Duncan McKenzie’s Letter from Mississippi to his Brother-in-law Charles Patterson in Richmond County, North Carolina

Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to Charles Patterson

7 April 1833

Duncan begins this letter to his brother-in-law, Charles Patterson (married to Barbara’s sister Isabella), by referencing those to whom he has written earlier upon his arrival in Mississippi. He suggests Charles look to a sharing of those letters to discover details of his trip, since he will not be repeating his description in this letter. Among those Duncan McKenzie says he has written in Richmond County are Duncan McLaurin, Dr. Malloy, and Archibald McPherson. Duncan appears to be opening correspondence with as many family and friends as he can. The act of writing was as important to Duncan McKenzie as keeping in touch with family and friends. During the next decade when his eyesight begins to fail, he develops the habit of writing his letters during the afternoons so that the light will be more advantageous. Finding time to write was probably a challenge for the small farmer – every healthy adult on the place being essential to crop production.

This first spring in Covington County, Mississippi has been notable for flooding, and Duncan seems to buoy his own spirit by recounting the land’s reputation for producing corn and cotton. His description, if one reads between the lines, may reveal that the flooding has planted a seed of doubt in his mind about the productiveness of his land. He also alludes, as others have, to the great variety of land in this part of Mississippi.

“… a delluge of watter flowing down

these valleys which I anticipated would be the case in

very rainy Seasons I saw watter from two to three

feet deep flowing over the field and the third day after

the plow going in the Sauce ground Such is the

Situation of the country and the rain falls in torrents

yet it is said the land will produce corn from 20 to 50

Bushels per the acre and cotton from 700 to 1500 lb per acre

I have traveled in several directions tho not far in any there

is a great variety of Soil in this part of the world

Some as poor as  you ever saw & some as rich and probly

the richest you have Seen the rich land is in Small

Boddys consequently a poor man may have a good bit…”

These same “freshets” as they are called also slowed the mail. Though the return address on this letter is Taylorsville in bordering Smith County, MS, McKenzie admonishes Charles to write him via Mt. Carmel in Covington County.

Duncan McKenzie continues his theme of crops and land production throughout his correspondence to North Carolina. Also, on more than one occasion, he discusses his satisfaction with the land. Neighbors he notes who have done very well in this area of Mississippi include Allan Stewart and Alexander McNair. Evidently, Charles Patterson’s brother Alexander is farming in Mississippi and would do well if it weren’t for the availability of drink. McKenzie attributes the alcohol problem among farmers to the, “distance to market and Store and bar keepers take advantage.” He remarks that it is much easier to make money in Mississippi than North Carolina, but it is much easier to spend it in Mississippi. However, if a person is dissatisfied where he is, migrating to Mississippi might be the answer, but if one is doing well where he is, he would not encourage them to come.

“…as in all Rich land countries so thick Settled with wealthy ones

that a poor man could have but a bad chance

I will not advise anyone that considers himself

well Settled there to move to this or any other place

that I have Seen but if a man is dissatisfied let him

come on if he conducts well he will do.”

The markets for crops that Duncan mentions are Natchez (120 miles), Mobile (140 miles), and Covington on Lake Pontchartrain at about 100 miles. Taking crops to market via the Pearl River, especially during the freshets, can be dangerous. He concludes that he has not completely made up his mind on settling permanently:

“…the naviga

-tion of Pearl River is dangerous and uncertain

a boat laden with cotton was lost on that River

a week or two back owing to the fresh the hands

saved themselves  — If I am spared in the course

of the fall I will try to go up on the head

waters of the Bigbee River and Big Black River

Hugh C Stewart wishes his father (Allan Stewart) Archibald

Anderson and mySelf to go at least to See

that part of the country before we settle per-


The Pearl River by 1830 had been regularly cleared for navigation from Columbia, MS to the mouth. Before steamboats began to ply the rivers, the main modes of navigation were canoes, rafts, barges, keelboats, and flatboats. Rafts frequently were carrying timber by 1815. Soon, with the influx of migrants in search of fertile land, flatboats on the Pearl River would carry cotton to be ginned and marketed. The rush for land between 1830 and 1837 increased commerce in the river. This continued after the Panic of 1837 until the Civil War. Of course, unusual flooding would increase the danger on the river, but for commerce as far north as Jackson this river was usually navigable all year.

Duncan’s concern about the freshets indicates a bit of caution in his personality that is expressed repeatedly in subsequent letters. He references the need for very expensive labor but in the end decides to cut back on the crops. About the crops he has planted he says, “I have planted 36 acres under corn we have 12 for cotton I wrote to Duncan that I would plant 20 acres under cotton but on Reflection I thot less would do for if we even could work it we could not gather it…”

The last item of interest in the letter is mention of family matters. He predicts the pending birth of his youngest son John, “I expect in my next to inform you of an increase in our family if favors,, by an omnipotent hand the time is approaching…” Duncan’s letters are often full of newsy gossip about family and friends, though his major themes include crops and land, prices and economy, politics, temperance, flavored with a bit of religious philosophy.

Charles Patterson (1792-1848)

Isabella McLaurin Patterson’s tombstone


The person to whom Duncan McKenzie wrote this letter, married Isabella McLaurin, Barbara McKenzie’s sister. Isabella was Patterson’s second wife. His first marriage produced two children, Gilbert and Carolyn. His marriage to Isabella produced three sons: Malloy Patterson (1832-1902), Charles Calhoun Patterson (1835-1910), and James Postell Patterson (1839 – ?). A Patterson Family History describes Charles as living in, “Richmond County, NC, where he was a man of considerable wealth and prominence.” Several references to him in the Fayetteville Observer suggest that he may have been politically active as well. Charles died on April 26, 1848. His wife Isabella had begun a mental decline in 1847 and by 1860 had been certified mentally ill.

Probably after the death of Charles, Duncan McLaurin, Isabella’s brother, offers to take Isabella her three sons into his home. At this time Duncan shares Ballachulish with his two remaining spinster sisters, Effy and Mary. Isabella’s mental condition deteriorated until finally she spent some time in an asylum. In Duncan’s copy of Isabella’s insanity proceeding, question four asks, “What is the Supposed cause of her insanity?” Duncan answers: “Ill treatment of her husbands and his general drunken profane conduct.” A reference in Duncan McKenzie’s 1838 letter to John McLaurin supports the fact of Charles Patterson’s ill treatment of Isabella: “… Charles Patterson is not content with his sprees when abroad but must be needs keep the critter by him at home if Such be the fact I certainly do not envy his family their happiness.” Evidence exists that disrespect and blame directed at their father’s memory may have been the source of discord between Duncan and his nephews in early adulthood and late adolescence. Though apparently Malloy did his very best to defy his Uncle, Duncan continued to give them shelter and legal guardianship until they achieved adulthood. He made sure Malloy was educated at Chapel Hill, but the outbreak of the Civil War likely precluded the younger nephews from their educations. Malloy never married. Calhoun, though married, may not have had any surviving children. Postell married and had a number of children. Just before Duncan’s death in 1872, he faced several law suits brought against him by one Patterson nephew and one McKenzie nephew, both in North Carolina. Neither of them succeeded nor is it clear from the letters alone what they were about, though property or the value of it might have been involved.

Isabella’s illness began around 1847 and lasted until her death in 1864. The family tried mightily to take care of Isabella themselves and not completely out of necessity. Barbara’s opinion was that the family should try to keep Isabella at home rather than send her to an asylum. She felt Isabella would be better off. However, by 1860 Barbara was dead and her remaining siblings were aging. Isabella’s son Malloy, of legal age but not in any practical way settled enough to keep his mother, threatened to sue Duncan for his mother’s guardianship. No evidence exists that he succeeded or that Duncan McLaurin would have ever approved. According to the 1860 mental health questionnaire, Duncan answers that there was no family history of the illness. He also replied negatively when asked if Isabella had ever had epilepsy. One positive note in Dr. John Malloy’s certification process in the Isabel Patterson Case is this quotation, likely supplied by her brother Duncan, “Her recollection of things passing since her derangement and before then from her infancy up is astonishingly good. Her juvenile songs, jokes even to very minutias are as fresh in her memory as when passing.” The facility to which Isabella was committed around 1860 is not certain, but the first state asylum facility in North Carolina opened in 1856 at Raleigh. Funds for this facility were legislated in 1848 after the social reformer Dorothea Dix  gave a moving speech to the North Carolina state legislature. It is interesting to note that in this speech Dix suggests that the poor have a right to public funds for care comparable to the mental health care wealthier families can afford, and it is in the public interest to provide that care. During the first half of the 19th century, North Carolinians had few options for the care of the mentally ill beyond home care and the jails. Some sent relatives to out-of-state facilities. This may have been an option for Isabella since her brother and guardian had done quite a bit of business in nearby Cheraw and Bennettsville, South Carolina.

In 1833 Duncan McKenzie includes Charles Patterson in the list of people with whom he hopes to correspond in North Carolina. Evidence does not exist that all of these people wrote him back, but he names the ones he hoped would write back. In addition to blaming Patterson for his sister’s illness, Duncan McLaurin also claims that Charles Patterson, without any legal authority, officiated his brother John’s marriage to Effie Stalker. Indeed, Charles Patterson did marry the couple. According to the Fayetteville Weekly Observer of 2 February 1842, “In Richmond County on Thursday evening last by Charles Patterson, Esqr, Mr. John McLaurin of Ballacholish, to Miss Effy Stalker, daughter of Duncan Stalker, all of that county.” Whether Patterson really had legal authority to perform the marriage or if this was only a barb intended to inflict pain upon Effie is unknown. Duncan McLaurin became very bitter in his old age towards family members in whom he perceived a wish to exploit the family or the family property, and he felt Effie Stalker McLaurin as well as her brother John Stalker guilty of this.


Anthony, Robert G. Jr. and Homrighaus, Ruth E. from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. 2006. Additional research provided by J. Field Montgomery Jr. accessed 11 November 2017. https://www.ncpedia.org/psychiatric-hospitals

Duncan McLaurin’s copy of the proceeding of insanity for Isabella Patterson. About 1860. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Dorothea Lynde Dix, Memorial Soliciting a State Hospital for the Protection and Cure of the Insane, Submitted to the General Assembly of North Carolina, November, 1848, pp. 8–9, 14–15, 16–17, 26–28, 39–41. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-newnation/4748

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Charles Patterson. 7 April 1833. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 28 March 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McLaurin to Effie Stalker McLaurin. 4 October 1872. Box 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

“Married.” Fayetteville Weekly Observer. 2 February 1842. newspapers.com

Pearl River Navigation Project [LA,MS,] Environmental Impact Statement. Appendix C Cultural Resources Evaluation. October 1992. Accessed on Google Books 12 November 2017.


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