Giles family papers   1780-1899
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Giles family papers document an American family through various generations and locations, though the focus of the papers is on Elizabeth Shipton Giles. Her 13 letters to Aquila and to sons Henry and George are literate and engaging, depicting a strong-willed woman who did not lose her spirit and sense of humor in the face of life's trials. Writing in 1780, as a flirtatious young woman enjoying the attentions of an army officer, she accuses her "pretty Major" of flirting with other women: "Upon my word tis a high joak, I should be very glad to know what right you have to dispose of your pretty Person in this manner? ... I'll not endeavor to soften any misfortunes you bring upon yourself so I give you fair warning."

It must have been difficult to descend from youthful romance into the harsh realities of a financially-pinched existence, enduring separation from family, the early deaths of most of her children, and estrangement from the two surviving daughters. But Eliza pinned her hopes on son George, reminding him in 1817 that "your life and mine hang on the same hinge..." and that his father, "tho' he provides for all your necessities, leaves me still the Guardian of your comforts and where will such true comforts be found as in an Honest Heart, and Virtuous Mind." She urges him to imitate his namesake, "the greatest man that ever lived," and become "an ornament to the World, an able Statesman and defender of your countrys Laws, and Rights." Fearing that George's temper may "blast my hopes in you or bring me in sorrow to the Grave," his mother begs him to learn restraint, and to look to God, so that he may seek her in heaven after she is separated from him, whom she regards as "heaven's last, best Gift" on this earth.

The nature of Eliza's relationships with other family members is not readily apparent, except in the case of daughter Elizabeth Thorne, who married well and evidently took pride in showing off, which her mother resented. In one instance the haughty Mrs. Thorne agitated to be given Mrs. Giles's most prized possession, a portrait of husband Aquila. Eliza described the dispute in an 1817 letter to son Henry, declaring that the painting had been her companion, never out of her sight, for 7000 miles of travel and four years of separation, "and I have often fancied I wiped tears from its eye." Her daughter, she felt, merely wanted to display it "over her fine sideboard." But Mrs. Thorne sent a servant to remove the painting the next day, and her mother vowed never to look at it again.

Eliza Giles did not live long enough to see son George married and successfully established, and her life was difficult until the end, but she never ceased to see better days ahead. Writing to George in 1820, two years before her death, she tells him not to worry about his parents, assuring him that "God willing I trust we shall live to see better days. The prospect dawns. So keep your spirits and health to meet the cheering ray."

The other correspondence in this small collection is scattered. Two courtship notes from Aquila Giles to Eliza in 1780 exhibit youthful charm, while one letter to Eliza in 1815 and two to son George in 1819-1820 dwell on good intentions thwarted by bad debts. A series of letters to George and Elizabeth Giles in Europe from children and other family members, dating from 1838-1840, comment on the children's schooling and on family health and social matters. An interesting product of that trip is Elizabeth Giles's journal of their visit to Spain and France en route to Madeira, which features detailed description of buildings and art in Seville. Two 1823 New York City court depositions, evidently made to establish property claims of the surviving Giles children, reveal the sad fates of their siblings.

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