This letter was written in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the county seat of Lawrence County, and a stop on Jackson’s Military Road which connected Natchez to Nashville. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to identify the author who we learn was a struggling school teacher in Lawrenceburg during the period that pre-dated the Lawrenceburg Academy. Speaking of his unflattering prospects, he states that Lawrenceburg “does not at present possess sufficient wealth or intelligence to foster literary institutions…”
It seems likely that the author was from, or previously employed, in Kentucky. We learn that he was married to a woman named Eliza and that he had more than one child when he wrote this letter in 1834. There is no mention of how he gained the acquaintance of Capt. Malcom McNeill — to whom he addressed the letter — though his reference to “the days of o’ Lang Syne” suggest they were long-time friends. We also learn that the author’s father was still living in 1834 and was born in 1758 which suggests the author of this letter must have been at least as old as McNeil who was born in 1796.
The school teacher wrote the letter to Malcom McNeill (1796-1875), a native of Person County, North Carolina, who moved to Christian Co., Kentucky — one mile south of the Sinking Fork bridge on the road from Hopkinsville to Princeton, in 1817. McNeill began accumulating property at an early age, first near his home in Kentucky, but later he bought thousands of acres in Mississippi and within the city of Natchez, which greatly increased in value. He made his first investments in Chicago in 1842, at a time when travel there required carriages or horseback. He became a man of great wealth, described in an 1884 history of Christian and Trigg counties as “perhaps the richest man in the county, with a large estate and many negroes both there and in Mississippi.”
Addressed to Captain Malcom McNeill, Flat Lick Post Office, Christian County, Kentucky
August 3rd 1834
Your letter of the 9th ult. is now before me and I should ‘ere this have acknowledges its reception but felt willing to postpone it a short time thinking that I might thereby be enabled to impart something calculated to interest or amuse you, but have to regret a total failure in this particular. I have for some 5 or 6 weeks been anxiously expecting a letter from my old father in reply to one addressed to him about the 23rd of May but notwithstanding he has ever been a remarkably punctual correspondent, I have received no answer; my surprise at which is increased by the circumstance of the letter being one of a business nature, and to some extent involving my pecuniary interest. The old gentleman completed his 76th year on the day before yesterday (1st inst.) and you would, I apprehend, be surprised to witness the extent to which he retains the vigour of his powers — both physical and mental — and that he must inevitably so very soon pass “that bourne whence no traveller ever returns” is a reflection (notwithstanding his advanced age) calculated to in spire in the breasts of those who (in a secondary point of view) recognize him as the author of their existence, emotions of profound regret and tenderness. We, however, have the consolation to believe that when he goes hence, he will leave behind him an untarnished reputation, and unsullied name, than which a richer inheritance cannot be enjoyed by his representative on earth.
To my enquiries respecting Mrs. Lynch, you reply that she died some eight days after my departure from your hospitable mansion which intelligence (although taken abstractedly was of a melancholy nature) carried with it its balm, as, by her surviving so long Capt. Lynch was enabled to reach her before her pure spirit took its flight to the realms of unfading bliss — a circumstance which, I know, gave much satisfaction to the survivors & afflicted friends altho at the time I left you had little hope of his seeing her alive as the messenger was just then dispatched for him. Be pleased to accept for yourself and your amiable lady the tribute of my sincere & profound sympathy and condolence for the bereavement you have sustained in the death of an affectionate, pious, and exemplary mother. I moreover sir, intreat you and Mrs. McNeill to be assured that any levity of conduct or deportment manifested by me while with you is not justly attributable to any want of respect on my part, for either you or the afflicting circumstances by which you were surrounded, but rather to an unfortunate (tho innate) propensity which I have not at all times sufficient philosophy to master, added to uneasiness of mind, the result of causes which I need not trouble you with mentioning, and last tho not least, the circumstance of communing with a long absent and favorite friend and recounting the events of “the days of o’ Lang Syne.”
You kindly enquire respecting the “prospect before me” as to my school here. In reply I can only say that it is far from flattering for although I have given the business my undivided attention since I came here (not having lost one day in near five months) and the people are no doubt pleased with me as a teacher, yet if I manage to support my family and wind up even at the end of the year, it is as much as I calculate on at present. And unless the school become more profitable (of which by the by there is some prospect), I know not that I shall be able to do this. Your conjecture is right as to my taking the school without a fixed salary. This section of country, sir, does not at present possess sufficient wealth or intelligence to foster literary institutions as they deserve. I have had some pressing solicitations from friends and acquaintances to go to the lower country where they assure me my services as a teacher would be appreciated and rewarded, but the apprehension of seeing my family (should I survive) melt away before the pestilential influence of the Southern & sickly climate has hitherto deterred, and will probably [paper torn] time to deter me from going. In fact, I hardly know in my situation what is best to be done — a sedentary occupation, even if I could make it lucrative, is quite disagreeable to me and will, I fear, if persisted in much impair my health, but, destitute of the means to engage in business more congenial with my constitution and wishes, I must ever make a merit of necessity and plod along as well as I can through “this work-a-day world” cheered by the reflection that “Man wants but little here below, nor wants that little long.”
Be so good as to mention us respectfully to Mr. Edwards & family.
I hope, sir, I need not assure you that your letters will at all times be hailed with delight by me as calculated to alleviate in no small degree the incubuslike weight, which a sense of my destitute and responsible situation, as the father of a numerous and helpless family is so well calculated to produce. We are all much concerned & mortified that you should have passed within a hundred yards of our residence and yet we be compelled to forego the great pleasure of seeing you. Please write me soon.
I saw a gentleman from Mississippi the other day who informed me that a relation of yours lay sick at Mr. Hector McNeill’s.
Eliza and the children join me in good wishes for the health, happiness, and prosperity of you and yours in every stage of life.
Your friend truly, J. R. ____ry