1840s: Penning His Stories

turkeys

From 1840 until 1847 Duncan McKenzie wrote twenty-nine surviving letters to his brother-in-law Duncan McLaurin. Within them he touched on the subjects of weather, crops, and politics  probably more consistently than any other. However, armed with a desire to entertain his audience and with some obvious individualistic and masculine braggadocio, he included stories and anecdotes that reveal his own character and that of the society in which he lived during the 19th century.

One need venture no further than Facebook memes for evidence that critters make entertaining subjects. Duncan McKenzie thought so too. In March of 1841 Duncan is describing land that he has recently purchased. He says the Covington County, MS property resembles North Carolina land near Laurel Hill, “East of the head of Leeths Creek only more mixed short strawd pine oak & Hickory.” He adds that it may not be the richest land in Covington County, but it is flat and one could, “see across on the ground in the remotest part of the field.” Covington County also has rolling hills and land that is good for livestock, but Duncan apparently wants land on which he can grow crops. He begins his “turkey story” by saying that while they were “sowing oats at the lower place, “a number of turkeys were visiting us daly, I turned to and built a pen and captured twelve of them.” He describes the turkey feasting as, “at first a delicious rarity but had turkey lasted much longer bacon would have been preferred.”

It is likely that some of the meat consumed by Duncan’s family and eight enslaved persons was wild. The McKenzie boys spent their leisure time in the nearby forests. They also raise hogs on their farm. Indeed, the freshness of their slaughtered and “put up” hog meat rested upon Barbara’s judgment. From descriptions of their “driving the hogs” from the forest, it is probable that they allowed their domesticated livestock to forage in the woods, though they may have also used their plentiful crops of corn to feed hogs. Fencing wooded areas of their land for the purpose of providing a habitat for their hogs would not have been unusual. Evidence in the letters suggests that they may have regularly hunted deer and likely enjoyed venison.

Even in more settled North Carolina in 1843 they must not have been above trying to “tame” deer. In response to his brother-in-law’s mention of a tame deer, Duncan McKenzie describes one they have on their own farm and how it gets on with a menagerie of critters:

you spoke of a tame deer query is he living yet, we have one

a year old and is thus far quite innocent and harmless but will

fight the dogs, yesterday two hounds attacked him he whipd,, both

and came off unscrachd,, his horns are large for a yearling, tho spiteful

to strange dogs ours and him lie down together, they will fight for him —

we have also a pet lamb much more mischievous than the deer

a mixed multitude dogs sheep & deer are common companions

in the yard — Duncan McKenzie

In an 1844 letter Duncan tells another deer story. The story involves a mutual friend, Duncan McBryde who was plowing with the McKenzies. They encounter a deer that has become trapped within the confines of the fence. McBryde suggests they catch the deer. Kenneth is dumbfounded at the thought, but Allan unhitches his mule and calls the dog, Amos. They are off on the chase. Sadly, the story lacks a resolution since the 174 year old paper upon which it is written is damaged:

I must here insert an anecdote on

Duncan McBryde who was at work with us last week, on

tuesday morning a deer was discovered running through

the field, … on reaching the fence he

made an effort to jump the fence but could not repeated

but failed, Duncan seeing this exclaimed to the rest come

boys lets catch him, what said Kenneth catch a wild deer in

an open field of 80 acres, yes said Duncan, god, yes, go go it said

Allan unhitching his mule and calling Amos a little cur … both …

went Duncan, Allan & Amos …

Duncan in a few… — Duncan McKenzie

The Mississippi forests of the 19th century were still habitats for larger, more dangerous animals such as bears and cougars, also known as panthers. Bobcats were and still are found in Mississippi, though they are quite shy.

The “Tiger Story” begins on a late spring Saturday in June. It is also muster day, which means that the free men of the community between the ages of 18 and 45 were called to meet at a prescribed location in their community to present themselves, along with their personal rifles and ammunition, for militia review. The Militia Acts of 1792 were designed to have a militia on call that the president would be authorized to call forth in times of necessity. Over the years this male ritual became somewhat festive, and was often the scene of political stump speeches.

Evidently this particular muster day a group of Covington County neighbors asked Duncan McKenzie to join them on the way to the muster ground. They had not gone far when they heard Kenneth, “encouraging the dogs smartly and with some degree of excitement.” According to Duncan this is what followed:

 … I took

a favorite stand near a point of the creek or river as we

often call Buoye and soon heard the leaping of something

which I took for a deer but on its imerging from the thick

which it did with a high leap I discovered it to be a

verry large tiger he stood for a moment in a broad opened

road gazing on me with fire eyes you may guess I lost no

time in letting him have the contents of my gun …

as two buck shot passed through the heart yet he with

an awful spring made his way directly for me but

ere he could reach me to take revenge he staggered off the way …  —Duncan McKenzie

Duncan goes on to say that this was the first animal of that species that had been killed there for some years. To add to the story he says there were possibly two since the dogs kept tracking. They took “the fierce looking beast,” to the muster ground nearby for public exhibition.

Evidently, Duncan McLaurin was not satisfied with the identification of the animal, for in August of that summer, McKenzie writes a description to him:

we did not measure either hight or length

but compared his hyhth to that of a young colt with a length

proportional to the highth as that of the house cat … the color

is a dark yellow and black spotted, the tail long and slim

with rings alternately black & yellow, the very end tipd with

bright yellow. this species of animals are the most daring

of all the wild beasts that infest our forests …  —Duncan McKenzie

This description is a bit contradictory, but the length of the tail would probably identify the “tiger” as a cougar, likely still roaming the Mississippi forests in the 1840s. However, Duncan says it had a white tip on the tail, but the tail is generally tipped black with a lighter underside.

The “Tiger Story” appears in Christopher Olsen’s book, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Olsen may have chosen this excerpt from the Duncan McLaurin Papers as evidence of the still-primitive nature of the state during the 1840s but also perhaps as evidence of the masculine culture that required bravery in the face of danger and the quick use of the weapon at hand.

Not all encounters involving weapons were between man and beast. Violence characterized human encounters as well. Many historians have confirmed the culture of violence that existed in the western territories and continued into statehood. Ample evidence exists.

StreetFightHCStewart1842
The Southern Argus of 4 January 1842 confirms Duncan McKenzie’s story of a street fight in Raymond, MS.

In 1842 Duncan McKenzie relates to his brother-in-law the tale of some trouble that Hugh Stewart, a mutual friend and migrant from NC, has encountered. Hugh has recently failed in his candidacy for auditor probably in Hinds County. Stewart had been defeated by the Locofoco candidate before the violence with a “Mr. Chilton of Raymond” ensued. Whether this is the source of the conflict, we will likely never know. The upshot is that the two men fired guns at one another rather than settling the argument with their fists, as Duncan laments. Now, he says, one of them will likely have to pay. Though even if Duncan thought it should, it is a bit of an exaggeration that their conflict would warrant being sent to the penitentiary:

both (Stewart and Chilton) being

towns men thot it more gentlemanly to burn a little powder at

each other than to try the more certain method of deciding their

quarrel by a fist and scull fight so they took two pops each

with double barreled shotguns by which no blood was brought but

court being then in the first week of its six week session the

grand jury took hold of their difference I have not as yet heard

the result of their trial but it is feared,, one or both of the boys is good

for the penitentiary which would be more humiliating to one

friend Hugh than a berth in the office of Auditor of Publick accounts

for which he was a candidate at the Novr,, Election but was unfor-

-tunately beaten by Saunders the Loco candidate for that office  — Duncan McKenzie

At least McKenzie believes someone should and probably would pay the piper, but an anecdote in an 1843 letter leads us to believe that the law was not always effective in dealing with violent encounters. Hearsay was not the only source of such stories. Newspapers of 19th century antebellum Mississippi are full of them. This violent incident involves “a couple of Yanke shoemakers in the vicinity last week being in a spray quarreld.” They evidently fought, which led to a shooting:

…the vanquishd feeling

himself aggrieved loaded his shot gun with at least 40 lead

-en balls which he deliberately discharged at his antagonist

strewing them or sowing them in him from his chin to his

navel this took place on Monday and on Friday this

same target was enabled to walk through the streets of

Mt Carmel and take his liquor as usual tho the marksman

has fled no doubt for Texas being the stronghold of evil doers  — Duncan McKenzie

In August of 1843 Duncan McKenzie tells the story of his encounter with two Floridians tracking a murder suspect. The two Florida pursuers were, “the brother & nephew of the Decd.” Evidently, the men had legal authority to find the murderer and were certain they would find him. Vigilante justice was likely commonplace, but a news item in The Vicksburg Whig newspaper notes that two murderers, William and David Burney, passed through the area ahead of their pursuers. That Duncan finds common acquaintance with the pursuers probably is the basis of his respect for them:

On Monday last I saw two men from Florida

in pursuit of a murderer whom they call Wm Burney who

killd Joseph Manning in cold blood Manning was the

Brother in law of Hector McMillan the brother of Lawyer

Alx formerly of Richmond …

Manning & George McMillan the brother & nephew of the Decd

were the pursuers, the murderer was 10 days in advance of them

they told me that they would certainly find him they were well

provided with arms and money for a long journey …

I traveled some

20 miles with them during which time they entertaind me

with the history of many of my old acquaintance, I think

them fine worthy intelligent men  — Duncan McKenzie

ManningMurderFlorida
The story Duncan McKenzie relates is, for the most part, confirmed by this notice appearing in The Vicksburg Daily Whig on 15 August 1843. However, Duncan does not mention the second murderer.

Another source of violence was the common highwayman or robber, who stalked those having come into large sums of money on the primitive roads of the antebellum south. This account was likely read in a newspaper. Duncan tells of the experience of one Reverend John G. Libby having sold two enslaved people and was returning home with quite a bit of money. Libby miraculously recovers from the attack on his life:

Hard To Kill the Rev John G Libby on his return home from selling two negro men for

which he got $1500 cash was shot,, buck shot entered between his hip and shoulder

blade he fell off his horse having a gun immediately rose attempting to shoot but could

not, his enemy who of course was a highwayman made off after which the parson led

his horse to a house nearest hand and strange to tell he has got well after coughing up

a shot from his lungs, the remaining are in his boddy, Parson Libby is also Dr of

phisic — Duncan McKenzie

Though Duncan does not reference dueling encounters of the 1840s, some historians and scholars believe the practice, formalized and common in the antebellum south, led to lawlessness. When the police and other state purveyors of the law can easily be superseded, law enforcement becomes less effective. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “‘Honorable’ fights were common, and on lower social levels street fights and ambushes were accepted forms of behavior.”

It is likely from political differences that some of the violent encounters of the day arose. During his years in Mississippi, Duncan was a Whig and professed little tolerance for other political stripes. The issue of the annexation of Texas was at the forefront of politics in April of 1845, when Duncan alludes to a story he saw in a newspaper, “… a little dirty Loco sheet.” They published an ethnically disparaging “Dutchman” story about the annexation. It was published, “…under the sign of the Eagle or rather the buzard,” according to Duncan:

Glorious news, great news, victory, victory, Texas anext,

a wag of a Dutchman passing by the office of the little

sheet was told of the great victory whereunto he coolly

replyd Wy meister ve all no tat Texas is next to

Lucyanne an I believe tat is ass near ass it will come tu

us in Some dime — was not the fellow in the straight fit  — Duncan McKenzie

In addition to political anecdotes, from time to time Duncan makes reference to family. In July of 1845, Duncan relates his potato story. He and Allan Stewart have spent the day together when they receive the news of the death of neighbor, long-time friend, and probably relative Daniel McLaurin. Thinking the funeral and burial was at Judge Duncan’s home, he and Allan Stewart soon went to that place. In spite of learning that Daniel would be buried on his own property, a meal ensued at Judge Duncan’s. When the judge began bragging and asked Stewart if he  had ever seen such large potatoes, Stewart responded by saying, “… that he had seen potatoes on our (McKenzie’s) table that day that one was as large as two of his.” Duncan tells this tale for the benefit of Hugh McLaurin, Barbara’s aging father, who was widely known for his excellent potato crops:

… say to your father that we have the largest potatoes … Mr. A. Stewart was here at dinner when we received notice of Daniel McLaurins death … and of his intended burial at Judge Duncans … to the point supper came on at Duncans where there were prepared some fine potatoes the Judge told us all to partake of the potatoes addressing Stewart particularly and telling him that those were the largest potatoes he, Stewart, had ever Seen a dispute ensued finally Stewart told the judge that he had seen potatoes on our table that day that one was as large as two of his. I thot it was fortunate that the judge was crippled or he and A. would fight, we were all amused and I particularly for it was flattering … to have my potatoes praised — Duncan McKenzie

Earlier in an 1842 letter, Duncan McKenzie sends a message to Hugh McLaurin regarding his growing potatoes, “you will say to your father that I cant find one of his age in my neighborhood who will contend with him in the culture of Irish potatoes, but if I find the man I will let him know.”

Gatherings were also held for weddings, and in December of 1842 Duncan reports on his attendance at the wedding of Mr. William Easterling, Jr. to a Miss Ann, who appears to have the same surname. She is from Simpson County, which borders Covington County. Duncan is impressed with the dancing done by the older Mississippian, Duncan McLaurin:

…among all the dark times we have had a gleam of sun

shine at a wedding Mr. William Easterling Jr to Miss Ann

Daughter of William B Easterling, Esqr, of Simpson County Mi —

the evening was wet and cold but the fare was good and mirth

rare as the dance was opened by the brides grandfather the Hon

Duncan McLaurin I never knew till then that Old Duncan was a

dancer. huzza for the Carolina Scotch, she being the first of his

grand children that have married promted the old man to dance  — Duncan McKenzie

On the subject of dancing, in 1846 McKenzie expresses his religious independence in a story about the young people in the neighborhood finding someone to teach them all to dance properly. Evidently, for some of the Presbyterians in the neighborhood, this form of entertainment did not sit very well:

the young folks of the neighborhood employed a dancing master to instruct in the Science, among others some of the sons & daughters of members of the presbyterian church were students and of course the parents were had up in session there was a rompus and there may be a split in the kirk, I did not go about their court, they have no control of me or my acts or I of theirs  — Duncan McKenzie

In October of 1843, they raise a structure for ginning cotton. Duncan notes that about fifteen neighbors worked under the warm, humid September sun known as “the dog days” in Mississippi. Evidently, they succeeded in getting the structure finished up to the rafters. Duncan finishes this story by listing the political officeholders in attendance. Though he describes the neighbors in attendance as “both black and white,” I am fairly certain that the blacks there were not there by choice:

We were with the assistance of 15 of

our white & black neighbors raising our gin house

yesterday, the day was verry warm for the 22nd  Septr and

our work was heavy and hot, our timbers being large

long unwieldy masses, yet we got up every particle

below the rafters, not with standing it was showery

in the evening,, in our company were our mutual

friend Archd Malloy & Deputy Postmaster,, a Post

master, one Justice of the peace, one Judge of probate

and a member of the board of County Police

consequently you would suppose that we had a

pretty decent raising especially when you would

add to our company a member of the late call

session of the legislature & a candidate for reelection,

which we had  — Duncan McKenzie

In a later letter Duncan would describe the gin as larger than any he has ever worked on before, “the rafters are 23 feet from heel to shoulder … it being now completely enclosed & c it is a splendid thing as much so as any horse gin in this neighborhood.”

Earlier he penned an anecdote about a pleasant Christmas Day doing something with friends that he enjoyed — deer driving. The McLaurins, including Cornelius, who would soon gain local fame in the Mexican War as one of the “Covington County Boys,” were on a deer drive with the McKenzies, Hugh McLeod, and Dr. Hugh McLaurin. McKenzie is able to relish the fact that no one was drinking alcohol, he being an avowed temperance man. During the 1840s Duncan makes reference to friends who have tried and either failed or succeeded in giving up alcohol. During this time a concerted effort across the country to reduce alcohol consumption enjoyed significant success. Historian James McPherson comments on the success of the temperance movement in a chapter of Battle Cry of Freedom, “The United States at mid-century.” He writes that Americans between the 1820s and the 1850s reduced alcohol consumption from “… the equivalent of seven gallons of 200-proof alcohol annually … to less than two gallons …” He adds that “During the same years the per capita consumption of coffee and tea doubled.” Here we have an example of that statistic:

… on that day Danl, Duncan, John,

Cornelius McLaurin, Hugh McLeod & your humble servant & boys

were Deer driving Oh yes Dr. Hugh was also in the drive

all being temperance or temperate men all appeared to enjoy

themselves by feasting on venson ham previously killed & dryd

and as a beverage to wash it down a cup of smoking coffee & c

This ban yan was prepared by Barbara by way of Banquet to

her friends who came to see Danl after his absence of some time  — Duncan McKenzie

In one of his last letters, for Duncan McKenzie would not live beyond February of 1847, he seems elated over the building of a school nearby. The Reverend A. R. Graves is praised for establishing, against all odds, a boarding school:

… did I ever tell you that the Rev A R Graves who is married to Jennet McNair Alx

daughter has set on foot a seminary of literary education in this county, Mr. Graves is

undoubtedly one of the most persevering men I ever got acquainted with, under every

impediment consequent on the scarcity of money he has progressed to maturity in

erecting

large & comfortable houses both for boarding lodging & c of 120 students also a large and well

constructed house for instruction, he has also funds collected sufficient to pay suitable

teachers in the minor branches of education say 60 students for one year if the parents

can board

them their tuition will be given them gratis the institution is in one of the healthiest

situations in the state, I hope he will prosper  — Duncan McKenzie

ZionSeminarySign copy
From  The Southern Reformer of Jackson, MS in 1846: “Mr. Simrall, from the committee on incorporations to whom was referred the bill to incorporate the president and trustees of Zion seminary, reported the bill back to the house without amendment. The bill was read a third time and passed.”

The town of Seminary in Covington County, MS received its name from the school established there. The institution is known as Zion Seminary and taught hundreds of students courses in medicine, law, and religion.  Sadly, it last burned in 1890, though a historical marker suggests that it burned during the Civil War. It may have received Civil War damage, but lived to see another day. Today Seminary Attendance Center exists on the old school site in the middle of town. I think it is fitting that near his death Duncan’s hope of being able to find quality education in his new Mississippi home was coming to fruition, though a little late for his own children.

According to Kenneth McKenzie’s letter written to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin in April of 1847, Duncan McKenzie died on the last day of February at midnight, “after a long and protracted illness,” that may have lasted, “From the 20th February to the 1st March.” In a May letter to his uncle, Daniel McKenzie describes the illness as typhus pneumonia, “which passed through the state in some places more violent than in others.” European typhus from the bite of the louse carrying the infection is not common in North America according to Margaret Humphreys, author of “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History.” A type of typhus associated with rats is more common, and the disease may be mistaken for the tic borne “Spotted Fever.” Humphreys also contends that many typhus outbreaks may well have been actually typhoid fever. Personally, I could believe some tic borne disease may have been the culprit. In my youth I can recall scraping hundreds of tiny tics from my legs after walking through fields of tall grass on my husband’s grandfather’s farm in Covington County, MS. During the illness Kenneth describes his father as mentally incapacitated or “non composmentas but the last two weeks he was proper and a judge of his condition.” Kenneth breaks the news to his uncle with these words:

that hand once so familiar to your glance

the stroke, now lies slumbering in death

cold, beneath the ground, only to be lamented,

his parental personage has now become

a blank, and filled up only with sorrow

he changed Earth for Eternity on the night of

the last of February at 12-oclock  — Kenneth McKenzie

No matter what the cause, the illness took a tragic toll on the family. Kenneth explains, “Jonas, the oldest of Hannahs children was lying dead in the house he died on the same night at 9 o’clock.” Jonas and his mother Hannah were enslaved people on the McKenzie farm. The month before, Ely Lytch had died. Ely is the enslaved person who was purchased from John C. McLaurin in North Carolina. Kenneth suggests that Duncan McLaurin probably knew this enslaved person Ely as Archibald Lytch. Ely had likely been with the family since they arrived in Mississippi if not soon after and had died of a “long and protracted illness protracted by the sudden changes of the most disagreeable winter I have ever witnessed.” Kenneth goes on to say that the entire family was very sick but survivors have now recovered. He also informs his uncle that the family’s anxiety is increased by Daniel’s presence at Vera Cruz in the Mexican War.

Through the family’s grief, the grown sons continued corresponding intermittently with their uncle for years. Likely Barbara and her brother Duncan both encouraged this. Though the correspondence was not as regular nor the letters as long, it continued until after the Civil War. Their letters reveal very little about where Duncan McKenzie was buried or who might have preached his funeral, details the sons revealed in letters about the death of their mother years later.

Sources:

Humphreys, Margaret. “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History.”

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/198540 Accessed 19 May 2018. 271-273.

“Incorporation of Zion Seminary.” The Southern Reformer. Jackson, MS. 9 February 1846. 1. newspapers.com Accessed 21 May 2018.

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 31 January 1842. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 27 July 1842. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 9 December 1842. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 6 June 1843. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 6 August 1843. Boxes 1 and 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 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 3 March 1845. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

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

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 28 December 1845. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 24 August 1846. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

“The Militia Act of 1792.” http://222.constitution.org/mil/mil_act_1792.htm. Accessed 19 May 2018.

“Street Fight.” Southern Argus. Columbus, MS. 4 Kamiaru 1942. 1. newspapers.com Accessed 17 May 2018.

“Violence, Crime, and Punishments.” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1989.1470.

“William and David Burney 1843.” The Vicksburg Daily Whig. Vicksburg, MS. 15 August 1843. 3. newspapers.com Accessed 21 May 2018.

The 1830s: Health Challenges

NewDispesatoryFBeauumontNatchezWklyCourier1833
An advertisement for a new physician’s reference appeared in The Natchez Weekly Courier published in Natchez, Mississippi in November of 1833 during the first year of the Duncan McKenzie family’s residence in the state.

A Case of Parasitic Worms

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

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

“McE staid in consequence of the

sickness of the oldest child by Julian. She the child

died this morning before day — Vast quantities of

worms had passed through her — Her mother

told me that they were passing from her I

believe, in both extremities without the least effort

on the part of the child She was three or four

years of age very intelligent and interesting

her mother when I first got there this morning

was truly distressed — word by a special messenger

was sent to her father and what pleased me well

She is resolved to bury the child at Stewartsville.”

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

Early Mississippi Health Regulations and Medical Licensing Laws

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

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

MSFreeTraderNatchez1820DrDunnAd
Ad appearing in The Mississippi Free Trader at Natchez on 25 April 1820.

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

 

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

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

NatchezWklyCourier1831WestDistCensors
The Western District Board of Medical Censors licensed six doctors in December of 1831 according to The Natchez Weekly Courier.

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

WklyMississippian1834LicensedDrs
A list of doctors licensed by the Eastern Board of Censors appeared in The Weekly Mississippian of Jackson in May of 1834.

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

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

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

A Doctor, Cures, and Self-dosage

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

“I must correct a mistaken Idea in

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

and Satisfactory letter from him Dated Rodney May the 1st

Rodney a village on the Mississippi above natchez He called on

Capt Hugh Peter Fairley the Camerons &c all were well

except Daniel McLaurins family who were Sick of the Scarlet

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

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

at that time but had strong encouragement to take up

the practice of medicine in Franklin County…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and his appearance will command credit at least for a coat

and perhaps for a whole Suit…”

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

“I forgot the Doctor, but

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

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

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

to this neighbor hood he would keep himself Sober

especially when in my company, but of late the bate

allures him, I am resolved that no drunkard Shall

lodge with me long at one time …”

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

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

MedicinesNatchezWklyCourier1831
On 5 February 1831 The Natchez Weekly Courier ran this advertisement for medicines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diameter being the largest except two others which came from

both extremities of the lower jaw. numerous small particles

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

I have partially lost the power of mastication”

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

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

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

General Health of Family, Friends, and Acquaintance

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

“the family are in good health at present —

you charged me to be particular in describing my own health

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

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

to perform any hard labor, last friday I took Hugh

with me after dinner to Split some rails about

300 being wanted we Split about 100 that evening

next morning Mr. Gilcrist asked me if I was going

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

worsted from the evenings work, I have not finished

them yet tho I am knocking along at something else”

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

“…April, in consequence of

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

it than my Strength was well able to bear the

weather at that time being wet and cold and

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

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

friday following I was taken with a chill which was

followed by a severe fever, the chills & fevers continued

for Several paroxysms and every attack getting worse

I took Several doses of calomel until which time as a

Salivation was affected, the chills gave way but

Scarcely had my mouth got well. When the chills

returned which again was broke by the use of Rhubarb

and barks, I experienced an other attack Since which

Subsided without the use of any kind of medicine.”

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

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

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

“She fancied a pregnancy from

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

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

at one a clock she was

delivered of a daughter no one being in attendance but my

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

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

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

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

“… So soon

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

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

family have any Symptom of it as yet”

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

Deaths1833MSFreeTrader
On the Tenth of May 1833, The Mississippi Free Trader at Natchez published a column of deaths and causes of deaths during the past year. This is a portion of the column which included enslaved and free population, though not bothered to name some of the people.

Health Care for Enslaved Population

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

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

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

Accidents and Alcohol

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

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

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

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

“… one man was stabbed by another

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

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

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

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

John of that name once of Marlboro District South Carolina”

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

RepealGalLaw1840MSFreeTrader
Evidently the opinion of opponents of the Gallon Law eventually prevailed.

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

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

SupportGalLaw1839VburgWhig
This Vicksburg Whig opinion in favor of the Gallon Law appeared in The Natchez Daily Courier on 22 February 1839.

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 28 March 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decade of the 1830s: Agriculture in Mississippi

Cotton
Cotton ripened in the fields near Sikeston, Missouri.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rigidly enforced against them whether they are willing or not

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

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

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

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

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

litigation”

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

“we have planted a little corn, but from

much rain we are likely to be late with the main

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

$2 from that for freight insurance Storage and Commi

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

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

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

much — I could have disposed of my crop at home

as usual, but thinking that there was Something

to be made by trying the head of the market

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

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

Selling ever since I came to the country, the first

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

at 4 cts the purchasers hawling the cotton from the

place to the gins or paying me for the Same —

you see from the above that I have missed the figure

this time”

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

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

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

& Thompson, Merchants at that time in very good Standing

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

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

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

have failed consequently this far I have recd nothing but the

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

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

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

others who are Similarly placed”

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

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

“Owing to Kenneth bad health and my

own inability to perform hard labor, we are late

with our work, the cold wet and backwardness

of the Spring would not justify forward plan

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

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

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

instant”

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

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

I did not see the frost but Saw the

effects of it on potato leaves & persimmon bushes, in

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

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

water courses failing, a constant fountain near

the fence is visited by numerous herds of cattle Suffi

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

Monday evening the 19th the weather is still

clear and hot and no appearance of rain this is the

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

earth to the roots of the corn”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“we have just finishd

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

as yet but expect to commence so soon as the Season

will permit — Since the 15th of Janry the weather

has been unusually cold till about the  middle of last

week, Since it has Been quite pleasant till today —

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

we Sowed a little wheat

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

and the wheat looks verry yellow”

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

He prefers, “selling

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

and get our supplies of groceries and all heavy articles in

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

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

necessarys,”

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

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

“where a man is Satisfied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decade of the 1830s: The Slavery Issue

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

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

According to Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller, by 1833 the abolitionist movement had organized, marked by the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. William Loyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Theodore Weld were prominent supporters of this organization. The group was largely made up of pacifists, such as Quakers, and many women found an avenue for political influence through social causes such as the abolitionists movement.  The organization’s headquarters was in New York City, Nassau Street, from which anti-slavery pamphlets were sent through the mail to all parts of the country. Slaveholding southerners read abolitionist material as no other group in the U.S. did with the exception of the abolitionists themselves. This fueled their anger, and the term “Nassau Street” evoked threatening connotations. The abolitionist movement was a relatively small and decidedly religious group at first, 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”

Slaves-Friend-1837
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.

SOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan McKenzie Letters of the 1830s: The Mail

Mail1831-25postage
This letter was addressed in July of 1831 and sent from the Jaynesville, MS post office to the address in North Carolina with the appropriate 25 cent postage whether prepaid or paid upon destination. The paper has been folded and sealed to create an envelope-like space for the address.

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

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

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

Mail1842FreeMarginWriting
Every part of Duncan McKenzie’s letter is filled with writing, even the margins. So little space is left on this page that Duncan McLaurin was forced to write his date of receipt notations on the address portion of the page. The postage is marked free on this letter because Duncan McLaurin was serving as postmaster at Laurel Hill and had evidently invoked franking privileges.

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

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

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

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

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

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”

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.

The Tailor Duncan Calhoun’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Description Sabine Parish, Louisiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage or Wanderlust

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

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

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

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

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

The Mexican War and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Bound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan Calhoun’s Family

IMG_6539
This tombstone was placed in 1979 by Herbert Nall Carmichael and John Leslie Carmichael. Permission to place it was granted by the Kimberly Clark Corporation, evidently owners of the land at that time.

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

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

IMG_6544
The original tombstone of Christian Calhoun Paul born 28 June 1816 – died 25 March 1844

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

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

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

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

Relationship with Duncan McLaurin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters and legal documents are listed chronologically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.