The Autobiography of Samuel Rankin Latta

The following autobiographical account was submitted by Dorothy B. Ruhmann, great-granddaughter of Samuel Rankin Latta. It was originally written in 1886.

Samuel R. Latta was born on the 2nd day of December 1827 in the village of New Alexandria, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. His father, John Latta, was born in Lancaster County, Pa., on the 15th day of April 1796, and was of Irish parentage--his father and the grandfather of the subject of this sketch,- John Latta Sr., having migrated to this country from Ireland late in the eighteenth century.

John Latta Sr., moved at an early day to Westmoreland County, in western Pennsylvania. He was a mill-wright, and was killed in the erection of a mill on Loyalhanna Creek, early in the century.

John Latta Jr., learned the saddler's trade in Greensburg, the County seat of Westmoreland County, and while carrying on his trade in New Alexandria, in the same county, he intermarried with Lucinda Ellen Gilchrist, on the 22nd day of April 1823

Lucinda, his wife was born in Dauphin County, Pa., on the 31st day of March 1793. Her parents were John Gilchrist, who served as a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War ---, and Ellen Berryhill, both of whom were of Irish descent.

John Latta Jr.'s mother was named Mary Rankin and she died at the home of her son in New Alexandria, on the 20th., of January 1826, age 73 years. He had but one sister and no brothers and the sister died while quite young.

To John Latta Jr. and his wife, Lucinda, were born, in the village of New Alexandria, Westmoreland County, Pa., children as follows, to wit:-

John Gilchrist Latta, born May 1st. 1824

William Berryhill Latta, born February 1st. 1826

Samuel Rankin Latta, born December 2nd. 1827

James Mitchell Latta, born October 16th. 1829

Francis Henry Latta, born October 28th. 1831 and

Francis Henry Latta, 2nd., born December 5th. 1835

Both the latter died in infancy, the first December 11th. 1832 and the second on the 24th. of February 1837. The former lies buried in the graveyard of Congruity Church, five miles west of the village, and the latter in the graveyard of the Presbyterian Church in New Alexandria.

After carrying on his business in New Alexandria until the Spring of 1837, making but a very scanty living, though practicing the most rigid economy, John Latta and his wife, with their remaining children, removed to Blairsville, a town some ten miles away, in Indiana County. It was situated on Conemaugh River, along which was the Western division of the Pennsylvanian canal. Here they continued to reside, John Latta carrying on his trade. By practicing the most rigid economy, they bought and paid for a comfortable home, where they raised their children respectably.

They were strict Presbyterians, of the strictest of their sort of that day. The children were all required to attend Sabbath-school, church and prayer-meeting, as a matter of course, and there was no excuse sufficient except sickness. On the Sabbath there was no sort of recreation allowed. The children were not permitted to go on the streets except on the way to church or to Sabbath School, and the writer remembers that a funeral happening on Sunday was a sort of God-send to the children of the family, because they were to attend funerals on Sundays, and thus might get out from home. No books or newspapers were allowed to be read on that day, except the most religious ones; and it was regarded as an awful sin to whistle, even a hymn-tune on that day.

It was obligatory on all Presbyterian children to commit to memory the Shorter catechism, and on every Sunday evening, the children were called together, and made to recite it to the father. In those days, the catechism was one of the tasks required of Presbyterian children at the secular schools, and the writer well remembers reciting his daily task of catechism, to the then teacher of the secular school in New Alexandria, John W. Geary, who was afterwards a Colonel in the Mexican War, a Major General of volunteers in the war between the North and South, and then Governor of Pennsylvania. At the time Geary was teaching in New Alexandria he could not have been more than twenty years of age.

The rigid economy practiced in the days when John Latta and his wife were thus bringing up their family of boys, is but little known or practiced by their descendants in the good year 1886, in which this is written. I have no idea that the whole yearly expense of my father's family in those days, was over $400.00 and yet, children were as well cared for then as now, though their clothes and schooling did not cost as much; but that was because they were not given as much, and taught to make them last longer. Provisions and clothing at the present day, are as cheap as they were in the years from 1840 to 1850, and perhaps more so. Of the four surviving sons, the eldest John G., and the youngest, James M. both had good English educations, and both learned their father's trade, working with their father until after they were grown.

The third son, Samuel, was also put into the shop to learn the same trade, but about the year 1842, a classical school was opened in Blairsville, and an old gentleman, Capt. Wm. Smith, persuaded Samuel that he ought to persuade his father to let him go to the Academy. When the notion once got into the boys head, he gave his father no peace. The father reasoned with him; that he was wholly unable, on account of his limited means, to give him a classical education. The boy's reply to this was, that he only wanted his father to pay his way until he was qualified to teach, and then he would work his own way. The father then wanted to know what the boy wanted to make of himself. The boy's reply was that he wanted to be a missionary. The boy may have thought so then, but has suspected since that there was some slyness in it.

However, he gained his point, and for three years he went regularly to the Blairsville Academy, then under the charge of Mr. Matthew McCall. At the end of the summer of 1845, the father told the boy, that he had done for him all that he could, and that the time had come when he must bear the expense of his own schooling.

In those days in Pennsylvania, the Free-schools were kept open in the county about five months each winter, and in the fall of each year the school directors of each township would advertise that a given day at a certain place in the Township they would meet to examine such parties as wished employment in the township as teachers through the winter. So in August of the year 1845, Samuel presented himself, before he was eighteen to undergo the dreaded examination. Among a crowd of a dozen or more, who were there for the same purpose, he was by far the youngest. The examiner was the Rev. Dr. McFerin, a venerable Presbyterian divine, who was pastor of the Congruity Church in the neighborhood for fifty years. The examination passed off successfully and Samuel was employed to teach that winter in District No.----(Shields' schoolhouse) for a five months term at $17.00, out of which wages he paid board at $1.00 per week. But at the end of the term he had $50.00 in clean cash

It was now the Spring of 1846. Samuel was flush with money all his own, and it struck him that it would be better to try to increase it by trading than to spend it just then in going to school. So, in answer to an advertisement in a Philadelphia newspaper, he undertook to canvass a district composed of Franklin County, East of the Mountains, for a book-publisher, by whom he was guaranteed to clear at least $25.00 per month in selling the publisher's attractive books. So Samuel invested $25.00 of his winter's wage in books, which he found when they arrive in Blairsville, were nothing more than very cheap illustrated novels. But he was in for it. His money was in those books and it had to be gotten back somehow. The first question to be decided was, how was he to get to his territory east of the mountains? There were no railroads in those days. So he bargained with the owner and conductor of a canal boat, a section boat, for a cheap fare on his boat to Harrisburg,-- cheap in consideration of Samuel's rendering what aid he could in running the boat. So on this section-boat he shipped himself and his box of books, bound to Harrisburg by the canal, from whence he was to go to Chambersburg, the county seat of Franklin county and the center of his territory.

The memory of that trip over the mountains on that section-boat is a pleasant one. The boat was loaded with shelled oats in bulk, bound for Philadelphia, and the oats was his bed for ten nights it took to reach Harrisburg. How did the boat cross the mountains? Between the Western and Eastern divisions of the canal, on either side of the mountains, was a railroad. The mountains were crossed by a system of inclined planes. The boat was built in sections. Upon its arrival at Johnstown, at the Western foot of the mountains, railroad trucks were run down into the water, the boat's sections were taken apart, and each section was loaded upon a truck. Then a locomotive, or sometimes horses driven tandem, hauled the train on a level several miles, until they reached one of the inclined planes. These inclines were from a mile to a half mile in length, and rose up the mountain at an angle of perhaps 30 or 40 degrees. The train was drawn up these inclines by stationary engines at the top, the train being attached to an endless wire rope. By this system of levels and inclines, the boats were taken over the mountain and deposited again in the canal at Hollidaysburgh on the Eastern side of the mountain

Down the beautiful Juniata amid the mountains, down the lovely Susquehanna with its ever changing scenery, at the rate of about four miles an hour, passed the young traveller, enjoying at night his bed on the shelled oats, as well as if it had been a bed [of] down

Two things at Harrisburg made a lasting impression upon his memory. One that war had actually begun between the United States and Mexico; the other was seeing the first Telegraph wire he had ever seen, and which was then a new thing in the world.

On Saturday evening he arrived at Chambersburg, the centre of his work, and on Monday morning he entered on his new occupation. As before said, the books were cheap novels, costing six and thirteen cents each. The former were sold at twelve and a half and the later at twenty-five cents each. The travelling had to be done on foot from house to house and from town to town. The books in a carpet sack made a heavy load, for enough had to be thus carried to make a weeks sales. At the end of the first week, the young merchant returned to Chambersburg, footsore and wearied. A net calculation showed , that by very hard work, sometimes walking twenty miles a day, he had made clear of expenses, about seventy-five cents per day. Living cost but little, as he stayed in country houses, where, if they made a charge at all, it was very small. Again on Monday he started on his weary tramp. The books must be sold, but another week and weary traping over hot and dusty roads with but poor success in the way of sales, brought great disgust. One weary day he travelled long into the night, before he found a house that would take him in, and he began to think of trying something else. He could do nothing but teach and inquiry disclosed the fact that in the village of Loudon, situated just at the foot of the Blue-Ridge, they wanted a teacher and thither he wandered his way. His youth was against him he was only eighteen. But fortune favored and he got a situation for a term of five months at $18.00 a month. He put the balance of his books for sale on commission in a bookstore in the town of Mercersburg, taught the five months out, and then in the fall, staged it home over the mountains.

The following winter, he taught a country free-school, at McClellands school-house, in the Conemaugh Township, Westmoreland County, Pa., at $19.00 per month. The following summer he attended the Blairsville Academy for five months and the following winter taught another five months session at McClellands. The following summer he taught a five month's session in the public school at Blairsville, as assistant teacher, at $20.00 per month, and the next winter at Youngstown, a village in Westmoreland County at $25.00 per month. Having now made enough money to try college, in the spring of 1848, he entered Washington College at Washington, Penn., entering the Junior class half-advanced.

At the end of the first five month's session, the whole of the junior class rebelled against the faculty, on account of their suspension of one of their number, and refusing to attend recitations, the whole class was suspended. Part of the class bought their peace by yielding to the demands of the faculty. These were such students as were subject to and dependent upon parental authority. About half of the class, among them the writer, refused to submit and left school, and were suspended. In a short time they were all admitted into Jefferson College at Cannonsburg, Pa., and graduated in the summer of 1850.

In the fall of that year, he found employment as a chain carrier with a party of engineers and engaged in surveying the route of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad, on the eastern slope of the Allegheny mountains, from Altoona to the top of the mountains.

The new flourishing town of Altoona, at that time, consisted of one whiskey shop. While thus engaged with the surveyors, the writer earned $1.00 per day and accumulated about $40.00., and then determined to go south, where the wages of teaching were better. So about the middle of October he left home, travelling down the Ohio from Pittsburg by steamboat. He took passage to Memphis, expecting to teach in West Tennessee or North Mississippi but on his way down the Ohio, hearing of several situations in West Tennessee, where he might find employment, he stopped at Hickman, Kentucky, and carrying a carpet bag weighing at least forty pounds, he walked from there to Dyersburg, a distance of fifty miles. He obtained employment as a teacher in the public academy and continued to teach for three years. His wages as a teacher during those years varied somewhat, averaging perhaps about $60.00 per month. In 1852, he purchased the piece of land about half a mile north of the town of Dyersburg, where he now lives, (1886), built a little house upon it, and in December of that year, he married Miss Mary Granger Guthrie, at Eaton in Gibson County, Tennessee, and brought his young wife to that little house. The house has grown as their family increased, but they have never changed their residence, nor do they expect to do so, until they are called home.

While teaching, he had been studying Law, and in the summer of 1854 he was admitted to the bar at Dyersburg, and at once entered on the practice of his profession in partnership with his preceptor, T. E. Richardson, Esq.

He continued the practice of his profession actively and successfully until the breaking out of the Civil War. His sympathies were warmly with the south, and in May 1861, he assisted in raising a company of twelve months volunteers, of which he was elected captain, and joined the Tennessee troops, then under the command of General Gedion J. Pillow at Randolph on the Mississippi River, where he and his company were mustered into service.

At the Battle of Belmont, in Missouri, his company which was in the 13th. Tennessee regiment, was engaged and lost three killed and twelve wounded, among the latter, himself slightly.

Again at the Battle of Shiloh or Pittsburg Landing, his company were engaged, and suffered severely in killed and wounded. After this battle, his time having expired, he was discharged and his health and the situation of his family forbade his again entering the service, and he remained at home during the remainder of the war, though his sympathies were as much as ever with the South. After the war he resumed the practice of his profession actively and profitably, but in the flush times succeeding the war he indulged in buying real estate, and in the crash of 1873 and succeeding years, he suffered severely, though never to insolvency.

Mary Granger Guthrie, his wife, was born on the 8th. day of August 1833, at Bright Hope Furnace in Green County, East Tennessee. Her father was John Guthrie, one of the proprietors of that furnace. He was a Scotchman by birth and education, but the time and place of his birth are unknown to her. Her mother's name was Minerva Wear, a daughter of Samuel Wear.

John Guthrie, before engaging in the iron business, had owned or managed a paper mill in Knoxville, Tennessee. About the year 1840, he disposed of his iron interest and moved with his young family to Missouri, and settled with his slaves in Polk county, but stayed there but a short time, perhaps a year, and moved back, and settled at Columbia, in Maury county, in Middle Tennessee, where he bought a mill on Duck River, but before he had time to make it a success, he lost his wife, and in a few months he followed her, dying in 1844. He and his only son, an oldest child, Franklin Wear Guthrie, both died the same day, the latter than being about fourteen years of age. He left surviving him five daughters named as follows: First Catherine Margaret, who intermarried with Dr. Thomas W. Kelton, of Gibson County, Tennessee, in the year 1847. Second, Mary Granger; Third Helen Marr, who intermarried with Dr. John Hocker in Mt. Vernon, Lawrence County, Mo. They both died soon after their marriage without issue. Fourth, Victoria, a bright and intelligent girl who at the age of nineteen, in the year 1863 became insane, and is yet living, an inmate of the asylum at Fulton, Mo. Fifth, Martha who died when about twelve years of age, in Arkansas, where she was living with Dr. Kelton. Mrs. Kelton is still living in Mt. Vernon, Mo. She has living the following children: Thomas, living unmarried at Mt. Vernon, Mo. Dora, intermarried with Manse Gaither, and now also living in Mt. Vernon, Mo. Lucy, intermarried with Frank Smeltzer, and now living in Van Buren, Ark. Richard unmarried, and now at Mt. Vernon, Mo. Martha intermarried with George A. McCanse, and also living at Mt. Vernon, Harry, Granger and Thaddeus, lads all living with their mother.

Mary Granger,- wife of S. R. Latta (and so named after the wife of Gov. Willie Blount, of Tennessee) was educated at the Columbia Female Institute, graduating therefrom in the year 1849. After Dr. Kelton intermarried with the oldest daughter, Catherine, he was appointed guardian of all the younger children, and removed them all from Columbia, to his home in Gibson County, Tenn., and it was there that she was married as stated above.

To Samuel R. Latta and his wife, Mary Granger Guthrie, there have been born children as follow:

First: John Guthrie Latta, born at Dyersburg, Tenn. June 21st 1857

Second: Kate Latta, born Oct. 17th, 1859

Third: Sarah Knott Latta, born February 12th, 1862

Fourth: Mary Elenora Latta, born March 9th, 1864

Fifth: Franklin Wallace Latta, born July 4th, 1866

Sixth: Samuel Granger Latta, born August 5th, 1871

John Guthrie Latta, the oldest son, was married to Miss Lee Poland in Marshall, Texas, on the sixth day of December, 1882, and to them have been born two children, -Leslie, a daughter, born at Marshall, Texas, Nov. 1883, and Nell, a daughter, born at Dyersburg, Tenn., April 24, 1886.

Kate the second child of Samuel R. and Mary G. Latta, intermarried with Thomas C. Gordon, at Dyersburg, Tenn., on the 25th. of June 1879 and to them have been born thus far (1886) three children, thus:

Mary, born April 26th. 1880

Winfield Osceola, born January the 21st. 1882

Sadie Louise, born July 27th 1884

Returning to the Latta family: John G. the eldest son, as before stated, learned his trade with his father in Blairsville, Pa. but in the year 1852, his health having somewhat failed, he came to Tennessee, and taught school in Dyer county for over a year.

In the summer of 1854, Samuel R. and his wife and John G. Latta visited their parents in Pennsylvania, and the next year the old people, with their son William B. and their son James M. and his wife and child all removed to Dyersburg, Tenn., and James G and James M. Entered into partnership, in carrying on their business of saddlery.

A short time after his parents came to Tennessee, Samuel R. enlarged his house and took his father, mother and brother WM. B into his family, and with him they lived until their deaths many years afterwards.

John Latta, the father died December 1872

Lucinda E. the mother died October 28th. 1874

William B. died January 23rd. 1877

Of the latter, it can only be said, that he was of weak mind. He remained, mentally always a child, and was never capable of taking care of himself. He lived with his parents, and with his brother Samuel, up to the time of his death

John G. Latta, the oldest of the brothers, married in the year 1861 or 1862, Miss Mary Silsby. She was a New England woman and was visiting her brother Mr. Howard Silsby, when he made her acquaintance. In 1862, he took his wife and first born child to Newton, Mass., the residence of her parents, and shortly afterwards was appointed post master of that city, and has so remained until now, 1886. By his wife, Mary Silsby, there was born to him the following children:

First: Lilian, born in the year 1861

Second: Florence, born about the year 1863

Third: Mary, born about the year 1865

Fourth: Jennie, born about the year 1867. The latter died quite young. The others are all alive.

His wife, Mary Silsby, died about the year 1869, and a year or so afterwards, he married Miss Nellie----, by whom he had two sons, one of whom died in infancy and the other named Samuel, still survives.

James Mitchell Latta, while carrying on his business successfully died at Dyersburg on the 27th of September 1857, and was buried at Hurricane Hill Church, about five miles north of Dyersburg, Tenn. He left two children and his widow surviving him.

Lucy, the oldest of his children, was born at Blairsville, PA., about the year 1853, and intermarried with John G. Seat, at Dyersburg, Tenn. about the year 1874 or 5. They still reside in Dyersburg and have three children:

Glenn, a boy about thirteen,

Birdie, a girl aged about eleven

and a third child (daughter) born to them a few days ago.

Samuel R. Latta, and his wife, Mary have now (December 1886) been married, nearly thirty four years. They were married December 1852. They are yet occupying the same house in which in their young days, they began housekeeping, though it has been enlarged as their family increased. It is situated about half a mile north of the village of Dyersburg, and the same forest trees are still around it, amid which it was originally built.

Although West Tennessee has always been regarded as an unhealthy country the family has always had good health. Death, has never entered their home. They have always had enough to eat and wear and in all things have always had enough to eat and wear and in all things have always had abundant cause for thankfulness to a kind Creator for unnumbered blessings.

(After the mention of Lucy, as the daughter of James M. Latta, above, should have been mentioned his son, Samuel James Latta, born in Dyersburg, Tenn., in the year 1857. In the year 1885 he married Miss Betty Cowan of Memphis, Tenn., and is now residing in that city.

I have written the above brief history, that my children and their descendants may know more of their mother and father, and their kinsmen, than I know of mine.

The question might well be asked--"cui bono". Well, it is hard to say. It may satisfy some curiosity, at least. There is something in each one of us that prompts the quere, "who was my father? Who was my grand-father or my grand-mother? And if one can trace back their lineage, through a long line of ancestors they are disposed to boast themselves upon it. This perhaps is well. But again the question comes, "cui bono"? Where is now the descendants of Caesar or Alexander? Or of more recent days, where is now the family of Washington, or who cares for them? Victoria, queen of England, may be able to trace back her history through many names, but what is there to boasting it? Not a name in the whole line as illustrious as that of Washington or Lincoln. And how far back can the name Lincoln be traced? Or a hundred years from now, who may be able to trace to him, their parentage?

We have in our family bible printed in the year 1601, in London. It is in old English type. It is now owned by John G. Latta, as the oldest son of our father. There is in it some family records, of which we know nothing. About all that can be learned, is that we have been a Protestant family for many years, but that is all. Our grand-father came from Ireland; that we know. But where did they come to Ireland from? It is more of a Welsh name, than Irish, but if they came from Wales to Ireland, from whence came they to Wales? Who can tell, and why should anyone care to know? Still, the world is prone to pride itself, upon its ancestry, but for what good reason, it is difficult to tell.

This is true, that it is important that each individual should so well act his or her part on the stage of life, as to leave their posterity and to the world, an untarnished name. In doing this, they have more to boast of, than they could possibly have, by ability to boast of a long line of ancetsry, however distinguished that ancestry may have been.

For all that however, it would be a matter of great pleasure to me, if I could have, even a brief history of my ancestors, telling me of their lives, and actions; where and how they lived, who were their ancestors, and where they lived. Such a record may have once been prepared, just as this is, who can tell? And a hundred years from now, this may be as unknown as if it had never been written. Who can answer for it? No one.

Some of my children, or my grand children may some day read this, and add to it their history for their children. And it may thus go down from father to son, or in a few brief years there may be no one who will care for it at all. Well, so be it.

[Later: this was added to the above history twenty years later-in longhand, by the S. R. Latta, writer of the above.]

In an idle time, July 11, 1906, I have re-read this. It is about twenty years since I wrote it. We are all living and well. My grand-children number twenty-five in all-all living. Three died in infancy. Our great-grand-child, Gordon Pelham, a bright boy, son of our oldest daughter's daughter, Mrs. Kate Gordon, has been born to us. My wife and I are still living in the same old house where we began.

Today, we are expecting our daughter, Sadie K. Anderson, wife of Rev. Dr. W. M. Anderson, pastor of the first Presbyterian church at Nashville, Tenn. with her six boys, to spend a month in the old house with us. When she arrives, my whole family will be here -- not one missing -- except Dr. Anderson, numbering in all, -- parents, children, and grand-children, and great-grand-children, forty souls - less one, Dr. Anderson being the only missing one.