1856: Margaret Sarah (Breckinridge) Johnson to Marguerite A. C. (Menzies) Johnson

This letter was written by Margaret Sarah (Breckinridge) Johnson (1829-1879), the daughter of John B. Breckinridge (1799-1855) and Caroline Heiskell (1800-1833) of Staunton, Virginia. Margaret was the wife of William Boswell Johnson (1818-1879). The couple married in 1846 in Augusta, Virginia. They are enumerated in the 1860 Census in Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas where William’s profession is given as a lawyer but I believe he may have been affiliated in some manner with the schools there.


Ad in Alexandria Gazette, 2/1861

Anticipating the impending war, it appears that William and Margaret returned to their home state of Virginia and opened a boarding school for girls on 1 February 1861. The advertisement for the school claimed the “principal and his wife” had “many years experience in the management and education of youth, of both sexes, in the South.” By 1864, with Fredericksburg under Union occupancy, it appears that William and Margaret had retreated to Richmond where William managed “Mrs. Gifford’s School” — a school offering education in the sciences and well as English, French and Music” operated by William’s sister. Nothing further could be found concerning this couple.

While residing in Little Rock, William and Margaret Johnson may have been affiliated with Prof. Richards’ Young Ladies Institute. This school was operated by Prof. Richards and his wife in the latter half of the 1850s, assisted by other “teachers of great merit,” and held their exhibitions in the home of Albert Pike. Enumerated in the Johnson household in the 1860 Census are four young ladies between the ages of 12 and 16 (Scott’s and Rayburn’s) who were most likely being boarded by the Johnson’s while attending Prof. Richards’ school.

William’s parents were Chapman Johnson (1779-1849) and Mary Anne Nicholson (1785-18xx). Chapman was an 1802 graduate of William and Mary College. He practiced law in Staunton, Virginia, and in 1824, moved his family and practice to Richmond, Virginia, where he also became involved in politics. He was a friend and admirer of Thomas Jefferson.

Margaret wrote the letter to Marguerite A. C. (Menzies) Johnson, daughter of William Adam Menzies (1785-1872) and Martha Elizabeth Garber (1794-1857) of Covington, Kentucky. Marguerite was the widow of George Nicholson Johnson (1807-1855) — William’s older brother.


Ad in Richmond Examiner, 29 Sept 1864

In this letter, Margaret mentions her three sons, Carter Page Johnson (1851-1916), William Boswell Johnson (1854-19xx), and John Breckinridge Johnson (1855-1862) and implies that the youngest — “Breck” — is too young to be left in Little Rock should she visit Kentucky so I would place this letter in April 1856 as her next child was born in February 1857 and is not mentioned.

The letter also mentions Albert Pike — one of Little Rock’s most famous citizens — and suggests an intimate acquaintance. He is listed among the references for the Johnson’s school in Fredericksburg.

1856 Letter

1856 Letter

Addressed to Mrs. M. A. C. Johnson, Care of John Menzies, Esq., Covington, Kentucky

Little Rock [Arkansas]
April 28th [1856]

My dearest Sister Marg,

Your long expected letter was received on yesterday. I was beginning to feel quite anxious about you & said to Will just the day before what can be the matter with sister Marg? and resolved that I would relieve my anxiety by writing to you. Your letter — which was most welcome — has silenced my anxiety & I will set you a good example by writing at once.

When I used to write to you from Staunton, I found no difficulty in filling one or more sheets. But not it is different. You have no acquaintance here and I scarcely know how to interest you in people that I am interested in & have become attached to. Yes, I have occasionally found a mutual friend. Horace Smith — Maria Watson’s husband — is running on a boat between Napoleon & this place. We were delighted to see each other & he comes up every Tuesday when his boat comes to pay his respects to me. How delightful it is when you are far from home & friends to meet here with a servant you have known before. Horace says he has been in 15 states & would not give old Augusta & Rockingham [Counties] for the whole 15. Maria, he tells me, is in Chicago & in bad health. We have two boats that run between Cincinnati & this place — the Hickman & Resolute. How I wish you could get on one & pay us a visit.

I admire Mrs. Scott more than I do any of the Smiths. I do not think her family appreciate her as they should. They seem to have given her up of late years. I wrote to Mrs. Effinger & they wrote to Mr. Tanis at Mrs. Scott’s request to inform them of the Judge’s death. He sent them papers too but they have not taken the slightest notice of it. Ma wrote me that Mrs. Tanis was perfectly unmoved by it although she, I know, did hear the most touching accounts of Mrs. Scott’s state of mind. Judge Scott left his family comfortable but by no means rich. She has several children yet to educate. She has two sons who are good & steady but by no means talented. Her two oldest daughters are married but not well married. Her eldest daughter lost her only two children soon after the Judge’s death with the scarlet fever.

You ask me about Mr. Nat & Archen. I can tell you very little about them. Mr. Archen & did not see he was sick & your friend Nat never does say anything that can be remembered. He came in upon my last evening when I was so anxious to go out & complete some purchases & sat the whole evening. Part of the time we talked & part of the time we didn’t. I have just discovered that the children have torn my sheet but I can’t put it aside to begin again. We were at one time getting along quite swimmingly when Cart, Bos, & Breck rushed in upon us which so embarrassed & confused our diffident friend that he was scarcely able to regain his self possession. He made the most affectionate enquiries about you & little ones. I did not see his wife & when I asked about her he told me she was unwell & po___ed confused & embarrassed that I thought something was going to turn up. He told me too in a laughing way that he was a grandfather.

I suppose you have by this time heard of cousin Tom’s death. He died poor fellow as he has lived for the last few years. Mr. Gifface who you know is always obliged to fuss about something made M. Ann write to ____ to complain of the poor Dr. being in Tacher’s lot & his first wife. Will told him he thought there was no objection to his being buried there & his wife had been put there according to Tacher’s wish & he must have then foreseen the probability of the Dr. being buried by her. He told him if we died & it was possible we ____ in Staunton & you had a lot in the other cemetery & he supposed there would be room enough for the rest of the family. He has not written since. I don’t know whether he will take any further steps in the matter or not. He is obliged to have some kind of excitement, you know.

Back of Little Rock Arsenal

Back of Little Rock Arsenal

I am very busy put at this time helping the girls fix for a May party they are going to have on Tuesday. They will have a coronation at 5 o’clock at the Arsenal — the loveliest spot I most ever saw — & at night they will have their party which they have gotten up by contribution at the school building. Mr. [Albert] Pike’s eldest daughter — Isadore ¹ — is to be Queen of May. She is very pretty & queenly. I hope they will all recite & play well their parts as it is our first public exhibition and I feel anxious about the result. Mr. Pike & Will are the poets of the occasion & have written the girls some pretty pieces.

Albert Pike

Albert Pike

We have all enjoyed excellent health since we have been here. The boys grow distressingly fast. I don’t want them to grow too fast. I have a horror of _____our boys. Will is a little complaining today but he has only taken cold. He went fishing yesterday & sat too long on the wet bank. Negus ² is still here. He is in business here & is doing well. He gets his board over $50 a month with the prospect of something better. It is a great comfort to me to have him here.

I was mighty glad to get the hair as I had been waiting for it for some time. I hope you won’t think I am greedy when I tell you you did not send quite enough of each kind. Yours was a very small piece for your hear. You mentioned once you were getting gray & I judge from the very small lock you sent that you were also bald. But I hope not. I used almost to envy you your hair.

How do the Cincinnati goods compare in price with Richmond? I should judge they were much cheaper than they are here as they send to Cincinnati for furniture & almost everything they wear & eat. There is an acquaintance that I think a great deal of going to Cincinnati in a few weeks — Mrs. Brown. Her husband is Capt. of a boat called Little Rock which will go soon to Cincinnati to be repaired. ³ She has promised me to try & see you. She has friends in Covington. She is one of my new friends but one I prize very highly. She has been begging me to go with her & if I could raise the wind, I would leave all but Breck behind & go so great is my anxiety to see you & your dear little ones. I feel as if I must manage it some way or other. You must come to me or I must go to you. But ____ like. I hope something will turn up by and bye & that we will be together some time again without having to sacrifice duty for pleasure.

How far does Mrs. Clarkson live from you now? I thought she was a long ways off — too far at least to call in upon you. I wish for your sake you could live together. It seems hard that the few that are left of our families should be separated so much. Where & what is Kate about? Why don’t she write to me? Give my love to her & to your Father & brother’s family & kiss those five little mouths over & over again for me. My pen will make me stop. I cannot find one that I can write with. I am afraid it will provoke you to read what I have written. Will sends his love & kisses to you all & says he will write as soon as he can find something to interest you. My stump has given out & so will I. Please excuse this scratch & write soon to your devoted sister, — M. S. Johnson

¹ Isadore Pike’s death was announced in the 13 July 1869 issue of the Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, GA) newspaper: “DEATH FROM CHLOROFORM — The Memphis papers announce the recent death from chloroform of Miss Isadore Pike, youngest daughter of Gen. Albert Pike. She was found dead in her bed. She had retired with a slight nervous headache, and in taking chloroform to relieve the pain, had fallen asleep and overturned the bottle upon her pillow. Her death has cast a gloom over a large circle of friends. She was a lady of fine attainments.”

² Alexander Negus Breckinridge (1822-1895) was Margaret’s older brother. He attended Pennsylvania College 1846-1848. He served as a lieutenant in Graham’s Light Artillery Battery (Confederate) during the Civil War and lost an arm in battle. After the war he was a steward at the Deaf, Dumb & Blind Institute in Staunton and a night watchman for the government in Washington D.C.

³ This may have been Thomas Henson Brown (1801-1869) and his wife Francis (last name unknown). Thomas’ occupation in the 1860 Census may be steamboatman? Thomas was born in North Carolina; his wife in Kentucky.

2 responses to “1856: Margaret Sarah (Breckinridge) Johnson to Marguerite A. C. (Menzies) Johnson

  • Sally Causey

    I randomly googled my great great grandmother and found this letter! Thank you so much! I called and read it to my mother and she thanks you too. She said my grandfather always referred to his Uncle Breck but my mother wasn’t clear on his details and we don’t know what happened to him. We do know all about Carter and Wm. Boswell. I am descended from the child yet unborn, Natalie Breckinridge Johnson (she actually wasn’t born until 1867). Again, huge thanks! What a treasure!


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