September 05, 2011

Finding James Dudley Gray in History

After the American Century

We live life forward, enjoying what moments we can, but history gets written backward, and a major event tends to be read into the years before it occurred.

I was forcibly reminded of this when beginning to read a collection of letters I have in my possession, written in the nineteenth century. They are American letters, composed by one James Dudley Gray, born in eastern Ohio. He began to write to his favorite cousin in 1842 and sent her at least one letter each year until the Civil War began. In 1850 he moved to Iowa, which was then the frontier, and settled half way between the towns of Washington and Sigourney

It is hard to read these letters today in the same spirit that they were written. The author did not know that he would go into the Civil War as an assistant surgeon and treat casualties of the fighting in Vicksburg and other battles up and down the Mississippi. Even more frustrating for me, the modern reader, the letters cease in 1861 and I have nothing more from his pen about the war or anything else, even though he lived for another thirty years.

Yet James D. Gray was a highly literate man, who quoted Thomas Carlyle and occasional poems in his letters. He spent some years working for newspapers in Ohio, and possessed an uncommonly high level of literacy and more than the usual political engagement. One of his sons, Charles Gray, was so accomplished a painter that two of his portraits hang in the halls of Congress in Washington, DC.

Charles Gray, portrait of Joseph Warren Keifer
As far as I can tell from preliminary research, James D. Gray has been completely forgotten by posterity, one of the millions of men and women who settled in the American west during the nineteenth century. Yet it seems to me inconceivable that someone who wrote over 100 pages to just one correspondent left no other records anywhere. With luck, I hope to recreate his life right up to his passing, apparently in 1894.