This extremely rare letter was written by a former slave named James from Bardstown, Kentucky, who was residing in Cape Palmas, Liberia (South Africa) — a settlement established by the Maryland State Colonization Society in 1834. With Cape Palmas at its center, the colony was granted statehood on February 2, 1841 and then independence on May 29, 1854. On March 18, 1857, the state of Maryland was annexed as a part of the Republic of Liberia, after signing an annexation treaty with the Republic of Liberia. Little else can be learned from the letter as to James’ identity except that he had a sister named Elen (or Ellen) still residing in the United States whom he urged to join him in Liberia. We see from the letter that James was a relatively well-educated former slave; his writing ability exceeded that of many U.S. citizens in the 1850s.
Though I don’t have direct evidence, my hunch is that James was formerly owned by the Wickliff family of Bardstown. The patriarch of that family was Kentucky Governor Charles Anderson Wickliff (1789-1869) and the former Postmaster General in President Tyler’s Cabinet (1841-45).
Gov. Wickliff’s oldest daughter, Mary, became the wife of William Matthew Merrick (1818-1889), an attorney practicing law in Frederick, Maryland. In 1854, the year following this letter, Merrick was appointed by President Polk to serve as a judge on the federal circuit court in the District of Columbia. During the Civil War, Merrick was suspected of disloyalty due to his southern roots and it was well-known that his wife’s relatives fought for the Confederacy.
In this letter, the former slave James addresses “Mary” whom I believe was Merrick’s wife and thanks her for sending him a box of food and other articles. I suspect that James and his sister Elen were Wickliff family slaves who came to live in Maryland with Mary (Wickliff) Merrick and, with their freedom, were given the option of emigrating to Liberia. James describes at length his efforts to build a home in Cape Palmas and to grow coffee on his land.
“The colonists [in Cape Palmas] are persevering in their labors towards the production of coffee for exportation, and I feel pretty certain that their labors will be rewarded with success. The usual quantum of potatoes, cassada, corn, &c. for home consumption is being raised; so that I can safely say that we are well provided against the possibility of famine for the next twelve months.” — Daily National Intelligencer, June 17, 1853
Addressed to Mr. William M. Merrick, Frederick City, Maryland
Cape Palmas [Liberia, West Africa]
August 29, 1853
My dear sir,
I have received your truly kind letter which came to hand on the twenty-third of June last and would have answered it by the return of that packet but as she had to go by the way [of] South America, I thought I had better wait for the arrival of this packet which came in on the 18th inst. at which time I received the box you sent to me. It did not come in the packet that you intended it to come in but it came in the next one. The box came safe to hand & all of the articles that the invoice calls for are in it. The can of preserve and the apples are the only things that was damaged. The stopper that was in the can had worked out but as the can was closely packed in, the articles did not get much stain on them. The apples was all spoilt — one was partly sound and I believe if they had come when Campbell did, they would all been sound. I am very thankful to you for your kindness to me in sending me so valuable a present. The contents of the box is worth to me thirty-nine dollars or more. Give my respects to Miss Emaline Doyly and tell her that I am truly thankful to her for the present she sent me. Also to Samuel White and his wife. Tell him that the preserves he sent come in very nice indeed and I am very thankful to him for his kindness.
Miss Mary, I sent you last March a box. I wish you would let me know by your next letter whether you got it or not. It contained ten lbs. of sorch (?) and five lbs. of coffee and some other little articles. The woman that Mrs. Shriver was inquiring after does not reside here. Her home [is] at Monrovia. Her present husband’s name I have not been able to learn but she is very well known by some of the people in this place. They heard from her some time ago. She was then very well.
I have not quite finished my house yet. It is done all to hanging of the windows and doors. The size of it is twelve by fourteen ft. long, 1½ story high. my lot contains 2½ acres which is called a half farm lot and when I have put this under cultivation, I will get the whole lot given to me by the Society’s Agent on free cost. I have got half of my lot cleared, one hundred coffee sign set out — the most of them will bare next June and by January 1854 I hope to be able to send you some coffee of my own raising. I have a bed of young plants which I intend to set out this September next.
Give my respect to Caroline and all of my enquiring friends.
I am yours truly, — James, Col
Give my love to sister Elen and tell her that I am truly thankfully to her for the slate she sent me. Tell her that I expect to get married next January and I hope she will make up her mind to come and live with me. Elen, you don’t know how much I would be pleased to have you out here with me and I think that father and mother — if they are living — would be glad if you were to make up your mind to come out here. If I was certain that you would always live as you now do while you have your being among men, then I would bid you stay where you are, but I know that can’t be poor as we are here. I have done more for myself the short time I have been here than I could have done if I had been set free in the U. S. & that is I have built myself a house since I have been here. It is a frame house and when it is finish[ed], it will cost me two hundred dollars. And I know I would not have been able to do as much as that for myself if I had been in Maryland. Sister, I would like for you to write by the first opportunity and tell me the [news] of old Bardstown, Kentucky.
I am your affectionate brother, — James Col
Miss Mary, I received the package of tea you sent to me by Mrs. Campbell. I had close[d] my letter before I thought of it. All of the emigrant[s] quite well.