A Brief Word on Dates

If you ever decide to do some looking into your family history, and you make it back to, say, the early 1700s, you will probably see one or more dates written like this: Jan 7, 1719/20. Unlike what you might think, that doesn’t mean the author was unsure of what year the event happened in, so they wrote both; rather, it indicates the event occurred on Jan 7 of… either 1719 or 1720, depending on whether you go by the contemporary calendar of the time, or our modern calendar today. And, making matters worse, it was not a Jan 7 that was an even number of years removed from this year’s Jan 7. Worst of all, it may also have reflected a culture that didn’t acknowledge the new year until the end of March. March?

I know, “clear as mud.”

If you’re scratching your head at all this, the problem stems from a major disruption in the measurement of time that occurred when Europe, and Europe’s colonies, switched – slowly, over several years – from the calendar that had been employed by the Romans, aka the Julian calendar, to an updated system, adopted by Pope Gregory, aka the Gregorian calendar.

This is not a minor point.

It affects the citation of all “early” colonial historical dates in a meaningful way, and the explanation below is, I’m sorry to say, actually worth wading through…



The Julian and the Gregorian Calendars

by Peter Meyer


The Gregorian Reform

The average length of a year in the Julian Calendar [the calendar put in place by Julius Caesar]  is 365.25 days (one additional day being added every four years). The length of the year in the Julian Calendar exceeds the length of the mean solar year (365.24219 mean solar days to five decimal places) by 11.2 minutes. This error accumulates so that after 128 years the calendar is out of sync with the equinoxes and solstices by one day. Thus as the centuries passed the Julian Calendar became increasingly inaccurate with respect to the seasons. This was especially troubling to the Christian Church because it affected the determination of the date of Easter, which, by the 16th Century, was well on the way to slipping into Summer.

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I read my first actual book when I was eight. It was called Smiling Hill Farm, and it related, in the simple language fit for new readers, the journey of a family in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century from their former home in a tame, domesticated Virginia, through the great dark eastern forests, to the wilderness of Indiana. It described the cabin they built at the top of a hill, their first attempts at buckskin clothing and soap-making, visiting peddlers, the relationship of the bachelor uncle to the rest of the family, malaria, first marriages. The beauty of the book, and what fascinated me about it, was that it didn’t stop there. It followed them all…through the first brick house, the weddings of grandchildren, a contingent heading west yet again, the deaths of the original mother and father, and on and on.

At the end of the book, a very old man, well into his nineties, plays with his own great-grandchildren. He is, if I recall correctly, the son of two of those settlers. In a wonderful parallel, the tall trees surrounding the house are in fact the saplings which had been left standing by the original family members, as they cleared the brush so many years before. Together the man and the children, in the shade of these trees, watch a highway being put in at the foot of the hill.

This book, told almost from the point of view of the land, was my first glimmer of what I can only call the unbroken flow of life: that the old man was once really a boy; that people whose names have almost been forgotten, or have been forgotten, were as real as I am in all respects; that our lives, far from being the discrete poems we tend to imagine them to be, are just lines, or perhaps at best verses, in a very long song.


As a teenager visiting Boston, Massachusetts, and South Bristol, Maine, during the summer, I would prod my Grandmother Burgin to recite the names and stories of her family. She could recall from memory much of a nine generation oral history, passed from mother to daughter, that stretched back to Plymouth. At the end of the day, while pouring out orange bottled dressing for the salads, I heard about Robinsons, Frenches, Farrars, Shaws, and Sanborns. The thought of writing it down occurred to me, but before I could—the summer I was sixteen—my grandmother had a stroke and much of that oral history, lore more than names or dates, was lost. Gone.

It was then that I realized what had to be done, and I started saving whatever I could find: old envelopes with names written on the back, newspaper clippings, the nothings on which histories of this sort depend. Anything that would help me to rebuild the framework, and possibly those stories.


The map is not the territory, and this score, this list you hold in front of you, is not the song. But my hope is that if you read between these lines, you may be able to hear something, faintly, and be able to recall it the next time you’re preparing dinner with some young relative.


This is the latest stage of what has always been a group effort and I have received assistance from many. Particular thanks, though, go to those who have most recently helped to re-weave the tapestry: Elisha Flagg Lee Jr., and Helen Burgin on my mother’s side; John Endicott Lawrence Sr., and Frances Weeks Lawrence on my father’s. Lastly, we owe a debt to the eighteenth and nineteenth-century New Englanders who cared, as their families began to scatter, to write this all down the first time.



From nowhere we come; into nowhere we go. What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.  It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

Crowfoot, Blackfoot Tribe, last words


I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard.

Dostoyevski, The Brothers Karamazov. V, 3.


Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

 Joel 1: 3.