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An American Family: The Kennans, the First Three Generations

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"One of the wisest men in American public life today." ?James Chace
Accompany George Kennan as he explores his family's roots in the American past.
George F. Kennan has forged one of the most illustrious careers in the annals of American letters and politics. His prophetic American Diplomacy influenced several generations of Cold War policy makers, and Sketches from a Life, one of the most lyrical accounts of a life in public service ever written, chronicled his extraordinary ...

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Overview

"One of the wisest men in American public life today." —James Chace
Accompany George Kennan as he explores his family's roots in the American past.
George F. Kennan has forged one of the most illustrious careers in the annals of American letters and politics. His prophetic American Diplomacy influenced several generations of Cold War policy makers, and Sketches from a Life, one of the most lyrical accounts of a life in public service ever written, chronicled his extraordinary diplomatic career spanning more than half a century. As a consummate statesman and prolific writer, Kennan has distinguished himself as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.
Now in his late nineties, Kennan turns an eye to a matter closer to his heart in An American Family: The Kennans. Embarking on a genealogical journey spanning several decades, he traces the roots of the Kennan family back more than five generations, discovering a family history that has all the makings of a classic American story. Beginning with the Kennans' life of unmitigated poverty in Scotland in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, An American Family details the Kennan family's passage to America and the hardships they faced as early settlers in Connecticut and Massachusetts, "the epitome of the backcountry family of the most remote northern fringes of New England life." He adroitly captures life in colonial times and in the period following the Revolutionary War, and chronicles the major events of a nation's early history with the rare intimacy of a family member reflecting on his forebears.
Filled with lively and sometimes haunting vignettes collected from archives and libraries across New England, An American Family is a fascinating detective story and brings to fruition a family memoir begun by Kennan's grandfather nearly a century ago. Graceful yet revealing, it is a cherished reminder of three hundred years of a nation's history through the eyes and words of one of America's most remarkable sons.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this slender volume, Kennan--Pulitzer Prize winner, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and author of American Diplomacy and Sketches from a Life, among others--pays tribute to his ancestors. Kennan's "honored grandfather," Thomas Lathrop Kennan, self-published the Genealogy of the Kennan Family in 1907. Inspired by his ancestor, Kennan privately published a brief paper titled An American Kennan Family 1744-1913. Now in his 90s, he has further researched his family's story ("in most respects an unexceptional family of their time and place") and makes it public. Though charming and anecdotal, too much of the book is a plodding personal history: there are too many details about the town of Dumfries, Scotland, where the Kennan patriarch, James Kennan, was born in 1647; too many details about the economic and religious situations that brought Margaret Smith, the bride of the first American Kennan, to New England; too many details about the Kennans' estate--the household of James McKannon, for example, claimed three oxen and three acres of mowing land, which produced about three tons of hay a year. There's also a bit too much of Kennan as a detective whose sleuthing is not all that interesting. There are, nevertheless, many redemptive moments that make slogging through worthwhile, like the epilogue, a veritable ode to farming. Kennan perceptively notes the roles that education and the church both played in the parochial, isolated world of the New England family farm. He meditates on the early republic's tendency to resist "all deviations, or even attempted deviations, from its uniformities." And he offers a moving, if regionally biased, paean to the lasting influence of New England, which, Kennan argues, sent its hearty sons to the frontier, spreading its earnest values throughout the heartland. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Diplomat-historian Kennan (professor emeritus, Inst. for Advanced Study, Princeton) has been a part of the American intellectual landscape for nearly a century. Here he goes further back and sifts through his ancestral roots to create a genealogical portrait of a clan of pioneers who were extraordinary mostly in their ability to survive. Kennan's ancestors came from hardy Scottish yeoman stock and fled Old World poverty for the rocky soil of New England. They were farmers who drew strength from their religious convictions and strong family bonds, and their struggles mirrored the travails of many 18th-century New Englanders. What distinguishes the Kennan clan is an early belief in the power of education. Several 18th-century Kennans studied their way off the farm and into the better-paying professions. Kennan's scholarly and diplomatic achievements would have made his aspiring progenitors very proud. This work belongs in public and academic libraries with strong history collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/00.]--Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Booknews
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former statesman George F. Kennan traces his roots back more than five generations, discovering in the process a family history with all the makings of a classic American story. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Michael Lind
A modest book that succeeds on its own terms, An American Family might be of interest to readers curious about their own history, as well as to students of New England tradition and one of that tradition's major contemporary representatives.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393050349
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/17/2000
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

George F. Kennan was America’s most acclaimed Cold War diplomat as well as a prize-winning historian and author.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The Scottish Background


Every genealogical table must necessarily be based on the arbitrary choice of some figure, usually dim, and often mythical, to serve as the patriarch, or occasionally the matriarch, from whom the family line is conceived as taking off. The farther back the choice reaches, the dimmer and less meaningful becomes the selection. But for our purposes it should do, I think, to accept, as the first reasonably identifiable patriarch of our Kennan family, one James Kennan, born in 1647 in the town of Dumfries in southwestern Scotland—a town in which he passed his life and where he died in 1691.

    Dumfries was then a very small town by our standard. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, it had only some thirty thousand residents, and it must have been smaller still two or three centuries earlier. But it was the administrative seat of three of the old counties of southwestern Scotland, and the most important center of that entire region. It was very strongly, indeed almost exclusively, Presbyterian-Protestant. In the wake of the religious wars of the earlier part of the seventeenth century, this was a factor of great importance.

    The town seems to have included no aristocratic or patrician families in the accepted European usage of those terms. Dominant in the town council of the early eighteenth century were the merchants, the local clergy, and the remaining members of the old medieval handicraft guilds. The leading officials were the burgess (the mayor), the "bailie" (or bailiff, who served as townexecutive and chief of police), and the magistrates of the local court, who presumably had primarily a juridical function. The burgesses, appointed by the Town Council, served for a term of only one year.

    Our patriarchal James Kennan was plainly a prominent man about town. He served at one time or another both as burgess and as bailie. In the later years of his life he represented the town, and indeed the entire region, as commissioner to the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. But beyond that, I know nothing of his person. He was referred to, in a history of Dumfries written in 1746, as "an old Cromwellian," which presumably meant that he had, in the confused religious wars of then recent memory, fought alongside the Cromwellian forces. But if he did, it is reasonable to suspect that it was for restricted and specifically Scottish goals rather than for those of the English Cromwell that he fought.

    The "lawful son and heir" of James Kennan was one John of that name. He was born, we must assume, somewhere around 1670. He, too, seems to have had a prominent place in the Dumfries community, occupying at some point the position of bailie. And he seems to have had a number of sons, the first of whom, another James, dutifully named after his grandfather, was born in 1693, the remaining births stringing along until 1709. Is it permissible to suspect that this second James was the father of a third one who, born somewhere around the years 1715-1720, emigrated to New England and became the first of the American Kennans?

    The best that my own grandfather was able to do in establishing the identity of this first American Kennan was to note that in 1744, in either Rutland or Holden, Massachusetts, two colonial villages not far from Worcester, a man by the name of James Kennan married a girl by the name of Margaret Smith. Grandfather suspected, I believe, that the man in question had had some connection with a family in Dumfries, but he was not able to find what this connection was. Today, with certain of the Dumfries records before us, and particularly when we look at the first names of the sons that were to proceed from this Kennan-Smith marriage of 1744, it becomes quite clear that the relationship described above was indeed in all probability the true one. But the question still remains: how and why did this young man, a James Kennan born in Dumfries at some time in the period 1715-1720, find himself so far from home and entering upon this marriage at the time and place in question?

    The first and almost the only clue we have to the answer is one that relates to his bride, Margaret Smith. We do know something of her origin, and of what brought her to New England. To explain the nature of this clue requires a certain digression, one that takes us to northern Ireland, the part of Ireland now commonly known as Ulster.

    For many years in the past, at that time, it had been common for young Scots, particularly ones from southwestern Scotland who found life in Scotland hard going, to emigrate to Ulster, a region separated from southwestern Scotland only by a strait some twenty miles in width. Most of these seem to have been sheep farmers and weavers of linen; these, at any rate, were the occupations which many of them, once in Ulster, pursued.

    As the eighteenth century began, conditions in that part of Ireland became extremely difficult for these Scots. The reasons for this were primarily economic but also religious. The result was a heavy flow of Scottish migration, continuing over much of the eighteenth century, from Ulster to the New World, and primarily to North America. In later decades, this movement was mainly directed to and through the ports of Philadelphia and New York, but it was largely inaugurated in the years 1718 to 1721 by the arrival at the port of Boston of several hundred of these people, carried in the holds of thirty or forty of the small ships of that day. About the further fate of these people, after their arrival in Boston, little information seems to be available. One body of them endeavored to settle in the vicinity of Worcester, Massachusetts, where they were hostilely received by the long-established English colonial settlers, and whence, presumably, they dispersed to other parts of New England; but there is no evidence that our Kennan ancestor was among them.

    Now, the reason for this digression is that on the passenger list of one of the first of these shiploads of Scottish emigrants from Ulster to Boston, we find the names of a James and Margaret Smith and their daughter Margaret, the latter evidently at that time an infant. And because it was apparently this daughter who, twenty-six years later, was to become the bride of our first American Kennan ancestor, the question at once presents itself: could not the bridegroom James, too, have been one of these young Scots who emigrated first to Ulster and thence, at some time between 1718 and 1721, on another of those first ships, to Boston?

    This is an attractive suggestion, and one that would explain the connection between the two families. But for various reasons, the first being that there is simply no proof of it or any hard suggestive evidence to support it, we cannot accept it. Even if there were some sort of evidence, it would raise more questions than it would answer. Our James is unlikely to have been more than thirty years old or less than eighteen to twenty when he married, in which case he could not have been more than seven years old at the time of the arrival of even the last of these particular ships. Moreover, Grandfather tells us (and there is other evidence of it) that James, at or around the time of his marriage, was the owner of a farm in the neighborhood of Holden. But when and how could he have acquired such a farm? He, a young boy without agricultural experience, could not have built it with his own hands in the years before his marriage to Margaret Smith in 1744.

    If he really came to New England in his boyhood, even if in the years just after 1721, James would, one may suppose, have come in the company of some older person. But who could that have been? There were, except for the Smiths, almost no other Scots in the Rutland—Holden area. One is reduced, in the end, to speculation on two hypotheses: (1) that he was brought to Massachusetts, and in some way installed in the Rutland—Holden area, by someone of whose identity we have no inkling; and/or (2) that he was not poor but came to Massachusetts reasonably well-heeled and bought the farm he was understood, by my grandfather, to have owned. Of these two hypotheses (which are not mutually exclusive), the second would seem to have the greater plausibility. After all, the Kennan family in Dumfries was itself not all that poor. And some twenty-six years later, when James moved (as we shall see) to another part of Massachusetts, he seems to have been involved in the acquisition of farming property of considerable market value.

    We are left, then, with the first definitely ascertainable fact about the American branch of the Kennan family, which was the marriage, in the year 1744, in or near the village of Holden, not far from Worcester, Massachusetts. How were that place and that date to be related to the political and administrative realities of the time?

    Massachusetts had by this time been an English colony for approximately a century. Another thirty-four years were to elapse before it would become, first, independent, and then, some years later, one of the founding states of the American Union. During this entire colonial period the governmental arrangements, especially those that affected the towns and villages, were, in the first place, far from being uniform throughout the entire Commonwealth; and they were in an almost constant state of change and revision as human settlement spread across the region. The government of the colonial Commonwealth, at its Boston center, was headed, of course, by the governor; but included a General Court, a body largely of local American composition, which exercised administrative authority over Massachusetts as a whole. Below that, there were the various local authorities of counties, towns, villages, and farming areas. These latter authorities embraced many features of elected self-government, the qualification for citizenship in the town being normally the possession of a modest amount of property, monetary or otherwise. But the church, too, had its role to play, and in part a secular one, in the small communities. And to this pattern it should be added that the farther a small community was distanced from the major administrative centers of the Commonwealth, the greater its freedom to design its own practices and meet local requirements. This was very much the case in the rural vicinity the Kennans were now to inhabit.

    It was to all this, then, that this Kennan family had to adjust their lives on the farm near Holden. One of the first tests to which this put them must have been to find a pastor to marry the first parents. There appears then to have been no regular church in Holden, the nearest one being the Congregational church in the town of Rutland, some six miles distant. The pastor of that was a man named Buckminister, who had only recently taken over that position, his predecessor having been killed by the Indians several years earlier.

    The figure of the Rev. Mr. Buckminister endeared itself to me some time ago in the reading of an anecdote about his personality (I have now forgotten where). He, it seems, finding himself on one occasion addressed by a parishioner in a manner he found disrespectful, flung at the latter, in the phraseology of that day, the equivalent of the more modern challenge "Who do you think you're talking to?" To which the parishioner hurled back: "To a poor worm of the dust, like myself." To which the pastor responded by burying his face in his hands and saying: "Ah, I know it, I know it."

    Buckminister must, in any case, have been a man eminently acceptable to the local community as its spiritual leader, for he served a total of fifty years in that capacity. What brought him to Holden to perform the Kennan marriage we do not know; but this was a fully proper procedure, Holden being already the home of the bride's parents, and James Kennan the suitor. But it is also evident that the pastor required, as a condition for his conduct of the marriage service, that the bridegroom's father become a member of his Rutland church and purchase a private pew in that structure, which James Kennan promptly did. (We have no evidence, however, that the family ever lived in Rutland.)

    On the farm near Holden the life of the family proceeded over the course of some twenty-six years. During that period the wife, Margaret, gave birth to nine or ten children, of whom all but one survived the diseases of early childhood common in those rural regions. All these children, we must suppose, went at one time or another to the local village school in Holden. But beyond that, we know nothing, other than ownership of the church pew in Rutland, about the social life or other personal connections of the family. The only evidence we have of the educational level of the parents strongly suggests that the mother was illiterate. (Later in life, when obliged to sign a legal document, she simply "made her mark.") This, of course, in the circumstances, says nothing about her qualities as a wife and a mother. The husband must be supposed to have received a decent schooling either before departure from Dumfries or wherever else he lived through his growing years; but there is no evidence of anything beyond that. Nor do his intellectual horizons appear ever to have risen beyond the life of a farmer.

    At the end of these twenty-six years of residence in the vicinity of Worcester, in the east-central part of Massachusetts, James Kennan and his family abandoned the Holden farm and moved some forty-five miles further west, to the vicinity of the small and relatively new town of Charlemont in the northwestern part of the state, not far from the present Vermont border.

    Both the reasons for this move and its consequences will be the subject of the next chapter.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps 9
Acknowledgments 13
An American Family: The Kennans' First Three Generations 15
Preface 17
Introduction 23
ONE The Scottish Background 27
TWO Charlemont 37
THREE Abigail 51
FOUR Waterbury 73
FIVE Far-Northern New York 93
SIX Dekalb 107
Epilogue 125
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