Papers of the Cox and Chesnut Families, 1792-1858

“My Prayers are offered for your happiness, and your well doing in every thing enters into all my enjoyments—Our social circle is not filled, we miss the two principal figures of it—and in consequence of your absence have not above half the company we used to have.”

—12 December 1796, Esther Cox, Philadelphia, to Mary Chesnut

“Go on, my dear Mary, and give us every information concerning you—we often drink your health & that of your beloved partner—& we flatter ourselves you do the same by us at nearly the same time.”

—13 December 1796, Esther Cox, Philadelphia, to Mary Chesnut


❧ About the Collection

Domestic life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is the predominant theme of the two hundred fourteen letters which are almost exclusively addressed to Mary Chesnut (1775-1864), wife of Camden, South Carolina, planter James Chesnut (1773-1866) and mother-in-law of the famed diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut. The bulk of the collection falls between 1796 and 1814 and consists of letters to Mary Chesnut from her mother, Esther Bowes Cox (1746-1814) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Other correspondents include sisters Rachel, whose husband, John Stevens (1749-1838), developed the present city of Hoboken, New Jersey, and, with Nicholas I. Roosevelt and Robert R. Livingston, engineered a steam engine and boat; Sarah (b. 1779), also called Sally, wife of Dr. John Redman Coxe (1773-1864), a well-known physician and educator; Elizabeth (b. 1783), wife of Horace Binney (1780-1875), a lawyer and director of the first Bank of the United States; Catherine, wife of Samuel Stockton and the Reverend Nathaniel Harris; and Esther, also called Hetty, wife of Matthias Barton.

Mary Cox and James Chesnut were married in 1796. James was the son of a distinguished and wealthy upcountry South Carolina family. A graduate of Princeton in 1792, Chesnut was a prominent planter, owner of Mulberry Plantation near Camden, South Carolina, and a leader in public and governmental affairs in Camden and Kershaw District. While the collection consists almost entirely of letters written to Mary Chesnut, much light is shed upon her life in Camden through comments upon and responses to her letters. Major themes running through the correspondence include the health of family members and friends, particularly child mortality, and courtship, engagement, and marriage. Mrs. Cox notes in a letter of 30 March 1805, "…Marriages, and Deaths, I think never fail to make part of my information to Mary."

Mother and daughter were quite close and obviously torn by the great distance separating them. The letters strive to maintain close contact and offer solace in times of sorrow. Mrs. Cox also apparently acted as the Executrix of her husband's estate and writes regularly of financial matters. Descriptions of medical and healthcare practices are common and of interest. These descriptions are often given in some detail, as in the following account, 16 August, 1805, of the treatment of Sarah Coxe's son John, whose eye was injured while playing: "Dr.s Physick and Wistar were sent for and an operation determined on — hazardous in the extreems, but without it, his Eye must inevitably go….He [John] stood between his father's knees, who had previously given him a large dose of La[u]danum, Dr. Physick sat before him & after fixing an instrument, that kept his eye from moving, he made an incision…." The operation resulted in the successful removal of a bit of tinsel that had become lodged within the pupil. John lost the sight of the eye temporarily. His recovery, including the binding of his hands lest he rub the eye or loosen the bandages, is described in this and later letters.

Romance is the second main theme of the letters and provides valuable insights into the courting mores of the times. Mrs. Cox was careful to keep her daughter up to date on all the interesting affairs of family and friends, as in a letter of 7 July 1804: "did I tell you Tom Cadwalader was married to Mary Biddle – great objections were made to the Match by his friends, and then her Father said his daughter should enter no family where they were unwilling to receive her – they were separated, but could not stand to their Heroism and were privately married at William Willings – her parents took them home, but no intercourse has yet been had with his family." Commenting on her niece Theodosia's faint hopes of engagement to her beloved, Mrs. Cox wrote, 29 November 1797: "The inexorable Old Gentleman will not bear to his Son's Absolute right of Choice, & has forbidden him to come to Philadelphia. He says he will never give him anything but what he can take away if he displeases him, so that the young folks have nothing to look forward to but poverty & if they marry without his consent, which indeed they shall not do if I can prevent it – & yet I have promised that if they will use their endeavor to gain the Parent's Approbation & make themselves easy for one twelve month, I will leave the result to themselves, & aid them with all my power…."

Of further interest are the comments regarding John Stevens' steamboat ventures. Stevens was competing with Robert Fulton, and his progress was of great interest to his mother-in-law and frequently commented upon. Writing on 25 June 1813, Mrs. Cox stated, "Mr. Fulton is an Enemy to Mr. Stevens…the Steam business has always given her [Rachel] trouble in various ways, but now, tis nearly brought to perfection, to see the profits wrested from them by others who have succeeded by their failures, is hard…."

Mrs. Cox died in 1814 and letters of March through July of that year concern the division of her estate among her family.

❧ Acknowledgments

The Papers of the Cox and Chesnut Family collection was completed with the help of Henry Fulmer, director of the South Caroliniana Library, Graham Duncan of SCL, Elizabeth Peele (MA English, 2013), project manager Ashley Knox, and supervisor Kate Boyd of Digital Collections. Elizabeth scanned the papers and created the metadata and home page; Ashley edited the metadata, uploaded the records and worked with Henry in managing the project.

❧ Creating the Digital Collection

The scanning for the digital collection began in the summer of 2012 and was completed in spring 2013. Elizabeth Peele scanned images on the Zeutschel OS 14000 A0 overhead scanner with Omniscan 12 scanning software. She scanned the images as 24-bit color TIFFs at 600 ppi. From the TIFFs she created high quality JPEGs, which were then uploaded to CONTENTdm.

Elizabeth also created a home page for the collection and assembled the metadata in an Excel spreadsheet. Ashley edited the metadata, Graham Duncan edited some of the transcriptions, and Henry Fulmer, director of the South Caroliniana wrote an introduction for the collection. The metadata records follow the Western States Best Practices Dublin Core format. Ashley reviewed the collection records and images, and Elizabeth uploaded the images to the CONTENTdm database. Once the images were loaded to the CONTENTdm database the TIFFs and JPEGs were burned to DVD and the TIFFs were moved to the SAN server for archival storage.


“May you, my dear Mary, be the friend of your husband’s family, and by contributing your share to the general happiness of it, prove to each Member that you are worthy of their esteem and Love—present my best respects to them all….Need I say with what sincere affection, my heart dwells upon your Image stamped there—I follow you in Idea through each day and fancy I see you the delight of your good husband’s life, and the pleasing companion of your new Sisters…. My life is ready for my country—but if its sacrifice is not required, it can surely not be sinful to contemplate the innocent and unmeasured bliss of even one year of Peace spent in the society of my own precious wife.”

—15 January 1797, Esther Cox, Philadelphia, to Mary Chesnut

“Your last received by me was dated April & like all that I have yet received gave me great satisfaction. I have no doubt about your making a good housekeeper & was the journey more practicable than I at present think it, I should have great pleasure in seeing for myself how happily you are settled. Next to that agreeable sight is the certainty of those relations that are made me by every person who has witnessed your happiness, or has a knowledge of Mr. Chesnut's family….I so much wish my children should excell. I don't mean, merely in Housekeeping, but in an accommodating temper, to the state of her Husbands, as well as to her own family. Self must be less considered in the married than in the single state. The Mistress of a family has it more in her power to dispense happiness around her than even the Master….When Husband & Wife act in Concert for the general good of the Whole there Peace & good order reign, there is no separate interests nor separate pleasures, in the truly happy Marriages, their engagement requires mutual affection & Mutual forbearance from each other —”

—10 May 1797, Esther Cox, Philadelphia, to Mary Chesnut


Return to Collection Home Page
Columbia Departments Campus Libraries
Columbia Libraries and Collections