The 1830s: Education

According to Aubrey K. Lucas in his essay “Education in MS from Statehood to the Civil War,” one of the “rare commodities” in Mississippi in 1817 was education, though the first state constitution included this remark: “Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged in this state.” The Natchez area was the wealthiest region in the state in the early decades of statehood and could afford academies, private tutors, and schools out of state for one segment of the population, the prominent and affluent. Jefferson College was established in the Natchez area and functioning in 1811, before Mississippi became a state. In contrast, Franklin Academy was established in 1821 in Northeast, Mississippi, a less affluent cotton growing area of the state, and functioned as a public school. Generally, under the cotton economy the wealthy landowners controlled state funding. Taxing to support statewide public education could not be fathomed under the realities of sparse settlement and indifference among those who could afford schooling as well as indifference of those who were working, often on a survival level under frontier conditions, to build farms.

Likely the preoccupation with a rapidly growing cotton economy played a part in neglecting educational opportunities in the state. Despite this, Lucas tells us that during the economic growth of the early 1830s there were sixty-one incorporated secondary schools in the state, largely locally funded tuition schools. Mississippi’s depressed economy towards the end of the 1830s did not hurt the growth of academies in the state since the state legislature in 1839 allowed for financial assistance “from fines, forfeitures, escheats and similar sources” to be set aside for education. Though the leasing of 16th section lands had been allowed earlier, this brought little revenue since it was not effectively carried out. As for slaves, free blacks and mulattoes, state law did not allow them to meet publicly or at a school to learn reading and writing. However, this did not preclude a master from teaching his property to read and write. The Nat Turner rebellion frightened slaveowners and increased opposition to the education of these groups of people. Some native Americans in Mississippi generally benefitted from education by religious missionaries, some of whom by the 1830s had learned the Choctaw language and were able to teach English.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan McKenzie states that on the Saturday after they arrived in Covington County, Mississippi in January of 1833, they chose their rental land, “convenient to a School house, a School was made up and Hugh R. Trawick the teacher at the rate of 18 dollars a year for the first grade 24 for 2nd grade.” One Hugh R. Trawick is listed as having paid tuition to Duncan McLaurin in North Carolina; he is also the guide that led the McKenzie family on their journey from North Carolina to Mississippi. Over time, Duncan McKenzie mentions a few other of their connections from North Carolina who are teachers in the local area tuition schools. For whatever reason they do not appear to have remained in their positions for very long.

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

I am almost tempted to send Danl with

Gilchrist to your school, his youth will for the present

Save him the ride, Should you continue teaching for any

length of time equal to that which would be necessary

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

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

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

an easy matter to educate them here, and with all

So immoral is the State of society particularly among

Students — Duncan McKenzie

 

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 — Duncan McKenzie

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 — Duncan McKenzie

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 to which 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. — Duncan McKenzie

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 … — Duncan McKenzie

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 — Duncan McKenzie

McKenzie ends this letter 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. — John McQueen

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A great portion of my life has been devoted

to the instruction of youth and in the promotion of

intellectual knowledge; and I certainly should act contra-

ry to my inclination and former course of life were I

to refuse to lend my name towards the promotion of the

intellectual improvement of man kind. I therefore not

only permit but request & authorize you to enroll my

name as member of your society, and the fervent wishes

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

intellectual & moral improvement of the human mind

in the pursuit & acquisition of all useful knowledge and may

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

and individuals direct protect sustain and cause to prosper your

laudable undertaking — Duncan McLaurin

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.

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 29 January 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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

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

Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 3 May 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan McKenzie Letters of the 1830s: The Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mail1834waxseal
The circle at the top of the address portion of this letter is evidence of the wax seal placed on the page after it is folded.

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

…my letter of the latter part of Augt.

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

If it miscarried I beleave it was the first lost

between us in near Six years regular correspondence

The receipt of that letter in due time, I know

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

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

of Barbras situation — But if need be the treach

-erous or negligent hands who were the cause of the

delay or final miscarryriage of a letter which was

to me a Source of inexpressible pleasure to have

Through the mercy of our kind heavenly Benefac

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

would have received its contents with joy and Thanks

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

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

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

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

Burgh our county Sight — Duncan McKenzie

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

An interesting note by Duncan McLaurin appears on a letter written to him by his nephew Kenneth McKenzie dated December of 1848. “This letter was written on the 11th and mailed on the 13th December 1848 came to hand from Springfield P. O. Richmond County No. Ca. on the 14th May 1861.” Evidently, this letter was thirteen years on the way.

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters from Duncan McKenzie to his Brother-in-law John McLaurin in Richmond County, NC

JohnMcLaurin1789-1864Hugh&Cath copy
John McLaurin’s tombstone in Stewartsville Cemetery, Laurinburg, NC. In Memory of John Son of Hugh & Catharine McLaurin Born Sept. 1789. Died March. 22. 1864. (The name S. Buie appears at the bottom and may refer to the monument maker.)

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…”

The Land

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:

“our Taylor

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”

Enslaved Persons

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”

Family Matters

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

at present”

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.

effiestalkermclaurind1881-copy.jpeg
Effie Stalker’s tombstone in Stewartsville Cemetery, Laurinburg, NC. In Memory of Effie Stalker wife of John McLaurin A native of Argyleshire Scotland Died Sept. 20. 1881 Aged (probably 77 or 78)

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.

“You cannot

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.

Sources:

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.

1831-1833 Land and People

The Land: Settling in Covington County, MS

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

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

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

that each Family have separate houses convenient to the

same well or Equally convenient it being 200 yards from

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

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

tend in corn and cotton the balance we have given

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

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

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

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

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

“we have divided the land on

this plantation I have 58 acres 28 I expect to tend

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

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

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

the crop”     – Duncan McKenzie

John P. Stewart’s Description 1831

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

West toward the Mississippi River 1831

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

Towards Natchez 1831

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

Natchez 1831

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

Port Gibson 1831

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

The People 1831

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

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

Sources:

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 29 January 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

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

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

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

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

Words Between Sisters

BMcKLetExcerpt
Excerpt from Barbara’s 1817 letter to her sister Effy. 16 June 1817. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

On June 16, 1817 Barbara McLaurin McKenzie wrote a letter to her favorite sister Effy because she was homesick for her family and “uneasy” about the health of her aging mother. Barbara was married to Duncan McKenzie, who farmed on the Peedee River within about sixty miles of Gum Swamp. Likely this was more than a couple of day’s travel in a wagon – less by horseback – yet still far enough away to impose an obstacle for very frequent visits. Barbara’s anxiety is palpable in these lines,

“Duncan came last night I was verry glad for we did not here a word Since uncle was down there I was very uneasy about Mother that she would be Sick this Summer I hope she will get well now my patience was a most out till Duncan came I kept dreaming every Knight of father and Mother and the all of you.”

The Duncan she refers to is probably her brother Duncan McLaurin. Barbara goes on to say in the letter that they are late with the crop and will not go down “till the Sacriment will be at the Hill” when she will stay a week. With the hopeful prospect of one or more of her sisters returning to PeeDee River with  her to visit a while, she remarks on the “Jelious pout” her sister Effy displayed when Barbara did not write her: “you Said I forgot you but not as long as I live & we did look for father and one of you every Saturday but you did not come.” This last was to be prophetic for Barbara, especially after she migrated with her husband and children to Mississippi. Sisters and brothers still did not come, and her life would become so busy and probably sometimes so grueling that she would want to write but either never did or her letters may not have survived in this collection.

A physical complaint Barbara expressed in this letter would also appear in letters written by her husband and children many years later from Mississippi. She had developed a pain in her hip which she blamed on a rough wagon trip, “I had a mity sore pain in my hip for … too weeks I did go one night to preaching we rid very fast I was thinking it was that rased the pain.” This pain would follow her the rest of her life, a challenging one for most yeoman farmer women. For example, the family had no chimney in their new home in Mississippi and would have to bake their own bricks, which was not necessarily a priority – the crops were. Though it helped that they moved onto already cleared land, no chimney likely meant cooking outdoors and moving heavy pots. According to later letters, the family had brought at least one enslaved woman with them from North Carolina, and possibly this was so that she could help Barbara when she was not needed to help in the fields.

Nevertheless, Barbara McLaurin, my second great grandmother, must have had a fine 19th century childhood. Probably born about five years before the turn of the 18th to 19th century, she likely spent a great deal of her time helping out on the family farm and enjoying the home that her father built when he purchased land near Gum Swamp at Laurel Hill, North Carolina. Born into the Hugh McLaurin and Catharine Calhoun McLaurin family, Barbara grew up enjoying a household filled with people and female companionship. Her many sisters by far outnumbered the two brothers, Duncan and John. By 1817 she and three of her older sisters were married: Jennett McLaurin (John) McCall, Sarah McLaurin (Duncan) Douglass, and Isabella McLaurin (Charles) Patterson. Three of her sisters would remain spinsters: Catharine, Mary, and Effy. Although Duncan never married, her brother John married Effie Stalker McLaurin.

Hugh McLaurin would likely not have concerned himself so much with educating daughters as with sons. Duncan, though only about four when he crossed the Atlantic, was by far the most literate of the children. His brother John was a farmer and less the man of letters – an infant when the family left Ballachulish in Argyll province for Wilmington, NC in 1790. Hugh may have worked in the slate quarry at Ballachulish, Scotland, for he came to America with finances enough to get him and his family across the ocean and to purchase property upon his arrival in the new land. The same need for readily available fertile land, affordably taxed, on which to establish a family farm must have been one motivating force that drove the Hugh McLaurin family from Scotland following family and friends that had gone before. They came to a new continent from Scotland in much the same way the Duncan McKenzie family was inspired to leave North Carolina for Mississippi.

Hugh named his new home and farm Ballachulish, after his hometown in Argyll, Scotland. In fact many Argyll families settled in North Carolina – McCalls, Stewarts, Calhouns and others – most of them becoming land and slaveholders. Many of them are buried in the old Stewartsville cemetery near Laurel Hill that survives today. Hugh’s home would pass from generation to generation, beginning with nephew Hugh McCall, to whom Duncan left all of his personal property upon his death in December of 1872. According to the record of Marguerite Whitfield, a McCall descendant, the property was still in the hands of the McCall family in 1977. A later descendant of the McCalls has photographs and remembers the house still standing in 1982.

From Ballachulish to Mississippi, Barbara’s words speak to a strong family relationship that spans the distance of frontier roads and dreams of a better life.

Sources:

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.”

Letter from Barbara McKenzie to Effy McLaurin. 16 June 1817. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Whitfield, Marguerite. Families of Ballachulish: McCalls, McLaurins And Related Families in Scotland County, North Carolina. The Pilot Press: Southern Pines, NC. 1978. (This text contains much valuable information, especially about the McCalls and about Scotland roots. However, the information on Barbara McLaurin McKenzie can be corrected with information from the Duncan McLaurin Papers and many other records. Also, two Effys are confused – Effy McLaurin, Barbara’s sister, and Effie Stalker McLaurin, John’s wife. Barbara’s sister Effy died in 1861, and listed Barbara’s children and grandchildren in her will. Effie Stalker McLaurin died in 1881 preceded in death by her husband and all of her children. Effie, John’s wife, is most likely the Effie that lived in her old age with the Hugh McCalls. Duncan McLaurin died in December of 1872, and his will was briefly probated within weeks of his death.)