Today the Wright brothers are important historical figures in aviation history. It is easy to marvel at their accomplishments in flight. But Orville and Wilbur weren’t the first in their family to participate in a historical moment. In fact, the Wright brothers’ family story parallels many threads and movements in American history. Perhaps most importantly, the Wrights’ family helped to shape them into the enterprising aeronautical engineers we know them as today.  

The Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

The Wright family took part in the initial settlement of North America, the fight for independence from Great Britian, and the expansion of the young United States on the western frontier. Wilbur and Orville’s parents and grandparents were active in major social reform movements of the 1800s—the abolition of slavery, temperance, and women’s rights.  

The First Wrights  

The Wright’s story began when Samuel Wright immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s, less than two decades after the Pilgrims landed in 1620 at what would become the colony of Plymouth. Wright was an English-born Puritan who immigrated to Boston as part of the “Great Migration” of the Puritans to Massachusetts. 

Samuel Wright’s great-great-grandson, Dan Wright, was born in Connecticut in 1757 and served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He fought in the Battle of Saratoga. After the war, he earned a living as a carpenter and a farmer, taking part in the rapid American expansion and settlement of the western frontier. In 1814, he and his family settled on a farm near Centerville, Ohio, just south of Dayton, where Orville and Wilbur would go on to carry out much of their groundbreaking work in aviation. Dan Wright’s youngest son, also named Dan, married a woman named Catherine Reeder and the two of them—Orville and Wilbur’s grandparents—continued in the Wright tradition of moving west and settled on 80 acres in Indiana.  

John Trumbull, Oil on canvas, 1826

British General John Burgoyne surrenders to the Continental Army at Saratoga in 1777. The Wright brothers’ great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Saratoga. Image courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

Married in 1859, Wilbur and Orville’s parents instilled their children with strong core values. The importance of family was central to the Wright brothers’ lives and a powerful influence on everything they did. Their father, Milton, was a strong and respected figure in the Wright household. He and his wife, Susan, ingrained their core values in their children, which guided Wilbur and Orville’s attitudes and actions.  

The Wrights’ parents taught their children that the world was an unfriendly place. That unscrupulous persons lay in wait and temptations beckoned. They were convinced that the strength of family bonds offered the only real support in life. Milton and Susan’s mutual support enabled the family to weather all manner of crises.  

Milton Wright (1829-1917) 

Milton Wright was born in Indiana, where we grew up in the rugged edge of westward-advancing American society. The physical hardships of the frontier made him self-reliant. His father was an ardent abolitionist and supporter of the temperance movement against alcohol consumption. He passed on his strength of character, sureness of purpose, and sense of high moral resolve to Milton.  

A portrait of Milton Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Milton was an avid reader as a boy. Despite the long hours he spent working on the family farm, he studied a wide range of subjects and prided himself on his efforts to improve himself and to train his mind to think. Drawn to a religious life as a young man, Milton joined a Midwestern Protestant sect called the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in 1846. He was drawn this sect because of its stance on political and moral issues such as slavery, alcohol, and Freemasonry, rather than its theology.  

Milton (front row, center) at a United Brethren convention, circa 1900. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.  

Milton rose quickly within the church hierarchy. He became an itinerant, or travelling, minister and one of the most outspoken members of the church. He fought against a liberalization of the United Brethren doctrine on many issues. As a social reformer, Milton believed in equal opportunity for all. In 1869, he was appointed to the influential post of editor of the Religious Telescope, a weekly newspaper that carried official church views across the nation. He was ultimately elected a bishop in 1877. The appointment first brought Milton and his family to Dayton, Ohio before returning for good in 1884.  

Susan Wright (1831-1889) 

Susan Catherine Koerner was born in Virginia but grew up on an Indiana farm. She joined the Church of the United Brethren as a teenager. Susan met Milton while studying literature at Hartsville College in Indiana—an unusual opportunity for a woman in that time and place. Both she and Milton were looking for a partner devoted to a life in the church. They married in 1859. Including Wilbur and Orville, Milton and Susan Wright had 7 children, including a set of twins—Otis and Ida—who died in infancy. 

A portrait of Susan Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Unlike Milton, Susan had considerable mechanical talent. As a girl she spent many hours with her father in his carriage shop on the family farm learning how to use tools. Once she had her own household, she designed and built simple appliances for herself and made toys for her children. As boys, Wilbur and Orville would consult their mother whenever they needed mechanical assistance of advice.  

Reuchlin Wright 1861-1920 

A portrait of Reuchlin Wright. Image courtesy of Wright State University Libraries. 

Reuchlin Wright was the oldest child of Milton and Susan. He grew into a restless young man. Reuchlin failed college twice, then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1889. The move distanced himself both physically and psychologically from his family. He worked in Kansas City as a bookkeeper until 1901. He then moved onto a Kansas farm with his wife and children where they raised cattle. Reuchlin built a good life for his family in Kansas, but he remained estranged from the rest of his family in Dayton. 

Lorin Wright 1862-1939 

A portrait of Lorin Wright. Image courtesy of Wright State University Libraries. 

Lorin, another of Milton and Susan’s children, found it difficult to make a living in Dayton and left for Kansas City in 1886. He struggled, briefly returned to Dayton, and then headed west again. He scraped out a living on the Kansas frontier for two years. He returned home in 1889 lonely and homesick. He married his childhood sweetheart in 1892 and settled down to a quiet life as Dayton bookkeeper.  

Katharine Wright 1874-1929 

A portrait of Katherine Wright. Image courtesy of Wright State University Libraries. 

Katharine was only 15 years old when her mother died of tuberculosis in 1889. As the only female child, it was taken for granted that she would assume her mother’s role—which she did. This new role meant she was responsible for caring for the family and managing the household.  

Katharine, Wilbur, and Orville. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.  

Katharine continued to pursue her educational and career goals—things her parents encouraged for all their children—despite her new domestic responsibilities. She excelled in high school and graduated from Oberlin College in 1898. She was the only Wright child to complete a full college course. Katharine settled into a career as a teacher at a Dayton high school while she continued to attend to her household duties.  

Like many of the Wrights before her, Katharine advocated for social reform. By 1914, Katharine was the president of the Dayton’s Young Women’s League and a secretary for her brothers’ aviation company. On Saturday October 24th, 1914, she joined around 1,300 marchers, which included her brother Orville and her father Milton, in the streets of downtown Dayton in demonstration of their support for an amendment to the state constitution that would allow women to vote. The vote for the amendment was just a few days away on November 3rd. The suffragists were ultimately unsuccessful, but Katherine and others continued to fight for voting rights.  

Katharine (far right) out for a bicycle ride with friends. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.  

Several strong family traits contributed to the Wright brothers' success. Wilbur and Orville were shaped by a family with an uncompromising moral philosophy and clear worldview. The emotional anchor provided by their strong family often helped Wilbur and Orville keep going when they ran into difficulties in their research. Still, the brothers had two distinct minds. Wilbur was steady and confident. Orville was more impulsive, optimistic, and contemplative than his older brother. But together, they both made history.  

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