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Sometimes, it's what's inside that counts!
An 1843 letter from Memphis - what an adventure!

by Roy Lingen
Setember 26, 2003

Sometimes a non-descript cover can hold vast historical treasure inside, just waiting for whoever takes the time to read it. This cover was found for C$10 (US$7.50) in a dealer's box at a recent stamp show.
 


 
The cover is addressed to "Cornelia M. Huston" and postmarked "MEMPHIS / Te. / MAR 6" (Memphis Tennessee, March 6 [1843]). The year is not included in most datestamps of this period, but is readily apparent from the dateline inside the cover. The blue manuscript "20" (cents) is the postage rate paid in advance for delivery to Niles Michigan, an old established community on the banks of the St. Joseph River in Michigan, just east of Lake Michigan.
 
So much for the "postal" history. From here, I will let the letter speak its history for itself: (The term [sic] means that the spelling or grammatical error is in the original document)
 
		Memphis, Tennessee
		March 5, 1843

 
Dear Sister I received your letter of June 26, 1842 at Galveston Texas Oct. 17th 1842 with more pleasure than I can describe and was rejoiced to learn you were all well. I have but little news to write but a great deal to tell you. In the first place I will give you a short history of my travel.
 
I left New Orleans in the Steam Ship New York for Galveston on the 14th June and on the 16th landed on Galveston Island. The first man I met was Mr. Seligson from Bertrand. He invited me to his house, but did not except [sic] at the time for I was in company with eleven young men from the City of N. York who I had got acquainted with at N. Orleans. Next day herd [sic] a gun fire and was told a man was shot in the street. I walked round the corner of the street and saw a man struggling with death. I went up to him, he was gasping for the last time - if you had seen me then you would have been frightened at my appearance for my whiskers and mustachars [sic] were full length and pail [sic] as death my self for I never saw the like before and I was armed to the teeth as the saying is. I had round my waist a belt which contained two first rate Pistols and an enormous large Bowe [sic] knife ready to shoot or cut down the first man that gave me an insult for that was the fashion there. Every body went armed.
 
June 19th went to church. Next day bought a mewl [sic] and left my trunk at the ware house of McKenny & Williams paid $50 for the mewl - and started for the seat of war - this was on 20th June. I saw President Houston where the man was shot in the street. He is a fine looking man, but now I am on my way to the western part of Texas under going everything even hunger & thirst for water - went on until we arrived at Ceder lake in Brazora Co. there we campt [sic] for a while to hear from Congress which was sitting at that time at Austin then the seat of Government to know whether they would invade Mexico or not. But at this time they were fighting on the frontier of Texas. We remained at Ceder lake for a short time and we all taken sick and one of our company died on the 15th August.
 
I was taken with the chill and fevers. Mrs. Bennet sent us a pound of Imperial Tea and at the same time sent for me to come to her house where I could be more comfortable and have better care there. I had a long fit of sickness and was well taken care of.
 
When I got well I started with Mr. Bennett to the seet [sic] of war. A great many things transpired on our way, after we had crossed the Colorado we rec'd [received] orders to return and I went [to] Galveston and there & then received your letter. I then intended to go to the Isle of Cuba, but changed my notion and started for N. Orleans in the Steam Ship Neptune Oct 27th.
 
Had a rough time crossing the Gulf of Mexico - never expected to see land. From N. Orleans I got aboard the Steam Boat West Wind. She blew out one of the head of her boilers. I thought we was gone but fortunately but few was scalt [sic]. I escaped by falling down and found I was safe from the steam lay [still?]. At Vixburgh [sic] I got on board of the (illfated) Boat General Pratt which took fire in the night and burnt to the water's edge and sunk in 10 moments from the time she took fire. She had on board 400 passengers who lost all their baggage & escaped barely with their lives - (and now you ask your selves where is my baggage) it lay in the hull of the Gen'l Pratt smoking like a cale pit. There was 400 passengers now on the bank, principly German Emigrants without food, money or clothing. The boat burnt at 2 o'clock in the morning of 24 Nov /42 - 12 miles above Memphis. I went back to Memphis in the first boat and put up at the Exchange Hotel. Next day went in to the Bar, for the head barkeeper left that morning
 
I remained in the bar until Jan'y 10th 1843. Jan'y 4th at 9 1/2pm we felt a severe shock of an earthquake which frightened the people half to death at the first - found I was in the middle of the street where the men & women were screaming and praying - it shook down several chimneys. I thought I was gone that time for certain but I was spared and on the 15th Feb'y we had another earthquake though not so severe as the first.
 
(Side flap) Jan'y 10th I went to Dr. [Islenz?] to live here, I have first rate times & doing well he is very wealthy & has about 100 Negroes. I have not heard from S.A. Brownell since you rote [sic]. Pray write me all the news & send me papers often. I have not room to write. [Really?] kiss little Miss for me. Tell her to be good to Granmar [sic]. Please send her to school & I will pay you when I come home.
 
I must bid you farewell for the present but will answer your letter when you write.
 
Yours, D. Wilson
 
(Back Flap) My compliments to you all tell all my friends to write & send me papers. Tell B.Y. Collins to write me a long letter & tell the news of the day - no more room D. Wilson
 
(inside edge) I did not find A. Huston. Tell Israel to write I am getting 30 dollars per month

 
Author's Notes:
Sam Houston of Texas and the "Bowie Knife" (an invention of Jim Bowie of Alamo fame) are legendary in US history. The Tennessee earthquake of 1843 is described on the US Geological Survey's page Earthquake History of Tennessee
A full size scan of the first page of the letter may be seen here.

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