A History of the Burns Family
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PART ONE: Guy's Path to the Dance

Inspiration and Sources


David Argyle Burns (1884-1974)

Stories #1 through #3 in Part One focus on Guy's grandfather, Liberty Burns, who died of wounds received in the Battle of Wilderness in 1864.

I started with (1) a photograph, and (2) a single-line description in Ebba's slim volume about our ancestors. These two clues were all anyone still living knew about Liberty.

Ebba Tree
Detail from Ebba's 1975 family history book

But who wouldn't be curious about a man with such a name? I certainly was, as was the assistant curator of the Jefferson County [Pennsylvania] Historical Society, who I learned has been keeping a file on Liberty Burns for years, on the strength of the name alone!

Thanks to Ancestry.com and other genealogical resources on the internet (a tool Ebba did not have), I discovered many details about Liberty's birthplace in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania; his forebears, who settled in Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley in the 1740s; his military service; and his first family with Ellen Kline Knox. Liberty's military pension record, ordered from the National Archives, contained a treasure trove of information about his second wife Elizabeth Bish, who died in 1861, and their four young orphaned children (including Guy's father, Lorenzo). I researched the Jefferson County townships where the children lived with adoptive or foster families, primarily on pa-roots.com. I also read a great deal about the Battle of Wilderness, and the regimental history of the 105th Pennsylvania, with which Liberty served as a private. I am still actively pursuing several leads on Liberty, his wives and children, and his ancestors.

I told the stories from Liberty's point of view, to try to make him a real person rather than a dusty ancestor-war statistic.

The next five stories are about Lorenzo Dow Burns, Guy's father, about whom I knew next to nothing when I started my research. In my quest to understand him I was immensely helped by reading a penciled diary Lorenzo kept for about six months in 1877 and 1878. In it are drawings, practice signatures, number puzzles, codes, and daily entries describing weather, activities, and social contacts. It is mainly from those daily entries that the content for this part is drawn. A Pennsylvania Soldiers' Orphans' School history was also invaluable, as were several other family artifacts, such as Lorenzo's songbook, his wife Mary Rebecca Mason's 1883 autograph book, and their wedding photos. Online genealogical resources were useful as well, especially Ancestry.com.

Stories #4 through #6 are told through Lorenzo's eyes, because after I read and transcribed his diary, I felt I knew him, at least a little. Each story is set at a time and a place we know Lorenzo to have been, and the events described could have unfolded as told in the story.

Story #7 is much more speculative. We don't really know how Lorenzo and Mary Rebecca got together after the Mason family moved to Ohio sometime between 1878 and 1880. This is just one possible scenario based on reasoning from Lorenzo's diary, census records, and maps.

Story #8 is not so much as story as a fact-based review of what we know about the courtship and wedding of Lorenzo and Mary Rebecca.

The final seven stories of Part One center on Guy himself and lean heavily on his brief handwritten memoirs. Census records, maps of Trumbull and Portage counties in Ohio, family photographs, and Lorenzo's songbook provided additional details. Unfortunately, the 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed by fire; otherwise we would know even more. Helpful maps came from the Summit County, Ohio Atlas of 1915, and the Cuyahoga Falls History website. Burns family photos, artifacts, and letters referenced here are from our collection. Ebba and Don had many specific memories of the ten-room house where they lived with Lorenzo and Mary Rebecca until about 1920 -- most of these I unearthed in letters she wrote to the family after they moved to Seattle and Don's memoir.

Stories #9 and #11 about young Guy are narrated by Mary Rebecca, because it's she who would have observed Guy closely on a day-to-day basis. Story #10 is taken verbatim from Guy's memoirs.

Stories #12 through #15 underscore Guy's love of fishing (Story #13 is his own) and the great outdoors, but also reveal a side of him that I had been unaware of: excellent student. We are lucky to have some of his schoolwork -- marked by careful drawings and diagrams, literary analysis of great works, and exquisite handwriting. He also saved some creative writing, marked by emotional sensitivity and a sense of romance. His close relationship with his high-school English teacher, Julia Fenn, is amply documented in correspondence he saved until he died. Her letters to him suggest she held his academic abilities in high esteem. My admittedly speculative story of a quasi-romance between Guy and Miss Fenn is based on circumstantial evidence that is nonetheless intriguing.