The 1840s: Stepmother and Yellow Fever

Gate to the Old Church Street Grave Yard created in 1819 in Mobile, Alabama for yellow fever victims. Photograph from

On August 2, 1847, the first case of yellow fever in Mobile, Alabama was reported for that year. The disease, which did not originate in North America, was fairly common in United States port cities in the south during the 19th century. Outbreaks would usually begin in the summer and begin to decline after the first frost. Yellow fever’s early symptoms, similar to other fevers, made it difficult to diagnose. For this reason communities were slow to initiate warnings. Unaware of the true source of the disease, controversy ensued about whether sanitation or quarantine was the best response. The 1847 epidemic resulted in 78 deaths in the port city of Mobile, Alabama. It would be the turn of the 20th century in Cuba, where a U. S. Army Commission made the definitive discovery that the transmitter of yellow fever was the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Since the mosquito was the vector, quarantine would probably not have mattered much. Extra sanitation efforts might have made little difference in the spread of this disease except to ward off secondary infection. The mosquito vector breeds in fresh water. According to the author of “The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana,” epidemic yellow fever in the United States was essentially eliminated after 1905 thanks to medical science and public health practices. The following is a brief but revealing encounter with one of its victims.

We first learn of “Stepmother” McKenzie in 1833 when Kenneth McKenzie proudly introduces his new son, Kenneth Pridgen McKenzie. He is writing to his son John when he breaks the news from Brunswick County, NC:

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

I will call her Stepmother since her first name is never revealed in any of the Duncan McLaurin Papers, and that is how the letters reference her. She is forty-eight when her last child is born. In February 1840 Duncan McKenzie writes, “I heard from Stepmother in Dec she expects to move to Mi in the spring.” Though I have never found evidence of Kenneth’s death, Stepmother is a widow in 1840, perhaps for the second time. Duncan appears to feel some concern about her wellbeing. Stepmother’s marriage to Kenneth McKenzie was not her first. Her first marriage produced at least four daughters that we know of. One of those daughters was widowed and also had a son.

Stepmother must have been desperate to find a sense of security by coming to Mississippi to be near Duncan and his family. Perhaps, as Duncan likely fears, Stepmother and her family will become dependent upon him. Still, he does not appear to discourage her from coming and probably feels some responsibility for the family. He expresses some concern for their welfare once he has confirmation that they are on their way. In April 1840 Duncan receives information that Stepmother was to leave Wilmington on March 4 by way of schooner or steamer to Charleston, SC. From there she would continue to Mobile, AL. He writes to Duncan McLaurin:

I have been looking for my

Step Mother from Wilmington, I received a letter

from her dated the 2nd of March Stating that she

was to leave there on the 4 of the same month in a

vessel bound for Charleston SC from which place

She would take passage to Mobile, Ala, She

had not reached the latter place on the 10th Inst

I am uneasy for her safety

Duncan could have rested more easily, as he would soon learn, for Stepmother was likely more adventurous and resourceful than he might have thought. In July of 1840, after the party of four had arrived in Covington County and were welcomed into Duncan and Barbara McKenzie’s home, we learn of her travels.

Stepmother initially set out from Wilmington on the fifth of March en route, via probably steamship or schooner, to Charleston, SC — a distance of around 159 nautical miles. At the beginning of her journey, she likely passed near her former home with Kenneth McKenzie at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Before passing what is today called Oak Island, she might have spied the lighthouse near her former home at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. She might have said a nostalgic good-bye to the birthplace of her young son. Or she may not have had time to direct young Kenneth’s attention to this landmark, for the seabirds following the vessel along the shoreline may have been too much of a distraction for two young boys. Stepmother also traveled with her four daughters and a widowed daughter’s young son — quite a number of people headed toward Covington County, MS and Duncan’s modest home.

However, the party was delayed two months after reaching Charleston, SC. Evidently, Stepmother’s funds were running out sooner than expected. In Charleston she made the decision to send one of her daughters back to a son-in-law in Wilmington and a second daughter stayed in Charleston. No evidence exists in the correspondence as to how this young woman was to fend for herself there. Perhaps they had family or friends in that place. Duncan does not explain further.

After a two month’s delay, Stepmother’s party of five boarded a schooner, captained by one James Nichols, en route to New Orleans, Louisiana. The schooner was nineteen days struggling against uncooperative winds in reaching port. During the nineteen day voyage traversing about 1,173 nautical miles, one daughter began a courtship with Captain Nichols, and in September of 1840 Duncan writes, “…their connubial knot was tied (on the 31st of May) in New Orleans, she thus took on her self the weals and woes of a sailors wife, her mother has not heard from her since.” Though Captain Nichols and the daughter headed for New York, they promised to return to Mississippi by way of Wilmington, where the Captain would give up command of the ship to the owners. By the end of 1840, Stepmother had received letters from her other two daughters left behind, with some assurance of their safety, but the fate of Captain Nichols and his wife is unknown.

Before leaving, Captain James Nichols placed Stepmother’s party of four (two widows and two sons) aboard a steamboat headed for Mobile, Alabama, where they arrived with seven dollars left. Duncan found land passage for them from Mobile to Covington County, MS through a friend, Peter McCallum. They stayed with Duncan and Barbara until they found a vacant house “in the neighborhood.” It appears that Duncan does not hear much from Stepmother while she lives amongst them. In one letter he describes them: “I think they are smart women,” and later says, “Stepmother and her daughter are verry industrious to make a living, they are not ashamed to ask for their wants and you know that is the first part of getting a thing.”

The following is Duncan’s account of Stepmother’s adventure:

you stated that Neil McLaurin of wilmington

had told you something about my Step Mothers leaving

that place in Febry or March, She left there on the 5th of March

and came as far as Charleston S C where She

was detained 2 months waiting a passage to Mobile

and for want of a sufficiency of funds she sent one

of her daughters back to Wilmington to a sone in laws

and left an other daughter in charles ton, She set

sail for New Orleans with her oldest daughter who

is a widdow & and an other daughter, her little sone, and her

widdowd daughters sone, five in number, owing

to contrary winds the Schooner was 19 days in making

the voyage during which time the captain was agree

=ably entertaind in courting the old ladys daughter

who he Married in New Orleans on the 31st May

leaving the two widdows to work through life

the best they could, James Nichols is the name

of the man, he parted with his mother in law

after seeing them on board a Steam boat bound

for Mobile with a promise of coming on

to her in Mi — After going a trip to New York

and returning to Wilmington where he would

surrender the schooner to the owners, and come

on with his wife, the two widdows arrived safe

in Mobile with 7$ left — P. McCallum to whom

I had previously written procured a passage for

them from thence to this place where they

arrived on last Saturday week, Still

in with us, but they are going to a vacant house

in the neighborhood, thus ends the narrative of the poor

widdows & their sones, If they are industrious they may

get along, I will try to see to this adopted little

brother he is a likely child —

This map dated 1849 shows the name of Smithville, NC, now known as Southport. Stepmother’s route can be traced from Wilmington to Charleston. From Charleston, Capt. James Nichols navigated his schooner 19 days through the Gulf of Mexico to arrive at New Orleans in May of 1840.  To zoom into a version of this map visit this address:

In fact, Duncan did not have to put himself out for the young half brother, for his half sister, named Mrs. Turner, soon married the Yankee schoolteacher that Duncan thought brought the younger students on so well in their schooling. Reese H. Jones was from Pennsylvania, perhaps Philadelphia, for he returns home around 1846 to recover from stubborn mouth sores. While Jones is in Philadelphia, Stepmother and her daughter, their two sons — probably young teens by 1846 —leave Covington County for Mobile, Alabama. Stepmother and her family had been in Mississippi about six years when Duncan writes in January 1846, “Stepmother & crew left this for Mobile some time in Nov last Kenneth and all & if it suits their convenience they may stay there, her sone in law Reese H Jones came to Williams Burgh the day after she crew & caravan passd on their way to Mobile he of course followed they reached their place of destination and I hope that is the last of them.”

The last line seems to me a bit foreboding because it actually was the last of Stepmother. About nine months after Duncan McKenzie died in 1847, his oldest son Kenneth writes to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin of Stepmother: “I have to write … of Mobile grand … is no more she died of the yellow fever in Septr last Kenneth is in Mobile if he was separate from his sister I would try to tighten his reigns and put him to work.”

One is left only to imagine Stepmother’s suffering from yellow fever. Likely they were in temporary quarters when the disease struck. At first she might have suspected the fever and chills not unlike those she may have had before. The first five days would have brought nausea, vomiting, constipation, headache, and muscle pain in the legs and back. The acute stage would follow with the yellowing of the skin through jaundice. Hemorrhaging from almost any part of the body is common. Black vomit can occur as a result of blood from stomach hemorrhages being acted upon by stomach acids. This would take the form of almost involuntary vomiting. Before death, convulsions or coma occurred. If one recovered, and some did, it would begin about two weeks from the onset of the illness.

The treatment Stepmother was likely to have endured included heavy doses of Calomel, a mercury-based compound that purged the system. Other purging methods would have included blood-letting. These purging treatments are said to have had some limited success in treating the illness.

There is some evidence that soldiers returning from the Mexican War via New Orleans and Mobile may have made the epidemics worse during 1847. Many, many soldiers died of yellow fever while in Mexico. The ships and steamboats bringing them back through these ports perhaps harbored the deadly mosquito.

This photograph shows graves at Old Church Street Cemetery in Mobile, AL – possibly Stepmother’s final resting place. photo from 

It is possible that Stepmother lies buried in the Old Church Street Cemetery in Mobile. The cemetery was originally set aside for yellow fever victims in 1819. During the epidemic of 1820, 274 people died, so the cemetery was put to immediate use. The cemetery covers over four acres. Whether Reese H. Jones, his wife, and young Kenneth P. McKenzie survived the epidemic and perhaps made their home in Mobile is awaiting discovery.

Stepmother died in September of 1847. Ironically, in 1848 the American physician Joseph Clark Nott became one of the first to introduce the idea of the mosquito vector. It would take a second American war at the end of the 19th century in a tropical climate — Cuba during the Spanish-American War — to confirm the mosquito as the source of yellow fever.


Colton, G. Woolworth, J. H. Colton, John M. Atwood, and William S. Barnard. Map of the US of America, the British Provinces, Mexico, the West Indies and Central America, with part of New Granada and Venezuela. New York: J. H. Colton, 1849. map.

“Distances Between United States Ports.” U.S. Department of Commerce. Dr. Rebecca M. Blank. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. National Ocean Service. David M. Kennedy. 2012. p 4.

Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to his son John McKenzie. 3 November 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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

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

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 4 July 1840. Boxes 1 and 2. The Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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

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

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

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

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

“The Saffron Scourge: a History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796-1905.” Jo Ann Carrigan. 1961. LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 666.

“A Short History of Yellow Fever in the US.” Outbreak News Today. Accessed 24 June 2018.

Sledge, John S. “Church Street Graveyard.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Accessed 28 June 2018.

Yellow Fever. History Timeline Transcript Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Office of Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services. Accessed 25 July 2018.

“Yellow Fever.” Alabama Epidemic History. Alabama Genealogy Trails. Accessed 23 June 2018.

Decade of the 1830s: Agriculture in Mississippi

Cotton ripened in the fields near Sikeston, Missouri.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rigidly enforced against them whether they are willing or not

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

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

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

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

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


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

“we have planted a little corn, but from

much rain we are likely to be late with the main

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

$2 from that for freight insurance Storage and Commi

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

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

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

much — I could have disposed of my crop at home

as usual, but thinking that there was Something

to be made by trying the head of the market

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

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

Selling ever since I came to the country, the first

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

at 4 cts the purchasers hawling the cotton from the

place to the gins or paying me for the Same —

you see from the above that I have missed the figure

this time”

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

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

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

& Thompson, Merchants at that time in very good Standing

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

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

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

have failed consequently this far I have recd nothing but the

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

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

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

others who are Similarly placed”

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

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

“Owing to Kenneth bad health and my

own inability to perform hard labor, we are late

with our work, the cold wet and backwardness

of the Spring would not justify forward plan

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

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

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


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

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

I did not see the frost but Saw the

effects of it on potato leaves & persimmon bushes, in

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

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

water courses failing, a constant fountain near

the fence is visited by numerous herds of cattle Suffi

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

Monday evening the 19th the weather is still

clear and hot and no appearance of rain this is the

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

earth to the roots of the corn”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“we have just finishd

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

as yet but expect to commence so soon as the Season

will permit — Since the 15th of Janry the weather

has been unusually cold till about the  middle of last

week, Since it has Been quite pleasant till today —

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

we Sowed a little wheat

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

and the wheat looks verry yellow”

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

He prefers, “selling

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

and get our supplies of groceries and all heavy articles in

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

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


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

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

“where a man is Satisfied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Dattel, Gene. “Cotton in a Global Economy: Mississippi (1800-1860).” Mississippi History Now and online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. Accessed 19 January 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tailor Duncan Calhoun’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Description Sabine Parish, Louisiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage or Wanderlust

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

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

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

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

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

The Mexican War and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Bound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan Calhoun’s Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship with Duncan McLaurin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Carmichael Family Cemetery. Tallapoosa County, AL. Submitted by Barbara Taylor. Accessed 05 December 2017.

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

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

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

Letters and legal documents are listed chronologically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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