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A Family’s Sorrow

Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky

Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky

When John Rowan (1773-1843) married Ann Lytle (1774-1849), Ann’s father, Revolutionary War veteran William Lytle, made a gift to the couple of a 1,300-acre tract near Bardstown, Kentucky.  The Rowan estate at Federal Hill (as it became known) is now famous for inspiring Stephen Foster’s ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Foster’s song conjures up a bucolic setting enlivened by the Rowans’ nine children, but late in July, 1833 a dark shadow passed over Federal Hill.  Since the previous year, cholera had been stalking the residents of Kentucky, and when it finally reached Bardstown it tore through the Rowan family like a scythe.  Within a matter of days, John Rowan lost a daughter, Mary Jane, her husband William and their daughter, also named Mary Jane; a son, William Lytle Rowan and his wife, Eliza Boyce Rowan; another son, Atkinson Hill Rowan, just back from a diplomatic post in Spain; a sister, Elizabeth Rowan Kelly, and her husband William, who happened to be visiting; and 26 enslaved plantation workers.  Sixteen years later, the disease also claimed Rowan’s widow, Ann.

The Rowans distinguished themselves in law, politics and business, but their correspondence sometimes hinted at the trauma the family had suffered.  Orphaned children and the estates of suddenly departed relatives required attention from the survivors.  In particular, the losses seemed to haunt John Rowan’s daughter, Anne Rowan Buchanan.  “I am very feeble,” she wrote her sister Alice from Covington.  “I am so much affraid of cholera that my apetite has failed me.”  In the summer of 1848, Ann’s husband, Dr. Joseph Rodes Buchanan, became alarmed at the lack of letters from Alice’s family and feared the worst.  “What can it mean — can it be that there is sickness among you which you wish to conceal from us?” he wrote.  “Mrs. B. naturally dreads that such may be the case. . . . Let me beg of you to write immediately and say if you are all well or what is the matter.”  Perhaps the tragedy in his wife’s family contributed to Dr. Buchanan’s belief in spiritualism, mesmerism and communicating with the dead, described in letters written while pursuing his medical career in New York.

A finding aid for the Rowan Family Papers, available in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library, can be downloaded by clicking here.  For several other collections relating to the Rowan family and Federal Hill, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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