death, Alexander Burns

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May 16, 1810. Dear Brother, Your mother died Nov. 15th 1807, aged 72 years. Your unkel Harshy has got the third daughter married, Agnes to William Fulton. Our nebourhood has been very much disturbed by a set of cow and horse theefs that got harbor amongst us. One was taken and told of a dredful murder. Your nabor Archabald Little’s son is under sentence of death for robbing Mongo Dixon. Michael Turner has a son hanged. Your sister Sarah and I

is living together. Her vitling [cooking] is reasonable. Taxes is got very grate.

Your sincere brother, Alexander Burns

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Alexander Burns had waited till his parents died before finally getting married at age 38. Sister Sarah never married nor ever made it here to America. James and Elizabeth added seven more children to their family in Ohio. James died in 1821 at age 52, the news taking a long time to reach brother Alexander back in Ireland.

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June 7, 1825. Dear Sister, I heard of my brother James’ death from a letter which David Acheson sent to his brother (in Ireland). As there is a large family left fatherless, you have

the promise of the Almighty who has said I am a father to the fatherless and a husband to the widow. Dear sister, may Divine Grace enable you to bring up your children in the fear and love of God. Dear children, pray to God that he may preserve you from the dangers to which youth are exposed. My family consists of six children. We had seven but son James is dead at the age of 5 years. Brother Robert and family is well as are sisters Agness, Sarah, and Jane.

Your loving brother and sister, Alexander & Mary Burns

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April 9, 1827. Dear Sister, Your letter of Feb. 1826 gave me great joy to find you all are in

good health as we also are, thanks be to the Almighty God for all his mercies to us poor and unworthy sinners. Owing to the great heat last summer, our crops were bad and now both fodder and money very scarce. What is worse, the linen trade that many live by here has completely failed. So that a vast number of our neighbours is selling off their little property

and emigrating to Canada and other parts of America. We have plenty to eat and clothes to wear so we are content. Give my kind love to your family.

Your loving brother till death, Alexander Burns

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Brother Alexander, the source of moral encouragement to a widow and her eight children, died just five years after his last letter to Elizabeth. Elizabeth passed away in 1842. Aunt Josie—at whose house one set of the letters was found—was her youngest granddaughter. Elizabeth’s eldest grandson, Jacob Burns, founded the farm where the other set of letters was discovered under the hay mound. A Burns family still lives today on the same farm near Markethill in Ireland where the parents, brother, and uncle who wrote the letters lived two centuries ago.

The Burns were co-religionists and neighbors both in Ireland and America with the Acheson family—who sent six of their seven children to Washington, Pa., three of the brothers running an ultra-successful mercantile business with trading outposts at Wheeling, Cincinnati, and other points. David Acheson became a banker, a Pennsylvania Assemblyman, and dined with President George Washington in Philadelphia. They and the Campbells were examples of Scotch-Irish peasantry rising to new heights here in America. Their wholesome lives of hard work, religion, and good conduct formed the cultural fabric for future generations.

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By James F. Burns

[email protected]

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