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