Everyday History

Today’s post is mostly about an old letter I have transcribed for you.  I pulled the letter from a suitcase under my mom’s bed; it has been living with a lot of genealogy materials that were compiled by one Will Alexander of Salida, Colorado in about 1935.

He was my grandfather’s cousin and the whole family benefited from his family history work.  His efforts were much more challenging in 1935 when they involved writing countless letters, making carbon copies as he went, to librarians, government clerks, and church archivists around the country and in other countries, too.

I admire Cousin Will’s work!  This particular letter is dated January 8, 1819 from Potosi, Missouri.

Front of 1819 letter

Back of the 1819 letter

The handwriting was relatively easy to read; the letters were formed openly and clearly.

I find some similarities in handwriting style in the everyday correspondence throughout the 19th Century.  (My own experience with using a nib-pen for drawing and writing has taught me some nuances about using this technology and what to expect when reading its results.)

All the old letters I’ve read have these features in common:

1) The authors tend to use the “&” symbol, as well as the c-shaped short symbol to say “and”.

2)  Periods, commas, colons, and semi-colons are frequently absent or invisible.

3) Sentences are frequently run-on, even though the writers appear to be educated, sometimes very well educated.  When using a nib pen, the writer must go back to the well quite often to replenish the ink in the pen; any shorthand that delays the trip back to the inkwell was a good thing.

Also, writing with a nib means that the pen has to travel at an optimal angle to the paper in all dimensions, and travel at an optimal speed.  Too fast, or the wrong angle, and not enough ink is deposited on the paper to be easily readable.  Too slow, and the ink flows onto the paper in a pool, necessitating extra blotting and waiting for the worst of the mess to dry before continuing the letter.

Stopping the flow of the hand motion to be deliberate about periods, commas, and the like, increases the chances of making a blob on the paper.  This is messy, unattractive, and childish, so best avoided by giving the punctuation a glancing blow if it is attended at all.

As you can see, parts are missing from the original, and words have fallen out of the worn folds in the paper.  This letter, as well as other early 19th Century letters I am examining, are folded so that the address and return address are written on part of the letter paper itself.  The folded letter forms a sort of self-envelope.

This letter is addressed to John Rice Jones, Esquire and it is written by one of his sons, also named John.

Here is a photo of a painting of the recipient:

John Rice Jones

If you click on the photo, you can see it from my flickr account, in an enlarged version.

In short, this man was the grandfather of Mary Jane Jones Alexander, pictured several times in my previous post.  There is a name, A. F. Brouks, and a date, 1890, on the photo, so I am assuming that this is the photographer and the date from when an original portrait painting was photographed.

Because John Rice Jones was born in Mallwyd, Merionethshire, Wales on February 11, 1759, and died in St. Louis, Missouri on February 1, 1824, I am guessing that the original portrait was painted in about 1810, unless it was actually a posthumous portrait.

His clothes do not look like 18th Century style to me.  In fact, the style looks as though it could be later in the 19th Century than his death; hence my comment about a posthumous portrait.

My transcription uses ellipses (…) when there are gaps in the writing from missing paper.  I have bracketed [ ] words or parts of words at which I’m guessing by studying the small amount of remaining handwriting.

Here is my transcription of the letter from a son, John, to his father:

(Return address) Mine A Burton                                   John…

Jan 8th 1819

(Address) John Rice Jones Esquire

Care Hon John Scott…

Delegate from Miss….


Potosi   January 8th, 1819

My Dear Father

I again take my pen in hand to write to you, not with the expectation that it will be the source of much pleasure or any important information, but to gratify my own wishes by giving you occasionally an account of such transactions as take place among our friends and relations which when given by an abler pen than mine answers very well as a substitute for company.  In my last which was lengthy I informed you that Andrew expected or intended to make Herculaneum his home, since which time he has had an offer of the Sheriffs office in Jefferson County which he has accepted of and will leave here in a few days for Herculaneum for the purpose of being sworn into office and commencing the duties of his office by deputy until he can move his family which he says will be in a short time after he returns, I very much regret his leaving us but am glad that e is not going farther off than Herculaneum tho I have one great objection to the place which is that it is unhealthy.  One object he has in going there is to be concerned with Jas. Clemmons of St. Louis in a small grocery which if well conducted would be profitable but I certainly do not like the man much.  I think he is a little touched with Yankeeism.  Another is to keep a store house, and he says anything that will yield a profit, he says he is determined to make money, & god grant that he may.  I wish it was in my power to make him rich.  A few days ago Augustus bought his house and lot in Potosi for which he is to pay Andrew 2500 dollars 500 of which is payable in some short time.  I have this day wrote a letter to Chauncey Beston Esq registering clerk in the General Post Office in answer to one he had addressed to the P. Master at Mine A Burton in which he informs him that “he had on the 29th Oct last registered an account of his for reexamination at the U.S. Treasury for the quarters ending 1st Oct. 1817 and also 31st Dec 1817 without the name of any person as postmaster.  Will you in future have the goodness to conform to the P.M.G.’s instructions & sign your accounts.”  In order that I might not be thought the P.M. who had made the mistake I informed him at the time they were made out Moses Austin was P.M. & that since May last I had kept the office & hoped that there had been no mistakes in my returns but if there was that you were an assistant and now in Washington City & would correct them if it could be done but I hope that there are none to correct.

one of he subjects of the …..

this which I hope you …

ament which I wished yo….

and which for fear that yo….

it I gave you some infor….

since been corroborated b y….

They both say that goods can…..

credit by having letters of…..

this country & that they….. designa……

this Territory & Illinois & will …… nce any amount of good…

lands in payment, if it [cannot?] be done I requested you some such arrangement for [Dunklin?] and myself who are both anxious that you would enter into it for us & write on the ….. mediately we want you to….. and any that you make is……[satis?]fied with.  I this morning in reading Zolikofer on immortal[ity?]… a comparison he makes between a mortal who does not believe…. hereafter and a christian.  This former he says “from want of hop[e?]…a future happy state) “neglects the principal & purest sources o[f?] earthly happiness, & will a…ys be becoming more unhappy than… not so with me for I am always in hopes of something…. Hope that before you…. Philada you will make a …. ment with some mes….. will be very advantageous…. If this could be done [we?] could enlarge our busin[ness?]… in… assist Andrew by storing d… [w?]hiskey, flour, pork if [as..chase] any for exportation any thing…. should want done in the …. line.  Our families & friends… well and send their love to y….   are no doubt tired of….. my dear father adieu.

John J

So there you have all that I have been able to divine from this old epistle.  Some easy internet research has yielded explanations for several items in the letter.

For one thing, Potosi, Missouri, was originally called Mine A. Burton (Mine au Breton) by the French.  It was, indeed, a mine and the community that grew up around it.

It interests me greatly that the Anglicized name is used by its very own postmaster.   The name ‘Potosi’ came a bit later, as the town was laid out by Moses Austin, mentioned as an earlier postmaster in the letter, and named after the silver-mining city in Bolivia.

It is clear from the return address that the official post office name was still Mine A. Burton in 1819. 

Potosi, Missouri is southwest of St. Louis.

You can travel a few miles northeast of Potosi to find Herculaneum, also mentioned in the letter.  Remember that this was all part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and Missouri was still a territory in 1819.

Part of the Missouri Territory became a state in 1821. Herculaneum was laid out as a lead mining town by Moses Austin and a partner.  I find it intriguing that the author of the letter is concerned about the unhealthiness of Herculaneum, because, if you followed the “Herculaneum” link you can see that the healthiness of Herculaneum is in great question today!

The letter’s author, John, did have a brother named Andrew, and the way John recounts Andrew’s plans makes it sound as if they are brothers.

This brings up the question, ‘Why is the father not hearing the news from Andrew’s pen?’  Is Andrew more remiss in this department than is John?

Don’t we wonder what John meant by “Yankeeism” when he was describing his distaste for James Clemmons?  Exactly which yankeeism in Mr. Clemmons does he not like?

J.R.J. (father) was always pro-slavery, so perhaps his son was disparaging of the Mr. Clemmons of St. Louis because he was “Yankee”, meaning anti-slavery.  I just don’t know.

Yes, the Moses Austin mentioned as being the local postmaster is the same Moses Austin, father of Stephen F. Austin, who received the first Spanish land grant for what later became part of Texas.

John Jones seemed to be concerned about his reputation as a reliable postmaster when he made sure that the postmaster general’s office knew that Moses Austin, and not he, was the origin of the clerical mistake.

John mentions his recent reading of the author, Zolikofer.  In checking this reference, I found that, due to the content which John mentions, this is probably a Swiss theologian born in 1730 whose sermons were published in English in 1802.

Now I am wondering how John Jones would feel if he knew that one of his distant descendants were reading his ordinary, everyday, personal letter to his father and speculating on its contents?  How would I feel if one of my e-mails were to surface and make itself known to my descendants?