LettersOld family letters are a precious find, providing more insight into the people of our past than any number of government records. Letters from the 19th century are particularly scarce as literacy was far from universal and the passage of time with its attendant wear-and-tear has consumed fragile paper.

Somewhere, however, there is a cache of letters from the Thompson family of Maryville, TN. The files of Mary Sue Ragland Nelson contained photocopies of two of them, one written in 1836 from the merchant William H. Thompson of Paris, TN, to his father William living in Maryville, the other written in 1837 to William H. from his mother Rebecca.


William H. Thompson

Here are transcriptions of both of them made to the best of my ability. At the end of the post are PDF scans of each. Keep in mind that the scans are of photocopies; the location of the originals is unknown. Additionally the letter of William H. to his father had been torn and taped up before copying, so some words were difficult to read. If you have interpretations of some of the missing words or other edits please send feedback in the Comments section.

Note that I have preserved the spellings from the originals, but have included some end-of-sentence punctuation and beginning-of-sentence capitalization for clarity.

Paris West Tenn April 4th 1836

Dear Farther,

I wrote home on the last of January that I would be gone to Mississippi after goods about four weeks, but contrary to my expectations I was gone about two months. I did not get back until about ten days ago, and since that time I have been busily engaged in procuring wagons and prepareing the store to receive my goods, on Saturday I received three loads of goods which was precisely one year to a day from that time I left Knoxville until I opened store. I have a fine stock of goods, and have a house in the best situation of any in the place to do business in, and so I ask no boot of tho scoundrels Jacob or Campbell Wallace either. I have a ….{uncertain text}…. that can buy and sell them both forty times.

I send you by the same mail that I send this the news paper of this place and als one of my hand bills, you will find the firm is Crawford, Daniel, Thompson, tho Mr. Crawford is the man who furnishes the principal capital, that Mr Daniel is verry well off, and is a very clever young man, and will remain in the store with me.

So I have not much time to write, I now come to ask a matter of you which I expect you and mother will make some objections to, but I am in hope you will not refuse to comply with my request, as you must know I make it from good and interested motive, that is to send Brother Barkley to me. I am now in a situation to raise him in the store. I can also send him to school here at any time I may choose, as we have very good and flourishing schools in this place. You and mother of course will think this a considerable trial to part with one of your children so young as Barkley, but you must remember it will all result for his good, and you are conscious he will be in the hands of a brother, with whom you could risk him without fear. Notwithstanding I am not yet 23 years old and have not yet been a year in this place, yet I have had applications from several men in this County to take in their sons who will not let them live with other Merchants in Town. But as I have Boy to learn I want Barkly for whom I can feel some interest in bring up, and with whom I can entrust business without fear, when he becomes capable of doing business, and you know my desire is and allways has been to see him do as well as you all placed in a different situation in life from you are. Should you not be willing to send Barkley to me, I should have to take in a Boy here for two or three years and then probably get one that would not suit me. But I am in hope you will not hesitate to send him. If you will do so I wish you to go to Uncle James and get him a suit or two of good close and have them well made, and get him to let you have money enough to pay Barklys expenses to this place and to send his bill to me and I will punctually remit this amt of it to him by mail. The best way to send him would be to get Uncle James to go to Knoxville with him and get him in the stage with some person going to Nashville. He can then come from Nashville in a day and a half in the stage or I can go to Nashville a {uncertain words} and bring him at anytime if you will write to me what time he will be there. If the Boats at Knoxville should be going down to Florence he might come that way, for he could be put on a boat and sent down to the mouth of the Sandy River which is on the Tennessee river 18 miles from this pace. But by Nashville would perhaps be the quickest and best trip.

Mother will think it a long and dangerous trip for Barkley to take in the stage, but there is none, if you can get him in with some man who will attend and see to the settling of his bills, he will come safe.

If you do not like to send him by the stage, if you will take a horse {?} and take him to Nashville, and write to me what time you will be there I will meet you there and pay all your expenses there and back besides. You can ride to Nashville in four or five days. I shall say no more this subject but hope to see Barkley here in a short time. You must write me on this subject, as quick as you receive this and let me know your determination.

Mr John H Edmastone who lived with parson Eagleton in Maryville, has charge of a Female school in this place which has seventy scholars and besides there is many other East Tennesseans about here, and I do not know one of them but what will trade with me.

I have not heard a word from home since I left for Mississippi. I expected certainly to find a letter here on my return from Mother as I had written to her just before I left.

Give my love to Aunt Betsy Jane, Uncle Jam and {obscured} of my relations and friends that I care anything about, and {obscured} that I don’t like, you may tell them I wish them a speedy journey down to Old Nicholas below.

Give my love to Mother and except a portion for yourself.

Your Son Affectionately,

Majr. Wm H. Thompson

Tell Mother my little girl is well, and one of the prettiest little creatures she ever seen but she is {indecipherable} like the Irish mans {indecipherable} I haven’t got her yet.

You may say to Mary that I am pretty much of a quaker that I may write to her when the spirit moves me, but it may be some time before it moves me yet.

William H.’s parents apparently did not accede to their son’s demands for his brother Barkley. Barkley was only 11 years old at the time of this letter, and there is no sign of a teenage boy living in the William H. Thompson household in the 1840 census while there is one in his father’s house in Blount County (where Maryville is located). Barkley also appears in the 1860 census for Blount County. William H. does finally get one of his brothers to Paris – Samuel, his youngest brother born in 1831, shows up in his household in the 1850 census. Samuel stayed in Paris, and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Samuel’s son Frank M. Thompson was attorney general for the State of Tennessee from 1913-1926, and thus became tangentially involved in the famed Scopes-Monkey trial of 1925.

While William H.’s letter brims with an entrepreneur’s energy and focus, Rebecca Thompson’s letter is much more about sadness, loss, and a longing for her distant child to come home.

Maryville East Tennes September 14 1837

Dear son

I received your letter in dew time. I was glad to hear of your safe return. I am sorry that you lost your hors but we all have to meet with disappointments and loss. Your papa lost {obscured} this spring but what is all this compared with the {indecipherable} of so many of our friends and neighbours many that you know too tedious to relat. I cannot writ much at this time. I had set apart your birth day to writ to you but I was confnd to my bed for most a week all that time which prevented me {indecipherable}. I long for that time to come when we all shall meet again. You must let me know as nigh as you can the time you expect to come home. We all ought to be thankful to kind providence that we are all alive and you have been blest with your health. You said papa must writ his fathers nam. He thinks it will be of no servis to you however I will writ what I hav heard him say. George was his name. He was from England. He was in Tarltons coher of hors in the old war. He settle in new Virginia after the war.

If this is any servis to you writ soon and your papa will writ to you. Papa has some thoughts of going to Nashville in a few weeks. If he should go he will go to see you. Writ soon what time you will come home. My love to you my son.

Rebecca Thompson

It is not known how often – if ever – William H. Thompson returned to Maryville to see his mother, who died only 8 years later in 1845 at the age of 55. As previously described in a Barnett family poem, it was very uncertain in the early-to-mid-19th century whether family moving westward would ever return to see those left behind. As a merchant traveling to procure goods for sale William H. was much more mobile than most, but he was also very busy with his new commercial venture.

This letter appears to be the source, and is directly quoted in the previously cited newspaper clipping (date unknown), of the fact that William Thompson’s father (William H.’s grandfather) was George Thompson, a British soldier in Banastre Tarlton’s cavalry during the Revolutionary War.

William H. Thompson letter to William Thompson 4-4-1836

Rebecca Wallace Thompson letter to William H. Thompson 9-14-1837

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