Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Letters: A Peek Into Your Family's Past

Hardly anyone writes letters anymore. That's a sad fact, considering the most likely candidates for personal communication todayand how easily those records can be deleted. From what I've observed in researching the various lines in my family's history, letters not only gave us a glimpse into our family's past, but were items that often were stored and cherished for decades.

I often became jealous of other researchers who had such stashes of family lettersuntil, that is, I discovered a second resource for capturing the sentiments shared in those letters: local (especially genealogical) history books.

The first time I read through the books on the Gordon family I mentioned the other day, I'd say I turned a brilliant shade of green. I wanted letters like those in my own family line! It took me this long hiatus, and a return (with an attitude check, apparently) to realize it was solely because of these books that I get to know those precious, privately-shared sentiments about the Gordon family.

These are the types of tidbits that paint a clearer picture of just who our ancestors really were. Take the patriarch of my husband's Gordon line. John Gordon was a hard-working, determined man, judging by the biographical sketches in the books I've found. But anyone can say that sort of stuff about anyone; it doesn't take much to wax eloquent in print. It's when the choice wording in private letters paints the word picture that allows the reader to decide for herself just what a man's character isnow, that's priceless.

Letters collected by the researchers who wrote the genealogy books of a century ago provided glimpses of everything from personal appearance to religious preference to pet peeves. I recalled several quotes from letters used in The Gordons of Greene County Pennsylvania.

Hardly bolstering the "from Scotland" side of the family argument about their patriarch's origin, one Gordon descendant wrote in a letter on October 27, 1889, (presumably to the book's author) quoted in the footnotes on page 19:
I have heard that up to this time [referring to the date 1789] the Gordons were a black-eyed, dark-complected people.

From various family letters, the author assembled several descriptions of the Gordons as "stout, active and healthy...a little rough," being of "above the average size," and "at least some of them were of the Catholic faith." Despite that strong faith, several of the Gordon men were known for their "backwoods fighting""'a great fighter,' so the older generation used to boast."

It's interesting to find a book which not only catalogs one's general genealogy, but focuses on the exact individuals which comprise one's own line. This particular book did so with my husband's fourth great grandfather William, son of the patriarch John Gordon. Of this man, the researcher remarked,
William Gordon seems to have been the family leader. He was a man of fine character, keen humor, and the soundest common sense. Though having nineteen children of his own, he fathered nearly as many more among his nephews and nieces. When the children of his brother, John Adam Gordon I, were cut off in their maternal grandfather's will, it was "old Uncle Billy" who must post off to Morgantown and see that justice was done.

It was this same William Gordon who, having moved from John Gordon's original Maryland property to the old Virginia region of Monongalia County (near Morgantown), and later to Greene County, Pennsylvania, convinced his extended family to move once again. This time, the move was to the central Ohio location of Perry Countysite of the first Catholic church in what was then a sparsely populated state.


  1. One thing that shows up in old letters (besides bad spelling) is the "dialect" and "sense and sensibilities" of the times. My favorite family letter was written my my g-grandmother about how "the hawg was kilt and she would et good for months 'cause of it." People were definitely a LOT closer to their food "back in the day".

    1. What a great snapshot in time of your great grandmother's era, Iggy!


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