Family letters tell story of America's beginning

by Crystal Gottfried, Staff Writer

The Cowan family in Boulder, Colo., has saved its correspondence for more than 200 years.

Ethan Cowan's family has kept letters written to one another, as well as correspondence with eminent outsiders like Ralph Waldo Emerson, sermons given by preachers in the family and multipart essays sent home while traveling.

According to a story in the New York Times, genealogy experts say that the Cowen's collection of 75,000 documents totaling hundreds of thousands of pages filling 200 boxes is one of the largest private family troves that has turned up in recent years.

The treasure has been stored in attics, sheds and storage lockers over the years, and most recently in the Cowan's' home in Boulder.

The letters recount the scandalous relative jailed for embezzlement, the intriguing runaway slave seeking refuge in the North and the historic settling of Chicago.

Now the current owner of the collection, 82 year-old Mary Leslie Wolff, is negotiating to donate the papers called the "Ames Family Historical Collection," for her father's branch of the family tree to a historical society in the East, where the family began. Wolff declined to say where the collection might go because discussions were continuing.

According to some historians and librarians, the collection is remarkable for its intellectual vigor as well as for its age and size. Essentially, it is the dialogue of the history, one well-educated, middle-class family's long conversation, and its interaction with the issues that defined the early nation and its westward tide, including the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, the early rise of feminism and the discoveries of geology that were shaking religious assumptions about the age of the earth.

Family letter writers talked all of it through, often in letters of 10 to 12 pages.

David Ouimette, the genealogy manager for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, says a family record like this is a gold mine.

One series of letters discusses a runaway slave named Mary Walker who took shelter with an abolitionist branch of the family, the Leslies, in Philadelphia, during a visit by her master in the 1850's. Walker, after being hidden for a time, was eventually sent farther north to live with Leslie relatives in Massachusetts.

As the Civil War tore the country apart, the letters show an effort to reunite Walker with her family in North Carolina. A friend of the family, who was an officer in Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's army, was asked to watch for Walker's children, and he apparently succeeded, because they ultimately made their way north to join her.

There are a series of letters that offer a vivid early glimpse of the still-raw settlement of Chicago by a family member who had journeyed west from Philadelphia in 1836 to Missouri to see some land he had bought. The land was not much to speak of, wrote Peter Leslie, Wolff's great-great grandfather, in a letter to his children. But when he arrived at what he called "Chicago on Lake Michigan," Mr. Leslie immediately knew a rising force when he saw it.

"The town has more natural advantages than any place I have yet seen and is destined to be the N. York of the West," Leslie wrote, describing the construction and the bustle of the new city, then just a few years old. Hotels were springing up, land fever was in the air and ambition was everywhere.

"The people of the West have a town-making mania," he wrote. "This one must succeed."

Wolff's daughter, Linda Cowan said she had recently been going through the letters of Mr. Leslie's son, J. Peter Leslie, who was a geologist in Philadelphia later in the 19th century. Many of those letters read like a novel: you start one, and you just have to find out what happens next.

Wolff said that she doesn't know why this family saved the things that many others threw away or lost. An early progenitor in Massachusetts apparently got the ball rolling in the 1700's and that side of the family's huge collection of letters was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society several years ago.

The first immigrants of the family settled in Massachusetts and Philadelphia after arriving from Scotland and the letters began piling up as the clan gradually moved west to Minnesota in the 1850's, and then Colorado a century later.

Wolfe thinks that a lot of families have the urge to save letters and correspondence but at some point they just give up and throw it out, but not this family.

Even the paper on which the letters were written seems so durable, at least through the 1850's vintage. The coal dust from furnace-room storage and the glue from an ancestor's zealous scrapbook-making apparently did not harm it.

Some of the subjects that interested people way back then can seem new again with time, like poetry. Some family members transcribed poems they loved, or perhaps wrote themselves, into a book that nobody has even gone through yet.

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