Long treasured but challenging to decipher, Letitia Morehead Walker’s Day Book has finally been translated and interpreted this spring by a UNCG “North Carolina History” class to reveal a snapshot of the nontraditional role taken by a single woman in the Antebellum South.
Letitia Morehead Walker (1823-1908) gathered her children and returned to her family home Blandwood following the death of her husband, William, in 1855. A highly cultured and accomplished woman, Letitia studied art at Edgeworth Female Seminary – a school her father, Governor John Motley Morehead established for his daughters in Greensborough in the 1830s. Since her marriage in 1848, she maintained this avocation over the years and even listed her occupation as “artist” when census records were taken. Letitia painted an oil of an angel from Paradise Lost while she was a student at Edgeworth that hangs in her bedroom in Blandwood today.
Letitia was also a passionate historian. In 1859 she was elected to represent North Carolina as Vice-Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The association was founded when South Carolina socialite Louise Dalton Bird Cunningham saw Washington’s home in poor condition in 1853. She wrote her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, stating “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?” Following a letter to the editor of a South Carolina newspaper appealing to American women to come to the rescue of Mount Vernon, she founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and invited influential women from each of the 30 states to serve as Vice-Regents. It was the first nationwide women’s organization in America.
Art and history were popular narratives for high income Southern women to follow in the Antebellum South. While men dominated in the worlds of politics and profit, southern women of means were encouraged to practice affairs that enhanced the role of culture and horticulture within the often agrarian existence of plantation-bound families.
By contrast, Letitia’s account book records the unconventionally enterprising life of a single Southern woman. Educated and worldly, and the eldest daughter of a prominent governor, Letitia Morehead Walker maintained her personal affairs, whether economic or altruistic.
Her Day Book records the economic activity of her Point Plantation in the Yadkin River valley—and includes entries of plantation expenses, receipts for sale of agricultural goods and ferry services, costs for personal clothing, medical expenses, debts owed to and owed by family members, taxes, lists of the hire in and hire out of enslaved people, medical costs, bartering notes, and records relating to business conducted within her family.
In studying the Day Book, students in the UNCG course HIS 347-01 taught by Chris Graham found three primary themes. One theme included the central role Walker held in the economic management of her Point Plantation. A second theme included Walker’s role as a capable entrepreneur in the Carolina Piedmont. The third theme is the role she held in terms of the welfare of women and men that she held in bondage.
In 1850, Governor John Motley Morehead purchased almost 1,300 acres lying at the confluence of the Yadkin and South Yadkin Rivers in Davie County and Davidson County known as Point Plantation. This purchase included the rich floodplain of the Yadkin River formerly cultivated by NC Congressman Joseph Pearson. After the death of Letitia’s husband, Morehead sold to her a 626 acre tract of Point Plantation in 1856, thus beginning his daughter’s foray into plantation management.
The loam soils of Point Plantation were suitable for corn, clover, and hay, sweet potatoes, wheat, and oats. The Agricultural Census of 1860 provides a snapshot of her holdings as they had evolved to that point, including 560 acres in Davidson County, of which 160 were improved. Census data reveals that thirty-one enslaved people resided upon her holdings – a high population that represented the holdings of only the upper 1% of slaveholders in North Carolina. The chief crops at Point Plantation were corn, wheat, and hogs. Walker’s Day Book reported an 1860 inventory of eighty-seven swine, 373 bushels of wheat, 3,000 bushels of corn, 400 bushels of oats, 200 bushels of peas and beans, and various potatoes. Notably, she grew no cotton or tobacco.
Management of Point Plantation was likely challenging, especially considering that she did not reside on the land, but kept her primary residence at Blandwood in Greensboro 35 miles to the northeast. Interestingly, her father’s efforts in establishing a railroad to cross the Carolina Piedmont likely worked to her benefit; beginning in 1856 regular passenger train service was started that connected Greensboro to Lexington and Salisbury, the two closest towns to her plantation.
Ownership of Point Plantation included a franchise for a ferry, likely the crossing over the confluence of the Yadkin and South Yadkin Rivers that connected Davidson, Davie, and Rowan counties. Letitia recorded “boat money” receipts for ferry service throughout the account book, usually sums ranging from $2.00 to $7.50. In 1861, Letitia invested in a new ferry for seventy-one dollars.
The Day Book lists several white families lived near Point Plantation in Davidson County. With these families, Letitia sometimes bartered goods such as corn, wheat, and cotton. With scarcity of money by the time of the Civil War, bartering increased as Letitia traded items with both enslaved people and white people in the neighborhood of Point Plantation. Bartered products included basic necessities such as lard, chicken, molasses, cotton, corn, and wheat.
Letitia also developed business relationships in Salisbury, a small but cosmopolitan town just 15 miles south of the Plantation. There, she interacted with merchants and millers, and hired Salisbury physicians presumably to offer medical services to the enslaved population at Point Plantation for which she was responsible.
Managing the Plantation from Greensboro likely had its challenges, so Letitia appears to have hired J. W. Exum as an overseer to handle daily operations. Though it is likely most of the enslaved population worked on the Plantation, it is thought by Dr Linda Stine from the UNCG Department of Anthropology that other workers were “hired in” from other individuals, or “hired out” to work off site. For example, in 1856, she recorded the hire of Jenny, Ben, Sally, Laura, Hugh and Nash. Laura and Sally’s children were listed with their mothers. Rates ranged from $5 for Hugh, to $65 for Nash. The same people were hired again in 1857, with John and Jack added to the list at the considerable sums of $100 each. In those two years, she hired out Mary, Rene, and two different Harriets (and their children) for between $25 and $50 each. The destination for those she hired out and the source of those she hired are not noted, but the names Rene and Jenny appear in contexts with Point Plantation elsewhere in the account book.
In terms of Welfare, Letitia likely recognized that childbirth was a challenging experience in terms of women’s health. As most male physicians were not proficient in the field of obstetrics in the nineteenth century, many women deferred to the expertise of midwives. Records indicate that Letitia Walker employed at least three midwives, identifiable by their presence on lists of doctor bills. Three women appear in the context of the Rowan County physicians, but two of them lived in Greensboro. Perhaps Letitia saw the best care for women and their children during the window of birth was through the experience of midwifery, and she saw to it that these women received the skilled medical care needed.
As a single woman in the American South, Letitia Morehead Walker’s Day Book illustrates that she capably and skillfully managed the complicated affairs of her plantation, including challenges on health care and the difficulties brought to the Piedmont with the Civil War.
Much thanks to Spring, 2015 University of North Carolina at Greensboro instructor Christopher Graham, and his students: David Burton, Zachary Constantinidis, Bethany Daniels, Chelsey Dickens, Morgan Logan, Crystal Meade, Tara Peeples, Aliyah Pronaut, Monica Vollman, James Whitley, and Katherine Yost for their careful work and enthusiasm! Appreciation also goes to Dr. Linda Stine for her perceptions and insights brought to Blandwood through previous study and archaeological survey work in 2009.