The Kane family documented in this collection begins with Elisha Kane (1770-1834) who moved from Albany to Philadelphia in 1801 after the death of his wife, Alida Van Rensselaer (1766-1799). Kane had three children by his first wife: John, Robert Van Rensselaer, and Alida Van Rensselaer, jr. In Philadelphia Elisha Kane married Elizabeth Kintzing.
Elisha's oldest son, John Kane, adopted his step-mother's name becoming known as John Kintzing Kane or John K. Kane. John Kintzing (1795-1858) had a distinguished career as a lawyer and politician. A supporter of the Democratic Party, John Kintzing was appointed as a federal judge by James K. Polk in 1846. In 1819 John Kintzing Kane married Jane Duval Leiper (1796-1866), with whom he had seven children: Elisha Kent (1820-1857), Thomas Leiper (1822-1883), John Kent (died in infancy), Robert Patterson also called Pat (1827-1906), Elizabeth, who was also called Bessie or Bess (1830-1869), John Kinzing Jr.(1833-1886), and William Leiper (1838-1852).
Elisha Kent Kane became a well-known figure for his work in the United States Navy and as an explorer; he took part in two artic missions to map the north and locate the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. This adventures, and his publications describing them earned his great fame in the United States, though also resulted in his early death.
Thomas Leiper Kane was a successful attorney in Philadelphia until he resigned from a position as District Court position after being ordered to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which went against his abolitionist sentiments. Thomas Leiper is well know for his Civil War service, for which he was made a general, and for the support he provided to the early Mormon church in their dealings with the United States government. Thomas Leiper married his English born cousin Elizabeth Dennistoun Wood (1863-1909). Elizabeth Dennistoun traveled with Thomas Leiper to Utah to visit the Mormon settlements there and published an account of her travels in Twelve Mormon Homes. In addition to her literary accomplishments, Elizabeth Dennistoun Kane returned to school and graduated from the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia in 1883 with an MD. The Kane's eventually settled in McKean County, Pennsylvania and the town of Kane, PA still bears their name.
Robert Patterson Kane also became a lawyer. He remained in Philadelphia and specialized in patent law. In 1861 Robert Patterson married Elizabeth Francis Fisher and with her had two children.
John Kintzing Kane, Jr. became a doctor and spent a year studying medicine in Paris. During the Civil War John Jr. served in a Union hospital in Cairo, Illinois. In 1863 he married Mabel Bayard (1838-1898). Mabel was the daughter of James Asheton and Anne Francis Bayard, and with John Jr. had eight children.
Bessie Kane married Charles Woodruff Shields in 1861. Shields studied both theology and science and in 1866 took a faculty position at Princeton University as professor of the harmony of science and revealed religion. Shields also published frequently on the joining of science and religion.
Bessie was very close to her family particularly her brothers, Robert (Pat), Thomas, and John Jr., and most of the correspondence to Bessie comes from her brothers and their wives. We know less about her relationship with her eldest brother Elisha Kent Kane, as none of his letters are in this collection.