The Decade of the 1840s: Slavery

Images of Slavery

In June of 1840 at the courthouse door in Natchez, MS; “Beckey, Israel, Mary, and two children, and Harriet” will have their lives uprooted, perhaps separated from lifelong friends and relatives.

Duncan McKenzie’s letters of the 1840s reveal information about the lives of slaves during that decade: Prices, the buying and selling of slaves; the unpredictability of an enslaved person’s life – lack of self-determination; and the extent of the enslaved person’s access to justice under the law. Contrary to facts in the McKenzie family correspondence, arguments on the part of some during the decades prior to the Civil War were increasingly promoting slavery as a positive good.

At the turn of the decade of the 1840s, Mississippians were still experiencing the economic hard times brought on by the failure of the economy that resulted from over speculation in land and slaves. In April of 1840 Duncan McKenzie reports that the price of slaves is significantly under par as is land. The juxtaposition of human chattel with other products of the flesh such as cattle and horses or even land is common in publications and letters of the time: He writes, “I have seen negros that cost upwards of $1500 sold for under $500 under the hammer, and land that was praised at $20 per acre by the Mi- Union Bank appraisers sold by the Sheriff as low as 20cts per acre and in many instances there are no bids at all.”

In a December 1840 letter he continues describing the economic climate in this vein by listing the price of “negro” men, women and children along with corn and land.

I was at a sale Monday & Tuesday

last where I saw negro men selling at from 6 to

$800 on a credit of Twelve months women sold at

5 to $600 — corn at 60cts per Bushel, the tract of

land of 400 acres at $15 per acre, on 1 & 2 years credit

making the round sum of $6,000 …

this same tract was sold five years ago

at $11,000 …

I saw a panel of negroes sold for cash under Execution

one man a carpenter was sold for $1,000 a woman

and child for $650 a boy 16 years old $560 a verry

likely girl at $500 small plow boys $350 &c — Duncan McKenzie

By March of 1841, a matter of months later McKenzie comments that “Negro property” has risen in price but not as high as the North Carolina prices. The land in Mississippi, however, is falling in price and, “millions of acres may be purchased from the speculating companys.” A little over a year later, June of 1842, he responds to McLaurin’s comment that the price of horses has fallen in NC then asks, “will you sell negros at the New Orleans prices (i.e.) from $300 to 350 for women & from 4 to 450 for men.” During the same spring of 1841 the free New York black man, Solomon Northup, found himself kidnapped and enslaved. He would write of his experience in Twelve Years a Slave. Such was the desire to profit off of the cotton-driven need for slave labor.

Certainly many of the individuals bought and sold at these sales were helpless when the economic climate forced owners to sell them off, breaking up families and destroying relationships as well as the routines of life they must have been hard put to establish under such circumstances. Still, in 1837 the politician John C. Calhoun was arguing against hearing petitions in Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Calhoun in the following words supports an argument that slavery was not an evil but a positive good. The economic pressure to provide a labor source for the growth of cotton was increasing. Many people of the United States would come to share this view over the two decades before the Civil War:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It (the black race) came among us in a low, degrade, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition. — John C. Calhoun, U.S. Senate, February 6, 1837

The irony of Calhoun’s position is astounding to us in the 21st Century. The idea that selling human beings and separating families without their consent “under the fostering care of our institutions” would be considered more civilized and a greater good than a thriving family unit might have been in even a more technologically primitive society in Africa with its own mores and folkways is an example of the arrogance of Western colonialism. The disconnect in Calhoun’s argument is easy for us to see today in the face of scientific evidence, both physical and anthropological. 

In an 1842 letter, Duncan McKenzie reports with disdain that an acquaintance was, “committed to gaol for harboring a runaway negro.” Certainly, this enslaved person had made an individual choice to run as many did, but their chances of escaping to a life of freedom were limited. By the 1840s Fugitive Slave laws had reduced the possibility of a successful flight. It is not clear whether Duncan McKenzie’s acquaintance was harboring an escaped enslaved person for humanitarian reasons or because he simply wanted a cost-free slave. What matters is that escape was very difficult if a person did not have outside help.

By May of 1844, McKenzie writes the news that two other acquaintances, citizens of Smith County, MS,  were sentenced to a term of seven years for killing, “Kelly’s negro man Jack by whipping.” Apparently one of them was Kelly’s overseer. They are said to have “whipd the poor slave to death,” in a “spree.” When Duncan McKenzie mentions a “spree” he is usually referring to unbridled drunken behavior. May issues of The Mississippi Free Trader newspaper of Natchez, MS confirm Duncan’s story. The two plead “insanity, produced by intoxication,” but Judge Willis explained to the jury that “intoxication did not constitute legal insanity.” However, the story does not end there. According to the Vicksburg Whig newspaper of 3 June 1844, the two were “remanded back to jail, under a writ of error issued by Judge Sharkey.” Kelly’s overseer then, “made his escape.” After the overseer escapes, Kelly, the plantation owner, submits and receives certiorari awarded in December of 1844 to the Mississippi High Court of Appeals. This information appeared in the Southern Reformer of 13 December 1844. Later The Weekly Mississippian of December 18, 1844 in case Number 1344 explains the court has  “reversed judgement” on Kelly due to an error, which is likely the overseer’s escape. Several years later in 1846 Duncan McKenzie makes reference to Kelly again. We find that shortly after a trip to North Carolina, he and his family “left for beyond the Mississippi River.” Thus, the two appear to have gotten away with murder. None of the murder victim’s family or friends had any authority as enslaved people to challenge the system.

In both of the previously mentioned situations, the enslaved human beings were at the mercy of those in charge — color making them easily identifiable in the white world off of the plantation and always subject to the whims of white authority. In addition, the simple fact of aging might force drastic changes in lives. In 1845 a relative of McKenzie’s in Scott County, MS sold “carpenter Jack for $800  cash a good price for a negro of his age.” McKenzie adds that “he is a good and valuable servant and has now a good master.”

On the 24th of November 1845, a neighbor of the McKenzies had his life threatened by gunshot. According to Duncan McKenzie, two enslaved men belonging to the neighbor somehow “procured a large pistol which they loaded with … buck shot.” The neighbor and family were evidently outdoors in a visible place. One of the enslaved people, “rested the pistol by the corner of the Shed room fired directly at his masters head but without effect.” It seems evidence of the shot showed that it came very close to hitting its mark. The neighbor and a friend caught the two enslaved men and turned them over to the authorities – probably the sheriff. They were imprisoned awaiting trial. The two spent the winter in jail and under conditions that left them exposed enough to the weather that their legs were frostbitten. One man’s legs had to be amputated. This cruelty happened before they were convicted. In McKenzie’s opinion the neighbor was too honest in turning the slaves over to the authorities. He says they would have “sold well for at least $700 each the day they were lodged in jail.” The neighbor was due $375 each, half of their appraised value at conviction, but this would hardly cover the medical expenses, prison and trial fees. Nothing is said about whether or not they were able to argue for themselves or what difference it might have made. This punishment appears to far exceed the one hundred lashes due a slave found guilty of assault and battery of a white person. However, judges were free to decide the punishment of a  “negro or mullatto person” who abused a white person. A slave accused of a capital crime, which attempted murder likely was, had the right to legal counsel. Evidently, the right to counsel did not do these two fellows much good. Duncan laments the waste, but that is all.

Another neighbor during this same year, hired Duncan McKenzie’s son, Dunk, to act as overseer on his plantation for eight bales of cotton compensation. He worked on the plantation in this capacity for a matter of months before, “one of the negroes who became so devious,” was shot by the son of the plantation owner. The plantation owner looked upon the scene with “apparent indifference” only saying that he did not want anyone shot. The planter’s son, “shot the negro tho did not kill him but in all probability has rendered him useless,” by putting a “load of duck shot” in the slave’s thigh. Duncan goes on to tell that a second enslaved person “who took umbrage at the passing events,” extraordinarily escaped being shot by turning “some corner that saved him.” Another of the plantation owner’s family members advised Dunk to leave while he could because the compensation was not worth daily risking “his peace and safety.” The youthful Dunk, having worked all of his life on a small farm with fewer enslaved people, was probably ill-prepared for overseeing a large number of workers — in this case fifty or more. In the coming years the owner of this particular plantation would have further difficulty managing his slaves due to his increasing dementia.

Working in the fields of a small farm in antebellum Mississippi was likely the main focus of daily life for enslaved people and everyone else on the farm. Small farm owner’s slaves worked often side by side with members of the family. This was true on the McKenzie farm. In the following passage, Dunk, Kenneth, Hugh and the first Danl mentioned are Duncan McKenzie’s sons. Elly, Celia and the second Danl mentioned are enslaved people. Evidently, Elly stole some bacon and shared it, for which she received “leg bale.” (Among Duncan McKenzie’s enslaved people, two may have been named Ely or Elly, a man and a woman. Their names may have been pronounced differently – one beginning with a long e and ending with a long i sound – the other beginning with a short e and ending with a long e sound.)

We are trying to gather cotton and not with standing

Elly leaches absence we can gather a parcel per day

Dunk when in good humor can pick out 250 lbs per

day, Kenneth is next best, Hugh & Danl are not good

at it, Say 100 each, Celia is slow but won’t run,

Elly stole some bacon the other day, in consequence she

took leg bale. Celia says she gave it to McBrydes

Dorkas & to her sone Danl  — Duncan McKenzie

In the fourteen years that Duncan McKenzie lived to farm in Covington County, MS, he did not grow cotton every year. When times were hard it appears he fell back on profits from corn. His land was likely not able to sustain cotton growing, which depletes the soil rapidly. The family evidently practiced some crop rotation. Just how much cotton a day one worker could pick probably depended a great deal on the cotton too. High growing cotton was preferable in the days before the mechanical cotton picker. The expression to be in “High Cotton” means that one is experiencing good times. A worker would probably be able to gather more without bending so much. Today the mechanical picker works better with short cotton, and often chemicals are used on the cotton to make it grow shorter with more dense bolls. In another 1847 example of cotton picking, Kenneth McKenzie claims that “Miles the oldest of the black boys picked 56 lbs of cotton before dinner. He will pick 100 today.” Two hundred and fifty pounds a day is probably an average day’s work for a grown, young and healthy man. It is questionable whether Kenneth is praising Miles or disparaging him. Was “dinner” the noon meal or the evening meal? and would Miles have to pick the same amount of cotton between noon and quitting time or would he be driven to pick fifty bales in only a few hours of remaining daylight? Miles likely was born and grew up on the McKenzie farm. Though the use of the term “boy” could refer to a grown man, it might be that Miles is still a young person, perhaps a teen. Little context is given to answer these questions.

Race generally precluded whether or not you were a slave in 1840s society of the deep South. Fear of slave rebellion before emancipation prompted Mississippi to force free blacks to leave the state, though census records at the outbreak fo the Civil War reveal almost 800 free blacks living in MS.  Duncan mentions a Native American worker on his farm, though he does not make it clear whether this person was enslaved or a “hireling” as McKenzie would have referred to a wage worker. This person was not very helpful on the farm, and it is the only mention of him in the letters: “We have a curse of an Indian boy who we are trying to make work, but it is like the Devils Shearing the hog a great cry but little wool.”

In his 1840s publication of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville writes of three American races: white, African American, and Native American (modern terminology). He makes the point that the remnants of the Native Americans have too much pride to assimilate themselves into white society and were doomed to watch the environment in which their culture thrived destroyed by the relentless white movement westward. Tocqueville  also contends that the African American enslaved person would never be allowed to assimilate into white society due to white race prejudice. The idea that segregation and separatism would dominate race relations in America for generations to come even after emancipation is present in Tocqueville’s thinking.


Today, authors such as Gene Dattel, a native Mississippian who recently published Reckoning With Race, appear convinced that race relations will not improve without active assimilation socially and particularly economically. Dattel also contends that even though the anti-slavery movement disapproved of slavery, abolitionists did not always argue for or work to assure assimilation of races. In May of 1845, Frederick Douglass published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. His autobiographical account is an attempt to make his emancipation, assimilation, and amalgamation argument more credible through sharing his personal experience.

Pro-slavery Arguments of the 1840s

As the cotton industry grew internationally, the desire on the cotton farms in the American South for slave labor grew. As the abolitionist movement in the American North grew, pro-slavery defense arguments grew. Paternalism was the basis of the argument that slavery was a positive good. Among the strongest voices of the philosophical arguments for the continuation of slavery included the politician John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery as a state’s right and a positive good on the floor of Congress during the 1830s. Thomas R. Dew published a “Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832” in which he delineates the negative aspects of emancipation. The Virginia legislature was prompted to debate the issue after the Nat Turner rebellion. Years later the Virginia slaveholder George Fitzhugh published a pamphlet at the end of the 1840s decade called “Slavery Justified, by a Southerner.” These arguments supporting slavery as a positive good would increase in force during the decade of the 1850s in the face of westward expansion and efforts to slow the spread of slavery into the territories. Even though the Southerners in Congress were able to stop the 1846 Wilmot Proviso that would have banned slavery in the Mexican War territories gained by the U.S., the ideas in the Wilmot Proviso continued to threaten slaveholders’ political power.


Thomas Roderick Dew (1802-1846) argued that the colonization of American slaves to Liberia was impractical and would destroy Virginia financially. Since slaves were considered property, their masters would have to be reimbursed for their losses. In addition, the supports needed for colonizing would be a heavy monetary burden as well. He also promoted the racist attitude that free blacks in America had been a burden on society; thus, freed slaves would be also. He put it this way, “we cannot get rid of slavery without producing a greater injury to both the masters and slaves.” He did not believe that emancipated slaves would make very good workers. The argument that the “races” could not live together on an equal basis because they were so different appears to have been pervasive enough in the nation, both North and South, to prevent assimilation and promote separation of the races for many generations following emancipation.

George Fitzhugh (1806-1881) supported the notion that liberty was not necessarily a good thing. He believed that slavery in a socialistic vein was preferable to liberty and unbridled capitalism. Apparently he felt the slavery that existed in the South identified and met the interests of both strong and the weak (master and slave). In his pamphlet he stated that “Domestic slavery does this far better than any other institution.” He disparaged the free laborer and employer relationship saying that “Self-interest makes the employer and free laborer enemies.” Apparently, he was able to ignore the fact that sometimes master and slave became enemies – in either situation one would


 be hard put to abolish human self-interest. In other words he continues, “A state of dependence is the only condition in which reciprocal affection can exist among human beings.” In this he was perhaps less racist because he believed that weak whites were better off in a condition of slavery too. In support of paternalism Fitzhugh argues, “We do not set children and women free because they are not capable of taking care of themselves, not equal to the constant struggle of society … society would quickly devour them.”

Both of these arguments are wrought upon the premise that the slaveholder will always be responsible to the needs of the slave and the slave eternally grateful for his or her condition, which was never the case when race prejudice was at the core of slavery. Evidence that every slaveowner did not practice paternalism is clear in the correspondence of Duncan McKenzie and family, nor is there much evidence that enslaved people were happy with their condition. 

Final Images from the 1840s

YoemanFarmerHomeMS19thCent copy
The McKenzies, in all likelihood, lived in a larger house than this. Duncan purchased previously owned property upon which buildings had been erected – they only needed improvement. The family, upon purchase of additional property, moved from one dwelling to another during their residence in Covington County, MS. Duncan allows that there are buildings on his purchased land, so his eight enslaved people in 1840 probably had their own quarters. (This photo was taken of an exhibit at Two Museums in Jackson, MS by Betty McKenzie Lane)



Barbara McKenzie, Duncan’s wife, is from time to time mentioned in the McKenzie correspondence, and in 1845 Duncan reveals her interest in one particular enslaved child on the farm. It is, of course, a little girl – Barbara, who had grown up with six surviving sisters, had lost both of her daughters and found herself completely ensconced in a family of seven males by 1845. Barbara was also the person who watched over all of the children too young to work on the farm. The little girl is Barbara’s constant companion and would sleep in the house if they would allow it. Many yeoman farmer families could not afford separate quarters for their slaves. Evidently, the McKenzies had separate quarters. Ostensibly, if they had the time and energy, enslaved persons could subsistence garden their own plots of ground in order to feed themselves. It is possible they were allowed to trap animals to help feed themselves as well. Perhaps slaves and master even hunted together in the surrounding areas. Generally, it is said that perhaps the smaller number of slaves on smaller farms led to closer relationships. They shared a great deal including hard times and disease. The fact no one could ignore is that the enslaved members of the enterprise were devoid of the ability to command their own destinies beyond decisions of life made under the auspices of slavery. This truth always must have been present in even the closest of relationships:

Barbara wishes to relate her misfortune which is that among her negro children

there is but one girl not yet three years old and she thinks more of her than

all the rest in fact the little one is her constant attendant by day and

would willingly be by night if suffered, — Duncan McKenzie

Other evidence of Barbara’s watching over very young enslaved children occurs in 1847 when one of her grown sons is writing a letter to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. It appears that one of the children has been curious about his writing and approaches him, wrinkling his paper. Perhaps he meant the following comment in jest or mild annoyance at multiple imperfections in his letter: “This ink is pale and a rascally nigger youngun rumpled the paper about the time I was finishing.” It is almost refreshing to imagine an action so childlike and normal and an adult reacting normally with mild irritation.

Evidently, one enslaved woman and possibly Ely (formerly Archibald Lytch) came with the family to Mississippi from North Carolina. The unnamed woman was purchased from a man named John Fairly. Duncan emphasizes what he perceives as her loyalty to Barbara:

you recollect the girl I bot

of John Fairly before we left, She had no child till of late She gave birth

to a likely boy of which Barbara is proud notwithstanding the sex but

had much rather it had been a girl, the mother tho not very brisk has ever

been devoted to her mistress … the family, you know there are some of

the black race whoes dispositions … though it be in a rough way, such is hers that

she never would suffer any other negro to speak ill of her mistress without resenting

it at once with a word and the blow soon followed, her strength is far over that

of any of her sex so far as my observation has extended — Duncan McKenzie

(Here the ellipses indicate damaged paper or illegible words in the original document.)

When Duncan McKenzie died in 1847, his son Kenneth writes that enslaved people on the farm, Ely Lytch and son Jonas, also died leaving the mother Hannah and younger children. They died of what was supposedly an epidemic of typhus pneumonia. According to some researchers, typhus was an uncommon illness in the American South. Illnesses were often labeled typhus that might have been other zoonotic illnesses or even typhoid fever.

When I imagine the problems and conflicts among small farmers and slaveowners multiplied on large plantations, the more difficult it seems to me that the paternalistic argument justifying slavery could find credence even among Southerners. Slavery in the American South grew from the economy of cotton that required great numbers of workers and stability of labor on increasingly larger farms that grew one commercial crop. Evidence on the ground of slaveholders in the McKenzie letters appears to refute the positive good argument, and evidence of race prejudice embedded in paternalism defies the romantic view of a slave population happy in their work and having all of their needs satisfied.

In 1848, a strong congressional voice for emancipation, U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and former President of the U.S. John Quincy Adams, died at work. In 1849 Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become a leader of the Underground Railroad.


“Auction Sales.” The Natchez Weekly Courier, Natchez, MS. 08 July 1840, Wednesday. 2. Accessed 24 August 2018.

Dattel, Gene. Reckoning With Race: America’s Failure. Encounter Books: New York. 2017.

Google Images. reviewofdebateon00dewt_0005.jpg, FredDouglassNarrative1846.jpg, SlaveryJustified.jpg. Accessed 25 August 2018.

“History of Slavery in America.” Infoplease. Accessed 13 August 2018.

“Kelly.” Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez, MS. 01 May 1844, Wednesday. 2. 15 May 1844, Wednesday. 3. Accessed 24 August 2018.

“Kelly.” Southern Reformer. Jackson, MS. 13 December 1844, Friday. 2. Accessed 24 August 2018.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 26 April 1840. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 26 September 1840. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 24 December 1840. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 22 March 1841. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1842. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 29 August 1842. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 5 May 1844. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 25 April 1845. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 5 July 1845. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 2 November 1845. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. January 1846. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 22 February 1846. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1846. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. 29 April 1847. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Daniel McKenzie to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. May 1847. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. 16 December 1847. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. 29 April 1847. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Lyon, Carter Dalton. “Slave Codes.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. Mississippi Humanities Council: 2018. Accessed 14 August 2018.

McNamara, Robert. “Timeline from 1840 to 1850.” . Updated 1 May 2017. Accessed 18 August 2018.

McKitrick, Eric L. Slavery Defended: the views of The Old South. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963. 7-50. Calhoun, John C. “Disquisition on Government”; “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions”; “Speech on the Importance of Domestic Slavery” and Dew, Thomas R. “Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature” and Fitzhugh, George. “Sociology for the South.”

“Proceedings.” The Weekly Mississippian, Jackson, MS. 18 December 1844, Wednesday. 3. Accessed 24 August 2018.

“The Southern Reformer.” Vicksburg Whig, Vicksburg, MS. 3 June 1844, Monday. 1. Accessed 24 August, 2018.

Two Museums. Jackson, MS. Photograph of Yoeman Farmer display. 08 August 2018. by Betty McKenzie Lane.

“Sheriff’s Sale.” The Natchez Weekly Courier, Natchez, MS. 03 June 1840, Wednesday. 4. Accessed 24 August 2018.

Sundstrom, Ronald R. “Frederick Douglass’s Political Apostasy.” 2008:11-35. pdf. Accessed 23 August 2018.

Decade of the 1830s: The Slavery Issue

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

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

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

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

“…Archd Anderson, Archd Wilkinson

and Lachlin McLaurin, Black bot each of them a Negro

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

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

the present rates of hiring which is $175 for Such

boys, allowing 10 percent per annum at compound

interest till paid”

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

“You said the National Intelligencer informed you that Negros

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

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

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

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

is it to be feared that the evil will become common

What will become of Black Lachlin the carpenter who bot

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

Many others are similarly situated”

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

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

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

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

maintenance in case the property should die the

Negroes increased So that there was one for each heir

and two to divide among the whole, those were valued

and kept in the family”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.


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.