This letter was written by John Russell (1793-1863), the son of John Russell (1751-1836) and Lucretia Preston (1762-1834). Russell was a Baptist minister from Bluff Dale (changed to Bluffdale in 1892), Illinois. He was one of the earliest settlers in Greene County and is credited with giving Bluff Dale its name. In addition to being a Baptist preacher, Russell was also an educator, writer, and postmaster. Six of his letters, written between 1839 and 1856, were published in the Northern Illinois University Press.
Much of the content of the letter centers upon the illness of John Russell’s wife, Laura Ann Spencer (1797-1890), the daughter of Gideon Spencer (1770-1847) and Betsy Winchell (1776-1851). Laura survived her illness in 1835 and lived to be 93 years old.
Russell wrote the letter to Anthony Smith (1783-1875), the son of John Smith (1744-1819) and Mary Ford (1747-1817). The 1850 Census reveals that Anthony was employed as a book keeper. He was married to Rebecca Clark in 1807. Anthony had an older brother named Newton Smith (b. 1767). This may have been the Newton to whom Russell refers in his letter.
Addressed to Anthony Smith, Esq., Washington, Litchfield County, Connecticut
August 22d 1835
I have just arrived here from Apple Creek Prairie which is 7 miles distant for the purpose of opening the Northern mail and making up the Eastern. While waiting the coming of the mail, I will write you a few lines, which may be abruptly terminated by its arrival. Mrs. Russell is now lying dangerously sick with the prevailing fever so common at this season of the year in Illinois. She is at the house of her sister where she went with our two little boys for a short visit. She had not been there long [a few hours] before she was seized with the fever. It is a distressing circumstance that Dr. Brown, our family physician, and the only one in whom we feel entire confidence, is himself lying prostrate. It is now very sickly in Bluffdale compared with former years. Not one of my family has escaped without more or less. From about the middle of May till near the first of August, I was sick with short intervals of convalescence. The whole summer has been to me one of suffering.
I will try to write to you calmly on the subject of Mrs. Russell but I find that I have far less of the entire resignation to every possible event than I had given myself credit for. O how will affliction try the reality of our confidence in God. Ever since she was taken — which is nearly a week — I have slept but a few moments at a time and these few moments were disturbed by frightful dreams. Yesterday she talked with me alone and expressed her full conviction that she should not recover and her entire willingness to die. No tongue can utter the anguish that her conversation gave me. Every word of it is burnt onto my heart. In her preparedness for any event, no one who knows her can doubt. For years it has been her study to live every day prepared for the summons of death. I do not and will not believe that a merciful God will take away one who is so invaluable to us all and whose loss neither I nor our children could long endure. All over Bluffdale there is an anxious solicitude and I doubt not that every heart that can pray is lifted up to God for her recovery. The moment the mail has left here, I shall return. Her father and mother, sisters and other dear friends are around her.
I should not have written to anyone else under the present state of my feelings for I am fully aware that I shall not write with the calmness that a Christian ever ought to feel in all circumstances, but I write for the eye of one who knows well how to sympathize with affliction. I have already said that it has been and still is sickly. Very often Mrs. Russell has been called upon in the dead of the night to visit the sick who were dangerous. She never once refused whatever might be the weather or the state of her own health. I have often urged her not to expose her health so often, but she felt it her duty to go. They seem to think that her presence at their bedside will somehow do them a greater benefit than to prescriptions of the doctor. I am persuaded that her exposure and attention to the sick at home and abroad has been the predisposing cause of her fever.
I will say a word or two on the subject of N. I am glad to learn that he at length wrote. I did you no good as it turned out but the fault was not mine, for I did all that could be done. Before I was taken sick, I wrote to many individuals on the subject and visited St. Louis partly for that object. My inquiries in that town were unsuccessful, altho’ I suspected before I left that he was not only there but was aware that enquiries were on foot about him and possibly ignorant of the object ____ them. I might have been mistaken in this conjecture but I think not. You have no town at the East that resembles St. Louis. It is impossible to trace and a common stranger who has nothing particular to distinguish him from the hundreds who come there and go every day from all quarters. Such a motley population of French, Germans, Irish, negroes, mulattoes, free & slave. The cheap boarding houses — but I will not describe them. Genteel blacklegs are prowling around to lure young men in the dens where gambling &c. does the rest. Youth from the East are considered by them a certain prize. A young man from N. E. if without acquaintances, is in penit. If his principles are not adamant, the laxity of morals around him will have a powerful influence. What is still worse, he finds that he is far removed from every eye that formerly beheld him and that in a far off land a departure from steady habits will not reach any who know him and thus the fear of injuring his reputation, which is often the best safeguard of the young, is thrown off. Let him but once be enticed into a groggery and there is no security that ruin, and as sometimes happened, suicide will not follow. I do not apply these remarks to N. or to any individual but as of general application. I would not say anything openly against St. Louis for I have many friends there, but the account I give you is true, though there is as good society there as elsewhere.
The fact of its being in a slave state and the resort made to it by renegades of all descriptions render it less desirable than it would else be. Many of our River towns are infested with a bad population from many quarter. Cincinnati is an exception. Yankee customs prevail there and perhaps no place at the East is more moral. Nothing was expected from me but to ascertain if he (Newton) was alive, and where. I shall leave it to him to give his own history. I have become pretty well acquainted with it, but he had better give it himself. In all my inquiries, I have been careful not to write or say a word that could possibly injure him. I did not hint to any that I was requested to enquire him out by anyone in Connecticut.
I can easily account for the few ___ of W. B.’s letters. With such a business as those of T. & S., he can have very little time for anything else. That firm is becoming a very important one and will yet be the largest establishment of that kind in the West. He answered my letter informing him of the melancholy event and wrote not long after to have us examine the things, apply the money — if we found any — towards his bills, and send the things to him at Cincinnati. I did so. He has not written since. You ask what was done with his effects. Except 4 dollars which was all the money we found, everything else was put into a box and sent to Cincinnati. I have ascertained that they arrived safely by the merchant to whom I consigned them at St. Louis. I wrote to W. B. in the time of it that I suspected he had a trunk at Alton, Quincy, or elsewhere and if he wished and would send me an order I would attend to it without any expense. I have had no letter from him since I wrote. No man can do everything and we ought not to have any hard feeling because he does not write oftener. I have no doubt but he does all he can do. I presume we shall hear from him in due time. We ought to recollect too that the subject is an agonizing one to a brother and one that it is painful to write upon, and one which all of us would feel perhaps inclined to put off from time to time.
I have made many fruitless attempts to write to you. I do hope that you know my feelings too well ever to charge my silence to neglect. There are few letters that we value as highly as yours and none which we have read more times. I have never seen Mrs. Russell read one of them without tears. I know that she regards your feelings and those of Mrs. S and the family towards her as a high value. She speaks of you very often. O how thankful I feel that in far off Connecticut she has been daily remembered and hearts are lifted up in prayer for her. Blessings on you for it. I can feel my thanks to you but express them I cannot.
I will now close as the mail is in sight. Ever your friend, — J. Russell