Filson Finds: the Bullitt Family Papers

Unlikely Squatter: The intimate exchanges of Anne Christian, 1770 to 1787

by Melissah J. Pawlikowski

Anne Christian exchanged letters with an intimate circle made up mostly of women. A Jane Austen cast of childhood acquaintances, the group persisted into adulthood as each married into a network of brothers and associates commissioned in Virginia’s military. I pulled Anne’s personal correspondence for the collection’s dates, 1770 to 1787, bookends that fit neatly within the needs of my own research. My work examines 18th century community building by Euromerican and Delaware War refugees in the Ohio Valley. Squatters lived transient lives and left sparse paper trails. Because the accounts of white men predominate most of our understanding of these 18th century settlers, I make time for long-shot boxes like Anne’s. Rarely am I so rewarded.

The Bullitt Family collection described Anne as Patrick Henry’s sister and placed her in Virginia, later Kentucky. Easily overlooked, Anne spent considerable time in squatter settlements. Her migration is chronicled atop the right hand corner of each letter she penned. In the 1770s, Anne’s husband, William, deposited her at the southwestern most fringe of Virginia, “Dunkard’s Bottom.” She, like some of her correspondents, occupied shanty borderland towns like this one beyond legal British settlement. Here they were suspended in a kind of purgatory, moving from one town to another, before making the final move to Kentucky. While land-scouting and Indian-scalping took her husband into Kentucky, Anne was left behind to run the household and business with Sarah, Hanna, James, Louise, Phebe, and Tom, just some of the family’s enslaved labor.

Address of letter from Patrick Henry to Anne Christian (November 13, 1782). FOLDER 393, BULLITT FAMILY PAPERS – OXMOOR COLLECTION, 1683-2003.

Address of letter from Patrick Henry to Anne Christian (November 13, 1782). FOLDER 393, BULLITT FAMILY PAPERS – OXMOOR COLLECTION, 1683-2003.

Angling her writing paper around an infant at her breast and sometimes a wriggling toddler on her knee, Anne unwittingly described in her correspondence how the Christians and their contemporaries’ presence complicated the region. They were military families passing through, injecting their objective –vast landownership in Kentucky – into local Indian and Euromerican relations. Prior to 1774, the bulk of Euromerican occupation of the Upper Ohio Valley depended on Delaware authority. Alternately, the Christians and their cohort of officers held land patents issued for their service in the French and the Indian War. Military families used border towns to launch hostile land scouting parties that escalated in 1774 into the attempted conquest by warfare in Lord Dunmore’s War.

Last page of letter from Anne Christian to Patrick Henry (May 22, 1777). In the postscript, she states she wishes he would visit her, and that she has “much to say”. FOLDER 393, BULLITT FAMILY PAPERS – OXMOOR COLLECTION 1683-2003

Last page of letter from Anne Christian to Patrick Henry (May 22, 1777). In the postscript, she states she wishes he would visit her, and that she has “much to say”. FOLDER 393, BULLITT FAMILY PAPERS – OXMOOR COLLECTION 1683-2003

Kentucky offered the Christians, and their associates, a means of securing Virginia’s otherwise increasingly unsustainable gentry standing. The approaching migration into Kentucky generated a flurry of anguished letter writing. A panicked dread circulated among these Virginia military wives. Death preoccupied their communications. Trepidation mounted into symptoms recognizable now as anxiety attacks. Fear of orphaning children who would be left without kin in underpopulated frontier regions made for sleepless nights. It is tempting to want to identify this group of women as objecting participants in colonial westward expansion. Instead, the collective voice that lifts from this correspondence suggests that their distress formed as a sort of acknowledgment of the cost in white lives it would require to achieve their social and economic goals rather than any indication of their opposition.  Among Anne’s correspondents the violent consequences of migration were real, suffered, and accepted.

 

Melissah J. Pawlikowski is a History lecturer at The Ohio State University. Her most recent work is “‘Our most useful Friends or most dangerous enemies:’ Constructing Communities of Coexistence in the Ohio Valley, 1768 – 1800”, completed in 2014.  Pawlikowski is also a proud former Filson Fellow at The Filson Historical Society.

Please send your own Filson Finds to LeeAnn Whites, Director of Research (lwhites@filsonhistorical.org)

Kayla Reddington

Leave Comment