James Burns: A revolutionary story
Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 2:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 2:59 p.m.
My name is John Hosbrook, and I died 215 years ago. My family has asked me to take you on a brief tour of our Patriot Past.
They said you might need a refresher since Twitter, TV dance shows, and tough times have made you a mite forgetful. Why was I selected for this task? Perhaps it’s because I was both a Revolutionary War soldier and a frontiersman — but I’ll tell you my story later. I first want you to help me spell out “LIBERTY” as we tour America Past and meet my family.
L is for Laws — as our tour begins here in New Jersey. We are a nation of laws, not men, so let me introduce you to Judge Joe — Judge Joseph Kitchel, born 1710 and thus not to be confused with those more modern magistrates, Judge Joe or Judge Judy. Judge Kitchel keeps a careful watch over the legal system here in Newark, a city founded by his ancestor, the Rev. Abraham Pierson. Pierson was a persecuted Puritan who fled England for religious freedom in America in the 1630s.
I is for Initiative, the juice that energizes and powers our American system and can-do philosophy. Examples abound, but, look, there go Judge Joe’s two granddaughters, the Kitchel sisters, setting out for the frontier with their families. Such a bold move by young mothers takes ambition and courage since they’re trading settled security for the raw and risky Ohio frontier. One of the sisters, Lydia Kitchel Hosbrook, is my wife, and we’ll soon be passing through Pennsylvania on our way to Ohio.
B is for Burden, and James and Elizabeth, part of my extended family, have a heavy burden of heartache to bear here in Pennsylvania. Their two young children have died of a frontier fever, just a few months after James had written home to Ireland about their “fine garrel, Jane, three years old, and a fine boy, Alexander, born June last.” Jane died first, the young boy ten days later. Many young frontier families bore the burden of grief, translating it into effort to honor their loved ones. James and Elizabeth moved on to Ohio for a fresh start.
E is for Education, another pillar of pioneer America. Elizabeth’s family’s minister back in Bucks County, Pa., was the Rev. William Tennent. His little backwoods cabin school was ridiculed as the “Log College.” But he turned that dig into dignity, his humble school offering a classical education which became the blueprint, the template, for some sixty colleges, including Princeton. And his graduates provided preachers for the Great Awakening, a precursor of the Revolution, and also physicians who practiced medicine and founded a medical school.
R is for Resilience. When we got to Ohio, my wife’s sister, Mary Kitchel, soon died, leaving four children. Family — another thread in the fabric of American liberty — came to the rescue, four families, including mine, each taking in one of the children to raise. One of Mary’s boys, Hervey Bates, did right well for himself in later life. He was a founding father of Indianapolis and also built Bates House hotel, the pride of Indiana and where Abraham Lincoln stayed on his way to Washington to be inaugurated.
T is for Tragedy, and I’ll ask you to walk with me on this one. It’s now 1798, and we’re in the midst of a brutal winter here in Ohio. We’ve run out of salt, a necessity for preserving our dwindling food supplies of deer, bear, and other meats. I told Lydia and the children that I’d hike to the fort for a peck of salt, knowing that piercing cold would be my constant companion on the eight-mile trek to the fort. Come along, friend ...
Alas, I didn’t bargain for this blinding blizzard on the return trip, a terrible and relentless foe. I’m fighting for my life, each step forward carrying me closer to home but closer to collapse. I’m sorry, friend, but you’ll have to go on without me.
Sadly, John Hosbrook’s knees buckled beneath him, and he collapsed, soon freezing to death just a quarter-mile from home. But you’ve helped him spell out “LIBERTY” — all except for the final letter Y. And that’s where You come in. John and many other caring and courageous families of his era helped build this new nation, transforming it from hardscrabble poverty to eventual prosperity, turning frontier wilderness into farms and communities.
These people of our Pioneer Past are passing the torch of liberty on to You and your generation. Guard it well, guide it wisely, and move it ever onward as we honor our nation’s flag today.
James F. Burns, a descendant of John Hosbrook, is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.