1851: Custis to Edgar Snowden, Jr.

Edgar Snowden

Edgar Snowden

This letter was written to Edgar Snowden (1810-1877), the son of Samuel Snowden (1766-1823) and Elizabeth Cowman (1774-1712). Samuel Snowden became sole owner and editor of the “Alexandria Gazette” in 1800. Edgar succeeded his father as editor, at the age of twenty-one years. Edgar was active in civic affairs, and interested in politics. He was the first representative of Alexandria to the Virginia Assembly after the retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia in 1846. He ran for Congress on the Whig ticket when Henry Clay was defeated for the Presidency and went down with his party. He served as the mayor of Alexandria in 1841.

Snowden married Louisa Grymes, the daughter of Benjamin Grymes (1785-1828) and Margaret Vivion Pratt (1792-1830). The Gryme family was linked by marriage to the famous Custis family of Virginia and I feel certain this letter originates with a member of that clan though I cannot (yet) identify the husband and wife who authored it, though it’s clear they were an Aunt and Uncle of either Edgar or his wife.

There is a lengthy discussion about the market in “marl” in Virginia as well as a request for their nephew to go to inspect a family of slaves being held in Joseph Bruin’s slave jail in Alexandria to determine if they were suitable for purchase.

Stampless Letter

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Edgar Snowden, Jr., Alexandria, Virginia

Hampstead, [King George County] Virginia
[January 18, 1851]

Tuesday Morning

My Dear Ned,

Image 17Your letter was received on Saturday. I have been intending writing to your mother for a long time, but kept putting it off. I have had a hard time since I saw you. Sickness! Oh sickness is a severe scourge. My poor little babe has had the catarrh fever in all its glory and is still sick with it. The least little cold he takes brings it back & for ten days was I stretched with almost a pleurisy — such agues! The like never was before & the worst of it was, it was holiday times & not a human had we but Lucy & her mother came for her twice & she would not go. We had to melt snow for water and had to do everything. We could get only two hirelings this year. An old woman — mother to Joshua’s wife. — you may know she is old for $15, and a boy almost as large as ______ H___ is for $31. We wanted John & old Aggy but they were knocked off to Charles Mason for $75. John deaf & Aggy crazy. Horace was knocked off to Mr. Tennent at $41. I think things have come to a standstill. No one in the field but Lane & the boy Ben Harvest. You know what times we had last year. We can’t live at that time for love or money.

Image 16Custis has been advised to let farming alone & try something else. Ask your mother to say what she thinks to us. Custis has just come in almost sick enough to go to bed. Mr. Tennent has been sick 18 days. Never was so sick in all his time before. Wash has been at death’s door; Mercer not far behind. Home since Xmas. I have not been to B-T since the day I run away. Don’t know how they are there. I heard Rose was sick with a bad cold. Benny has been ill since you saw him with cold & inflammation of his stomach.

S & L are well and as happy as “koons.” Indy is well. She is a nice little thing. They all dined & stayed all night with us last Thursday. The old Lady moved to Mount Stuart during their absence. There was a dinner at B-T Saturday given to G & L. We were invited but I didn’t choose to go. I reckon they will go home today.

Image 15Sister Ann is at Waterloo teaching Bet’s children till spring; then she will go to Mr. Elzeys near Lusting as teacher. I’m delighted she would not take a free school. Ned, listen, I hear there is great demand in Richmond for marl — much more so the for ____. You know what inexhaustible quantities we have & how easy of access. When Mr. Tennent’s guano was landed, there was only a plank from the vessel to the shore. Now if you could get your Pa to see some of those folks who want marl, our future will be made at once. Just before I went to Stafford, Mary Tallaferro’s little farm was sold & purchased by the rail road company at $1,500, purely for the marl that was on it (the railroad runs through the farm). They told Mary they might live there & work the farm & do as they always had done. All they wanted was the marl. We have written to Mr. Botts of Richmond but maybe he won’t trouble himself. Mr. Snowden knows & will tell him how easy this marl can be gotten. Professor [William Barton] Rogers pronounces it the richest Green Land Marl in the whole northern neck, or as rich as any he had ever seen. To show you how utterly impossible it will be for us ever to make use of it, as long as we have been living here, I never have been able to get a little for my garden or a little for my apple trees.

Image 13Now Ned, be a man & exert yourself for us & let us be made happy shortly by seeing a few vessels from Richmond come for Marl. I believe your uncle wants to say a few words so I’ll stop. My best love for you and every one. Tell Hal to write to me, you saucy fellow. You know very well I love to get long letters & if you don’t write long ones, I won’t write to you again. Say to your Ma I want some knitting cotton. V. W. is wilder than ever. Goes fox hunting now. Edward Stuart is courting her, I hear. Dr. B. is some sparking Rose. I wish you could come down. I want to see you so much. Had a nice wild duck for my breakfast — killed with my little gun. Also a fine wild goose for dinner when George dined with us. I think it must be the best little gun that ever was made.

Goodbye. Yours truly  — Aunt Kate

Dear Ned. I am feeling very poorly with a bad cold. I got a letter from Bruin ¹ saying he had a family of negro’s in his jail for sale. The master of the servants wishes him to get them a home in Virginia. I want you to go and see them & write me what they are worth, what kind of looking darkey’s they are, their ages, &c., whether they are hand Ser[vants] or field. He wrote me he asked 1350 for the family — mother & five children. Say if they are sound & what sold for, whether the oldest child is a boy or girl & whether large enough to be any service & how many girls & how many boys. I want to hear by Wednesday’s mail.

Love to all. Say to your mother she did not give me a receipt for the interest when I was up. Give it down. In haste. Your Uncle Custis

Bruin & Hill Jail


Bruin's Slave Jail in Alexandria, VA

Bruin’s Slave Jail in Alexandria, VA

¹ “Bruin’s Slave Jail is a two-story brick building in Alexandria, Virginia, United States from which slave trader Joseph Bruin imprisoned slaves. Bruin’s company, called Bruin and Hill, transported blacks to slave markets in the Southern United States.

At the start of the American Civil War, Joseph Bruin was captured himself and imprisoned in Washington, D.C. His property, including the slave jail, was confiscated by the U.S. Marshall and used as the Fairfax County Courthouse until 1865.

All that remains today of the entire compound is a brick, two-storey structure that housed the slaves. Bruin’s home, kitchen, and wash-house no longer remain. The jail can be found at 1707 Duke Street in Alexandria.” [Source: Wikipedia.]


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