Introduction

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, have positive consequences. Their literal words were not written to be made public, though it is in the interest of history to make them known. Primary sources such as these letters allow us to view the details of human success and failure so that we might be instructed in our grappling with the future. I will share excerpts and insights from selected letters chronologically to reveal their story.

Even in the face of primary sources, our interpretation of the past is always subject to the perceptions and proclivities of our own time. Thus, I add one caveat to the presentation of my letter transcriptions, a quotation from William Faulkner’s ABSALOM, ABSALOM! In Faulkner’s tale the young Quentin Compson reflects upon the Sutpen family story told to him by his father. Quentin at first sees the story with great clarity, “… he could see it; he might even have been there. Then he thought No. If I had been there I could not have seen it this plain.”