17 Jan 1845: Alexander Hendry Writes to Cousin Ellen Harper

It’s a cold and wet new year as I write from Liddieville, perhaps similar to the weather my 4x-great-grandfather Alexander Hendry experienced as he wrote his cousin Ellen Harper on January 17, 1845. I’m still excited about finding this letter on eBay, and I spent the last few weeks of 2018 mining it for information and pursuing leads about its recipient.

Unfortunately, the seller has not responded to my messages. The auction ended without a buyer, and the seller relisted it for $175. I still cannot justify spending that much, so I did my best to capture screenshots and attempt a transcription.

Transcribing the Letter

Transcribing the two-page letter has been extremely difficult. Beyond the typical challenges of deciphering 19th century handwriting, Alexander wrote on both sides of the first page, and the ink bled through, making both sides hard to read. The second page is even worse. He ran out of space and decided to turn the paper 45 degrees and finish the letter by writing on top of what he’d already penned. The other side of this page serves as the envelope, so there’s also bleed-through from the address. And if those challenges weren’t enough, there’s masking tape holding the page together where it’s torn from decades of being opened and re-folded.

Interpreting this letter may take many months of effort. It’s a work-in-progress, so I’m not ready to post a final transcription. But here’s a summary of what I’ve deciphered so far:

  • The letter is addressed to Miss Ellen Harper of Harpersfield, Ashtabula County, Ohio.
  • The letter is dated January 17, 1845, and was mailed from Boeuff Prairie, Franklin Parish, Louisiana, on January 22, 1845.
  • Alexander addresses Ellen as “cousin” in the salutation.
  • Alexander apologizes for the long silence in correspondence as distance only allows “…the pleasure of receiving a token of kindred affection in the form of thoughts communicated on paper.”
  • Alexander fondly recalls “the short time over again I spent with those who were in former years were as strangers to me only as hearing my parents recall to mind those…distant and absent relations.”
  • Alexander sends condolences for the passing of “Mr. Gleason” whose death he expected to occur when he was visiting. He writes that Mr. Gleason’s “bosom companion” has “one consolation [that] he did not depart without fair hope for the future and…left a name to his posterity.”
  • Alexander reports he has not heard from their family since he returned on August 23. He sends wishes for good health and happiness for Ellen’s father, mother, sister, “that aunt,” Ms. Webster, and Mrs. Gleason. He wishes them better health than he has had himself for two years before his “tour to the North.”
  • Alexander states “you will not forget Samuel Hendry and family.”
  • Alexander states he has not yet written to Mary and asks Ellen to tell her so when convenient. He seems to be concerned about Mary “tell[ing] any story” if the letter is found arriving.
  • Alexander details his journey from Harpersfield, Ohio, to Louisiana. He mentions taking a stagecoach from Wellington to Columbus and arriving in Cincinnati. He visited someone (cannot yet decipher), found their family well, but has not heard from them since.
  • Alexander writes he wishes he could give Ellen a journal, but doesn’t have the paper.
  • Alexander says he took a steamboat from Cincinnati to Louisville and landed “at my brother” and had to wait for the waters of the Mississippi to fall.

At this point in the letter, much of the writing is obscured by masking tape. I’m only able to pick out short phrases:

“…week Mississippi River…”
“…with Father & Mother, Brother, &…”
“…tomb of a…”
“…was by the hands of…”
“…consigned to the…”
“…gave way to…”
“…there…& endeavor to avenge his…”
“…two years nothing…”
“…water had fallen…”
“…bayous and creeks…”
“…on the Ouachita Ri…”
“I arrived…”
“…horse as my friends so called…”
“…the law has to…”

  • Alexander writes the winter is mild and he’d only counted a dozen cold nights so far.
  • Alexander concludes by “seconding a letter from brother.” The masking tape again obscures much of the final paragraph, but he mentions his father and mother writing to him and mentions “letter paper” and “friend and cousin.”
  • He signs the letter “Alexander R. Hendry.”


Identifying Valuable Information

The parts of the letter I can read give valuable information about Alexander’s life and travels. I’d always wondered why and how he’d come from his native New York to Louisiana. This letter may not tell the why, but it does share some of the how.

Valuable Info #1: Ellen Harper of Harpersfield, Ohio, was Alexander Hendry’s second cousin.

A quick Ancestry search uncovered the identity of Ellen Harper. Her parents were Robert Harper and Polly Ann Hendry Harper. Polly and Thomas Mills Hendry (Alexander’s father) were first cousins and both grew up in Harpersfield, New York. They likely interacted as close family, as suggested by Alexander stating his parents recalled to him their absent relations.

Ellen’s family was quite prominent in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Their family papers, dating from 1755-1935, are housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. Ellen’s correspondence is included in the collection. Could there be other letters from Alexander to Ellen? Or even to other Harper family members? Mining this collection is on my to-do list.

Valuable Info #2: Alexander Hendry traveled north at least once after moving to Louisiana and stayed with the Harper Family in Ohio.

Traveling from New York to Louisiana in the 1840s has always seemed perilous to me. But to think Alexander returned as far north as Ohio at least once is astonishing. Alexander purchased his first land in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, on April 10, 1843. This letter states he returned from Ohio on August 23, 1844. Was he missing family and home? In the letter, he wishes Ellen’s family better health than he’d had for the past two years. Maybe Alexander returned to family — and civilization — because he needed medical treatment.

Visiting Ellen and the Harper family means Alexander stayed with his Ohio family at least on this trip. Perhaps their home was also one of his stops on his original journey from New York? Imagine my surprise when a glance at the Western Reserve Historical Society’s website showed me historic Shandy Hall, home of the Robert Harper Family! WRHS maintains the very home Alexander visited, and some of the furniture is even original to the 1830s. I think a trip to Ohio is now in order…

Valuable Info #3: Alexander Hendry visited and/or maintained close correspondence with his brother and parents after leaving New York.

Because his parents are buried in Harpersfield, New York, I’d assumed Alexander migrated to Louisiana alone and the distance meant little, if any, communication with his family. However, Alexander mentions a brother in Louisville on his journey down the Mississippi River, and some of the hard-to-decipher portions of the letter also mention his brother and parents. Were they together on his journey or for a portion of it?

Asking More Questions

Of course, the fragments I’ve yet to interpret leave me with even more questions. What was the tomb Alexander mentioned? And who/what needed avenging? What was destroyed after he reached the Ouachita River?

If I could go back in time, I’d give Alexander more than two sheets of letter paper so he could write a detailed account of his journey from Ohio to Franklin Parish, Louisiana. And maybe a ballpoint pen and proper envelope, too.

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