According to Aubrey K. Lucas in his essay “Education in MS from Statehood to the Civil War,” one of the “rare commodities” in Mississippi in 1817 was education, though the first state constitution included this remark: “Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged in this state.” The Natchez area was the wealthiest region in the state in the early decades of statehood and could afford academies, private tutors, and schools out of state for one segment of the population, the prominent and affluent. Jefferson College was established in the Natchez area and functioning in 1811, before Mississippi became a state. In contrast, Franklin Academy was established in 1821 in Northeast, Mississippi, a less affluent cotton growing area of the state, and functioned as a public school. Generally, under the cotton economy the wealthy landowners controlled state funding. Taxing to support statewide public education could not be fathomed under the realities of sparse settlement and indifference among those who could afford schooling as well as indifference of those who were working, often on a survival level under frontier conditions, to build farms. Likely the preoccupation with a rapidly growing cotton economy played a part in neglecting educational opportunities in the state. Despite this, Lucas tells us that during the economic growth of the early 1830s there were sixty-one incorporated secondary schools in the state, largely locally funded tuition schools. Mississippi’s depressed economy towards the end of the 1830s did not hurt the growth of academies in the state since the state legislature in 1839 allowed for financial assistance “from fines, forfeitures, escheats and similar sources” to be set aside for education. Though the leasing of 16th section lands had been allowed earlier, this brought little revenue since it was not effectively carried out. As for slaves, free blacks and mulattoes, state law did not allow them to meet publicly or at a school to learn reading and writing. However, this did not preclude a master from teaching his property to read and write. The Nat Turner rebellion frightened slaveowners and increased opposition to the education of these groups of people. Some native Americans in Mississippi generally benefitted from education by religious missionaries, some of whom by the 1830s had learned the Choctaw language and were able to teach English.
When Duncan McKenzie claimed in October of 1837 that in Mississippi he was satisfied except that he could not educate his children, he was probably comparing the educational opportunities in Covington County, Mississippi to those he and his older children had experienced in Richmond County, North Carolina. Duncan himself was quite literate and all of his children would grow to be so by the standards of their day. In addition, the older three sons had enjoyed the tutelage of their Uncle Duncan McLaurin as evidenced by McLaurin’s tuition log dated 1831-1832. By 1833 Kenneth, about12; Hugh, about 10; and Daniel, about 7 would have been well on their way toward literacy the year before they left for Mississippi. Duncan McLaurin’s accounts for 1831-1832 indicate that close to twenty or more families were paying him tuition of around twenty dollars a year per student.These were probably middle or upper class students living in a long settled village. If parents were literate and had the motivation and opportunity to do so, early education could be accomplished in the home. Still, little had been done in the South by 1830 to promote public education. The concept of public education within the rural South as a whole did not begin to take hold until after the Civil War, especially in the Southern states further west. Many of the more financially successful hired private tutors then sent their students to universities in the North for higher education. In the rural South there was little shared need that would motivate the populace as a whole to want to pay taxes for public education.
Newspapers in Mississippi during the decade of the 1830s published ads for in- and out-of-state academies. For example, in the April 30, 1831 issue of The Natchez Weekly Courier appears an ad for a “Boarding and Day School at the Gothic Mansion, Chesnut, above 12th Street” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ad continues to say that one could apply at F. Beaumont & Co. Natchez. This ad appeared in Philadelphia, PA newspapers as well this same year. Meanwhile, in the small farming counties east of Natchez, the motivated locals who could afford it set up tuition schools.
Though generally Mississippi’s illiteracy rate during the 1830s was probably high and the state had no paper production facilities, the public supported quite a number of newspapers. According to an article in The Mississippi Encyclopedia, an accurate number of the state’s antebellum newspapers is difficult to establish, but one researcher using census records places the number at about seventy-three. Within these newspapers can be found, not only political news and ads for schools, but ads for booksellers, most of which are located in Mississippi towns such as Vicksburg, Jackson, Natchez, and Columbus. If one had business at any of these towns, a bookstore was available for the purchase of writing paper as well as books. The Vicksburg Whig in October of 1834 advertised Miles C. Folkes Bookseller & Stationer on Main Street. A Natchez bookseller, W. H. Pearce & Co., was located on Main and Commerce in that city, according to The Mississippi Free Trader of September 1838. Among this bookseller’s listed titles are Language of Flowers with 6 plates, Memoirs of Walter Scott, the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, and Etiquette for Ladies. Since postage rates for printed media were much, much lower than rates for letters, print media flowed freely through the mail across the country. It is evident from reading the correspondence in the Duncan McLaurin Papers that friends and relatives were eager to share agricultural, religious, and political news by sending publications often through the mail. News of marriages, deaths and general local and personal interest were shared in this manner as well. For example, Hugh C. Stewart mails, along with a letter to Duncan McLaurin, a copy of the Raymond Times to report the death of a cousin’s wife in Hinds County, Mississippi: “I got a letter from Hugh C Stewart John P. Stewarts wife is dead — and the Raymond Times is sent here.” One might conclude that migration west would encourage literacy in order to communicate with distant relations.
In 1833 Duncan McKenzie writes to his brother-in-law from Mississippi that he has chosen land to rent because it is near a schoolhouse already standing. Most of these structures were rather plain and barely functional with probably one room, but it is admirable that a community on the frontier would have reached the point of providing one. Many circumstances of living delayed the establishment of schools in Mississippi: population was scattered over many miles. Distance often prevented access to a centrally located school. Children were often needed to work on farms. However, if a group of families in a community felt the need for a school, they built it and searched for a teacher. Even after Mississippi became a state in 1817, there were no legal teacher qualification expectations beyond those of the community group that built the school and hired the teacher. Evidence exists that teachers migrating from the northeast were desirable to place in a local school, since it was probably well-known that northeastern schools were more organized, successful, and products of this system well-educated.
Duncan McKenzie states that on the Saturday after they arrived in Covington County, Mississippi in January of 1833, they chose their rental land, “convenient to a School house, a School was made up and Hugh R. Trawick the teacher at the rate of 18 dollars a year for the first grade 24 for 2nd grade.” One Hugh R. Trawick is listed as having paid tuition to Duncan McLaurin in North Carolina; he is also the guide that led the McKenzie family on their journey from North Carolina to Mississippi. Over time, Duncan McKenzie mentions a few other of their connections from North Carolina who are teachers in the local area tuition schools. For whatever reason they do not appear to have remained in their positions for very long.
Of the McKenzie sons, it appears that Daniel was the most interested in receiving an education. Perhaps he was less inclined to work in the fields than his brothers. In March of 1837 Duncan McKenzie writes to Duncan McLaurin:
“I am almost tempted to send Danl with
Gilchrist to your school, his youth will for the present
Save him the ride, Should you continue teaching for any
length of time equal to that which would be necessary
for the completion of his education, let me know the cost
of board books & tuition anually in your next, I may
Send him or per haps both Danl & Dunk, it is not
an easy matter to educate them here, and with all
So immoral is the State of society particularly among
Gilchrist is an acquaintance who would have been traveling to the Carolinas at the time. Often messages, note payments, and women and children visiting relatives accompanied a trusted friend on his travels. Again three months later McKenzie writes:
“whenever you think that there
is a chance for the boys Danl and Dunk to be educated
at say $140 or 150 each per annum in Some peaceable Settlement
or village, the former I would prefer, as Village morrals
are really the best — I will try to send them”
The cost and perils of sending a child a distance on uncertain roads must have been daunting to a yeoman farmer family. But what is probably more important is that few small farmers, especially those trying to grow labor intensive crops, could afford to lose the help on the farm. Daniel alone, not to mention Daniel and his brother Dunk, would have been sorely missed on the farm. In the end, by March of 1838, Daniel is once more studying Latin and along with a friend near his age, Lachlan McLaurin. Duncan reports to his brother-in-law that the neighborhood, admirably, has persuaded a Mr. Strong, who teaches at Clinton Academy in Hinds County, to instruct students in a building only about four miles from the McKenzie home, “the neighborhood succeeded in getting a school for Strong in 4 miles of me I procurd a pony for Danl to ride” and though Daniel is “three years from that studdy (Latin) appears to have retained it tolerable well.” While Daniel is in Latin school, his younger brothers are attending another school taught by an acquaintance, Malcolm Carmichael.
“Malcolm Carmichael, Squire
Johns sone has a small School near my house Dunk
Allan and Johny are going to him, he Malcolm came
here early in January and took a small school worth
Say $20 per month”
It is possible that the parents of those students in Covington County under the tutelage of Mr. Strong paid a bit more dearly for the Latin instruction, especially if Mr. Strong had to come the distance from Hinds County to perform his duties. Teachers seem to have come and gone with regularity, and schooling was never the certain opportunity we are accustomed today. Duncan McKenzie does not, however, give up on the idea of getting his brother-in-law to teach his boys. By November of 1838, Duncan is expressing his longing again in a letter to North Carolina.
“Danl is still going to school how he learns I am not able
to say he is still reading lattin and studdying arithmetic
whether he will make a Schollar I know not I wish he was
with you on the Juniper for a Spell.”
In June of 1839 Duncan is once more lamenting his inability to send Daniel to North Carolina for schooling. His excuses include the “desire in parents to be in hearing in fact in sight of their offspring.” This is understandable but could likely have been overcome. The next excuse appears rather weak, “the heat of the weather.” The third excuse gets to the gist of the matter, “the third is the difficulty of procuring a sufficiency of sound currency … on the whole I presume he will not go this year.” Later, in the same letter, Duncan McKenzie tries again to persuade Duncan McLaurin to come to Mississippi or send a knowledgeable teacher:
“If you could send us a young man who is a good linguist
and mathematicians we would give him 750 or $800 and if you
could come yourself we would give you $1:000 a year
in money, gold, Silver, or copper, or its equivalent —
We have built a comfortable school house in a central
Spot and have sunk a good well, Roderick McNair is teaching
for us we give him $500 & the increase of the school It will
be worth $600 to him this year there are a number of boys in
the neighborhood who are ready to commence the Latin if there
was a teacher in whom the people could confide …”
Having confidence in the teacher was probably another drawback to locally run schools. One was never certain of the education and talents of those hired, and it took adults off of the farms in order to drop in for evaluations at the schools. Duncan McKenzie brags a bit on Daniel when he visits the school to judge how the students are coming along:
“Danl and one James Shannon were the best class. It is a pitty but the
Scotch & Irish boys had fair play, if you had them 12 mo
I think you would not be ashamed of them”
McKenzie ends this letter by once again begging his brother-in-law to visit, to stay with them a few weeks or months, and when Duncan McLaurin returned to North Carolina he would, “Send Danl on with you to remain in Carolina till he would be a Scholar.” In the end it is up to Daniel to fend for his own education in Mississippi where he is.
Duncan McLaurin, a Carolinas Educator
In 1857 a future governor of the state of North Carolina, William Woods Holden, delivered an address before the State Educational Association of North Carolina at Warrenton. In this lengthy speech, Holden mentions that in 1838 a bill was approved in the state legislature to create school districts throughout the state. The districting was approved and in place by 1841. He names those on the legislative committee responsible for this progressive act, and on the list you will find one Duncan McLaurin of Richmond County, NC. It appears that education was particularly valued by North Carolinians including Duncan McKenzie’s brother-in-law.
Although he is listed as being a member of the state legislature, possibly serving the remainder of another’s term, during 1831-1832, McLaurin was also teaching locally in Richmond County, NC. His tuition account book found in the Duncan McLaurin Papers is evidence. During this year Duncan McKenzie and his brother John McKenzie paid tuition for their oldest children: Duncan for Kenneth, Hugh, and Daniel and John for Jennet and Alexander (Sandy). By the next year Duncan McKenzie had left with his family for Mississippi, though Duncan McLaurin likely continued to teach, but at an academy in nearby Bennettsville, South Carolina.
In 1833 John McQueen of Bennettsville, South Carolina, in Marlboro County not far from Laurel Hill, writes on the 10th of November to Duncan McLaurin requesting that he consider teaching at their newly formed academy:
“We last week had an election
of trustees of our academy for the ensuing
year when I was chosen as one of the number
and I have, ever since the erection of our academy
here, wished to see you in it … We have not
as yet been able to get a teacher here calculated
to give that tone to the academy that we would
wish & we would be extremely glad to obtain
your services for a year.”
Evidently, McLaurin accepted the offer, for in this collection his first letter home from Bennettsville is dated February 5, 1834. He generally writes to his brother John regarding notes to be paid and matters of the farm. He also is able to carefully watch and report on the business going on at the busy Bennettsville market and nearby Cheraw. At one point his father, Hugh, requests a country hat purchased from there, but none worth having are to be found. Duncan suggests they order a sturdier northern made one from Fayetteville. John is also interested in a fishing trip to the area.
During the first years of teaching there George, probably an enslaved person, drives him to Bennettsville and back to Laurel Hill perhaps at no shorter intervals than a week or two. McLaurin also used the stage from time to time to travel, but this was not a preference. The Stage Road from New Orleans to New York City passed through Marlboro County. According to A History of Marlboro County, part of this road passed from nearby Cheraw, SC to Laurel Hill, NC,” McLaurin’s home.
In July of 1834 Duncan requests that John send some of his books that he has left at home, Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Algebra and sets his sister Effy upon the task of locating this text. In addition, he wants John to ask Charles Malloy if he knows anything about another book, Graeca Majora. The collection also contains one letter from E. J. Hale, editor and publisher of the Fayetteville Observer newspaper and a bookseller as well. Duncan orders textbooks for a school, presumably for use at Bennettsville or possibly he was setting up a school himself near Laurel Hill. This letter contains an interesting insight into the types of textbooks popular among teachers at least by the end of the 1830s. During the 1830s and for most of the antebellum 19th century, particularly in the rural southern states, education tended to have religious overtones as well as contain a heavy dose of classical subjects. Latin and Greek were commonly taught as was reading the classics of those languages and cultures. English literacy and mathematics were essential subjects. The arts were not neglected as Duncan also includes a music instruction manual, The Missouri Harmony or a Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns, and Anthems, Selected from the Most Eminent Authors, and Well Adapted to All Christian Churches, Singing School, and Private Societies. This text is one of the earliest in shape-note music and theory. It appears to be more instructional than some of the later nineteenth century religious collections of hymns such as The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp. Some of these texts are still published and used at community shape-note singing events such as the one held annually at Benton, Kentucky using The Southern Harmony text.
In addition to literacy in reading, writing, mathematics, social sciences, literature and the arts; one of the qualities of an effective teacher is an inquiring mind. One example of Duncan McLaurin’s curiosity occurs during May of his first year teaching at Bennettsville. Evidently, Duncan has read that Rev. Jonathan Wade, a Baptist missionary to Burma, today known as Myanmar, is to stop at Cheraw and Fayetteville, where a Burmese religious man will speak and Wade will act as interpreter. Duncan’s longing to be there is palpable as he asks his brother John to be at a point on the road nearby and to report a description. But first, he wishes John to read up on the place and people in a book in his library called, The Wonders of the World by James G. Percival on page 81 which appears a section titled “Gungo Tree at the Source of the Jumna.”
“… they are to preach at Cheraw
& on Friday in Fayetteville — Mr Wade & his wife
can speak the Birman Language — The Birmese
can speak english but imperfectly, but one of
them preaches in his native language which Mr Wade
interprets to the congregation — I want to see them
very much — … for fear I cant
make it convenient to go to see them in either place
if you will attend at the Stables on thursday morning
you will see them as they pass along in the Stage — You
will take a good look at them & if possible get them to
come out of the Stage & Stand so as to see them erect
I expect their object in traveling thro the country is
to get money from such as please to give them some
you will therefore prepare to give them something …
The Asiatics along with him (Wade) are said to be learned
men in their own country being priests of the
Grand Lama the almost universal deity of southern Asia.”
Whether either were able to attend remains unknown, but Duncan’s disappointment would have been heavy if they were missed by both.
In 1897 Reverend John Alexander William Thomas wrote A History of Marlboro County. He titles Chapter 36 “Educational Matters” in which he lauds the early attention to education in the county. According to this text an Academical Society came to fruition in 1830. John McQueen is listed as one of the signers of this society’s constitution and one of the first elected Board of Trustee members. It isn’t until 1833 that McQueen writes his request to Duncan McLaurin, who Rev. Thomas’s history notes is one of the teachers at the male academy. At the same time a female academy is also served entirely by female teachers. A present day historical marker there claims that the female academy opened in 1833.
Duncan mentions boarding in several different homes during his tenure in Bennettsville. The first week he stayed with Peter McCallum (McCollum). He boards for the first year or so with Reverend Cameron Stubbs, also on the school’s board of directors. At one point Duncan is unhappy with what he is being charged by Rev. Stubbs for boarding and remarks, “I scarcely know what to do to the avaricious parson. I like the house &c very well but the prince is unreasonable.” He thinks Mrs. Stubbs is making the house progressively more comfortable when making available butter and milk with meals. The next year Duncan is complaining again about the lack of butter at the table but also says he occupies a large room with a comfortable fireplace. By 1837 the number of pupils at school is growing slowly: “There are now 29 Scholars making 80 between both establishments,” probably between the male and female academies. He has also made other living arrangements since he gives directions to George of the location, “It is the white house with Dormant windows precisely opposite Mr. Stubbs where I used to be — Capt. David has a stable and the horse can be placed there.” (Dormant is the early 19th century spelling for dormer.) John McCallum (McCollum), another board member owns a store in Bennettsville on the west side of the public square. Duncan visits the store in March of 1837, reporting prices to John. At this time he settles on bringing his father’s cheese himself rather than sending it. Since the day he visits the store is Martin Van Buren’s inauguration day, Duncan remarks on the cold and gloomy weather, which he hopes is sunnier at Washington. In April Duncan once again references the increasing enrollment of the school and remarks, “I shall should the number increase much have to get an assistant but it is time enough to think of these things when there is a necessity of acting.” Probably he never needs the assistant, for he returns to serve in the state legislature in Raleigh during 1838. By 1840, this legislative career was cut short by his need to return home to farming and caring for his aging father. Although he would continue to be active in civic affairs such as establishing the Laurinburg School in 1853 and working to bring the railroad to Richmond County, his life would be tied to the farm called Ballachulish and caring for family members.
In December of 1838, while Duncan McLaurin was serving in the state legislature at Raleigh, he received an honor from the young Wake Forest Institute. In a letter signed by a committee of three (William Jones, John C. Rogers, and David Hamell), he is invited to enroll his name among the Honorary members of their newly formed Philomathesian Society. On December 3, 1838 he accepts their invitation:
“A great portion of my life has been devoted
to the instruction of youth and in the promotion of
intellectual knowledge; and I certainly should act contra-
ry to my inclination and former course of life were I
to refuse to lend my name towards the promotion of the
intellectual improvement of man kind. I therefore not
only permit but request & authorize you to enroll my
name as member of your society, and the fervent wishes
of my heart, are with you in the encouragement of the
intellectual & moral improvement of the human mind
in the pursuit & acquisition of all useful knowledge and may
that power in whose hands are the destinies of Empires, States, Societies
and individuals direct protect sustain and cause to prosper your
Despite the lack of public education in the South of the 1830s, it appears generally that middle and upper class people desired an education for their own children even if they did not exhibit much egalitarian virtue for the idea of educating everyone as a right endowed by the creator. The less well-off probably would have desired the same had they been given more hope for the possibility of it.
Carden, Allen D. The Missouri Harmony, or a Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns, and Anthems, Selected From the Most Eminent Authors and Well Adapted to All Christian Churches, Singing Schools, and Private Societies. Morgan and Sanxay. Cincinnati. 1834. Found in a search on Google Books.
Dupont, Nancy McKenzie. “Newspapers in the Civil War.” The Mississippi Encyclopedia edited by Ted Ownby and Charles Reagan Wilson. University Press, Jackson. 2017. 933.
Dyer, Thomas G. “Education.” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill & London. 237.
“Education — Gothic Mansion.” The Natchez Weekly Courier. 30 April 1831. 7. newspapers.com. 3 March 2018.
School Accounts of Duncan McLaurin. 1831-1832. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 29 January 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from John McQueen to Duncan McLaurin. 10 November 1833. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 5 February 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 3 May 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 20 July 1834. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 4 March 1837. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin . 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McLaurin to John McLaurin. 8 April 1837. Box 1. 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 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan Mclaurin. 25 February 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from the Philomathesian Society at Wake Forest Institute to Duncan McLaurin. 1 December 1838. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Copy of a letter from Duncan McLaurin to the Philomathesian Society at Wake Forest Institute. 3 December 1838. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1839. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscript Library. Duke University.
Accounting of book purchases of Duncan McLaurin from E. J. Hale in letter from E. J. Hale to Duncan McLaurin. 17 September 1839. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Lucas, Aubrey Keith. “Education in MS from Statehood to the Civil War.” A History of Mississippi, Vol I. Edited by Richard Aubrey McLemore. University & College Press of Mississippi. Hattiesburg. 1973. 352 – 356, 373, 375.
Mayes, Edward LLD. History of Education in Mississippi. Government Printing Office. Washington. 1899. 18, 20, 28.
“Miles C. Folkes Bookseller & Stationer.” Vicksburg Whig. 9 October 1834. 4. newpapers.com. 3 March 2018.
“New Books.” The Mississippi Free Trader. Natchez. 12 September 1838. 3. newspapers.com. 3 March 2018.
Thomas, John Alexander William. A History of Marlboro County With Traditions and Sketches of Numerous Families. The Foote and Davies Company, Printers and Binders. Atlanta, Georgia. 1897. 173, 274, 275.