Kenneth McKenzie and his November 1833 letter to his son John

Kenneth McKenzie in North Carolina

Several documents place my third great grandfather, Kenneth McKenzie, in North Carolina in 1807. The first is from the North Carolina Land Grant Files, which shows a Kenneth McKenzie having purchased 100 acres of land in Richmond County in 1807 “beginning at a Black Jack on E. side of Gum Swamp.” This would have been very near the home that Hugh McLaurin was building for his family at Gum Swamp, “Ballachulish.” The second document shows that in 1811, a Kenneth McKenzie purchases property on the northeast side of PeeDee River and on the southeast side of the main fork of Cartledge’s Creek.” The deed is purchased from Joseph and Elizabeth McDowell and witnessed by James Thomas and Peter Covington. This is possibly the very land that Kenneth’s son Duncan McKenzie was farming when he married Barbara McLaurin.

Another Richmond County, NC document that may have involved my third great grandfather Kenneth is the indenture of a child, Allan Johnston (Johnson), seven-years-old. This Bond of Apprenticeship, made on 24 September 1813, was located and shared by a descendant, Harold Johnson. This is the same Allan Johnson, who the Duncan McKenzie family so happily came upon at Ft. Claiborne as they neared Covington County on their migration route.

In 1827 Kenneth’s Uncle Donald Stewart in Guilford County wrote a responding letter to him in care of Duncan McLaurin. Stewart has learned from Kenneth’s earlier letter of Mary McLaurin McKenzie’s death and sends his condolences. He also invites Kenneth to visit for a little philosophical discussion, but warns him against his tendency to become overly passionate. If I were to guess the reason for Kenneth’s elusiveness, in real life and in genealogy research, it would be this temperamental and perhaps unsettled element of his personality. The full quotation is revealing:

“You should have with us

much philosophy as possible, the cross acci=

=dents of life, and not suffer yourself to

be led into any practices in consequence of

them: you know, that your irritability of

disposition is very great and consequently

that much reflection; if attention is required to

transcend it; otherwise you might be head=

=ed to a fatal situation; you have al=

=ready experienced the effect of sudden gusts of

passion, let it be an awful warning to you

in future.” — Donald Stewart

Kenneth writes from Brunswick County

SPSmithvilleChronology4 copy
These maps appear in Volume 1 of Bill Reaves’s Southport (Smithville) A Chronology as cited below.

By 1832, just before Duncan left for Mississippi, his father Kenneth also left his will and power of attorney with Duncan McLaurin and heads eastward, soon to be living on property at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County, NC. What drove him to leave Richmond County, if it was a specific event, remains unknown. According to his one surviving letter in this collection, written to his son John in 1833, Kenneth is living with his second wife and newborn son, “five miles from New Inlet lighthouse & six above Smithville a little courthouse town & a Ship Harbor.” Today the remains of the town of Smithville are part of Southport, NC. Kenneth’s property is not too far from Ft. Fisher of Civil War fame. Years earlier and by 1833 an inlet had been created by a storm. Congress agreed by 1829 to build a number of lighthouses “to illuminate the 25 mile stretch of the Cape Fear River between Oak Island and Wilmington.” Evidently, the lighthouse mentioned in Kenneth’s letter was the Federal Point lighthouse, built by 1816. It stood for about two decades before it burned in 1836. It was repaired and then replaced near but not on the exact spot. (See the Ft. Fisher lighthouse excavation article cited below.) The one standing in its place during the Civil War was taken down in 1863 so as to avoid attracting Union forces, though blockade runners needed the lights. Likely the shortage of oil for the lights decided the issue. The base of the first two at this location have been excavated, but it is thought the base of a third might be buried under the present day aquarium near the Ft. Fisher historic site.

A flock of white ibis fly over Southport on a spring afternoon. It is easy to imagine the multitude and variety of birds that must have spent at least part of their lives around the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which sports an aviary today.

Another historic site of interest is the old Smithville Cemetery in the town of Southport. This historic cemetery contains some very interesting tombstones and monuments to sailors lost at sea. However, no evidence exists that Kenneth McKenzie might have been buried here. In an 1834 letter to his brother-in-law John McLaurin, Duncan worries about his father, “I have not had a letter from my father since last October I answered his last if he received it I am supprised he does not write if you know where he is or where I will write to him let me know in your answer Duncan stated he was in Wilmington but expected to leave there and take up his old trade of practice.” Kenneth’s “old trade of practice” might have been itinerant ministry, practicing physician, or less likely teaching, which he has admittedly been doing in Brunswick County. Beyond Kenneth’s 1833 letter, we only know that his second wife, referred to as “Stepmother” in the letters, by 1837 is expressing her desire to come to Covington County, MS with her adult daughters from a previous marriage and her McKenzie son, Kenneth Pridgen. Apparently, some time between the 1833 letter and 1837, Kenneth may have died or for some reason may have left his family. A slight possibility exists that he may have found it necessary to return Scotland. After lauding Scottish immigrants as the best neighbors in the letter he appears gripped by emotion at the death of two of his friends to whom he refers by their Gaelic names suggesting a nostalgia for his homeland:

“I am sorry for the Death of 2 of my best friends

& the friends of mankind Oh my dear old

friend Major Duncan Donachaidh Machd

-Dhonuil oh what a kind Heart …

I am sorry also for the Death of

friend C Cahoun he was a Real friend of mine

from his childhood”

This letter also suggests that Kenneth is attempting to farm the property near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. He disparages the land there for it refuses to yield. He appears to have tried to grow corn, pease, potatoes, and perhaps rice. The rice, he claims, is not much in demand. He also tries fishing with little success, “I laid out $25 in fishing lines last spring & Did not catch a Barrel of fish,” – interesting, since the area as a whole depends a great deal upon tourism and fishing for sport today. The cost of living near Smithville was higher because the main port was Wilmington. His predominant income seems to have come from teaching nearby, “31 miles from home up to the Upper end of this county.”

The son John McKenzie (1794-1834), to whom Kenneth’s 1833 letter is addressed, apparently lived with his wife Betsy (Elizabeth Webb) and five children near Duncan McLaurin in Richmond County. It is evident in the correspondence that John McKenzie dies in 1834. Duncan McKenzie mentions in a letter not long after that he would be willing to help Betsy and her family relocate to Mississippi, but this evidently never happened. Betsy dies in North Carolina in 1872. Some descendants of John and Betsy still reside in North Carolina. Betsy’s tombstone still stands at Stewartsville Cemetery, but John’s is gone. He does not appear on the burial list but was likely buried there near his mother and wife. Some of his children have tombstones still standing in this cemetery.

Betsy McKenzie’s tombstone in Old Stewartsville Cemetery near Laurinburg, NC reads, Elizabeth McKenzie; Died May 19, 1872 in the 7th year of her age. I know my Redeemer liveth –

Kenneth’s messages to his to his son John

The main messages Kenneth wishes to convey to John in this letter are threefold. The first one is to tell John how happy he is that a conflict with a man named Grimes has ended and that a question concerning his “little Legacy from Mrs. Smiths Esate” had ended. The second concern seems most important, and that is the fact that John had put his land in Richmond County up for sale. Kenneth admonishes John not to sell, while disparaging his own newly acquired property in Brunswick County:

“I am thanks be

to the great giver of all good; well

pleased at Everything about your situation

Health mind & circumstances only one thing

Excepted; & that is your advertising you

Land for Sale I hope you will not sell

to any person as your land is valuable

and I should Say fully worth the Rise of

$500 let me make a Calculation 236 Acres

at $2-25 per acre which will amount to

five hundred & thirty-one Dollars & if  you will wait

Twelve months Ill give you at that rate

myself if nobody Else Does Your land John

is – 40 – percent better than this land I now live on”

On the contrary, John’s brother Duncan seems to be encouraging him to migrate to Mississippi, for in April of 1833, Duncan writes to his brother-in-law Charles Patterson and says that he has his eyes open for a “convenient place for him (John) near my own tell him to remember what I told him If life lasts I will be as good as my promise.” Unfortunately, for John life did not last, though Duncan offers to help Betsy and the children if they wish to come. Kenneth, however, does not approve of Duncan’s move to Mississippi and in his last words to his son encourages the opposite:

“I also Recd one (a letter) from your Brother

Duncan full of Satisfaction to my poor heart

Now my dear children John and Betsy consider yourselves at

Home Dont give up your Home for a Song

as your Brother Did Your land acre for acre

is actually better than your Brothers Therefore

I insist on you to hold to it”

The third concern of the letter is really a bit of news. Kenneth explains that in his old age he has fathered a half brother to Duncan and John. He brags upon the health of this baby, a gift in his old age.

“John and Betsy you have a little Brother born on the

7th October named Kenneth P for Pridgen I am

in my 65 year his mother in her 48th He was fully

as large as your Mary when born write on the Rect of this”

Kenneth’s religious faith

Kenneth’s religious faith is pervasively evident in this letter and is especially obvious as he consoles John almost prayerfully that justice in his conflict with Grimes has been served. The last few lines of this quotation seem particularly appropriate since father and son will never exchange earthly words again:

“He that died on Calvarys awful mount here

the groans & Sighs of them that put their trust in

him to wit. them that through his grace has come

to him with their Sins being crushed Down under

that tremendous load which neither men nor

Angels could Remove but he alone that trod the wine

press & bore their transgressions & Rose again for their

Justification & sits Enthroned to bear their prayers unto his

Father this my Dear Children is the consolation that is

worth living & Dying for therefore let us meet always

at his throne of mercy Especially in sweet morning

or Evening shades and all Day & night until his witness will

bear witness with our Spirits that we are born of God Amen”

One can imagine from Kenneth’s words that he had the potential to become very emotional about his faith. Perhaps we can find here the seeds of his son Duncan’s difficulty in aligning himself, at least in later life, with a particular established church. Clearly Duncan shows by his words that he was a man of faith, but it was left to his sons in Mississippi to join specific churches. Influenced likely by their marriages, Daniel joins the Presbyterian Church; Duncan and John become Baptists – all after moving to Smith County.

Kenneth McKenzie and Relations in Scotland

Kenneth McKenzie was born around 1768 in Scotland, probably in the area of Argyll, since some family are referenced in the Duncan McLaurin Papers as residing in that place. The following is a list of letter references to Kenneth McKenzie’s family, who are from this area of Scotland:

  • Donald Stewart’s 1822 Will: “And that the money arising from the sale of the aforesaid Slaves with their increase be remitted to my relations in Scotland in the following portion Vis. To the children of my sister Catherine McKenzie one fifth part of my estate to be equally divided among them to them and their heirs forever.” Donald Stewart is from Argyllshire.
  • Donald Stewart’s April 1827 letter to Kenneth McKenzie mentions a nephew in the Highlands, Rev. John McMillan, a clergyman of the Church of England: “I have a letter by him (Duncan Stalker) from the Highland; but must defer answering them until I write to your nephew Mr. McMillan; so as to make one reply do for all”
  • An April 1840 letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin references his Uncle Donald McKenzie: “I received a letter from my uncle Donald McKenzie of South Ballochelish Glencoe North Britain he wrote in Sept 1839 it is in the same hand write that you love, he filled a very large sheet of strong paper with fine and close writing, it contains much news and with all he says if I will write to him an encouraging letter he and his sons and son in law Hugh McKenzie who is grandson of my grand uncle Alexander McKenzie … My uncle and sons are in the Slate quarry where he left home they say they have a sufficiency to bring them and but very little more”
  • The April letter is followed by a July 1840 letter in which Duncan McKenzie requests Duncan McLaurin to write to his Uncle Donald McKenzie: “I wish you on the receipt of this to write to my uncle in Scotland giving him your views plainly — address him south Bulachellish Glencoe and c”
  • Duncan McKenzie mentions his uncle again in March of 1841: “Daniel (Donald) McKenzie of Appin Glen coe wrote a letter on the 12th Nov. last which I received some time in January last in which he states that he will try to emigrate to this country next fall together with his three sons and seven daughters and familys one of his sons is married also four of his daughters, they propose landing in New Orleans … The old man complains of the hardness of the times in Scotland I really expect that it is necessity drives him from the home of his childhood, and the land of his fathers”
  • In January of 1842, Duncan McKenzie makes another reference to his father’s family in Scotland: “I now Say to you that my letters (to Donald McKenzie) fell into the hands of a cousin of mine who says he is the oldest Sone of my youngest Uncle Allan McKenzie, you are also aware that my Uncle Allan left his native country Some years Since and emigrated to Australia or Australasia an Island adjacent to the continent of new holland, his Sone left him in Scotland the Sone being in his fifteenth year and went to Paris where he attended in the hospital for six years. he then traveled with a young french nobleman over France, Ittaly, and most of Spain where he entered the army as surgeon but soon lost his health where upon he retraced his steps and last summer reached the land of his birth, in traveling through Scotland visiting his scattered relatives he came on my letters in the hands of Cousin John McMillan … he then lost no time in writing to me Stating that So Soon as he obtained a medical diploma from the faculty in Glasgow which he would have conferred on him this winter he would Come to North America … he also States that a brother of his is in Missouri”
  • Again in 1843 Duncan McKenzie references this cousin in Missouri: “I recently received a letter from my Missouri Cousin… he is doing business for Messrs John Perry and Co. Rush Tower, Missouri”

These excerpts from the letters in the Duncan McLaurin collection are evidence that Kenneth likely was born and emigrated from Argyll, Scotland. Another source that places Kenneth McKenzie in Argyll is from Marguerite Whitfield’s 1978 McCall and McLaurin family history cited below. She states that Hugh McLaurin, Duncan and Barbara McLaurin’s father, had a sister named Mary, who married Kenneth McKenzie. However, she had no knowledge that this couple ever left Scotland. Whitfield’s genealogy deals more extensively with the McCall family and does not acknowledge the Duncan McLaurin Papers if she knew of their existence at all. My third great grandmother, this same Mary McLaurin McKenzie, wife of Kenneth and mother of Duncan and John, died around 1825 and is buried in Stewartsville Cemetery near Laurinburg, NC.

Mary McLaurin McKenzie’s tombstone in Stewartsville Cemetery reads, Mary Wife of Kenneth MacKenzie and Daughter of Duncan MacLaurin & Catharine his wife. Died Sept. 21. 1825. Aged 68 years. “Blessed are the dead that died for the Lord.”


(If the link is not hot in this list, copy and paste it into your browser.)

Arnold, Lisa. “Price’s Creek Lighthouse.” 2007. accessed 22 October 2017.

Cox, Dale. “Old Smithville Burying Grounds.” 2011. accessed 22 October 2017.

The Will of Donald Stewart of Guilford County, NC. 27 February 1822. Boxes 3,4,5. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript. Duke University.

D. C. Stewart to Kenneth McKenzie. 15 April 1827. Boxes one and two. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Hotz, Amy. “Ft. Fisher dig uncovers pre-Civil War lighthouse.” Star News. 20 Nov 2009

Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to John McKenzie. 3 November 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Charles Patterson. 7 April 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. 26 April 1840. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 4 July 1840. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Duncan McKenzie letter to Duncan McLaurin 22 March 1841. Boxes 1 and 2.  Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 31 January 1842. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 6 August 1843. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 5 July 1845. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University

North Carolina, Land Grant Files, 1693-1960 for Kennith McKenzie. Richmond, North Carolina. Certificate Range 1652-1766. Issued 10 Dec 1814.

“Oak Island Lighthouse.” accessed 22 October 2017.

Reaves, Bill. Southport (Smithville) A Chronology Vol I (1520-1887). Broadfoot Publishing Company: Wilmington, NC 1978. early maps. accessed Brunswick County Library 2017.

Roberts, Cheryl Shelton and Roberts, Bruce. “NC Lighthouses 1861-1865.” Lighthouse News. Summer 2011.

Whitfield, Marguerite. Families of Ballachulish: McCalls, McLaurins And Related Families in Scotland County, North Carolina. The Pilot Press: Southern Pines, NC. 1978.

1831-1833 Land and People

The Land: Settling in Covington County, MS

The Duncan McKenzie family was forty-five days on the road, arrived and welcomed at Allan Stewart’s January 18, 1833. The next Saturday Stewart took McKenzie, Johnson, and McBryde to view three places. Duncan chose his place because of its proximity to a school. They are renting their land on which they find houses and equal access to a well. Duncan explains their tenant agreement in his January 1833 arrival letter:

“there is 120 acres of land in cultivation & as good buildings as

is to be found on any farm in this neighborhood in so much

that each Family have separate houses convenient to the

same well or Equally convenient it being 200 yards from

the nearest — the Rent we are to give is 100 pounds of

Seed cotton per acre for so much of the land as we can

tend in corn and cotton the balance we have given

in to us for oat and pasture round or if we choose to

give the 4th part of the corn fodder and cotton after

it is made we are at liberty then to take a choice” — Duncan McKenzie

According the the authors of the Mississippi Encyclopedia article titled “Covington County,” the land in this part of Mississippi was not particularly good for growing cotton, though Duncan seems to have supported his family and eventually eight enslaved people by growing peas, mostly corn, and cotton. Compared to the rich Delta farmland and parts of Northeast Mississippi, Covington County land had much less cotton potential. In fact, cotton production declined in this area during the decade before the Civil War. Though the McKenzie’s don’t mention growing it, rice appears to have been productive here. West toward the Mississippi River near Natchez, some of the most successful cotton plantations in the state could be found in 1833. The authors of the “Environment” article from the same encyclopedia also admit to the variety of the land in this area.

By February of 1833 the tenants (Duncan McKenzie, Allan Johnson, and Duncan McBryde) had divided the land they were to farm and Duncan writes to his brother-in-law confirming the tenancy:

“we have divided the land on

this plantation I have 58 acres 28 I expect to tend

in corn 20 in cotton 10 in Rye and oats I pay for my

part 42-50 lb Seed cotton or if I choos it 1/4th part

of cotton corn and fodder we have choise at the end of

the crop”     – Duncan McKenzie

John P. Stewart’s Description

Though Duncan McKenzie offers us little description of the general lay of the land on his travels or upon his arrival, another Duncan McLaurin correspondent does – John P. Stewart, nearing thirty years old when this letter was written. Stewart is the son of Allan Stewart and later becomes Clerk in Franklin County, MS where he lives out his life as a bachelor much interested in politics. In a June 1831 letter written to Duncan McLaurin he describes his travels westward from Covington County. It is possible that Duncan McKenzie was shown this letter and read it before making his decision to migrate a year or more later. As he travels with a cousin bearing the same name, John Patrick Stewart views the land he passes with a discerning eye. In describing the towns, Stewart takes pains to make comparisons with which his audience might be familiar. The following is his description of a portion of this part of the state:

West toward the Mississippi River

“I was on the eve of starting westward when you last heard from me in company with Cousin John Stewart We took a small tour toward the Mi. River –  We were not Successful in getting into business – The season was too far advanced – Many persons employed in that section of the State were going up the river to their homes in the west as they are mostly birds of passage. We proceeded to Monticello on the Pearl a distance of 30 miles the first day Country similar to this in which we live Vis Broken and poor except on water courses or flats. This town is on the West bank of Pearl and has a handsome situation the buildings extending to the waters edge it is on this decline and pretty much resembles Lumberton. We proceeded thence over a very poor country 31 miles to Holmesville in Pike County. This last place is on a small river called Bogue Chitto and is a very flourishing village the buildings are new and mostly painted white – We thence proceeded to Liberty in Amite County The land was poor for the first ten miles it then improved considerably – Liberty is situated between the 2 branches of Amite River containing 4 or 500 inhabitants. It has a gloomy appearance when I was there the weather was very wet and the streets were as slippery as they would be in Rockingham at such a time. After leaving the latter place 11 miles I crossed Beaver Creek and entered the Thick Woods – Thickwoods indeed are they. having a large and luxuriant growth of white-Oak, Gum Beech, poplar and with a very thick undergrowth in this section the lands lie tolerably level and are productive but unhealthy indeed I think moreso than it is near The River As I approached Woodville the country becomes more broken and the undergrowth not so thick – It is yet a more desirable place than the latter the lands are more productive and better watered — The people in this Section Say their lands will produce from 15 to 2000 lbs cotton per acre but not so well adapted to the raising of corn and wheat The climate does not suit grains. Woodville is a handsome little town homes and the most splendid Court House I ever beheld – I concluded I must be lost in this section I could see none of my old friends and neighbors… They are banished or never could gain a footing – There are a few scattering short leaf pines”     – John P. Stewart

Towards Natchez

“I then proceeded to Natchez a distance of 37 miles. After leaving Woodville for 2 or 3 miles this country becomes very broke and what very much surprised me was to see the Cane growing on the top of the most elevated ridges – We traveled as I was told a ridge road. It was indeed on the ridges scarcely broad enough to admit of a road in many places. Caused or cut down with precipice on either side – The growth on these hills comprised what grows in the swamps of rivers in Carolina. Vis Elm, Ash, Horn Beam, Magnolia, Walnut, Linn a tree I never saw before whose bark strips like elm it looks something like Ashe in the Body and leaves similar to what is improperly called English Mulberry. I saw land cultivated more hilly than any I ever saw in Richmond County … 16 miles from Natchez I crossed the Homo-chitto River which is larger than Lumber River. The country there changes for the better and not so broken up. Every plantation in this section is ornamented with a grove of China trees. I was informed they are considered as conducive to health. This section is mostly owned by wealthy men who do not reside on their farms”           – John P. Stewart


“Natchez contains by the last census (I think) 2774 inhabitants there was very little business going when I was there except on the wharves. Here I first beheld the noble and majestic Mississippi – It did not at first sight appear to me more than 1/4 mile in width and the current appears Sluggish. yet I was undeceived when I saw with what rapidity rafts and flat bottomed boats passed and observed the size of certain objects (cattle for instance) on the opposite bank – There were more than 200 boats at the landings when I was there and many more daily arriving indeed you could not look up the River without seeng a boat or boats within 2 or 3 miles – Provisions of all were plenty – They were mostly loaded with bacon, corn, flour Pork, whiskey Tobacco, livestock corn sold at about 20 c per Bushel and flour $5. Bacon 5 to 8. Natchez is on a high bluff more than 300 feet above the water the banks are very steep and precipitous – There are several buildings in this lower town under the hills mostly warehouses and house of ill fame – There is a small town on the Louisiana side called Concordia – The situation appeared to be low and flat. I saw the River a few miles above Natchez with the same appearance Vis West low E. High Banks”              – John P. Stewart

Port Gibson

“I proceed thence to Port Gibson on Bayou Pierre 45 miles above Natchez It is nearly as large as Cheraw There is considerable business done in that place in the winter season – it is about 12 miles from The River the Bayou is navigable – The country between this and Natchez is not so fertile generally as in many places below but should consider it more healthy except on large Creeks or rather Swamps as they are mostly wet weather streams There are very few miles west of Pearl River – Port Gibson I proceeded eastward the land lies generally level 15 or 20 miles – Pine woods thence to Covington Co. ”    – John P.  Stewart

The People

“The inhabitants of this State having collected from Several States there is necessarily a great diversity of manners, Politics, Religion & c The people of this country are generally better informed than they are in Carolina I mean those of little or no education. They are very inquisitive and have all travelled more or less and see many … from whom they gather information – The inhabitants are as moral in this Section or more are where you live — At least they are more temperate in drinking spiritous liquors coffee is lesser thereof – Raising cotton absorbs all their politics & meditations – The first salute to a neighbor is how does your cotton look”          – John P. Stewart

The letters written by Duncan McKenzie and John P. Stewart are remarkable in that they convey in words from the past a time, place, and circumstance that has disappeared from our physical sight forever. Yet they leave us with a virtual image of what was.


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. 3 February 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1831. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Mississippi Encyclopedia Staff. “Covington County.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 209

Prewitt, Wiley C. Jr. and Saikku, Mikko. “Environment.” Mississippi EncyclopediaUniversity Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 392-394.

Duncan McKenzie Family on the Fall Line and Federal Roads


(The amount Duncan McKenzie had left upon arrival in Mississippi must have been 95 dollars and 75 cents.)


Once Duncan McKenzie had made the decision to migrate from Richmond County, NC to Mississippi, he became the bearer of news, notes, and payments for acquaintances and relatives who had left and gone before him. In spite of the improving post roads, the mail was still not a safe vehicle for financial transactions, not as safe as a trustworthy individual. It took Duncan forty-five days to travel over the Fall Line Road and the Federal Road to Covington County, MS, but the mail in those days could take nearly a month or more to reach its destination. So Duncan carried the responsibility of delivering and completing financial transactions for others. Duncan mentions some of these in his January 1833 letter written after his arrival in Mississippi:

“I saw John Patrick Stewart

he and his sister Penelope are well I gave him $50

that his uncle John Carmichael handed me for that

purpose I also handed Allan Stewart the 50 John C

handed me for that purpose I gave each of them a Receipt

which you will take up by order of Stewarts.

You will hand Neill McBryde $5 his brother duncan

gave me five for that purpose and as there is mony due me

there we think it Safest not to enclose it. if you had

not Received any from McNeill you can tell Neil McBryde

that such is the case”

“You will tell Hugh C McLaurin that his money

is not collected yet nor will it ever be in the

train it is going on in my opinion Danl McCall

could hardly tell me anything about it it had

almost past his Recollection he finally Said Hugh had

better come and See to it.”

Among other preparations a priority was the hiring of a guide or finding someone trustworthy with whom to travel who was familiar with the roads. The timing of their journey likely coincided with the months of the year following harvest, so that they could arrive and settle before beginning the crop in the spring. The family owned a sturdy wagon, which was probably their major means of conveyance. From the letters we know they had a team of horses, a few of which they sold upon arrival to purchase furniture and other necessities they did not bring on their journey. Duncan explains the sale of the horses in his arrival letter.

“I sold the campbell

mare to a man moving up into the purchase took in payment

40 head of hogs 15 of which are grown 25 from fall to

early winter pigs the whole rated at 50 dollars 1 table

3 bedsteads 4 plows 2 singletrees & clevisses 2 hoes all

Rated at 15 dolars and ten dolars in cash making 75 —

I sold Snip to Allan Johnson for sixty dollars credit till

January next horses are dul Sale here this year and I thot

best to Sell low than to keep them having no use for

but 2”

In addition to their guide and companion Hugh R. Trawick and the family of seven, at least one enslaved woman traveled with them. Hugh Trawick would stay near the family in Covington County at least long enough to teach at a school, possibly to make enough money for his return journey or perhaps to settle. In his January 1833 letter to Duncan McLaurin, Duncan McKenzie writes about Hugh Trawick:

“we Started on Saturday after our arrival to see the place (the land they were to rent)

and made choice of one it being convenient to a School

house, a School was made up and Hugh R. Trawick the teacher

at the rate of 18 dollars a year for the first grade 24 for the

2nd grade”

Likely the family began their journey along the Pee Dee River, passing through the bustling port city of Cheraw at the head of the river. Cheraw, South Carolina was named after the Native American tribe that once inhabited the area. At Cheraw they would have begun traveling the Fall Line Road loosely following what is today US Highway 1 to Augusta, GA. By 1832, the year of their journey, this road would have been widened by frequent traffic and maintenance by local people. Traffic on the road would have included migrants driving hogsheads, wagons, buggies, and not least the stage, often carrying the mail. During its use as a military road in the War of 1812, it would have been widened extensively. By 1833 the threat of hostile Native Americans would have been declining. Still, it is likely mean and greedy non-Native American humans also traveled these early roads, though the greatest dangers were probably environmental. 

The Pee Dee River area that they were leaving would have been populated by red maple, oak, sweetgum, black gum, laurel, and hickory. The loblolly pine and longleaf pines were common to the area but not as dominant as the scent of the longleaf would be along the more southern parts of the piney woods, they might have noticed the increase of the longleaf pines especially in Mississippi. Breathing the woodland scents as they travelled along the road, the family might have fallen asleep amidst the hoots of the striped owl all along the Fall Line Road during the autumn of 1832, but they would have had their eyes wide open in daylight for snakes sunning themselves in the road if the temperatures had not yet driven them to hibernate. Rainstorms could make the unpaved and rutted roads difficult to negotiate, though Duncan does not mention specific problems along the way. The crossing of many creeks and rivers could pose a potential problem depending upon rainfall. Black or brown bears, panthers, and white-tailed deer, and turkeys might have been spotted along the road all the way from Cheraw, SC to Covington County, MS. Insects would not have been as much of a nuisance in the cooler fall months. The cool winds whipping up swirling leaves might have been a common sight and would have caused the family to pull their jackets a little closer. The wagon wheels plowing through gathering leaves along the road must have added to the music of the woodland birdsong. Depending on the speed at which they traveled, four young boys likely may have had time to run and play alongside the wagon. Allen, the three-year-old, might have taken an older brother’s hand in these adventures. However, the family had to be awake to the possibility of a passing stagecoach running at top speed, especially when they reached the Federal Road. Duncan makes a positive summary of their travels in his January 1833 letter:

“I met with no accident on the way nor nothing worth Room

on paper we came as Smooth as any that have or will come

over the same Road in the winter Season in fact we

may Say we did not break a String nor make the 2nd draw

people and horses came safe. You know Some of the Road

you have not Seen the worst but thank that provident

hand the bestower of all good for health Strength and

aid of my very trusty fellow traveller Hugh Trawick

we were wide awake to our business”

Passing through the busy towns of Camden, SC and Augusta, GA would have been an interesting diversion from the road and likely an anticipated part of the journey. At Augusta, the party would have continued to follow the Fall Line Road into Columbus, GA all the way across the state through the towns of Milledgeville and Macon. At Columbus, GA the Fall Line Road reaches a junction with the Federal Road, and this is the point at which the family begins their journey on the Federal Road roughly along what is now US Highway 80.

The Federal Road began in 1806 as a postal road, the inspiration of Thomas Jefferson’s grand vision to connect the nation’s small farmers to their markets. This road was widened as well during the War of 1812. In order to provide crossings of the many small creeks, logs were placed across the creeks to create causeways. Maintenance of the Federal Road was in the hands of private citizens, who were required to work themselves or provide labor for specified amounts of time. The roads steadily improved during the 19th century, though traffic slowed somewhat following the widespread use of steam-powered travel and the use of the telegraph. Along this road were a number of inns and taverns accommodating travelers.

The family would have traversed the state of Alabama, crossing the Alabama River at Fort Claiborne and from there to St. Stephens, Alabama, where they crossed the Tombigbee River. Over the decades of the road’s greatest use stores, shops, taverns, and inns sprouted at first to accommodate postal deliverers and later migrant travelers. For Example, one Samuel Manack, born of a Creek Indian mother and a Dutch interpreter father, owned such a store in the early decades of the Federal Road. Manack’s Store was destroyed around 1820, before the McKenzie family passed there, but a recently begun archaeological excavation at the site of his store should reveal information about the use of the Federal Road.   From St. Stephens, Alabama the family likely took the St. Stephens Road to near Williamsburg, MS in Covington County where they were welcomed by Allen Stewart, a friend and earlier migrant from the Carolinas, who had found a place for the McKenzie’s on cleared property near him.

Happily, at Fort Claiborne, Alabama the family encountered fellow migrant families from the Carolinas: the Allen Johnson family and the Duncan McBryde family. Duncan McKenzie writes to his brother-in-law, Duncan McLaurin on January 29, 1833:

“the farm I Rented in company with Allen

Johnson and Duncan McBryde who we overtook on the

Road 65 miles East of Fort Claiborne we were not allittle

glad when we drove unexpectedly on them on the morning

of the 4th instant”

The cost of the trip from North Carolina to Mississippi is also specified in Duncan’s arrival letter.

“no doubt  you wish to know

what my expense was comeing. I left there with

$175 I laid out in blind bridles a hat and other

articles that I can show $13: I had when I arived at

this place $95-75 cts left”

In Duncan McKenzie’s enthusiasm for his new start in Mississippi, his words filled the folio pages so tightly that there was no room left to include messages that Barbara wished to send her parents, brothers, and sisters left behind, especially Effy. Instead of including her messages in this letter, he hopes to receive a visit from some of them. This was wishful thinking, for there is no evidence that any of Barbara’s North Carolina immediate family ever made the trip after 1833. If Barbara wrote them herself, her letters did not survive in the Duncan McLaurin collections. It is possible, and several hints in Duncan’s letters reveal it, that she wrote Effy, who may have kept her letters separate from Duncan’s papers.

“Barbra has many messages to send

to some of you but I have not Room for it we will

wait till we receive a visit from you or Some of


Though Barbara’s words from Mississippi may have been lost to posterity, her sentiments are implicit rather than explicit in the letters her husband wrote to her brother in North Carolina. Duncan McKenzie’s subsequent letters are dominated by farming, politics, local gossip, and news of other Mississippi family and friends.


Christopher, Raven, Gregory Waselkov and Tara Potts. “Archaeological Testing along the Federal Road: Exploring the Site of “Manack’s Store,” Montgomery County, Alabama.” 2 June 1011. accessed 18 October 2017.

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.

Prewitt, Wiley C. Jr. and Saikku, Mikko. “Environment.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. p 392-394

Whitaker, Beverly. “The Fall Line Road.” 2006. accessed 17 October 2017.

Whitaker, Beverly. “The Federal Road.” 2006. accessed 17 October 2017.

The Donald Stewart Property in Guilford County, NC

Duncan McKenzie’s letter to his brother-in-law on May 15, 1832 introduces a group of characters and a story. The story emphasizes the importance of land ownership to individuals in 19th century southern states and the difficulties in bequeathing to relatives a world away. The characters are his great Uncle Donald Stewart and wife Susanna and his father Kenneth McKenzie. Another more historical character peripherally involved with the Stewart property case is George C. Mendenhall, who writes several letters regarding the legal case.

Kenneth McKenzie (b. abt 1768 d. abt 1834) is the father of Duncan McKenzie. He was married to Mary McLaurin, who died about 1825 and is buried in Stewartsville Cemetery near Laurinburg, NC. Kenneth and Mary were probably both born in Scotland and likely came to the United States before or about the same time as the Hugh and Catharine McLaurin family. According to Marguerite Whitfield’s information, Mary was likely a sibling of Hugh McLaurin. This information is supported by Volume 8, Number 29 pages 15 – 18 of the Clan McLaurin Society Quarterly published from the late 1960s to the 1980s and edited by Banks McLaurin. If true, Duncan McKenzie and Barbara McLaurin would have been first cousins. It was not uncommon during the 18th and early 19th century for first cousins to marry. After Mary McKenzie died, Kenneth McKenzie evidently became restless to move east. He left a Power of Attorney and a Will with Duncan McLaurin before he left Richmond County some time during 1832.

Kenneth McKenzie’s Power of Attorney on October 11, 1831 as he leaves to move eastwardly does, “nominate constitute and appoint Duncan McKenzie and Duncan McLaurin or Either of them of Said State and County my Sole and lawful attorneys to ask demand Sue for recover and receive all monies or other effects … due or owing to me from my Uncle Dr. Donald Stewart’s estate …” In Kenneth’s will he leaves all of his property to his sons Duncan McKenzie and John McKenzie. He includes in this the property that “… ever will come in my name from or by Doctor Donald Stewarts Estate Deceased late of Guilford County in this State.” In other words, even in 1832, Kenneth was still expecting to inherit some of Donald Stewart’s property. Stewart had died in 1829. By 1833 Kenneth is remarried and living on property in Smithville, NC near the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Donald Stewart is Kenneth McKenzie’s uncle, who died in Guilford County, NC in 1829. According to The Greensboro Patriot newspaper of January 6, 1830, “Died, In this county, on Wednesday last at 7 o’clock P. M. Dr. Donald Stewart, a native of Scotland.” Stewart was a native of Ballachulish Appin in Lismore Parish, Scotland, but had lived with his wife Susanna in the United States for many years and was a naturalized citizen. He owned a farm of at least three hundred acres and at least twenty-five enslaved people – meeting all of the definitive requirements of a plantation owner.

George C. Mendenhall is another interesting character in the Donald Stewart property story and is of some historical significance to Guilford County, NC. George C. Mendenhall was an attorney in Guilford County. He also operated the family gristmill and sawmill. His grandfather, James Mendenhall had been the first settler of Jamestown in Guilford County. George Cameron Mendenhall is unusual due to the fact that he was a Quaker who also owned slaves. It seems that in 1824 he married Eliza Webb Dunn who had recently inherited quite a bit of land and twenty-five slaves. After a couple of years the Quaker Mendenhall was a widower, the father of a newborn son, and the owner of enslaved people. His second wife, Delphina Gardner, was also a devout Quaker, and reinforced George’s plan to gradually liberate his slaves. The Mendenhall plantation stands today in Guilford County as a historic site on which one can see an example of the log cabin slave quarters preferred by the Mendenhalls. Supposedly, they tried to keep families together and sometimes purchased family members that had been separated. It seems the Mendenhalls never sold any of their slaves. The highest total number they ever owned was purported to be about seventy. Since it was completely illegal in North Carolina to free one’s slaves there, Mendenhall found Quaker groups in Ohio that would find work for the slaves he freed in small groups over a period of time.

Evidently, his freeing slaves had not been popular with the Charlotte Democrat newspaper, for on July 7, 1857, they published an article called “An Unkind Master” that was first published in the Columbia Times. The article portrays Mendenhall as the type of slave master who would work people down, and when no longer useful, sell them to “shift for their own support in Ohio.” This is an example of the kind of gross distortion of the facts common in our twenty-first century news, written to feed the beliefs of one side of an issue – in this case slavery or its abolition.

On March 9, 1860, Mendenhall was working at Stanly Superior Court. He left for home driving his buggy. The Uwharie River, which he had crossed at the same spot for many years, was quite full and rapid. Inexplicably, Mendenhall still tried to cross. His body was found part in and part out of the water the next day when someone noticed the horse and wheels of the buggy.

Story of the Donald Stewart Property

Donald Stewart died in the waning days of the year 1829. He owned substantial land and a number of enslaved people in Guilford County, NC. Stewart’s 1822 will is rather straightforward. He leaves his property to his wife, Susanna. Upon Susanna’s death the enslaved property was to be sold and the proceeds given to the children of Stewart’s sisters in Scotland, Catherine McKenzie and Isabella Robertson. When Susanna remarries to a man surnamed Duncan and moves to South Carolina, she “disposed of her life estate in the land.” Both Susanna and her new husband agreed to the will. A man named Henry Humphreys was administrator for the property even before Donald Stewart’s death. Humphries had evidently sold many of the enslaved people and likely some of the land after Stewart’s death. In 1832 a court case ensued to discover the value of what was left in the estate and who should lawfully receive it.

Kenneth McKenzie seems to have believed that he was entitled to a portion of the estate. Likely, though I have no evidence, he was related to Catherine Stewart McKenzie. Kenneth mentions his hope of receiving an inheritance in both his power of attorney and the will he leaves in the hands of Duncan McLaurin. In 1831 attorney George C. Mendenhall writes in a letter to Duncan McLaurin that Kenneth McKenzie is on his way to Greensboro to discover the amount of the property sold and the names and value of the slaves sold. However, he also says this information can be easily obtained from Henry Humphreys and Stewart’s widow, Susanna. Mendenhall includes in this letter numbers that appear to represent the supposed value of the property. Kenneth leaves Richmond County in 1832.

Kenneth’s son Duncan McKenzie in 1831 communicates with his great aunt, now Susanna Duncan, regarding the possibility of purchasing the land. Duncan McKenzie has in his possession papers relevant to the estate. Duncan McKenzie offers to send the names of the children of Nancy, one of Stewart’s slaves that was left to Susanna. However, their names are already mentioned in Stewart’s will. Evidently, Nancy and her children were enslaved persons of more interest to the family than the others listed in the will.

In November of 1831, Susannah writes to Duncan McKenzie giving him a copy of the naturalization certificate of Donald Stewart. In February of 1832 George C. Mendenhall writes to Duncan McLaurin informing him that Susanna Duncan and her husband wish him to “come up to Guilford before or at May court.”

Stewart’s will itself contains a list of the enslaved people he is bequeathing to his wife: Nancy and her children Kathy, Donald, and Sandy; also Ally, Peter, Lucy, Libby, Ann, Jeanny, Jack, Tom, Henry; Charly, Jenny’s child; and all of their increase. His farm contains over three hundred acres.

My twenty-first century sensibilities are struck by the matter-of-fact legal tone in which the lives of human beings so often are bought and sold with little thought to their own wishes and aspirations. Only monetary value appears at issue here except for the singling out of Nancy and her children.

(Wills, such as the aforesaid, and other personal papers kept by plantation owners, and more rarely by small farmers who owned slaves, are a valuable source of information for families with ties to slavery. Although some surnames were taken from plantation owners, this is not a hard and fast rule. Still, it is a place to begin. It is certain that enslaved people made individual choices regarding surnames as well as they did survival strategies. After the end of the Civil War, churches and black-owned newspapers across the country aided formerly enslaved people in finding family members separated by slavery. Ads would appear in newspapers, especially during and after1865, that offered rewards for information about specific individuals.) 

In May of 1832, just months before he leaves North Carolina for Mississippi, Duncan McKenzie writes from Hickory Grove to Duncan McLaurin sending all of the information about the Donald Stewart property to Duncan McLaurin, who he believes is going to be present at Guilford Court for the review of the estate. An excerpt from Duncan McKenzie’s letter reveals the attitude the McKenzie’s had toward the management of the estate by Henry Humphreys:

“but it will be Some Satisfaction to know the end of the administration of Humphreys on the estate — no doubt all is exhausted but that part held by the widow except the land and I expect if possible even that would have been embezzled as I do think Some was.” – Duncan McKenzie

According to a letter in June of 1832 from George C. Mendenhall, Duncan never made it to court. Mendenhall includes the following lines summing up the settlement:

“… the final Settlement was made on the 23rd of May 1832 with Henry Humphreys Esqr Admr with the will annexed of Dr. Donald Stuart Deceased and there remains a Balance in the hands of Mr. Humphreys of $257.77 the Interest of which he will pay over to Mr. Duncan and wife — This Settlement is filed in court and I believe is correct — I was satisfied and Sanctioned it.” – George C. Mendenhall

Oddly, even after the case appears closed, Mendenhall’s letter is followed by two interesting letters that appear to disagree with the settlement. Anna D. Duncan, likely a relative of Susanna’s husband, in a July 21, 1832 letter questions the report of the committee:

“Mr. Humphreys made out the accounts gave it to Mr. Mendenhall to look over while he Humphreys red over the vouchers the committee were present but not one of them examd one voucher nor indeed did they stay until the vouchers were all read over it was concluded on that on the next morning Mr. Humphreys was to present the accounts for their signatures if this is the proper way to do business I assure you I am grossly ignorant.” – Anna Duncan

Even more surprisingly, a full decade later in 1842 a man named Thomas R. Tate, executor of the estate of Henry Humphries, answers an inquiry from Duncan McLaurin about the Stewart property. Tate explains the terms of Stewart’s will and seems to think there is little to question. He says he has not heard from Susanna Duncan and her husband since they left North Carolina. He ends his letter with an assessment of the land that is left and its value:

“there is between two and three hundred acres of the land; and from what knowledge I have of the plantation the land is very poor and in all probability by the time disposition is made of  it will not be worth a great deal.” – Thomas Tate

If nothing else, this last inquiry by Duncan McLaurin attests to his tenacity in following up on issues, especially those that involve his family members. Whether or not the value of any of Stewart’s property ever made it into the hands of his sister Catherine’s relatives, either in the US or in Scotland, is still unknown.


“After Slavery, Searching For Loved Ones in Wanted Ads.” All Things Considered with Ari Shapiro. National Public Radio. 22 February 2017. Accessed 3 October 2017.

“An Unkind Master.” The Charlotte Democrat. p2. 7 July 1857. Downloaded 1 May 2017.

Banks McLaurin, ed. Clan McLaurin Society Quarterly. Revised “F” Family Outline. Volume 8, #29, p. 15-18. 1976.

Browning, Mary “G.C. Mendenhall had slaves taken to Ohio to be freed.” 27 November 2013. accessed 1 October 2017.

“Died.” The Greensboro Patriot. p3. 6 January 1830. Downloaded 22 March 2017 from

“The Late George C. Mendenhall.” 21 March 1860. Semi-Weekly Standard. First Edition. p3. Downloaded 1 May 2017.

Webster, Irene H. Guilford County, North Carolina Will Abstracts 1771-1841. “Donald Stewart.” Southern Historical Press. 2014.

The Will of Donald Stewart of Guilford County, NC. 27 February 1822. Boxes 3, 4, 5. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from George C. Mendenhall to Duncan McLaurin (?). 6 February 1831. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscript Library. Duke University.

Power of Attorney from Kenneth McKenzie to Duncan McKenzie and Duncan McLaurin. 11 October 1831. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Susanna Duncan to Duncan mcKenzie. 10 November 1831. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from George C. Mendenhall to Duncan McLaurin. 23 February 1832. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Will of Kenneth McKenzie listing Duncan McLaurin executor. 28 September 1832. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 15 May 1832. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from George C. Mendenhall to Duncan McLaurin. 5 June 1832. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Anna D. Duncan to Duncan McLaurin. 21 July 1832. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Thomas R. Tate to Duncan McLaurin. 4 April 1842. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.