1839: William Forbes Stearns to Benjamin McFarland Bradford

William Stearns (ca 1860)

William Forbes Stearns (ca 1860)

This letter was written by William Forbes Stearns (1817-1867) was born in Bennington, Vermont, on 11 November 1817 to Anna and Rufus Stearns. Rufus Stearns owned a large share in a wool factory in Bennington until the factory burned down in 1823. Anna died shortly thereafter. Rufus died in 1827, causing William and his siblings to be separated among various relatives.

Stearns relocated to Pontotoc, Mississippi, by 1836, where he worked in a bank for several years. While in Pontotoc, Stearns began to study the law, and he became a practicing attorney. When the University of Mississippi School of Law was established in 1854, Stearns was hired as its sole professor.

Stearns apparently left Mississippi as a “war prisoner of federal forces” in 1862. In 1864 he relocated to Chicago with his 2d wife, Mary Jane (Ferris) Stearns, and their two children. He established his own law practice in Chicago.

At the time of the move, Stearns and his wife were both in ill health, and Stearns’ condition worsened after an assault and robbery he suffered on a Chicago street in 1865. Mary Jane went to live with her sister in Essex, N.Y. in 1866 or 1867. On 8 September 1867, Stearns committed suicide in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where he had traveled on business. [Source: William Forbes Stearns Collection, University of Mississippi]

Bradford's Plantation House

Bradford’s Plantation House

Stearns wrote the letter to Benjamin McFarland Bradford (1805-1874), the son of Benjamin Bradford (1774-1819) and Mary McFarland (1781-1838). Benjamin M. Bradford was married to Martha Maria Saunders (1812-1856). Bradford was the owner of a twenty-two hundred acre plantation in Choctaw County, and, like some many of his financially well-to-do peers, he also invested in banking and railroad interests.

Stearns’ letter to Bradford describes his journey from Mississippi to Massachusetts on a visit to relatives in the Berkshire Mountains as well as to purchase carriages for two Mississippi planters — Bradford and General Willis Whitaker Cherry (1804-1840). Cherry was first married to Frances E. Weir in 1828 in Lawrence County, Tennessee. He married second to Margaret Allen Clark in 1835 in Monroe County, Mississippi. Bradford and Cherry may have been related as the former served as the administrator of the latter’s estate. This letter confirms that the area in and around Pittsfield, Massachusetts already had a reputation for manufacturing quality carriages in the first half of the 19th century.

1839 Letter

1839 Letter

Addressed to B. M. Brandford, Esqr., Pontotoc, Mississippi

Stearnsville, Berkshire Co., Massachusetts
October 4th 1839

B. M. Bradford, Esqr.
Dear Sir,

As I have not before written to you or to any other person in Pontotoc since I started North, you may perhaps have imagined by this time that I have either been “blowed up” or have forgotten that you are in existence. Permit me to assure you that such is by no means the case.

I arrived here on the night of the 28th of September, having left Pontotoc only 26 days — nearly twice as long as I should have been in coming. I had a tedious time of it all the way, being jolted nearly to death on “Davy Crockett’s Rail-Roads” ¹ in Tennessee and the waggon ruts in “Old Kaintuck” where, by the way, I suffered no little from the cold weather. I was detained at various places on my route until the last remnant of my patience was completely exhausted.

On arriving in New York, I found that the shortness of the period I had proposed to remain would not afford me an opportunity of visiting Boston, Salem, Lowell, Hartford, as I had intended, and much wished to have done, and I, therefore, came immediately hither. I have had as much visiting to attend to here that I have not before been master of time enough to do half my sleeping, and tomorrow I shall run away to Bennington, Vermont, where I shall remain only a day or two, and thence I shall go to Rochester, New York, which will take me about 30 hours, and I intend to be ready to start from New York by the 25th instant at farthest, so that with ordinary luck, I can be in Mississippi by the 10th of November.

I shall go this afternoon to see the carriage manufacturer about the vehicles for yourself and Gen’l. Cherry and expect to suit you both “to a T.” ² Please tell the General that I was detained on the road so much longer that I had anticipated that I did not arrive in time to see Mr. Cleveland so that his four Sovereigns [British gold coins] yet remain in my possession.

These poor Yankee’s have heavy frosts every night and cold days, and yet they talk about “pleasant weather for the season.” Yesterday I heard a long speech from Josiah Quincy, Jr. of Boston, being mostly an eulogium of Agriculture. Very good and very eloquently delivered.³

Yours in haste, — Wm. F. Stearns

My compliments to Jack, hoping that he will not be elected. Everybody here says the State of New York is for [Martin] Van Buren.

¹ This reference to “Davy Crockett’s Rail-Roads is a new one to me. I assume it is a reference to Davy Crockett’s much publicized description of his first ride on a railroad in 1834 in which he wrote in his journal that the engine was “wheezing as if she had the tizzick.” By the year 1840, only 83 miles of railroad had been built in Mississippi.

² The origin of the phrase “to a T” is not known. It is thought to have first been recorded in 1793 in James Wright’s satire, The Humours and Conversations of the Town: “All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which he does to a T.” The potentially related phrase “to a tittle” is found in a 1607 play, The Woman Hater by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (“I’ll quote him to a tittle”). The T in the phrase to a T is likely the first letter of a word, with tittle being the most likely source.

Josiah Quincy, Jr.

Josiah Quincy, Jr.

³ The speech Stearns referred to was by Josiah Quincy, Jr., (1802-1882) who later (1845) became mayor of Boston.  An announcement in the Sun (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) appearing on 18 July 1839 stated that:

It is expected, as we understand, that Josiah Quincy, Jr., Esqr. of Boston, will deliver the Address before the Berkshire Agricultural Society at the next anniversary, which occurs on the 2d and 3d of October.

1839 Letter

1839 Letter

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