1838: William Penn Cresson to Susan (Vaux) Cresson

This letter was written by 24 year-old William Penn Cresson (1814-1892), the son of Caleb Cresson (1775-1821)—a prominent and wealthy Quaker merchant—and Sarah Emlen (1787-1870) of Philadelphia. William became engaged in the hardware commission business in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The company offered a variety of products with a strong focus on metal ware, household building materials and household furnishings. In the late 1840’s, the firm began selling cooking stoves, and became stove manufacturers, and likely, hollow ware manufacturers as well. During the late 1840’s and 1850’s, a number of stove patents were applied for in the firm’s name. 

William wrote this letter to his wife, Susan Vaux (1813-1890). The couple were married in November 1835 at Philadelphia. The nature of William’s trip to the Alabama and Tennessee is not revealed in the letter but it was presumably connected with his hardware business. William’s letter reminds us of the dangers of traveling by steamboat on the western waters in the 1830s.

Painting by Paul Rainer


Jackson, Madison county, Tennessee
December 25, 1838

My own dear wife,

How I have wished this whole day during my lonesome ride that I was with you spending this Christmas instead of being here, an insulated being without a friend to chat over old times or cheer my fagged spirits. I have been trying but in vain to raise my spirits with the idea that more than half of my travels were over. I expect to be home about the 1st of February but there is 37 long days to pass before I can home to see you and the dear children. I should feel much better if I could hear from you but I cannot before I arrive at Florence, Alabama, which place I hope to visit about New Year’s Day and then, love, I shall devour your letters—a great feast for me. It almost makes me jump for joy to think that one short week will, with God’s blessing, find letters in my hands from my own sweet wife.

Love, write to Pittsburgh immediately on receipt of this and I think it will be in time for me. Do tell me how those dear children are. Can Sally step any? Dies she say Momma or Pappa? Does George improve much in tasing? Does he know his letters? Any letter? Does he begin to spell?

How happy should I have spent this day if I had only been home, but we will have our Christmas when I do come. Speaking of this day puts me in mind of Johnny Fassitt. Have you remembered him or did he send anything to George? Has Mrs. Fassitt been to see you? I have been thinking a good deal about Aunt Debby these last 3 days. Has she come home or have you heard from her? Has Charley written to you or me? Does Mary and Joseph say anything about coming home? Has Mrs. C. Smith got any better? I suppose Hetty Smith is married. Tell me something about it and all our friends.

I last wrote you from Randolph before I had gone down to Helena. The next day, Tuesday, I saw a steamboat coming down the river and got on board. It was the Asia, one of the 2nd class boats and by far the most splendid one that I have seen on the western waters, but still not nearly as handsome as some on our own waters except that they are 2 storied and that of course makes them look finer from the shore but the inside of our boats far surpasses these boats for elegance of furniture.

It was about 11 o’clock when we started from Randolph and we arrived at Memphis about 4 o’clock that afternoon and as they found some cotton freight we had to lay there 2.5 days days which made me sick enough, only a ride of 36 hours to take and to be detained on the road 4 days. Well there is no use of complaining. We arrived then on Friday and on Saturday I started back and arrived at Randolph again on Sunday evening. During the time, saw and heard of more destruction that had just happened to steamboats than in all of my life before. Two steamboats had just blown up—saw the fragments of one myself. Saw three boats that had either snagged or been torn to pieces by others. Saw three boats which were traveling with their bows patched to keep [out] the water but 1 pumping 10 minutes out of every 30 to keep her afloat. Heard of the boat which laid by our side at Memphis. She was going down the river and between Memphis and Helena run on a snag which almost disabled her so much that she could not proceed and to crown the whole, the Asia run aground 30 miles below Helena but with God’s blessing, no accident occurred to her.

I found my pony pretty well at R___ on Monday. Started and arrived at Brownsville about an hour after dark, the moon being almost obscured by clouds made me feel very disagreeable but I got in safe. This morning, to my sorrow, found that there was about two inches of snow on the ground and it made the traveling still worse than yesterday which was bad enough. It is snowing now very hard and probably by morning there will be a foot of snow and I shall have miserable traveling. I have 32 miles to go to McLemoresville but it must be made and I shall start by sun up, which I do almost every morning generally making my destination before 5 o’clock.

My health is perfectly good. Remember me to all our friends and I remain your own husband, — William

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