Commentary on Leslie OFN

Larry Pearce
9/27/05 & 10/22/05

The discovery of a 200-year old Original Family Narrative (OFN) usually only comes along once in a lifetime. It is the crown jewel of a genealogist’s work, the fruit of his research passion, and the fountain of youth from which springs his desire to know more. I have been fortunate enough to uncover two such treasures. The first involved my father’s Great-grandfathers Pearce and Austen and came to me ten years ago in an old crumbling box my parents handed me after cleaning out their closets. My hands literally trembled and my heart raced as I lifted it from between the baby shoes and the locks of hair my mother had been saving for nearly half a century. Quoting Frank Smith, the famous literacy theorist, I asked myself, “What could this possibly mean?” The answer was to be, “This means everything.” My life literally took a different turn from that moment on. In a sense I had found my life’s work. I would travel to Europe three times, meet people from all over the world, and write more than I had in my entire life up until then. I called on professional historians and genealogists to interpret the words in that document. Yes, many of the notions contained in it were either incorrect or pure fantasy, the stuff that makes oral tradition so fascinating. But others, I’m certain, are the bedrock upon which a family can build their pride and pass on their heritage.

This past summer my mother’s family, the Grays, celebrated their 51st reunion, and this time I was handed a shiny new CD by cousin Gary Grubbs, who was consolidating some of his family heirlooms. It contained digitally a hastily scribbled portion of the family tree that began before the American Revolution, a century-old bulletin from the old family church, and a few pictures of a farm that I couldn’t identify. But the prize was a hand-written account of the lives and deaths of my mother’s Great-great grandparents Leslie, an original family narrative. Where had this been all these years? The answer came from my cousins that it had been safely tucked away with the question, “Which side of the family were these Leslies on?” since both sides had Leslies. The answer came back as it had on more than one occasion when dealing with American pioneer families, “They were all related.” Cousin Gary and his sister Janet Flora believe that their late father Wilson’s aunt Sarah may have written the narrative, as they received it from her grandson David Leslie. In an e-mail Janet said, Gary and I had trouble with our family tree and would get mixed up because we knew we had Leslies on my dad’s side of the family and then, learning more about the Grays, there were Leslies on the Gray side. It was not until David Leslie came to visit that we finally realized that, going back far enough, they were the same Leslies.” In my delight I quickly transcribed the document and distributed to as many in my family as possible, and then I began to question, hypothesize, and research the contents. Many of the findings I will share with you now in this article. My hope is that this can be the basis for further questions and discoveries as you pass this on to your family and feedback their knowledge and responses.

To begin, we are researching various Eastern Pennsylvania sources for possible Leslie connections: Lesley Leslie: A History of 200 Years in America, by Ruth Cleveland Leslie (1956), and Early Leslies in York County, by Vice Admiral Murphy. These may give specific origins of our George and Alexander Leslie before 1801 when the family narrative starts. The government’s offer of 100 acres at $1.00 an acre is in line with other Depreciation lands in Western Pennsylvania, especially if one considers the extra 100-acre incentive. That brings the price down to 50 cents per acre, which is what Richard Pearce and Charles Austen paid for the 400 acres in Pine Township. [See Pearce-Austen OFN.] The history of this land, part of which is now West Deer Township, goes back to the Native Americans just after the Revolutionary War. Like other states’ soldiers, Pennsylvania fighters were paid in Continental script, which depreciated over the years as Congress printed more money without the backing of gold. Something had to be done, and so Ben Franklin came up with the idea of offering land near Pittsburgh to the veterans at a premium. Some 720,000 acres from the Allegheny River northward to four-and-a-half miles above present day Butler was set aside. In 1784 the Commonwealth purchased this land from the Iroquois under the Ft. Stanwix ( New York) Treaty for just a few hundred dollars, and the land was divided into tracts of 200 to 400 acres and sold at auction in Philadelphia. Most of present day West Deer was in District Four, which was under the supervision of Col. James Cunningham. According to Pine Township’s bicentennial booklet:

The plan was to issue each soldier a “Depreciation Certificate” which could be used as money to pay for this land, regardless of whether that soldier was interested in its purchase or not. The value of each certificate was predicated upon three things—the length of service in the Continental Army, the time period in which he had served (the rate of depreciation had note been constant) and, finally, his rank. (17)

At this time it’s not known whether the Leslie brothers had served in the Revolution and were directly entitled to bid on this land, but the public, possibly the Leslies. also attended the auction and soon grabbed up the property that the soldiers had passed over. Franklin’s plan was not without problems. Some of the land was improperly surveyed and some had already been “claimed” under the Settlers’ Act of 1792, which allowed families to legally register 100-acre deeds (patents) by simply living on two acres for two years. As you can imagine, in those days communication between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was almost non-existent, so many families were disappointed, to say the least, when they arrived on the frontier to find another family living and farming what each party believed to be their land. The Pine Township booklet says, “The adversities they faced both on the frontier and in the legal arena bred in the settlers an indomitable spirit which would serve them well. The dual-title situation was at last resolved by passage of legislation which stated that the only way to acquire title to land was by ‘improvement and settlement’” (18). Our family narrative mentions no legal problems for the Leslie boys, but it does suggest that they worked hard to improve and settle the land.

Imagine the tree cutting that would have been necessary to plant a small crop for cash let alone to sustain two hard-working brothers. It’s been said that around the time of the Americans’ Revolution, a squirrel could climb into a tree in Philadelphia, jump from limb to limb, and never have to touch the ground until he got to Pittsburgh. That’s a lot of virgin timber, but what a fine log cabin it would have made. As one who cuts a winter’s worth of firewood with a chainsaw every autumn, however, I can’t fathom using an ax or two-man hand saw to fell and fashion the trees and then a horse to pull the roots.

The dirt road taken from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, as we said in our introduction to the Leslie site, was probably the Forbes Road, later called the Lincoln Highway, now U.S. Rt. 30, the most direct. By 1820, when the Pearces and Austens came west, stagecoach travel was common and fairly inexpensive. Nevertheless, Richard and Charles hired a wagon, either buckboard or Conestoga, and a team because they had some personal belongings with which they set up housekeeping. In 1801 and 02 it was a different story.

Though transportation had improved by 1820, healthcare hadn’t. The Typhoid Fever about which our narrator speaks, according to the official website of the Center for Disease Control, “has an insidious onset characterized by fever, headache, constipation, malaise, chills, and myalgia.” The curious thing about the disease, however, is that it’s difficult to differentiate from other flu-like illnesses. “Diarrhea is uncommon, and vomiting is not usually severe,” says the CDC, and confusion and delirium occur only in severe cases, along with intestinal perforation and death. Today, worldwide, only 12 to 30 percent of cases end in death. Obviously, the Typhoid that struck the George Leslie household was severe. One can only guess where it was contracted. The deadly agent is a type of Salmonella, not unlike the kind that causes food poisoning in restaurants or severe illnesses that result when children pet farm animals or turtles. Water containing fecal contamination can cause an epidemic. Today, the risk in the US is very low, a little higher for international travelers, and highest among people living in poverty in developing countries. Modern vaccines have put Typhoid on the decrease since 1994. But, the Leslies, who apparently died within a week of contracting the disease, never had the luxury of a three to four week recovery, as is common today. In the case of the five percent who are called “chronic carriers,” the body may excrete the organism for up to a year. Perhaps the most famous American to survive the disease was Clara Barton, born in 1821, the very year of the Leslie tragedy. She was carried back to Washington, DC, from a Civil War battlefield to later become the heroine of the great Johnstown Flood of 1889 and founder of the American Red Cross. She lived to be 90 years old. Today, while only 400 Americans annually contract the disease, mostly overseas, some 21 million persons worldwide suffer from Typhoid. Of those, 200,000 die each year.

Back in the 1820’s one can only imagine the victims being put to bed to live or die. We don’t know if Jane and the surviving children had symptoms or what kind of human help was available to this grieving mother. She wouldn’t have known whether to treat the chills or the fever. And then there was the problem of burials. Folks then knew that this was a contagious disease, and surely a quarantine would have been initiated. Who would have disposed of the bodies, young and old, and how? The story goes of the great Philadelphia Influenza epidemic of 1918 and how the bodies were kept in storage over the winter until they could be buried in the spring.

The fifth paragraph of the OFN mentions the death of daughter Margaret in 1826 of Tuberculosis, or Consumption as it was also known. Was this the official cause of death? There probably was no death certificate. It seems that TB is a lingering death, perhaps months, while common Pneumonia has the same symptoms but kills more quickly, just days. Both are highly contagious and are complicated by a weakened condition and poor ventilation. A smoky, drafty log cabin on the Pennsylvania frontier, no doubt having a dirt floor, where food may have been at a premium would have been the perfect breeding ground for either disease.

Leslie Family stone, Bull Creek Cemetery, West Deer Twp.

The paragraph surmises that our early Leslies are all buried at the Bull Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, and indeed there are two dozen Leslie gravestones there. However, the only positive identification is that of George and Jane’s youngest child William (1820-1868). While cemetery records go back to 1804, few if any markers are older than William’s. Even his wife, Sara Bell Jack Leslie (1818-1860) is not listed in cemetery records, although three of his four children are: George G. (1847-1909), mentioned later; Mary L. (1844-1859), who died as a teenager; and Ann E. (1849-1898), who was apparently unmarried. Their sibling Agnes (1843-1897) is probably buried with her husband elsewhere, a Mr. Fulton.

About seven years before his death at age 48, in 1861, around the time of the start of the American Civil War, surviving son William and his son George Guilliford Leslie, who would have been only age 14, apparently built a new brick house to replace the original log cabin. No doubt William excused himself from service in the war with a wife, four growing children, and a widowed mother at home on the farm. The bricks for the modest residence were probably hauled from the Norris kiln near what is now Dorseyville. William’s sister Elizabeth (1818-1895) married William Sylvester Gray (1816-1879). They are my great-great grandparents, and their son Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928) married one of the Norris girls, Annie Simms Norris (1850-1922). She would have been about 11 years old when William and young George drove their team of horses into the brickyard. According to West Deer Township’s sequi-centennial book, the Norris kiln provided bricks for most of the buildings at that time, and many are still standing, including, we believe, the 1861 Leslie farm house mentioned in the narrative.

Almost metaphorically, the author of the narrative says, “The bricks have been repointed and some changes in the windows in recent years have been made.” Surely the bricks are the proud family name that has stood for thousands of years, the repointing are the septs, or marriages, that have brought new life into the clan, and the windows are the faces and eyes of each succeeding generation that carries on the Leslie name. She mentions the given Scottish names that are passed on from generation to generation, especially “George.” George Guilliford Leslie (1921-1941), who was a young Army Private when he was killed at Pearl Harbor, a member of the 72nd Pursuit Squadron, was brought home to be buried at Bull Creek, the “fourth generation” the narrator speaks of.

Is the George G. Leslie (1948-1971) buried nearby, the accident victim? These and other stories and questions are yet to be fully researched and written. The Leslie family internet bulletin boards are filled with inquiries connected to these and other more distantly related kin. Rev. Abraham Boyd’s famous list of early 19th century marriages in Western Pennsylvania contains the 1809 marriage of a George Leslie and Rebekah Ferguson, whose Irish father fought in the American Revolution. There is surely some relationship to our family, but the research takes time. We hope to live long enough to find our Leslie Family roots in the Old World, as we have successfully done with other branches. Perhaps other ancient family narratives are just waiting to be discovered.

Works Cited

Bowers, Santina. George Leslie, PA (1736-1821). RootsWeb. 22 July, 2003…

Brandt, Ginny. Leslie/Lesley genealogy books. GenForum. 13 October, 2005

“Cemetery Inscriptions from Bull Creek Presbyterian Cemetery.” 30 June, 2002

Closson, Bob and Mary. 175 Southwestern Pennsylvania Marriages Performed by Rev. Abraham Boyd (1802-1849). Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1994.

Flora, Janet. E-mail. 26 September, 2005.

Grubbs, Gary. Personal CD containing family narrative and pictures. August 2005.

“Typhoid Fever.” CDC-DBMD. 8 August, 2005

Yordy, Janet M. ed. Township of Pine (1796-1996): Two Hundred Years of Pride. Pittsburgh: First Impression, 1996.

3 Responses to Commentary on Leslie OFN

  1. Great job once again. I am looking forward for more updates;)

  2. Alisa Josephine Mahone Murphy says:

    Hi. My great-grandmother was Minta Josephine Reynolds, daughter of William Jasper Reynolds and Mary Jane Lesley. My mother was Minta Josephine Brown, daughter of James A Brown and Virginia Rife. Can you tell me how to get a copy of the book Lesley/Leslie 200 years in America? I heard there was an updated version that came out in the 1970’s. Our line can be traced back to William Robert Lesley. My grandparents, James Arthur Brown and Virginia Rife Brown had a house in Grundy/Big Stone Gap VA area next door to my great-grandparents. I grew up in Bristol, Tenn, and then married a serviceman, the divorced a serviceman and married another serviceman and now live in Leavenworth, Kansas. Mom told me of this book in the 1970’s. She died 20 years ago and I cant find her copy. Thank you. My Best Alisa

    • admin says:

      I believe several libraries around the country have copies of the book, including the one in York, PA. Unfortunately, libraries usually don’t lend such rare books, but if you locate one you could photocopy what you need. Ask if your local library could locate a copy somewhere. Perhaps has a copy for sale. I haven’t tried but that’s always a good source. Good to read about your line, and I’m sure we’re cousins way back! Regards,

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