Words Between Sisters

Excerpt from Barbara’s 1817 letter to her sister Effy. 16 June 1817. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

On June 16, 1817 Barbara McLaurin McKenzie wrote a letter to her favorite sister Effy because she was homesick for her family and “uneasy” about the health of her aging mother. Barbara was married to Duncan McKenzie, who farmed on the Peedee River within about sixty miles of Gum Swamp. Likely this was more than a couple of day’s travel in a wagon – less by horseback – yet still far enough away to impose an obstacle for very frequent visits. Barbara’s anxiety is palpable in these lines,

“Duncan came last night I was verry glad for we did not here a word Since uncle was down there I was very uneasy about Mother that she would be Sick this Summer I hope she will get well now my patience was a most out till Duncan came I kept dreaming every Knight of father and Mother and the all of you.”

The Duncan she refers to is probably her brother Duncan McLaurin. Barbara goes on to say in the letter that they are late with the crop and will not go down “till the Sacriment will be at the Hill” when she will stay a week. With the hopeful prospect of one or more of her sisters returning to PeeDee River with  her to visit a while, she remarks on the “Jelious pout” her sister Effy displayed when Barbara did not write her: “you Said I forgot you but not as long as I live & we did look for father and one of you every Saturday but you did not come.” This last was to be prophetic for Barbara, especially after she migrated with her husband and children to Mississippi. Sisters and brothers still did not come, and her life would become so busy and probably sometimes so grueling that she would want to write but either never did or her letters may not have survived in this collection.

A physical complaint Barbara expressed in this letter would also appear in letters written by her husband and children many years later from Mississippi. She had developed a pain in her hip which she blamed on a rough wagon trip, “I had a mity sore pain in my hip for … too weeks I did go one night to preaching we rid very fast I was thinking it was that rased the pain.” This pain would follow her the rest of her life, a challenging one for most yeoman farmer women. For example, the family had no chimney in their new home in Mississippi and would have to bake their own bricks, which was not necessarily a priority – the crops were. Though it helped that they moved onto already cleared land, no chimney likely meant cooking outdoors and moving heavy pots. According to later letters, the family had brought at least one enslaved woman with them from North Carolina, and possibly this was so that she could help Barbara when she was not needed to help in the fields.

Nevertheless, Barbara McLaurin, my second great grandmother, must have had a fine 19th century childhood. Probably born about five years before the turn of the 18th to 19th century, she likely spent a great deal of her time helping out on the family farm and enjoying the home that her father built when he purchased land near Gum Swamp at Laurel Hill, North Carolina. Born into the Hugh McLaurin and Catharine Calhoun McLaurin family, Barbara grew up enjoying a household filled with people and female companionship. Her many sisters by far outnumbered the two brothers, Duncan and John. By 1817 she and three of her older sisters were married: Jennett McLaurin (John) McCall, Sarah McLaurin (Duncan) Douglass, and Isabella McLaurin (Charles) Patterson. Three of her sisters would remain spinsters: Catharine, Mary, and Effy. Although Duncan never married, her brother John married Effie Stalker McLaurin.

Hugh McLaurin would likely not have concerned himself so much with educating daughters as with sons. Duncan, though only about four when he crossed the Atlantic, was by far the most literate of the children. His brother John was a farmer and less the man of letters – an infant when the family left Ballachulish in Argyll province for Wilmington, NC in 1790. Hugh may have worked in the slate quarry at Ballachulish, Scotland, for he came to America with finances enough to get him and his family across the ocean and to purchase property upon his arrival in the new land. The same need for readily available fertile land, affordably taxed, on which to establish a family farm must have been one motivating force that drove the Hugh McLaurin family from Scotland following family and friends that had gone before. They came to a new continent from Scotland in much the same way the Duncan McKenzie family was inspired to leave North Carolina for Mississippi.

Hugh named his new home and farm Ballachulish, after his hometown in Argyll, Scotland. In fact many Argyll families settled in North Carolina – McCalls, Stewarts, Calhouns and others – most of them becoming land and slaveholders. Many of them are buried in the old Stewartsville cemetery near Laurel Hill that survives today. Hugh’s home would pass from generation to generation, beginning with nephew Hugh McCall, to whom Duncan left all of his personal property upon his death in December of 1872. According to the record of Marguerite Whitfield, a McCall descendant, the property was still in the hands of the McCall family in 1977. A later descendant of the McCalls has photographs and remembers the house still standing in 1982.

From Ballachulish to Mississippi, Barbara’s words speak to a strong family relationship that spans the distance of frontier roads and dreams of a better life.


Bridges, Myrtle N. Estate Records 1772-1933 Richmond County North Carolina: Hardy – Meekins Book II. photocopy from the Brandon, MS Genealogy Room. “John McLaurin – 1864,” “Effy McLaurin – 1861,” and “Duncan McLaurin – 1872.”

Letter from Barbara McKenzie to Effy McLaurin. 16 June 1817. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Whitfield, Marguerite. Families of Ballachulish: McCalls, McLaurins And Related Families in Scotland County, North Carolina. The Pilot Press: Southern Pines, NC. 1978. (This text contains much valuable information, especially about the McCalls and about Scotland roots. However, the information on Barbara McLaurin McKenzie can be corrected with information from the Duncan McLaurin Papers and many other records. Also, two Effys are confused – Effy McLaurin, Barbara’s sister, and Effie Stalker McLaurin, John’s wife. Barbara’s sister Effy died in 1861, and listed Barbara’s children and grandchildren in her will. Effie Stalker McLaurin died in 1881 preceded in death by her husband and all of her children. Effie, John’s wife, is most likely the Effie that lived in her old age with the Hugh McCalls. Duncan McLaurin died in December of 1872, and his will was briefly probated within weeks of his death.)


Ballachulish to South Mississippi

The home Hugh McLaurin built after arriving in NC in 1790, which he named “Ballachulish” after his home in Scotland, still stands after enduring a fire and perhaps many renovations.  Barbara McLaurin McKenzie grew up here and her brother, Duncan McLaurin, whose papers are the subject of this blog, lived out his life here. This photo was taken in 1982 and generously shared by Lee Tomlin, a descendant of Jennett McLaurin McCall and John McCall. Their son Hugh McCall inherited the property, which was still in the McCall family at the time this photo was taken.

On the last day of February in leap year 2016 – sunny, cool, and clear in Durham, North Carolina – I sat at a table in the reading room of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University scrutinizing an aging copy of a letter written by my second great grandfather Duncan McKenzie. With a minimum of handling, I read the letter that was written some years after he had arrived in Covington County, MS. Having migrated from Richmond County, NC in 1833, Duncan McKenzie was farming with the help of his slaves (by then he owned eight people), his six growing sons, and his wife Barbara McLaurin McKenzie. The son I was most interested in finding in the letters was Allen, my great grandfather who is described in this letter as a child following along behind the plow with the younger enslaved black children on the farm as they are cleaning up the rows. Duncan’s youngest son, John – age three, was sowing peas ahead of them.

“I think Danl and myself will get through the corn in another week Allan and the two oldest of the black children are going a little after us we leave it perfectly clean, and Johny,, is Sowin pease ahead of the plows he Johny,, pains to know as much about his Uncle Duncan and Carolina as anyone on the place” *

Until this moment their lives had been a list of facts gleaned from tax, land, military, and census records. But miraculously here I sat following the fading, close and tight ink pen strokes made nearly two hundred years ago by my great great grandfather’s hand that left few blank spaces on the foolscap pages – his last minute postscripts flowing up the margins of the now dangerously brittle paper. The remains of a red wax seal appears on the outer portion where it was once folded into an early 19th century envelope of sorts. The address reads “Duncan McLaurin Esqr, Laurel Hill, North Carolina” – a postage amount written in the corner. At the top of the letter, “Covington County, Miss,” the greeting and salutation to Duncan McLaurin.

The fact that the letters written by my family members have been preserved in no way makes them out of the ordinary. They were a typical and literate 19th century ethnically Highland Scots family of migrants who headed south into newly opened Native American lands after Andrew Jackson’s removal policy. Deep south land would have been much more promising than the scarce and overworked properties available in North Carolina. Surely, one of the motives behind the Duncan McKenzie family migration was the hope of procuring land of value and enough of it for the future of his sons. He had likely been inspired by stories of the success of relatives and friends who had gone before. Some of these had made a comfortable living in Mississippi from growing cotton with slave labor. Family tragedy a year or so before the move may have had an influence as well, for Duncan and Barbara had lost their daughter of twelve years.

However, one family member remaining in North Carolina would have stood out a bit historically. Barbara’s brother Duncan McLaurin, to whom the family wrote, was a civic leader in his community of Laurel Hill. He was a lawyer who spent a year or so in the state legislature of North Carolina. He was a farmer and slaveowner, residing at the house and farm built earlier by his father and called Ballachulish after the family home in Scotland. He served a while as Postmaster at Laurel Hill. He was an educator who promoted the building of Laurinburg School, and he was instrumental in getting the first railroad through Richmond County. Not the least though was his role as a lodestar to his family. Never marrying, he would live much of his life caring for his spinster sisters and one widowed sister with mental illness. He also did his best to raise her three sons. Friends, relatives, and former students sent him personal letters that reveal a kind of Renaissance man with a powerful interest in his environment, politics, and the exotic world he would know only vicariously through newspapers and books. While away from home teaching school in South Carolina at nearby Bennettsville, Duncan McLaurin writes to his brother at Laurel Hill begging him to go to Fayetteville where a popular Baptist missionary, Reverend Wade and his wife are going to interpret the speech of a  Burmese religious man in whom Duncan is most interested. Duncan demands John give him a detailed description of the man from Burma and directs his brother to prepare himself by reading from a book in his library called The Wonders of the World in which there is an engraving and an article “Gungotree at the the Source of the Jumna River.” Probably the most tattered letter in the collection is a letter from Duncan McLaurin’s cousin, Duncan Calhoun. Its condition suggests someone had read this letter over many times.  Duncan Calhoun writes from the Isthmus of Panama in 1849 on his way to dig for gold in California!

The Duncan McLaurin Papers have been held at Duke University since around 1960. I have yet to find a family connection with the name of the person I was told gifted them to the University. My discovery of these letters is at once serendipitous and really quite banal. It began with the facilitator of a genealogy class at McCracken County Library in Paducah, KY reminding us that doing a search on Google Books might put us in contact with digitized family histories. One evening I put Duncan McKenzie’s name into the search. One source in particular caught my eye, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi by Christopher J. Olsen in which the author tells of a Duncan McKenzie who settled in Covington County MS and wrote home to North Carolina claiming to have found productive land which would suit some of his family members there. Still, I was skeptical that this could be my Duncan McKenzie. After a week or so had passed, I looked at the book again for a footnote sourcing the information. After all, if there was a letter written by this man, perhaps I could see it too. The source cited, of course, is the Duncan McLaurin Papers at Duke University, which I found handily online. When I noticed that one of Duncan’s listed sisters was Barbara McKenzie, I set up a time to visit the reading room. 

That last day of February at the library reading room, in somewhat of a dazed stupor over my find, I located a small portion of the collection that I knew related directly to my ancestor Duncan McKenzie. The letters were all either addressed to Duncan McLaurin or sent by way of Duncan McLaurin’s address. A few, addressed to others, likely fell into his hands through the common 19th century practice of sharing newsy letters among close friends and relatives. Written correspondence was incredibly important to these people, for after migrating away from home, some family members never lived to see each other again. Others would continue to travel westward until it was impossible to know where or how to reach them. Families and those who traveled with them would scatter like leaves in a gust of wind, the soft soulful whisper of words forgotten. 


Clarke, Rev. C. C. The Wonders of the World; Comprising the Most Remarkable Curiosities of Nature and Art, Described According to The Latest and Best Authorities, and Illustrated by Engravings A New Edition, Revised and Corrected by James G. Percival.  S. Babcock. New Haven: 1836. Digitized by Google. https://books.google.com. Accessed 28 August 2017. 

County Tax Rolls, 1818-1902, MDAH (Mississippi Department of Archives and History), Accessed June 20, 2017,

http://www.mdah.ms.gov/arrec/digital_archives/tax rolls/ Also accessed in book form at MDAH in 2016.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 29 January 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

*Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 24 June 1841. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 3 May 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 12 May 1849. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Olsen, Christopher J. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2000. p.28 also at https://books.google.com. Accessed January 2016.

Robinson, Marilynne. “Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/books/review/marilynne-robinson-on-finding-the-right-word.html.  Accessed 25 September 2017.

Year: 1850; Census Place: Covington, Mississippi; Roll: M432_371; Page: 309B; Image: 207