A few days ago I was reading an article, “Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word,” published in the New York Times. In her article Robinson references an author who believed that we face two judgements: one at our physical deaths, and a second when our words have fulfilled all of their consequences and are finally erased from collective memory.

Resurrecting the words of my 19th century, yeoman farmer, slaveholding ancestors and members of their communities will, I hope, enlighten. Though their literal words were not written to be made public, those words may help us form a more accurate historical memory. Primary sources such as this allow us to view the details of human success and failure so that we might be instructed in our grappling with the future. Excerpts and insights from selected letters reveal their story. These letters have survived in the Duncan McLaurin Papers, a collection that has been archived in the David M. Rubenstein library at Duke University since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Even in the face of primary sources, our interpretation of the past is always subject to the perceptions and proclivities of our own time.