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Henry William Ravenel Papers

This collection of one hundred ten manuscripts, thirteen manuscript volumes, and thirty-nine photographs documents the family life, business pursuits, and natural history interests of South Carolina planter, botanist, and agricultural writer Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887).

Born on 19 May 1814 at Pooshee plantation in St. John's, Berkeley, Henry William Ravenel first attended Pineville Academy and later graduated in the class of 1832 from South Carolina College. While in college he was especially interested in chemistry and natural philosophy. After first establishing himself as a planter at Northampton plantation, Ravenel turned to botany as an avocation. His studies in natural history brought him into contact with some of the most eminent men in the field, among them Charles Hyde Olmstead, John Bachman, Moses Ashley Curtis, and Asa Gray. Between 1853 and 1860 he published five volumes of The Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati, the first published series of named specimens of American fungi. In collaboration with English botanist M.C. Cooke, Ravenel later published a second series, Fungi Americani Exsiccati. These publications established the South Carolinian as the leading authority on American fungus and led to extensive scientific correspondence.

The Civil War brought financial ruin to Ravenel, and subsequently he made various attempts to earn a living for his family by operating a nursery and seed business, by publishing a newspaper, and by writing for agricultural journals. He was offered professorships of botany at the University of California and at Washington College, Lexington, Va., but declined both due to ill health and deafness. In 1882 he accepted work as agricultural editor for the weekly News & Courier.

Ravenel was elected to membership in a number of learned societies, and in 1886 the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, conferred the degree of LL.D. upon him. He collected and classified an extensive herbarium of fungi, mosses, and lichens. By 1881 his summary of specimens indicated a total of some eleven thousand species. Parts of the herbarium were later sold to the British Museum and to Converse College. In 1853 Ravenel removed from Northampton plantation and settled at Aiken. He died there on 17 July 1887. Ravenel was survived by four children from his first marriage and five children from his second.

The earliest items among the Henry William Ravenel Papers are two eighteenth-century documents dated 18 June 1760, both of which relate to the business dealings of an ancestor, Henry Ravenel. Following a gap of three-quarters of a century, the collection picks up again in January 1838 with a deed of gift signed by H.W. Ravenel's aunt Susan M. Stevens conveying to him a Negro slave named Elic. A legal instrument recording the assignment of half interest, 2 April 1857, signed by J.M. Legare, of Aiken, grants to Ravenel "one half the right, title, and interest" in any profits gained from the sale of "certain new and useful improvements in the mode of hanging window shades" which Legare planned to patent. A second legal instrument, 16 January 1858, assigns to Ravenel "one fourth part of the right, title and interest" in Legare's patented "plastic cotton for roofing houses and other purposes." A third document from Legare, 16 June 1858, promises to pay Ravenel twenty-five hundred dollars for his interest "in my Patent for Plastic Cotton & Lignin."

Particularly noteworthy is a Confederate States Army "Certificate of Disability for Discharge," 10 February 1863, issued to Pvt. H.W. Ravenel, of Capt. Toliver Hearn's Company D, Fifth Regiment, South Carolina Reserves. According to the document, Ravenel was enlisted by Capt. Hearn at Graniteville, 10 November 1863, for a period of ninety days, but had been unfit for duty—"The said H.W. Ravenel has just accounted satisfactorily before a Court Martial by Surgeon Certificate for his sickness and inability to report at Camp and perform his duties." The physician's report, recorded on the certificate and signed by W[illia]m S. Cannon and D[a]n[ie]l Tucker, indicates that Ravenel suffered from frequent attacks of dysenteria, lumbago, and carbuncles "contracted previous to entering service." Also relating to Ravenel's disability is the statement of Aiken physician Amory Coffin, 13 April 1864—"Having been Mr. Henry W. Ravenel[']s family physician for some years past I hereby certify that he has been in bad health for some time being liable to attacks of myo enteritis which are brought on by any active exercise or exertion & which are accompanied & followed by great prostration & weakness. He has been debarred from leading any thing like an active life from this cause for two or three years walking or riding on horse back invariably bringing on an attack."

Ten letters, 28 December 1874 - 22 November 1875, between Ravenel and James H. Wheatley, of Brooklyn, N.Y., discuss settlement of a debt owed Ravenel by Wheatley. Wheatley's sister was the wife of Aiken, S.C., Episcopal priest Everett C. Edgerton and executor of Mrs. Edgerton's will. The letters concern Rustic Home, a farm once owned by Ravenel but afterward sold to Mrs. Edgerton. Upon her death, $6,500 was owed to Ravenel. Ravenel's letter of 28 December 1874 complains of no reply to three letters and threatens that a conveyance for property would be executed if Wheatley was not prepared to repay the debt—"on the 1st Jan. 1875 there will be due, one instalment of $2000, together with interest at the rate of 7 per ct. per annum on the unpaid balance of $6500." Wheatley's response, 20 January 1875, forwarded a $1,000 check, suggested that a "Rogue" had been intercepting his mail, and conveyed the following message—"I regret more than you can, that I cannot make it more or indeed the full balance due you....in order to give you some idea of what I am willing to suffer, that you may have your money, I will state that this $1000 is what I had put aside to pay the premium on my Life Insurance, which I have decided...to send to you & thereby forfeit my Policy;—you can scarcely think what a struggle this has cost me, when I have to consider at the same time, the interest of my family."

Writing again on 15 April 1875, Wheatley noted that additional financial woes had befallen him—"[my] property is now all in the hands of our creditors, and the Bonds which Sister left for the `Home,' have so depreciated that they are now almost unsaleable." Unable to make his 1 May 1875 payment, Wheatley countered—"I know of no way but for you to take the place for debt." Ravenel quickly retorted. Writing on 20 April 1875, he reiterated that Mrs. Edgerton had signed a contract of sale and said contract was considered to be binding on her estate. Moreover, he refused Wheatley's proposal to "take the place for debt," but stipulated that Wheatley pay $1,000 immediately, with the balance to be paid in January 1876.

The entire matter came to an impasse on 12 June 1875 with Wheatley charging—"I have only to say that in previous letter to you...& others I have said all I can say, which in substance is this, that it is impossible for me to make with you any different settlement than that which I proposed...I think you will see that I have favored you in my offer, but if you prefer to throw it into law, I think you will spend more & get less, for that would only bring out the fact of her claim on your place, which now is unknown to them. I state this for your good." Ravenel responded on 17 June 1875—"According to your statement now, I can see no other alternative than to take the place back for the debt still due." "In conclusion," Ravenel wrote, "I wish merely to add this—that with the explanation you have given, & my knowledge of the various circumstances attending the course of the business, I freely acquit you and your sister of any blame, but look upon the entire transaction as one of those misfortunes (in this case befalling both parties) which often overtake us in the course of life, & which calls forth the graces of Christian fortitude & faith to enable us to bear with equanimity."

Two French-language documents, 6 and 30 July 1881, from Count Gilbert des Voisins, of Marseille, concern the Count's horticultural interests, particularly the propagation of orchids. His letter of 30 July 1881 explains his expertise in the care of orchids and other plants and desire to acquire the most complete collection of plants possible in order that he might share them with amateur horticulturalists in the area. The letter also expresses the Count's frustration that France had lagged behind neighboring Belgium and England in botanical and horticultural studies. A form letter from the "Société pour la Vulgarisation des plantes exotiques" (Society for the Popularization of Exotic Plants), 6 July 1881, solicits carefully sorted and identified seeds, bulbs, and rhizomes for cultivation of North American species, particularly orchids.

Ravenel family items continue following H.W. Ravenel's death in 1887. Present in the collection is a copy of Ravenel's last will and testament, incorporating much of the wording of a 4 February 1878 memorandum recording "my wishes in respect to some few items of personal property which I hope my wife & children will be satisfied with" and specifying a distribution of family silver, oil portraits, and a piano. A four-hundred-dollar Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society policy purchased by Ravenel's widow, 29 August 1891, insures his herbarium at the family home.

Typewritten documents by Ravenel's daughter Mary describe her travels in 1910 to Oberammergau, Germany, and her 1915 tour through the western United States. Letters, 1930, between University of North Carolina professor W.C. Coker and Mary H. Ravenel discuss the botanical work of H.W. Ravenel and his early life on Pooshee and Northampton plantations. Poems and other literary pieces composed by Mary H. Ravenel, many accompanied by clippings from the newspapers in which they were published, are also present. Of special interest are specimen issues of a facetious newspaper, "The Aiken Astonisher!," 24 February 1897, 4 March 1898, and 4 March 1899, edited by M.H. Ravenel.

Additional manuscript items relate to H.W. Ravenel's trusteeship of Mrs. C.H. Dawson and children; settlement of the estates of Henrietta E. Ravenel, Susan S. Ravenel (signed will, 28 December 1939), and Mary H. Ravenel (unsigned will, May 1942, with codicil, October 1953); and a dispute, 1952 and 1953, between the rector and vestry of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church, Aiken. Miscellaneous newspaper clippings concern H.W. Ravenel, other members of the Ravenel family, and the history of Aiken.

Photographic images range from tintypes to paper prints and include likenesses of family members—Henry Ravenel, M.D., Henry William Ravenel, Henrietta Ravenel, Julia Ravenel, Mamie Ravenel, and Susan Stevens Ravenel—plus views of the interior and exterior of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church, the St. Thaddeus Dorcas Society, the Thursday Club and the Tennis Club of Aiken.

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