This letter was written by Martha Taliaferro (Hunter) Hitchcock (1818-1899) whom Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) knew personally and referred to as “a rare gem of a woman.” ¹ She was the wife of Dr. Charles McPhail Hitchcock (1812-1885) — a physician serving in the U.S. Army in East Florida. The couple were married in November 1836. Dr. Hitchcock served in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. During the Mexican War, he performed a splendid piece of surgery on Colonel Jefferson Davis, saving his leg. Davis went on to be U.S. Secretary of War and President of the Confederacy. After the Mexican War, Dr. Hitchcock took an appointment at West Point until 1851 when he relocated with his family to San Francisco, California, arriving on the ship Tennessee. In California, he assumed the role of Medical Director of the Union Army of the Pacific until 1853 when he resigned from the army to enter private practice after a service of 18 years.
Martha addressed the letter to her father, Col. Archibald Russell Spence Hunter (1783-1844) and mother, Elizabeth Wyche Lucas (1787-1843) of Huntington (now Murphy), Cherokee County, North Carolina. Col. Hunter established a trading post and post office in Huntington in 1835. The town was originally named Huntington in his honor. Cherokee County was formed in 1839 from a portion of neighboring Macon County, yet the town of “Murphy” wasn’t officially incorporated as the county seat until 1851.
From the letter we learn that Martha is somewhat apprehensive about her safety in East Florida where American troops are still waging war with bands of Seminole Indians and Blacks. She longs to return to the mountains of North Carolina but feels the trip is far too long and arduous to attempt alone. She also expresses annoyance with her Negro servant “Hyancynth” who she hopes her father will exchange for “Rosana” with the belief that she’ll be more capable of managing her little “domestic matters.”
Addressed to A. R. S. Hunter, Huntington, Cherokee County, North Carolina
Palatka, East Florida
May 25th 1840
I sent you an unfinished letter by the last mail. The steamboat left so unexpectedly that I had not time to say all I wished, and I was forced to send it away incomplete.
Brother Wyche ² left a week ago for Fort King with the expectation of being absent a month or six weeks with the army which is now operating in the interior. I miss him very much and feel very lonely and desolate since he left. However, we hear from him every day or two, there being a constant intercourse kept up between the posts. There is little doubt that his Regiment will go West in September or October as it is ______. The order has already been issued. Fort Gibson is said to be the post selected for its Head Quarters. They seemed pleased with the prospect of being so well provided for. This summer then seems to be the only time we shall be allowed to be near each other, perhaps for years, so we must make the most of it.
What our destiny will be, I cannot predict. Before that is decided, the Doctor must serve out his term of service in Florida, which I believe has been limited to two years. Perhaps we may then be sent to the West — anywhere, rather. Please try the North again.
Numerous murders have been recently committed not very remotely from us. On the day before yesterday, five men were murdered on the Picolata road to Augustine. Some of these belonged to a company of strolling players — poor fellows. They little thought how soon they would be called upon to enact their part in [playing] a tragedy! ³
An officer of the 7th Infantry and nine men were recently killed near Fort King — beside our other officer, badly wounded. † So you see, the war is farther than ever from a termination.
How gladly would I visit you this summer! I am wary of my confinement here and begin to long for the “woods and tangled wilds” of the mountains once more — but I fear it will be impossible unless I am willing to go alone — and it is such a long and weary way — such a disagreeable route that I have not courage to attempt it. It seems that if it were ____ here also, I would go — but to Huntington? I don’t know a more uncome-atable place, however if I have any opportunity, I will certainly avail myself of it. Perhaps someone may be going up the country before close of the summer, and if so, I will try and go with them. So you must not despair of seeing me yet.
I hope Ma is getting on finely, if slowly. I am very glad to hear she is so pleased with her medical advisor and trust that she will derive lasting benefit from his skill and attention.
I have written you everything I can think of. Do you not weary of my eternal s_____?
I shall leave Hyacinth at Huntington if I am so fortunate as to get her there over summer. I am perfectly disgusted with her and find it utterly impossible ever to make anything of her but a pest. However, she can do you good service and a favor, and perhaps you can let me have Rosana in her place who perhaps is now old enough to know how to behave herself. I want some one in whom I can confide in and who can manage my little domestic matters. Hyacinth is a constant source of annoyance to us and it will be impossible to keep her at a post where a servant requires more honesty than elsewhere.
Have you heard from either of brothers lately? They never write to us.
My compliments to your neighbors. Your daughter.
¹ Samuel L. Clemens first met Charles and Martha Hitchcock in 1864 when he was a reporter for the San Francisco Morning Call. [Source: Mark Twain Project; Letter dated 13 January 1869]
² Martha’s brother, Capt. Nathaniel Wyche Hunter, was also stationed in East Florida during the campaign against the Seminole Indians in 1837-41. He also served in Co. H of the 2nd Regular U.S. Dragoons during the Mexican War. Capt. Hunter graduated last in his class at West Point in 1833.
³ The 6 June 1840 issue of the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, NH) carried the following article:
“From Florida. — Accounts from Florida state that a traveling theatrical company, on their way to St. Augustine, 22d inst., were attacked by the Indians, and three men killed. On the 23d, Lieut. Martin, of the 2d infantry and 2 men were attacked about 2 miles from Micanopy, and one of the men killed, and the Lieut. dangerously wounded. Lieut. Sanderson, 7th Infantry, with a party of seventeen men, was sent in pursuit, He fell in with the Indians, and and five of his men were killed.
The next morning an express from Wahabasta reported that post to be surrounded by Indians. Col. Riley with his detachment had gone to their relief. Lieut. Sanderson had his fingers cut off and stuck in his mouth.
The two actors besides Mr. Vose, killed by Indians near St. Augustine, were Mr. Lyne, and Mr. Wegher, a clarinet player. The latter was a native of Berlin, Prussia. Mr. German, after running for three miles, succeeded in reaching Fort Searle, hotly pursued the while way by two Indians, who fired at him and missed. All the killed were scalped.”
† The 26 May 1840 issue of the Centinal of Freedom (Newark, NJ) carried the following article:
“More Blood in Florida — The St. Augustine News contains an account of a combat between Capt. [Gabriel] Rains of the 7th Infantry in command at Fort King, with 18 men, and a force of from 90 to 100 Indians. Capt. Rains with one man was killed, and 3 of the soldiers wounded. The Indians lost 4 killed, including their Chief, Alectustenugge. The Indians retreated immediately on the fall of their chief. Great praise is awarded to a Sergeant Jackson, who succeeded to the command on the fall of Capt. Rains, for his soldier-like conduct. He shot the chief, and was himself severely wounded.”
[Editor’s Note: Captain Gabriel Rains was severely wounded, not killed, in this engagement on 28 April 1840. He is known as the “father of anti-personnel land mines,” and tested some of his devices on the Seminoles the night previous to this battle. A great account of this engagement may be found in the book American Courage: 7th Infantry Chronicles, by John C. McManus, page 52-54]