My name is John Hosbrook, and I died 216 years ago. I was both a Revolutionary War soldier and a frontiersman — but I’ll tell you my story later. I first want you to help me spell out “liberty” as we tour our American past and meet my family.
L is for Laws — as our tour begins here in New Jersey. We are a nation of laws, not men, so let me introduce you to Judge Joe — Judge Joseph Kitchel, born 1710 and thus not to be confused with those more modern magistrates, Judge Joe or Judge Judy. Judge Kitchel keeps a careful watch over the legal system here in Newark, a city founded by his ancestors, persecuted Puritans who fled England for religious freedom in America.
I is for Initiative, the juice that energizes and powers our American system and its can-do philosophy. Examples abound, but, look, there go Judge Joe’s two granddaughters, the Kitchel sisters, setting out for the frontier with their families. Such a bold move by young mothers takes ambition and courage since they’re trading settled security for raw and risky wilderness. One of the sisters, Lydia Kitchel Hosbrook, is my wife. We’re headed to Ohio.
B is for Burden, and James and Elizabeth, part of my extended family, have a heavy burden of heartache to bear here in Pennsylvania. Soon after James wrote home about “Jane, a fine garrel, age three, and Alexander, a fine boy born June last,” both children fell victim to a frontier fever. Many families bore the burden of grief, translating it into effort to honor their loved ones. James and Elizabeth moved on to Ohio for a fresh start.
E is for Education, another pillar of pioneer America. Elizabeth’s family minister back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania., was the Rev. William Tennent. His little backwoods cabin school was ridiculed as the “Log College.” But he turned that dig into dignity, his humble school offering a classical education which became the blueprint, the template, for some 60 colleges, including Princeton. And his graduates provided preachers for the Great Awakening and physicians for frontier America.
R is for Resilience. When we got to Ohio, my wife’s sister, Mary Kitchel, soon died, leaving four children. Family — another thread in the fabric of American liberty — came to the rescue, four families, including mine, each taking in one of the children. And one of Mary’s boys, Hervey Bates, went on to become a founding father of Indianapolis and built Bates House, the hotel where Lincoln stayed on his way to Washington to be inaugurated.
T is for Tragedy, and I’ll ask you to walk with me on this one. It’s now 1798, and we’re in the midst of a brutal winter here in Ohio. We’ve run out of salt for preserving our dwindling food supplies of deer and bear meat. I told Lydia and the children that I’d hike to the fort for a peck of salt, knowing that piercing cold would be my constant companion on the long trek to the fort. Come along, friend.
But, alas, I didn’t bargain for this blinding blizzard on the return trip, a terrible and relentless foe. I’m fighting for my life, each step carrying me closer to home but also closer to collapse. I’m sorry, friend, but you’ll have to go on without me.
Sadly, John Hosbrook’s knees buckled beneath him, and he collapsed, soon freezing to death just a quarter-mile from his family cabin. But you’ve helped him spell out “liberty” — all except for the final letter Y.
That’s where You come in. Many caring and courageous families of John’s era helped build this new nation, transforming it from hardscrabble poverty to eventual prosperity, turning frontier wilderness into farms and communities.
These people of our pioneer past are passing the torch of liberty on to You and your generation. On this Flag Day weekend, guard it well and guide it wisely as we honor our nation’s ever-precious liberty.
James F. Burns is a descendant of John Hosbrook and a retired University of Florida professor of engineering. Previous versions of this piece were published in the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun and Bucks County (Pa.) Intelligencer.