1841: Jesse Hollingsworth Willis to Dr. John Paul Cockey

A mid-19th century drawing of Wakefield — Rev. Henry Willis’ home in Wakefield Valley. It was the boyhood home of Jesse H. Willis.

This letter was written by Jesse Hollingsworth Willis (1792-1845), the son of Rev. Henry Willis (1762-1808) and Ann Hollingsworth (1769-18xx). Rev. Henry Willis was an early-day Methodist circuit rider who preached as far north as New York and as far south as Charleston. The Willis family often entertained Methodist Bishop, Francis Asbury, in the home Henry built, which he called Wakefield, in Wakefield Valley, some 25 miles northwest of Baltimore. Rev. Willis suffered from tuberculosis, however, and he died relatively young leaving six children.

What Jesse H. Willis might have looked like

We learn from the letter that Jesse owned a large cotton plantation near Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. The 1840 Census tells us that he had 70 slaves working his land. Jesse was married to Ann Winchester. A very brief obituary for Jesse appeared in the 19 July 1845 issue of The Sun (Baltimore) newspaper: “At New Orleans, on the 8th inst., Jesse H. Willis, Formerly of Baltimore.”

A February 1827 issue of the American Farmer posted an advertisement by Jesse H. Willis submitted while he was still a resident of Baltimore, for an eight year-old full bred stallion.

Willis wrote the letter to John Paul Cockey (1796-1859), a Baltimore physician who was the son of John Cockey (1772-1848) and Elizabeth Zantzinger (1771-1827). Dr. Cockey was married in 1826 to Elizabeth Kelso.

Addressed to Doct. John P. Cockey, Baltimore, Maryland

New Orleans [Louisiana]
April 21, 1841

Dear Cockey,

A few days since, just as I was about leaving home, your letter of the 27 February was brought to me from the Post Office and I need not tell you gave me peculiar gratification. It is true, our letters of late, have been few and far between, but are they the less acceptable? Not so with me. I cherish in my innermost soul any recollection, any association, with things I have loved, and when I think of you, I can most truly say, without the circle of my close relationships, no one has your place in my sincere and unalloyed affection. Then why may I not be more than gratified in once more seeing the imprint of your hand. Let us for the future pay more attention in this way to each other.

Col. Preston ¹ told me he would write Groff forthwith, for which purpose I gave him his address. He has left for South Carolina where he ____ and of course I cannot see him upon the subject until accident throws us together. It would not do for me to write to him as that would look like importuning him too much. I think he may have intended to do so after he got to Columbia where he has not been long. I think he will still write soon, but as he has many heavy cares on his shoulders, Groff must not be impatient if he does not do so as soon as he could wish. When I meet him, I will ask him again as it is a place I would like Groff to get, being exactly one that would suit him. And to get one like it, he had better wait Col. Preston’s pleasure than to write and take one inferior.

I thank you for the news you give me — especially with regard to Owings. ² He is to be pitied. He is honest and industrious, but of too sanguine a temperament. He has hurt me some little, but never mind that. Let is pass as it is not a killing matter.

I have today heard of some heavy failures in Baltimore. H. W. Evans & Co. There ought to be a small size, but special penitentiary built for bank robbers in Baltimore. The report of the stockholders of the N. J. Bank is making a noise here. What I have seen of it is appalling to an honest mind, but it only shows how the Big Bank fish work it when they once get into power. I believe that sort of speculation pervades all the banks without few exceptions.

I have been very hard at work since my return from the North in clearing land, building and beautifying my plantation. I have cleared and planted near 350 acres in this time which added to my previous clearing of last year will give me near 500 acres — 350 to 400 acres cotton, the balance corn. I am moving heaven and earth, Cockey, to make a crop this year. It is important for my comfort and for the comfort of one who must now lean upon me. With this view, I am economical in all my plans for the year, one of which is to remain at home and not make my usual visit North. Besides, I have some other reasons for this decision which I will (or may) explain at another day. There is but little for me to do to be entirely independent and to aid William, and why should I not do it? I will.

In reply to that part of your letter asking me to return all, or a part of the money I borrowed of you last fall, I have to say in the deepest mortification that just now, I am totally unable. It is the more humiliating because of the circumstances under which it was obtained, and being I believe the first time in upwards of 25 years intimate acquaintance that I ask for such kindness at your hand. Now I am penniless. I have no money at command — not enough for my daily expenses nor without some windfall do I see any chance of its being better until I harvest my crop. Then Cockey, you shall be paid and will I be asking you too much to wait upon me until then? You may have it in your power to make some shift.

Kilro was here some three weeks ago. I was here also at the same time and spent it agreeably with him and his friend Dunbar from Red River. I got here the day before yesterday again and will leave in the morning for home. It is a days run only. The time hangs so very heavy on my hands that I am glad of an excuse fully warranting my leaving home for a few days. The fact is I am awfully lonesome — but one or two neighbors that are congenial and they not much given to visiting. There was a time when my own fireside was seriously interrupted if there was a stranger about it, because I had enjoyments in the society of one that was everything to me. Now it is different. All is loneliness, cold, and cheerless solitude. Enough.

Your friend, — Jesse H. Willis


John Smith Preston during the Civil War

¹ I can’t be certain based on the limited content in this letter, but believe that “Col. Preston” was John Smith Preston (1809-1881), a wealthy planter, soldier, and attorney who became prominent in South Carolina politics. Preston graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 1824 and studied law at hte University of Virginia and Harvard College. In 1830, he married Caroline Hampton, a daughter of South Carolina’s wealthiest planter, Wade Hampton. He took up residence and practiced law in Columbia, South Carolina, and later invested heavily in a sugar plantation near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, called The Houmas. He was South Carolina’s delegate dispatched to Virginia’s Secession Convention charged with convincing Virginia to join South Carolina in seceding from the Union. He later served as an aid to Gen. Beauregard during the Civil War.

² The “Owings” is a reference to Jesse’s brother-in-law, Samuel Christopher Owings (1793-1854), a Baltimore trader. Samuel married Mary Yellott Willis (1790-1841) who died in July 1841, just three months after this letter was written.

Gravestone of Dr. John Paul Cockey


One response to “1841: Jesse Hollingsworth Willis to Dr. John Paul Cockey

  • David Owings

    Dr. Cockey was a cousin of the Rev. Richard Owings, the first American born Methodist preacher and circuit rider.

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