Letters from the past have local connection


Photo: The former Josie Burns, who lived in Monterey, was related to the Burns family from Buford which owned a farm where nine letters dating as far back as the 1700s were found.

By Jeff Gilliland – [email protected]

As the story goes, Jim Burns says, it was around 1970 when relatives were getting reading to tear down a barn on a family farm near Buford that they uncovered letters linking them to ancestors that first arrived in what is now the United States prior to the American Revolution.

“The story was that a barn on the farm was being razed to make room for a new one,” said Burns, who grew up in Anderson Township near Coney Island and now lives in Florida. “In moving a mound of hay, perhaps with a fork lift, someone’s sharp hearing detected a metallic tinkle. A search under the hay mound led to the discovery of a small metal box.”

Inside the box was a set of nine letters that matched another set of nine letters the family discovered in 1928 in Monterey along U.S. Route 50 in Clermont County, plus a 19th letter James Burns wrote back to his parents in Ireland.

The letters were written to James Burns in America by his parents, James and Jane Burns, who lived in Ireland, his brother Alexander, and an uncle named James Hershey over a 35-year period from 1792 to 1827.

They have a Highland County connection because a descendant, Jacob Burns, moved to Highland County and established a farm in 1862 near the intersection of Gath and Edwards roads near Buford where nine of the letters were found around 46 years ago.

The Burns family was Scotch-Irish, which according to Jim Burns means they originated in Scotland and moved north to Ireland in 1741.

The story of some of the family migrating to America starts in 1854, when 15-year-old Alexander Burns was “shanghaied” by the British Navy while it was gearing up for the Seven Years War. Alexander served as a powder boy on a British man-of-war during the North American portion of the war, more commonly known here as the French & Indian War.

When his ship docked in New York at the war’s end, Alexander “jumped ship” and stayed in America the rest of his life.

Alexander fought in the American Revolution and later established a home in Washington County, Pa.

“After Indians massacred several neighbors he was captured on a revenge raid across the Ohio River, only escaping the Indians after a year’s captivity,” Jim Burns wrote. “He returned to his cabin in West Finley Township, Washington County, Pa., married a Scotch-Irish girl in 1785, settled down, and raised a family.”

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, one of Alexander’s brothers, James Burns, married and had three sons and three daughters. Since the family farm there was too small to split among three boys, the oldest son, also named James, was sent to America in 1792 to live with his uncle, Alexander Burns.

James arrived at his uncle’s home with a letter of introduction from his father (one of the 19 the family still has), that read: “Dear Brother Alexander, if life and health permit, the bearer of this letter will be my eldest son. He is of my own name and intends, God willing, to be with you this year. And as you under Providence will be father, mother and uncle under one, his mother and I hope that you will let him want for nothing that you can confer on him. We freely recommend him to God and your care … James and Jane Burns.”

Seven years later, young James married and moved to Greene County, Pa. where he purchased 70 acres. James and his wife, Elizabeth, had two children that died in 1805 when a fever swept the frontier. Wanting to start a new life away from where they’d experienced tragedy, they had another child, John, the next year, then waited until he was a year old and in the spring of 1807 made their way overland to Wheeling, W.Va., then by flatboat down the Ohio River to Columbia Station, a fort just east of Cincinnati.

They purchased 50 acres in Clermont County between present day Owensville and Monterey, then had seven more children over the next 10 years.

James died at a young age in 1821, so John waited until he was 30 to marry so he could help his mother with the farm and other children.

John and his wife, Melinda, had eight children. The oldest son, Jacob, married in 1862 and moved to Highland County, establishing the farm near Buford. His closest brother in age, James F., stayed in Clermont County and it was near the farms that they established that 18 of the 19 family letters were found.

Jim Burns’ father, Ed Burns, found the nine letters in Clermont County. Ed’s aunt, Josephine – Jacob and James F.’s sister – passed away in 1928. Her house was being cleared out for an auction when Ed stopped by. Only furniture was being saved, and everything else was being thrown on a burn pile. Ed followed his curiosity upstairs, down a hall to a bedroom, and in on the floor in a closet found a small box containing nine old letters.

Jim Burns eventually came into possession of those nine letters.

“It was mostly dull reading about farm conditions in Ireland and relatives I obviously never heard of,” Jim said. “But I began piecing together the story of the son to whom the letters were written – the James Burns who had come over to live with his uncle in Pennsylvania.”

Jim gradually came into possession of the other family letters. He obtained the ones from the Buford farm from a cousin in Lebanon. He traced the letters back to his ancestors in Ireland, made many trips there tracing family history, and contacted James Burns’ two younger brothers and several sisters, writing newspaper stories about it all.

How the letters survived all those it years remains partly a mystery, but not completely.

Jim said they were written on rag paper with no acid in either the ink or the paper, or any other ingredient that would decay the paper. Each letter from Ireland was a single sheet of paper, folded several times into roughly a 4-inch by 4-inch square, with the address then written on one of the two outside surfaces. Some of the letters were hand-carried to America from friends from Ireland, others were sent through whatever postal system existed at the time.

“So the one set of nine letters had been almost burned, the other set almost buried. But both survived,” Jim wrote.

Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.

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