Archival documents can tell us many things. In a general sense they can provide dry statistical evidence about life many years ago. They can also illuminate, amuse, bewilder, excite and educate. At their best, archival documents can provide a glimpse into the lives of those who have gone before us that changes the way we look at life. The two documents which have been transcribed for this post are examples of my favorite sort of archival material. The sort of document that shifts your perspective.
These letters provide a glimpse into the life of a 19th century family that we are almost never permitted. When looking at the relationships of those who have gone before us, there is a tendency to think that everything was peaceful and cordial. These letters by Dennis McGrath (or McGraah as he signs his name) about his second wife Lucy quickly expose any myths of domestic tranquility. These are people with lives every bit as nuanced and complicated as our lives. There is a great deal of anger and emotion shown here. In fact, the first document could really be classified as a rant. The vehemence with which seemingly petty complaints (sitting up until 9 pm) are expressed is staggering.
Dennis McGrath, a native of Ireland, came to Lower Granville, Nova Scotia in the 1780s. After the death of his first wife he married the widow Lucy Crow in 1811. Evidently problems had been brewing for some time before these letters were written in 1826. As always, the original spelling and grammar has been maintained. I would like to thank Ian Lawrence for this transcription.
The couple sitting in today's post are not Dennis and Lucy McGrath. I figured that I needed an archival picture of a married couple and John Milledge and Isabella Harris fit the bill. I hope that their marriage was happier than the one in these documents.
All for now,
The pedigree of a woman that aught to be a friend. I thought her to be a fine woman by her talk, fair proposals and fair promises, joined and confirmed the bargain but soon found a hornet in room of innocent bee, trudged a slow pace, her setting up untill 9 o’clock short nights in the month of June nitting cotton stockings for her girls that she scattered, about Wilmot and elsewhere, and sleeping untill about 9 o’clock Every morning till my two poor motherless girls would milk put it away and get break, then the lady would get up sweep her parlour wash her fine hands with fine scented soap fine towell, then get breakfast in the nicest manner for her self and for her dear pet, Next set in her room about two weeks afor every Wilmot & Ayelsford voyage preparing her dress to see her friends Meet Gallants and look for third husband fool or Cuckold as she is very capable of meaking me, Did not bring a cow did not milk a cow did not churn one pound of butter, but when the poor husband so called is back was turned, off to the Indians with the little butter the two girls Milked Churned & put up, trotted off with it like a leam duck to buy Combs & fine things for her Girls that she scattered abroad, when I found fault in a mild manner with her Extravagant Mode or way of living in using butter milk & Meat to Excess she told me that four cows was little Enough to give a small family butter and milk Enough, I told her that I informed her of my Circumstance at our Coming to gether and at our first acquaintance and she told me that she would use all the Prudence that she was Capeable of and that she had Every Reason and Confidence that She would Retrieve with her Industry & Prudence together with her £12 per year dower & Considerable furniture that she would bring & discharge in a reasonable time what debts We owed in lieu thereof my girls spinning scrubbing and at all other heavy & Dirty work, her Pet Running true the fields picking strawberry Run in the Milk Room skim all the Morning Cream & devour it all day so that one of my Girls had often to lock the Door to keep her out.
Saint John, N.B. June 28th, 1826
I take this favourable opportunity of letting you know that I have not only arriv’d safe in Saint John but also enjoys health & pleasure after all the dangerous attempts you made to distroy both myself & property but after all enough remains still in my possession to make me Comfortable with a handsome middleaged woman who keeps me clean & neat. Your silk cloak & spencer I have got here but intends giving them to you with many other Articles of realize. I would at all times wish to see you and Should afford you every Consolation were it not for the ill tratement I receiv’d from you & your daughter many times depriving me of the small realize of one Cup of tea or milk with my breakfast and was often oblig’d to take water which was a grievous thing to a man of my age after so many years toil and labour, putting a Comfortable Property together and then for it to be distroy’d by a person who I took to be a wife for to take care of it for her self and family. However I could at the present time Collect as much as would settle me and you for life happy Strong and fat in spirit and fun.
Denis McGraah S.P.
On the 8th of June I had the same pleasure is had the 3 night the fire was in St. John. You know what I mean.
Mr. Croneen You (-------) what you & I was talking about. The Person is all willing provide for me come over (Read it for her if you please) Denis McGraah. Mr. Cronin, be so good as to let me know as soon as possible how you and family is. Be also kind enough to read this letter for Mr. Merritt and family before Lucy gets it.