"An American Family." Independent, 15 March 1906, pp. 602-604

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"An American Family." Independent, 15 March 1906, pp. 602-604


New Jersey coast; family


“An American Family”

By Rebecca Harding Davis

This account of an ordinary American family, its fortunes and its growth was given to me by one of its members. It is more significant because it is so commonplace. The story is true, except in two points. The name of the family is not Lawrence and they do not live in New Jersey. ***

My family! I don’t see that there is much to tell about them. I’m a Lawrence. There are hordes of Lawrences in Delaware and Pennsylvania and the upper South—all kin in the beginning. I belong to the Jersey branch. They came over here in Charles the Second’s time.[1]

Decent folk, but poor. All Quakers.[2] They got tired of being whipped and tied to cart wheels in England. So they came over and squatted right down in Monmouth County.[3] They were all working men, plowmen and blacksmiths and the like. Tho there was always one in each family who loafed and read books and had to be drove to earn his living. They took up land along the great tidal rivers. Some of them, as you can see in old deeds, could sign their names but most of them made their mark. My grandfather was one of them. Lazy Joe, he was called, bein’ chief of the Do-Nothings.

He had a big tract on Tom’s River and raised potatoes and wheat and pigs. In July and August parties of folks used to come down from Philadelphia to the seashore in wagons. There were no railroads then. They would bring their own provisions and cook for themselves. Grandfather always hired them the use of two chambers and his kitchen. They hunted and fished all day, and at night got up big suppers of sea trout and clams and sometimes venison. There’s an old book at home—Grandfather's accounts—in which there are some of their names. Many of them were great lawyers and doctors. Binneys, McKeans and Duanes and other leading folk of that time. And that was the way they took their summer outings then. Things were humlier then than now. I tell you, and country and town folk didn’t mix much. After a while some big taverns were built along the shore on Long Island, and upper Jersey and these city folk then went to them and we were left to ourselves. When my father was a boy nothing ever happened at the farm, except a big wreck now and then on the coast. Emigrant ships sometimes came ashore on the bar and broke up. Hundreds of dead bodies would be washed in and lots of plunder. Boxes of lemons and pottery and chests full of clothes. But it was a lonesome kind of life on the farms. Boys didn’t have ambition to study. My father could read and sign his name, but if a letter had to be written it was always my mother that did it. It was but a dull life then—as I said; there was no big town nearer than thirty miles; the pigs and wheat were sent up twice a year. Outside of that we had no traffic with folks outside. My oldest brother, Bill, he drove the pigs up to town, and he once saw a pretty girl that was a cook in a road tavern and he married her. We thought nothing of that then. A cook, if she was decent and honest and could really cook well, was as good as we counted ourselves—then. Afterward, it was different.

The first thing that made it different was that one summer some boarders came to our house. They were two artists, young fellows tramping along the coast, and they stopped at our inlet and declared the views were as fine as any Italy or Switzerland. They asked for board and then went about sketching and raving about the old cedars and the beaches and tides and hunting for “effects”; quite mad. We thought—I think even now, they weren’t altogether sane. I never yet could find the effects they talked of, tho more artists came the next summer, and raved, and sketched, and were just as flighty as the others. I heard some of them had a big reputations in town, and that the picture one of them made of a sunset on our beach with Tom Brown sittin’ fishin’ in his dory outside had been sold in Paris for thousands of dollars. Of course, I know now all about “Art,” and the ridiculous prices pictures bring. But them Frenchmen never did seem quite sane folk to me. I don’t deny Tom was a big-muscled fellow, but he had no good looks. I never saw the day when I would have given 10 cents for his tintype, let alone a color sketch of him.[4]

Well, the artists kept on coming and bringing their friends. I must say they were nice folk, good mannered and easy pleased, telling stories, sitting in the evening around the kitchen fire, with Pop and us boys, and always praising mother’s buckwheat cakes and fried chicken. The same families came a year after year and they brought their friends, and they came, too, steady. They used to talk of our house and beach as being “a great find” that mustn’t get into the papers. We younger children took to them and their ways naturally. But Bill and his wife Liza never did. Bill said “the house was getting' too fashionable, for him—with these fine town folks,” so he went lower down the coast and bought a patch and took seriously to pig raising and butchering. He’s done well, Bill has, as to making both ends meet; he and Liza and their young ones have always had plenty to eat. They’re as fat as their own pigs, but they haven’t much more education.

Jane come next to Bill, and she never took the new folks. She married Pratt, the tailor, down in the village, and they soon had a houseful of children.

I come next to Jane as to age. I was keen enough to see very soon that boarders were a more profitable crop for us than potatoes or wheat. I soon took the charge of the summer people from Pop, and tried to make them comfortable, and to get things they liked. It was I that insisted on napkins on the table and spring mattresses on the beds. But I kept up the humly farm house look of things. They liked that. I may say, without boasting, I had pretty sharp eyes and wit, and knew how to make things pay.

The coming of the boarders year after year made a bigger difference to Joe than to any of the boys. He was always a queer, ugly little fellow, but with a bold, manly way of his own.

“I mean to be a soldier,” he used to say from the time he first learned to speak, and he never gave it up. Old Judge Fisher, who came here for years, and was very fond of Joe. “Go to school, and let us see what you can do,” he used to say. Joe went to school and worked hard and pleased the old man. So when he was the right age the old Judge got him an appointment to West Point. He did well, I must say. He is the Captain Lawrence who was stationed so long on the frontier in Oklahoma. You must have heard of him? He married a Miss Duryea, a great bell and heiress in New Orleans. You often see notices of their balls and gay doings down there in the papers.

Then, there was my sister Fan. The coming of the boarders made a great change in her life.

She was a pretty girl, prettier than any picture or living thing that I ever saw. I’ve seen strangers driving on the road stop to look after her when she was a child. The artists used to bring down their friends from New York, and when she would come in they would not and say, “That’s the girl. Wasn’t I right?”

The women gave her finery to wear and the men painted her in all kinds of characters. She visited them all, too, up in town. She caught onto things quick enough. She picked up a little French and a little music, enough to accompany herself when she sang. She had a voice that would wring your heart. It was so sweet and pitiful.

Well, Fann married Sam Gibbs, the son of a millionaire in Cincinnati, when she was eighteen. Sam was a dull fellow, but he loved the ground she walked on. I went to see them once. They lived in fine style. But the next thing I knew Sam complained that she was flighty and divorced her. In a month she married the great Iron King Pusey, of New York. You see now every day the account of Mrs. Pusey’s doings, her great marble palace near the Park, her dinners and gowns.

Yes, that’s our Fan.

I called on her once. While I was waiting for the big footman, in red and gold livery, to take up my name I saw the picture of a tree hanging in the hall. If you’ll believe me, it was the Lawrence genealogy. There was Fan on the topmost bough. I was the Honorable John, father was a Judge; there was a big line of Congressmen and D.D.’s running straight back to Lord John Lawrence in India, and then came baronets and earls clear back to King John!

Fan sent word that she was not at home. I never went back to the house again. It seemed to me that it and her whole life were built on lies.

But she was a pretty, gentle creature! You had to love Fan, even when she was lying to you.

That’s all of us, except my brother George. He was the one in this generation who took the books. There always was one. He worked his way thru college and went into the Methodist ministry. Then he turned Episcopalian. He never married. He works in the slums of New York and fasts savagely. He comes down regularly to see us and the old people. They and my children dote on him.

Once he persuaded us all to have a reunion. He coaxed Fan to leave her big, white palace, and the Captain to bring his delicate wife up from Orleans, and Bill to give up his pigs for a day or two, and Jane to fetch her little tailor. “Let us all come back to the old hearth again,” he said, “and break bread together.”

Well, they did. It was a difficult day—a sort of grinning farce with a black tragedy back of it.

When it was night over George said:

“We are all children of one blood. We may never meet again. Let us ask God to help us before we part.”

I will say I never heard a prayer like that. None of us ever forgot it. We never did meet again. Even George saw it wouldn’t do.

Each of us is now going on his own road. But there’s nothing queer in that. That is like most American families.

Philadelphia, PA.

[1] Charles II (1630-1685), King of Scotland from 1649 to 1651 and King of England, Ireland, and Scotland from the Restoration in 1660 until 1685.

[2] The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) began as a Christian sect in England in the 1650s; dissatisfied with institutionalized Christianity, early Quakers emphasized a return to primitive Christianity and Jesus’s teachings.

[3] County on the central New Jersey coast founded in 1683.

[4] Photograph made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with dark lacquer or enamel.


Laney Jolley Smith


Updated October 27, 2021


Alicia Mischa Renfroe (Site Editor)



Laney Jolley Smith, “"An American Family." Independent, 15 March 1906, pp. 602-604,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed June 6, 2023, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/223.

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