On August 2, 1847, the first case of yellow fever in Mobile, Alabama was reported for that year. The disease, which did not originate in North America, was fairly common in United States port cities in the south during the 19th century. Outbreaks would usually begin in the summer and begin to decline after the first frost. Yellow fever’s early symptoms, similar to other fevers, made it difficult to diagnose. For this reason communities were slow to initiate warnings. Unaware of the true source of the disease, controversy ensued about whether sanitation or quarantine was the best response. The 1847 epidemic resulted in 78 deaths in the port city of Mobile, Alabama. It would be the turn of the 20th century in Cuba, where a U. S. Army Commission made the definitive discovery that the transmitter of yellow fever was the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Since the mosquito was the vector, quarantine would probably not have mattered much. Extra sanitation efforts might have made little difference in the spread of this disease except to ward off secondary infection. The mosquito vector breeds in fresh water. According to the author of “The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana,” epidemic yellow fever in the United States was essentially eliminated after 1905 thanks to medical science and public health practices. The following is a brief but revealing encounter with one of its victims.
We first learn of “Stepmother” McKenzie in 1833 when Kenneth McKenzie proudly introduces his new son, Kenneth Pridgen McKenzie. He is writing to his son John when he breaks the news from Brunswick County, NC:
John and Betsy you have a little Brother born on the
7th October named Kenneth P for Pridgen I am
in my 65 year his mother in her 48th He was fully
as large as your Mary when born
I will call her Stepmother since her first name is never revealed in any of the Duncan McLaurin Papers, and that is how the letters reference her. She is forty-eight when her last child is born. In February 1840 Duncan McKenzie writes, “I heard from Stepmother in Dec she expects to move to Mi in the spring.” Though I have never found evidence of Kenneth’s death, Stepmother is a widow in 1840, perhaps for the second time. Duncan appears to feel some concern about her wellbeing. Stepmother’s marriage to Kenneth McKenzie was not her first. Her first marriage produced at least four daughters that we know of. One of those daughters was widowed and also had a son.
Stepmother must have been desperate to find a sense of security by coming to Mississippi to be near Duncan and his family. Perhaps, as Duncan likely fears, Stepmother and her family will become dependent upon him. Still, he does not appear to discourage her from coming and probably feels some responsibility for the family. He expresses some concern for their welfare once he has confirmation that they are on their way. In April 1840 Duncan receives information that Stepmother was to leave Wilmington on March 4 by way of schooner or steamer to Charleston, SC. From there she would continue to Mobile, AL. He writes to Duncan McLaurin:
I have been looking for my
Step Mother from Wilmington, I received a letter
from her dated the 2nd of March Stating that she
was to leave there on the 4 of the same month in a
vessel bound for Charleston SC from which place
She would take passage to Mobile, Ala, She
had not reached the latter place on the 10th Inst
I am uneasy for her safety
Duncan could have rested more easily, as he would soon learn, for Stepmother was likely more adventurous and resourceful than he might have thought. In July of 1840, after the party of four had arrived in Covington County and were welcomed into Duncan and Barbara McKenzie’s home, we learn of her travels.
Stepmother initially set out from Wilmington on the fifth of March en route, via probably steamship or schooner, to Charleston, SC — a distance of around 159 nautical miles. At the beginning of her journey, she likely passed near her former home with Kenneth McKenzie at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Before passing what is today called Oak Island, she might have spied the lighthouse near her former home at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. She might have said a nostalgic good-bye to the birthplace of her young son. Or she may not have had time to direct young Kenneth’s attention to this landmark, for the seabirds following the vessel along the shoreline may have been too much of a distraction for two young boys. Stepmother also traveled with her four daughters and a widowed daughter’s young son — quite a number of people headed toward Covington County, MS and Duncan’s modest home.
However, the party was delayed two months after reaching Charleston, SC. Evidently, Stepmother’s funds were running out sooner than expected. In Charleston she made the decision to send one of her daughters back to a son-in-law in Wilmington and a second daughter stayed in Charleston. No evidence exists in the correspondence as to how this young woman was to fend for herself there. Perhaps they had family or friends in that place. Duncan does not explain further.
After a two month’s delay, Stepmother’s party of five boarded a schooner, captained by one James Nichols, en route to New Orleans, Louisiana. The schooner was nineteen days struggling against uncooperative winds in reaching port. During the nineteen day voyage traversing about 1,173 nautical miles, one daughter began a courtship with Captain Nichols, and in September of 1840 Duncan writes, “…their connubial knot was tied (on the 31st of May) in New Orleans, she thus took on her self the weals and woes of a sailors wife, her mother has not heard from her since.” Though Captain Nichols and the daughter headed for New York, they promised to return to Mississippi by way of Wilmington, where the Captain would give up command of the ship to the owners. By the end of 1840, Stepmother had received letters from her other two daughters left behind, with some assurance of their safety, but the fate of Captain Nichols and his wife is unknown.
Before leaving, Captain James Nichols placed Stepmother’s party of four (two widows and two sons) aboard a steamboat headed for Mobile, Alabama, where they arrived with seven dollars left. Duncan found land passage for them from Mobile to Covington County, MS through a friend, Peter McCallum. They stayed with Duncan and Barbara until they found a vacant house “in the neighborhood.” It appears that Duncan does not hear much from Stepmother while she lives amongst them. In one letter he describes them: “I think they are smart women,” and later says, “Stepmother and her daughter are verry industrious to make a living, they are not ashamed to ask for their wants and you know that is the first part of getting a thing.”
The following is Duncan’s account of Stepmother’s adventure:
you stated that Neil McLaurin of wilmington
had told you something about my Step Mothers leaving
that place in Febry or March, She left there on the 5th of March
and came as far as Charleston S C where She
was detained 2 months waiting a passage to Mobile
and for want of a sufficiency of funds she sent one
of her daughters back to Wilmington to a sone in laws
and left an other daughter in charles ton, She set
sail for New Orleans with her oldest daughter who
is a widdow & and an other daughter, her little sone, and her
widdowd daughters sone, five in number, owing
to contrary winds the Schooner was 19 days in making
the voyage during which time the captain was agree
=ably entertaind in courting the old ladys daughter
who he Married in New Orleans on the 31st May
leaving the two widdows to work through life
the best they could, James Nichols is the name
of the man, he parted with his mother in law
after seeing them on board a Steam boat bound
for Mobile with a promise of coming on
to her in Mi — After going a trip to New York
and returning to Wilmington where he would
surrender the schooner to the owners, and come
on with his wife, the two widdows arrived safe
in Mobile with 7$ left — P. McCallum to whom
I had previously written procured a passage for
them from thence to this place where they
arrived on last Saturday week, Still
in with us, but they are going to a vacant house
in the neighborhood, thus ends the narrative of the poor
widdows & their sones, If they are industrious they may
get along, I will try to see to this adopted little
brother he is a likely child —
In fact, Duncan did not have to put himself out for the young half brother, for his half sister, named Mrs. Turner, soon married the Yankee schoolteacher that Duncan thought brought the younger students on so well in their schooling. Reese H. Jones was from Pennsylvania, perhaps Philadelphia, for he returns home around 1846 to recover from stubborn mouth sores. While Jones is in Philadelphia, Stepmother and her daughter, their two sons — probably young teens by 1846 —leave Covington County for Mobile, Alabama. Stepmother and her family had been in Mississippi about six years when Duncan writes in January 1846, “Stepmother & crew left this for Mobile some time in Nov last Kenneth and all & if it suits their convenience they may stay there, her sone in law Reese H Jones came to Williams Burgh the day after she crew & caravan passd on their way to Mobile he of course followed they reached their place of destination and I hope that is the last of them.”
The last line seems to me a bit foreboding because it actually was the last of Stepmother. About nine months after Duncan McKenzie died in 1847, his oldest son Kenneth writes to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin of Stepmother: “I have to write … of Mobile grand … is no more she died of the yellow fever in Septr last Kenneth is in Mobile if he was separate from his sister I would try to tighten his reigns and put him to work.”
One is left only to imagine Stepmother’s suffering from yellow fever. Likely they were in temporary quarters when the disease struck. At first she might have suspected the fever and chills not unlike those she may have had before. The first five days would have brought nausea, vomiting, constipation, headache, and muscle pain in the legs and back. The acute stage would follow with the yellowing of the skin through jaundice. Hemorrhaging from almost any part of the body is common. Black vomit can occur as a result of blood from stomach hemorrhages being acted upon by stomach acids. This would take the form of almost involuntary vomiting. Before death, convulsions or coma occurred. If one recovered, and some did, it would begin about two weeks from the onset of the illness.
The treatment Stepmother was likely to have endured included heavy doses of Calomel, a mercury-based compound that purged the system. Other purging methods would have included blood-letting. These purging treatments are said to have had some limited success in treating the illness.
There is some evidence that soldiers returning from the Mexican War via New Orleans and Mobile may have made the epidemics worse during 1847. Many, many soldiers died of yellow fever while in Mexico. The ships and steamboats bringing them back through these ports perhaps harbored the deadly mosquito.
It is possible that Stepmother lies buried in the Old Church Street Cemetery in Mobile. The cemetery was originally set aside for yellow fever victims in 1819. During the epidemic of 1820, 274 people died, so the cemetery was put to immediate use. The cemetery covers over four acres. Whether Reese H. Jones, his wife, and young Kenneth P. McKenzie survived the epidemic and perhaps made their home in Mobile is awaiting discovery.
Stepmother died in September of 1847. Ironically, in 1848 the American physician Joseph Clark Nott became one of the first to introduce the idea of the mosquito vector. It would take a second American war at the end of the 19th century in a tropical climate — Cuba during the Spanish-American War — to confirm the mosquito as the source of yellow fever.
Colton, G. Woolworth, J. H. Colton, John M. Atwood, and William S. Barnard. Map of the US of America, the British Provinces, Mexico, the West Indies and Central America, with part of New Granada and Venezuela. New York: J. H. Colton, 1849. map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007626897/.
Daniel C. McKenzie, son of Duncan and Barbara McLaurin McKenzie, would only live to be thirty-seven years old – dying of typhoid fever. At the time of his death he was living on property in Smith County, Mississippi and married to Sarah Blackwell. The couple were raising two small children, son John Duncan and newborn daughter Mollie Isabel (Woody). Daniel was farming and also serving as a local physician.
About seventeen years before his death, when Daniel is twenty in 1843, he writes a letter to his uncle/former teacher Duncan McLaurin. Although he writes at his uncle’s request, the news he is most eager to convey is his acquiring a position teaching. The literary allusions in the letter are evidence that he was also intending to impress his uncle. The same uncle is likely responsible for instilling in Daniel a thirst for knowledge, even as he was unable ever to afford a scholarly education at an institution.
Daniel is charged with teaching from twenty to twenty-five students of varying ages, probably in a one-room building. The parents of his students pay him “from a dollar and fifty cents per month.” However, students pay more to learn Latin – two dollars and fifty cents. Since the letter is directed from Mt. Carmel, we can imagine that his school is located near this place.
Teachers often boarded with members of the community in which they taught. In Daniel’s case he is boarding with a Revolutionary War veteran, “formerly of South Carolina.” His name is John Baskin whose family consists of an aging daughter and her orphaned grandson. Daniel describes the perfect situation for him:
his family is small & quiet he has a library
of Books well calculated to improve the intellect of
the young he is well informed and fond of reading
I occasionally read for him at night as he cannot read
by candlelight his eyes being dimed by a continually pass
ing stream of four score years and more the anecdotes
of this old gentleman are history to me they are interest
-ing and entertaining. — Daniel McKenzie
Perhaps it is Daniel’s exposure to this veteran of the Revolutionary War — “the anecdotes of this old gentleman are history to me” — that in 1846 inspires him to join a group of Covington County, MS young men, who volunteer to serve in the Mexican War.
Indeed, Daniel speaks of Baskin’s devotion to politics, describing his opinions as somewhere between John C. Calhoun and Thomas Jefferson – both proponents of states rights and territorial expansion. However, Jefferson’s vision of territorial expansion, opening the west for diversified and self-sufficient small farms, differed from the reality of the growing monoculture of cotton requiring slave labor, that Calhoun defended. States rights and territorial expansion of slavery are important issues during the decade of the 1840s. Daniel, however, couches the description withliterary allusions as follows:
he is cherished
in principle like Paul at the feet of Gamalial
the contrasted feet of Calhoun & Jefferson this stripe
in his political garment he says is truly republican
but in reality it seems to me to be of rather a different
cast more like the gown of the old woman
Otway if you will allow me to make such comparisons — Daniel McKenzie
Gamalial refers to a historic Jewish teacher who is also lauded as a Christian saint. Somehow Gamalial bridges the gap between those two faiths. As for the “old woman Otway,” Thomas Otway is a seventeenth century dramatist who believes the beautiful woman is a catalyst for war. Perhaps Baskin is looking into the future and speculating on the possibility of war over nullification and westward expansion. After all, Andrew Jackson knew in his heart that nullification would come up again, and the next time he was sure the issue would have at its center the controversy over slavery. This is a quotation from one of Otway’s works:
What mighty ills have not been done by woman!
Who was’t betray’d the Capitol? A woman;
Who lost Mark Antony the world? A woman;
Who was the cause of a long ten years’ war,
And laid at last old Troy is ashes? Woman;
Destructive, damnable, deceitful woman! — Thomas Otway
Daniel expresses his wish to continue his education, but he is also aware that he is older now and must be out in the world making his way. Family members in other letters describe Daniel as the smallest of the six McKenzie brothers, and all of them competed in the fields to see who could pick the most cotton. Though Daniel picks the least of all, he does waver between teaching, studying to be a physician, and farming during the years before he marries.
The Mexican War
While the 25th Congress of the United States (1837-1839) debated what to do with the growing number of petitions to end slavery in the District of Columbia, the question of annexing Texas was a related issue prompting 54 petitions. As a result, the annexation of the Republic of Texas early in 1845 at the beginning of President Polk’s administration would inevitably fan the hot coals of the issue of slavery. Any new territory added to the United States was fraught with the political implications of unbalancing the power held by the southern states as a result of the 3/5 rule. This rule allowed more rural states, populated with fewer white male voters, to count enslaved persons as 3/5 of a person when calculating representation in Congress. In the decades before the Civil War, though enslaved people were by the 3/5 rule represented in Congress, they were not even allowed the right, as women were, to petition Congress. By the 1830’s, with the influx of migrants and the rise in the slave population, the southern states had experienced a distinct advantage when the issue of slavery arose. This advantage was threatened by the growing population of immigrants to northern free states. It is important to note that many of the citizens of the Republic of Texas in 1845 were the same farmers who had migrated from the southern states, especially those from Mississippi who had fled with their slaves to Texas during economic hard times.
Neither Duncan McKenzie nor Duncan Calhoun (see “The Duncan Calhoun Story” in this blog) expressed certainty that the annexation, and certainly not a war with Mexico over the territory, was a wise idea. McKenzie’s concern is war. Calhoun’s concern, from his front row seat in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, is that the United States will not be able to “manage” and govern the acquisition of additional territory. Both stances were probably less common in Mississippi and Louisiana. The Democratic Party dominated in the South; McKenzie was a southern Whig. The Democratic party in Mississippi was overwhelmingly for territorial expansion, support of slavery, and war with Mexico. In contrast to the South, northern Whigs would have shunned the expansion of slavery that might increase slave state representation. In the end support for the Mexican War would come from mostly western states, both North and South — more fervently from the southern states.
Duncan McKenzie was alive when his son Daniel set off for the Mexican War. In fact he appears quite insulted that the “Covington County Boys,” first part of the volunteers known as the Fencibles, were told to go back home when they presented themselves for military service. In June of 1846 he writes to Duncan McLaurin regarding the Mexican War:
The Mexican difficulties are quite familiar to us here There are more volunteers
than are wanting, the other day a company called the State fencibles tenderd
themselves to the governor for a permit to go and join genl Taylor the govr
asked them if they could not find anything to do at home —
query was not the governs question mortifying to the sensibility of the patriotic
Fencibles, in fact Govr Brown
absolutely refused raising any troops except by the express command of The President — Duncan McKenzie
This Covington County group included Daniel McKenzie and perhaps Kenneth, though Daniel is the only one who eventually stays with the group long enough to serve. Friend Cornelius McLaurin is also among the group.
Later in the same 1846 letter, Duncan further clarifies his position in response to the prospect of President Polk avoiding war “on the Texas and Oregon questions.” Duncan responds by asking how any confidence can be placed in the “dmd clique, they profess one thing and do another.” Here Duncan comes out clearly against the annexation of Texas and the war that now looms:
of Texas to this Union was positively inconsistent with the laws of honor
and secondly our claim on oregon to the 49th line of No Latitude is a presump
-tion unparalleled in the history of free government — Duncan McKenzie
In another few lines Duncan alludes to the spilling of American blood for such territorial aspirations and the ability of populist candidates to lead otherwise rational-thinking people around by the nose:
and watch ye our repub
-lic cannot wash out the stain only by much blood and how can we
wash from our desecrated hands that blood of innocence, it may be argued
that such was the will of the majority no no the majority would do right if
left to their own sober reflections, but when inflamed by wicked aspirants
they may err, at this moment all our earthly interests are in jeopardy — Duncan McKenzie
After the Republic of Texas was annexed in 1845, Mexico responded by cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States. President Polk sent John Slidell from Louisiana to negotiate the contested border with the Mexicans; President Herrera of Mexico refused to see Slidell. At this point Polk sent US troops under Zachary Taylor. Manifest destiny being the philosophy of the powerful southern members of Congress, it approved Polk’s call for war after Taylor’s troops were attacked by Mexico.
The support in the United States for war was overwhelmingly from the southern states. Daniel McKenzie, among other Covington County young men, was not alone in Mississippi in his fervor to volunteer. President Polk designated which states would send militia troops and how many from each state. Mississippi was called to send only one regiment of 1000 volunteer militia. According to author Sam Olden in “Mississippi and the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848,” the response was so great in the state that “an estimated 17,000 boys were in Vicksburg wanting to enlist.” Many were sent home. The Fencibles began by gathering men for their company from Covington and surrounding counties – thirty from Copiah County, according to Kenneth McKenzie. Governor Brown ordered them to march to Jackson without an officer. In Jackson, MS the group elected Ben C. Buckly Captain. Evidently, an argument then arose as to First Lieutenant’s place, “but by fraud we were choised out, we revolted and broke the company.” Characteristically erring in judgement on the side of paranoia, Kenneth claims that Governor Brown was partial to the others when he sent the Covington boys home. Truth be told, they probably simply had too many volunteers. Kenneth goes on to say that the Covington boys raised several thousand dollars to pay their own expenses as volunteers.
Cornelius McLaurin’s Account
Another story complements most of Kenneth’s explanation. In 1860 General Cornelius McLaurin, who had been a member of the Covington County boysand with the group in Mexico, writes a letter in reply to J.F.H. Claiborne. Though not an actual participant in the Battle of Vera Cruz, McLaurin’s story corroborates others. Claiborne was a Congressman from Mississippi in the 24th and 25th Congress, but was likely working as a journalist and historian by 1860. Evidently, Claiborne had found information about the Covington County volunteers among the papers of General Quitman, under whom the Covington group served, and solicits McLaurin’s explanation. Cornelius McLaurin writes that, after being rejected, the company of nine left in January of 1847 financing their own adventure. In New Orleans they outfitted themselves with privates uniforms and weapons, medicines and directions for use, and left by sea for Tampico. At Tampico they attached themselves to Company D of the Georgia regiment under Quitman’s command. On the 7th or 8th of March Quitman’s forces left for Vera Cruz and the castle San Juan D’Ulloa. Once on land they slept the first night with their arms and the second day began to move inland. When the regiment encountered fire from a large party of Mexicans, Cornelius McLaurin was in camp sick with a fever. Most of the soldiers who died in this war died of illness, especially among the volunteers.
The “Covington County Boys” as they would come to be known, were part of a contingent that engaged with Mexican soldiers at Vera Cruz. The skirmish lasted about thirty minutes. Quitman’s soldiers were the victors, though the siege would continue for some days. Among the six or eight wounded was one Thomas J. Lott of Covington County, wounded in the thigh. According to Cornelius McLaurin’s account, the wound appeared to be stable and improving until the injured were required to be moved to another location. Lott’s wound became infected and he soon died. Cornelius McLaurin recovered but adds in his account that seventeen lives were lost at Vera Cruz through injury — hundreds from illness. He claims they were all ill even after returning home. The little company, having left in January, did soon return home as hostilities appeared to Quitman to be winding down. Quitman found them passage on the America for a nineteen day trip to New Orleans. McLaurin also praises one Captain Irwin. It appears “Mr. McKenzie” from the group was sent to the Quartermaster to obtain items needed for Cornelius McLaurin’s recovery. Evidently, the regular Army was reluctant to answer the persistent requests from a volunteer, so Captain Irwin stepped in and told McKenzie that their needs were to be met without hesitation. According to McLaurin the Covington County boys included: Daniel C. McKenzie, George W. Steele, Arthur Lott, Wm. Laird, Wm Blair Lord, Laurin Rankin Magee, Hugh A. McLeod, Thomas J Lott, and Cornelius McLaurin.
Daniel C. McKenzie’s Account
In May of 1847 after he has had some time to absorb the death of his parent during his absence and recover from his experience in Mexico, Daniel writes to his uncle, Duncan McLaurin. In this letter he tells of receiving the news of his father’s death in a letter received a few days before the company started for home. He found his family recovering from what he calls, “the epidemic typhus pneumonia which passed through the state in some places more violent than in others.” The family was surprised to see him since they had heard the company was headed toward the Mexican interior toward Jalapa (Xalapa). He claims to have “taken up my medical books again,” perhaps partly inspired by the illness that claimed so many in Mexico and the death of his fellow adventurer, Thomas Lott. Evidently, Daniel wrote to his uncle from Tampico, but either the letter never reached North Carolina or it did not survive in this collection. To explain their position as volunteers, Daniel says they were allowed even more access to the Quartermaster’s department than even privates in the regular Army:
Gen. Scott arrived there (at Tampico) on apple
-cation to whom we we’re permitted to enter any portion
of the volunteer army as amateurs for any length of
time we chose with the chance of drawing rations as
others with all the privileges of non commissioned
officers i.e. we could buy any thing in the Quarter Masters
department in the way of food which is not allowed privates
We paid our transportation received no pay did
no soldiers duties except fight when we saw the enemy
In my letters home I gave them the particulars of
my trials & c …
I was in but one fight while I staid in Mexico that at Vera Cruz and that a
skirmish, tho a pretty hard business I would call it
16 Georgians and 7 of us contended against 2 Regmnts of
the tawny creatures commanded by Gen Morales,, 11 of our
little number we’re hit 6 badly wounded Lott was all that died of his wound — Daniel McKenzie
It would seem that Captain Irwin’s orders were followed by the Quartermaster, but we can speculate that there might have been some prejudice against the volunteers on the part of the regular army soldiers, especially if the volunteers were required to do no extra duty. For the Covington County boys it must have been like one of those adventurous reality vacations gone awry when illness overtook them and a friend was lost to injury.
The “tawny creatures” comment is instructive regarding the attitude of slave holders to foreign people of color, disparaged on site for preconceived notions of the inferiority of their cultures and “creatures” suggesting a lesser form of human being. In Daniel’s defense, though, any person that is shooting at you, and you are required to shoot back at them might more easily be construed as a little less human. This appears true in any war.
Though he does not describe the town of Vera Cruz, Daniel attempts to describe the Castle San Juan d’Ulloa or as he spells it San Juan de Cellos. It is an impressive fortress that extends into the sea. He compares the coral light house in size to one he saw at La Balize, Louisiana on the Mississippi River:
Castle San Juan de Cellos …
is situated more than a half mile in the sea
from the nearest point of the beach where ships of the largest
size can come and anchor by the walls so near that
you may step from one to the other. This castle, worthy of the
name too, covers ten acres of ground on water the wall in
the highest place is seventy feet being eight feet through at
the top and thirty where the sea water comes up to it. I should
judge 40 feet through at the base The wall is built of coral
stone the light house out of the same is as much larger
than the one at the Balizeof the Miss River, which is a
large one, as the latter is larger than a camson brick
chimney on the walls of this castle were … 300 heavy
pieces of cannon which were kept warm from the morning
of the 10th to the 27th March tho they did but little damage — Daniel McKenzie
Daniel continues his account with information to which Cornelius McLaurin would know only from the accounts of others. He remarks on the illness, chronic dysentery, that plagued the little company of volunteers even after their return to Covington County. Admitting that his inclination was to return to the fray now that he was well, he would not put his mother through that anxiety so soon after losing his father:
We went on to Alvarado a town 54 miles from Vera Cruz
on the coast which surrendered on our rear approach …
Gen Quitman took possession demolished some of their
forts spiked their cannon left a small garrison as however
Com Perry left a few small gunboats as a garrison. Quitman
with his portion of the army returned to Vera Cruz all of us that went
took sick we were almost unable to follow the army farther We
are at home. I am well but 4 of the others are not and I doubt their being
so soon their disease Chronic Dysentery …
My inclination would
lead me back. But while Mother lives I will not distress her by a similar
attempt. All are well Mamma in as good spirits as I could expect. — Daniel McKenzie
Daniel laments never actually seeing Mexican General Santa Anna and mentions a General Twiggs when accounting for their return from Alvarado. Though General Twiggs would be quite old at the outbreak of the Civil War, he still served in the Confederate Army, but his reputation was somewhat disparaged after he lost control of Ship Island on the Mississippi Sound early in the war. :
On our return from Alvarado Gen Twiggs was sent on toward
Jalapa with the advance of the army Gens Worth Patterson Shields
followed a few days afterwards. They got out to the mountain pass
called Cerro Gordon where they were met by Santa Anna
with a powerful Mexican force Genl Scott came up and on
the 17th and 18th April they fought. The American loss though heavy was
small compared to that of his adversary. — Daniel McKenzie
General Twiggs was among many soldiers who would gain useful battlefield and leadership experience in this war to serve them in the next conflagration, the looming Civil War. In fact General U. S. Grant, a veteran of Chapultepec, describes the Mexican War as, “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Andrew Jackson Trussell’s Account
At the University of Texas at Arlington Library in Arlington, Texas the Trussell Collection, box 1, folder 3, contains letters of a young Lauderdale County Mississippian who enthusiastically volunteered against odds to serve in the Mexican War.Eight of Andrew Trussel’s letters are either partially or wholly transcribed and published by Douglas W. Richmond in a collection titled Essays on the Mexican War. The collection is edited by Richmond.
Upon reading Trussell’s correspondence from Buenavista, Mexico to his home in Mississippi, I was struck by two characteristics in his account that either corroborate an impression in Cornelius McLaurin’s letter or in Daniel McKenzie’s letter: prevalence of illness, especially among the volunteers; and apparent ill-will between the regular army and the volunteers.
In all three accounts illness is given as the major cause of death. Trussell writes in June of 1847 to his brother, “There are only 38 privates now in our company. When we left Vicksburg we numbered 90 men.” Earlier in the letter he writes, “We have, I believe, got clear of the desperate complaints of small pox. There were 22 of our company who had the small pox.” Later in a letter to a friend, he returns to the subject of illness, “We were first taken in New Orleans and while tossed to and fro on the mighty billows of the gulf for thirty-two days, many a brave and proud spirit found a watery grave.”
By October, though Trussell is still complaining to his brother about illness, he also mentions a conflict regarding a Lieutenant Amyx. It seems that some Mexicans killed two men during the night not far from their camp. This Lieutenant Amyx gathered ten or fifteen privates and, evidently without authorization, took off after them, traveling some eighteen miles away from the camp. Upon their return the next morning General Robert Wood had Amyx arrested. Apparently Trussell took issue with this arrest:
Wood had him arrested and the sentence of the court martial was read out on dress parade … he should be reduced from rank for three or four months and his pay stopped for the same time. Lieutenant Amyx is a good officer and a gentleman … He was tried by regular officers and they hate volunteers as they do the devil and there is no love lost, for the volunteers hate them. — Andrew Trussell
It is amazing to me that Trussell could not see how Amyx’s actions might be construed as gross insubordination. Was this a general problem with the volunteer soldiers? Perhaps, unused to military discipline, some misconstrued their mandate to engage the enemy when necessary. Contrary to Trussel’s anecdote, some reliable accounts describe the regular Army, undermanned at the time of war, as working well with the militia volunteers. The volunteers, it is said, were eager to follow the rules of the regular Army. In fact, Trussell himself requests that his brother try to get him an appointment to the regular Army.
Trussell spent his twelve months service in Mexico and returned safely home. Trussell writes specific descriptions that tell us a bit about life in the camps. He describes the food as mostly salt pork and beef, corn bread from the market and sometimes flour bread, milk and fresh pork. Pretty good eating for troops in a foreign land, I think. He says, “The only good thing we have here is the water. These are the best springs here that I have ever seen.” He also writes of the “fine churches in Saltillo.” Of the Mississippians he says, “But the Mississippians always wanted to fight when they are imposed on or mistreated.” He admits himself to stabbing a man in the shoulder, “but did not hurt him very bad. He is getting well and I was justifiable.” He also speaks of the “very lively and rich” Mexican girls and wonders if the girls back home will still look as pretty to him. In addition, he disparages the Mexicans in general and says they are not worthy of self-government, so he is against any attempt to make Mexico itself part of the United States.
Trussel is in Mexico for a year, the standard twelve month enlistment for a volunteer, though Daniel McKenzie and Cornelius McLaurin were barely there three months. It is interesting that in the year Trussell saw absolutely no enemy engagement, whereas the Covington County boys incurred injuries and one death from a skirmish.
The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed in Mexico City on February 2, 1848, settled the war between Mexico and the United States. It stipulated that the two countries would peacefully negotiate future conflicts. The United States paid Mexico fifteen million dollars. The US also took over the debts previous Mexican governments owed American citizens. Mexico gave up claim to what became California and parts of what became New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming.
According to Jim Zeender, Senior Registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office, if you find yourself in Pueblo, Colorado, you might visit the “Borderlands of Southern Colorado” exhibition at the El Pueblo AcMuseum there. On display you would find, contained in light-filtering acrylic, three pages — an original copy of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. You would see the signatures in iron gall ink of “American diplomat Nicholas Trist and Luis G. Cuevas, Bernardo Couto, and Miguel Atristain as plenipotentiary representatives of Mexico.
Daniel McKenzie did bring home one souvenir of his experience that was appreciated by all of his brothers. While in New Orleans, he purchased a new rifle, which Kenneth later refers to as Daniel’s “Spaniard gun.” Kenneth says that Allen killed “a fine buck” and “a few days ago he killed a turkey over 200 yards with the gun.” Daniel tells his Uncle Duncan to convey a message about the gun to his Uncle John McLaurin, “…tell Uncle John I bought a rifle in New Orleans and gave $45 dollars which will hold up — 300 yards I shot Mexicans at 100 yards distance with it — I will put it to better use and kill birds and squirrels.”
“Amateur Soldiers.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, MS 18 March 1847. 2. newspapers.com Accessed 20 May 2018.
“Covington County Military Resources; Mexican American War 1846-1848.” U.S. GenWeb Project. “General McLaurin to J. F. H. Claiborne; Jackson, Mississippi, July 16th, 1860.” http://msgw.org/covington/mexico.htm Accessed May 2016.
“From Tampico and the Island of Lobos.” The Weekly Mississippian. Jackson, MS. 19 March 1847. 2. newspapers.com Accessed 27 May 2018.
“Gen. Jefferson Davis.” The Natchez Weekly Courier. Natchez, MS. 25 August 1847. 1. newspapers.com Accessed 23 May 2018.
Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. may 1847. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Daniel C. McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. may 1847. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to Uncle Duncan McLaurin. 17 September 1847. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Magee, Rex B. “Covington Man Gave His for Mexico Years Ago.” Clarion Ledger. Jackson, MS. 20 March 1963. Published in Strickland, Jean and Patricia R. Edwards. Church Records of Covington County, MS: Presbyterian & Baptist. Moss Point, MS. 1988.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The Oxford History of the United States. Volume VI. C. Vann Woodward, editor. Oxford University Press: New York. 1988. 4.
Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1996. 311.
“Our exchanges in this state …” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, MS. 6 June 1846. 2 newspapers.com. Accessed 23 May 2018.
Richmond, Douglas W. “Andrew Trussell in Mexico: A Soldier’s Wartime Impressions, 1847-1848.” Essays on the Mexican War edited by Douglas W. Richmond. Texas A & M University Press: College Station Arlington, TX. 1986. 86, 87, 88, 91, 93, 94.
“The Right Spirit.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, MS. 19 January 1847. 2. newspapers.com Accessed 27 May 2018.
From 1840 until 1847 Duncan McKenzie wrote twenty-nine surviving letters to his brother-in-law Duncan McLaurin. Within them he touched on the subjects of weather, crops, and politicsprobably more consistently than any other. However, armed with a desire to entertain his audience and with some obvious individualistic and masculine braggadocio, he included stories and anecdotes that reveal his own character and that of the society in which he lived during the 19th century.
One need venture no further than Facebook memes for evidence that critters make entertaining subjects. Duncan McKenzie thought so too. In March of 1841 Duncan is describing land that he has recently purchased. He says the Covington County, MS property resembles North Carolina land near Laurel Hill, “East of the head of Leeths Creek only more mixed short strawd pine oak & Hickory.” He adds that it may not be the richest land in Covington County, but it is flat and one could, “see across on the ground in the remotest part of the field.” Covington County also has rolling hills and land that is good for livestock, but Duncan apparently wants land on which he can grow crops. He begins his “turkey story” by saying that while they were “sowing oats at the lower place, “a number of turkeys were visiting us daly, I turned to and built a pen and captured twelve of them.” He describes the turkey feasting as, “at first a delicious rarity but had turkey lasted much longer bacon would have been preferred.”
It is likely that some of the meat consumed by Duncan’s family and eight enslaved persons was wild. The McKenzie boys spent their leisure time in the nearby forests. They also raise hogs on their farm. Indeed, the freshness of their slaughtered and “put up” hog meat rested upon Barbara’s judgment. From descriptions of their “driving the hogs” from the forest, it is probable that they allowed their domesticated livestock to forage in the woods, though they may have also used their plentiful crops of corn to feed hogs. Fencing wooded areas of their land for the purpose of providing a habitat for their hogs would not have been unusual. Evidence in the letters suggests that they may have regularly hunted deer and likely enjoyed venison.
Even in more settled North Carolina in 1843 they must not have been above trying to “tame” deer. In response to his brother-in-law’s mention of a tame deer, Duncan McKenzie describes one they have on their own farm and how it gets on with a menagerie of critters:
you spoke of a tame deer query is he living yet, we have one
a year old and is thus far quite innocent and harmless but will
fight the dogs, yesterday two hounds attacked him he whipd,, both
and came off unscrachd,, his horns are large for a yearling, tho spiteful
to strange dogs ours and him lie down together, they will fight for him —
we have also a pet lamb much more mischievous than the deer
a mixed multitude dogs sheep & deer are common companions
in the yard — Duncan McKenzie
In an 1844 letter Duncan tells another deer story. The story involves a mutual friend, Duncan McBryde who was plowing with the McKenzies. They encounter a deer that has become trapped within the confines of the fence. McBryde suggests they catch the deer. Kenneth is dumbfounded at the thought, but Allan unhitches his mule and calls the dog, Amos. They are off on the chase. Sadly, the story lacks a resolution since the 174 year old paper upon which it is written is damaged:
I must here insert an anecdote on
Duncan McBryde who was at work with us last week, on
tuesday morning a deer was discovered running through
the field, … on reaching the fence he
made an effort to jump the fence but could not repeated
but failed, Duncan seeing this exclaimed to the rest come
boys lets catch him, what said Kenneth catch a wild deer in
an open field of 80 acres, yes said Duncan, god, yes, go go it said
Allan unhitching his mule and calling Amos a little cur … both …
went Duncan, Allan & Amos …
Duncan in a few… — Duncan McKenzie
The Mississippi forests of the 19th century were still habitats for larger, more dangerous animals such as bears and cougars, also known as panthers. Bobcats were and still are found in Mississippi, though they are quite shy.
The “Tiger Story” begins on a late spring Saturday in June. It is also muster day, which means that the free men of the community between the ages of 18 and 45 were called to meet at a prescribed location in their community to present themselves, along with their personal rifles and ammunition, for militia review. The Militia Acts of 1792 were designed to have a militia on call that the president would be authorized to call forth in times of necessity. Over the years this male ritual became somewhat festive, and was often the scene of political stump speeches.
Evidently this particular muster day a group of Covington County neighbors asked Duncan McKenzie to join them on the way to the muster ground. They had not gone far when they heard Kenneth, “encouraging the dogs smartly and with some degree of excitement.” According to Duncan this is what followed:
… I took
a favorite stand near a point of the creek or river as we
often call Buoye and soon heard the leaping of something
which I took for a deer but on its imerging from the thick
which it did with a high leap I discovered it to be a
verry large tiger he stood for a moment in a broad opened
road gazing on me with fire eyes you may guess I lost no
time in letting him have the contents of my gun …
as two buck shot passed through the heart yet he with
an awful spring made his way directly for me but
ere he could reach me to take revenge he staggered off the way … —Duncan McKenzie
Duncan goes on to say that this was the first animal of that species that had been killed there for some years. To add to the story he says there were possibly two since the dogs kept tracking. They took “the fierce looking beast,” to the muster ground nearby for public exhibition.
Evidently, Duncan McLaurin was not satisfied with the identification of the animal, for in August of that summer, McKenzie writes a description to him:
we did not measure either hight or length
but compared his hyhth to that of a young colt with a length
proportional to the highth as that of the house cat … the color
is a dark yellow and black spotted, the tail long and slim
with rings alternately black & yellow, the very end tipd with
bright yellow. this species of animals are the most daring
of all the wild beasts that infest our forests … —Duncan McKenzie
This description is a bit contradictory, but the length of the tail would probably identify the “tiger” as a cougar, likely still roaming the Mississippi forests in the 1840s. However, Duncan says it had a white tip on the tail, but the tail is generally tipped black with a lighter underside.
The “Tiger Story” appears in Christopher Olsen’s book, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Olsen may have chosen this excerpt from the Duncan McLaurin Papers as evidence of the still-primitive nature of the state during the 1840s but also perhaps as evidence of the masculine culture that required bravery in the face of danger and the quick use of the weapon at hand.
Not all encounters involving weapons were between man and beast. Violence characterized human encounters as well. Many historians have confirmed the culture of violence that existed in the western territories and continued into statehood. Ample evidence exists.
In 1842 Duncan McKenzie relates to his brother-in-law the tale of some trouble that Hugh Stewart, a mutual friend and migrant from NC, has encountered. Hugh has recently failed in his candidacy for auditor probably in Hinds County. Stewart had been defeated by the Locofoco candidate before the violence with a “Mr. Chilton of Raymond” ensued. Whether this is the source of the conflict, we will likely never know. The upshot is that the two men fired guns at one another rather than settling the argument with their fists, as Duncan laments. Now, he says, one of them will likely have to pay. Though even if Duncan thought it should, it is a bit of an exaggeration that their conflict would warrant being sent to the penitentiary:
both (Stewart and Chilton) being
towns men thot it more gentlemanly to burn a little powder at
each other than to try the more certain method of deciding their
quarrel by a fist and scull fight so they took two pops each
with double barreled shotguns by which no blood was brought but
court being then in the first week of its six week session the
grand jury took hold of their difference I have not as yet heard
the result of their trial but it is feared,, one or both of the boys is good
for the penitentiary which would be more humiliating to one
friend Hugh than a berth in the office of Auditor of Publick accounts
for which he was a candidate at the Novr,, Election but was unfor-
-tunately beaten by Saunders the Loco candidate for that office — Duncan McKenzie
At least McKenzie believes someone should and probably would pay the piper, but an anecdote in an 1843 letter leads us to believe that the law was not always effective in dealing with violent encounters. Hearsay was not the only source of such stories. Newspapers of 19th century antebellum Mississippi are full of them. This violent incident involves “a couple of Yanke shoemakers in the vicinity last week being in a spray quarreld.” They evidently fought, which led to a shooting:
…the vanquishd feeling
himself aggrieved loaded his shot gun with at least 40 lead
-en balls which he deliberately discharged at his antagonist
strewing them or sowing them in him from his chin to his
navel this took place on Monday and on Friday this
same target was enabled to walk through the streets of
Mt Carmel and take his liquor as usual tho the marksman
has fled no doubt for Texas being the stronghold of evil doers — Duncan McKenzie
In August of 1843 Duncan McKenzie tells the story of his encounter with two Floridians tracking a murder suspect. The two Florida pursuers were, “the brother & nephew of the Decd.” Evidently, the men had legal authority to find the murderer and were certain they would find him. Vigilante justice was likely commonplace, but a news item in The Vicksburg Whig newspaper notes that two murderers, William and David Burney, passed through the area ahead of their pursuers. That Duncan finds common acquaintance with the pursuers probably is the basis of his respect for them:
On Monday last I saw two men from Florida
in pursuit of a murderer whom they call Wm Burney who
killd Joseph Manning in cold blood Manning was the
Brother in law of Hector McMillan the brother of Lawyer
Alx formerly of Richmond …
Manning & George McMillan the brother & nephew of the Decd
were the pursuers, the murderer was 10 days in advance of them
they told me that they would certainly find him they were well
provided with arms and money for a long journey …
I traveled some
20 miles with them during which time they entertaind me
with the history of many of my old acquaintance, I think
them fine worthy intelligent men — Duncan McKenzie
Another source of violence was the common highwayman or robber, who stalked those having come into large sums of money on the primitive roads of the antebellum south. This account was likely read in a newspaper. Duncan tells of the experience of one Reverend John G. Libby having sold two enslaved people and was returning home with quite a bit of money. Libby miraculously recovers from the attack on his life:
Hard To Kill the Rev John G Libby on his return home from selling two negro men for
which he got $1500 cash was shot,, buck shot entered between his hip and shoulder
blade he fell off his horse having a gun immediately rose attempting to shoot but could
not, his enemy who of course was a highwayman made off after which the parson led
his horse to a house nearest hand and strange to tell he has got well after coughing up
a shot from his lungs, the remaining are in his boddy, Parson Libby is also Dr of
phisic — Duncan McKenzie
Though Duncan does not reference dueling encounters of the 1840s, some historians and scholars believe the practice, formalized and common in the antebellum south, led to lawlessness. When the police and other state purveyors of the law can easily be superseded, law enforcement becomes less effective. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “‘Honorable’ fights were common, and on lower social levels street fights and ambushes were accepted forms of behavior.”
It is likely from political differences that some of the violent encounters of the day arose. During his years in Mississippi, Duncan was a Whig and professed little tolerance for other political stripes. The issue of the annexation of Texas was at the forefront of politics in April of 1845, when Duncan alludes to a story he saw in a newspaper, “… a little dirty Loco sheet.” They published an ethnically disparaging “Dutchman” story about the annexation. It was published, “…under the sign of the Eagle or rather the buzard,” according to Duncan:
Glorious news, great news, victory, victory, Texas anext,
a wag of a Dutchman passing by the office of the little
sheet was told of the great victory whereunto he coolly
replyd Wy meister ve all no tat Texas is next to
Lucyanne an I believe tat is ass near ass it will come tu
us in Some dime — was not the fellow in the straight fit — Duncan McKenzie
In addition to political anecdotes, from time to time Duncan makes reference to family. In July of 1845, Duncan relates his potato story. He and Allan Stewart have spent the day together when they receive the news of the death of neighbor, long-time friend, and probably relative Daniel McLaurin. Thinking the funeral and burial was at Judge Duncan’s home, he and Allan Stewart soon went to that place. In spite of learning that Daniel would be buried on his own property, a meal ensued at Judge Duncan’s. When the judge began bragging and asked Stewart if hehad ever seen such large potatoes, Stewart responded by saying, “… that he had seen potatoes on our (McKenzie’s) table that day that one was as large as two of his.” Duncan tells this tale for the benefit of Hugh McLaurin, Barbara’s aging father, who was widely known for his excellent potato crops:
… say to your father that we have the largest potatoes … Mr. A. Stewart was here at dinner when we received notice of Daniel McLaurins death … and of his intended burial at Judge Duncans … to the point supper came on at Duncans where there were prepared some fine potatoes the Judge told us all to partake of the potatoes addressing Stewart particularly and telling him that those were the largest potatoes he, Stewart, had ever Seen a dispute ensued finally Stewart told the judge that he had seen potatoes on our table that day that one was as large as two of his. I thot it was fortunate that the judge was crippled or he and A. would fight, we were all amused and I particularly for it was flattering … to have my potatoes praised — Duncan McKenzie
Earlier in an 1842 letter, Duncan McKenzie sends a message to Hugh McLaurin regarding his growing potatoes, “you will say to your father that I cant find one of his age in my neighborhood who will contend with him in the culture of Irish potatoes, but if I find the man I will let him know.”
Gatherings were also held for weddings, and in December of 1842 Duncan reports on his attendance at the wedding of Mr. William Easterling, Jr. to a Miss Ann, who appears to have the same surname. She is from Simpson County, which borders Covington County. Duncan is impressed with the dancing done by the older Mississippian, Duncan McLaurin:
…among all the dark times we have had a gleam of sun
shine at a wedding Mr. William Easterling Jr to Miss Ann
Daughter of William B Easterling, Esqr, of Simpson County Mi —
the evening was wet and cold but the fare was good and mirth
rare as the dance was opened by the brides grandfather the Hon
Duncan McLaurin I never knew till then that Old Duncan was a
dancer. huzza for the Carolina Scotch, she being the first of his
grand children that have married promted the old man to dance — Duncan McKenzie
On the subject of dancing, in 1846 McKenzie expresses his religious independence in a story about the young people in the neighborhood finding someone to teach them all to dance properly. Evidently, for some of the Presbyterians in the neighborhood, this form of entertainment did not sit very well:
the young folks of the neighborhood employed a dancing master to instruct in the Science, among others some of the sons & daughters of members of the presbyterian church were students and of course the parents were had up in session there was a rompus and there may be a split in the kirk, I did not go about their court, they have no control of me or my acts or I of theirs — Duncan McKenzie
In October of 1843, they raise a structure for ginning cotton. Duncan notes that about fifteen neighbors worked under the warm, humid September sun known as “the dog days” in Mississippi. Evidently, they succeeded in getting the structure finished up to the rafters. Duncan finishes this story by listing the political officeholders in attendance. Though he describes the neighbors in attendance as “both black and white,” I am fairly certain that the blacks there were not there by choice:
We were with the assistance of 15 of
our white & black neighbors raising our gin house
yesterday, the day was verry warm for the 22ndSeptr and
our work was heavy and hot, our timbers being large
long unwieldy masses, yet we got up every particle
below the rafters, not with standing it was showery
in the evening,, in our company were our mutual
friend Archd Malloy & Deputy Postmaster,, a Post
master, one Justice of the peace, one Judge of probate
and a member of the board of County Police
consequently you would suppose that we had a
pretty decent raising especially when you would
add to our company a member of the late call
session of the legislature & a candidate for reelection,
which we had — Duncan McKenzie
In a later letter Duncan would describe the gin as larger than any he has ever worked on before, “the rafters are 23 feet from heel to shoulder … it being now completely enclosed & c it is a splendid thing as much so as any horse gin in this neighborhood.”
Earlier he penned an anecdote about a pleasant Christmas Day doing something with friends that he enjoyed — deer driving. The McLaurins, including Cornelius, who would soon gain local fame in the Mexican War as one of the “Covington County Boys,” were on a deer drive with the McKenzies, Hugh McLeod, and Dr. Hugh McLaurin. McKenzie is able to relish the fact that no one was drinking alcohol, he being an avowed temperance man. During the 1840s Duncan makes reference to friends who have tried and either failed or succeeded in giving up alcohol. During this time a concerted effort across the country to reduce alcohol consumption enjoyed significant success. Historian James McPherson comments on the success of the temperance movement in a chapter of Battle Cry of Freedom, “The United States at mid-century.” He writes that Americans between the 1820s and the 1850s reduced alcohol consumption from “… the equivalent of seven gallons of 200-proof alcohol annually … to less than two gallons …” He adds that “During the same years the per capita consumption of coffee and tea doubled.” Here we have an example of that statistic:
… on that day Danl, Duncan, John,
Cornelius McLaurin, Hugh McLeod & your humble servant & boys
were Deer driving Ohyes Dr. Hugh was also in the drive
all being temperance or temperate men all appeared to enjoy
themselves by feasting on venson ham previously killed & dryd
and as a beverage to wash it down a cup of smoking coffee & c
This banyan was prepared by Barbara by way of Banquet to
her friends who came to see Danl after his absence of some time — Duncan McKenzie
In one of his last letters, for Duncan McKenzie would not live beyond February of 1847, he seems elated over the building of a school nearby. The Reverend A. R. Graves is praised for establishing, against all odds, a boarding school:
… did I ever tell you that the Rev A R Graves who is married to Jennet McNair Alx
daughter has set on foot a seminary of literary education in this county, Mr. Graves is
undoubtedly one of the most persevering men I ever got acquainted with, under every
impediment consequent on the scarcity of money he has progressed to maturity in
large & comfortable houses both for boarding lodging & c of 120 students also a large and well
constructed house for instruction, he has also funds collected sufficient to pay suitable
teachers in the minor branches of education say 60 students for one year if the parents
them their tuition will be given them gratis the institution is in one of the healthiest
situations in the state, I hope he will prosper — Duncan McKenzie
The town of Seminary in Covington County, MS received its name from the school established there. The institution is known as Zion Seminary and taught hundreds of students courses in medicine, law, and religion. Sadly, it last burned in 1890, though a historical marker suggests that it burned during the Civil War. It may have received Civil War damage, but lived to see another day. Today Seminary Attendance Center exists on the old school site in the middle of town. I think it is fitting that near his death Duncan’s hope of being able to find quality education in his new Mississippi home was coming to fruition, though a little late for his own children.
According to Kenneth McKenzie’s letter written to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin in April of 1847, Duncan McKenzie died on the last day of February at midnight, “after a long and protracted illness,” that may have lasted, “From the 20th February to the 1st March.” In a May letter to his uncle, Daniel McKenzie describes the illness as typhus pneumonia, “which passed through the state in some places more violent than in others.” European typhus from the bite of the louse carrying the infection is not common in North America according to Margaret Humphreys, author of “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History.” A type of typhus associated with rats is more common, and the disease may be mistaken for the tic borne “Spotted Fever.” Humphreys also contends that many typhus outbreaks may well have been actually typhoid fever. Personally, I could believe some tic borne disease may have been the culprit. In my youth I can recall scraping hundreds of tiny tics from my legs after walking through fields of tall grass on my husband’s grandfather’s farm in Covington County, MS. During the illness Kenneth describes his father as mentally incapacitated or “non composmentas but the last two weeks he was proper and a judge of his condition.” Kenneth breaks the news to his uncle with these words:
that hand once so familiar to your glance
the stroke, now lies slumbering in death
cold, beneath the ground, only to be lamented,
his parental personage has now become
a blank, and filled up only with sorrow
he changed Earth for Eternity on the night of
the last of February at 12-oclock — Kenneth McKenzie
No matter what the cause, the illness took a tragic toll on the family. Kenneth explains, “Jonas, the oldest of Hannahs children was lying dead in the house he died on the same night at 9 o’clock.” Jonas and his mother Hannah were enslaved people on the McKenzie farm. The month before, Ely Lytch had died. Ely is the enslaved person who was purchased from John C. McLaurin in North Carolina. Kenneth suggests that Duncan McLaurin probably knew this enslaved person Ely as Archibald Lytch. Ely had likely been with the family since they arrived in Mississippi if not soon after and had died of a “long and protracted illness protracted by the sudden changes of the most disagreeable winter I have ever witnessed.” Kenneth goes on to say that the entire family was very sick but survivors have now recovered. He also informs his uncle that the family’s anxiety is increased by Daniel’s presence at Vera Cruz in the Mexican War.
Through the family’s grief, the grown sons continued corresponding intermittently with their uncle for years. Likely Barbara and her brother Duncan both encouraged this. Though the correspondence was not as regular nor the letters as long, it continued until after the Civil War. Their letters reveal very little about where Duncan McKenzie was buried or who might have preached his funeral, details the sons revealed in letters about the death of their mother years later.
Humphreys, Margaret. “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History.”
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 reveals his general curiosity in his new home and a strong interest in the political machinations of his time and place.
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 major issues, 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 fertile 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 increasing 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 “more democratic” Constitution, but 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 if they left the auspices of their tribal governments. This was 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 with incredibly long ballots to count. It was forbidden for the legislature to pass laws that would free slaves. 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.
Duncan McKenzie’s economic and political views – 1830s
Generally, Duncan McKenzie appears to be a more cautious individual, 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.
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 when 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,” the choice of many Mississippians during the several decades before and after the Civil War.
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. He claims to be a Southern Whig, and Whigs generally had supported a national bank.
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 — it did not fail.
By 1834 the bank issue and economic downturn had 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 bonafide 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.” Here McNutt tries to disparage the American Whig part by insinuating that it grew from people who were loyal to England during the American Revolution. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 in his letters as Dr. Duncan. It is likely that Dr. Duncan McLaurin is Duncan McKenzie’s fist cousin, son of Aunt Caty McLaurin of Lauderdale County, MS. 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. Two of Duncan McKenzie’s sons, Kenneth and Allen, were deployed there and watched a significant number of their companions perish from the disease.
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 other than 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.
During 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 AHistory 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
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 PrivateSocieties. 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.
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.
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.
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
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 themiddle 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 Duncanexplains 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.