1860: Paul Tudor Jones to Major John Houston Bills

This letter was written by Paul Tudor Jones (1828-1904), the youngest son of Gen. Calvin Jones and Temperance Body Williams. He came with his parents to Bolivar, Hardeman county, Tennessee in 1835, settling on a farm where the West Tennessee Insane Asylum was eventually built. He received his education at La Grange College in Alabama and in 1849 married Jane Margaret Wood. When she died in 1863, he married Mary Kirkman. Paul was an extensive planter as was the man he addressed his letter to, Major John Houston Bills (1800-1871) of Bolivar, Hardeman county, Tennessee. Major Bill’s biography in Tennessee Encyclopedia reads:

Born in Iredell County, North Carolina, John H. Bills was one of the founders of Bolivar, in Hardeman County, and a leader of the Tennessee Democratic Party in the nineteenth century. He came to the West Tennessee area in 1818 with members of the family of James K. Polk. In 1823 Bills married Prudence Polk McNeal, a cousin of the future president. Bills also began a cotton factoring company with her brother, Ezekial McNeal, which they called Bills and McNeal, and acquired two plantations, one near Bolivar and the other in Mississippi.

Bills was one of the first commissioners for the new town of Bolivar in 1824, and with his brother-in-law, one of the leading industrialists and planters in West Tennessee. He purchased his home, known as “The Pillars,” in 1837, from a Philadelphia newspaperman, John Lea, and traveled throughout the eastern United States to furnish it in appropriate style. The mansion is now a historic house museum administered by the local chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. Bills entertained several notable Tennesseans and southerners at his home, including Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Sam Houston, Leonidas Polk, and Jefferson Davis. After his wife died in 1840, Bills continued making trips throughout the eastern U.S. and Europe. In 1849 Bills married a widow from Virginia, Lucy Anne Duke.

Union troops burned the town of Bolivar in 1864, destroying the business district, including Bills’s cotton plant. Bills, however, proclaimed himself neither Unionist nor secessionist, and thus protected his home and much of his wealth from military reprisals. He continued traveling, entertaining, and aiding in the rebuilding of his business and of Bolivar until his death at home in November 1871.

From the letter we learn that Major Bill’s “great house” was being remodeled and in his absence, Mr. Jones was overseeing the construction work which was being performed by the Major’s slaves. The Major’s home—called “The Pillars” was built in the 1820s but a wing was added onto the building beginning in 1858 according to “The Pillars” website.


October 15, 1860

Major J. H. Bills, dear sir,

As you requested to be advised of the progress of the work here, I know of no better way than to begin a sort of diary & send it to you by first conveyance.

In attempting to get our negroes straightened, I find 2 or 3 taking wives away from home & I regret that it was not known before you left. I have put all off until I could hear from you. Alfred has taken one of Jane Willians’ women & Stephen Miller’s man Bob has asked for Emma.

Monday, 15th October

Gray burning brick. The fir made its appearance on top this morning. Anthony & Wash digging out cisterns. Got down 14 feet. Pretty wet [and] will go no further. Carrol hauling dirt from cistern to house & getting up brickwood. The women burning brush. Jake & Arch sick. Lucy & Ned hewed over the plates and morticed the sills & side plates to Great house. Wilson to the River. Brought home the meat and balance of lime & cement. Isham hauling cistern timbers until 12 & brickwood after dinner. The rest of hands at the pond getting sills from negro houses & loading the wagon. got 4 sills today and 3 saw logs.

Tuesday 16. Changed the fire in brick kiln this evening. Covered cistern. got out posts for workshop. Got out 14 sills today and 5 or 6 saw longs. Chopping out places in sills to receive the sleepers & adjusting the plates of Great house. Ned hauling saw logs. Wilson to River after Mill. Isam & Arch sick. Women burning brush. Wash making & repairing mule collars.

Wednesday 17th Arch & Isam sick or lazy. Finished mortising for sleepers & all ready at Great house for scantling. Close up the Brick kiln tonight. Plastered the upper half of cistern. Finished hauling brush & 24 sills in all from negro houses. Ned hauled 2 saw logs today and six sills. Wilson got back at 12 with the Mill and hauled a load of corn in afternoon from below the old cow pen.

Mr. Duke went to Austin today and brought out your letters & I feel anxious to settle about the Mill & will send Gray to Senatobia in the morning & write to [George] Widrig to stop it. You say truly that the time is about out when it ought to be sawing to profit this winter & I am sorry you could not have seen Widrig when you passed Murphey & stopped it. The work that I shall do for the balance of the week will not interfere with the mill if it comes or not. I shall get rafters and build a corn crib & gather some corn, &c. And but little is lost if any log work that has been done except the saw logs of which we have in the yard 20 & the rough lot of timber got out for the mill. I had rather lose that than more fooling about for a week or two in the mud trying to get the mill started.

All are out except Arch and Isam & I cannot see anything the matter with them unless maybe a slight cold. Carrol was ready for work the day after you left but i told him to keep quiet a day or two and he is regularly at it now & doing very well

Respectfully — P. T. Jones

If the mill does not come by Friday night, I shall know it is stopped and shall them go to building log houses. Shall put up the sills & mortise down for sleepers so no time will be lost. I wrote Widrig if he wanted to communicate further to address us at Bolivar. I wrote we would not take it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s