Family Papers Reveal Loudoun History From 1819 to 1995

By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

In the early 19th century, a young naval officer who served on various ships exchanged dozens of affectionate letters with his wife in Erie, Pa. George Pearce wrote frequently to his spouse before his death from yellow fever aboard a ship in the Caribbean.

Dozens of Pearce's letters, written between 1819 and 1822, have been preserved as part of a new collection at the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg. The brittle, yellowed papers mark the beginning of a nearly 200-year-old American family drama marked by good fortune and tragedy. Some of Pearce's descendants settled in Leesburg.

"It involves an American saga," said Alexandra S. Gressitt, the library's director. "There are so many stories, through good times and bad. It shows a family that has grown with this country."

The "Williams Family Papers" collection contains nearly 10 cubic feet of material, chiefly thousands of documents such as estate settlements, bank accounts, checks and bills. The material spans 1819 to 1995.

The collection begins with Pearce's letters to his wife and other letters that contained orders for his family's clothes and household items.

"He was trying to manage his family affairs while he's on a ship," Gressitt said.

After Pearce died, his wife, Eliza, successfully petitioned the federal government for his Navy pension. The process was long and complicated because Congress decided award eligibility.

"Sometimes she sounded kind of desperate," said Stephanie Adams Hunter, the library archives specialist. "It was something she had to fight for."

The Pearces' only child, Mary, married James Cooke Harrison, who ran a steamboat business in Erie. He moved his family to Buffalo, where he became one of the first trusties of the Erie County Savings Bank. By 1883, the bank claimed deposits of more than $11 million.

Harrison's family was close to the Williams clan of Buffalo. William Williams was a prominent financier who later served as the director of several railroad companies. In 1841, he was elected as the city's treasurer and then served as New York's 30th District representative in Congress from 1871 to 1873.

The Williams family collection conveys the same problems and squabbles that modern families face. As a young man, Griffin Williams often clashed with his parents. They wanted him to attend Yale. He took a job at a bank. He was eager to join the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. His parents objected.

Griffin Williams eventually served during the Civil War. His father later arranged for him to travel to the British Isles, Europe and the Middle East. In 1869, he spent another year sailing from San Francisco for Japan and Europe.

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