Category Archives: Antebellum Tennessee

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

1860: W. B. Dunlop to his Brother

I have not yet learned the identity of the author of this letter. His signature appears to read W. B. Dunlap (or Dunlop) but there is little in the letter to reveal the location of “Home” which is where the 1860 letter was datelined. The author suggests that his “brother” sell out his business in Nashville fearing that he stays, he might be the target of a armed mob that might question his loyalty to either the North or the South—it isn’t quite clear. There was a general store operated in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1860 by Thomas Coke Dunlap (1839-1903) but I have yet to find a brother named W. B. Dunlap.


Monday evening, December 17, 1860

Dear Brother,

We have just received your letter to James and myself. The two letters came together today. The Captain left this afternoon in the cars for Cincinnati without having received the one you wrote to him. You may believe that our folks were a good deal alarmed when the Captain arrived here on Friday and told us you had not yet arrived at Cincinnati when he left. He, however, assured us you would get there on Thursday evening. From this we anxiously looked for a letter on Saturday and when none came, the circumstances certainly did not tend to allay the apprehensions of the family. Your letters received today however relieved our anxiety.

We were all dumbfounded at the information received from the Captain that Wallace had come home. The Captain told us that you knew nothing of his coming and we very readily surmised that he had carried off all the money taken in during the trip. He told the Captain on the way up that he was going to get married. It is very hard that you should lose this amount of money by the scoundrel, but you will—you may as well make up your mind to this. Pa does not feel like saying anything to him about it. I think myself it would not amount to anything. Pa, however as well as all the family, strongly advise that you have nothing more to do with him. Let him go. You can never trust him even if he should go back after this trick he has played on you. It may be troublesome to get a person you can rely on to fill his place, but I would not worry about it Whenever you can get a good price, I would sell. The relief from care and anxiety of mind will compensate for what you might make by holding on to it. Consult your own judgment, however. You will know what is best. Fawcett is on the Minerva. Horner is not at home. I mention these names so that should you think of them in connection with this place, you will know that neither of them is unemployed.

We are getting along well at home. I am doing better. I was up at Uncle Thomas’s office today. He enquired particularly for you. Walter today drew twenty-five dollars for his first month’s wages. As it is but a short time until the mail will close, I will give you no further particulars now further than to say we are all well but will write again.

You say we know nothing about the excitement here. This may be, but we know far more than when you were here. We know that it is on the increase. Before you get back to Nashville, a collision mat have occurred between the South Carolinians and the garrison of Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. If this should take place, there would be little safety for any Northern man in the South no matter what his political views may be. They have only your word that you are a democrat. What is to prevent one of your enemies from sending down a report that you are not what you represent yourself to be. You may offend some man in your business transactions [and] he has but to shout abolitionist to have you beset by a mob. Mobs don’t reason. How did they know at New Orleans than Ramson voted for Fremont? Why, his enemies have circulated the reports. These things are being done constantly.

I, this family, all of us advise you not to remain behind to collect should you go to Nashville. It may be very hazardous. Besides, you have done your share of this work. It is but fair that McConnell should alternate with you.

But I must close. Will write you again before you leave. Your brother, — W. B. Dunlap

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.