1844: William Sidney Huggins to Nathan Witter Williams

This letter was written by William Sidney Huggins (1822-1862), the son of James Sidney Huggins (1789-1823) and Julia Oakes (1789-1876) of New Haven Connecticut.

Cover of book about James Hamilton Couper and St. Simon's Island by Bagwell

Cover of book about James Hamilton Couper and St. Simon’s Island by Bagwell

After graduating in 1842, Huggins spent three years as a private tutor in the family of James Hamilton Couper ¹ (1794-1866) of Glynn County, Georgia. This letter was written while tutoring on the Couper family’s plantation “Cannon’s Point” in northeastern St. Simon’s Island in November 1844. St. Simon’s Island, 15 miles long and three miles wide, is one of a chain of barrier islands off the coast of southeast Georgia. It was reached by boat from Darien, Georgia, by crossing the Altamaha River.

As predicted in this letter, Huggins returned to New Haven and spent three years as a Theological student at Yale after which he was licensed to preach in 1848. Failing eyesight prevented him from full time ministry until the early 1850s when he went to Michigan. His last ministry was in Kalamazoo.

Huggins wrote the letter to his friend and college classmate, Nathan Witter Williams who was born in Providence on March 12, 1816, and graduated from Yale in the class of 1842. Between 1842 and 1847, he lived in Philadelphia, where he taught school, and in April 1846 he received a license to preach. He moved to Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, in 1849, and served as pastor of the town’s Congregational Church until 1858. He spent most of his later years in Providence, Rhode Island.

Mentioned in this letter is the plantation “Longview” where Ann Sarah (Couper) Fraser (1797-1866), the widow of Capt. John Fraser (1791-1839), and the sister of James Hamilton Couper, resided with her children. The plantation was owned by Couper but Capt. John Fraser managed it until his death in 1839. Five years later, Mrs. Fraser and her family were still living there. Besides Mrs. Fraser, Huggins mentions 19 year-old Miss Rebecca Fraser (1825-1910) who we learn played both the piano and guitar. Eight years later, in 1852, Mrs. Fraser and her five daughters (Rebecca, Susan, Elizabeth, Frances, and Selina) removed to Marietta, Georgia, where they remained, with a brief interval in Brunswick (1856-1859), until after the Civil War. The only living son, Capt. John Couper Fraser (1832-1863), a Savannah commission merchant, was killed at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. Two of the daughters, Rebecca and Elizabeth (Lizzie), served for some months as matrons in a military hospital. In the summer of 1864, when Marietta fell into Union hands, the Frasers, unlike most of their neighbors, remained in the town; they were subjected to considerable indignity as well as inconvenience, and found themselves after the war (as Rebecca wrote) “in abject poverty: and “without a protector.”

Also mentioned in the letter is Albion Williamson Knight (1822-1889) who was educated at Bowdoin College and graduated from both the literary and medical departments of that institution. After graduation in 1841, Knight was a private tutor on the plantation owned by Hon. Thomas Butler King. He then began his medical studies and received his M.D. degree from Bowdoin in 1848. He married Caroline Demere of St. Simons Island and eventually settled in Jacksonville, Florida.

I could not determine who “Miss Hillard” was who seems to have been a fellow New Englander and a residing in the vicinity of Cannon’s Point Plantation. I assume she was a private tutor to the Fraser family.

1844 Letter

1844 Letter

Addressed to Mr. N. W. Williams, No. 297 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Plantation House at Cannon's Point

The Plantation House at Cannon’s Point

“Cannon’s Point”
St. Simons
Nov. 14, 1844

My Dear Williams,

I am still, you see, at my “formidable position;” and I congratulate myself that your recent “demonstration” was made in “happy ignorance” of the fearful danger to which you was exposing yourself; otherwise it might still have been with you, as with the immortal heir of Chepatchet, non est inventus. That you may recover your breath upon finding yourself thus unwarily at the very “cannon’s” mouth, I hasten to say that as the smiling countenance of an old friend always summons up the charitable feelings of my heart, however much they may have previous been tried, so on a certain evening about three weeks ago, as the “little mail bag” was brought into the parlor where I was sitting by the center table with a pleasant pie burning upon tyne hearth before me, the “single port folio” of portly form suggesting the loved name of Williams, and recalling to mind your friendship and sympathy in times past, could not but find a hearty welcome. And especially did the gratification of the present banish from my mind the disappointment of the past, when I opened it and made myself familiar with its well-filled and interesting pages.

Have I not then “dealt with you leniently,” and given you “full absolution?” Notwithstanding that the advantage of “position” is so evidently on my side, together with an abundance of ammunition, and that too of the Paixhan order, which, were I but to “give the word” would “blow you up” most unmercifully. I have run up the white flag and greeted you with the olive branch. Make not the war of my artillery by another trial!

Cannon's Point Plantation can be seen at far right (north) in this drawing of St. Simon's Island

Cannon’s Point Plantation can be seen at far right (north) in this drawing of St. Simon’s Island

The text, which my letter aff____d you on “love & romance” was well improved & your discourse was not only very much to my taste in style and sentiment, but suited also that of Miss Rebecca Fraser to whom I read a part of it! And as I was walking with “Miss Hillard” a few evenings afterwards, I could not help telling her how fortunate I had been in receiving a letter by the last mail. My conversation seemed to interest her very much in “my friend in Philadelphia,” and we together envied you your rambles among the hills of our own loved New England.

I had, yesterday, an opportunity of again introducing you to their notice. Our yawl-boat went up to Darien, with your humble servant at the helm, and my two fair friends my fellow passengers; we took along with us the “Sat. Post” which you sent me. As they were reading it, I remarked to Miss Hillard, “you will find there a piece of my friend’s poetry.” She was very anxious to read it & upon doing so pronounced it “very pretty.” It was “Trust in God.” I agree with her, though it struck me that one or two of the lines are not very smooth.

Though I do not “wonder.” after your bitter experience that you “have distrusted all forms, all faces,” I am rejoiced to hear that you are “recovering your faith in woman.” Though the world abounds with examples of fraud, treachery, and every species of unfaithfulness, I would not willingly myself abandon my faith in man or in woman, and it is painful to see another do so. Some would call this weakness, and delight to cast suspicion and an air of uncertainty over the better part of our nature, but I envy them not. They thus deprive themselves of the sources of happiness which are connected with our relations to & independence upon each other, and to the enjoyment of which faith is absolutely essential, and cherish in their hearts an isolating, disgusting selfishness. I have met with such, and have been pained as well as disgusted to see the recital of a tale of disinterestedness met by the smile of derision, and to find a heartless laugh excited by the arrival of a readiness to confide in the justices and honesty of others. No, let me rather be deceived at times than be forever doubting. I may be strongly tried, but I hope I shall never be compelled to renounce my “faith.”

The extracts from your “journal” came very interesting, and as I read them I was reminded of the times when we used to get together and talk over our respective adventures, hopes, and grievances. You need not have prescribed, by way of caution, “the cologne bottle,” under date of June 8th. The shock, if shock there was to be, had been received long before, but unfortunately for sentiment’s sake, I did not think of the cologne bottle! Perhaps the consolation of having been delivered from a 6 or 7 yrs. engagement tended in some measure to support my “fainting” heart! “Every rose has its thorn” to be sure, but a great many thorns have their roses. Is it not so? You have given me a fertile text, but I will not “explain” and “illustrate” nor “improve the subject” just now. I hope to give you an oral discourse, however, at some future day.

As to this “four glorious weeks of freedom,” would that I could have spent them with you and shared with you your happy lot among those yankee girls. Those rides with just room for two, that evening air positively injurious unless that “pharol” be a little more closely drawn, those strolls through the woods and caves — oh how tantalizing to be No. 3 instead of No. 2!! O dear, “away down South” here I see but few young ladies, and when I do meet them, you know I have the dignity of the “Private Tutor” to sustain!! I have one calculation, however, it is not so tantalizing as it might be! That “flirtation” of yours was a very interesting little affair: you did very well for a beginning; the character of the ending cam, as yet, I suppose, be written only thus –?  — Hold yourself in readiness to be my pilot some day in these parts, will you?

Though I congratulate you on your own account, I have some slight feeling of selfish regret that you will close your school next summer and enter upon the serious duties of the ministry. I shall then feel that you have left me far behind and a feeling of loneliness already comes over me at the thought of it. I shall then have three years of professional study before me, and I am sorry that I shall not have you to keep me company. A feeling of sadness comes over me too when I look at the catalogue and see so many of our fellows fast approaching the end of their course at Yale. About half the senior class in the Seminary is composed of our fellows. They will all be gone next year. There are a few in the middle class and in the junior, only one — Charles Long, while who heads the list of the last but “W. W. Atterbury!” I shall thus, you see, if I enter next year be left almost alone, and in looking forward I am troubled with the idea that in meeting with a new set of classmates, I shall not find such kindred spirits as I met in “the class of ’42.”

This drawing shows the south end of St. Simon's Island (at right). Huggins must have visited one of the plantations here in 1844. Butler's plantation is "entreat."

This drawing shows the south end of St. Simon’s Island (at right). Huggins must have visited one of the plantations here in 1844. King’s plantation is “Retreat.”

November 27.

You will be surprised at my second date; so let me explain. I was prevented by circumstances which I will not stop to mention from writing any more than the first page of this sheet during the week in which I commenced it, and, my boys having a vacation then, I had made my arrangements to start off on the next Monday morning upon a visiting tour through the island. I had limited my absence to three days and could not conveniently defer my departure. I accordingly set off at that time regretting the necessity of leaving this letter unfinished until my return. I had caught a violent cold during the previous week but I thought the ride would do me good. Ten miles brought me to a family residing near the south end of the island with whom I dined. I had intended to remain with them one night but I felt so unwell that if there had been time, I would have returned home the same afternoon. Thanks to the nursing of my kind friends, however, I felt much better the next day, but the weather had become so very bad during the night that it was not prudent for me to leave the house, and by an almost unparalleled “spell of weather,” I was actually weather-bound there until Friday! In the meantime, I was “completely sick” with a pleasant family around me, no school to try my patience, and “Charles O’Malley” ² to keep me laughing! My friend Mr. [Albion W.] Knight, a graduate of Bowdoin, and private tutor in a family three miles from where I was staying, came over and spent a couple of nights with me. He is a genuine New Englander and would have made a worthy member of the Class of ’42. On Friday a little blue sky condescended to peep out between the driving clouds and I turned my face northward intending to reach “the Point” by sunset. I stopped, halfway up, to dine and was just in time to escape the rain which had begun to fall again by way of variety! I soon found that I was “in” for the night there; “pleasant this” thought I for a fellow who left home in the beginning of the week with not so much as an extra shirt!

I succeeded in reaching “the Point” on Saturday evening and there has been no opportunity of sending a letter from the island this week. Today I have taken this sheet in hand again, continuing for some time to write under my power to date, so that I need not break the connection. I resumed operations in my school day before yesterday, though we are in a kind of transition state, not exactly prepared to remain any longer upon the island, and yet not ready to return to Hopeton. ³ I fear that we shall not get away under a fortnight, not that I dislike living here, but our house here is not exactly calculated for a winter residence, and I shall not feel settled until we get back to our winter quarters.

After writing to you, I visited “the upcountry” of this state where I met Welch and we together made a delightful excursion into the mountainous country of the upper part of the state. An account of it now would be out of date, even if I had room for it and could screw my courage up to attempt it. So I’ll let it pass till we meet again. Now for the (short) chapter headed “Miss Hillard” which you anticipate, and the “chain of pleasant reminiscences of St. Simons” recorded on the spot! You have been from home and have cast your lot for awhile among strangers, and you know how pleasant it is, among the friends you make, to find one upon whose friendship you have a somewhat peculiar claim, and who, you feel, is bound to you by stronger ties than those which constitute an ordinary friendship. You can, therefore, in a measure, conceive how pleasant I have found it to meet from day to day here in this southern land with one whose principles and whose taste, whose whole character in short, bears the true New England stamp, one who possesses a warm and kind heart, whose sympathy I have not found wanting. With her I have been able to converse freely and understandingly upon subjects in regard to which I should otherwise remain silent. “Longview” where she resides, I have perhaps told you is about a mile from “the Point” down the road. Mrs. Fraser’s family have been very kind to me and I presume I have been there during the summer almost as often as every other day! I have been able to find good walking only in that direction and consequently have been compelled to take nearly all my exercise up on the road; here when I have not stopped at “Longview” I have frequently met the young ladies walking. As I have always wished to avoid the night air as much as possible, I have spent most of my evenings at home. About every full moon, however, I have ventured to spend an evening at “Longview” and from the piazza there I have had a fine opportunity of enjoying the moonlight which rests so softly upon the lawn and the shrubbery and the distant river. That whole scene with a sabbath stillness reigning around seems like a picture of an Italian landscape. You may imagine me on such an evening with such a scene before me, walking that little piazza in conversation with Mrs. Fraser or sitting by Miss Hillard and talking of New England friends and New England scenes, while Miss Rebecca sits at the piano within and with music’s charms adds to the interest of the evening, or if you please, you may imagine that the music (of a far inferior kind, though the ladies do pronounce it “delightful!”) instead of coming from the piano proceeds from the flutes of Merrs. Knight & Huggins — durateurs! After playing for them one evening, we packed up our flutes very carefully & bade the ladies “good night” about 10 o’clock. As we left the door, we put our horses into  a rapid canter until we were concealed by the shrubbery when we suddenly stopped and dismounting very quietly proceeded to put out flutes “imposition;” while doing so we heard Miss Rebecca’s guitar from the piazza; we waited until she had finished “Firelight Dews” and then we struck up from the midst of the shrubbery “oft in the Stilly Night.” We then “put” for “the Point.” The ladies informed us the next day that it was worth all we had played during the whole evening — an equivocal kind of compliment you will perhaps think. We think some of giving them a serenade before I leave the island. Anything to keep the romantic from stagnating.

If you find nothing else to write about, tell me something in your next about your school. I can conceive of situations where teaching would be delightful. With me it amounts to little but the mere drudgery — very little of the “delightful” I assure you. I am hoping soon to get rid of my most troublesome boy. Dullness is bad enough in all conscience as I know from sad experience, but laziness is still worse, and when the latter is combined with badness, deliver me, I say!

Welch, I heard some weeks since, had gone home on a visit, Do you know whether he has returned? Has that letter from “Pomfret” arrived yet? Now my dear fellow, do write me soon. Good night.

Most truly and affectionately your classmate & friend, — W. S. H.

¹ The 1910 publication Men of Mark in Georgia said: “James Hamilton Couper never sought or held political office, but he was a leader of thought and the pioneer in much of the economic development of Georgia and the South. The works that he did now live after him.” Couper (1794-1866) was the son of noted St. Simons Island planter John Couper. James expanded on his father’s well-known skill in agronomy and helped develop long-staple Sea Island cotton into an important cash crop. His sugar mill was the most complete in the South, and he pioneered techniques to extract cotton seed oil.

Couper graduated from Yale University in 1814, and later studied irrigation systems and crop rotation in Europe. At the age of 33 he was manager of several major plantations. He also designed his own plantation house at Hopeton-Altama plantation and Christ Church on Savannah’s Johnson Square.

Although jokingly referred to as “the old gentleman” by his father, Couper was noted by international visitors for his progressive treatment of slaves as well as property management techniques. His library was known as one of the South’s finest, and he surveyed the official Florida-Georgia boundary.

In 1826 he became a key figure in Georgia’s economic development, convincing the governor to abandon an ill-fated system of canals in favor of the cutting-edge technology–railroads. Couper also showed great personal bravery in 1838 by rescuing several passengers of the Pulaski after the luxury ship sank off the Carolinas. Soon after losing two sons in the Civil War, James Hamilton Couper suffered a major paralytic stroke and died three years later, in 1866.”

James Hamilton Couper was married in 1827 to Caroline Wylly of the Village Plantation.

² Charles O’Malley was written by Irish novelist Charles Lever (1806-1872) which was a loosely based account of his college days at Trinity College in Dublin.

³ Hopeton was the name of the Couper-Hamilton plantation on the Altamaha River. The mansion that James Hamilton Couper had constructed at Hopeton was three stories high and contained twenty-four rooms. It was surrounded by formal gardens.

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