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.
In 1842 Duncan McKenzie relates to his brother-in-law the tale of some trouble that Hugh Stewart, a mutual friend and migrant from NC, has encountered. Hugh has recently failed in his candidacy for auditor probably in Hinds County. Stewart had been defeated by the Locofoco candidate before the violence with a “Mr. Chilton of Raymond” ensued. Whether this is the source of the conflict, we will likely never know. The upshot is that the two men fired guns at one another rather than settling the argument with their fists, as Duncan laments. Now, he says, one of them will likely have to pay. Though even if Duncan thought it should, it is a bit of an exaggeration that their conflict would warrant being sent to the penitentiary:
both (Stewart and Chilton) being
towns men thot it more gentlemanly to burn a little powder at
each other than to try the more certain method of deciding their
quarrel by a fist and scull fight so they took two pops each
with double barreled shotguns by which no blood was brought but
court being then in the first week of its six week session the
grand jury took hold of their difference I have not as yet heard
the result of their trial but it is feared,, one or both of the boys is good
for the penitentiary which would be more humiliating to one
friend Hugh than a berth in the office of Auditor of Publick accounts
for which he was a candidate at the Novr,, Election but was unfor-
-tunately beaten by Saunders the Loco candidate for that office — Duncan McKenzie
At least McKenzie believes someone should and probably would pay the piper, but an anecdote in an 1843 letter leads us to believe that the law was not always effective in dealing with violent encounters. Hearsay was not the only source of such stories. Newspapers of 19th century antebellum Mississippi are full of them. This violent incident involves “a couple of Yanke shoemakers in the vicinity last week being in a spray quarreld.” They evidently fought, which led to a shooting:
…the vanquishd feeling
himself aggrieved loaded his shot gun with at least 40 lead
-en balls which he deliberately discharged at his antagonist
strewing them or sowing them in him from his chin to his
navel this took place on Monday and on Friday this
same target was enabled to walk through the streets of
Mt Carmel and take his liquor as usual tho the marksman
has fled no doubt for Texas being the stronghold of evil doers — Duncan McKenzie
In August of 1843 Duncan McKenzie tells the story of his encounter with two Floridians tracking a murder suspect. The two Florida pursuers were, “the brother & nephew of the Decd.” Evidently, the men had legal authority to find the murderer and were certain they would find him. Vigilante justice was likely commonplace, but a news item in The Vicksburg Whig newspaper notes that two murderers, William and David Burney, passed through the area ahead of their pursuers. That Duncan finds common acquaintance with the pursuers probably is the basis of his respect for them:
On Monday last I saw two men from Florida
in pursuit of a murderer whom they call Wm Burney who
killd Joseph Manning in cold blood Manning was the
Brother in law of Hector McMillan the brother of Lawyer
Alx formerly of Richmond …
Manning & George McMillan the brother & nephew of the Decd
were the pursuers, the murderer was 10 days in advance of them
they told me that they would certainly find him they were well
provided with arms and money for a long journey …
I traveled some
20 miles with them during which time they entertaind me
with the history of many of my old acquaintance, I think
them fine worthy intelligent men — Duncan McKenzie
Another source of violence was the common highwayman or robber, who stalked those having come into large sums of money on the primitive roads of the antebellum south. This account was likely read in a newspaper. Duncan tells of the experience of one Reverend John G. Libby having sold two enslaved people and was returning home with quite a bit of money. Libby miraculously recovers from the attack on his life:
Hard To Kill the Rev John G Libby on his return home from selling two negro men for
which he got $1500 cash was shot,, buck shot entered between his hip and shoulder
blade he fell off his horse having a gun immediately rose attempting to shoot but could
not, his enemy who of course was a highwayman made off after which the parson led
his horse to a house nearest hand and strange to tell he has got well after coughing up
a shot from his lungs, the remaining are in his boddy, Parson Libby is also Dr of
phisic — Duncan McKenzie
Though Duncan does not reference dueling encounters of the 1840s, some historians and scholars believe the practice, formalized and common in the antebellum south, led to lawlessness. When the police and other state purveyors of the law can easily be superseded, law enforcement becomes less effective. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “‘Honorable’ fights were common, and on lower social levels street fights and ambushes were accepted forms of behavior.”
It is likely from political differences that some of the violent encounters of the day arose. During his years in Mississippi, Duncan was a Whig and professed little tolerance for other political stripes. The issue of the annexation of Texas was at the forefront of politics in April of 1845, when Duncan alludes to a story he saw in a newspaper, “… a little dirty Loco sheet.” They published an ethnically disparaging “Dutchman” story about the annexation. It was published, “…under the sign of the Eagle or rather the buzard,” according to Duncan:
Glorious news, great news, victory, victory, Texas anext,
a wag of a Dutchman passing by the office of the little
sheet was told of the great victory whereunto he coolly
replyd Wy meister ve all no tat Texas is next to
Lucyanne an I believe tat is ass near ass it will come tu
us in Some dime — was not the fellow in the straight fit — Duncan McKenzie
In addition to political anecdotes, from time to time Duncan makes reference to family. In July of 1845, Duncan relates his potato story. He and Allan Stewart have spent the day together when they receive the news of the death of neighbor, long-time friend, and probably relative Daniel McLaurin. Thinking the funeral and burial was at Judge Duncan’s home, he and Allan Stewart soon went to that place. In spite of learning that Daniel would be buried on his own property, a meal ensued at Judge Duncan’s. When the judge began bragging and asked Stewart if 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
large & comfortable houses both for boarding lodging & c of 120 students also a large and well
constructed house for instruction, he has also funds collected sufficient to pay suitable
teachers in the minor branches of education say 60 students for one year if the parents
them their tuition will be given them gratis the institution is in one of the healthiest
situations in the state, I hope he will prosper — Duncan McKenzie
The town of Seminary in Covington County, MS received its name from the school established there. The institution is known as Zion Seminary and taught hundreds of students courses in medicine, law, and religion. Sadly, it last burned in 1890, though a historical marker suggests that it burned during the Civil War. It may have received Civil War damage, but lived to see another day. Today Seminary Attendance Center exists on the old school site in the middle of town. I think it is fitting that near his death Duncan’s hope of being able to find quality education in his new Mississippi home was coming to fruition, though a little late for his own children.
According to Kenneth McKenzie’s letter written to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin in April of 1847, Duncan McKenzie died on the last day of February at midnight, “after a long and protracted illness,” that may have lasted, “From the 20th February to the 1st March.” In a May letter to his uncle, Daniel McKenzie describes the illness as typhus pneumonia, “which passed through the state in some places more violent than in others.” European typhus from the bite of the louse carrying the infection is not common in North America according to Margaret Humphreys, author of “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History.” A type of typhus associated with rats is more common, and the disease may be mistaken for the tic borne “Spotted Fever.” Humphreys also contends that many typhus outbreaks may well have been actually typhoid fever. Personally, I could believe some tic borne disease may have been the culprit. In my youth I can recall scraping hundreds of tiny tics from my legs after walking through fields of tall grass on my husband’s grandfather’s farm in Covington County, MS. During the illness Kenneth describes his father as mentally incapacitated or “non composmentas but the last two weeks he was proper and a judge of his condition.” Kenneth breaks the news to his uncle with these words:
that hand once so familiar to your glance
the stroke, now lies slumbering in death
cold, beneath the ground, only to be lamented,
his parental personage has now become
a blank, and filled up only with sorrow
he changed Earth for Eternity on the night of
the last of February at 12-oclock — Kenneth McKenzie
No matter what the cause, the illness took a tragic toll on the family. Kenneth explains, “Jonas, the oldest of Hannahs children was lying dead in the house he died on the same night at 9 o’clock.” Jonas and his mother Hannah were enslaved people on the McKenzie farm. The month before, Ely Lytch had died. Ely is the enslaved person who was purchased from John C. McLaurin in North Carolina. Kenneth suggests that Duncan McLaurin probably knew this enslaved person Ely as Archibald Lytch. Ely had likely been with the family since they arrived in Mississippi if not soon after and had died of a “long and protracted illness protracted by the sudden changes of the most disagreeable winter I have ever witnessed.” Kenneth goes on to say that the entire family was very sick but survivors have now recovered. He also informs his uncle that the family’s anxiety is increased by Daniel’s presence at Vera Cruz in the Mexican War.
Through the family’s grief, the grown sons continued corresponding intermittently with their uncle for years. Likely Barbara and her brother Duncan both encouraged this. Though the correspondence was not as regular nor the letters as long, it continued until after the Civil War. Their letters reveal very little about where Duncan McKenzie was buried or who might have preached his funeral, details the sons revealed in letters about the death of their mother years later.
Humphreys, Margaret. “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History.”
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.