This letter was written by William A. Gleaves (1818-1878) to his wife Adelaide (“Addie”) Frances (Clark) Gleaves (1830-1860) about two months after their marriage on 14 August 1831 in Davidson County, Tennessee. William and Addie had several children before Addie died of milk fever in February 1860. William’s parents were Thomas Gleaves, Jr. (1789-1831) and Polly Dean (1801-1834).
We learn from this letter that William was the owner of the Steamboat America that plied the waters of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in the late 1840’s and early 1850s. He later held the position of Treasurer with the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Company.
Gleaves’ letter mentions the death of a Negro boy while employed aboard the steamboat America in 1849. Steamboat owners hired free blacks or paid the owners of slaves to complete their crews and perform the least desirable tasks. It is estimated over a period of ten years in the late antebellum period, as many as 20,000 African Americans labored on the western rivers.¹
October 19, 1851
My Dear Wife,
You will doubtless be surprised to hear from me here. I am brought back to attend to a suit brought by Mr. Thurston of Louisville against us for the loss of a Negro boy in 1849 while the America was at St. Louis. I am now waiting to answer his complaint which will be done in the morning. I will then be ready to leave for New Orleans at which point I will again catch the America. I have no fear of our ultimately having to pay for the Negro but we will doubtless be troubled to avoid it.
Soon after telegraphing you from St. Louis, the America left and after having been detained some two or three hours from getting aground, arrived safe at Cairo. Yesterday morning where we succeeded in getting about 50 passengers. While we were laying there, Capt. Brooks came down with his boat and was very much disappointed to find we had taken all the passengers as he had been telegraphing them that he would be down in time for them and expected certainly to get them. Even with this addition to our trip, it is a poor one and will not more than pay our expenses; and unless we can get a good trip back from New Orleans, we cannot help but lose money. But we can only trust to the future for better luck. I have been thus explicit in advising you of our trip because I know dearest you feel interested in knowing.
Addie, you cannot imagine how utterly discontented I am without you. I had no idea that I would find so little satisfaction for there can be no pleasure when deprived a short time of your blest society. I say short time because the world would call it such but to me when I look forward, it seems of endless duration and I now feel and think when we are again together that nothing shall separate us for life is not life without you. And in this short space of time I have learned fully how to appreciate the blessing of which I was passed when privileged to see and enjoy your presence each day of the happy past two months.
My own dear Addie, such as I write I feel and were it possible would be compelled to believe that I love you now more fondly than ever, not that distance lends enchantment but that I am the more convinced of what a blank the world is to me without you.
My dear I was disappointed in not getting from you a dispatch at Cairo and you cannot imagine how anxious I was to hear from you and to know that you were still improving. When I found no dispatch, I felt as though I knew you were worse and cannot feel otherwise until I hear from you.
Addie, now you will want to know how I am doing. Well after writing you from this place on my way to St. Louis. I left here for Cairo. Was detained there some 8 or 10 hours, changed boats, and out then two days to St. Louis, during the whole of which time I devoted my leisure hours to thoughts of you. We had a large crowd of passengers but none of them suited my fancy and of course had but little to do with them. Arriving in St. Louis, I found our boat at 3 o’clock in the morning and boarded her finding Captain Johnson quite sick but improving (disease, fevers, ague). In the afternoon , we left for Cairo as I have written above. I am taking good care of myself, do not sit out on the guards. Neither do I sit up late, and as you ordered I have put on flannel and even wear long woolen stockings — coarse country-made at that. And notwithstanding I have had a hard trip of it. My health never was better and you may rest assured that if prudence and care will continue, it both will be observed.
I hope dear that by the time you receive this that you may have entirely recovered and if I could only know it and feel that you were enjoying yourself, it would afford me great satisfaction.
The first letter you write me after receipt of this, direct thus W. A. Gleaves, Steamboat America, care of Portfield, Magnolia Wharf Boat, Vicksburg, and your next to me at Cairo, care of Norton’s Wharf Boat.
My own dear Addie, I must now close this long letter as my candle and paper are both going out. Remember me affectionately to all the family as well as those of my friends who may enquire for me and receive for yourself the eternal love of your devoted husband. Now Addie, good bye and may God bless you. — W. A. Gleaves.
If you see Mrs. Johnson, tell her that Capt. Johnson was going about when I left the boat but still very weak.
¹ Source: Black Life on the Mississippi by Thomas C. Buchanon