1839: Thomas Hamer to Robert C. Hamer

Robert Cochran Hamer

This letter was written by Thomas Cochran Hamer (1793-1874) to his brother, Robert Cochran Hamer (1801-1878). They were the sons of John Hicks Hamer (1765-1820) and Nancy Cochran (1772-1820) of Tatum, Marlboro, South Carolina.

Thomas Hamer married Sarah Cheairs (1805-1856) of Anson County, North Carolina, where they resided until 1841 when they moved to Benton County, Mississippi and settled on “Egypt” plantation about 15 miles from Holly Springs near the village of Salem. He owned more than 100 slaves and gave 15 to 20 slaves and a section of land to each of his children when they reached reached the age of 15. After Sarah’s death in 1856, Thomas married the widow, Mrs. Sallie Scott Mask.

Map of Marlboro County, SC, showing the location of several Hamer properties east of Bennettsville.

Robert Hamer married Mary Ann Bethea (1811-1840) in 1829. She died the year following this letter and Robert never remarried. His sister Charlotte, the wife of James Willis, helped him raise his children. Robert was a very successful planter. He later moved to Harllesville (now Little Rock), South Carolina.

The letter references a family feud over the ownership of a female slave. Thomas and Robert’s aunt, Frances Hamer (1769-1831), was married to James Ratliff (1763-1833) in 1791. We learn that the aforementioned slave was willed to their youngest daughter, Elizabeth Ratliff (1814-1874), who became the wife of Robert Swan Huntley (1807-1887). For reasons not explained in the letter, however, it seems that the slave was still in possession of Col. James Hamer Ratliff (1793-1849), the eldest son of James and Francis Ratliff, and that he had not yet given her over to  the Huntley family despite threats. Remarkably, the brother-in-laws shoot at each other and Huntley is seriously wounded but survives.

Addressed to Mr. Robert C. Hamer, Marlboro District, Clio, South Carolina

Wadesboro [North Carolina]
June 10th 1839

Dear Brother,

I take this opportunity of writing you a few lines to inform you that we are all well [and] have enjoyed a reasonable health this spring past. I have been somewhat unwell myself with misery in my sides but keep up and about and don’t complain much. The balance [of] our relations are well. I saw William Flourson yesterday. He stated brother James’ family was all well.

We have [had a] bad affray among our relations — among the Ratliff’s and Robert S. Huntley. They had a wondrous falling out about a negro woman that Uncle James Ratliff left Huntley’s wife. Huntley undertook to take her out of the possession of Col. Ratliff when he was not at home. Huntley threatened James and Williams’ life several times and went armed with his gun and pistols, [and] was not to be seen by everybody. James and William & two other men waylaid him. Both of the Ratliff’s took a fire at him and missed him. One of the other men stowed away and brought him down from his horse. He is not dead yet as I have heard but thought to be dangerous. He may recover.

Anson keeps up her old character. We had another murder about four miles from me a month ago. A man by the name of [Philip] Gatewood shot Thomas Bradley whilst hoeing in his field dead. Gatewood has not been arrested. Some thinks he has left. Bradley was a very respectable citizen — well thought of. Gatewood rather a drinking fellow — a ruffian. I wish they could hang some fellow. Perhaps it might be a terror to others and be a means of some living longer. ¹

We are a going to have a warm contest this summer. We have two candidates [for] Congress — Mr. [Edmund] Deberry ² and William A. Morris, Esq.  Morris [is an] administration man, Deberry [is] a Whig. Great exertions will be made on both sides. I support Morris and wish him success.

Our crops are promising of corn and cotton, and wheat tolerable good. I have just commenced harvesting. Start four cradles today and binders. I have my crop in fine order and have laid by some corn. We have had a fine year for tending our crops. Good stands.

I should like very [much] you would take a ride up to see us this summer and bring your family with you. After you get started, the distance is not very great although we have some hills.

Write to me after the reception of this. I always feel glad to hear from you and the times among you. I still remain yours respectfully. Give [my] best respects to Mary. Sarah joins me in her love to you and family.

— Thomas Hamer


¹ John Coffey researched this murder and posted the following information on-line under GenForum:

At the State Archives in Raleigh I found an account of a grisly murder in Anson County:

Murder and flight.–It is represented to us, that Philip Gatewood, on Monday evening 5th inst. [sic], took the life of Thomas P. Brady [sic], in the most unprovoked manner. The deceased was shot while working in his cornfield, about 10 steps from the public road, near Wadesborough, in the county of Anson, and died in a short time thereafter. Gatewood had not been taken when we last heard from the county, and it is thought he will make for the West. He is described as being a stout man, about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high, weighs over two hundred–his complexion dark–voice coarse, and manners rough. He is slovenly in his dress–illiterate and very intemperate. His age about 45.

Western newspapers will do well to copy this. To the public, we will say, that the Governor has been applied to offer a reward for Gatewood, and no doubt a liberal one has been offered by this time. We have heard of no case that seemed to call more loudly for exertion to arrest the offender. The deceased was a worthy and inoffensive man.

[“Carolina Watchman” (Salisbury, NC), 17 May 1839, 3. First paragraph reprinted in “Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Gazette” (Raleigh, NC), 25 May 1839.]

As noted in the above article, a letter of petition was sent to NC Gov. Edward Dudley in Raleigh. Dated 10 May 1839, it summarized the findings of the inquest into the death of Thomas P. Bradley, held on the “premises of Mrs. Judith Gatewood” on 7 May 1839: that the death took place on 6 May 1839 in a field owned by Judith Gatewood, mother of Philip; that death was caused by shotgun wounds to the right shoulder; and that Philip Gatewood “did then and there discharge the aforesaid shot gun which inflicted the Mortal wound with the design of inflicting death upon the Body of the said Thomas P. Bradley….” Bradley appears to have leased the field from the Gatewood family. The murder site is described as “near the road leading from Wadesboro to Cheraw by Ingram’s Mills about three fourths of a mile, South of the South prong of Jones Creek.” Appended to the inquest report was a letter:

Wadesboro. 10th May 1839


You will discov[e]r from the above Report of the [Jurors?] inquest that thare has been a most daring, atrocious and secret Murder committed by Philip Gatewood on the Body of Thomas P. Bradley while peacibly working in his farm. Gatewood has since fled or so consiales [concealsles] himself, so that he cannot be brought to justice. And we with the rest of this community think that all proper means should be used to secure his arrest. Gatewood is a man about forty five years of age, about six feet high, stout built, inclined to be corpulent, full face, wide mouth, grim look & voice, dark hair slightly turning grey, Saller [sallow] complexion when sober, very fond of drink = a very large Eater, illiterate, generally dresses very common, Swears profanely, = And weighs about two hundred and twenty five to fifty pounds. This offender may still be in the county. Search has been made and is still going, to arrest him, but our county bordering on South Carolina and the neighborhood in which he would likely meet the most friends and be harboured is [?]cably on the line — If he has left he mite aim for the South Western Country, say Georgia, Mississippi or Alabama.

We consider it our duty and have been advised to communicate this Matter to you in order that you may take such steps as you may think proper.

Very Respectfully
Yr. obt. & very
Humble Svts.
Jas. M. Waddill, J.P.
Elisha L. Hubbard

[Correspondence and Petitions to Gov. Edward Dudley, NC State Archives, Raleigh, NC.]

No evidence has surfaced that Philip Gatewood was ever apprehended. However, most of the court records of Anson County for this period were destroyed by fire. Therefore, at this time it is not possible to determine whether or not Philip Gatewood lived the rest of his life as a fugitive.

One final note: the murder seems likely to have been the result of a family quarrel. The victim, Thomas P. Bradley, was Philip Gatewood’s brother-in-law, the husband of Sarah Gatewood. In 1831 the two men were named among the four executors of the will of Griffin Gatewood, father of Philip and Sarah.

² Edmund Deberry (1787-1859) a Representative from North Carolina; born in Lawrenceville (now Mount Gilead), Montgomery County, N.C., August 14, 1787; attended school at High Shoals; engaged in agricultural pursuits and also in the operation of cotton mills and flour mills; member of the State senate 1806-1811, 1813, 1814, 1820, 1821, and 1826-1828; served as justice of the peace; elected as an Anti-Jacksonian to the Twenty-first Congress (March 4, 1829-March 3, 1831); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1830 to the Twenty-second Congress; elected as an Anti-Jacksonian to the Twenty-third and the Twenty-fourth Congresses; elected as a Whig to the Twenty-fifth through the Twenty-eighth Congresses (March 4, 1833-March 3, 1845); chairman, Committee on Agriculture (Twenty-fifth through Twenty-eighth Congresses); was not a candidate for renomination in 1844; elected as a Whig to the Thirty-first Congress (March 4, 1849-March 3, 1851); was not a candidate for renomination in 1850; resumed his former agricultural and business pursuits; died at his home in Pee Dee Township, Montgomery County, N.C., December 12, 1859; interment in the family cemetery on his plantation near Mount Gilead.


2 responses to “1839: Thomas Hamer to Robert C. Hamer

  • John W. Coffey

    I’m delighted to find this vivid reference to one of the skeletons in my family’s closet: the 1839 murder of Thomas Bradley by his brother-in-law Philip Gatewood. What amazes me is that this violent event never filtered down to later generations of my family. My grandmother, Philip Gatewood’s great granddaughter seems never to have heard about it–or she did and chose not to pass it on. Equally amazing is the fact that the murder and Philip’s subsequent flight from justice does not seem to have adversely affected the prosperity or social position of his family. Perhaps violence in antebellum Anson County was so prevalent that its effects were muted.

    I would appreciate hearing from anyone with information or insights into the Gatewood-Bradley Murder.

  • Jacob Smith

    This is very interesting – I am not family by any means but do love little bits of history that might be a bit murky.

    I was led here just surfing on the internet wondering what was the full story about the argument between Robert S. Huntley and James H. Ratliff that led to the landmark decision of NC gun law, to quote: “The offence of riding or going armed with unusual or dangerous weapons, to the terror of the people”

    I read many different links, most of which stated the name “James H. Ratcliff”

    I knew the dispute had something to do with “slaves” – just wondered about the particulars. Seems it was one particular slave.

    This letter helped immensely – especially to search for “James H. Ratliff” revealed that there seem to have been other civil court cases between these two aside from the criminal complaint again Robert S. Huntley that led to the famous decision by the State of North Carolina appeals court in Anson County.

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