firm active: 1907-1921

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Biographical Notes: The Gray Family (1699-1830)


Biographical essay in Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers.
Copyright by Mark Hammons, 1985.

The Grays placed their earliest memories in the Irish village of Moneagle, near Londonderry. The Reverend Neil Gray (d. 1715) had charge of a Protestant congregation there until his death when his son William, who had entered the ministry in 1699, succeeded to the post. Rebelling against the strictly conservative doctrine of the presbytery, William Gray fell into disfavor with church elders and in 1721 the synod transferred him to nearby Usher's Quay. Although he ministered there for seven years, William became dissatisfied and returned to Moneagle in defiance of the church authorities to gather a new assembly. Dropped from ecclesiatic records for contumacy, he continued to maintain the congregation until he died in 1747, when guardianship of his young son Robert (1744 1843) was left to relatives by marriage.

Despite his having the advantage of an education, prospects in Ireland were poor for Robert Gray when he reached manhood. Outfitted by his grandfather for passage to the American colonies, the twenty one year old Irishman arrived at Philadelphia in 1764 where he supported himself by teaching school. Robert mustered into the Continental army three times during the American War of Independence, first against the British forces at Sandy Hook and later to suppress Indian uprisings along the Juniata River. After his final two months of service ended in 1776, he married Agnes Gray, who was not a relation (1753 1831), and settled in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, to become father of a large family. In 1788 through an act providing for the sale and settlement of lands in the territory northwest of the Ohio River, Congress established a million acre land grant program under the administration of pioneer jurist John Cleve Symmes. Word of the fertile homesteads to be had in the Symmes, or Miami Purchase, reached across the Allegheny Mountains to the populous farmlands of southern Pennsylvania. Although well into his sixties, Robert Gray acknowledged the pressures of five maturing sons and joined the westward movement in 1806.

The oldest boys went overland by horseback from Pittsburgh while the rest of the family loaded provisions and livestock onto a flatboat and followed the water route. Their original destination, the river port of Columbia, turned out to be unsuitable since little land was remained to be claimed. Told of better prospects southward, the family took a military road toward Fort Hamilton, where a small town was accumulating under the protection of the garrison. Infrequent surveyors' stones guided the wagons from the trail into the surrounding wilderness, the journey finally ending in a heavily forested valley beribboned by the confluence of the Little and Big Miami Rivers.

The Grays registered a claim at the land office in Cincinnati and settled on a 160 acre quarter section in Butler County, Ohio, which they named Pleasant Run. The immediate need for shelter was met by two cabins joined by a common roof to form a central court. Squash and potatoes grown in a small natural clearing provided the first winter store. With spring melt, the Grays began the hard work of taking fields from the slowly yielding walnut, beech, and oak forest. On Sundays, the Grays joined the meager social life of the scattered farm families that centered around the church in Hamilton. They discovered among their neighbors other pioneers of Scotch Irish stock and after worship services would spend the afternoon merrymaking with dance music and shared meals. Within this developing rural community young people found wives and husbands.

Title deed to the Gray family farm in Ohio, dated April 1814, and signed by James Madison

Final payment for the Pleasant Run farm was made on April 1, 1814, and the property secured with a deed signed by President James Madison. Now aging and argumentative, Robert Gray could no longer hold his sons to the Pleasant Run land.  Four moved on to seek their own homesteads in the recently opened tracts of Indiana, Jonathan Gray (1794 1871), the second youngest, found he could manage both the farm and the sharp tongue of his father. For his wife, Jonathan chose between two sisters of a nearby family, and in 1825 brought Mary Woods Gray (1803-1880) home to a newly built cut lumber house where the next generation of the family would be born.

During the time of Jonathan and Mary the Pleasant Run farm attained its greatest prosperity. Their six children provided help with the chores, which included tending an apple orchard and a vineyard. Meat was plentiful from still abundant game, and cornbread was accompanied by wild honey to be found in the woods. The Gray sons who had settled in Indiana returned yearly, driving their hogs to market. Education was highly prized in the family, and the abundance of these good years allowed both sons and daughters to attend nearby Carey's Academy.

With their good humor and respect for fairness, the Gray family got along well with most of their neighbors. Some events in the rough countryside, however, would bring dangerous confrontation. As the ugliness of slavery spilled across the border from Kentucky, the Grays acted upon their abolitionist convictions and sheltered fugitive slaves from the brutality of bounty hunters. Jonathan Gray sometimes had the escaped slaves sleep next to the gun at his bedside before they were helped further north to safety, even though the penalty for their discovery on his property would have meant forfeiture of the farm. A family tradition tells of one instance when use of the gun was necessary to prevent that from happening after several slaves had been seen coming from the Gray house by two bounty hunters.

Life was sometimes bitter in other ways. In 1835 nine year old Alexander Gray (b. 1826) disappeared from a swimming party on the Miami River. The waters were in freshet, and word came later that the body of the boy had washed up at Louisville. Daughter Agnes Marilla Gray (1829 1854) was said by surviving siblings to have been a delicate and melancholy woman who found the wilderness a cruel and lonely place in which to live. Briefly married to contractor Andrew Clyde, whom Jonathan had summoned to build a new brick house on the rise from which Robert Gray first surveyed his acreage, she died shortly after the birth of her first child, a son who also did not survive.

The remaining children took different paths in life. Joanna Gray (1837 1884) never married and remained at Pleasant Run in charge of the household until her death. The youngest son, Jonathan's namesake (1842 1925), made a bad marriage that divided the family with serious arguments and ultimately ended in divorce. After the death of his parents and sister Joanna, he lost interest in life. His fields leased to tenants, Jonathan Gray, Jr., kept to himself and acquired a reputation among nieces and nephews as a cold and bitter man. As if in echo of these events, one summer a series of tornadoes severely damaged the farm buildings and devastated the fields and orchards with a destructiveness from which Pleasant Run never completely recovered.

Of the generation born on the Gray homestead, only two had descendants second born daughter Mary H. Gray (1835 1916) and eldest surviving son, William Cunningham Gray (1830 1901). Mary Gray left the farm on the eve of the Civil War when she wed Andrew Ritchie, a quiet but persuasive clergyman who published strongly worded arguments against the sin of slavery. Although excused from military duty, her husband volunteered to serve in the camps of the wounded around Cincinnati. When Confederate armies threatened the city, Ritchie passed out guns to the men of his congregation and went with them for guard duty until the danger had passed. The courage of his actions gained the attention of the Western Tract and Book Society, a religious publishing house, and his appointment as secretary of the organization shortly after the war ended was an important connection in the career of Mary Ritchie's highly successful brother, William Cunningham Gray.

research courtesy mark hammons