1830s: Mississippi Politics and Banks

Who was John P. Stewart?

One of my first transcriptions of the Duncan McLaurin letters was dated 1831 and written by John P. Stewart from Covington County, Mississippi – probably from the home of his father, Allan Stewart, an immigrant from the Scottish Highlands via North Carolina. Though John Stewart says he is over twenty-nine years old and qualifies as a bachelor, he writes this letter from his father’s home while teaching nearby. The Stewart family had not been in Mississippi very long, perhaps since 1830, before John Stewart writes to Duncan his description of traveling in south Mississippi.

Stewart was not alone as a former student of McLaurin’s writing to their former teacher in Richmond County, NC from the new western states. John Stewart and Duncan McLaurin shared an interest — politics and the wider world. Born in November of 1805 in North Carolina, Stewart’s correspondence is about his general curiosity in his new home and reveals a strong interest in the political machinations of his time and place.

John P. Stewart is memorialized by his burial in the Franklin County, MS Courthouse Square Cemetery in Meadville.

Eventually, John P. Stewart would settle in Franklin County, Mississippi. Here he would serve as county clerk for many years, live out his life without ever marrying, and in old age could be found picking out hymns on his fiddle. No evidence exists that he sought political office beyond the clerkship. His service to the Meadville community and Franklin County, MS as county clerk is memorialized by his burial in the Court House Square and the monument bearing his date of death May 19, 1858 – never living to see the apocalyptic results of the politics (or failure of it) that he followed so fervently. Franklin County tax records from 1840 reveal that he owned about 320 acres of land situated on McGees Creek and paid taxes for owning one enslaved person. I have found no evidence that he was farming his land, though he may have been renting it out. Farming or not, John Stewart’s correspondence to Duncan McLaurin would continue at least from 1831-1848. He may have written more letters but none have survived. Certainly the 1850s, fraught with political controversies, would have provided plenty about which they could write. Stewart’s father Allan died in 1845 and his brother Hugh died in 1847. The loss of these two family members, who also had strong ties to Duncan McLaurin and North Carolina, may have resulted in diminished correspondence. After 1848 Duncan McLaurin became immersed in the care of his sister Isabel and her children, probably leaving him less time to correspond in nonessential matters.

Mississippi’s Economy and Politics in the 1830s

The John P. Stewart and Duncan McKenzie letters are referenced a number of times in Christopher Olsen’s Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi, published in 2000. Olsen contends that political affiliation in Mississippi generally was so personal before the Civil War that divisions along political party lines were not always very clear. However, in the 1830s one issue, the economy and banking, may have influenced the political parties to begin holding party conventions. The general farming population was quite rural and frontier condition roads made it difficult for even those most engaged in politics to attend conventions in distant locations. However, Mississippians such as John P. Stewart, not committed to farming, had the inclination and leisure to travel and follow politics, as he would in the 1840s.

At the time Duncan McKenzie and the Stewart family moved to Covington County, MS, Native American land began opening up to white settlement. The Federal Government sold this land at low prices causing migrants to flock from the more settled western states to the newly formed deep southern states. In addition, cotton prices rose to unexpected highs, feeding the dreams of white migrants moving west, who often brought enslaved people with them.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries textile Mills were growing in number in England as well as the northern United States. International demand for cotton drove farmers to purchase land and slaves to work the labor intensive crop. Speculation in both land and slaves abounded. Especially in the deep southern states, a speculator could purchase the newly opened federal land cheaply, improve it minimally if he had the mind to, and resell it for far more than he paid. Many sincere farmers engaged in this practice, leaving one improved farm to settle on more fertile land that he could now afford due to the money made off reselling. This type of speculation existed in the slave trade as well. Slave traders brought enslaved people from other parts of the country and resold them in states like Mississippi where the demand for labor was great. A slave trader’s source of obtaining human chattel was not always a monetary or legal transaction. According to Max Grivno in “Antebellum Mississippi” at Mississippi History Now published online by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, “…over 100,000 slaves were brought into the state by traders during the 1830s.”

As US President Andrew Jackson watched this speculation phenomenon, he worried about the solvency of banks. This caused him to issue his Specie Circular. The Circular required that public land had to be bought with gold or silver or money backed by such. Jackson’s move alone might have caused a problem.  However, the Mississippi crisis was enhanced because, in a frenzy of optimism, the unregulated Banks had filled their coffers and indiscriminately loaned most of that money to people for the purchase of land and slaves. The people taking advantage of these loans were not prepared to pay when the notes came due.

As a result of the uncertain atmosphere, the Bank of England raised its interest rates. Thus the cotton factors in New Orleans and Mobile, who gave credit to finance a crop, raised their lending rates. The result was the Panic of 1837. Mississippi’s banks had grown to about 13 with many branches by 1837. When the banks collapsed, the Mississippi legislature supported the creation of the Union Bank that would run on specie. The legislature also guaranteed the bank’s bonds. When this bank failed, the question arose whether or not to pay back the loans or repudiate them. This would be the larger issue that consumed the state in the early 1840s.

Adding to the uncertainty, growing cotton is somewhat risky in the best of circumstances. The weather and insects can quickly destroy a farmer unless strategically prepared. Farmers and lenders in the state during the outset of the 1830s were so overly optimistic about cotton that the unexpected drop in the price of cotton was quite a blow. To many in Mississippi during the early 1830s the demand for cotton made it as sound a currency as gold.

Mississippi’s Constitution of 1832

In 1832 Mississippi created a new Constitution, and though described as very democratic, it was restrictive by today’s standards.  For example, property ownership was no longer required to vote or hold office, though suffrage or office holding was not extended beyond free white men. Native American, Chickasaws or Choctaws, were allowed citizenship but only as a ploy to force them out of the state in order to be able to live under their tribal laws. Every office from military rank to judgeships was elective and the setting of term limits made elections more frequent and ballots incredibly long. It was forbidden for the legislature to pass laws that would free slaves, and though slave owners could bring slaves into the state, slave traders were not allowed to carry on business in the state, likely a very difficult activity to regulate considering the demand for slave labor and the capacity for fraud. In 1837 Duncan McKenzie would lament the state’s inability to provide for a militia. He cites the state’s recent impotence in calling up any military help to fight the Indian wars in Alabama and Florida. The fact that dueling would no longer be legally allowed in Mississippi did not appear to diminish the prevalent violence or actual dueling. It was evidently an easy thing to set up a duel across state lines where it was legal. In 1840 former Governor Hiram G. Runnels, a bank president, and Volney E. Howard a Mississippian newspaper editor, dueled. Runnels injured Howard, who lived to disparage Runnels in the news. Dueling continued in a masculine culture often characterized by extreme individuality bordering on arrogance. Runnels maintained his political viability enough to be elected to the legislature the next year.

This brief account of the Runnels/Howard duel appeared in the Vicksburg Daily Whig on Saturday, 11 July 1840 on page 2. Dueling in Mississippi had been outlawed in the state since 1832.

Duncan McKenzie’s economic and political views – 1830s

Generally, Duncan McKenzie appears to be more cautious and not as eager to place himself in debt. In an 1837 letter from Mississippi to Duncan McLaurin in North Carolina, he writes of three mutual acquaintances who have bought, “each of them a negro man for which they are to give $1,650 each.” McKenzie questions how long it will take for the friends to pay back their loans with the hiring out rate for “such boys” at $175. It was common practice to hire out labor that was not being utilized by the owner. Later he wonders, “What will become of Black Lachlin the carpenter who bot a negro man for which he promised $1,650 to be paid next January,” and adds, “Many others are similarly situated.” In contrast McKenzie is pleased with himself in not being, “bound for another in one cent.” He seems to believe that he might be hard pressed if he lost his cotton crop altogether, but he has managed to pay off some of his debt by selling corn and pork. Even a small farmer like Duncan might find himself beholden to the cotton factor who helped finance his crop or by going into debt to purchase slave labor.

This piece appeared in The Natchez Daily Courier of Natchez, Mississippi on Thursday, 30 November 1837 on page 3. Perhaps Duncan McKenzie read this in the newspaper before penning his letter.

In 1838 Duncan writes, perhaps a bit sarcastically, to his brother-in-law regarding Mississippi’s banks:

it is reported abroad that our State is involved more

than her worth, but how can Such a report be

true when the world knows that our legislature

can charter a bank of $15,000,000 in less time than one

day, whose paper the moment when Struck will be

at par with gold or Silver in every part of our State

Except at the post and law offices — the Brandon

Bank this far has succeeded in buying cotton in

preference to letting the commition merchants of

New orleans shave us as usual, I know not how

that Bank will do in the future, but it has

Sustained it Self in credit this far —

the new charterd Bank calld the Union

bank of Mississippi will go in operation

in the course of the summer — is it not

surpassing singular that in every state of the

Union the legislative boddies find little or no diff

=culty in passing a charter for a bank it is only neces

=sary that it should be called bank and its charter

is passed and in the grand council of our nation

the greatest and the best smote to death the best

Institution ever known by the name of Bank —

query will we ever have such an other paper currency or

will a national Bank spring up in its stead

Clearly, he is expressing concern about the easy-come easy-go banking that has evolved in the state of Mississippi, and acknowledges his belief, or at least the bank’s assurance, that cotton is still as valuable as gold in the state. He also takes a shot at Andrew Jackson’s struggles with the Second Bank of the United States, where federal funds had once been deposited. Jackson, who saw the bank as too powerful and a potential political tool against himself, worked for years against bank president Nicholas Biddle to end its charter. Biddle continued to fight to keep the bank open and was not above bribery in the effort. Alas, in 1836 after Jackson moved federal money to specific state banks, the Bank of the United States closed after its charter was not renewed. Instead of a centrally managed bank, each state had its own banks, managing them in as unregulated a manner as it saw fit. Jackson countered with the Specie Circular, which required speculators in land to pay for it with gold and silver. The Panic of 1837 ensued.

In 1839 McKenzie writes, “I was wating the result of an impending stormy looking cloud which will eventually decide the fate of many in Mississippi, who the victims of the furious blast will be, whether the honest creditor the philanthropic security or the thot less debtor is a matter not yet decided.” McKenzie ends this letter by mentioning a friend whose land is being, “sold at value on the last of this month.” The friend is “going to Texas.”

Later in the same 1839 letter, Duncan disparages banks in general when he says, “The Union Bank of Mississippi is in full operation but your servant has backd out from being a stockholder this far I am lord of my own soil I do not like to give up the title (to a) speculating crew of Directors who would in all probability direct all of the increase into their own pockets.” This small farmer in Mississippi had decided that he did not care to be manipulated by the banks. 

John P. Stewart’s economic and political views – 1830s

“Raising cotton absorbs all their politics & meditations – The first salute to a neighbor is how does your cotton look…” John P. Stewart writes this line to Duncan McLaurin in 1831 when the flush times were causing a rash of extreme optimism among seasoned planters and Mississippians, many of whom were migrants from the worn out land of the eastern states. He also writes of the Choctaw removal and the preparations for a state Constitutional Convention – “The result has been 19 to 1 for a convention which must meet within 3 months from the first of August next.” He thinks the idea of electing the Judiciary will fail for fear of corruption, which of course it did not.

By 1834 the bank issue and economic downturn has almost overwhelmed Mississippi’s obsession with cotton. According to Stewart, “The Bank has been the common Topic of Conversation in this state for the last eight months it has supplanted “General Cotton” himself and that I tell you is hard to do.” He continues this topic by mentioning the “public functionaries in the Land Offices” and accusations of speculation “defrauding both the government and the bona fide settlers.” Following this train of thought, Stewart says, “The late Choctaw purchase I am told is settling very fast.”

In 1837 Stewart writes that although in the winter the price of cotton was still high, it was lower than other commodities on the market, and “Money was scarcer here .. than I ever saw it since I have been in the state.” He again references the wild land speculation that has contributed to the economic hard times but adds the purchase of slave labor as a contributing factor also:

Some few men in this State have made fortunes by purchasing

plantations and Negroes which engendered such a rage for

speculation that in the upper counties almost every man

that could get credit purchased a farm and a great many

of them at such extravagant prices that they could not

pay even the interest of their purchases without diminishing

the principal of their debts …

… where the Credit System is so extensive … the sudden depression

in the money market and the consequent fall in the price of cotton

there must necessarily be a great scarcity of money — But credit

often two three four five and six years has injured this state more …

Stewart continues in his 1837 letter to recount the banking crisis in the state:

The two principal Banks in Natchez have suspended specie payment and all the other Banks in this State have or will be obliged to follow suit We have in this State ten Banks that is Mother Banks exclusive of the various Branches with a net or purchase capital of about 25 millions authorized to issue Bills to three times that amount and the Legislature has lately chartered two Banks one the Mississippi Union Bank with a capital of fifteen Millions in said bank real estate is to be pledged and money only to be borrowed on real estate…the Mississippi bank is to be titled the Mississippi Railroad Bank.

In 1838 Stewart follows up on the bank issue by writing to Duncan McLaurin that the “stir at hand” is the banks. The four banks at Natchez have passed resolutions to pay specie beginning the first of January. Stewart says these banks have been following Nicholas Biddle’s earlier raises in the interest rates, which is how Biddle had responded to President Jackson taking federal funds from the Bank of the US and placing them in some state banks. In addition, the Mississippi legislature appointed three commissioners, all from the dominant Democratic Party, to oversee and examine the state banks. He says that one of them is an anti-bank newspaper editor and the other two were moderates. The newspaper editor was opposed to all banks, implying that there was not much favorable sentiment among the commissioners for banks in general. Many banks refused to be examined.

The state of the economy and the bank issue seems to have driven Mississippians to partisanship. Stewart writes in this 1838 letter, “Our State is about to become like New York a Democratic convention is to meet at Jackson on the 8th January to nominate candidates for the several state offices A Whig Convention is also to assemble at the same place on the fourth Monday in January for the same purpose.”

Stewart’s commentary on politics in 1838 involves the current Governor Alexander McNutt, a Democrat. It seems to have annoyed John Stewart when McNutt, “delivered himself of a violent Phillippic against both the Whigs and the Scotch.” McNutt evidently said or implied that the name Whig derived from the followers of the Pretender, “whose followers were the Scotch and Whiggin wherever they went.” One would think McNutt would have been more politically cautious than to offend the many Mississippians of not so distant Scottish ancestry, but he did. He followed this by saying, “Flora McDonald came to this country and was the leader of the Whigs in this country then called Tories.” Stewart ends by saying, “This speech lost his excellency (McNutt) thirty or forty votes among the Scotch democracy in Jefferson County … he ought to throw away the mac from his name.”

One last issue that would survive for the next two decades was addressed by Stewart in this 1838 letter – nullification: “The Democrats of this State have lately been billing and cooing the nullifiers attempting to form a junction with the party supposing they would follow Calhoun in all his charges — They do not succeed well in their undertaking.” The Calhoun reference is to John C. Calhoun, the politician who argued for nullification, the right of a state to disregard a federal law. Calhoun led South Carolina’s attempt to declare the tariff on imported manufactured goods null and void. This tariff generally hurt the southerners because it raised the price of manufactured goods that they purchased. South Carolina was emboldened after it successfully ignored a U. S. Supreme Court ruling declaring one of its state laws unconstitutional. The law in question was a state law incarcerating free black international sailors when in port to keep them from conspiring with Carolina slaves.  Calhoun was defeated in his argument largely due to Jackson’s political acumen and a lack of nullification support from Mississippi and other southern states. However, as President Jackson predicted, the next time nullification and secession arose it would be over the institution of slavery – even in the 1830s an issue roiling in Congress.


“Digital Archives: Tax Rolls (Mississippi), 1818-1902.” Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Franklin County. 1840.17. www.mdah.ms.gov/arrec/digital_archives/taxrolls/Franklin/1840/Combined/17. Accessed 23 April 2018.

“A duel was fought.” Vicksburg Daily Whig. 11 July 1840. 2. newspapers.com. Accessed 28June 2017.

Grivno, Max. “Antebellum Mississippi.” Mississippi History Now: An online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/395/antebellum-mississippi. Accessed 10 April 2018.

“John Patrick Stewart Monument Photo.” Photo by Mary Renna. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current. https://www.findagrave.com/mem… Accessed 24 April 2018.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 13 November 1836. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 April 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 25 February 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1839. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. 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. 30 June 1831. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John P. Stewart and Allan Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 29 November 1831. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 6 August 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 17 May 1837. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 25 December 1838. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 30 July 1840. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Meacham, Jon. Andrew Jackson: An American Populist. TIME special edition. Time Inc. Books: New York, NY. 2017. 46, 52.

Olsen, Christopher J. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2000.

“Resolved.” The Natchez Daily Courier. Natchez, Mississippi. 7 July 1840. 3. Accessed from newspapers.com. 22 March 2017.

Rothman, Joshua D. Flush Times & Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. University of Georgia Press: Athens, Georgia. 2012. Kindle version. Location 90 and 124 of 7796.

Skates, John Ray. “The Mississippi Constitution of 1832.” Mississippi History Now: An online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. http://mshistorynow.mcah.state.ms.us/articles/101/the-mississippi-constitution-of-1832. Accessed 23 April 2018.

The 1830s: Health Challenges

An advertisement for a new physician’s reference appeared in The Natchez Weekly Courier published in Natchez, Mississippi in November of 1833 during the first year of the Duncan McKenzie family’s residence in the state.

A Case of Parasitic Worms

Parasitic worms have always loomed in my imagination as a horror, though the threat of contracting them seems to have diminished with time, knowledge, and advanced hygienic practices. This could be said of many 19th century deadly ailments. Early nineteenth century medical science is characterized by an ignorance of the nature and characteristics of diseases as well as the ways they were transmitted. Often people were unaware of the role simple hygiene could play in limiting disease.

Duncan McLaurin, during his tenure in the 1830s as an academy teacher at Bennettsville, SC, gives us a glimpse of the dreadful experience of parents watching a child die of worms. In May of 1837 McLaurin writes to his brother expressing hope of sending John a copy of the National Intelligencer by way of an acquaintance traveling from Bennettsville to Laurel Hill on the Stage Road, but three people he hoped would convey the paper did not make the expected trip including “McE,” who I believe to be McEachen. McE remained in Bennettsville because a child in the family was desperately ill:

“McE staid in consequence of the

sickness of the oldest child by Julian. She the child

died this morning before day — Vast quantities of

worms had passed through her — Her mother

told me that they were passing from her I

believe, in both extremities without the least effort

on the part of the child She was three or four

years of age very intelligent and interesting

her mother when I first got there this morning

was truly distressed — word by a special messenger

was sent to her father and what pleased me well

She is resolved to bury the child at Stewartsville.”

Possible culprits for the child’s illness are the common parasitic roundworm, hookworm, or the Guinea worm. Contracting worms also is said to have been harder on people with immune system deficiencies, which might have been the case with a younger child. The Guinea worm emigrated from Africa along with the human cargo brought on slave ships. According to Peter McCandless, the author of Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Low Country parasitic worms were common in waterfront areas in the United States, especially in the slaveholding South. The town of Bennettsville grew on the banks of a lake fed by a local river, upon which much business activity took place. Warm Southern American ports were also harbors of yellow fever and dengue carried by mosquitoes.

Early Mississippi Health Regulations and Medical Licensing Laws

This example of parasitic worms as a health hazard comes from Bennettsville, SC, but Mississippi, still somewhat of a frontier in the early 1830s, was dealing with its own health problems. In 1798 about the time the Mississippi Territory began experiencing an influx of settlers of European ancestry, Native Americans groups were characterized and praised as healers. However, they were all at the mercy of European diseases brought into the area and had little in the way of defense. Probably many of the native plant and herbal curatives used by European frontier settlers were learned from Native American botanical lore. Eventually, most southern slaveholding states would require slaveowners to provide health care for their human chattel – practices varied from household to household. The year 1798 also began American political control of a significant portion of the area which ensured the use of English and American medical and health practices.

On March 18, 1799 Mississippi Territorial Governor Winthrop Sargent and others signed legislation “Concerning Aliens and Contagious Diseases.” According to Felix J. Underwood, the author of the text Public Health and Medical Licensure in the State of Mississippi 1798-1937, the purpose of this law was “to prevent the admission within the Territory of foreigners of infamous character.. and to provide as far as possible against the fatal calamities of contagious diseases …” In 1816 a statute was added requiring a $2000 dollar fine and twelve years in prison for bringing smallpox into the state even if it was by inoculation. If you contracted smallpox and appeared in public without a paper from a doctor certifying your freedom from the disease, you were fined one hundred dollars. If one desired smallpox inoculation, petitioning the governor was required.

Ad appearing in The Mississippi Free Trader at Natchez on 25 April 1820.

Also Underwood contends that in the year of statehood, 1817, Natchez was the most significant “city of consequence.” Mississippi’s first Board of Health was established there with penalties for failing to abide by the health laws. The Board of Health included five health commissioners and the police. Their duties included the following as well as enforcement:


  • putting in place sewers, drains, and vaults and keeping them clean
  • assessing the cost of these for taxation purposes
  • removing “damaged or tainted” material, requiring a fine of ten dollars
  • “order and regulate” the burying ground
  • a certificate required for burying the dead
  • a health officer stationed at Bacon’s Landing would announce the arrival of a ship suspected of carrying a communicable disease
  • a fine placed upon suspected ship – five dollars for the commissioners visit and one dollar for each passenger
  • establish a temporary hospital at Bacon’s Landing to harbor and care for those suspected of contagious disease.

By 1819 the governor was given the authority and responsibility to make sure preventative steps were taken statewide to promote health as well as providing care. In 1822 legislation passed requiring a fine for selling unwholesome food. On the second offense, the culprit could be pilloried for one hour a day for three days in addition to the fine. In the Code of 1823, the justices of the county court would be required to ensure “sufficient conditions in prisons to prevent escape, sickness, infection” and to “keep jails clean.” Hutchinson’s Code of 1848 would create the Vaccine Depot at Jackson.

The Western District Board of Medical Censors licensed six doctors in December of 1831 according to The Natchez Weekly Courier.

With a government health mandate in mind, on February 12, 1819 the Mississippi legislature passed a law requiring medical licenses. It created a Board of Medical Censors, seven members appointed by the governor, who would approve licenses to those applying. At their first meeting they set up “rules and regulations, methods of ascertaining qualifications and granting license.” They were also authorized to grant temporary licenses. The governor appointed censors “of established skill and reputation in the medical profession,” who would meet twice a year. A license would cost ten dollars, and a list of license holders would be published in the newspaper. The Mississippi Free Trader, published in Natchez on 18 May 1819, delineates the authority of the Board of Medical Censors in the article titled, “Proceedings of the Board of Medical Censors.” By1820 the fine for practicing without a license was set at five hundred dollars.

A list of doctors licensed by the Eastern Board of Censors appeared in The Weekly Mississippian of Jackson in May of 1834.

Eventually, three medical districts would be formed, each with its own board. By 1827 a physician, within six months, was required to record a license with the county clerk of the county in which practicing, though the licenses were good for the entire state. The circuit clerk of each county kept a list of licensed physicians.

Apparently, Mississippi was progressing in the area of medical licensure until 1836 when the medical censor laws were declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court. An unlicensed person practicing medicine had appealed his case and won. His victory in court invalidated the state’s licensing process. It would be forty-six years before medical licensing regulations would again be required.

The method and level of education available to prospective physicians in Mississippi varied widely during the early nineteenth century. Physicians often studied under other physicians if they were not trained in out-of-state schools in places like New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Augusta, or Louisville and Lexington. It would be 1882 before Mississippi had its own medical school. In fact, during the 1840s Duncan McKenzie’s son Daniel would study medicine under several tutors with well-equipped libraries, who had practiced the trade. He would teach school to support himself while boarding with his tutors.

A Doctor, Cures, and Self-dosage

Up until the Civil War, the most common curatives included bloodletting, purgatives, mercury, digitalis, and opiates. Probably most families self-diagnosed and kept common remedies nearby, especially in the most rural areas of Mississippi during the 1830s. Duncan McKenzie had an acquaintance to whom he refers to in his letters as Dr. Duncan. I have not discovered if Duncan was his surname. It has been a challenge to find a record from the early part of the decade that shows he was licensed. In a May 1834 letter to his brother-in-law John McLaurin, Duncan McKenzie first mentions him, “Doctor Duncan passed along last march. he .. promised to write to me but I do not much expect he will.” Later in the same letter he speaks again of the doctor:

“I must correct a mistaken Idea in

regard to Dr. Duncan as I have Just Received a very full

and Satisfactory letter from him Dated Rodney May the 1st

Rodney a village on the Mississippi above natchez He called on

Capt Hugh Peter Fairley the Camerons &c all were well

except Daniel McLaurins family who were Sick of the Scarlet

fever Alexander a Sone of Danl,, Died of it a few days before

his arival there. The Doctor had not engaged in any business

at that time but had strong encouragement to take up

the practice of medicine in Franklin County…”

A couple of years later, Dr. Duncan expresses some concern about Duncan McKenzie’s wife Barbara McLaurin. He does not express his worries to McKenzie but writes to Duncan McLaurin. The concern may have involved Barbara’s health since Duncan McKenzie admits in a later letter that Barbara has had quite a bit of responsibility in caring for both her own young children and the black children living on their Covington County farm. Her work load even without young children was never going to be light. McKenzie adds that his young sons were growing fast. Allen and an older black child were able to help look after their younger siblings. However, illness was ever present.

In 1836 McKenzie admits that though Dr. Duncan has annoyed him with his comments about Barbara, he remains friendly with the doctor. He writes to John in 1836, “I must feel more or less attached to the poor fellow not only for his attention to me while Sick but for other ties I cannot discard him tho I often tell him of his folly.”

By 1838, a year or so after the Mississippi Board of Medical Censors and their licensing was declared unconstitutional by the state courts, Duncan McKenzie writes to his brother-in-law about the doctor:

“Dr Duncan is as usual driving form Shop to Shop, has a change of

meals but no change of clothes, his poor old horse Stands to the rack

but one thing in favor of the Dr he is above law, the law of this

State provides or allows a man of his profession a horse appraised to

$100 sadle and bags & the Dr has Just that much property

and no more, he only gets credit in Some places whenever he

wants a garment he goes off to Some place where he is not known

and his appearance will command credit at least for a coat

and perhaps for a whole Suit…”

Evidently, by 1838 Dr. Duncan has become quite the alcoholic, according to teetotaler Duncan McKenzie. In his letters Duncan McKenzie has a great propensity for declaring people alcoholics and blaming their shortcomings on “Ruddy Bacchus!” Therefore, it is difficult to judge just how frequently certain people were actually alcoholics. In any case, there is evidence that Americans generally indulged often in homemade alcoholic beverages. Duncan McKenzie writes the following about Dr. Duncan:

“I forgot the Doctor, but

to say the least of him is the best, in fact I do not

know where he is at present, and can only guess what

doing, Suppose drinking toddy, for some time after he came

to this neighbor hood he would keep himself Sober

especially when in my company, but of late the bate

allures him, I am resolved that no drunkard Shall

lodge with me long at one time …”

A year later the doctor is visiting a sick child. Duncan McKenzie reports that, “…if providence sees fit the child may live, as no one doubts Dr D — Skill when Sober.” McKenzie goes on to explain that the Mississippi legislature has passed legislation, soon to be known as the “Gallon Law,” (an anti-tippling law) which limits the sale of spirits. McKenzie explains that this law “… has been of immense Service to the Dr and many others, the same act forbids innkeepers giving Selling or Suffering liquors to be drank in their houses on penalty of $500 & 6 mons. imprisonment.”

In May of 1834 the McKenzie family came down with measles – at least the children – some weeks after a visit from Dr. Duncan in March, “…all the children & our man Colison had the measles which threw us back in planting…” In the 1830s the measles could be deadly but apparently was not as common among the rural population as it was in the towns. In any case the McKenzie children would benefit from their immunity to the disease as it was rampant among the Smith County Confederate soldiers stationed at Enterprise, MS in the early days of the Civil War. Both Kenneth and Allen were deployed there and watched a significant number of their companions perish from the disease.

On 5 February 1831 The Natchez Weekly Courier ran this advertisement for medicines.

In November of 1836 Duncan McKenzie writes to his brother-in-law John that he is recovering from an illness, which he does not detail in this letter. He directs John to reference letters that he has written to others in the Richmond County community for specifics. He explains that he took the purgative, Calomel. Defined as a mercury compound that causes salivation, ulceration of the mouth, and loss of teeth, this purgative was used as a curative for many ailments. Duncan describes the side effects:

“…it is a fact that there was 600 grain of Callomel

in my body at one time, and no less true that from that or Some

other un known cause my jaw bones burst I thot for some time

that the fractures were confined to the lower jaw but the reverse

is the fact, as not more than two weeks since while minding of

a gap on the field from whence they were hauling corn, it being

immediately after dinner, I was picking my teeth when to my

astonishment I picked out a fracture of bone from the right extremity

of the upper jaw. this piece of bone is 1.2 inch long by 1/8th in

diameter being the largest except two others which came from

both extremities of the lower jaw. numerous small particles

have come out both above and below. you may judge that

I have partially lost the power of mastication”

It is unknown whether a doctor prescribed this dosage or whether it was self-dosage. According to James Harvey Young in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, self-dosage was the “first line” of prevention and cure in the antebellum South. Many literate and more well-off homes may have used popular books such as J. C. Gunn’s Domestic Medicine or Poor Man’s Friends published in Knoxville, TN in 1830 as a guide to self-dosage.

The Six hundred grains of calomel would be equal to about thirty-eight grams or one and a third ounces, likely in powder form. According to the author of Victorian Pharmacy, loss of teeth was a frequent side effect of calomel use. Louisa Mae Alcott, the 19th century author of Little Women, was treated for typhoid fever with calomel in 1863 and “never recovered from her ‘cure.’” Calomel for many years was the standard long term treatment for syphilis. Calomel and laudanum, the tincture of opium, were the most frequently prescribed drugs before and probably during the Civil War. However, the most useful treatment during this period was likely quinine.

Calomel use is further maligned in an opinion article by Pat Leonard, “William Hammond and the End of the Medical Middle Ages,” U. S. Surgeon General William Hammond was an innovator in medical and health efficiency. During his tenure, the early years of the Civil War, he made controversial changes in military hygiene practices, increased field access to pharmaceuticals, and spent quite a bit of money. One of his controversial decisions was the removal of the popular drug calomel, for he believed its side-effects outweighed its usefulness on the battlefield. In 1863 Hammond was removed from his position for a variety of reasons, though today his innovations are thought to have saved many lives.

General Health of Family, Friends, and Acquaintance

Nineteenth century letter etiquette in the United States of the 1830s required the writer to inquire after the health of family, friends, and acquaintance while remembering to send news of one’s own general health and that of others. Duncan McKenzie never failed to do this in his correspondence. In March of 1837 he writes to his brother-in-law Duncan:

“the family are in good health at present —

you charged me to be particular in describing my own health

it is equally as good as I would have any reason to expect

I am able to work some tho as yet I do not feel able

to perform any hard labor, last friday I took Hugh

with me after dinner to Split some rails about

300 being wanted we Split about 100 that evening

next morning Mr. Gilcrist asked me if I was going

to finish my rails that day, I told him not, I felt

worsted from the evenings work, I have not finished

them yet tho I am knocking along at something else”

Illness was very common and took its toll on farms when contagious ailments could stop work altogether. Likely, many died from exposing themselves to the elements too soon. In June of 1837 Duncan writes of an illness worsened by inadvertent exposure to a rainstorm. When he became ill, he tried first calomel, next rhubarb and barks, and finally nothing. The problem disappeared on its own. During the early nineteenth century many people looked to purgatives to rid the body of infection. Rhubarb in powdered form taken as a medicine seems to have a laxative effect. Duncan begins by explaining that they had all had a slight attack of sickness in the Spring. He references his son Kenneth often since evidently Kenneth has been, since early childhood, living with what Duncan calls a “rheumatic condition.” This kept Kenneth from the fields and put an extra burden on those who were able to work. :

“…April, in consequence of

his (Kenneth’s) inability to work, I had to undergo more of

it than my Strength was well able to bear the

weather at that time being wet and cold and

particularly on the 12th of April on which day I went

to an election and on my way home got very wet, the

friday following I was taken with a chill which was

followed by a severe fever, the chills & fevers continued

for Several paroxysms and every attack getting worse

I took Several doses of calomel until which time as a

Salivation was affected, the chills gave way but

Scarcely had my mouth got well. When the chills

returned which again was broke by the use of Rhubarb

and barks, I experienced an other attack Since which

Subsided without the use of any kind of medicine.”

In circumstances such as Duncan experienced here, people must have questioned the value of medications for every problem. Hence, a large number of folks likely were inclined to try to cure themselves first and call a doctor later. Today many of us have the same inclination. Later, in the same letter, Duncan says that Captain Hugh Piper’s son died of billious colic. He probably means biliary colic, which is gallstones that easily may have become pancreatitis. Today we might have outpatient surgery to have the entire gall bladder removed. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that medical science provided certainty that one could survive without the gall bladder. Until then the best treatment was to clean out the gall stones and drain the duct. This could temporarily improve the way one felt, but it did not solve the gall stones problem.

Duncan writes in October of 1837 that he is pleased to hear of the “general welfare” of family and friends at Laurel Hill and returns the favor by saying the family in Covington has been enjoying “tollerable good health at present.” Barbara, Kenneth, and Hugh had endured mild illness. Kenneth’s was a bout with his chronic rheumatic condition from which he had recovered. Several cases of fever “in the neighborhood” resulted in the death of, “two of the most amiable young men that any country could boast D Wilkinson and A McInnis.” In March of 1838 a sickness of Barbara’s left her very weak but she was recovering well according to Duncan’s letter.

On a brighter note by November of 1838, Duncan is reporting on the birth of his daughter Mary Catherine. True to Scottish tradition, they named her after their mothers. Duncan and Barbara had lost a twelve-year-old daughter shortly before they left for Mississippi. Her name was Catherine, named after Barbara’s mother – fitting that this female child was named after Duncan’s mother as well. The birth seems to have come more suddenly than expected, for they did not have time to reach help outside persons on the farm:

“She fancied a pregnancy from

the 16th September, and on the 16th Jany quickend, very

perceptibly, after which time the tedious months rolled on till the morning of the 9th Augt

at one a clock she was

delivered of a daughter no one being in attendance but my

Self and negro woman Elly, yet all was well and I dressed the

little Stranger before anyone had time to come to our assistance.”

Later in the letter Duncan describes Mary Catherine as, “well grown for her age and as well featured as any other of the children were at her age.” Barbara is eating dinner at the table with the family shortly after her delivery. Duncan remarks that she recuperated more quickly than after any of other ten pregnancies and deliveries. If the number of pregnancies is ten or eleven, we only know of eight live births. Barbara may have miscarried at least twice. Elly was likely well-versed in childbirth, as perhaps many births taking place in slave quarters were attended by knowledgeable enslaved women rather than physicians. However, this all depended upon the motivations of an owner and the degree to which they had confidence in the abilities of their enslaved persons.

August a year later Barbara becomes very ill with a flu-like illness, but Duncan says she is so much better that she will be up and about shortly. He also mentions that Mary Catherine was still nursing at the time of Barbara’s illness. Probably because she feared transmitting her own illness to the child, she took her off the breast:

“… So soon

as she was taken Sick she took the breast from the child

tho lacking a few days of 12 months old, no other of the

family have any Symptom of it as yet”

Later in the letter he mentions that Barbara is “gradually gaining strength” when two other cases of diarrhea appeared in the family, “John and negro child Elly’s youngest.” They appear to have been recuperating. However, we learn in a later letter that Mary Catherine did succumb to illness, “ … the date of the 23rd August was that on which our little daughter Died and it was some three weeks or more before I wrote owing to the Sickness that prevaild in the family.” Many, many children afflicted with diarrhea died of simple dehydration even into the twentieth century because doctors and caregivers feared hydrating might interfere with the diarrhea’s natural purging of the system. Mary Catherine’s death must have been a crushing blow to Barbara since the birth of a female child was likely the reason for her rapid recovery. Having grown up within a household of sisters, Barbara may have craved female companionship in the home. In fact, some years later Barbara becomes quite attached to the female child of one of the enslaved people on the farm.

On the Tenth of May 1833, The Mississippi Free Trader at Natchez published a column of deaths and causes of deaths during the past year. This is a portion of the column which included enslaved and free population, though not bothered to name some of the people.

Health Care for Enslaved Population

I have mentioned before that the health care of the enslaved people was entirely in the hands of the owner. The owner decided when to call in licensed or professional help and often diagnosed and dosaged a medical problem. The variety of care experienced by the enslaved population probably ran the gamut. The motive of owners to provide these services likely grew from financial interest in property to genuine human decency or from simple self-preservation. To the extent that enslaved people could manage it, traditional remedies handed down through generations of descendants from Africa and colonial America were likely used with or without permission or owner’s awareness. On the other hand, prominent antebellum physicians such as Samuel Cartwright in Mississippi promoted perceived differences in black and white physiology to support medicine in the South as a unique challenge. Cartwright’s views were steeped in nineteenth century ignorance and racism, easily used in argument to support the continuation of slavery. His postulation that blacks were a race of childlike people may have encouraged many slaveowners to belittle complaints and self-diagnosis on the part of their property.

Kelly Brignac in “Exploring Race and Medicine through Diaries: White Perspective on Slave Medical Care in Antebellum Mississippi” studied the journal of Dr. Walter Ross Wade and the diary of Eliza Magruder. Dr. Wade seems to have been in total charge of the health and medical needs of the people on his plantation. His workers were expected to seek out medical help. It seems to have caused both anger and fear in Wade when contagious illnesses swept through the plantation and brought work to a standstill. In contrast, Eliza Magruder, a resident on her uncle’s plantation, performed her tasks with little involvement in the work of the plantation. She willingly undertook to seek out illness and poor health among the plantation workers by frequently visiting their living quarters. She seems to have spent time inoculating people against contagious disease. Her uncle appears to have supplied the pharmaceuticals and other medical resources for plantation use. In addition, her diary supports her emotional involvement with her task. This is in contrast with Wade’s rather distant health and medical maintenance.

Duncan McKenzie, unlike Eliza Magruder and Dr. Wade, did not have a large number of enslaved people working on his farm. Since they worked side by side every day and Barbara had charge of the young children, their health destinies were closely intertwined. A contagious illness swept through both black and white on the small farm with equal threat. When one person, black or white, was incapacitated the burden on others increased. Duncan McKenzie appears in his letters to consider himself fairly knowledgeable about medicines. He seems to have paid particular attention to curatives advertised in the newspapers as well. We can speculate that Duncan probably assumed the authority to provide at least minimal medical care for the people on his farm. Clearly the white family on the small farm could not as easily distance themselves from the enslaved people working on the farm. When typhus spreads through the neighborhood in 1847, the outbreak is not only among the enslaved on the farm but Duncan himself contracts the illness. Evidence exists that Duncan was under the care of a physician, but we have no evidence that the enslaved victims of the disease got the same care, though it is possible they did. The disease eventually killed two on the farm, one black, one white.

Accidents and Alcohol

Illness was not the only health threat of the 19th century. Accidents happened every day, despite the fact that people were not knowledgeable of how to protect themselves from unseen infection. They did not have recourse to antibiotics or vaccines. Cleanliness was their best bet in overcoming an infected wound, but knowledge of bacteria invisible to the eye was limited.

In June of 1839 Daniel stepped on a nail, “which came nearly through between his toes an inch up in his foot — there is not fever or inflammation in it yet.” Perhaps there was not going to be, and perhaps they instinctively kept it clean, for Daniel lived to adulthood with all appendages in tact.

Another accident did result in death in 1839. Duncan describes two men and a “lad” digging a thirty foot well when the walls fell in and buried the youngster. It took more than twenty-four hours to recover his body since the cave in was so large.

Two social elements increased the possibility of accidental and premeditated death in deep South culture of the 19th century. These were alcohol use and a culture of masculinity and violence. In a June 1839 letter Duncan writes of a murder in the neighborhood:

“… one man was stabbed by another

and died instantly L McRae the murderer made his escape. It is a

case of late occurrence taking place on the 30th May ult

The murdered was a Saml Wilson a native of the state of

Illinois McRae is a son of Abe McRae and nephew to Morino

John of that name once of Marlboro District South Carolina”

Without reference to records of this event, records that probably don’t exist anymore, we cannot know the kind of conflict that may have instigated this murder, but a pattern of violence becomes clearer as letters from Mississippi to Duncan McLaurin during the 1840s reveal. The sources of these conflicts range from rebellious slaves to political conflict.

Evidently the opinion of opponents of the Gallon Law eventually prevailed.

Likewise, we can surmise that indiscriminate use of alcohol fed into the masculinity culture in dangerous ways. It is perhaps a credit to Mississippi legislators in 1839 that some recognized the problem and attempted to solve it by passing the Gallon Law and attempting to curb the practice of dueling.

The Gallon Law, in Duncan McKenzie’s opinion, was beneficial to individuals with drinking problems like Dr. Duncan. McKenzie also claims that the frequency of taverns on the way home from selling crops is the reason many of his neighbors cannot get ahead financially. These were common arguments used by temperance groups across the nation. Evidently, among the general population, the Mississippi Gallon Law was quite unpopular.

This Vicksburg Whig opinion in favor of the Gallon Law appeared in The Natchez Daily Courier on 22 February 1839.

This law, interestingly enough, was modeled on the Fifteen Gallon Law formerly passed in Massachusetts. Perhaps similar laws, meant to curb tippling, were an effort to control alcohol distribution without total prohibition. A summary of the Gallon Law and accompanying opinion appears in The Mississippi Free Trader of Thursday, 14 February 1839. Under the Mississippi law, Inns and taverns could not sell drinks nor offer them for free in quantities less than one gallon. Candidates for public office could not offer drinks to voters during elections. Violating the law carried a penalty of fine and imprisonment. The sale of any amount of spiritous liquors was forbidden to “Indians and Negroes.” Anyone receiving a liquor license would have to take an oath against selling on their property of any quantity under a gallon. The Gallon Law was seen by many as a violation of civil rights and likely to be abused by those who could afford bribes, leaving the less financially successful to suffer the burden. In addition, temperance efforts in the antebellum South became tainted by the movement’s association nationally with the abolitionist movement. By 1842 the right to grant and hold a liquor license without the gallon restriction was restored. It is interesting to note here that over a century later it would be 1969 before the 1919 Prohibition Law was repealed in Mississippi, the last state in the union to do so.


Brignac, Kelly. “Exploring Race and Medicine through Diaries: White Perspective on Slave Medical Care in Antebellum Mississippi.” 2012. www.indiana.edu/~psource/PDF/Archive%20Articles/Fall2011/1%20-%20Brignac,%20Kelly.pdf. Accessed 1 April 2018.

Carrigan, Jo Ann. “Health, Public.” The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1352.

“Deaths.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, MS. 10 May 1833. Friday. 3. newspapers.com. Accessed 6 April 2018.

Eastoe, Jane. Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Forgotten Remedies and Recipes. Pavilion: United Kingdom. 2010. 52, 53, 112.

“The Gallon Law.” The Natchez Daily Courier. Natchez, MS. 22 February 1839. Friday. 2. newspapers.com. Accessed 5 April 2018.

“The Gallon Law.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, MS. Thursday 14 February1839. 2. https://www.newspapers.com.

“History of Medicine: The Galling Gallbladder.” Columbia University Medical Center, Department of Surgery: New York, NY: 2017. columbiasurgery.org/news/2015/06/11/history-medicine-galling-gallbladder. Accessed 3 April 2018.

Lampton, Lucius M. “Medicine.” The Mississippi Encyclopedia. Edited by Tod Ownby and Charles Reagan Wilson. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 806-808

Leonard, Pat. “William Hammond and the End of the Medical Middle Ages.” The New York Times. 27 April 2012. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/william-hammond-and-the-end-of-the-medical-middle-ages/. Accessed 24 March 2018.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 11 May 1834. Boxes 1 and 2 Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 13 November 1836. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1837. 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 October 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 25 February 1838. Boxes 1 and 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 Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1839. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. RubensteinRare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 19 February 1849. Boxes 1 and 2. The Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

McCandless Peter. Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Low Country. Cambridge University Press: New York. 2011. 8.

“The Mississippi Gallon Law.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, Mississippi. 29 February 1840. Saturday. 2. newspapers.com. Accessed 5 April 2018.

“New Dispensatory.” The Natchez Weekly Courier. Natchez, MS. 08 November 1833. Friday. newspapers.com. Accessed 6 April 2018.

“Proceedings of the Board of Medical Censors. Mississippi Free Trader. 18 May 1819. newspapers. com. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Savitt, Todd L. “Health, Black.” The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 164,165.

Underwood, Felix J., M. D. and R. N. Whitfield, M. D. Public Health and Medical Licensure in the State of Mississippi 1798-1937. The Tucker Printing House: Jackson. 1938. 14-21. 136-138.

Young, James Harvey. “Self-dosage.” The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1361.

The 1830s: Education

According to Aubrey K. Lucas in his essay “Education in MS from Statehood to the Civil War,” one of the “rare commodities” in Mississippi in 1817 was education, though the first state constitution included this remark: “Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged in this state.” The Natchez area was the wealthiest region in the state in the early decades of statehood and could afford academies, private tutors, and schools out of state for one segment of the population, the prominent and affluent. Jefferson College was established in the Natchez area and functioning in 1811, before Mississippi became a state. In contrast, Franklin Academy was established in 1821 in Northeast, Mississippi, a less affluent cotton growing area of the state, and functioned as a public school. Generally, under the cotton economy the wealthy landowners controlled state funding. Taxing to support statewide public education could not be fathomed under the realities of sparse settlement and indifference among those who could afford schooling as well as indifference of those who were working, often on a survival level under frontier conditions, to build farms. Likely the preoccupation with a rapidly growing cotton economy played a part in neglecting educational opportunities in the state. Despite this, Lucas tells us that during the economic growth of the early 1830s there were sixty-one incorporated secondary schools in the state, largely locally funded tuition schools. Mississippi’s depressed economy towards the end of the 1830s did not hurt the growth of academies in the state since the state legislature in 1839 allowed for financial assistance “from fines, forfeitures, escheats and similar sources” to be set aside for education. Though the leasing of 16th section lands had been allowed earlier, this brought little revenue since it was not effectively carried out. As for slaves, free blacks and mulattoes, state law did not allow them to meet publicly or at a school to learn reading and writing. However, this did not preclude a master from teaching his property to read and write. The Nat Turner rebellion frightened slaveowners and increased opposition to the education of these groups of people. Some native Americans in Mississippi generally benefitted from education by religious missionaries, some of whom by the 1830s had learned the Choctaw language and were able to teach English.

Tuition accounts kept by Duncan McLaurin during the year 1831-1832. Duncan McKenzie has paid tuition for his older sons Kenneth, Hugh, and Daniel (Donald). Also listed as having paid tuition is McKenzie’s guide to Mississippi and later teacher, Hugh R. Traywick.

When Duncan McKenzie claimed in October of 1837 that in Mississippi he was satisfied except that he could not educate his children, he was probably comparing the educational opportunities in Covington County, Mississippi to those he and his older children had experienced in Richmond County, North Carolina. Duncan himself was quite literate and all of his children would grow to be so by the standards of their day. In addition, the older three sons had enjoyed the tutelage of their Uncle Duncan McLaurin as evidenced by McLaurin’s tuition log dated 1831-1832. By 1833 Kenneth, about12; Hugh, about 10; and Daniel, about 7 would have been well on their way toward literacy the year before they left for Mississippi. Duncan McLaurin’s accounts for 1831-1832 indicate that close to twenty or more families were paying him tuition of around twenty dollars a year per student.These were probably middle or upper class students living in a long settled village. If parents were literate and had the motivation and opportunity to do so, early education could be accomplished in the home. Still, little had been done in the South by 1830 to promote public education. The concept of public education within the rural South as a whole did not begin to take hold until after the Civil War, especially in the Southern states further west. Many of the more financially successful hired private tutors then sent their students to universities in the North for higher education. In the rural South there was little shared need that would motivate the populace as a whole to want to pay taxes for public education.

School accounts of Duncan McLaurin kept from 1831-1832. Duncan McKenzie’s brother John paid tuition for his children Jennet and Sandy (Alexander).

Newspapers in Mississippi during the decade of the 1830s published ads for in- and out-of-state academies. For example, in the April 30, 1831 issue of The Natchez Weekly Courier appears an ad for a “Boarding and Day School at the Gothic Mansion, Chesnut, above 12th Street” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ad continues to say that one could apply at F. Beaumont & Co. Natchez. This ad appeared in Philadelphia, PA newspapers as well this same year. Meanwhile, in the small farming counties east of Natchez, the motivated locals who could afford it set up tuition schools.

Though generally Mississippi’s illiteracy rate during the 1830s was probably high and the state had no paper production facilities, the public supported quite a number of newspapers. According to an article in The Mississippi Encyclopedia, an accurate number of the state’s antebellum newspapers is difficult to establish, but one researcher using census records places the number at about seventy-three. Within these newspapers can be found, not only political news and ads for schools, but ads for booksellers, most of which are located in Mississippi towns such as Vicksburg, Jackson, Natchez, and Columbus. If one had business at any of these towns, a bookstore was available for the purchase of writing paper as well as books. The Vicksburg Whig in October of 1834 advertised Miles C. Folkes Bookseller & Stationer on Main Street. A Natchez bookseller, W. H. Pearce & Co., was located on Main and Commerce in that city, according to The Mississippi Free Trader of September 1838. Among this bookseller’s listed titles are Language of Flowers with 6 plates, Memoirs of Walter Scott, the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, and Etiquette for Ladies. Since postage rates for printed media were much, much lower than rates for letters, print media flowed freely through the mail across the country. It is evident from reading the correspondence in the Duncan McLaurin Papers that friends and relatives were eager to share agricultural, religious, and political news by sending publications often through the mail. News of marriages, deaths and general local and personal interest were shared in this manner as well. For example, Hugh C. Stewart mails, along with a letter to Duncan McLaurin, a copy of the Raymond Times to report the death of a cousin’s wife in Hinds County, Mississippi: “I got a letter from Hugh C Stewart John P. Stewarts wife is dead — and the Raymond Times is sent here.” One might conclude that migration west would encourage literacy in order to communicate with distant relations.

In 1833 Duncan McKenzie writes to his brother-in-law from Mississippi that he has chosen land to rent because it is near a schoolhouse already standing. Most of these structures were rather plain and barely functional with probably one room, but it is admirable that a community on the frontier would have reached the point of providing one. Many circumstances of living delayed the establishment of schools in Mississippi: population was scattered over many miles. Distance often prevented access to a centrally located school. Children were often needed to work on farms. However, if a group of families in a community felt the need for a school, they built it and searched for a teacher. Even after Mississippi became a state in 1817, there were no legal teacher qualification expectations beyond those of the community group that built the school and hired the teacher. Evidence exists that teachers migrating from the northeast were desirable to place in a local school, since it was probably well-known that northeastern schools were more organized, successful, and products of this system well-educated.

Duncan McKenzie states that on the Saturday after they arrived in Covington County, Mississippi in January of 1833, they chose their rental land, “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 2nd grade.” One Hugh R. Trawick is listed as having paid tuition to Duncan McLaurin in North Carolina; he is also the guide that led the McKenzie family on their journey from North Carolina to Mississippi. Over time, Duncan McKenzie mentions a few other of their connections from North Carolina who are teachers in the local area tuition schools. For whatever reason they do not appear to have remained in their positions for very long.

Of the McKenzie sons, it appears that Daniel was the most interested in receiving an education. Perhaps he was less inclined to work in the fields than his brothers. In March of 1837 Duncan McKenzie writes to Duncan McLaurin:

“I am almost tempted to send Danl with

Gilchrist to your school, his youth will for the present

Save him the ride, Should you continue teaching for any

length of time equal to that which would be necessary

for the completion of his education, let me know the cost

of board books & tuition anually in your next, I may

Send him or per haps both Danl & Dunk, it is not

an easy matter to educate them here, and with all

So immoral is the State of society particularly among


Gilchrist is an acquaintance who would have been traveling to the Carolinas at the time. Often messages, note payments, and women and children visiting relatives accompanied a trusted friend on his travels. Again three months later McKenzie writes:

“whenever you think that there

is a chance for the boys Danl and Dunk to be educated

at say $140 or 150 each per annum in Some peaceable Settlement

or village, the former I would prefer, as Village morrals

are really the best — I will try to send them”

The cost and perils of sending a child a distance on uncertain roads must have been daunting to a yeoman farmer family. But what is probably more important is that few small farmers, especially those trying to grow labor intensive crops, could afford to lose the help on the farm. Daniel alone, not to mention Daniel and his brother Dunk, would have been sorely missed on the farm. In the end, by March of 1838, Daniel is once more studying Latin and along with a friend near his age, Lachlan McLaurin. Duncan reports to his brother-in-law that the neighborhood, admirably, has persuaded a Mr. Strong, who teaches at Clinton Academy in Hinds County, to instruct students in a building only about four miles from the McKenzie home, “the neighborhood succeeded in getting a school for Strong in 4 miles of me I procurd a pony for Danl to ride” and though Daniel is “three years from that studdy (Latin) appears to have retained it tolerable well.” While Daniel is in Latin school, his younger brothers are attending another school taught by an acquaintance, Malcolm Carmichael.

“Malcolm Carmichael, Squire

Johns sone has a small School near my house Dunk

Allan and Johny are going to him, he Malcolm came

here early in January and took a small school worth

Say $20 per month”

It is possible that the parents of those students in Covington County under the tutelage of Mr. Strong paid a bit more dearly for the Latin instruction, especially if Mr. Strong had to come the distance from Hinds County to perform his duties. Teachers seem to have come and gone with regularity, and schooling was never the certain opportunity we are accustomed today. Duncan McKenzie does not, however, give up on the idea of getting his brother-in-law to teach his boys. By November of 1838, Duncan is expressing his longing again in a letter to North Carolina.

“Danl is still going to school how he learns I am not able

to say he is still reading lattin and studdying arithmetic

whether he will make a Schollar I know not I wish he was

with you on the Juniper for a Spell.”

In June of 1839 Duncan is once more lamenting his inability to send Daniel to North Carolina for schooling. His excuses include the “desire in parents to be in hearing in fact in sight of their offspring.” This is understandable but could likely have been overcome. The next excuse appears rather weak, “the heat of the weather.” The third excuse gets to the gist of the matter, “the third is the difficulty of procuring a sufficiency of sound currency … on the whole I presume he will not go this year.” Later, in the same letter, Duncan McKenzie tries again to persuade Duncan McLaurin to come to Mississippi or send a knowledgeable teacher:

“If you could send us a young man who is a good linguist

and mathematicians we would give him 750 or $800 and if you

could come yourself we would give you $1:000 a year

in money, gold, Silver, or copper, or its equivalent —

We have built a comfortable school house in a central

Spot and have sunk a good well, Roderick McNair is teaching

for us we give him $500 & the increase of the school It will

be worth $600 to him this year there are a number of boys in

the neighborhood who are ready to commence the Latin if there

was a teacher in whom the people could confide …”

Having confidence in the teacher was probably another drawback to locally run schools. One was never certain of the education and talents of those hired, and it took adults off of the farms in order to drop in for evaluations at the schools. Duncan McKenzie brags a bit on Daniel when he visits the school to judge how the students are coming along:

“Danl and one James Shannon were the best class. It is a pitty but the

Scotch & Irish boys had fair play, if you had them 12 mo

I think you would not be ashamed of them”

McKenzie ends this letter by once again begging his brother-in-law to visit, to stay with them a few weeks or months, and when Duncan McLaurin returned to North Carolina he would, “Send Danl on with you to remain in Carolina till he would be a Scholar.” In the end it is up to Daniel to fend for his own education in Mississippi where he is.

Duncan McLaurin, a Carolinas Educator

In 1857 a future governor of the state of North Carolina, William Woods Holden, delivered an address before the State Educational Association of North Carolina at Warrenton. In this lengthy speech, Holden mentions that in 1838 a bill was approved in the state legislature to create school districts throughout the state. The districting was approved and in place by 1841. He names those on the legislative committee responsible for this progressive act, and on the list you will find one Duncan McLaurin of Richmond County, NC. It appears that education was particularly valued by North Carolinians including Duncan McKenzie’s brother-in-law.

Although he is listed as being a member of the state legislature, possibly serving the remainder of another’s term, during 1831-1832, McLaurin was also teaching locally in Richmond County, NC. His tuition account book found in the Duncan McLaurin Papers is evidence. During this year Duncan McKenzie and his brother John McKenzie paid tuition for their oldest children: Duncan for Kenneth, Hugh, and Daniel and John for Jennet and Alexander (Sandy). By the next year Duncan McKenzie had left with his family for Mississippi, though Duncan McLaurin likely continued to teach, but at an academy in nearby Bennettsville, South Carolina.

In 1833 John McQueen of Bennettsville, South Carolina, in Marlboro County not far from Laurel Hill, writes on the 10th of November to Duncan McLaurin requesting that he consider teaching at their newly formed academy:

“We last week had an election

of trustees of our academy for the ensuing

year when I was chosen as one of the number

and I have, ever since the erection of our academy

here, wished to see you in it … We have not

as yet been able to get a teacher here calculated

to give that tone to the academy that we would

wish & we would be extremely glad to obtain

your services for a year.”

Evidently, McLaurin accepted the offer, for in this collection his first letter home from Bennettsville is dated February 5, 1834. He generally writes to his brother John regarding notes to be paid and matters of the farm. He also is able to carefully watch and report on the business going on at the busy Bennettsville market and nearby Cheraw. At one point his father, Hugh, requests a country hat purchased from there, but none worth having are to be found. Duncan suggests they order a sturdier northern made one from Fayetteville. John is also interested in a fishing trip to the area.

During the first years of teaching there George, probably an enslaved person, drives him to Bennettsville and back to Laurel Hill perhaps at no shorter intervals than a week or two. McLaurin also used the stage from time to time to travel, but this was not a preference. The Stage Road from New Orleans to New York City passed through Marlboro County. According to A History of Marlboro County, part of this road passed from nearby Cheraw, SC to Laurel Hill, NC,” McLaurin’s home.

Duncan McLaurin received this list of books in September of 1839 for his academy teaching at Bennettsville, SC. Among them is a music text, Missouri Harmony first published in 1820, instructive in shape note music.

In July of 1834 Duncan requests that John send some of his books that he has left at home, Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Algebra and sets his sister Effy upon the task of locating this text. In addition, he wants John to ask Charles Malloy if he knows anything about another book, Graeca Majora. The collection also contains one letter from E. J. Hale, editor and publisher of the Fayetteville Observer newspaper and a bookseller as well. Duncan orders textbooks for a school, presumably for use at Bennettsville or possibly he was setting up a school himself near Laurel Hill. This letter contains an interesting insight into the types of textbooks popular among teachers at least by the end of the 1830s. During the 1830s and for most of the antebellum 19th century, particularly in the rural southern states, education tended to have religious overtones as well as contain a heavy dose of classical subjects. Latin and Greek were commonly taught as was reading the classics of those languages and cultures. English literacy and mathematics were essential subjects. The arts were not neglected as Duncan also includes a music instruction manual, The Missouri Harmony or a Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns, and Anthems, Selected from the Most Eminent Authors, and Well Adapted to All Christian Churches, Singing School, and Private Societies. This text is one of the earliest in shape-note music and theory. It appears to be more instructional than some of the later nineteenth century religious collections of hymns such as The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp. Some of these texts are still published and used at community shape-note singing events such as the one held annually at Benton, Kentucky using The Southern Harmony text.

Duncan McLaurin ordered books for his academy teaching in 1839 from E. J. Hale. The list includes books received that reveal the prevalence of classical studies at southern academies.

In addition to literacy in reading, writing, mathematics, social sciences, literature and the arts; one of the qualities of an effective teacher is an inquiring mind. One example of Duncan McLaurin’s curiosity occurs during May of his first year teaching at Bennettsville. Evidently, Duncan has read that Rev. Jonathan Wade, a Baptist missionary to Burma, today known as Myanmar, is to stop at Cheraw and Fayetteville, where a Burmese religious man will speak and Wade will act as interpreter. Duncan’s longing to be there is palpable as he asks his brother John to be at a point on the road nearby and to report a description. But first, he wishes John to read up on the place and people in a book in his library called, The Wonders of the World by James G. Percival on page 81 which appears a section titled “Gungo Tree at the Source of the Jumna.”

“… they are to preach at Cheraw

& on Friday in Fayetteville — Mr Wade & his wife

can speak the Birman Language — The Birmese

can speak english but imperfectly, but one of

them preaches in his native language which Mr Wade

interprets to the congregation — I want to see them

very much — … for fear I cant

make it convenient to go to see them in either place

if you will attend at the Stables on thursday morning

you will see them as they pass along in the Stage — You

will take a good look at them & if possible get them to

come out of the Stage & Stand so as to see them erect

I expect their object in traveling thro the country is

to get money from such as please to give them some

you will therefore prepare to give them something …

The Asiatics along with him (Wade) are said to be learned

men in their own country being priests of the

Grand Lama the almost universal deity of southern Asia.”

Whether either were able to attend remains unknown, but Duncan’s disappointment would have been heavy if they were missed by both.

In 1897 Reverend John Alexander William Thomas wrote A History of Marlboro County. He titles Chapter 36 “Educational Matters” in which he lauds the early attention to education in the county. According to this text an Academical Society came to fruition in 1830. John McQueen is listed as one of the signers of this society’s constitution and one of the first elected Board of Trustee members. It isn’t until 1833 that McQueen writes his request to Duncan McLaurin, who Rev. Thomas’s history notes is one of the teachers at the male academy. At the same time a female academy is also served entirely by female teachers. A present day historical marker there claims that the female academy opened in 1833. 

Duncan mentions boarding in several different homes during his tenure in Bennettsville. The first week he stayed with Peter McCallum (McCollum). He boards for the first year or so with Reverend Cameron Stubbs, also on the school’s board of directors. At one point Duncan is unhappy with what he is being charged by Rev. Stubbs for boarding and remarks, “I scarcely know what to do to the avaricious parson. I like the house &c very well but the prince is unreasonable.” He thinks Mrs. Stubbs is making the house progressively more comfortable when making available butter and milk with meals. The next year Duncan is complaining again about the lack of butter at the table but also says he occupies a large room with a comfortable fireplace. By 1837 the number of pupils at school is growing slowly: “There are now 29 Scholars making 80 between both establishments,” probably between the male and female academies. He has also made other living arrangements since he gives directions to George of the location, “It is the white house with Dormant windows precisely opposite Mr. Stubbs where I used to be — Capt. David has a stable and the horse can be placed there.” (Dormant is the early 19th century spelling for dormer.) John McCallum (McCollum), another board member owns a store in Bennettsville on the west side of the public square. Duncan visits the store in March of 1837, reporting prices to John. At this time he settles on bringing his father’s cheese himself rather than sending it. Since the day he visits the store is Martin Van Buren’s inauguration day, Duncan remarks on the cold and gloomy weather, which he hopes is sunnier at Washington. In April Duncan once again references the increasing enrollment of the school and remarks, “I shall should the number increase much have to get an assistant but it is time enough to think of these things when there is a necessity of acting.” Probably he never needs the assistant, for he returns to serve in the state legislature in Raleigh during 1838. By 1840, this legislative career was cut short by his need to return home to farming and caring for his aging father. Although he would continue to be active in civic affairs such as establishing the Laurinburg School in 1853 and working to bring the railroad to Richmond County, his life would be tied to the farm called Ballachulish and caring for family members.

In December of 1838, while Duncan McLaurin was serving in the state legislature at Raleigh, he received an honor from the young Wake Forest Institute. In a letter signed by a committee of three (William Jones, John C. Rogers, and David Hamell), he is invited to enroll his name among the Honorary members of their newly formed Philomathesian Society. On December 3, 1838 he accepts their invitation:

“A great portion of my life has been devoted

to the instruction of youth and in the promotion of

intellectual knowledge; and I certainly should act contra-

ry to my inclination and former course of life were I

to refuse to lend my name towards the promotion of the

intellectual improvement of man kind. I therefore not

only permit but request & authorize you to enroll my

name as member of your society, and the fervent wishes

of my heart, are with you in the encouragement of the

intellectual & moral improvement of the human mind

in the pursuit & acquisition of all useful knowledge and may

that power in whose hands are the destinies of Empires, States, Societies

and individuals direct protect sustain and cause to prosper your

laudable undertaking”

Despite the lack of public education in the South of the 1830s, it appears generally that middle and upper class people desired an education for their own children even if they did not exhibit much egalitarian virtue for the idea of educating everyone as a right endowed by the creator. The less well-off probably would have desired the same had they been given more hope for the possibility of it.


Carden, Allen D. The Missouri Harmony, or a Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns, and Anthems, Selected From the Most Eminent Authors and Well Adapted to All Christian Churches, Singing Schools, and Private  Societies. Morgan and Sanxay. Cincinnati. 1834. Found in a search on Google Books.

Dupont, Nancy McKenzie. “Newspapers in the Civil War.” The Mississippi Encyclopedia edited by Ted Ownby and Charles Reagan Wilson. University Press, Jackson. 2017. 933.

Dyer, Thomas G. “Education.” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill & London. 237.

“Education — Gothic Mansion.” The Natchez Weekly Courier. 30 April 1831. 7. newspapers.com. 3 March 2018.

School Accounts of Duncan McLaurin. 1831-1832. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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 John McQueen to Duncan McLaurin. 10 November 1833. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 5 February 1834. Box 1. 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 McLaurin to John McLaurin. 20 July 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 4 March 1837. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin . 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 8 April 1837. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan Mclaurin. 25 February 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from the Philomathesian Society at Wake Forest Institute to Duncan McLaurin. 1 December 1838. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Copy of a letter from Duncan McLaurin to the Philomathesian Society at Wake Forest Institute. 3 December 1838. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1839. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscript Library. Duke University.

Accounting of book purchases of Duncan McLaurin from E. J. Hale in letter from E. J. Hale to Duncan McLaurin. 17 September 1839. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Lucas, Aubrey Keith. “Education in MS from Statehood to the Civil War.” A History of Mississippi, Vol I. Edited by Richard Aubrey McLemore. University & College Press of Mississippi. Hattiesburg. 1973. 352 – 356, 373, 375.

Mayes, Edward LLD. History of Education in Mississippi. Government Printing Office. Washington. 1899. 18, 20, 28.

“Miles C. Folkes Bookseller & Stationer.” Vicksburg Whig. 9 October 1834. 4. newpapers.com. 3 March 2018.

“New Books.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez. 12 September 1838. 3. newspapers.com. 3 March 2018.

Thomas, John Alexander William. A History of Marlboro County With Traditions and Sketches of Numerous Families. The Foote and Davies Company, Printers and Binders. Atlanta, Georgia. 1897. 173, 274, 275.

Decade of the 1830s: Agriculture in Mississippi

Cotton ripened in the fields near Sikeston, Missouri.

Since my retirement my husband and I have indulged in bicycling. Because we are older, we are mindful of the terrain, and the flat Mississippi Delta suits us, especially when riding our tandem. For the past four summers the Bikes, Blues and Bayous organized ride in Greenwood, Mississippi allows us to enjoy a ride highlighted with music, watermelon, chicken salad and pimento cheese sandwiches, and a few historic sites. One of our rest stops on the ride is the old rural store, where a historic marker stands noting the site of young Emmett Till’s “Crime” in 1955 that led to his horrific, senseless, and tragic death.  Another feature of riding through these Delta fields in late July or early August is that the cotton is often in its flowering stages. One day most of the plants will bear creamy white flowers, the next day the fields will turn a beautiful pink, and the third day the flowers will have mostly turned red. The next day the colorful show is over as the flowers fall leaving a green boll. By October these bolls will have turned brown displaying soft fluffy cotton fiber. The fields appear as if a blanket of snow has fallen during the still-warm Mississippi days. In the flat farmlands near Sikeston, Missouri during the Cotton Ramble, another organized ride usually held in October, we have bicycled through huge stretches of white cotton fields, the fluffy bolls of fiber waiting to be machine picked. Riders often stop to take selfies in the fields or pose with their bicycles against pastel wrapped monstrous “bales” of cotton. A bale of cotton as a measurement is about 500 pounds, though these modern “bales” are clearly much, much heavier. 

A stop on the Bikes, Blues, and Bayous organized ride in Leflore County, Mississippi features this historic marker.

What often occupies my mind during hours of riding through these fields and listening to the varied songs of the red-winged blackbirds, killdeer, and mockingbirds are questions and among them are these: If my great, great grandfather planted fifteen acres in cotton during the 1830s in south Mississippi, what would that acreage have looked like in comparison with this large acreage of totally mechanized, fertilized and irrigated crop? What drove my great, great grandfather, Duncan McKenzie, to attempt coaxing out of the soil a labor-intensive cotton crop using coerced human beings with little stake in their work beyond mere survival? Why did he not consider his much more consistently successful acreage in corn enough to provide his modest living? What was it about this system of producing cotton that made him feel it would work for him?  Moreover, how did a human desire for the benign products of one plant come to drive the greed and moral choices of human beings in an economic system that existed by oppressing those at the essential base of that industry? At the same time, the growth and production of this plant would drive the economy of the United States to become the strongest and most powerful on the face of the earth.

By January 1833 when Duncan McKenzie arrived with his family in Covington County, MS, the state was already consumed with growing cotton using an enslaved labor force. In 1800 no cotton was grown in Mississippi, but according to author Eugene R. Dattel, by 1833 it produced seventy million pounds! Whites that had come to the state numbered 70,443 along with 65,659 enslaved people. In June of 1831, John Patrick Stewart writes to Duncan McLaurin about the people living in his new Mississippi home, “Raising cotton absorbs all their politics & meditations – The first salute to a neighbor is how does your cotton look.” Advances in the technology of spinning and the addition of steam power during the latter 18th century had led to the growth of the Lancashire, England textile mills in Manchester and Liverpool. In addition, the widespread use of the cotton gin in the US South had tremendously increased the production of cotton making it easier to separate seeds from the fiber and allowing farmers to grow a superior type of cotton. By 1790, when Hugh McLaurin brought his family from Argyll, Scotland to North Carolina, England’s textile mills were producing cotton manufactured items faster than their supply of cotton could keep up. Eventually, most of their cotton would come from the American South. By 1790 the first cotton textile mill was operating in the United States. Roads were improving and transportation technology had vastly grown with the development of the steam engine, which aided the movement of cotton from field to mill. In fact, Sven Beckert in Empire of Cotton says that “…by 1830 fully 1 million people (or one in 13 Americans) grew cotton in the U.S. – most of them slaves.”

In 1803 the United States had acquired the Mississippi Territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and by 1817 Mississippi had been awarded its statehood. Though the territory had been at first sparsely settled, it was the opening of native American lands that drew migrants from the east and north. The Treaty of Doak’s Stand ceded the Choctaw land in 1820 and in 1830 the Choctaw removal was begun by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The Treaty of Pontotoc in 1832 ceded Chickasaw land. With these the rush for Mississippi land was in full swing. Speculators in the form of land companies began purchasing this land to make money off of selling it. Individual farmers often speculated in land too by clearing it and adding a house and buildings then selling out at a higher price. According to Dattel, “From 1833 to 1836, total federal land sales in Mississippi amounted to 8,331,581 acres.” The impetus for coming to Mississippi and other states in the cotton belt was that the climate and soil was particularly suitable for growing cotton — a labor intensive crop best suited in the 19th century for gang labor — and in great demand.

John Patrick Stewart, a friend of Duncan McLaurin’s and former resident of Richmond County, writes from Covington County, MS in November of 1831 about the Choctaw removal from the state.

“The Choctaw Indians are at this removing to the territory that was

ceded to them West of the Mississippi River — one third are already

gone and those remaining in two succeeding years — It is said

more than 500 have refused to go they can remain provided they

subject themselves to the laws of the state — The laws will be

rigidly enforced against them whether they are willing or not

Each head of a family remaining will have a reserve of a half

section of land as long as he chooses to remain but cannot

dispose of it if he would be willing to leave — could they do this

a major part of them would remain merely to acquire this land

and sell it in a short time and afford a fruitful source of


So as native Americans were forced marched from their ancestral homes, African Americans were force marched from the old South to the southern cotton belt. Although Duncan McKenzie’s Covington County land he rented in 1833 was suitable for growing some cotton, his crop was more diversified than on larger farms, where more acreage was available for growing cotton. Still, because of the demand and rising prices, a modest crop of cotton likely was his money-maker. By 1840 the rented property is listed in his name and he paid taxes on it. In the spring, March or April, came planting time. Duncan describes the 1837 planting season in a March letter to his brother-in-law. His description is evidence of the farmer’s dependence on the whims of mother nature.

“we have planted a little corn, but from

much rain we are likely to be late with the main

part of our crop, as we are not done cleaning up our fields

yet, we are plowing the cotton land. Should the weather

permit we will plant a good parcel of corn next week”

Farmers, who owned their own land had to finance a crop with the expectation that the weather would cooperate and the crop would be successful, so a crop was begun on credit using the land and slaves as collateral. Though Duncan would have been considered a small farmer, who owned about eight enslaved people by 1840, the same credit principle applied. In this same March 1837 letter Duncan makes reference to his last crop of cotton, “my cotton is not Sold as yet at least I have not recd the returns, the price varys from 14-17 cts — corn is worth $1:50 cts per Bush peas $2-3 for Seed, oats sold for 1$ – per Bushel &c.” According to R. Douglas Hurt in American Agriculture: A Brief History, in 1800 one could sell cotton at about twelve cents a pound, though in the following decades the price would fluctuate as high as forty cents a pound. Prices generally rose and fell along with the vicissitudes of an international market. Duncan McKenzie confirms this in his letters. An average crop would be about two to three hundred pounds per acre, so a farmer could stand to make a modest profit even if an acreage as small as fifteen or thirty was under cotton. Of course, the farmer’s profits were never guaranteed since the uncertain weather and changes in the international markets had to be considered.

In addition, as Hurt contends, the labor of enslaved people on a small farm was costlier to the farmer than on a large plantation, but if a farmer grew cotton, he was dependent upon having the necessary manpower to clean and plow the fields, plant the crop, chop the weeds, and gather the cotton. Since cotton bolls did not ripen all at once, hands would pick a field three or four times a harvest. Even though innovations were constantly improving farm tools, southern farm workers generally used a wooden shovel plow, a hoe and a dibble stick. After the cotton was harvested, access to a gin was essential. Farmers who could afford to do so built their own gins. A small farmer such as Duncan McKenzie with a small number of enslaved laborers had to put himself and his sons into the fields working along side his laborers. Eventually, they would build their own gin, but having one nearby was crucial.

Mechanically gathered and baled cotton in Sikeston, Missouri awaits its transport.

Generally, a farmer would sell his cotton crop to a factor or commission merchant. The factor would then sell the crop to the textile mill through a broker from the mill. This often entailed waiting and hoping for the best return on the crop. The farmer’s profit was, for the most part, in someone else’s hands, and he rarely saw cash right away. In an April 1837 letter Duncan McKenzie explains how his crop has been sold:

“the price of cotton is down again I heard that my cotton

was Sold but not in time it brought $13.50 cts deduct

$2 from that for freight insurance Storage and Commi

=tion for Selling, and you will find it to yield to me

$11:50 its a pitiful reward for So much hard labor

but that suit is the best of any unless it cost too

much — I could have disposed of my crop at home

as usual, but thinking that there was Something

to be made by trying the head of the market

refused $14 at home, I would have taken 4 cts in the

Seed at the cotton house, that has been my plan of

Selling ever since I came to the country, the first

and Second crops we made were Sold at 3 cts the 3rd crop

at 4 cts the purchasers hawling the cotton from the

place to the gins or paying me for the Same —

you see from the above that I have missed the figure

this time”

In a June letter of the same year, Duncan McKenzie mentions the name of his factor in New Orleans, Lambeth and Thompson. According to Saul Friedman in Jews and the American Slave Trade, this was one of the factorage merchants that, “underwrote the slave markets on Chartres St. and who truly dominated the sugar, rice and cotton trades in the 19th century.” Though Friedman concedes the Jewish factorage merchant, his book refutes the claim that Jews “dominated” the slave trade. Duncan further explains his dealings with this commission merchant:

“I for the first time sent my crop of cotton, Say 3,000 lb, to New

Orleans, it was Shipd in Dec and consigned to Messrs Lambeth

& Thompson, Merchants at that time in very good Standing

the article was worth from 16 to 17 cts at the time it arivd there

it remained unsold till the 22nd of March when it was Sold

at $13=75 cts but the misfortune is my commission Merchants

have failed consequently this far I have recd nothing but the

promise of men who are insolvent, but so fair is their Stand

-ing that I feel encoreged that at some future time they will

be able to make full returns and if not I must do as many

others who are Similarly placed”

Still, since Duncan is a cautious man about his debts, he will not necessarily suffer much. Due to diversification, he is able to pay off his debts even if his cotton does not result in the expected returns, “your Most obdt is not bound for another in one cent tho the refusal has often caused some growling … was I not fortunate to be able to pay $350 of my debts by corn & pork”.

Duncan continues to explain the difficulties of this season’s planting, which include his own and his oldest son’s absence from the fields:

“Owing to Kenneth bad health and my

own inability to perform hard labor, we are late

with our work, the cold wet and backwardness

of the Spring would not justify forward plan

-ting, the first piece of corn we planted is so much

missing that I expect to put the plow in it in a day

or two — there was very Severe frosts on the 7th & 8th


In June of 1837 he writes of more frost and a worsening drought:

“Frost in May, on the mornings of the 15th, 16th and 17th …

I did not see the frost but Saw the

effects of it on potato leaves & persimmon bushes, in

Some places it is Said the cotton was killed also wheat …

I have not seen the earth so perfectly dry in many years

water courses failing, a constant fountain near

the fence is visited by numerous herds of cattle Suffi

-cient to manure an acre per week if pens were made …

Monday evening the 19th the weather is still

clear and hot and no appearance of rain this is the

67th day since we have had any rain to wet the

earth to the roots of the corn”

In October of 1837, Duncan describes the harvest, which had turned off much better than the vicissitudes of the weather could have foretold:

“we have gathered all our corn it being in the cribs and think it is 250

or 300 Bushels short of the quantity gathered last year, All be it

perhaps it will do but as there is not pease potatoes or mast to Start

hogs it may be Scarce corn does not gather as well as it lookd

yet there will be a plenty made as a great quantity more than

usual was planted, we have not gathered much cotton as yet Say

about 8.000 lb we have a good parcel of it to pick out as there is

the rise of 30 acres under it … we begin to think now there will be as much as we can gather”

Another season began in the spring of 1838 amidst Mississippi’s financial difficulties with the banks – credit was everything in a farming culture, and Mississippi along with the nation was reeling from the Panic of 1837. In February of 1838 Duncan writes, “the price of cotton keeps down, it is from $9= to 12 in New Orleans. All other articles as with you are verry Dear…” In March he continues describing his crops and the weather:

“we have just finishd

Sowing oats, we have not plowd any for corn or cotton

as yet but expect to commence so soon as the Season

will permit — Since the 15th of Janry the weather

has been unusually cold till about the  middle of last

week, Since it has Been quite pleasant till today —

cattle & hogs are leaner now than I have Seen them …

we Sowed a little wheat

and some oats in the fall. I believe the oats are all done

and the wheat looks verry yellow”

In November of 1838 after the harvest Duncan  explains that their corn crop was somewhat better than last year’s, but their peas and potatoes did not fair very well due to the dryness of the season. He also predicts that cotton in general will be “short of the usual quantity for number of acres under it. We have rather more under it this year than we had last and I know there will be Several thousands lacking of the quantity made last year.” Duncan’s son Hugh is trying his hand at “waggoning” for others – hauling cotton to market by wagon. On this trip Duncan claims that the farmers whose cotton Hugh hauled, “Sold at 13 cts they gave $2 per sack for salt 11 1/2 cts for sugar, 15 cts for Coffee.” Most manufactured merchandise that met the needs of farmer families in Mississippi was shipped from factories in the North or other parts of the world since Mississippi produced little to no manufactured goods even up until the Civil War. In this same 1838 letter, Duncan says the following:

He prefers, “selling

in the seed & taking freight of a load to go down

and get our supplies of groceries and all heavy articles in

fact if Hugh does not find this trip too fatigueing I will

let him go once a year at least and lay in most or all our


During the growing season of 1839, Duncan describes the season as “verry dry” and notes the suffering crops with a caveat regarding cotton, “the cotton appears to Stand it amazingly blooms are frequent but the corn is falling the forwarder to find it is trying to shoot and tausle.” By August, however, they are able to be “hard at saving fodder, until this week the weather has been too wet.” He also remarks that corn has produced, “much lighter by far this year than usual and the late rains have injured cotton, a poor prospect Say you for a country overwhelmed in debt.” In the same letter he adds, “Cotton has taken a considerable fall in New Orleans Say from 17 to 12 cents and I fear the new crop will settle down to 7 or 8 if so farewell to some of the cotton planters They must run to Texas.” As a result of the financial crisis, many planters had over-extended themselves in land and slaves. According to John Edmond Gonzolas in “Flush Times, Depression, War, and Compromise,” included in A History of Mississippi Volume 1, many gave up their farms rather than face paying their debts and removed their families west to Texas, with the male slaves trotting along behind wagons that carried the women and children enslaved people. Some planters actually left during the dead of night, camouflaging their flight, in hopes of escaping creditors.

In an 1837 letter Duncan McKenzie sums up his own satisfaction with his move to Mississippi and the life he has committed his family to living there.

“where a man is Satisfied

that is the place for him, there are as many dissatisfied men

here as there are there or in any other country tho they can make

with industry more than they can gather, Say you what more

could a man wish (ans) more than he can Spend —

I can make produce, and have made money here, but my expense

would frighten a pine woodser of Richd County, but this is not

what dissattisfies me but that I cant — educate my children”


Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 2015. 109, 115, 114, 117.

Dattel, Gene. Cotton and Race in The Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power. Ivan R. Dee: Chicago. 2009. 15, 31, 45.

Dattel, Gene. “Cotton in a Global Economy: Mississippi (1800-1860).” Mississippi History Now and online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/161/cotton-in-a-global-economy-mississippi-1800-1860. Accessed 19 January 2018.

Friedman, Saul. Jews and the American Slave Trade. Taylor and Francis: London. 2017.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Iowa State University Press: Ames. 1994. 90, 120, 124, 139.

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 April 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 31 October 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 25 February 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1839. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. Boxes 7 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

McLemore, Richard Aubrey, editor. A History of Mississippi, Vol. 1. Gonzolas, John Edmond. “Flush Times, Depression, War, and Compromise.” University & College Press of Mississippi. 1973. 293.

Decade of the 1830s: The Slavery Issue

By mid-decade the slave states had begun to live under a growing pall of fear due to several slave insurrections. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and freed slave in South Carolina, is said to have plotted a slave insurrection along with others. The insurrection was uncovered before it could take place, when a slave told of the plan. Vesey and the others were convicted of the crime and executed. At around the same time, the controversy over slaves in the territories, resulting in the Missouri Compromise, was fresh in the minds of slaveholders, and the threat of insurrection served to make them more uneasy and fearful, especially if one lived in a state where enslaved people outnumbered free whites, as they did in Mississippi. In August of 1831 the Nat Turner Rebellion again sent ripples of fear throughout slaveholding states. Though the rebellious people were executed, suspicion of further plots caused militia’s in some slaveholding communities to begin policing. Slaveholding states also began passing laws restricting the movement, assembly, and education of enslaved people.

1-8 The Confessions of Nat Turner...title pg (odyssey)
The publication of Nat Turner’s confession to Thomas R. Gray on November 5, 1831 influenced popular perceptions. Abolitionists perceived Nat Turner’s account as heroic, and slaveholders perceived it as likely to incite further insurrection. A copy to be found at docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/turner.html

According to Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller, by 1833 the abolitionist movement had organized, marked by the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. William Loyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Theodore Weld were prominent supporters of this organization. The group was largely made up of pacifists, such as Quakers, and many women found an avenue for political influence through social causes such as the abolitionists movement.  The organization’s headquarters was in New York City, Nassau Street, from which anti-slavery pamphlets were sent through the mail to all parts of the country. Slaveholding southerners read abolitionist material as no other group in the U.S. did with the exception of the abolitionists themselves. This fueled their anger, and the term “Nassau Street” evoked threatening connotations. The abolitionist movement was a relatively small and decidedly religious group at first, and they incurred much displeasure and even violent reaction in the North as well as the South. The American Anti-Slavery Society held the philosophy that slavery should end immediately, and were bitterly opposed to another philosophy held by many who did not approve of slavery that enslaved people and free blacks should be relocated out of the country.

However, Mississippi was experiencing such profits from the growth of cotton that the fear of slave insurrection does not come across in the letters of the 1830s. Increasing references to slaves and slavery begin to appear in Duncan McKenzie’s letters by 1837. During the 1830s, the buying and selling of slaves in Mississippi was very profitable. By 1837 speculation in land and cotton in Mississippi was rampant and would soon lead to financial crisis in the state. For example, in April of 1837 Duncan McKenzie writes to Duncan McLaurin of three mutual acquaintances buying slaves on credit. He marvels at the risk they are taking and wonders how long it will take for them to pay off their debt.

“…Archd Anderson, Archd Wilkinson

and Lachlin McLaurin, Black bot each of them a Negro

man for which they are to give $1:650 each, query

how long will it take the boys to pay their prices at

the present rates of hiring which is $175 for Such

boys, allowing 10 percent per annum at compound

interest till paid”

Being much more cautious, McKenzie did not go out of his way to purchase labor he could not afford, though by 1840, according to tax records, he owned eight enslaved people. He further illuminates the speculation in slaves in a June 1837 letter to his brother-in-law.

“You said the National Intelligencer informed you that Negros

were selling in the west at 1/4 less than given last Spring or

fall, yes the Inteligencer may tell you that in many instances they

are sold at 1/4 the sum given or promised and the poor debtor left

3/4 of the sum to be raised from his other property if such be

is it to be feared that the evil will become common

What will become of Black Lachlin the carpenter who bot

a negro man for which he promised $1650 to be paid next Jan.

Many others are similarly situated”

By October of 1837 Duncan has purchased a person from LMcL, perhaps the same Black Lachlin he mentioned taking risks in speculating. Evidently LMcL purchased a “Negro woman & 2 children” for $600. He then sells this person to Duncan McKenzie for $950. Duncan calls it “not a small shave.”

Speculating in the buying and selling of human beings seems cruel enough, but human property was passed from generation to generation in wills. Duncan McKenzie mentions in March of 1837 the dispersal of property by the father of  another mutual acquaintance of his and Duncan McLaurin’s.

“… his father’s Estate was divided. Aunt drew the

old Negro woman & $156 also a bond in $1.000 for her

maintenance in case the property should die the

Negroes increased So that there was one for each heir

and two to divide among the whole, those were valued

and kept in the family”

This magazine for children, published on Nassau Street between 1836 and 1838 by the Anti-Slavery Society, was particularly galling to slaveholders and those who supported the institution.

We are generally stunned at reading the detached tone with which Duncan McKenzie writes of the buying and selling of human beings. He may as well have been talking about horses or cattle. Fathoming such inhumanity to man requires a look at the environment and philosophy slaveholders embraced in the nineteenth century. Especially for the recent Scottish immigrants, it was a decidedly European view based in colonialism. Many justified colonial pursuits by rooting them in the cause of spreading Christianity to pagan people. Where foreign cultures appeared more primitive and less technologically advanced, it was easy to justify “lording it over them,” especially if doing so was going to increase one’s own wealth and position. This is nothing new in our world past or present. It is called racism and has no moral justification. By the Nineteenth Century, as industrialization took hold worldwide, a more enlightened view of slavery and the slave trade began to emerge. England led the world in ending its trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa and abolishing slavery – albeit slavery was most prevalent in her colonies, so it was perhaps more easily accomplished. However, at the same time the emerging textile industry required more and more cotton to meet its market. This demanding crop had been once grown in manageable amounts on small farms before the age of colonialism, but the amounts needed for increased production in textile mills required an enormous labor force. It was simply easier and perhaps more profitable to continue slavery than it was to convert to a system of paid labor, especially in the United States, where newly opened and fertile land suitable for growing labor intensive crops was increasing the demand for labor.

If enslaving another human being is immoral, and you are doing it, you have to find a philosophy to justify your behavior. An easy and common justification was that some human beings, by pseudo-scientific observation, were incapable of functioning on their own in more technologically advanced and “civilized” societies. Therefore, it was more humane and Christian to keep them productively employed than it was to set them free to be overwhelmed in the act of thinking and behaving on their own recognizance. At the same time, the fear of retribution from their own labor force was growing among slaveowners.The bottom line, however, is that a slaveholder might not as easily build a fortune so fast or so sure if a paid labor source were required. Surely, not every person who was forced to work in the fields would, if given the choice, choose to do so.

In addition, the newly-born republic of the United States of America, in the attempt to compromise with slaveholding, which went against the very basic idea of a republic, had installed the mechanism of the 3/5 rule to keep the slaveholding class politically powerful.

In November of 1836 the fear has not yet crept into his correspondence, but Duncan McKenzie finds himself refuting a claim by neighbors, some of whom were relatives and acquaintances of Duncan McLaurin, that his wife, Barbara, is in danger of exhaustion. Barbara is busy with her family of six boys, two of them young enough to be underfoot – too young to do much work in the fields. In addition, she was responsible for keeping watch over the enslaved children on the farm, who were too young to work. It is probable that her workload had increased as had everyone else’s in the move to Mississippi. However, she probably had some household help when someone could be spared from the crops. She is likely responsible for maintaining a garden, providing meals and clothing for everyone working on the place, and watching the small children. A thousand daily tasks had become routine to her and were expected by the rest of the family. Duncan McKenzie replies to his brother-in-law’s concerns, “It is true Barbra has a considerable charge on account of the children but Allan being the oldest takes considerable pains in conducting his little brother John and Jones and Niles (enslaved children) all are very attentive to Jbae Elly sones name he is as handsome a black child as I ever saw.” It would seem that on a small farm with so many daily interactions that the humanity of people would shine through, and eventually, the system would seem to break down. However, this does not seem to have happened.

Some servants were valued more than others in slaveholding families, though the elephant in the room within these relationships was that one party was there by coercion and not by his or her choice. In 1838 when Barbara delivers her daughter Mary Catharine, Elly is there to help Duncan deliver the child. Elly is the most often mentioned of the enslaved people working on the Duncan McKenzie farm, “ … till the morning of the 9th August at one a clock she (Barbara) was delivered of a daughter no one being in attendance but myself and Negro woman Elly, yet all was well and I dressed the little Stranger before anyone had time to come to our assistance.” In 1839 Barbara has been ill, but when illness struck, it potentially struck everyone working on the farm. At the same time Barbara is struck with the diahrea, (in the 19th century often deadly) two other people on the farm: Barbara’s youngest son, John, and Elly’s youngest child. During the same year, Duncan sends his condolences to his brother-in-law for the “loss of the boy Moses,” an evidently valued servant. In another instance, Duncan McKenzie says, “Duncan McBryde is in a peck of trouble as it appears old Dorcas will be Sold to the best bidder and Duncan not able to buy her.” The circumstances of her sale are not clear, but she was clearly valued.

By 1839 Duncan emphasizes the economic prowess of cotton and slaves in Mississippi. “… I find that from the sinner to the Saint that the cotton plant engrosses the chief of the conversation, a few years passd the purchase of Negroes was the hobby but now it is paying for them and that must be done by cotton or by the sale of the Negroes and other stuff of the purchasers.”

I will conclude with a chilling story told by Duncan McKenzie in an 1839 letter to his brother-in-law, “… on last Tuesday week two little girls one 14 years old and the other younger were going to a quilting and were assaulted by a Negro man on the road.” The man caught the horse and removed the girl from it. She began screaming, a neighbor, who happened to own the Negro heard the commotion. He claimed to have seen the Negro attempting to rape the young girl. When he called out, the Negro ran. As a result fourteen white men hunted him down and hanged him. This is an example of what, in my opinion, is absolutely the greatest tragedy of slavery in the United States and the worst affront to a republican system of government, that enslaved people had no recourse to justice at all – no assurance that they were assumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of their peers. They had absolutely no voice in their condition. Laws did exist in most slave states to protect slaves, but generally from the point of view that they were property and not to be abused. In a case like this, it is probable that the slaveowner was within his rights to permit the lynching of his property. This instance manifests the repressive fear of uprising by enslaved people that was growing in Mississippi and across the slaveholding South.


Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1996. 97.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. April 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. June 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. October 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Duncan McKenzie Letters of the 1830s: The Mail

This letter was addressed in July of 1831 and sent from the Jaynesville, MS post office to the address in North Carolina with the appropriate 25 cent postage whether prepaid or paid upon destination. The paper has been folded and sealed to create an envelope-like space for the address.

The following is the first of a group of posts highlighting the content of Duncan McKenzie’s correspondence from Covington County, Mississippi with his brother-in-law, Duncan McLaurin, in North Carolina during the decade of the 1830’s. Each post will examine a different topic addressed within the letters.

During the decade of the 1830s it cost twenty-five cents to mail a letter of one sheet a distance of more than four hundred miles – a high price for most farming families, especially those living great distances from relatives left behind in the east. For example, a U. S. laborer in the early 1830s might have made an average of seventy-five cents to one dollar a day. According to The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America by David M. Henkin, in the 1830s the bulk of the mail included subscription newspapers, which enjoyed lower rates of delivery. One has only to peruse the long lists of names posted by the Post Office that appeared in the newspapers of this decade to appreciate the difficulties of retrieving one’s mail. If it arrived at the post office in a timely manner, it was likely to take weeks for the busy rural farmer to have time to negotiate the distance to the post office. In addition, this farmer would likely have to pay the postage in order to put hands on his letter. In 1830 the requirement of prepaid postage, reduction in postage, and the use of government issued stamps was still more than a decade coming.

The mail, despite the increased upkeep of the roads, traveled slowly at best by today’s standards, a month or more in passage was not uncommon. Most mail traveled by horseback or stage on roads, the passage upon which was uncertain due to weather conditions. Also, mail was sent via boats on the rivers, also subject to the danger of snags and varying river stages. Many people avoided using the postal system and still sent letters and packages by way of traveling friends and acquaintances, when available.

Every part of Duncan McKenzie’s letter is filled with writing, even the margins. So little space is left on this page that Duncan McLaurin was forced to write his date of receipt notations on the address portion of the page. The postage is marked free on this letter because Duncan McLaurin was serving as postmaster at Laurel Hill and had evidently invoked franking privileges.

In perusing the Duncan McLaurin Papers, it is clear that one sheet created four writing surfaces, and often writing was continued up through the margins of the paper. After all, with mail delivery as expensive as 25 cents a sheet, one could not afford to waste any space. The paper was folded to form an envelope of sorts, which was sealed with wax and upon which the address was written directing the letter to a particular post office. If the letter had been sent by mail the number 25, for 25 cents postage, would appear in the corner, where today a stamp would appear. Mapping postal routes did not begin until around 1837, so especially rural letters, would not bear a street address. Mail was not delivered directly to the home, but had to be retrieved from the nearest post office, which might be someone’s home or a local business. Some of Duncan McKenzie’s letters to his brother-in-laws, Duncan and John McLaurin, bear the 25 cents postage, others do not. Those letters that do not bear the 25, have likely been carried by friends or family members traveling from Covington County, MS to Laurel Hill, NC and directly put into the hands of the person. Sometimes the name of the person charged with delivery is written on the front of the letter.

In 1837 Duncan McKenzie receives a gun he has asked John McLaurin to purchase for him from a reputable gunsmith in Richmond County, such as Mr. Buchanan. The gun is for his older boys, who love hunting and tracking animals in the pine woods of Mississippi. However, it takes nearly a year for the gun to be sent by way of a traveling friend, relative – or someone trustworthy. It took another length of time for Duncan McKenzie to retrieve the gun in Mississippi, because it was delivered to the home of an acquaintance miles away.

In his March 21, 1837 letter, Duncan McKenzie reports to Duncan McLaurin, “I also heard that the gun came — I forward this to you per Mr. John Gilchrist who is on his way to No-ca … he promises to call at your village.” Evidently, this particular letter will not need the 25 cent postage. In this same letter, McKenzie wishes to let his father-in-law know where to direct a letter to a relative in Mississippi, “…to Aunt Catharine Dale Ville po – Ladderdale (Lauderdale) Co. Mi.” In his next letter, a month later, Duncan McKenzie has still not retrieved the gun, “we have not brought the gun down from Mr. McCollum yet tho only 7 miles.” Seven miles does not seem so far, but to a busy farmer and over uncertain roads, life was just not that convenient.

In the letter of April 1837 McKenzie remarks that his letter will be mailed at Mount Carmel since he will be going to vote in an election for a member of the state legislature. It was probably common practice among those who attempted to write regularly to have their mailings coincide with trips to a nearby post office. Indeed the post mark reads Mt. Carmel with the number 25 in the stamp’s corner.

In the western states such as MS, news from families in the east was of such importance that  letters were commonly shared and sometimes purposely passed around the community. McKenzie mentions to his brother-in-law that he had read a letter in which he discovered that a valued mutual friend in Carrolton, MS was in bad health with chills and fever. In 1839 Duncan McKenzie writes that, “Having written so lately to John I do not know what to add more without repetition.” Obviously, Duncan and John McLaurin shared news of their sister’s family with every letter.

The circle at the top of the address portion of this letter is evidence of the wax seal placed on the page after it is folded.

In spite of the precarious nature of the mail delivery during the first half of the 19th century, it was probably more successful than it was not. An example of the concerns that correspondents from west to east harbored each time they used the post are evident in the following comment by Duncan McKenzie of Mississippi to his brother-in-law in North Carolina. In an earlier letter he had mentioned that McLaurin’s sister, Barbara, had not been feeling well. Further information on the matter seems to have been lost in the mail, causing some anxiety. It turned out that Barbara’s complaint was a pregnancy and by the time the issue was sorted out, the baby was very near birth. The following is from McKenzie’s November 1838 letter:

“…my letter of the latter part of Augt.

had not reached,, you before the date of 7th Octr

If it miscarried I beleave it was the first lost

between us in near Six years regular correspondence

The receipt of that letter in due time, I know

would have been to you a Source of some joy, at least

it would dispel the uneasiness that the marginal notice in my letter of the early part of June gave

of Barbras situation — But if need be the treach

-erous or negligent hands who were the cause of the

delay or final miscarryriage of a letter which was

to me a Source of inexpressible pleasure to have

Through the mercy of our kind heavenly Benefac

-tor to communicate to you its contents, who I know

would have received its contents with joy and Thanks

-giving to the dispenser of all mercies to his creation,

I hope my letter to John of October has not been inter

-cepted, for fear that it did not reach you I will give Some

of the contents of both in this and mail it at Williams

Burgh our county Sight”

In this letter McKenzie also mentions the birth of his daughter Mary Catharine and the territorial conflict between local postmasters that he thinks may have been a contributing factor in the miscarried mail. He tells Duncan to continue use the Jaynesville post office as usual if the letters, in reality, have not been lost. If they have, he should send his mail to nearby Mt. Carmel.


Garavaglia, Louis A. To the Wide Missouri: Traveling in America During the First Decades of Westward Expansion. Westholme: Yardley, PA. 2011. 59

Henkin, David M. The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL. 2007

http://libraryguides.missouri.edu/pricesandwages/1830-1839 . accessed 3 January 2018.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

The Tailor Duncan Calhoun’s Story

A passenger list for the steamship Col. Stanton in The Daily Delta of New Orleans 4 April 1849 shows the name Duncan Calhoun.

On a winter evening in 1833, probably having just taken orders for a pair of woolen pants from a successful planter, the tailor in the small rural Alabama town turned to attend a customer. It was late in the day and the tailor was preparing to close shop when the customer, a “dandy,” demanded his pants. The bill at the ready, the tailor waited for payment before producing the pants. No payment forthcoming, the tailor continued to wait. The customer demanded the pants in exchange for a promissory note in payment. The stubborn tailor refused the note and refused to give up the pants. The dandy, likely having spent all of his cash at the local tavern and irritated with the tailor’s obstinance as well as his annoyingly large head, lurched out of the tailor’s shop and found a side window. As the customer angrily watched the tailor through the window, his irritation grew. In his inebriated state, the dandy slowly attempted to draw a bead on the tailor’s big head with his single shot flintlock pistol. He fired, missed, reloaded, and fired again giving the tailor time to run for it. Escaping his store of the last decade or so, the tailor did not stop until he had reached Mobile, at least a hundred miles away.

This is the first encounter with the character of tailor Duncan Calhoun in the Duncan McLaurin Papers. Duncan Calhoun probably apprenticed to a tailor in or near Richmond County, North Carolina – likely he was born there between 1795 and 1800 to Charles Calhoun and his wife Christian Carmichael both having arrived probably in the 1780s from Argyll, Scotland via Wilmington and the Cape Fear River. Duncan Calhoun’s father and Duncan McLaurin’s mother, Catharine Calhoun McLaurin, were siblings. Though not particularly articulate, Duncan Calhoun’s letters contain a passion for life lived with a positive outlook and at times a sense of humor in the face of disappointment.

Duncan claims to have spent about a decade working as a tailor and likely had a shop in or near Sparta, probably in Alabama (Old Sparta Road runs northeast of Mobile). A year after fleeing his shop, D. Calhoun writes his cousin Duncan McLaurin in response to McLaurin’s letter regarding his father’s illness. Charles Calhoun dies in 1835 the same year Duncan writes to his cousin describing life in Mobile. He has been there for eighteen months, tailoring, and is fascinated by the place – interested in its rapid growth.

“I am doing well in it not a making a fortune but
enjoying life good societies good regulations in the town
it is rapidly improving it contains a nice business import
& export to the larger shipping 20 miles below Mobile
ceder point is a rail road to be errected will add
or injure Mobile if there be a town there in time all
the business will be there There is where Mobile ought to be
James Smith has been here with us at Shepherds and Fisks
… you may rest assured that my eyes is open for something
I know not what pleasure if I continue the tailoring
I wish I could connect with some good body into some
speculating business …”

An example of Duncan Calhoun’s capacity to make his way through life on the sunny side is suggested in a story he delivers to his cousin Duncan McLaurin. In 1844 Duncan Calhoun writes introspectively from Louisiana owning responsibility for his not being able to hold on to wealth. A con-man has tricked him into giving up a fine horse. He adds a description and a name in case Duncan spots the trickster and horse wandering through the Carolinas:

“I will never
have wealth for it appears I have no business with it there
are some person always by fair or foul means to get it
away from me this fall a very fine sale horse I had a
scoundrel tricked me out of him gone to texis I expect
or to Tennessee & Kentucky Daniel Turpin is his name
a large grey horse if he should wander there the
Carolinas to your knowledge write me he said he
had a legacy of 800 dollars coming to him if he went
there if he had any part of honesty about him. he
in returning would pay me for the use of and return
him to me he got him to go and see his wife he never
went there at all.”

Within the six letters that Duncan Calhoun authors in this collection, he never really commits wholeheartedly to tailoring. It is the job that generally appears to provide him with income, and it seems to be in demand. Still, he dreams of settling down to marry, though he will not engage in farming full time unless he does have a wife and family.

Evidently, Mobile could not hold Calhoun, for in February of 1840, Duncan McKenzie writes from Covington County, MS that Daniel Carmichael and Duncan Calhoun passed through on route to Texas, though they did not stop: “Daniel Carmmichael governor D-Sone of Ala, and Duncan Calhoun, Taylor, pasd the road within 5 or 6 miles of us they were on the rout for Texas.”

However, they did not get as far as Texas but settled in Sabine Parish, Louisiana. Duncan Calhoun’s next surviving letter to his cousin is in 1844 from Sabine Parish. He is tending a little store and doing a bit of tailoring while living near Daniel Carmichael, his family of daughters. and one son. By 1845 Duncan lives with a man named John H. Jenkins, who has a “fine family” and evidently a cattle farm. In May of 1847, Duncan accompanies him on a cattle drive to Texas, where Jenkins hopes one day to migrate. Duncan appears to have been quite taken with one of Jenkins’s daughters named Susan. Duncan has also been trying his hand at farming, “Cousin I worked at the tailoring all through alabama 20 years since I came to Louisiana I have been a working in the ground.” Evidently farming, perhaps in co-partnership, with his friend John Jenkins. Calhoun later admits to filling in his income with some tailoring.

Description Sabine Parish, Louisiana

Other examples of Duncan Calhoun’s positive outlook can be found in the descriptions of the variety of places he inhabits and his clear preference for the bustling ports and the potential of waterways. After his description of Mobile in 1835, he writes in 1844 of the part of Louisiana “between the two rivers” in which he has been living:

“… short leaf pine and abundantce
of oaks heavy timbered makes it good for mast the
cane is braking fast tho,, the French & Spaniard
hand fine stocks of cattle yet they are in settlements the
old states people are moving in rapidly making fine
large plantations our navigation was far tho,, this time
a boat was persuaded to come up byo pear river it
is fifty miles in lengt comes out of red river below shriev
port empties in at Natchitoches it running next to us
made it far to market this landing place is about 10
miles from 5 or 10 gins and a thick neighborhood and
one at the landing new Belgium Duncan I do assure you
it is a nice place for a town a parcel of Duck occupys
the place at present owns it also if there were a liberal
harted persons there to encourage the improvement of
it the largest boat that runs red river has been up to
to it to Shreavs port it eats of a 150 miles round
red river tho,, all them elbows are convenient to
its sections of country also this cut off will be
convenient to this section of country & part of Texis also.”

In later letters, Duncan Calhoun alludes to the immigrant populations coming into this part of Louisiana mostly looking to grow cotton and own slaves. On the other hand, he points out that in pursuit of cotton many miss opportunities to grow other valuable crops such as fruits, particularly peaches. Although peaches are widely grown in Louisiana today, crops such as sugar cane and cotton that were labor intensive in the early 19th century remain dominant.

In 1845 Duncan Calhoun directs his cousin to write to nearby Natchitosis as they do not have a post office yet. They are hoping for a town to grow there “in 10 miles of red river and Byow pear river.” He says the rivers are being cleared of snags for steamboat traffic that will make merchandising more convenient. Their proximity to New Orleans is a plus as well. He opines that it is good land for hogs and cattle –  true today.

By 1846 he is able to describe the people and religion in the area in more detail. With the influx of migrants from the older states to Louisiana bringing families, the morality is improving. In his early letter to Duncan, he mentions the French and Spanish settlements that are quite old and the predominance of Catholicism. As more migrants arrive they bring religious diversity. A “heap of good preaching” may be found by the Methodists and Baptists. Though Duncan often professes his faith in a God that carries him forward, he never speaks of committing to a particular denomination.

The organizing and building of schools has grown with many children to attend them. Comparing his own Carolina education via Duncan McLaurin, Calhoun concludes that the schools are inefficient. In a letter about a year later, he compliments his cousin Duncan McLaurin when he claims that Louisiana needs a teacher like him, for they have trouble keeping them:

“we in this neigh
-borhood have a plenty of children for good schools but the people are hard to
please it is hard to teach here they will subscribed and never send them The law
to get your pay has to be resorted to with objections to teachers criticized on
to all intense and purpose I wish you were here a while to teach them to show what
good teaching was many old men and good teachers has been here but despera
-tion or something would render them unhappy so they would quit and leave
before it was finished many young men the same way git tired and quit so they
dont have schools so regular…”

The last direction sent to Duncan McLaurin from his cousin Duncan Calhoun is to send letters to Pleasant Hill post office in Desoto Parrish, two or three miles from them.

Marriage or Wanderlust

Marriage is a topic that Duncan Calhoun brings up in all of his surviving letters. In 1835 he comments to his bachelor cousin Duncan McLaurin about finding a wife, “…the young ladies of Mobile are not numerous like Carolina Cousin I think you could suit yourself amongst them I should think that a lady of virtue & value would be happy in your protection and direction which would be an ornament more precious than rubies in your arms.” Years later, when he is considering a relationship with Susan Jenkins, he approaches the subject of marriage again in a letter to his cousin:

“Duncan tell me your ideas on marrieing as I never learnt that
you married I would like to hear you were a man grown when
I was a boy my fortune runs long I am old and never suited with
a bosom friend yet never can git married among all the Daughters
that I consults on the connection in life a wife Cousin I will
give you my ideas own my knowledge of a bosom friend as
it is so tedious for me to accomplish the love I have for
women are beyond knowledge I love one at the present she is
an excellent woman young and tender I hope I will succeed
in matrimony with her I do love her as hard as to be connected
in paradise as well as this earth this is what I been endeavor
ing to confirm in our happinys …”

In 1846 the question of a wife is important enough to him that he says, “If I dont twine I will wander further.” He follows this statement with an allusion to his Uncle John who Duncan McLaurin has predicted would likely die in “origan california or some of the pacific islands.” About ending up in one of these far away places, he adds a caveat about trying to hide but being unable, for “all things are open to the eyes of the lord the peaceful mind is a home to the weary soul.” Apparently, he is aware of the sentiment of our modern day adage, “whereever you go, there you are.” For nearly a decade Duncan Calhoun must have held out hope for a more permanent relationship with Susan Jenkins. In 1847 he seems to have decided to stay in Louisiana:

“I am single I will tailor and live the best I can if a wife I will
make me a home and stay their while life lasts is the best way this way of moving moving
is hard to live for ever a fixing a new place then fixt go and live it fix another I will
stay here … I find a plenty of work to clothe me and pocket money
is all I want in this life if ever a family I will try and make provision for them …
my own life I know its fate is to deal justly love mercy and walk humbly
with my God if I can find a wife will do the same with me I will embrace her.”

By 1849 we learn the unhappy news that Susan Jenkins may have married someone else. Indeed, as Duncan Calhoun writes to his cousin from the Isthmus of Panama on his journey to the California gold fields, he sites the end of his relationship with Su: “I bought me a pretty little place Nacatosh (Natchitoches) parrish near point republic 4 miles from Byow pear (Bayou Pierre) river where steamboats comes to hoping I would get my sweet Su that I wrote you about and she got married and my love was lost I knew not what to do …” Evidently, this is one of the events that sets him wandering again.

The Mexican War and Politics

During the time Duncan Calhoun spent in Louisiana, he was in a position to witness migrations from the eastern United States, the repercussions of the Panic of 1837, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the resulting Mexican War. Though he resisted becoming involved in the political fray, he lived as we all do with its outcomes – in this case the “Manifest Destiny” policy of the United States. Duncan Calhoun was probably a peaceable person who shunned a contentious environment, which even today is likely one of the reasons some people are averse to taking part in the political arguments which so influence our lives.

The annexation of Texas and the Mexican War are allusions found in his letters. He says in 1846, “our garrison soldiers is left us and gone to Corpischrista on the ryo grand river makes us feel in the heart of the country now no frontier here.” Duncan Calhoun does not often wax political in his letters, but in 1847 he says that perhaps the United States has been too hasty in annexing territory because now it will have to be regulated. In these words he does not appear to have much love for the details or the contentiousness of politics:

“…you might say that we were greedy in grasping territory
there will be territory enough attached to us now to regulate with our Whigary and
Democracy always a contention upon nothing our government is Republikanism
to elect the most capibable person whither demicrats or Whig then our land
would be in peace to what it is so full of argument without cause will make
us an unhappy nation while time lasts general Scoot (General Winfield Scott)
is silent we hear nothing
from him at the present whether a making peace or a going to war more they have
got into the heart of Mexico with their armies the day will be decided on now.”

The arguments may have been “without cause” to Duncan, but the outcomes meant a great deal to some people, particularly those enduring slavery. And, of course, the newly acquired territories did take quite a bit of regulation and caused quite a bit of contention over slavery that would continue for decades. The war resulted in the Mexican Cession giving the United States what became the states of California, Nevada, and Utah as well as parts of today’s Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

In July of 1847, Duncan Calhoun writes again about politics. he explains that he has little to do with the “Electionearing” going on in his area of Louisiana. Evidently, it does not seem to matter what the candidate stands for so much as Duncan’s own interpretation of the candidate’s character that makes him decide his vote.

“I vote for the most filling man as I think I care
not what his politicks are so he is a natural appearing smart man that
will do for the benefit of the people and country”

California Bound

Duncan would have to choose among three major routes to California. The overland route would involve the Oregon or Sante Fe trails; the longest water route went around the treacherous Cape Horn and up the coast of California; and the third route was by steamship to Chagres, up the river in a thatch covered boat or canoe, and overland to the coast of Panama, where another steamer would provide passage up the coast of California. Duncan chose the Chagres route, hoping to arrive at Sacramento probably by way of San Francisco. All three major routes were expensive, but the combined water and overland route was also the shortest. Each route involved dangers, even the short one could be quite rigorous. On the short route, the goal was to get the journey accomplished before one had time to succumb to insect borne illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever. Other illnesses such as heat stroke, cholera, and typhoid fever were common. Adding to these difficulties was the sheer number of human beings following these routes. Stories such as the one Duncan Calhoun alludes to in his letter from Panama probably kept these gold-seekers invested in their journeys despite the dangers, “one man 5 months agoe went threw this place scarcely able to pay his passage returned back to the states with eighty thousand dollars.” In the years following the first mad rush for gold, the Isthmus of Panama route became the most popular, especially with the quickly improving system of roads.

People, hearing rumors of the discovery of California gold, had begun making the journey to California from nearby foreign nations earlier than the quintessential American “forty-niners.” Most Americans did not hear of the discovery of vast amounts of gold at the site of a sawmill being built at Coloma on the American River until the news along with a tin of gold was conveyed to President Polk. William Tecumseh Sherman, stationed in California, penned the letter sent by Governor Mason along with the tin of gold. Lucian Loesser was charged with the delivery. It was the better part of a year on its way before the proof reached President Polk, and the discovery was announced in newspapers. The news appeared in New Orleans newspapers The Time-Picayune issue of 14 December 1848 and The New Orleans Crescent on January 31, 1849. Duncan Calhoun at home on his property in Natchitoches, probably read about the discovery in one of these newspapers. In March of 1849, ads began appearing in The New Orleans Crescent and other newspapers for steamships bound for California. One such ad appeared in the Crescent on March 15, 1849 on page 3. The steamship Col. Stanton was only 19 months old at the time, “sound, staunch and well-built.” Passengers would be able to carry 300 lbs. of baggage. Of course, all of this came at a cost that would have to be paid to secure a berth. Duncan says he left home on March 25 and traveled to New Orleans. There he likely walked to Jno. Goodin’s office at 31 Camp Street and climbed the stairs to book his passage.

Duncan’s name appears on the May 21, 1849 “Thank you” from the surviving Col. Stanton passengers – published in The New Orleans Crescent 21 May 1849.

The name Duncan Calhoun appears on the passenger list for the Col. Stanton in the 4 April 1849 issue of The Daily Delta, another New Orleans newspaper. After leaving port on the 18th of April, the voyage has its difficulties as cholera breaks out onboard sickening and killing some passengers. The usual seasickness does not seem to bother Duncan much until, toward the end of their journey to Chagres, they encounter a storm. In the 21 May 1849 issue of The New Orleans Crescent, Duncan Calhoun’s name appears on a list of passengers sending a message to Captain J. J. Wright of the steamer Col. Stanton offering, “sincere and heartfelt thanks to you for the skill evinced by you in navigation, and your gentlemanly conduct towards us during the passage.” However, Duncan appears not to have had such a cheerful view of the voyage itself, though he must have been quite thankful to have survived it:

“we were not fortunate in shipping the Col Stanton got the colera
and died a good many of us the gentleman I was with died and left his widow and
children to mourn him ten or twelve died out of 80 or 100 was board the old
gentleman was
afflicted with the rheumatics pains before but the colera ended him some of her
were not well yet from the sea sickness Cousin I was blessed beyond knowledge I
was not stured
but twice the first night and last in heavy seas made the bile pore for a moment out”

It is of interest to note that the Col. Stanton sank in January of the next year according to The New Orleans Crescent of 24 January 1850. After continuing her runs between New Orleans and Chagres, she had evidently been damaged and was being towed downriver by the steam towboat Diana. Inexplicably, the Diana tried to cross in front of the steamship Ohio coming upriver. The Diana and Col. Stanton sank but the Ohio was undamaged. No lives were lost, nor was any of the Col. Stanton’s cargo. However, the court case found its way into the dockets of the U.S. Supreme Court decided upon 7 January 1867, which upheld the Circuit Court’s decision to reject depositions for lack of witnesses. In practice the down bound Diana had the right of way. She evidently had already begun backing with her tow before the Ohio struck her.

After surviving his steamship voyage to Chagres, the voyage up the river in a small boat or canoe, and a trek overland, Duncan Calhoun is writing his letter from Panama dated 12 May 1849. He has survived to this point. About the coastal towns of Chagres on the eastern side of the Isthmus and Panama on the western side, he says that they are both right on the ocean, and he comments on the absence of insects, “no musketeers I do not see flies sucking the stock to death as few ticks.” Though his description is not very detailed and the condition of the letter leaves much unreadable, he sums up his journey thus far:

“Dear Cousine as I am at leasure I will give you the news of the time
with me curiosity has led me to go to California to dig gold as it is in abundance there
left Sabine parrish the 25 of march to New Orleans thence on ship to Chagres up the
to Gorgona then across to panama 24 miles by land threw the mountains and hills
which was a tedious
road to travel to panama on the pacific ocean passage is very high to Francisco 150 at
Present rates are falling 100 with some of them …”

Later in the letter Duncan says he will send a return address to Duncan McLaurin and other family members when he gets to San Francisco or to Sacramento. He mentions the length of his journey that seems short in comparison to the overland route but says he would prefer it if he ever returns to Louisiana. He is also aware at this point that he does not know exactly what he is getting into. He is not sure about how one goes about getting the gold or whether and how it must be exchanged to be useful tender:

“I hope that I can tell you where to write to me Francisco …
or up on the Sacromento river is where I am aiming for the …
I am told is the richest and plentiful lest place is found yet …
if I travel to Louisannia any more I will come across to …
down the river I think now is the best way …
we had a tolerable spedy time to panama 7 from home her to our jorney
will be from 11 or 12 weeks a long time I have not a word to recommend
now for I have not seen the breath of the matter yet …”

It is unknown whether Duncan saw the breadth of the matter or not. No letter survives in this collection to tell of his possible success, and my attempt to locate records of him in California has been unsuccessful. In 1849 California was a dangerous place due to the prevalence of vigilante justice and rampant illness, especially cholera. The cholera was exacerbated by hastily built living quarters along rivers. So eager were many of the early prospectors to find gold that time was not taken to build latrines. If I had to speculate on a likely death for Duncan, it would probably be cholera.

Duncan Calhoun’s Family

This tombstone was placed in 1979 by Herbert Nall Carmichael and John Leslie Carmichael. Permission to place it was granted by the Kimberly Clark Corporation, evidently owners of the land at that time.

Charles Calhoun, Duncan’s father, died in 1835 leaving his wife Christian Carmichael Calhoun with her grown daughters and son John Calhoun. Daughters Barbara, Christian, and Isabel are with her in Alabama. According to Christian C. Calhoun’s will, she has other daughters Sarah Carmichael and Effy Calhoun not mentioned in the Alabama letters as well as a daughter named Mary, the the wife of Daniel McCormick, who lives a distance from them in Alabama. Her son Duncan had most likely been out of the household and on his own, though not in a position to care for his mother and sisters. Duncan is not mentioned in his mother’s will. In fact, Duncan specifically remarks in a letter that he did not want to be home with his mother and sisters.  In Alabama Christian and duaghters lived for a while with Christian’s brother John Carmichael in Tallapoosa County.

Christian, daughters, and probably son John, led by a man called Pledger along with a number of enslaved people, arrive at John Carmichael’s in Tallapoosa County, Alabama around May of 1841. Eventually, they find land near her brother and another acquaintance, Daniel McCormick and family. Soon daughters Barbara and Christian marry two rather untrustworthy brothers David W. and William D. Paul, respectively. Duncan’s mother writes eleven surviving letters from Tallapoosa County, Alabama to her nephew Duncan McLaurin in North Carolina dating from 1841 to 1843. Christian left her power of attorney with her nephew. Christian’s will also lists a number of enslaved people: Nancy and her two son’s Carlisle and Hiram.

The original tombstone of Christian Calhoun Paul born 28 June 1816 – died 25 March 1844

In September of 1845 John Calhoun, Christian’s son and Duncan’s brother, writes to Duncan McLaurin a letter with tragic contents. In May of 1844 Christian Carmichael Calhoun succumbed to “a bad cough and spitting up.” In July the measles struck taking Christian Calhoun Paul, her newborn daughter, and sister Isabel. John also itemizes the disposition of enslaved people: Nancy, Carlisle, Hiram, Jane, and Miles. Before Christian died in 1844, Nancy’s child, Sarah, had died of an illness that the doctor did not understand.

“I & barbara nancy & Carlisle is all that is in family
it was at may court I wound up mothers estate I took
Carlile Barbara took nancy Christian took hiram Sally took Jane & Miles the place has to be sold to pay debts …”

I walked under a wintry mix of weather about three miles in soupy red clay searching for the Carmichael Cemetery in Tallapoosa County either on or very near the property once owned by John Carmichael. Three of the original tombstones of these family members are in a somewhat overgrown stand of tall pines about thirty feet off a packed red clay road: Mary McEachen Carmichael died in 1836, Christian Calhoun Paul in 1844, and one indecipherable tombstone that is possibly Isabel’s. In 1979 several direct descendants of Mary McEachen Carmichael erected a large tombstone that inscribes the vital information of both Mary McEachen and Christian Carmichael Calhoun. It is very likely that enslaved people living with this family are buried here too, at least Nancy’s daughter, Sarah.

It took many months for information to reach Duncan Calhoun about the devastation in his family. Still, he kept up with the surviving members. Unfortunately, the letter trail mapping Duncan Calhoun’s life ends with his 1849 letter from the Isthmus of Panama. By 19th century standards, as he well knew, Duncan was not a young man, but still was among those intrepid gold seekers, some losing their lives on the journey. Optimistically, Duncan made it to the gold fields, but the end of letters to his cousin suggests a different story.

Relationship with Duncan McLaurin

It is interesting that Duncan Calhoun seems to consider the best places near waterways, where the hustle and bustle of the world can be witnessed. Cousin Duncan McLaurin writes favorable descriptions as well of these places of export and import such as Cheraw and Bennettsville, SC. With all of Duncan McLaurin’s civic commitment to his community and to caring for his family, evidence in the letters implies a deep intellectual interest in the wide world. Interestingly, he may have passed this same passion on to his cousin Duncan Calhoun, for Duncan Calhoun reveres his cousin’s philosophy and opinion, begging for words of wisdom in each of his letters:

May 1835 from Mobile, AL- “I recollect a letter you wrote me which was a
famous one sit down when you get this and write
me one to suit your mind as it will be a balm to my
soul …”

February 1844 from Natchitoches, LA –
“Direct your letter to Natchitoches one of your letter rests
in my bosom yet its deep sentiments I will conclude with
sending my love to all my Cousins and Uncle Hugh with
all enquiring friends tell me about Uncle Archibald
Calhoun family my love to you and John until death.”

July 1845 from Natchitoches, LA –
“… a letter from you but one when I lived at sparta which
I purused it diligently a many a time Duncan I would be glad to received
one from you at this period of our lives for our instructions you give me
deep sentiments on life existence which I have been traversing tediously since
in the deep search.”

March 1846 from Natchitoches, LA –
“Duncan write me about all my cousins as far as you know
I delight in hearing about them as long as I live and lets me and
you as long as we live write to one another where ever we be your
letters will be the balm of gilead to me for deep is its sentiments.”

July 1847 from Natchitoches, LA –
“Duncan it is no harm for us to feel one another sentiments on futurist as we are a hasting
ing to its … Your communicating your deepest ideas on our creator will well be
a great joy to me with instruction.”

May 1849 from the Isthmus of Panama –
“you are a faithful informer to me of many excellent points in life from my infancy
till this day I contemplate on your letters and see wisdoms form and study in them. I
always give you my sentiments and knowledge evan into eternity rest …”

Duncan McLaurin likely read his cousin’s letter from the Isthmus of Panama many times. In fact, of all the letters in the collection, it has just barely survived. The text is incomplete from the many holes around the creases and the flaking of the paper. The paper appears water damaged as well, containing blurred script and washed out pen strokes. I am thankful that someone went to great pains to repair and salvage it.


Alabama County Marriages, 1805-1967 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2016. Original data: Marriage Records. Alabama Marriages: Tallapoosa County. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City. UT.

Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. Anchor Publishing: 2003.

Carmichael Family Cemetery. Tallapoosa County, AL. Submitted by Barbara Taylor. Accessed 05 December 2017. http://files.usgwarchives.net/al/tallapoosa/cemeteries/carmichael.txt

“Collision between the Ohio and Diana.” The New Orleans Crescent. New Orleans, LA. 24 January 1850. 2. newspapers.com. 30 November 2017.

“Col. Stanton Ad.” The New Orleans Crescent. New Orleans, LA. 15 March 1849.3. newspapers.com. 30 November 2017.

The New Orleans Crescent. New Orleans, LA. 15 March 1849. 3. newspapers.com. 30 November 2017.

Letters and legal documents are listed chronologically

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 11 May 1834. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan C. Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 15 May 1835. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Copy of will of Christian Carmichael Calhoun. 13 November 1835. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 19 February 1840. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Copy of Christian Carmichael Calhoun and her son John’s Power of Attorney to Duncan McLaurin. 11 March 1841. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 15 February 1844. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 13 July 1845. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from John Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 15 September 1845. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan C. calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 28 March 1846. Box 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 11 July 1847. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan Calhoun to Duncan McLaurin. 12 May 1849. Box 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

“Passenger List.” The Daily Delta. New Orleans, LA. 4 April 1849. 2. newspapers.com. 30 November 2017.

Ruiz, Bruce C. “The Isthmian Crossing: The Argonauts.” 14 August 2002. accessed 18 November 2017. http://www.bruceruiz.net/PanamaHistory/isthmus_crossing.htm

Tallapoosa County, AL Cemeteries. Carmichael Family Cemetery. USGW Archives. 25 November 2017. http://files.usgwarchives,net/al/tallapoosa/cemeteries/carmichael.txt

“Thanks to Capt. J. J. Wright.” The New Orleans Crescent. New Orleans, LA. 21 May 1849. 2. newspapers.com. 18 November 2017.