1836: Frederick Henry Petrie to John Elder

This letter was written by Frederick Henry Petrie, Jr. (1803-1848), the son of Dr. Frederick Henry Petrie (1772-1843) and Elizabeth Butcher (1785-Abt1830). Frederick Jr. had two sisters and two brothers — the brothers mentioned being mentioned in this letter: William Petrie (b. 1808) and Lemuel Weeks Petrie (b. 1814).

What Frederick H. Petrie may have looked like.

A descendant of the Petrie family found that Frederick assisted his brother William in the execution of a contract for building of a bridge and laying track on the Jackson and Brandon Railroad in Mississippi. Both brothers owned many slaves; some that were purchased for farming interests, and some purchased to provide the labor necessary to complete the bridge/railroad contract. Frederick owned a plantation (presumably in Mississippi), land in Louisiana and Texas, and various other assets. Just prior to his death it was shown by the court that he had a serious drinking problem and his assets were purchased by his brother, Lemuel, in a transaction that sent all of the siblings to court to settle their differences.

We learn from this letter that William was the chief engineer on the Jackson and Brandon Railroad. This contract enabled William to rise from poverty to riches though he was accused of fraudulently taking advances on the contract and purchasing approximately 150 slaves which he later claimed as his personal property. At one point during the legal action that ensued, he admitted that he also often borrowed of his brother Frederick, considerable sums of money that he still owed, and invested it in slaves or applied it to the road. When William died in 1841, he evidently left a sizeable estate that his relatives fought over. This lawsuit carried on for a number of years before it was finally settled by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Petrie wrote the letter to his good friend, John Elder (1785-1851), with whom he had previously spent much time while employed together in 1829-1831 on the Juniata Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The following biographical sketch comes from the Indiana Historical Society:

Artist’s rendering of Courthouse in Lebanon, IN designed by John Elder which served Boone County from 1839-1854.

John Elder was born in Harrisburg, Pa., the son of a Presbyterian minister of the same name. He early became involved with the planning and construction of houses, public buildings, and bridges. He worked on the Juniata division of the Pennsylvania Canal. After a brief period in Florence, Alabama, he moved to Indianapolis in the early 1830s.

He married Margaret Ritchey of Harrisburg. Her mother, Margaret Ritchey, later lived with the Elders and moved West with them.

In the period 1833-1836 Elder was proprietor of the Union Inn in Indianapolis. He designed several important public buildings, including the headquarters and Indianapolis branch of the State Bank; the courthouses at Lebanon, Columbus, Connersville, and Rushville; and the First Presbyterian Church (second building, 1843) on Monument Circle in Indianapolis. He was also interested in the construction of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, and built a lock on the Wabash Canal at Covington.

Never a good financial manager, he got into difficulties on the building of the Rushville courthouse. In an effort to recoup his fortunes, and to escape creditors, Elder went to California in 1850, but fell sick and died there.

Stampless Letter


Addressed to John Elder, Esquire, Indianapolis, Indiana

Natchez [Mississippi]
October 8, 1836

Page 1

I thank you most sincerely my kind old friend for the pleasure I have derived from the perusal of your letter. The assurances of your good health is also pleasant information, and if your pecuniary affairs were such as your friends desire, I should rejoice indeed. As it is, I feel deeply the disappointments which must have attended your exertion in your new home. You know we are all satisfied to forget the obstacles we meet on the way-side if the object of the journey is accomplished, and we reap the reward of its toils and labor. But is a saddening reflection after we have reached the end to know that we must take another path to gain the results promised in the first.

It is a long time since I heard from you. Whilst at the North, I met a person who knew you, and he believed you was prospering — as I trust you are — and will continue to do now that there are so many opportunities for the exertion of your talents in the West. Your industrious habits must surely bring you out at last, and to despair is sinful — so look forward with reliance to the future for the consummation of your plans and the possession of a fortune.

Page 2

As to our letting, I’m sorry you could not come for we have some good contractors, good work, and tolerable Engineers. Major Arnold is one, and Robert Knox another. J. K. Moorehead desires to become one. Charles Shannon, McCullough, & Samuel Jones have taken my brother’s road 14 miles long (from Jackson to Brandon) and are daily expected there to command. Arnold will come out the first time the Ohio rises. He has 10 miles. Our work is sandy loam and clay Ex & E___, short & deep work as the surface of the ground is broken. Most of it was taken at 20 & 20¢ counting both ways — where it will — ten miles as high as 24 & 26¢, where the work was lighter & farther from the river. I have but about 50 miles under contract. When the next letting is advertised, I will let you know it.

In this country (owing to the great quantity of work under contract N of us) it is very difficulty to procure laborers, which is the most unpleasant part of contracting now — as the work is beautiful, the climate is more desirable & healthy than the Juniata, so far as we know it — and I’ve been here in July and September nearly 2 years without being sick.

As to the “Shoals,” I have heard nothing of them since last year save what your letter contains. The last I heard of him, Col. Damon had finished a small contract on the canal (without making money) and had gone as clerk to Vanleiss Iron Works near Florence [Alabama]. I fear he will never do much. Marriage has not greatly improved his habits of perseverance nor reformed those of carelessness. I’m sorry for it for he possesses many good qualities which were they properly applied, would make him a valuable & wealthy citizen.

Page 3

I do, and often too, remember the scenes we enjoyed together from ’29 to ’31 — many of them with pleasure and some with pain. Even the trip from Cincinnati to Louisville is still recorded as a stumbling block in the way of my righteousness that may never be erased. But there are bright gleams of sunshine that sometimes enliven the desolate picture that reflection portrays to me of that unfortunate period of our lives — and amongst all that I can remember with pleasure, nothing is to me so beautiful as the recollection that you never deceived, misunderstood, condemned, or underrated myself whilst others did, who knew me well, and knew also that such conduct to a young man was unkind, to say the least of it.

My brother [William] is chief of the Jackson & Brandon road, is doing well, and is married. So is Canker & Totten — and me! Poor me. I am still living on, unloving and unloved, with no bright star to shed a ray of light o’er the pathway of life “to brighten and to bless.” But as this seems my lot by the will of fate, I’ll try to be contented with the roles that nature gave me “and not as for more.” Years are stealing after me apace & I shall soon arrive at the unloveable age of 30, but never mind — “better luck next time” — if indeed as the philosopher says, we shall live a new life in perhaps some other form or shape. My younger brother (I have 2) is in this road as Principal Assistant and I am also doing very well as I am enabled to invest my salary every year, my other income being sufficient to support me. Here let me thank you for your kind prophecy “that I shall reach the top of the ladder” altho’ I have known too much adversity to build hopes of its realization. But it was very good of you indeed and I will think of it sometimes to inspire me with zeal, and virtuous efforts to make myself useful.

The vast improvements projected & commenced in your state will give employment to everyone desirous of engaging in such pursuits, and there you have facilities of procuring labor & provisions which we have not. So if you can obtain good prices, it will be better to remain there than to bring your family to this state. From this remark, I do not wish to prevent your coming here; on the contrary, of all things, it is what I most desire. But the best course for you to adopt is that which under all circumstances I wish you to pursue regardless of personal preferences. I do most ardently desire to see you surrounded by all those comforts that make life pleasant & mankind happy. Write to me at leisure, and I hope your next will show an improvement of your prospects.

Be so good as to mention me to Mrs. E. for although I never met her, I have long felt acquainted with, and a desire to see her. Good night. May happiness be theirs.

— F. H. Petrie


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