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.
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 ofanother 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”
We are generally stunned at reading the detached tone with which Duncan McKenzie writes of the buying and selling of human beings. He may as well have been talking about horses or cattle. Fathoming such inhumanity to man requires a look at the environment and philosophy slaveholders embraced in the nineteenth century. Especially for the recent Scottish immigrants, it was a decidedly European view based in colonialism. Many justified colonial pursuits by rooting them in the cause of spreading Christianity to pagan people. Where foreign cultures appeared more primitive and less technologically advanced, it was easy to justify “lording it over them,” especially if doing so was going to increase one’s own wealth and position. This is nothing new in our world past or present. It is called racism and has no moral justification. By the Nineteenth Century, as industrialization took hold worldwide, a more enlightened view of slavery and the slave trade began to emerge. England led the world in ending its trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa and abolishing slavery – albeit slavery was most prevalent in her colonies, so it was perhaps more easily accomplished. However, at the same time the emerging textile industry required more and more cotton to meet its market. This demanding crop had been once grown in manageable amounts on small farms before the age of colonialism, but the amounts needed for increased production in textile mills required an enormous labor force. It was simply easier and perhaps more profitable to continue slavery than it was to convert to a system of paid labor, especially in the United States, where newly opened and fertile land suitable for growing labor intensive crops was increasing the demand for labor.
If enslaving another human being is immoral, and you are doing it, you have to find a philosophy to justify your behavior. An easy and common justification was that some human beings, by pseudo-scientific observation, were incapable of functioning on their own in more technologically advanced and “civilized” societies. Therefore, it was more humane and Christian to keep them productively employed than it was to set them free to be overwhelmed in the act of thinking and behaving on their own recognizance. At the same time, the fear of retribution from their own labor force was growing among slaveowners.The bottom line, however, is that a slaveholder might not as easily build a fortune so fast or so sure if a paid labor source were required. Surely, not every person who was forced to work in the fields would, if given the choice, choose to do so.
In addition, the newly-born republic of the United States of America, in the attempt to compromise with slaveholding, which went against the very basic idea of a republic, had installed the mechanism of the 3/5 rule to keep the slaveholding class politically powerful.
In November of 1836 the fear has not yet crept into his correspondence, but Duncan McKenzie finds himself refuting a claim by neighbors, some of whom were relatives and acquaintances of Duncan McLaurin, that his wife, Barbara, is in danger of exhaustion. Barbara is busy with her family of six boys, two of them young enough to be underfoot – too young to do much work in the fields. In addition, she was responsible for keeping watch over the enslaved children on the farm, who were too young to work. It is probable that her workload had increased as had everyone else’s in the move to Mississippi. However, she probably had some household help when someone could be spared from the crops. She is likely responsible for maintaining a garden, providing meals and clothing for everyone working on the place, and watching the small children. A thousand daily tasks had become routine to her and were expected by the rest of the family. Duncan McKenzie replies to his brother-in-law’s concerns, “It is true Barbra has a considerable charge on account of the children but Allan being the oldest takes considerable pains in conducting his little brother John and Jones and Niles (enslaved children) all are very attentive to Jbae Elly sones name he is as handsome a black child as I ever saw.” It would seem that on a small farm with so many daily interactions that the humanity of people would shine through, and eventually, the system would seem to break down. However, this does not seem to have happened.
Some servants were valued more than others in slaveholding families, though the elephant in the room within these relationships was that one party was there by coercion and not by his or her choice. In 1838 when Barbara delivers her daughter Mary Catharine, Elly is there to help Duncan deliver the child. Elly is the most often mentioned of the enslaved people working on the Duncan McKenzie farm, “ … till the morning of the 9th August at one a clock she (Barbara) was delivered of a daughter no one being in attendance but myself and Negro woman Elly, yet all was well and I dressed the little Stranger before anyone had time to come to our assistance.” In 1839 Barbara has been ill, but when illness struck, it potentially struck everyone working on the farm. At the same time Barbara is struck with the diahrea, (in the 19th century often deadly) two other people on the farm: Barbara’s youngest son, John, and Elly’s youngest child. During the same year, Duncan sends his condolences to his brother-in-law for the “loss of the boy Moses,” an evidently valued servant. In another instance, Duncan McKenzie says, “Duncan McBryde is in a peck of trouble as it appears old Dorcas will be Sold to the best bidder and Duncan not able to buy her.” The circumstances of her sale are not clear, but she was clearly valued.
By 1839 Duncan emphasizes the economic prowess of cotton and slaves in Mississippi. “… I find that from the sinner to the Saint that the cotton plant engrosses the chief of the conversation, a few years passd the purchase of Negroes was the hobby but now it is paying for them and that must be done by cotton or by the sale of the Negroes and other stuff of the purchasers.”
I will conclude with a chilling story told by Duncan McKenzie in an 1839 letter to his brother-in-law, “… on last Tuesday week two little girls one 14 years old and the other younger were going to a quilting and were assaulted by a Negro man on the road.” The man caught the horse and removed the girl from it. She began screaming, a neighbor, who happened to own the Negro heard the commotion. He claimed to have seen the Negro attempting to rape the young girl. When he called out, the Negro ran. As a result fourteen white men hunted him down and hanged him. This is an example of what, in my opinion, is absolutely the greatest tragedy of slavery in the United States and the worst affront to a republican system of government, that enslaved people had no recourse to justice at all – no assurance that they were assumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of their peers. They had absolutely no voice in their condition. Laws did exist in most slave states to protect slaves, but generally from the point of view that they were property and not to be abused. In a case like this, it is probable that the slaveowner was within his rights to permit the lynching of his property. This instance manifests the repressive fear of uprising by enslaved people that was growing in Mississippi and across the slaveholding South.
Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1996. 97.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. April 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. June 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. October 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. March 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
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.
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 thatletters 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.
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.
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
Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to John McLaurin, 11 May 1834
This letter to Duncan’s brother-in-law, John McLaurin, begins with an acknowledgement of the time that has lapsed since they last corresponded and one of many allusions to the irregularity of the mail. He begins, “After an absence of near 18 months Since I heard directly from you I take my pen to open correspondence with you.”
Health of Family and Friends
Almost every letter includes information about the health of the family and an inquiry regarding the other’s health and that of all acquaintances. More are coming from North Carolina to Covington County as Duncan mentions, “…your late neighbors the McGils arived in this Settlement about 3 weeks Since & Rented a place of Wm Easterling.” Information regarding the health of the family appears often in the letters since illnesses that we might consider minor in the 21st century were taken very seriously in the 19th century. Duncan says that he wrote to Duncan McLaurin that, “all the children & our man Colison had the measles which threw us back in planting but not withstanding we got our Seed in the ground in good time.” (The reference to “our man Colison” might have been to an enslaved person.) This outbreak of the measles was to prove fortuitous during the Civil War when Duncan’s sons Kenneth, Allan, and John were exposed again and watched a large number of their comrades become ill and die of measles, illness being the greatest killer during the Civil War. According to historian James M. McPherson, “Two soldiers died of disease for every one killed in battle.” He also adds that rural soldiers were more likely to die of the first wave of childhood illnesses that struck both armies at the war’s outset. People from more populated areas had often been more exposed to diseases. This makes the immunity of the McKenzie brothers seem even more fortuitous.
Another reference to an outbreak of scarlet fever occurs in this letter to John McLaurin. The local doctor who travels among some of the nearby counties visiting family and acquaintances from North Carolina is known as Dr. Duncan. This particular doctor appears in a number of letters. In this case D. McKenzie has recently heard from him,
“…in regard to Dr. Duncan as I have Just Received a very full
and Satisfactory letter from him Dated Rodney May the 1st
Rodney a village on the Mississippi above natchez he called on
Capt Hugh Peter Fairley the Camerons & c all were well
except Daniel McLaurins family who were Sick of the Scarlet
fever Alexander a Sone of Danl,, Died of it a few days before
his arival there.”
A Possible Visit to NC
If Duncan McKenzie ever returned to North Carolina to visit, it is not revealed in any of the surviving letters. The notion that they would make return visits seems to have been viable when they first arrived in Mississippi, but the work of the farm and life in general seems to have precluded any of them returning. The only family member known to have returned is the oldest McKenzie son, Kenneth, who leaves Mississippi during the Civil War to live with his aging uncle. He apparently enlists in the military again in North Carolina and serves until the end of the war. Still, in this 1834 letter Duncan McKenzie says he would likely not visit this particular winter unless his widowed sister-in-law Betsy McKenzie needs help disposing of her property to move west. She doesn’t.
“Duncan is full of the Idea that I will Visit No Ca next winter
I was more desirous last fall on account of my not being enga-
-ged only in the crop all my inter valls were to me lost time as I
could not be at any thing to enhance the value of my own
place then not known, tho it may not be impossible for me
to See no – ca next winter If Betsy can effect a Sale of her
place and wish to move here I will try to go of course but you
known every one that has a place can find something to do
on it — it would be highly gratifying to me to see you all
but my little matters call my attention here…”
In almost every early letter he writes, Duncan McKenzie makes reference to the variety of land he encounters in this part of south and south-central Mississippi. He expresses the same opinion on the land’s unique variety in each, “I have traveled in my oppinion not less than 2.000 miles in this State & have seen all quallities of land from the poorest to that which will produce 3.000 lb cotton per acre & 60 Bushels corn”
Cousin Duncan Calhoun
This particular letter to John is much more spirited than the letter to Charles indicating a comfortable relationship between the two. In this letter Duncan McKenzie introduces one of the more interesting characters in the Duncan McLaurin Papers – Duncan Calhoun – a first cousin of Barbara, John, and Duncan McLaurin through their mother’s side of the family, Catharine Calhoun McLaurin. Evidently, Duncan Calhoun was living and working as a tailor probably in Covington County. One day a man, for whom he had done some work, came into the shop to settle accounts. Duncan Calhoun would not give the customer his pants until he was paid. This is what ensued:
Duncan Calhoun late of Ft Claborn on refusing
to give a dandy a pair of pantaloons which he had made for him
Taylor wanted his pay before he would let the work go —
The dandy nettled with Such measures walked out of the
Shop round to a window took out a pistol and cut loos at
the large head of the taylor but lucky for the latter
the dandy was not a Sure mark but unlike a man
our hero taylor instead of the offender ran away
to mobile So report Says…”
Indeed Duncan Calhoun soon writes from Mobile, Alabama to his cousin Duncan McLaurin!
Duncan McKenzie concludes this letter to his brother-in-law by sending respects from “Barbra and the children” and especially to Barbara’s “Father Mother and all the family and connection.” At this point he mentions that he has not heard from his own father, Kenneth McKenzie, since last October, when he was last known to be in Wilmington, NC.
Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to John McLaurin, 13 November 1836
Health of Correspondents
McKenzie begins this letter anxious that his letters have been lost along the way, a common hazard of the 19th century postal service – steadily improving but in the decade of the 1830s still carried by riders, stage, and packet boats rather than by rail. He has seen a letter from Duncan McLaurin to Allan Stewart, which renewed his worry that his recent letters had been lost. He had also written to brother-in-law John McCall and his son Hugh McCall as well as his sister-in-law Betsy McKenzie.
The lost letters concern him especially because he has recently recovered from an illness from which he thought he might not recover. He mentions that his letters to Archibald McPherson and Betsy McKenzie described his illness in detail. While assuring John that the rest of the family has been well, he also describes how the illness has resulted in dental problems. It is my opinion that what he may have thought was bone might have been actually been teeth, perhaps wisdom teeth. This was a man who considered himself somewhat knowledgeable of current medical practices, giving us a hint at what must have been the state of the medical profession in the recently settled west. His graphic description follows:
“… (in letters to Betsy and A. McPherson) you will have a
description of the violence of the case from which I so unexpectedly
So far recovered, it is a fact that there was 600 grain of Callomel
in my body at one time, and no less true that from that or Some
other un known cause my jaw bones burst I thot for some time
that the fractures were confined to the lower jaw but the reverse
is the fact, as not more than two weeks since while minding of
a gap on the field from whence they were hawking corn, it being
immediately after dinner, I was picking my teeth when to my
astonishment I picked out a fracture of bone from the right extremity
of the upper jaw. this piece of bone is 1/2 inch long by 1/8th in
diameter being the largest except two others which came from
both extremities of the lower jaw. numerous small particles
have come out both above and below you may judge that I have partially lost the power of mastication”
Following this description he mentions the family’s sorrow at hearing that “Effy was unwell also some of the blacks but as they were on the mend when he wrote it is to be hoped that they all recovered.” The Effy to whom he makes reference here is probably not John’s wife, for they were not married at this time. The letter likely refers to Barbara’s favorite sister Effy. The reference to “blacks” is likely to enslaved persons. Quite often in the letters the welfare of enslaved persons seems to be on a seeming equality with the welfare of the white owners, raising the suspicion that these particular white slaveowners at least may have thought of their property as human beings. Clearly, these owners held the “white man’s burden” philosophy, that they were doing something a bit more humane by offering work and protection to people they considered incapable of managing their own freedom. On the other hand, enslaved people are listed along with other beastly property when discussion in the letters is about market prices. It is difficult for our twenty-first century sensibilities, and in the face of proven scientific information, to imagine this point of view. This culture of race was a philosophy supported only by unproven conclusions drawn from observation and supported in their communities by the textile economy based on slave labor and the interpretations of Biblical references.
Though the slave trade to the United States was illegal after 1807, the internal slave trade remained a lively business from around 1820 until the Civil War. Mississippi’s constitution of 1832 had attempted to diminish the interstate slave trade, but to no avail as cotton farming, a major cash crop, gained ground. As the demand for slave labor decreased in states like North Carolina and Virginia, the demand in cotton-growing states to the south and west increased. Some evidence exists in the Duncan McLaurin Papers that the McLaurins may have had an interest in this interregional slave trade or “the Second Middle Passage.” In this letter another reference to slavery, written in a marginal notation, reveals the challenges of keeping in bondage human beings with minds of their own. It is possible that particular enslaved people were sent from the Carolinas to families and friends purchasing them in Mississippi. For a small farmer, an enslaved person’s background would be beneficial knowledge. Duncan McKenzie mentions a specific enslaved woman in this letter. His cruel description perhaps hints at a certain machismo that may have become part of a slaveholders character no matter his philosophy or the number of enslaved persons one owned. McKenzie writes to John McLaurin to report on this slave woman about whom they both had knowledge:
“If the last … negro woman is ill or high minded she has kept it to herself thus far, and I would / advise her to do so for fear of a worse change. thus far she conducts well peaceable and industrious”
Crops in 1836
Duncan McKenzie reports on his crops in almost every letter in this collection that he writes back to North Carolina. In 1836 it seems the corn and peas (field peas) have done very well, though the cotton has not been as good as in the past few years. He explains how the reduction in the price of cotton affects the horse flesh market. From this information one can surmise the influence of the cotton prices on other markets. He also mentions a rise in the price of land:
“we are nearly done housing corn I think there is one and about
1:000 bushels, we gathered a fine parcel of peas as the cotton
is Such as did not keep them in employ it did not open as forward
as usual and in fact we did not plant the usual quantity
under it this year, say 14 acres … corn in this neighborhood is worth
from 75 cents to $1 oats from 50 to 75 cents, pease from 1:25 to 1:50 cents
wheat none, potatoes Sweat from 40 59 50 cents, bacon from
15-18 3/4 cents, pork from 7 to 8 cents beef from 4 to 5 cents —
Such is the prices in this neighborhood the cotton excepted, in fact
scarcely an article that the farmer will raise but will Sell
at moderate good price at this time tho we have no principal
market nearer than 90 miles … owing to the price of cotton
horse flesh bears a good price, I was offerd $150 for the blind
mares colt this fall but as he is a gentle and good horse I
refused it … is there not a vast difference in the times now
and when I came here, a piece of land that was offered to me the
Spring I came, at $800 was sold lately for $6000 dollars one half cash in hand”
“King alcahall” and Politics
As I have mentioned before, Duncan McKenzie was fervently against the use of alcohol and generally disparaged his neighbors for it. The local Covington County churchesfelt similarly. If one joined the church, one implicitly agreed to remain sober. The use of tobacco was many times frowned upon as well, though no evidence exists in this collection that this particular community, many former Carolinians, were prejudiced against tobacco use. In a later letter Duncan’s son, Kenneth, describes his failed attempt to quit chewing tobacco around the time his mother is dying of mouth cancer. Duncan mentions a neighbor, a heavy drinker, who has joined the church and has foresworn alcohol use.
Politics is not as prevalent in this letter to John as it is in McKenzie’s letters to Duncan McLaurin. However, he mentions evidence in his community of a diminished loyalty to Jacksonianism. Duncan McKenzie is an avowed Whig and notices when the Democrats are not as loyal as they once were:
“…last monday was our Election of
deligates also for a member to fill the vacancy in Congress
occasioned by the death of Genl. Dickson at the precinque
that I attended the Van party were ahead as two to one
a less difference than I looked for at that place as I knew the
most of them to be led by Jackson nomination and
caucus dictation. however even in that the times
are changing for when I first came here it was
unsafe for one to call the name of Jackson in vain
much more abuse him or his measures in fact if he was
not a Jacksonian he was called a Damd nullifier or some
-thing worse if they could have Sense to give it a name”
In this particular letter to John, Duncan McKenzie feels it necessary to defend the circumstances of Barbara, his wife. It seems that Dr. Duncan, the local physician, has written to Barbara’s family some information that concerns them about Barbara’s condition. Duncan defends her condition in this letter and admits that her life is hard, especially with the young children that surround them. He explains that the children on the farm who are old enough are able to help her since they are not yet working in the fields. This includes both white and black children, who he names as if John is familiar with them all. Duncan’s son John is about three and Allen six, so we can surmise the ages of the black children Jones, Niles, and Jbae. Elly is an adult enslaved person mentioned repeatedly in this collection and may have been with the family for some time:
“It is true Barbra has a considerable charge on account of the children but Allan being the oldest / takes considerable pains in conducting his little brother John and Jones and Niles all are very attentive / to Jbae (ie) Elly sones name he is as handsome a black child as I ever saw”
Another personal note in this letter is Duncan’s request that John find a gun for his boys. Duncan’s older boys, the oldest is by now about sixteen or seventeen, are fond of hunting in the woods, still somewhat populated with rabbits, racoons, deer, wild hogs, panthers, and bears in spite of the rapid destruction of their habitats by farming and timbering pursuits. After offering the family’s respects to grandparents Hugh and Catherine McLaurin and to their Uncle Duncan and Aunts Effy and Mary still at home, he requests that John find a gun and send it out by some trustworthy person coming to Mississippi:
“they (Duncan’s sons) request you to procure from John Buchanan or Some other
good gun smith a rifle gun of tolerable size and send it out
by the first opportunity, should you do so I would forward
payment to you for the same, if John C will be coming
this winter he will probably bring the article”
Duncan McKenzie’s Letter to John McLaurin, 29 March 1838
Barbara’s Health and Family News
After an apology of sorts for not writing, Duncan McKenzie expresses regret that Duncan Douglass, the husband of Barbara’s sister Sarah McLaurin has not kept up correspondence. Duncan and Sarah both died in Marlboro County, NC, Duncan in 1864 and Sarah in 1862. McKenzie also mentions the health of his family and that Barbara has been ill.
“My family Since
my last, has been in tolerable health with the exception
of some attacks of cold which in some inStances has been
quite Severe especially on Barbara, She was for two or three
days verry Sick and being in rather delicate health for Some time
passed, She became verry weak, She is now recruiting
tolerably fast — all our neighbors are well So far as I know
Another acquaintance named Allan Wilkerson, a cousin of Charles Patterson, has migrated to Covington County, Mississippi and is renting a place called “the Carolinean trap.” This same place has been rented and abandoned by other acquaintances: Lachlin McLaurin of Marks Creek and his brother Hugh.
The persons Duncan mentions as having given up alcohol to join the Presbyterian Church have by now been excommunicated. This excommunication is not only recorded in this letter but also from another primary source, the actual church records. The Hopewell Presbyterian Church records of 22 January 1838 call on the two members to be, “…hereby suspended from the communion of the Church until they give satisfactory evidence of repentance and reformation.” As Duncan puts it, “… but alas rudy bacchus held out promises that they could not See in church or Church Discipline consequently both were excommunicated.” It is interesting to note here the difference in social attitudes toward alcoholism in 1838 and the way society looks upon the problem today. Duncan also disparages the drinking done by Dr. Duncan. He seems to appreciate the doctor but does not respect him enough to avoid gossiping about his drinking. Alcoholism in 1838 was clearly seen as a moral failure on the part of individuals and those people were not to be suffered in the houses of worship. Today churches and religious organizations play a significant role in welcoming and helping individuals overcome their addictions. Thankfully, society has learned a great deal in nearly two hundred years about the science of addiction and how to combat it. In the same way, we have learned the 19th century social division of people by race is completely at odds with science.
Crops and Economy
McKenzie laments that wet weather will likely lead to a late planting season this spring. At the writing of this letter he has only planted half of his corn, though some people are done. He suggests perhaps they risked damaging their crop by planting early this season. The outlook appears good in 1838 for the cotton crop:
“…we have planted
Say half our corn, Some people are done planting corn and
should the weather continue cool and now dry after the wet
weather, I fear it will be but a bad chance for the corn to
come up — people are preparing for large crops of cotton this
Season, we will plant the Same land under it this year that
we had last, also the same under corn, the wheat looks tolle
-rably well tho rather thin the frosts killed Some of it, and
all the fall sowing of oats none of them escaped”
Towards the end of his letter, Duncan McKenzie tries to explain the dilemma of using state money rather than federal money. When business is done out of state at places like New Orleans, Louisiana or Mobile, Alabama, the rates of exchange devalue their state money, “a currency that met local demand but lacked credibility outside the immediate community” according to the Mississippi Encyclopedia. Merchants doing business in those places actually lose money. Such was the overconfidence in cotton production that the Mississippi economy by 1837 suffered from over speculation in land and money. The number of banks lending money in Mississippi had grown by 1837 to twenty-seven at the time Duncan writes this letter. It did not matter if a landowner was probably overextending himself, loans were available to anyone who owned a bit of land. In 1836 when President Andrew Jackson issued his Specie Circular, many Mississippians could not pay for their land in specie because they only had unbacked paper money. As banks issued foreclosures on property, those who had overextended themselves fled across the Mississippi River to Louisiana and Texas often in secrecy and the dead of night, along with their enslaved people who trotted alongside wagons that held women and children. Often a facade of property, such as a horse and carriage, was left behind to delay suspicion of their flight. When the banks could not collect their money, they failed. In 1837 the Union Bank was chartered in hopes of correcting the problem. It is to Duncan McKenzie’s credit and caution that he had not been among those who indulged in purchasing that for which he could not pay. The Union Bank issued bonds that the state legislature guaranteed. When the Union Bank failed, Governor McNutt suggested the state refuse to pay them, known as “repudiation.”
“The merchants of this state are unhealthy the most of them are
forced to quit business as they dare not go to New Orleans with
=out money our State money is from 15-30 percent under par with
the New Orleans Merchants consequently our merchants can
=not stand the drag, this loss in the end falls on the consumers
of the merchandise tho it first comes out of the merchants —
the only way for us farmers now is to go to market with
our cotton or send and agent who will purchase our
necessary, cotton is at par with gold or anything else
So when we sell our crops we receive the real grit or
our own State money at the above discount …”
In the Duncan McLaurin Papers, correspondence between Duncan McLaurin and John Patrick Stewart, clerk of Franklin County, MS, explores in detail the lively politics of this period.
In concluding, Duncan McKenzie makes a reference to his son Daniel, who is impatiently waiting for him to finish the letter. Daniel is tasked with carrying this letter to the post office when he goes to school. Of all the McKenzie sons, Daniel is the one who enjoys school and will appreciate an education, though he never quite receives the one of his dreams.
John McLaurin (1789-1864) is the brother of Barbara McKenzie. John was an infant when his parents, Hugh and Catharine, left Argyll, Scotland for America. John spent his adult life farming, and was deeded 500 acres of land by his father. He and his brother Duncan together managed the farm and Ballachulish after Hugh became too old to manage it. John oversaw the farm while Duncan spent time teaching away from home at Bennettsville, SC and during Duncan’s short term in the North Carolina state legislature.
Duncan was living at Ballachulish and caring for his dependent family members by the time John married Effie Stalker. They set up housekeeping at John’s farm and had four children. Their first child, John Cain was born and died in 1840. They were blessed with another boy, Owen, who lived into adulthood, served in the Confederate army and navy, spent a short time in Canada after the war ended, and died in North Carolina on his family’s farm in 1869, ending the possibility of carrying on the McLaurin name in Hugh’s branch of the family. John and Effie also had two daughters who both died in 1867. Owen, Elizabeth, and Catharine McLaurin all died as young adults. However, they all outlived their father, who died in 1864. Effie Stalker, from the time her husband died, ran the farm herself and apparently, according to Owen’s probate hearing, felt that Owen could not be a very good farmer since he spent so much time with books. Duncan evidently took issue with the attitude Effie held toward the worth of her son. Among the Duncan McLaurin Papers is an 1872 letter to Effie probably written during the lengthy probate hearing that year regarding the property of John McLaurin. Duncan bitterly expresses his view of Effie’s comments regarding her own son at this hearing.
traduce the character of Owen for he was among the most respectful & esteemed
young men of the neighborhood and had he lived would have filled honorably offices
of profit & trust in his native land … Now that he is
gone he is represented as a perfect spendthrift.”
Duncan had his favorites and they included Owen, who at the least appreciated what his Uncle could do for him. Owen’s correspondence with his Uncle Duncan in this collection begins during his school days away from home, continues during the Civil War, and ends with the war. Duncan also writes a touching poem in honor of Catharine. Duncan signs his lovely poem penned in her honor with these words: “A tribute by her uncle whose love was reciprocal.”
John is one of the people with whom Duncan McKenzie is most anxious to correspond, though it seems that John did not spend much time corresponding, especially after he married. Having read some of John’s correspondence with his brother, I can safely say that he did not take the same care with his writing as did Duncan McKenzie nor especially his own brother. He does not seem to have enjoyed corresponding in the same way Duncan McKenzie and Duncan McLaurin appeared to relish it.
Bond, Bradley T. “Panic of 1837.” Ownby, Tedd and Wilson, Charles Reagan. Mississippi Encyclopedia. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 968.
Bridges, Myrtle N. Estate Records 1772-1933 Richmond County North Carolina: Hardy – Meekins Book II. photocopy from the Brandon, MS Genealogy Room. “John McLaurin – 1864,” “Effy McLaurin – 1861,” and “Duncan McLaurin – 1872.”
Gonzales, John Edmond. “Flush Times, Depression, War, and Compromise.” A History of Mississippi Volume I. Edited by McLemore, Richard Aubrey. University & College Press of Mississippi: Hattiesburg. 1973. 292-294.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Effy Stalker. 4 October 1872. Box 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 11 May 1834. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 13 November 1836. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to John McLaurin. 28 March 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
McPherson, James M. Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1982. 383.
Minutes of Session. Hopewell Presbyterian Church 1837 – 1883. Covington County, MS. Provided by Harold Johnson.
Duncan begins this letter to his brother-in-law, Charles Patterson (married to Barbara’s sister Isabella), by referencing those to whom he has written earlier upon his arrival in Mississippi. He suggests Charles look to a sharing of those letters to discover details of his trip, since he will not be repeating his description in this letter. Among those Duncan McKenzie says he has written in Richmond County are Duncan McLaurin, Dr. Malloy, and Archibald McPherson. Duncan appears to be opening correspondence with as many family and friends as he can. The act of writing was as important to Duncan McKenzie as keeping in touch with family and friends. During the next decade when his eyesight begins to fail, he develops the habit of writing his letters during the afternoons so that the light will be more advantageous. Finding time to write was probably a challenge for the small farmer – every healthy adult on the place being essential to crop production.
This first spring in Covington County, Mississippi has been notable for flooding, and Duncan seems to buoy his own spirit by recounting the land’s reputation for producing corn and cotton. His description, if one reads between the lines, may reveal that the flooding has planted a seed of doubt in his mind about the productiveness of his land. He also alludes, as others have, to the great variety of land in this part of Mississippi.
“… a delluge of watter flowing down
these valleys which I anticipated would be the case in
very rainy Seasons I saw watter from two to three
feet deep flowing over the field and the third day after
the plow going in the Sauce ground Such is the
Situation of the country and the rain falls in torrents
yet it is said the land will produce corn from 20 to 50
Bushels per the acre and cotton from 700 to 1500 lb per acre
I have traveled in several directions tho not far in any there
is a great variety of Soil in this part of the world
Some as poor asyou ever saw & some as rich and probly
the richest you have Seen the rich land is in Small
Boddys consequently a poor man may have a good bit…”
These same “freshets” as they are called also slowed the mail. Though the return address on this letter is Taylorsville in bordering Smith County, MS, McKenzie admonishes Charles to write him via Mt. Carmel in Covington County.
Duncan McKenzie continues his theme of crops and land production throughout his correspondence to North Carolina. Also, on more than one occasion, he discusses his satisfaction with the land. Neighbors he notes who have done very well in this area of Mississippi include Allan Stewart and Alexander McNair. Evidently, Charles Patterson’s brother Alexander is farming in Mississippi and would do well if it weren’t for the availability of drink. McKenzie attributes the alcohol problem among farmers to the, “distance to market and Store and bar keepers take advantage.” He remarks that it is much easier to make money in Mississippi than North Carolina, but it is much easier to spend it in Mississippi. However, if a person is dissatisfied where he is, migrating to Mississippi might be the answer, but if one is doing well where he is, he would not encourage them to come.
“…as in all Rich land countries so thick Settled with wealthy ones
that a poor man could have but a bad chance
I will not advise anyone that considers himself
well Settled there to move to this or any other place
that I have Seen but if a man is dissatisfied let him
come on if he conducts well he will do.”
The markets for crops that Duncan mentions are Natchez (120 miles), Mobile (140 miles), and Covington on Lake Pontchartrain at about 100 miles. Taking crops to market via the Pearl River, especially during the freshets, can be dangerous. He concludes that he has not completely made up his mind on settling permanently:
-tion of Pearl River is dangerous and uncertain
a boat laden with cotton was lost on that River
a week or two back owing to the fresh the hands
saved themselves— If I am spared in the course
of the fall I will try to go up on the head
waters of the Bigbee River and Big Black River
Hugh C Stewart wishes his father (Allan Stewart) Archibald
Anderson and mySelf to go at least to See
that part of the country before we settle per-
The Pearl River by 1830 had been regularly cleared for navigation from Columbia, MS to the mouth. Before steamboats began to ply the rivers, the main modes of navigation were canoes, rafts, barges, keelboats, and flatboats. Rafts frequently were carrying timber by 1815. Soon, with the influx of migrants in search of fertile land, flatboats on the Pearl River would carry cotton to be ginned and marketed. The rush for land between 1830 and 1837 increased commerce in the river. This continued after the Panic of 1837 until the Civil War. Of course, unusual flooding would increase the danger on the river, but for commerce as far north as Jackson this river was usually navigable all year.
Duncan’s concern about the freshets indicates a bit of caution in his personality that is expressed repeatedly in subsequent letters. He references the need for very expensive labor but in the end decides to cut back on the crops. About the crops he has planted he says, “I have planted 36 acres under corn we have 12 for cotton I wrote to Duncan that I would plant 20 acres under cotton but on Reflection I thot less would do for if we even could work it we could not gather it…”
The last item of interest in the letter is mention of family matters. He predicts the pending birth of his youngest son John, “I expect in my next to inform you of an increase in our family if favors,, by an omnipotent hand the time is approaching…” Duncan’s letters are often full of newsy gossip about family and friends, though his major themes include crops and land, prices and economy, politics, temperance, flavored with a bit of religious philosophy.
Charles Patterson (1792-1848)
The person to whom Duncan McKenzie wrote this letter, married Isabella McLaurin, Barbara McKenzie’s sister. Isabella was Patterson’s second wife. His first marriage produced two children, Gilbert and Carolyn. His marriage to Isabella produced three sons: Malloy Patterson (1832-1902), Charles Calhoun Patterson (1835-1910), and James Postell Patterson (1839 – ?). A Patterson Family History describes Charles as living in, “Richmond County, NC, where he was a man of considerable wealth and prominence.” Several references to him in the Fayetteville Observer suggest that he may have been politically active as well. Charles died on April 26, 1848. His wife Isabella had begun a mental decline in 1847 and by 1860 had been certified mentally ill.
Probably after the death of Charles, Duncan McLaurin, Isabella’s brother, offers to take Isabella her three sons into his home. At this time Duncan shares Ballachulish with his two remaining spinster sisters, Effy and Mary. Isabella’s mental condition deteriorated until finally she spent some time in an asylum. In Duncan’s copy of Isabella’s insanity proceeding, question four asks, “What is the Supposed cause of her insanity?” Duncan answers: “Ill treatment of her husbands and his general drunken profane conduct.” A reference in Duncan McKenzie’s 1838 letter to John McLaurin supports the fact of Charles Patterson’s ill treatment of Isabella: “… Charles Patterson is not content with his sprees when abroad but must be needs keep the critter by him at home if Such be the fact I certainly do not envy his family their happiness.” Evidence exists that disrespect and blame directed at their father’s memory may have been the source of discord between Duncan and his nephews in early adulthood and late adolescence. Though apparently Malloy did his very best to defy his Uncle, Duncan continued to give them shelter and legal guardianship until they achieved adulthood. He made sure Malloy was educated at Chapel Hill, but the outbreak of the Civil War likely precluded the younger nephews from their educations. Malloy never married. Calhoun, though married, may not have had any surviving children. Postell married and had a number of children. Just before Duncan’s death in 1872, he faced several law suits brought against him by one Patterson nephew and one McKenzie nephew, both in North Carolina. Neither of them succeeded nor is it clear from the letters alone what they were about, though property or the value of it might have been involved.
Isabella’s illness began around 1847 and lasted until her death in 1864. The family tried mightily to take care of Isabella themselves and not completely out of necessity. Barbara’s opinion was that the family should try to keep Isabella at home rather than send her to an asylum. She felt Isabella would be better off. However, when Duncan could not keep Isabella from leaving the house and placing herself in difficult if not dangerous situations, he evidently decided to find a place for her at the newly opened North Carolina Insane Asylum under the care of Dr. Fisher. Through 1858 and 1859 her mental health condition did not improve, though she remained relatively physically healthy and expressed a desire to return home. Isabella’s son Malloy, of legal age but not in any practical way settled enough to keep his mother, threatened to sue Duncan for his mother’s guardianship. Dr. Fisher was of the opinion that if Isabella could find attentive home care, she would be just as well or perhaps better off.
The North Carolina Insane Asylum opened in 1856 at Raleigh. Funds for this facility were legislated in 1848 after the social reformer Dorothea Dixgave a moving speech to the North Carolina state legislature. It is interesting to note that in this speech Dix suggests that the poor have a right to public funds for care comparable to the mental health care wealthier families can afford, and it is in the public interest to provide that care. During the first half of the 19th century, North Carolinians had few options for the care of the mentally ill beyond home care and the jails. Some sent relatives to out-of-state facilities.
According to an 1860 mental health questionnaire, Duncan answers that there was no family history of the illness. He also replied negatively when asked if Isabella had ever had epilepsy. One positive note in Dr. John Malloy’s certification process in the Isabel Patterson Case is this quotation, likely supplied by her brother Duncan, “Her recollection of things passing since her derangement and before then from her infancy up is astonishingly good. Her juvenile songs, jokes even to very minutias are as fresh in her memory as when passing.” By 1860 whether Isabella was cared for in the home of Duncan, another relative, or continued to be institutionalized is unclear.
In 1833 Duncan McKenzie includes Charles Patterson in the list of people with whom he hopes to correspond in North Carolina. Evidence does not exist that all of these people wrote him back, but he names the ones he hoped would write back. In addition to blaming Patterson for his sister’s illness, Duncan McLaurin also claims that Charles Patterson, without any legal authority, officiated his brother John’s marriage to Effie Stalker. Indeed, Charles Patterson did marry the couple. According to the Fayetteville Weekly Observer of 2 February 1842, “In Richmond County on Thursday evening last by Charles Patterson, Esqr, Mr. John McLaurin of Ballacholish, to Miss Effy Stalker, daughter of Duncan Stalker, all of that county.” Whether Patterson really had legal authority to perform the marriage or if this was only a barb intended to inflict pain upon Effie is unknown. Duncan McLaurin became very bitter in his old age towards family members in whom he perceived a wish to exploit the family or the family property, and he felt Effie Stalker McLaurin as well as her brother John Stalker guilty of this.
Anthony, Robert G. Jr. and Homrighaus, Ruth E. from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. 2006. Additional research provided by J. Field Montgomery Jr. accessed 11 November 2017. https://www.ncpedia.org/psychiatric-hospitals
Duncan McLaurin’s copy of the proceeding of insanity for Isabella Patterson. About 1860. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Several documents place my third great grandfather, Kenneth McKenzie, in North Carolina in 1807. The first is from the North Carolina Land Grant Files, which shows a Kenneth McKenzie having purchased 100 acres of land in Richmond County in 1807 “beginning at a Black Jack on E. side of Gum Swamp.” This would have been very near the home that Hugh McLaurin was building for his family at Gum Swamp, “Ballachulish.” The second document shows that in 1811, a Kenneth McKenzie purchases property on the northeast side of PeeDee River and on the southeast side of the main fork of Cartledge’s Creek.” The deed is purchased from Joseph and Elizabeth McDowell and witnessed by James Thomas and Peter Covington. This is possibly the very land that Kenneth’s son Duncan McKenzie was farming when he married Barbara McLaurin.
Another Richmond County, NC document that may have involved my third great grandfather Kenneth is the indenture of a child, Allan Johnston (Johnson), seven-years-old. This Bond of Apprenticeship, made on 24 September 1813, was located and shared by a descendant, Harold Johnson. This is the same Allan Johnson, who the Duncan McKenzie family so happily came upon at Ft. Claiborne as they neared Covington County on their migration route.
In 1827 Kenneth’s Uncle Donald Stewart in Guilford County wrote a responding letter to him in care of Duncan McLaurin. Stewart has learned from Kenneth’s earlier letter of Mary McLaurin McKenzie’s death and sends his condolences. He also invites Kenneth to visit for a little philosophical discussion, but warns him against his tendency to become overly passionate. If I were to guess the reason for Kenneth’s elusiveness, in real life and in genealogy research, it would be this temperamental and perhaps unsettled element of his personality. The full quotation is revealing:
“You should have with us
much philosophy as possible, the cross acci=
=dents of life, and not suffer yourself to
be led into any practices in consequence of
them: you know, that your irritability of
disposition is very great and consequently
that much reflection; if attention is required to
transcend it; otherwise you might be head=
=ed to a fatal situation; you have al=
=ready experienced the effect of sudden gusts of
passion, let it be an awful warning to you
in future.” — Donald Stewart
Kenneth writes from Brunswick County
By 1832, just before Duncan left for Mississippi, his father Kenneth also left his will and power of attorney with Duncan McLaurin and heads eastward, soon to be living on property at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County, NC. What drove him to leave Richmond County, if it was a specific event, remains unknown. According to his one surviving letter in this collection, written to his son John in 1833, Kenneth is living with his second wife and newborn son, “five miles from New Inlet lighthouse & six above Smithville a little courthouse town & a Ship Harbor.” Today the remains of the town of Smithville are part of Southport, NC. Kenneth’s property is not too far from Ft. Fisher of Civil War fame. Years earlier and by 1833 an inlet had been created by a storm. Congress agreed by 1829 to build a number of lighthouses “to illuminate the 25 mile stretch of the Cape Fear River between Oak Island and Wilmington.” Evidently, the lighthouse mentioned in Kenneth’s letter was the Federal Point lighthouse, built by 1816. It stood for about two decades before it burned in 1836. It was repaired and then replaced near but not on the exact spot. (See the Ft. Fisher lighthouse excavation article cited below.) The one standing in its place during the Civil War was taken down in 1863 so as to avoid attracting Union forces, though blockade runners needed the lights. Likely the shortage of oil for the lights decided the issue. The base of the first two at this location have been excavated, but it is thought the base of a third might be buried under the present day aquarium near the Ft. Fisher historic site.
Another historic site of interest is the old Smithville Cemetery in the town of Southport. This historic cemetery contains some very interesting tombstones and monuments to sailors lost at sea. However, no evidence exists that Kenneth McKenzie might have been buried here. In an 1834 letter to his brother-in-law John McLaurin, Duncan worries about his father, “I have not had a letter from my father since last October I answered his last if he received it I am supprised he does not write if you know where he is or where I will write to him let me know in your answer Duncan stated he was in Wilmington but expected to leave there and take up his old trade of practice.” Kenneth’s “old trade of practice” might have been itinerant ministry, practicing physician, or less likely teaching, which he has admittedly been doing in Brunswick County. Beyond Kenneth’s 1833 letter, we only know that his second wife, referred to as “Stepmother” in the letters, by 1837 is expressing her desire to come to Covington County, MS with her adult daughters from a previous marriage and her McKenzie son, Kenneth Pridgen. Apparently, some time between the 1833 letter and 1837, Kenneth may have died or for some reason may have left his family. A slight possibility exists that he may have found it necessary to return Scotland. After lauding Scottish immigrants as the best neighbors in the letter he appears gripped by emotion at the death of two of his friends to whom he refers by their Gaelic names suggesting a nostalgia for his homeland:
“I am sorry for the Death of 2 of my best friends
& the friends of mankind Oh my dear old
friend Major Duncan Donachaidh Machd
-Dhonuil oh what a kind Heart …
I am sorry also for the Death of
friend C Cahoun he was a Real friend of mine
from his childhood”
This letter also suggests that Kenneth is attempting to farm the property near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. He disparages the land there for it refuses to yield. He appears to have tried to grow corn, pease, potatoes, and perhaps rice. The rice, he claims, is not much in demand. He also tries fishing with little success, “I laid out $25 in fishing lines last spring & Did not catch a Barrel of fish,” – interesting, since the area as a whole depends a great deal upon tourism and fishing for sport today. The cost of living near Smithville was higher because the main port was Wilmington. His predominant income seems to have come from teaching nearby, “31 miles from home up to the Upper end of this county.”
The son John McKenzie (1794-1834), to whom Kenneth’s 1833 letter is addressed, apparently lived with his wife Betsy (Elizabeth Webb) and five children near Duncan McLaurin in Richmond County. It is evident in the correspondence that John McKenzie dies in 1834. Duncan McKenzie mentions in a letter not long after that he would be willing to help Betsy and her family relocate to Mississippi, but this evidently never happened. Betsy dies in North Carolina in 1872. Some descendants of John and Betsy still reside in North Carolina. Betsy’s tombstone still stands at Stewartsville Cemetery, but John’s is gone. He does not appear on the burial list but was likely buried there near his mother and wife. Some of his children have tombstones still standing in this cemetery.
Kenneth’s messages to his to his son John
The main messages Kenneth wishes to convey to John in this letter are threefold. The first one is to tell John how happy he is that a conflict with a man named Grimes has ended and that a question concerning his “little Legacy from Mrs. Smiths Esate” had ended. The second concern seems most important, and that is the fact that John had put his land in Richmond County up for sale. Kenneth admonishes John not to sell, while disparaging his own newly acquired property in Brunswick County:
“I am thanks be
to the great giver of all good; well
pleased at Everything about your situation
Health mind & circumstances only one thing
Excepted; & that is your advertising you
Land for Sale I hope you will not sell
to any person as your land is valuable
and I should Say fully worth the Rise of
$500 let me make a Calculation 236 Acres
at $2-25 per acre which will amount to
five hundred & thirty-one Dollars & ifyou will wait
Twelve months Ill give you at that rate
myself if nobody Else Does Your land John
is – 40 – percent better than this land I now live on”
On the contrary, John’s brother Duncan seems to be encouraging him to migrate to Mississippi, for in April of 1833, Duncan writes to his brother-in-law Charles Patterson and says that he has his eyes open for a “convenient place for him (John) near my own tell him to remember what I told him If life lasts I will be as good as my promise.” Unfortunately, for John life did not last, though Duncan offers to help Betsy and the children if they wish to come. Kenneth, however, does not approve of Duncan’s move to Mississippi and in his last words to his son encourages the opposite:
“I also Recd one (a letter) from your Brother
Duncan full of Satisfaction to my poor heart
Now my dear children John and Betsy consider yourselves at
Home Dont give up your Home for a Song
as your Brother Did Your land acre for acre
is actually better than your Brothers Therefore
I insist on you to hold to it”
The third concern of the letter is really a bit of news. Kenneth explains that in his old age he has fathered a half brother to Duncan and John. He brags upon the health of this baby, a gift in his old age.
“John and Betsy you have a little Brother born on the
7th October named Kenneth P for Pridgen I am
in my 65 year his mother in her 48th He was fully
as large as your Mary when born write on the Rect of this”
Kenneth’s religious faith
Kenneth’s religious faith is pervasively evident in this letter and is especially obvious as he consoles John almost prayerfully that justice in his conflict with Grimes has been served. The last few lines of this quotation seem particularly appropriate since father and son will never exchange earthly words again:
“He that died on Calvarys awful mount here
the groans & Sighs of them that put their trust in
him to wit. them that through his grace has come
to him with their Sins being crushed Down under
that tremendous load which neither men nor
Angels could Remove but he alone that trod the wine
press & bore their transgressions & Rose again for their
Justification & sits Enthroned to bear their prayers unto his
Father this my Dear Children is the consolation that is
worth living & Dying for therefore let us meet always
at his throne of mercy Especially in sweet morning
or Evening shades and all Day & night until his witness will
bear witness with our Spirits that we are born of God Amen”
One can imagine from Kenneth’s words that he had the potential to become very emotional about his faith. Perhaps we can find here the seeds of his son Duncan’s difficulty in aligning himself, at least in later life, with a particular established church. Clearly Duncan shows by his words that he was a man of faith, but it was left to his sons in Mississippi to join specific churches. Influenced likely by their marriages, Daniel joins the Presbyterian Church; Duncan and John become Baptists – all after moving to Smith County.
Kenneth McKenzie and Relations in Scotland
Kenneth McKenzie was born around 1768 in Scotland, probably in the area of Argyll, since some family are referenced in the Duncan McLaurin Papers as residing in that place. The following is a list of letter references to Kenneth McKenzie’s family, who are from this area of Scotland:
Donald Stewart’s 1822 Will: “And that the money arising from the sale of the aforesaid Slaves with their increase be remitted to my relations in Scotland in the following portion Vis. To the children of my sister Catherine McKenzie one fifth part of my estate to be equally divided among them to them and their heirs forever.” Donald Stewart is from Argyllshire.
Donald Stewart’s April 1827 letter to Kenneth McKenzie mentions a nephew in the Highlands, Rev. John McMillan, a clergyman of the Church of England: “I have a letter by him (Duncan Stalker) from the Highland; but must defer answering them until I write to your nephew Mr. McMillan; so as to make one reply do for all”
An April 1840 letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin references his Uncle Donald McKenzie: “I received a letter from my uncle Donald McKenzie of South Ballochelish Glencoe North Britain he wrote in Sept 1839 it is in the same hand write that you love, he filled a very large sheet of strong paper with fine and close writing, it contains much news and with all he says if I will write to him an encouraging letter he and his sons and son in law Hugh McKenzie who is grandson of my grand uncle Alexander McKenzie … My uncle and sons are in the Slate quarry where he left home they say they have a sufficiency to bring them and but very little more”
The April letter is followed by a July 1840 letter in which Duncan McKenzie requests Duncan McLaurin to write to his Uncle Donald McKenzie: “I wish you on the receipt of this to write to my uncle in Scotland giving him your views plainly — address him south Bulachellish Glencoe and c”
Duncan McKenzie mentions his uncle again in March of 1841: “Daniel (Donald) McKenzie of Appin Glen coe wrote a letter on the 12th Nov. last which I received some time in January last in which he states that he will try to emigrate to this country next fall together with his three sons and seven daughters and familys one of his sons is married also four of his daughters, they propose landing in New Orleans … The old man complains of the hardness of the times in Scotland I really expect that it is necessity drives him from the home of his childhood, and the land of his fathers”
In January of 1842, Duncan McKenzie makes another reference to his father’s family in Scotland: “I now Say to you that my letters (to Donald McKenzie) fell into the hands of a cousin of mine who says he is the oldest Sone of my youngest Uncle Allan McKenzie, you are also aware that my Uncle Allan left his native country Some years Since and emigrated to Australia or Australasia an Island adjacent to the continent of new holland, his Sone left him in Scotland the Sone being in his fifteenth year and went to Paris where he attended in the hospital for six years. he then traveled with a young french nobleman over France, Ittaly, and most of Spain where he entered the army as surgeon but soon lost his health where upon he retraced his steps and last summer reached the land of his birth, in traveling through Scotland visiting his scattered relatives he came on my letters in the hands of Cousin John McMillan … he then lost no time in writing to me Stating that So Soon as he obtained a medical diploma from the faculty in Glasgow which he would have conferred on him this winter he would Come to North America … he also States that a brother of his is in Missouri”
Again in 1843 Duncan McKenzie references this cousin in Missouri: “I recently received a letter from my Missouri Cousin… he is doing business for Messrs John Perry and Co. Rush Tower, Missouri”
These excerpts from the letters in the Duncan McLaurin collection are evidence that Kenneth likely was born and emigrated from Argyll, Scotland. Another source that places Kenneth McKenzie in Argyll is from Marguerite Whitfield’s 1978 McCall and McLaurin family history cited below. She states that Hugh McLaurin, Duncan and Barbara McLaurin’s father, had a sister named Mary, who married Kenneth McKenzie. However, she had no knowledge that this couple ever left Scotland. Whitfield’s genealogy deals more extensively with the McCall family and does not acknowledge the Duncan McLaurin Papers if she knew of their existence at all. My third great grandmother, this same Mary McLaurin McKenzie, wife of Kenneth and mother of Duncan and John, died around 1825 and is buried in Stewartsville Cemetery near Laurinburg, NC.
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On June 16, 1817 Barbara McLaurin McKenzie wrote a letter to her favorite sister Effy because she was homesick for her family and “uneasy” about the health of her aging mother. Barbara was married to Duncan McKenzie, who farmed on the Peedee River within about sixty miles of Gum Swamp. Likely this was more than a couple of day’s travel in a wagon – less by horseback – yet still far enough away to impose an obstacle for very frequent visits. Barbara’s anxiety is palpable in these lines,
“Duncan came last night I was verry glad for we did not here a word Since uncle was down there I was very uneasy about Mother that she would be Sick this Summer I hope she will get well now my patience was a most out till Duncan came I kept dreaming every Knight of father and Mother and the all of you.”
The Duncan she refers to is probably her brother Duncan McLaurin. Barbara goes on to say in the letter that they are late with the crop and will not go down “till the Sacriment will be at the Hill” when she will stay a week. With the hopeful prospect of one or more of her sisters returning to PeeDee River withher to visit a while, she remarks on the “Jelious pout” her sister Effy displayed when Barbara did not write her: “you Said I forgot you but not as long as I live & we did look for father and one of you every Saturday but you did not come.” This last was to be prophetic for Barbara, especially after she migrated with her husband and children to Mississippi. Sisters and brothers still did not come, and her life would become so busy and probably sometimes so grueling that she would want to write but either never did or her letters may not have survived in this collection.
A physical complaint Barbara expressed in this letter would also appear in letters written by her husband and children many years later from Mississippi. She had developed a pain in her hip which she blamed on a rough wagon trip, “I had a mity sore pain in my hip for … too weeks I did go one night to preaching we rid very fast I was thinking it was that rased the pain.” This pain would follow her the rest of her life, a challenging one for most yeoman farmer women. For example, the family had no chimney in their new home in Mississippi and would have to bake their own bricks, which was not necessarily a priority – the crops were. Though it helped that they moved onto already cleared land, no chimney likely meant cooking outdoors and moving heavy pots. According to later letters, the family had brought at least one enslaved woman with them from North Carolina, and possibly this was so that she could help Barbara when she was not needed to help in the fields.
Nevertheless, Barbara McLaurin, my second great grandmother, must have had a fine 19th century childhood. Probably born about five years before the turn of the 18th to 19th century, she likely spent a great deal of her time helping out on the family farm and enjoying the home that her father built when he purchased land near Gum Swamp at Laurel Hill, North Carolina. Born into the Hugh McLaurin and Catharine Calhoun McLaurin family, Barbara grew up enjoying a household filled with people and female companionship. Her many sisters by far outnumbered the two brothers, Duncan and John. By 1817 she and three of her older sisters were married: Jennett McLaurin (John) McCall, Sarah McLaurin (Duncan) Douglass, and Isabella McLaurin (Charles) Patterson. Three of her sisters would remain spinsters: Catharine, Mary, and Effy. Although Duncan never married, her brother John married Effie Stalker McLaurin.
Hugh McLaurin would likely not have concerned himself so much with educating daughters as with sons. Duncan, though only about four when he crossed the Atlantic, was by far the most literate of the children. His brother John was a farmer and less the man of letters – an infant when the family left Ballachulish in Argyll province for Wilmington, NC in 1790. Hugh may have worked in the slate quarry at Ballachulish, Scotland, for he came to America with finances enough to get him and his family across the ocean and to purchase property upon his arrival in the new land. The same need for readily available fertile land, affordably taxed, on which to establish a family farm must have been one motivating force that drove the Hugh McLaurin family from Scotland following family and friends that had gone before. They came to a new continent from Scotland in much the same way the Duncan McKenzie family was inspired to leave North Carolina for Mississippi.
Hugh named his new home and farm Ballachulish, after his hometown in Argyll, Scotland. In fact many Argyll families settled in North Carolina – McCalls, Stewarts, Calhouns and others – most of them becoming land and slaveholders. Many of them are buried in the old Stewartsville cemetery near Laurel Hill that survives today. Hugh’s home would pass from generation to generation, beginning with nephew Hugh McCall, to whom Duncan left all of his personal property upon his death in December of 1872. According to the record of Marguerite Whitfield, a McCall descendant, the property was still in the hands of the McCall family in 1977. A later descendant of the McCalls has photographs and remembers the house still standing in 1982.
From Ballachulish to Mississippi, Barbara’s words speak to a strong family relationship that spans the distance of frontier roads and dreams of a better life.
Bridges, Myrtle N. Estate Records 1772-1933 Richmond County North Carolina: Hardy – Meekins Book II. photocopy from the Brandon, MS Genealogy Room. “John McLaurin – 1864,” “Effy McLaurin – 1861,” and “Duncan McLaurin – 1872.”
Letter from Barbara McKenzie to Effy McLaurin. 16 June 1817. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Whitfield, Marguerite. Families of Ballachulish: McCalls, McLaurins And Related Families in Scotland County, North Carolina. The Pilot Press: Southern Pines, NC. 1978. (This text contains much valuable information, especially about the McCalls and about Scotland roots. However, the information on Barbara McLaurin McKenzie can be corrected with information from the Duncan McLaurin Papers and many other records. Also, two Effys are confused – Effy McLaurin, Barbara’s sister, and Effie Stalker McLaurin, John’s wife. Barbara’s sister Effy died in 1861, and listed Barbara’s children and grandchildren in her will. Effie Stalker McLaurin died in 1881 preceded in death by her husband and all of her children. Effie, John’s wife, is most likely the Effie that lived in her old age with the Hugh McCalls. Duncan McLaurin died in December of 1872, and his will was briefly probated within weeks of his death.)