American History and Genealogy Project


A Quaint Letter of Long Ago

Read a letter from the average boy of 19 today. Then compare it with this one, written to his thirteen year old sister Marcia by Robert Pinckney Dunlap, afterwards Governor of Maine. There must have been a decided change in the last century or more, either in the art of letter writing, or human nature and it is exceedingly doubtful if it is the latter.

Brunswick, May 19th, 1813.
Dear Sister:

We learn with much satisfaction by your letter that you are so well contented, and as you appear to be sensible of the advantages you enjoy, I trust your improvement (in the various branches to which your attention shall be called) will coequal these advantages. In the path of science you may meet with obstacles, which (for the moment) appear impossible to surmount; but when you find you have become in one instance victorious, every impediment as it were vanishes; and nothing but perseverance and industry are requisite to cause you to glide pleasantly in the gentle stream of learning.

As curiosity is natural to the mind and, as you observe, you contemplate speedily commencing Geography, I trust that this principle will have its full extent, and that your knowledge of this branch, though it may be limited, may be laid on a foundation upon which you may build at your leisure. I must confess that this study has offered me much pleasure and delight, whilst I hope that the gratification you will experience from pursuing it will be congenial with mine.

I trust you will pay the strictest attention to your music, for no accomplishment graces a young lady more than this, and though it is not to be expected that you can perfect yourself during your residence in Portland, yet by obtaining its fundamental principles correctly from those ladies under whose care you are placed, in process of time your advancement will be such that in attending to it you can blend amusement with instruction. My remarks on this are not made from experience but from observation.

Far be it from me even to convey the idea that you should neglect your other studies and pay your undivided attention to Geography and Music. Every branch demands a share of your time, and by giving to each a proper portion none becomes dry and insipid; but the satisfaction you experience from pursuing them as it were conjointly tends to cheer and exhilarate your efforts. Jane has sent by Rev. Kellog what you mentioned in your letter. Nothing has transpired of importance since you left us.

Excuse all errors of grammar and punctuation as I write in haste. Respects of all friends.

Whilst I remain with sentiments of esteem your affectionate brother,
Robt. Dunlap.

Robert Pinckney Dunlap, tenth Governor of Maine, serving four years from 1834 to 1838, came of pioneer stock. Governor Dunlap was born in Brunswick, and he lived and died there. His grandfather, Rev. Robert Dunlap, was the first "settled minister" of Brunswick, as the phrase went in those days.

Rev. Robert Dunlap was a ''zealous divine of the Presbyterian faith. He was born in the north of Ireland. He had a strong taste for scientific studies. At the age of nineteen years he entered the University of Edinburgh. He studied theology and was licensed to preach. In 1736, with his family, he started for America. Ninety miles southeast of Cape Breton, a gale drove the ship on the Isle of Sable and wrecked it. Of the two hundred persons on board, ninety-six were drowned. One of Mrs. Dunlap's little children was washed from her arms. Though the ship was an entire loss, one of the long-boats was saved, and the survivors repaired it as best they could with no better materials than some flax and candles which had been blown ashore from the cargo of the sunken ship. In this fragile craft they put off, and succeeded in reaching the Isle of Canso, 27 leagues distant. By the Governor's orders they were taken from there in a small fishing boat and landed at Cape Ann.

Robert Dunlap went from there to Boston, where he made the acquaintance of some noted preachers of his time, and later was ordained to the ministry.

In 1747 he took charge of the parish in Brunswick. This was during the period of the Indian wars. Continually on guard against savages, no isolated community dwelt in safety. On their arrival at Brunswick, the Dunlaps lived for a time in the garrison house. Rev. Robert Dunlap preached at the church at New Meadows, and an armed escort, consisting of a group of his neighbors, accompanied him there every time he held a service.

In colonial times, too much gaiety, either of dress or demeanor, was severely frowned upon, especially in a minister's family. One law of the church, from which practically every law emanated, allowed a minister to wear finer clothing than his wife.

One day Mrs. Dunlap received a gift of a cloak from her old home. Back in Ireland, the mother, no doubt thinking fondly all the time of the pleasure it would give, had with her own hands spun wool from her flock of sheep, woven the cloth and dyed it bright scarlet, soft and rich. Mrs. Dunlap's love of dainty apparel had survived all the hardships of her life in America. She donned the pretty cloak which was marvelously becoming and wore it to church, where it was the admiration of several members of the congregation. Some, however, eyed it askance. Gay clothes and bright colors were not in accordance with the Puritan ideas of a decorous life. So it was not long before several deacons of the church took occasion to call on Mrs. Dunlap and inform her that they did not consider it seemly for a minister's wife to wear a scarlet cloak.

A difference of opinion with his flock led to the resignation of the Rev. Robert Dunlap. In those times every voter was taxed to support the church. To this he objected strongly. Said he, "No man's money or rates shall ever come into my pocket or private use in any shape as ministerial taxes in this town, who does not adhere to my ministry."

Rev. Robert Dunlap's Bible is still in existence, and is owned by his descendants. It was used at the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the church in which he preached.

Theda Cary Dingley

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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