Burns letters offer glimpse back to 1800s


Middle set of letters speak of disintegration of religion

By James F. Burns



This is a photo of part of one of the Burns family letters. This letter was penned on Oct. 19, 1804 by James Burns and was written to his parents in Ireland.


Editor’s Note –– This is the second of a three-part continuation of a story that orginally appeared in the Feb. 16, 2016 edition of The Times-Gazette about 19 letters an area family found dating as far back as the late 1700s. Nine of the letters were found around 1970 under a mound of hay in a barn on a Burns family farm near Buford. Excerpts from some of the 19 letters appear below and others will be published in upcoming editions. The excerpts are reproduced as they were originally penned.

Our ancestors were rural, religious people in sharp contrast to today’s more secularized city folk. These pioneers poured into southwestern Ohio from the 1790s onward, rugged, religious, and ready to turn untamed forests into farms. They stamped their Bible-based cultural imprint on the surrounding countryside for generations to come.

The two sets of Burns family letters, the one almost burned and the other almost buried, that were found in Highland and Clermont counties reveal this religiosity of our ancestral stock. Eighteen of the Burns letters were written to son James in Pennsylvania and then Ohio by his parents, brother, and an uncle back in the north of Ireland.

These letters tell the story of the ancestors of a Highland County family, these ancestors experiencing sectarian conflict and hardships in Ireland and then personal tragedy that triggered their move to Ohio. When James Burns sailed from Belfast to America on The Wilmington in 1792, he carried with him a letter of introduction to his uncle Alexander Burns with whom he was to live in western Pennsylvania.

The letters continue below, with commentary by descendent James F. Burns interspersed between them.

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 as he is offered in the Gospel. We are all hastening from time to Eternity. Our Kingdom appears to be (still) involved in trouble. Although we have the blessings of peace and plenty, only God knoweth how long it may be so.

Your loving father and mother, James and Jane Burns

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The Burns family farm in Ireland was near the village of Markethill in County Armagh.

At least 24 other families in Markethill also had offspring who had emigrated to Washington County, Pa., including such names as Acheson, Campbell, Clark, Dixon, Little, Marshall, McCullough, Taylor, Turner and Wilson. Inexplicably, James Burns stopped writing home after a November 1796, letter carried back to Markethill by James Hosack, who was returning to claim land he had just inherited. This letter became the parents’ benchmark for measuring how long it had been since James had written. But the parents learned from other sources that their son was now married. Note the salutation on their next letter.

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May 13, 1801. Dear Son and Daughter, I think it very strange that 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 in John Hog’s letter that you have changed your way of living into a married state. Now it is very probable that this will be the last letter that ever I will write to you. Therefore I would advise you to be mindefull of your duty both to God and man for Eternal Happiness hereafter. James Hosack has got possession of his land given him by the sheriff.

We remain your affectionate father and mother till death, James and Jane Burns

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April 9, 1802. Dear Son and Daughter, Your brother Alexander and two sisters were distressed with the fever but are all well again. Vast tyranny and oppressive war, famine, and sore sickness has prevailed in this country, but we are blessed with an uncommon crop of provisions. Let Lodwick McCarroll know his father is well as are John Hog’s two sisters. George Atcheson and family is well. The bearer (of this letter) Will McGill can inform you of more. Miss no opportunity of writing to us. Your mother and myself is greatly failed since you left us.

Your loving and affectionate father and mother, James and Jane Burns

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February 22, 1803. Dear Son, we have not received any account from you since James Hosack came to Ireland though we have wrote you every year. Let us beare in mind our latter end so we may be wise to Salvation and have a happy meeting in the world to come. Dear son, shun eccess in drink and bad company. The melincholey effects of drunkness has been the death of many a man here of late. I have been very bad since being seizd with a gravel [kidney stone] attack. For some days no life was expected for me and I continued for a long time very ill. I have gott a little better but never expect to gett the better of it.

Your ever loveing and affectionate parents, James and Jane Burns

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There was no 1804 letter on a list of the family letters compiled by my grandfather, a schoolteacher not prone to clerical errors. Thus, I was amazed when I first unfolded the next letter and read the date of 1804 and a Pennsylvania heading. James had finally written home, but we still don’t know just how this letter got back here to America from Ireland.

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Morris Township, Greene County, & State of Pennsylvania October 19th AD 1804

Honoured Father and Mother,

I was married February 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, the oldest a fine garrel three years old, the youngest a fine boy born last June 16. The garrel named Jane and the boy Alexander.

Religion in American 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 that 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 the religion of our Blessed Saviour which taught us to use all humility, for women and men lyes in barns and in the woods altogether. I do not pretend to say the whole assembly does so, but 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 b———- was the malincolly effects of these meetings. But our great hope is that our blessed Saviour will still support a church on earth in his own time.

I would [remind] my brother Alexander to take a great care of his aged parents, as it is a duty incumbent on him both before God and man and also require my sisters to do their duty as Burns children to their aged parents. They never experienced the want of them as I have done or think there should be no need of any advice.

Dear mother & father, hope with the assistance of Divine Providence that I shall be able in some measure to live near to the advice you gave me in your letter dated February 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 when I first read this letter since I was aware of the final birth and death dates for James and Elizabeth’s two children, viz., Jane Burns, 1801-1805, and Alexander Burns, 1804-1805. A virulent fever likely swept through their area, taking its toll on the most vulnerable, the young. Jane died on August 25th, her little brother Alexander ten days later on Sept. 5, 1805. The next letter from Ireland was written by James’s brother Alexander before the children became ill. But since such letters often took six or more months to arrive, James and Elizabeth read the letter only after their dear children had departed this life, making the brother’s advice about raising children difficulty reading. James’ parents were no longer able to write.

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June 20, 1805. Dear Brother and Sister, We have the melincolly account of your fathers death to send you. He died the 9th of May of a very severe gravol which he labourd long under but bour it with a good deal of fortitude and resignation till the last. Your mother had a very severe turn last year and is (doing) very poorly. Your sister Jane is married to a son of John Cullys of Ballymacolley and is liveing on the hill where Tom Erwin did live.

The linen trade is perty good but we have nothing but paper money as gold and silver is all gon. Working men is hard to be gott here for the most of our men is employed in the military. You give a dolefull account of religion in your countrey but it is not much better here though not in the same form. For with you an enthuseastick spirit of delusion of which the Devel is the author has beguild mankind. But here a spirit of indifference and infidelity has turned real religion out of doors. But still lett 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.

James F. Burns grew up in Anderson Township near Coney Island and now lives in Florida.

This is a photo of part of one of the Burns family letters. This letter was penned on Oct. 19, 1804 by James Burns and was written to his parents in Ireland.
http://timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/web1_Letter-pic-1.jpgThis is a photo of part of one of the Burns family letters. This letter was penned on Oct. 19, 1804 by James Burns and was written to his parents in Ireland.
Middle set of letters speak of disintegration of religion

By James F. Burns

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