Silas Durand, the eleventh of fourteen children, was born in Herrick Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, on June 5, 1833. He began teaching at age 18 and then went on to read law in Wilkes-Barre, PA, thinking to make the law his career, but after being “received” into the fellowship of the Old School Baptist Church of Middletown and Wallkill in 1864 his sense of calling grew so rapidly that by December of that year he was ordained a preacher. After traveling for three years as an evangelist, he settled down to a succession of churches, wrote sermons, published a book with his sister, edited a hymnal, and died in 1919. All of this information and more can be found online, where the brief sketch of his life closes with the following words:
Elder Durand was a lovely man, an able preacher, fluent writer and bold defender of salvation by grace. He was a highly esteemed gift to his church, and his labor of love and devotion to the cause of truth was appreciated by his brethren.
The story of his early years told by himself can also be found online but with one serious error: in it the date of his birth is given as 1855 rather than 1833. But I have to be somewhat sympathetic to the person transcribing Silas Durand’s work for online publication, however, because the numeral ‘3’ was written very differently in the nineteenth century and gives me trouble myself at times.
In “Early Life of Silas Durand,” the writer tells us that the ancestor of his family in America was John Durand, who came over from France in 1685 to escape the persecution of the Huguenots pursuant to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This interests me because the Hudson River School painter, Asher Brown Durand, claimed the same founding ancestor in America.
But what do I care at all about this family? I am not related to them in any fashion, nor do I personally know anyone who is.
|Diary of Silas Durand|
You will not be surprised to learn that it all began with a book, but in this case it was a particular kind of book, and, within its kind, unique. It is, you see, a handwritten diary, and the diarist was none other than Silas Durand, beginning his journal in 1853. During the years he kept this journal, he taught school and then went to H. P. Wright’s office in Wilkes-Barre to read law. I am reading my way slowly through the diary, learning to distinguish ‘3’ from ‘5’ and to recognize the double-s (as in ‘passenger’), which was also written very differently in the 1850s from the way we are used to seeing it now, and other handwriting puzzles. The last entry of the diary is Christmas, 1858, but I’m not going to cheat and read that far ahead yet. I’ll get to it in time. I look forward to an hour or so in the evening with Silas.
The youthful, idealistic Silas joined a debating society and took up writing and giving speeches. He seemed surprised at himself for doing it, but it must have been good preparation for his later career as a preacher. He had an active social life, too. Much of it involved going to hear preaching (he visited churches of various denominations to hear noted preachers of the time), along with political lectures, but there were also dinners and sleigh rides, and even an excursion to an “ice cream saloon.” And there were mentions of young ladies, too, mostly Miss This and Miss That, but a few named by their first names only. One “Cassie,” in particular, came in for high praise, and I can’t help wondering (despite a Miss Andrews he liked and others who figure in his sketchy journal entries) if Clarice E. Pusey, whom he eventually married, was the wondrous “Cassie”! On Saturday, the 30th of October, 1858, the brief diary entry reads:
Bought a coat for nine dollars, to be paid in 4 weeks. Also pair of drawers for $1.25. In the evening I went over to Mr. Church’s. Cassie was there and Miss Munson. Cassie is one of the best girls I know and I am almost in love with her.
Oh, I do hope Cassie was Clarice! “Why?” David asked. “They’re all dead now.” “Really? Do you think they are?” They don’t feel dead to me.
|sample diary page, partly pencil, partly ink|
In his diary, Silas often mentions receiving letters from his brother James, who was in a law office in New Orleans at this time, and tucked into the diary I found a letter from James to Silas, along with another from James to their younger sister, Rosina. I read the letters aloud to David, and they held his interest. “That’s 160 years ago!” he exclaimed. The style was somewhat old-fashioned but very lively, not stuffy at all, and it was almost as if the letters had arrived in yesterday’s mail.
Silas began his journal entries at one end of the little book, and he flipped it over to record daily expenses beginning at the other end. Thus I know that he paid twenty-five cents for the blank, lined book. It’s held up remarkably well. I only wish he had written always with a pen and not, as he frequently did, sometimes with a very soft pencil.
He struggled at times with depression, this teacher turned lawyer turned preacher of the mid-to late 19th century, and other times experienced what sounds like elation. In fact, he wrote often of what he was feeling from one day to the next. Here is one descriptive entry:
I haven’t any very clearly defined feelings today. The outward world looks somewhat dreary – and as for the inner world – there are times when a veil seems thrown over every bright prospect, a general veil like the gloom of a November sky – and this is such a time.
He says following these sentences that he “doesn’t feel bad,” so this particular day was not one of the gloomiest, but not “fine” or (his word for the best days) “glorious,” either. On the “glorious” days, his enthusiasm knew no bounds. It must have been in reply to a letter written from a “glorious” mood that James cautioned Silas very directly:
If you are crazy, tell me so – if you are in love tell me so – and if you are both (which I fear is the case, for the two diseases generally go together) tell me so. – Oh, Miss Jenny! Miss Jenny! Thou art the syren whose enchanting spells have nearly put at nought the man of philosophy, as the Syrens of old nearly decoyed Ulysses on his return to Ithica, and would have done it, if they had been permitted by the gods!
...I meet with those every day whom I might “make love to” with all the pleasure in the world. I meet with those who are full of “spiritual influences” and who imbue one with “electrical sympathies.” But I look ahead, and in the mist I see shadowy forms of little flaxen headed urchins, munching bread and butter, and I cannot discover the “great loaf and the cow.” I see the outline of a beautiful figure, and the features of a pleasant face, but I cannot see the hearth, the parlor, the generous table. Call me “calculating” if you please. I am calculating, and I calculate to have the wherewithal to procure me a “cottage in this wilderness” before I take any gentle creature from the comforts of a father’s house to share life with me.
|Closing signature, James to Silas|
It’s clear the two brothers were on intimate and confiding terms and that James took his role of older brother very seriously, even if the last line in his letter to Rosina did say, when Silas was visiting him in New Orleans, “I am going out with Silas to see three very interesting young ladies tonight.” Safety in numbers, perhaps?
The diary and letters and what information I could find online inspired me to order a couple more books. The first is an account of Asher B. Durand’s life and work, written by his son, another John Durand, who died in Paris in 1908. Almost as fascinating as the account of his father’s life is John Durand’s description of the little New Jersey country community into which Asher was born.
The house in which my father was born was built midway up the mountain; below it, on the opposite side of the road, came the barn, an apple orchard, cherry and other fruit trees, corn and wheat fields, meadow land, and a stretch of woods beyond.; behind it were the sheds covering the oven and wash-house. The woods reached to the top of the mountain, where the eye ranged over a vast expanse of lowland, consisting of nearly unbroken forest; a spire on the horizon beyond a blue expanse of water indicated the site of New York City. - John Durand, The Life and Times of Asher B. Durand. Hensonville, NY: Black Dome, 2007; orig. pub. By Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894.
As interesting to me as the geographic description is the way the artist’s son described American society of his father’s childhood era.
American villages in colonial times resembled each other in one particular – every man was obliged to get his living according to his aptitudes; the chief end of man in all was to ensure the welfare of himself and family to the best of his ability or opportunity. Nobody profited by inherited capital or superior rank; if anybody possessed money enough to buy the land he cultivated – he was comparatively rich, and that was all; but he had to labour like the rest, and derive his support, as well as added wealth, mainly from the crops he raised.
This was the agrarian society beloved of Thomas Jefferson, an 18th-century ideal that seems to have persisted in our country through much of the 19th century. No wide extremes of income inequality in those days, according to John Durand.
Since Asher Brown Durand was a descendant of the first John Durand in America, as were James B., Silas, Rosina, Bessie, and the rest of that sibship, there must be a cousin relationship of some kind between the two branches of the family. I am not rabid on the genealogy aspects, however; I’m simply pressing my nose up against the windows into the past. David says I have become as obsessed with the Durands as Sarah is with chipmunks.
|Sarah's latest obsession|
Asher, the artist, was apprenticed to an engraver and did so well that by age 26 he was commissioned to copy a painting of a group of patriots from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was through engraving, and only through engraving, that copies -- prints -- of paintings could be copied and made available in the early United States. Engraving was also, at that time, the only branch of art that provided a livelihood for American artists.
Silas was keeping the diary I have before the Civil War, his brother James was living in New Orleans, and Silas visited him there at least once, but there are no rumblings of approaching war in the diary. Neither are there any abolitionist sentiments expressed by the preacher-to-be, who doesn’t even mention slavery in the daily record of his thoughts and feelings. They must have spoken of these things, and one wonders what their thoughts and feelings were on the subject.
|James to Rosina|
The Durand women are even more elusive, though Silas wrote affectionately in his diary of both Rosina and Bessie, and James wrote charmingly to his sister Rosina. Here is a passage from a letter James wrote to Rosina on May 30, 1856, from New Orleans:
I have fitted you out with a Papier Maché Desk with every thing necessary to carry on your correspondence, and I think you will discover the hint which I wish to convey by such a present. You will find in it all kinds of letter and note paper and envelopes, besides transparent wafers [?], sealing wax, a box of pens, pencils, paper knife, visiting cards etc. I want it particularly understood that the small sheets are not intended for you to write to me on. I have put into the desk plenty of such paper as this one sheet of which I expect to see again almost every week. You must not let Silas have it for his ordinary writing speeches etc. Foolscap is good enough for such purposes. You will also find postage stamps for the use of you and Bessie. Besides the desk I send you a light silk dress, which I hope will please you.
When the second book I have ordered arrives, I may be able to share more information about Bessie Durand, another sister. For now I have many diary pages yet to decipher. Ah, yes, I am as intrigued by the Durands as Sarah is by chipmunks, and the obsession is already taking me on many interesting pathways into American history. Who knows where it will lead me next?