In 1975, my mother’s mother, Nellie Marie Ingram Jones, had to move out of her family home in Little Rock, Arkansas, as she was no longer able at 87 to take care of it. The home had been bought by her husband’s grandfather in 1865, and it had stuff in it that dated back somewhere near that far. The job of my mother, sister, and me was to empty that house.
One item that emerged was a collection of letters written by that great-great-grandfather [of mine], Dudley Emerson Jones. You may know him from elsewhere on this site. After relocating to Little Rock after the Civil War he lived there until he died in 1913. Dudley had left at least 2 sisters back in Saratoga County, New York, where they had all grown up. These sisters’ names were Jane Ann, and Martha. The letters were all from Dudley to Jane; they dated from 1876 to 1900.
Dudley seems to have been a faithful correspondent. Of the letters that survived, and there may have been more, it was common for there to be 2 per year. The times varied – sometimes spring, sometimes summer, or fall, or around Christmas time.
A number of things stand out in the letters. Some of them seem mundane or commonplace to us, perhaps - health for example. But it occurred to me that concerns over health were much more germane in those days than they might be now. Dudley and his wife Caroline lost at least 2 children to illness. In the letters, Dudley claims over several years that his wife had cancer, and recounts how he insisted she go to Chicago to seek out treatment from specialists [I do not know the likelihood of that diagnosis, do not even know what kind of familiarity they had with cancer in those days]. It does seem that Caroline lived a good many years with whatever affliction that was, very stoically, according to her husband. Sister Jane’s husband Oliver is often spoken of in ill health as well. Dudley’s daughter-in-law Georgia Jackson Jones was apparently quite “poorly” after the birth of one of her sons. Concern was clear during the pregnancies of his daughter Kate Jones Bernays. Queries and assurances concerning health were not mere pleasantries.
On a lighter note, Dudley at times took the liberty of offering diagnoses and treatments, mentioning he had heard that cancer could be caused by eating tomatoes, and recommending “sarsaparilla” for Oliver’s rheumatism. He also favored “Homeopathic” treatment, mentioning it as a remedy for “the Grippe” [“When I had it I didn’t care whether I got well or not…After all it is a good deal as the Paddy said. He said he ‘was sick 3 weeks after he got well.’”]. He also volunteered a scientific method for discovering the cause of illness, which he linked to diet – just eliminate one item a day from daily diet, and when symptoms stop, the cause has been found. He was rather critical of doctors for not including diet in their instructions for patients, implying that a steady supply of sick people were necessary for their trade.
There is a good deal of mention of the weather as well. Dudley’s business was directly related to agriculture, as he manufactured and sold cotton gin elevators, among other things. He often referred to the weather in direct relation to the prospects of the cotton crop – sometimes good, sometimes bad. He also mentions the normal, how hot or cold it is in general, and the unusual as well. In one letter he speaks of an enormous storm that knocked down trees. He went into his back yard to watch his “mighty oak tree do battle with the wind.” The oak tree survived that storm, the like of which he said he had never seen, and Dudley had been around a good deal in his time, including to California in the Gold Rush. He also complains at times of the heat. When he left the windows, and even doors open at times in the evening, the “skeeters” [a clearly whimsical expression in his parlance] could be terrible. He also uses the heat as an excuse sometimes for not writing sooner. “It’s very hot writing next to a burning lamp in the summer,” he would say.
Family doings and relations would of course come up, probably the single most prevalent subject in the letters. In addition to health, certain regular activities would be referred to. Virtually all of Dudley’s references to his wife Caroline involved her religious practices. “Madam [as he always called her in these letters] has gone away to church again, and left me alone in the house.” “Madam” seemed to go to church a lot, Dudley not so much. These letters were very often written on Sunday evenings [the only time he had time, but often not the energy, to write, he once said; he obviously did it anyway]. Perhaps Madam went more than once on Sunday, and Dudley had fulfilled his obligation, or satisfied his preference already. Once he combines observation of the weather and Caroline’s Sunday practice. “It is now showering just as Madam is starting for church. She will put on rubbers & an umbrella & go anyhow.” Another time he adds, “If I could only get her to cross the street to our Dutch Church it would save her long walks.” Whether any of this indicates religious indifference on Dudley’s part seems possible, although he did have a tendency to joke a bit, often at his own expense.
Dudley very much valued corresponding with his family, and certainly missed them. He ends every letter, every one, with “write as soon and as often as you can.” He regularly complains that others haven’t written to him, or not soon enough. Sister Martha comes in for the brunt of his irritation; she just wouldn’t write soon or often enough to suit him.
No doubt from the same desire, he very often goes to great lengths to convince his sister to come out and visit him. This is repeated numerous times over a 15-year period, until finally sometime later in the 1890’s Dudley just seems to give up, saying, “I suppose I’ll never convince you to come out now.” It really seemed to matter to him.
Perhaps that is one reason that Dudley was such a Little Rock, and Arkansas booster. He was always commenting on “how much our state is growing” and “how great is our city’s expansion.” Dudley was a prominent businessman in the center of one of the key economic enterprises in Arkansas and surrounding states, the cotton trade, and he talks up not only the actual growth of the area, but its great potential as well. Perhaps this was one way of trying to engender some enthusiasm, some interest in the place in his sister Jane, and other relatives. It does seem that he did get recalcitrant correspondent Martha out at some point, but faithful letter-partner Jane seems never to have made it.
Guest blogger: David