Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to John McLaurin, 11 May 1834
This letter to Duncan’s brother-in-law, John McLaurin, begins with an acknowledgement of the time that has lapsed since they last corresponded and one of many allusions to the irregularity of the mail. He begins, “After an absence of near 18 months Since I heard directly from you I take my pen to open correspondence with you.”
Health of Family and Friends
Almost every letter includes information about the health of the family and an inquiry regarding the other’s health and that of all acquaintances. More are coming from North Carolina to Covington County as Duncan mentions, “…your late neighbors the McGils arived in this Settlement about 3 weeks Since & Rented a place of Wm Easterling.” Information regarding the health of the family appears often in the letters since illnesses that we might consider minor in the 21st century were taken very seriously in the 19th century. Duncan says that he wrote to Duncan McLaurin that, “all the children & our man Colison had the measles which threw us back in planting but not withstanding we got our Seed in the ground in good time.” (The reference to “our man Colison” might have been to an enslaved person.) This outbreak of the measles was to prove fortuitous during the Civil War when Duncan’s sons Kenneth, Allan, and John were exposed again and watched a large number of their comrades become ill and die of measles, illness being the greatest killer during the Civil War. According to historian James M. McPherson, “Two soldiers died of disease for every one killed in battle.” He also adds that rural soldiers were more likely to die of the first wave of childhood illnesses that struck both armies at the war’s outset. People from more populated areas had often been more exposed to diseases. This makes the immunity of the McKenzie brothers seem even more fortuitous.
Another reference to an outbreak of scarlet fever occurs in this letter to John McLaurin. The local doctor who travels among some of the nearby counties visiting family and acquaintances from North Carolina is known as Dr. Duncan. This particular doctor appears in a number of letters. In this case D. McKenzie has recently heard from him,
“…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.”
A Possible Visit to NC
If Duncan McKenzie ever returned to North Carolina to visit, it is not revealed in any of the surviving letters. The notion that they would make return visits seems to have been viable when they first arrived in Mississippi, but the work of the farm and life in general seems to have precluded any of them returning. The only family member known to have returned is the oldest McKenzie son, Kenneth, who leaves Mississippi during the Civil War to live with his aging uncle. He apparently enlists in the military again in North Carolina and serves until the end of the war. Still, in this 1834 letter Duncan McKenzie says he would likely not visit this particular winter unless his widowed sister-in-law Betsy McKenzie needs help disposing of her property to move west. She doesn’t.
“Duncan is full of the Idea that I will Visit No Ca next winter
I was more desirous last fall on account of my not being enga-
-ged only in the crop all my inter valls were to me lost time as I
could not be at any thing to enhance the value of my own
place then not known, tho it may not be impossible for me
to See no – ca next winter If Betsy can effect a Sale of her
place and wish to move here I will try to go of course but you
known every one that has a place can find something to do
on it — it would be highly gratifying to me to see you all
but my little matters call my attention here…”
In almost every early letter he writes, Duncan McKenzie makes reference to the variety of land he encounters in this part of south and south-central Mississippi. He expresses the same opinion on the land’s unique variety in each, “I have traveled in my oppinion not less than 2.000 miles in this State & have seen all quallities of land from the poorest to that which will produce 3.000 lb cotton per acre & 60 Bushels corn”
Cousin Duncan Calhoun
This particular letter to John is much more spirited than the letter to Charles indicating a comfortable relationship between the two. In this letter Duncan McKenzie introduces one of the more interesting characters in the Duncan McLaurin Papers – Duncan Calhoun – a first cousin of Barbara, John, and Duncan McLaurin through their mother’s side of the family, Catharine Calhoun McLaurin. Evidently, Duncan Calhoun was living and working as a tailor probably in Covington County. One day a man, for whom he had done some work, came into the shop to settle accounts. Duncan Calhoun would not give the customer his pants until he was paid. This is what ensued:
Duncan Calhoun late of Ft Claborn on refusing
to give a dandy a pair of pantaloons which he had made for him
Taylor wanted his pay before he would let the work go —
The dandy nettled with Such measures walked out of the
Shop round to a window took out a pistol and cut loos at
the large head of the taylor but lucky for the latter
the dandy was not a Sure mark but unlike a man
our hero taylor instead of the offender ran away
to mobile So report Says…”
Indeed Duncan Calhoun soon writes from Mobile, Alabama to his cousin Duncan McLaurin!
Duncan McKenzie concludes this letter to his brother-in-law by sending respects from “Barbra and the children” and especially to Barbara’s “Father Mother and all the family and connection.” At this point he mentions that he has not heard from his own father, Kenneth McKenzie, since last October, when he was last known to be in Wilmington, NC.
Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to John McLaurin, 13 November 1836
Health of Correspondents
McKenzie begins this letter anxious that his letters have been lost along the way, a common hazard of the 19th century postal service – steadily improving but in the decade of the 1830s still carried by riders, stage, and packet boats rather than by rail. He has seen a letter from Duncan McLaurin to Allan Stewart, which renewed his worry that his recent letters had been lost. He had also written to brother-in-law John McCall and his son Hugh McCall as well as his sister-in-law Betsy McKenzie.
The lost letters concern him especially because he has recently recovered from an illness from which he thought he might not recover. He mentions that his letters to Archibald McPherson and Betsy McKenzie described his illness in detail. While assuring John that the rest of the family has been well, he also describes how the illness has resulted in dental problems. It is my opinion that what he may have thought was bone might have been actually been teeth, perhaps wisdom teeth. This was a man who considered himself somewhat knowledgeable of current medical practices, giving us a hint at what must have been the state of the medical profession in the recently settled west. His graphic description follows:
“… (in letters to Betsy and A. McPherson) you will have a
description of the violence of the case from which I so unexpectedly
So far recovered, 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 hawking 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”
Following this description he mentions the family’s sorrow at hearing that “Effy was unwell also some of the blacks but as they were on the mend when he wrote it is to be hoped that they all recovered.” The Effy to whom he makes reference here is probably not John’s wife, for they were not married at this time. The letter likely refers to Barbara’s favorite sister Effy. The reference to “blacks” is likely to enslaved persons. Quite often in the letters the welfare of enslaved persons seems to be on a seeming equality with the welfare of the white owners, raising the suspicion that these particular white slaveowners at least may have thought of their property as human beings. Clearly, these owners held the “white man’s burden” philosophy, that they were doing something a bit more humane by offering work and protection to people they considered incapable of managing their own freedom. On the other hand, enslaved people are listed along with other beastly property when discussion in the letters is about market prices. It is difficult for our twenty-first century sensibilities, and in the face of proven scientific information, to imagine this point of view. This culture of race was a philosophy supported only by unproven conclusions drawn from observation and supported in their communities by the textile economy based on slave labor and the interpretations of Biblical references.
Though the slave trade to the United States was illegal after 1807, the internal slave trade remained a lively business from around 1820 until the Civil War. Mississippi’s constitution of 1832 had attempted to diminish the interstate slave trade, but to no avail as cotton farming, a major cash crop, gained ground. As the demand for slave labor decreased in states like North Carolina and Virginia, the demand in cotton-growing states to the south and west increased. Some evidence exists in the Duncan McLaurin Papers that the McLaurins may have had an interest in this interregional slave trade or “the Second Middle Passage.” In this letter another reference to slavery, written in a marginal notation, reveals the challenges of keeping in bondage human beings with minds of their own. It is possible that particular enslaved people were sent from the Carolinas to families and friends purchasing them in Mississippi. For a small farmer, an enslaved person’s background would be beneficial knowledge. Duncan McKenzie mentions a specific enslaved woman in this letter. His cruel description perhaps hints at a certain machismo that may have become part of a slaveholders character no matter his philosophy or the number of enslaved persons one owned. McKenzie writes to John McLaurin to report on this slave woman about whom they both had knowledge:
“If the last … negro woman is ill or high minded she has kept it to herself thus far, and I would / advise her to do so for fear of a worse change. thus far she conducts well peaceable and industrious”
Crops in 1836
Duncan McKenzie reports on his crops in almost every letter in this collection that he writes back to North Carolina. In 1836 it seems the corn and peas (field peas) have done very well, though the cotton has not been as good as in the past few years. He explains how the reduction in the price of cotton affects the horse flesh market. From this information one can surmise the influence of the cotton prices on other markets. He also mentions a rise in the price of land:
“we are nearly done housing corn I think there is one and about
1:000 bushels, we gathered a fine parcel of peas as the cotton
is Such as did not keep them in employ it did not open as forward
as usual and in fact we did not plant the usual quantity
under it this year, say 14 acres … corn in this neighborhood is worth
from 75 cents to $1 oats from 50 to 75 cents, pease from 1:25 to 1:50 cents
wheat none, potatoes Sweat from 40 59 50 cents, bacon from
15-18 3/4 cents, pork from 7 to 8 cents beef from 4 to 5 cents —
Such is the prices in this neighborhood the cotton excepted, in fact
scarcely an article that the farmer will raise but will Sell
at moderate good price at this time tho we have no principal
market nearer than 90 miles … owing to the price of cotton
horse flesh bears a good price, I was offerd $150 for the blind
mares colt this fall but as he is a gentle and good horse I
refused it … is there not a vast difference in the times now
and when I came here, a piece of land that was offered to me the
Spring I came, at $800 was sold lately for $6000 dollars one half cash in hand”
“King alcahall” and Politics
As I have mentioned before, Duncan McKenzie was fervently against the use of alcohol and generally disparaged his neighbors for it. The local Covington County churches felt similarly. If one joined the church, one implicitly agreed to remain sober. The use of tobacco was many times frowned upon as well, though no evidence exists in this collection that this particular community, many former Carolinians, were prejudiced against tobacco use. In a later letter Duncan’s son, Kenneth, describes his failed attempt to quit chewing tobacco around the time his mother is dying of mouth cancer. Duncan mentions a neighbor, a heavy drinker, who has joined the church and has foresworn alcohol use.
Politics is not as prevalent in this letter to John as it is in McKenzie’s letters to Duncan McLaurin. However, he mentions evidence in his community of a diminished loyalty to Jacksonianism. Duncan McKenzie is an avowed Whig and notices when the Democrats are not as loyal as they once were:
“…last monday was our Election of
deligates also for a member to fill the vacancy in Congress
occasioned by the death of Genl. Dickson at the precinque
that I attended the Van party were ahead as two to one
a less difference than I looked for at that place as I knew the
most of them to be led by Jackson nomination and
caucus dictation. however even in that the times
are changing for when I first came here it was
unsafe for one to call the name of Jackson in vain
much more abuse him or his measures in fact if he was
not a Jacksonian he was called a Damd nullifier or some
-thing worse if they could have Sense to give it a name”
In this particular letter to John, Duncan McKenzie feels it necessary to defend the circumstances of Barbara, his wife. It seems that Dr. Duncan, the local physician, has written to Barbara’s family some information that concerns them about Barbara’s condition. Duncan defends her condition in this letter and admits that her life is hard, especially with the young children that surround them. He explains that the children on the farm who are old enough are able to help her since they are not yet working in the fields. This includes both white and black children, who he names as if John is familiar with them all. Duncan’s son John is about three and Allen six, so we can surmise the ages of the black children Jones, Niles, and Jbae. Elly is an adult enslaved person mentioned repeatedly in this collection and may have been with the family for some time:
“It is true Barbra has a considerable charge on account of the children but Allan being the oldest / takes considerable pains in conducting his little brother John and Jones and Niles all are very attentive / to Jbae (ie) Elly sones name he is as handsome a black child as I ever saw”
Another personal note in this letter is Duncan’s request that John find a gun for his boys. Duncan’s older boys, the oldest is by now about sixteen or seventeen, are fond of hunting in the woods, still somewhat populated with rabbits, racoons, deer, wild hogs, panthers, and bears in spite of the rapid destruction of their habitats by farming and timbering pursuits. After offering the family’s respects to grandparents Hugh and Catherine McLaurin and to their Uncle Duncan and Aunts Effy and Mary still at home, he requests that John find a gun and send it out by some trustworthy person coming to Mississippi:
“they (Duncan’s sons) request you to procure from John Buchanan or Some other
good gun smith a rifle gun of tolerable size and send it out
by the first opportunity, should you do so I would forward
payment to you for the same, if John C will be coming
this winter he will probably bring the article”
Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to John McLaurin, 29 March 1838
Barbara’s Health and Family News
After an apology of sorts for not writing, Duncan McKenzie expresses regret that Duncan Douglass, the husband of Barbara’s sister Sarah McLaurin has not kept up correspondence. Duncan and Sarah both died in Marlboro County, NC, Duncan in 1864 and Sarah in 1862. McKenzie also mentions the health of his family and that Barbara has been ill.
“My family Since
my last, has been in tolerable health with the exception
of some attacks of cold which in some inStances has been
quite Severe especially on Barbara, She was for two or three
days verry Sick and being in rather delicate health for Some time
passed, She became verry weak, She is now recruiting
tolerably fast — all our neighbors are well So far as I know
Another acquaintance named Allan Wilkerson, a cousin of Charles Patterson, has migrated to Covington County, Mississippi and is renting a place called “the Carolinean trap.” This same place has been rented and abandoned by other acquaintances: Lachlin McLaurin of Marks Creek and his brother Hugh.
The persons Duncan mentions as having given up alcohol to join the Presbyterian Church have by now been excommunicated. This excommunication is not only recorded in this letter but also from another primary source, the actual church records. The Hopewell Presbyterian Church records of 22 January 1838 call on the two members to be, “…hereby suspended from the communion of the Church until they give satisfactory evidence of repentance and reformation.” As Duncan puts it, “… but alas rudy bacchus held out promises that they could not See in church or Church Discipline consequently both were excommunicated.” It is interesting to note here the difference in social attitudes toward alcoholism in 1838 and the way society looks upon the problem today. Duncan also disparages the drinking done by Dr. Duncan. He seems to appreciate the doctor but does not respect him enough to avoid gossiping about his drinking. Alcoholism in 1838 was clearly seen as a moral failure on the part of individuals and those people were not to be suffered in the houses of worship. Today churches and religious organizations play a significant role in welcoming and helping individuals overcome their addictions. Thankfully, society has learned a great deal in nearly two hundred years about the science of addiction and how to combat it. In the same way, we have learned the 19th century social division of people by race is completely at odds with science.
Crops and Economy
McKenzie laments that wet weather will likely lead to a late planting season this spring. At the writing of this letter he has only planted half of his corn, though some people are done. He suggests perhaps they risked damaging their crop by planting early this season. The outlook appears good in 1838 for the cotton crop:
“…we have planted
Say half our corn, Some people are done planting corn and
should the weather continue cool and now dry after the wet
weather, I fear it will be but a bad chance for the corn to
come up — people are preparing for large crops of cotton this
Season, we will plant the Same land under it this year that
we had last, also the same under corn, the wheat looks tolle
-rably well tho rather thin the frosts killed Some of it, and
all the fall sowing of oats none of them escaped”
Towards the end of his letter, Duncan McKenzie tries to explain the dilemma of using state money rather than federal money. When business is done out of state at places like New Orleans, Louisiana or Mobile, Alabama, the rates of exchange devalue their state money, “a currency that met local demand but lacked credibility outside the immediate community” according to the Mississippi Encyclopedia. Merchants doing business in those places actually lose money. Such was the overconfidence in cotton production that the Mississippi economy by 1837 suffered from over speculation in land and money. The number of banks lending money in Mississippi had grown by 1837 to twenty-seven at the time Duncan writes this letter. It did not matter if a landowner was probably overextending himself, loans were available to anyone who owned a bit of land. In 1836 when President Andrew Jackson issued his Specie Circular, many Mississippians could not pay for their land in specie because they only had unbacked paper money. As banks issued foreclosures on property, those who had overextended themselves fled across the Mississippi River to Louisiana and Texas often in secrecy and the dead of night, along with their enslaved people who trotted alongside wagons that held women and children. Often a facade of property, such as a horse and carriage, was left behind to delay suspicion of their flight. When the banks could not collect their money, they failed. In 1837 the Union Bank was chartered in hopes of correcting the problem. It is to Duncan McKenzie’s credit and caution that he had not been among those who indulged in purchasing that for which he could not pay. The Union Bank issued bonds that the state legislature guaranteed. When the Union Bank failed, Governor McNutt suggested the state refuse to pay them, known as “repudiation.”
“The merchants of this state are unhealthy the most of them are
forced to quit business as they dare not go to New Orleans with
=out money our State money is from 15-30 percent under par with
the New Orleans Merchants consequently our merchants can
=not stand the drag, this loss in the end falls on the consumers
of the merchandise tho it first comes out of the merchants —
the only way for us farmers now is to go to market with
our cotton or send and agent who will purchase our
necessary, cotton is at par with gold or anything else
So when we sell our crops we receive the real grit or
our own State money at the above discount …”
In the Duncan McLaurin Papers, correspondence between Duncan McLaurin and John Patrick Stewart, clerk of Franklin County, MS, explores in detail the lively politics of this period.
In concluding, Duncan McKenzie makes a reference to his son Daniel, who is impatiently waiting for him to finish the letter. Daniel is tasked with carrying this letter to the post office when he goes to school. Of all the McKenzie sons, Daniel is the one who enjoys school and will appreciate an education, though he never quite receives the one of his dreams.
John McLaurin (1789-1864) is the brother of Barbara McKenzie. John was an infant when his parents, Hugh and Catharine, left Argyll, Scotland for America. John spent his adult life farming, and was deeded 500 acres of land by his father. He and his brother Duncan together managed the farm and Ballachulish after Hugh became too old to manage it. John oversaw the farm while Duncan spent time teaching away from home at Bennettsville, SC and during Duncan’s short term in the North Carolina state legislature.
Duncan was living at Ballachulish and caring for his dependent family members by the time John married Effie Stalker. They set up housekeeping at John’s farm and had four children. Their first child, John Cain was born and died in 1840. They were blessed with another boy, Owen, who lived into adulthood, served in the Confederate army and navy, spent a short time in Canada after the war ended, and died in North Carolina on his family’s farm in 1869, ending the possibility of carrying on the McLaurin name in Hugh’s branch of the family. John and Effie also had two daughters who both died in 1867. Owen, Elizabeth, and Catharine McLaurin all died as young adults. However, they all outlived their father, who died in 1864. Effie Stalker, from the time her husband died, ran the farm herself and apparently, according to Owen’s probate hearing, felt that Owen could not be a very good farmer since he spent so much time with books. Duncan evidently took issue with the attitude Effie held toward the worth of her son. Among the Duncan McLaurin Papers is an 1872 letter to Effie probably written during the lengthy probate hearing that year regarding the property of John McLaurin. Duncan bitterly expresses his view of Effie’s comments regarding her own son at this hearing.
traduce the character of Owen for he was among the most respectful & esteemed
young men of the neighborhood and had he lived would have filled honorably offices
of profit & trust in his native land … Now that he is
gone he is represented as a perfect spendthrift.”
Duncan had his favorites and they included Owen, who at the least appreciated what his Uncle could do for him. Owen’s correspondence with his Uncle Duncan in this collection begins during his school days away from home, continues during the Civil War, and ends with the war. Duncan also writes a touching poem in honor of Catharine. Duncan signs his lovely poem penned in her honor with these words: “A tribute by her uncle whose love was reciprocal.”
John is one of the people with whom Duncan McKenzie is most anxious to correspond, though it seems that John did not spend much time corresponding, especially after he married. Having read some of John’s correspondence with his brother, I can safely say that he did not take the same care with his writing as did Duncan McKenzie nor especially his own brother. He does not seem to have enjoyed corresponding in the same way Duncan McKenzie and Duncan McLaurin appeared to relish it.
Bond, Bradley T. “Panic of 1837.” Ownby, Tedd and Wilson, Charles Reagan. Mississippi Encyclopedia. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 968.
Bridges, Myrtle N. Estate Records 1772-1933 Richmond County North Carolina: Hardy – Meekins Book II. photocopy from the Brandon, MS Genealogy Room. “John McLaurin – 1864,” “Effy McLaurin – 1861,” and “Duncan McLaurin – 1872.”
Gonzales, John Edmond. “Flush Times, Depression, War, and Compromise.” A History of Mississippi Volume I. Edited by McLemore, Richard Aubrey. University & College Press of Mississippi: Hattiesburg. 1973. 292-294.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Effy Stalker. 4 October 1872. Box 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 11 May 1834. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 13 November 1836. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 28 March 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
McPherson, James M. Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1982. 383.
Minutes of Session. Hopewell Presbyterian Church 1837 – 1883. Covington County, MS. Provided by Harold Johnson.