Monday, June 26, 2006



WALL HILL, MISS., May 1st, 1857.

My dear Son Nicholas:

I come now to the history of myself and family, but as my companion was the daughter of Dr. Nicholas Joseph Bourdon, I must defer to enter on it, till I relate all the information I possess in regard to her parentage.

Dr. Nicholas Joseph Bourdon, your mother's father, of St. Omar, of the Province of Artois in France, was born about the year 1750. He studied medicine and surgery in Paris; came to America during the Revolutionary War as surgeon in the French Navy. When the French troops returned to France he thought proper to remain in America. Came up to Petersburg and lived among the French residents for sometime, then came up and commenced the practice of his profession in Dinwiddie county, adjoining the county of Nottoway, and continued in this locality until 1778, when, on the 18th of October, he married Martha Dennis, the daughter of Richard and Martha Dennis, of Nottoway county. He then purchased a tract of land on Nottoway River in Dinwiddie county and settled, and remained on it till his death, which took place in January, 1813, at the age of sixty-three.

By his first marriage, only one lived to adult age, your mother, Elizabeth Joseph. By a subsequent marriage to a cousin of his first wife, Miss Jane Dennis, three were born who lived to be heads of families, viz., Henry, Adrian, and Catherine Matilda.

In social intercourse, Dr. Bourdon was polite, kind and interesting, a great favorite with the young, for his wit and sprightliness; a Frenchman in pomatum powder and dress, of low stature, and great bodily health, a great admirer of Mr. Jefferson in politics, and of the Baptists as religionists and church government. He held the confidence of his acquaintances at home, as a professional man, and received the same from the Faculty abroad. I have an honorary certificate of membership, sent him by the Medical and Surgical Society of Philadelphia in 1806, by its president, Benjamin Rush, who is styled in history, "The father of American Medicine." It is said he expatriated himself, on account of some difficulty between himself and his brother (who was a Catholic Priest), on the subject of religion. He was a successful planter, and a most indefatigable business man, in every department of life in which he was called to act, and particularly successful and celebrated in surgery. I believe I have said all that is of any interest to you or me, on our connection with ancestors. I shall in my next begin the history and progress of my own family.

Affectionately, your father,


Addenda: The reader will forbear while I append to the above a brief sketch of my grandfather's early days, as given by my mother.

In the year of our Lord, 1780, or '82, there resided in the City of Paris, France, a young man, engaged in the practice of his profession, medicine and surgery. He was a graduate of the "Academy of Paris," and in some way connected with the Medical Department of that institution, or its hospitals. I judge by three small volumes, written in French, which I have, and which I have had translated, that he was a Quiz Master in the Academy, an office that paid handsomely a hundred years later, when I was at college, and is an office in medical colleges to-day. This young surgeon and physician, was a Huguenot, a Protestant of decided character. He had an elder brother, who was a bigoted Catholic priest, and filled with all the wickedness and hatred of the priesthood of that day towards the Protestants; he often twitted his younger brother about his Protestantism, and it is natural to suppose that the love and affection existing between brothers began to grow cold, and would sooner or later culminate in a rupture. The priest grew more arrogant and oppressive, and one day on entering the doctor's apartments, told him flatly that the time had arrived when he must give up his Protestantism and come into the holy "Mother Church." The doctor reasoned the matter with him, but to no purpose. The priest grew worse and worse, when, finally, the doctor, losing all self-control, felled his brother to the floor. "The die was cast." The priest regaining his feet left the room hissing, "I will burn you for this!" The doctor knew that even then, in Paris and in all France, the priesthood had the power to carry out this diabolical threat, and that it would be done, so he hastily prepared leave his native land and that night, mounting his horse, he rode out of Paris, and made his way to the coast (Calais, if I remember correctly), he found the fleet of Count De'Grasse making ready to sail for America to aid a people struggling for liberty. On board of this fleet he came to our country, reaching the Chesapeake Bay in time to act a part in the fall of Yorktown, and capture of Lord Cornwallis.

This is the history of my grandfather, Dr. Nicholas Joseph Bourdon, as given me by my mother when a child at her knee. She loved to talk to me of her father, and childlike, I loved to hear her talk of my grandfather, and the facts were indelibly impressed upon my young mind. An interesting question arises here in this history, which is this: At what point Presbyterianism developes in the family, or, from whence its source? My mother's history gives the source--this Huguenot. All of the name in Virginia to-day, are Presbyterians. In 1863-4, when visiting my uncle, Adrian Bourdon in Petersburg, Va., I found they were all Presbyterians.


WALL HILL, MISS., August 27th, 1863.

My dear Son, Nicholas:

I resume again my long neglected narrative of my family, for the special benefit of my children, and yourself in particular. Ignorance of family genealogy is a prevalent sin in most families of my acquaintance, and I am anxious it shall not continue longer in mine, therefore, my labor to impart to you, and through you to the rest of my children that information which may do you all some good if improved.

I, James Wilson, am the fourth son of Robert and Clara Wilson, born on the 6th day of April, 1791, in Dinwiddie county, Va. Nurtured by kind, affectionate parents, I grew to boyhood in the common occupation and employment of country children, surrounded by slaves and slavery, accustomed to all the duties and business suitable for children, such as going on errands on horseback, and on foot, using the hoe, ax, and plow. At ten years, I was put to school to a young, ignorant teacher in my A B C's. Although young, I was resolved to suffer no scholar to excel me, and it so happened that a neighbor girl, about my age and progress, entered into a contest for the mastery by a race to three syllables; the one excelling to rank above the other. I beat the race, and accordingly ranked ahead of her. This little contest engendered a strife and bickering spirit in her family, which lasted to mature manhood. She was a girl of bright mind, and made fine progress in knowledge, and filled high station in life. She was intimate associate and friend of my wife, and tried hard to poison her mind against me, as she stated it to me many years after our marriage.

At the age of twelve years, a great religious excitement sprung up in the neighborhood, and I became much interested in it. The fear of God in His power to cast all sinners into hell, filled me with great alarm. I prayed to God, and sought to propitiate his favor by living a holy life. I felt that I was a great sinner, and that the face of God was against me, and that I must perish unless He would save. This uneasy and miserable state of mind continued for some months, and I continued my prayers, waiting for some wonderful relief, not comprehending the plan of salvation, through Christ Jesus till the excitement subsided, and my mind became occupied with my regular course of studies in school; then my religious impressions died out, and prayer was restrained. Sometime before these religious impressions were made on my mind, I went with a younger brother into the orchard, just about sunset, and beheld that splendid scene. In the morning I was at the same place and beheld his august rising from beneath the horizon. With amazement and wonder I stood in contemplation of the amazing phenomenon! How had the sun, which the evening before, had disappeared in the Western sky, arisen in the East? The novelty and magnitude of the phenomenon was mysterious and incomprehensible to my young and ignorant mind. This, I am sensible was the first exercise of reason. From that day to this, I am sensible of mental progress. From that day to this, I have sought knowledge, and tried to treasure up wisdom, and the Lord has blessed me with pretty good understanding. For three years in succession I was with one teacher, in one place, Wilson's meeting house, or "Old Cutbank," of Nottoway county; a man of some celebrity for intelligence, but of no moral character, a drunkard, gambler, and notorious infidel. While with him, in the pursuit of knowledge, I imbibed his infidel distrust of God's revealed word, and became a scoffer at religion. The pious example and Christian conversation of my mother, together with the religious convictions already mentioned, restrained all excess in morality. I still continued a pretty good show of morals, externally, particularly, a lover of "truth." I will mention one incident in this part of my narrative, to illustrate: I was in a course of reading from Paine's writing, when my mother made request that I would not read his "Age of Reason." I promised her I would not, and although this book was in my hand and on my table for sometime, I did not read one period of it. I kept my promise to my mother inviolate, although, about this time I read several volumes of both English and French infidelity. After having expended as much time and means of the patrimonial provision, as fell to my share, I stepped out upon the stage of human effort, to provide for my individual wants and establish individual character both for time and eternity. This was a most trying for me, a most unpresuming and unassuming young man of seventeen years. My love for learning induced me to engage in the profession of teaching. I obtained a small school, and set about reviewing the ground I had passed over, while under pupilage, and found my stock of information but small and very imperfect. This induced a course of rigid selfdenial and effort to prepare myself for honorable and useful intercourse among men. I neglected no opportunity or means in my power in the economy of time or money to advance my stock of knowledge, to feel independent and self-reliant, and establish honorable character for life. I found myself in the midst of the most wicked, drunken, gambling, and debauched society I have ever witnessed to this day. Having been raised up in pious seclusion at school, out of reach of the world around me, I stood amazed at the scene before me! I resolved never to mingle with or partake of the seductions before me. I became a total abstinence man; I set a watch over my tongue "to swear not all," and to avoid all personal intercourse with any but the intelligent and virtuous. This resolution threw me out of the great world into a very contracted circle of associates, and afforded means and opportunity to prosecute my favorite pursuits. The libraries of the intelligent and the boards of the virtuous, with all their salutary influences were open to me; and I enjoyed the respect and confidence of all. My education consisted of reading, writing, grammar, geography, use of the Terestial Globe, arithmetic, geometry, embracing practical surveying, distances and leveling, and one year's study of Latin. I engaged in teaching a secluded school in Greenville county. I made the acquaintance, and secured the friendship of Mr. John Fisher, a son of Daniel Fisher, a member of the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution, a gentleman of classical education. He encouraged me to study French, and by his assistance, I made considerable progress in that language. His two sons, about my age, who were studying under their father, assisted me much, and comforted me in my self-denying and study. I can say, truthfully, that this family in its influence did more to make a man of me, than any I ever met with, and to my last breath, I recur to the many pleasant hours of enjoyment in this polite and intelligent society of friends. I continued to study and teach in Mr. Fisher's neighborhood for two years, 1810 and '11, having my home in the family of Col. Edmund Lucas. In the summer of 1811, the great Eclipse of the sun occurred which alarmed the ladies of the neighborhood very much. In the fall of the year, the great Comet appeared in the Northwest, and continued to approach the sun, in a southerly direction, enlarging in brilliancy and length of tail until April, when it passed around the sun and disappeared, when we experienced a fall of snow to the depth of four inches on the 15th of April, and yet, we had a full crop of fruit. At the close of this year, I received invitation and better pay from Maj. William Parham, of Sussex county, which I accepted, and removed to his home in 1812, while he was sitting in the State Legislature. Just at my arrival his wife received intelligence of the conflagration of the Richmond Theater where great numbers perished with many members of the Legislature. His family of relieved of their anxiety in due course of mail, and made to rejoice in his safety. On the 18th of June of this year the Madison Declaration of war with Great Britain was issued. For the past three or four years the country had suffered every privation from the passage of Embargo and Non-Intercourse Laws. Now the military force of the country is called into action, and with it money begins again to circulate, and the people find relief again in money matters. A market is opened for produce for army supply, and all kinds of labor becomes remunerative. And money again passes among the people. This public excitement interrupted my course of study, and I began the study of politics. Constitutional law, and finance first engaged my attention, and a good time to learn it practically. After four years' absence from the old homestead, the place of my nativity, among strangers, I return to my brother's house, and to revive my acquaintance with those of my boyhood. None stood fairer or engaged my attention so much as she who was nurtured on the same lap, and who was now in the bloom of womanhood, Miss Elizabeth Joseph Bourdon. After some four months, I obtained her consent to accompany me on the journey of life. The death of her father, suddenly, from apoplexy, caused a postponement of our nuptials. this year (1813) I was engaged in teaching at the same house where I received my early education, and in the making preliminary arrangements for our marriage. This was a year of joyful anticipation and anxious apprehensions. The drafting of the malitia, marching of soldiers, rumors of battles on our northern border. Calls for the whole military force to guard Petersburg, Richmond and Norfolk, kept every one in a fever of excitement. In a call of this kind I made a tour of eighteen days, and served as quartermaster of the regiment protem. When we returned home, I was appointed sergeant-major by Col. Winfield Scott, its commander protem, and continued in that position until the regiment was disbanded. This was the only military service I was ever called upon to perform. On the first of January, 1814, I returned to my school at old "Cutbank," for the year. On the 25th of May, 1814, I was united in marriage to your mother, Elizabeth Joseph Bourdon, whom I took home to my mother's house, and continued my school to the end of the year. 1815 I resume my school, and begin housekeeping. Now new engagements, new wants, new excitements and new duties arise and call me into action and faithfulness to my bosom companion in supplying her wants and comforting her heart.

Here ends the valuable narrative of my father. The only history of the family, the only history of his own efforts in early life to fit himself for usefulness, ever written. I am truly thankful they have been preserved throughout all the years and I can now put them in a form to be read by his descendants for all the years to come. I have now only the family record, written by himself, to guide me in continuing the history. I have heard my father and mother revert to their youth, and describe fox hunting, fishing frolics, social parties, and the celebrated Virginia Reel, and I suppose that their young lives were very much like the young peoples' lives of to-day, strewn with sunshine and flowers.

Consulting my Bible record, I find that on the 28th day of January, 1815, a man child was born in the new home, and given the name of its grandfather, Nicholas Joseph. The advent of the first born is always an epoch in the lives of young couples, filled with joy and gladness. It was so in the Garden of Eden, and has been so ever since. Mother Eve cried out with gladness, "I have gotten me a man from God," and every Christian has felt that thrill of joy, and has breathed a more earnest prayer of thankfulness to God than ever before in their lives. I know my parents were not an exception, but their joy was of short duration, for I find in the record that Nicholas Joseph Wilson died February 28, 1815, age one month; sad event! Strange providence, and I know that it brought sorrow immeasurable to the young hearts, starting out on the pathway of life. Here was life in miniature, joy to-day, sorrow to-morrow! a sad, bitter lesson to learn so soon. How shall we comfort the young mother? I don't know, I have never learned how! I heard many attempt it. I have often tried myself, but human comfort is a failure at such a time, and nothing but the religion of Jesus can comfort in the presence of death.

After the burial of little Joseph the world did not look so bright, the old homestead seemed to have lost its charms, and a desire to find a new home, and new surroundings, sprang up in the hearts of the young couple; and they began to talk together of the "Great West," and for a while, they were even afraid to speak of it in the household. but the desire to move had taken hold of them, and they soon began to discuss the difficulties and to make the necessary preparations. At that early day, it was a terrible undertaking to move from Eastern Virginia to North Alabama. The roads were bad; a large portion of the country to be traversed was thinly settled and mountainous, and there were dangers by the wayside to be encountered. It is hard for us to-day to realize that there were no steamboats plying up and down the rivers, and few ferry boats, or even bridges across the rivers. The difficulties and dangers of that long trip to the West would appal us to-day, but our fore fathers, I believe, were made of sterner material than their descendants. While the preparations for the journey were going on, another interesting event occurred, and my record tells, that on the 6th of February, 1816, George Adrian Wilson was born, named after, or for my father's oldest brother, George Wilson, and my mother's youngest brother, Adrian Bourdon. About the middle of September, 1816, the emigrants started towards the setting sun, mother, child and nurse in a carriage, then a wagon with furniture, bedding, tent and provisions; then three other wagons with the luggage of the negroes, and all necessary tools, with a small drove of milch cows and calves.

On a certain day, neighbors, kindred and friends met to bid the emigrants Godspeed, and farewell. It was, indeed, a trying ordeal, and I have seen the tears roll down my mother's cheeks when she would attempt to describe that parting scene and the hardships of that long trip.

Twenty-five years later, the younger brother and sister, Uncle Le Grand and Aunt Matilda Wilson moved West their family, and they were united again; the others never met. Some went a day's journey with the emigrants before bidding that last farewell. When they reached the Western confines of the State, and had struggled to the summits of the mountains, all stop, and looking back take a last view of the "Old Dominion." Farewell, Virginia!

The descent of the mountain was difficult and dangerous. The road had degenerated into a mere Indian trail, and in places so steep as to compel them to chain a log behind the wagons, and drag it down the mountains. The "lock chain" would not hold the wagon off the horses. Finally, they reached Knoxville, Tenn., where they halted for a week to rest, wash up, and have the horses all shod again. From this place on, they had better, smoother roads, and an easier time, and reached Huntsville, Madison county, Ala., in November, having been on the road nearly two months. My father bought land nine miles west of Huntsville and went to work building, to shelter the family and stock from the blasts of winter, which was rapidly coming, and succeeded in getting up very comfortable quarters before the severity of winter. It required several years to erect the necessary buildings to make the family comfortable, and when we remember that sawmills were rare in those days, especially in this new country (steam was not in general use, and waterpower scarce), we wonder how they ever succeeded in building houses and making them habitable. Our forefathers carried their sawmills with them, and sawed their own lumber for building purposes. The old "whipsaw," as it was called, has passed out of existence, and has been forgotten, as old friends often are. I doubt if one could be found to-day, simply because they are not needed, are not in demand. this primitive sawmill was propelled by human power. It required two stout men to run the saw, and it was hard work. Now it required about five good hands with axes, crosscut saw and broadaxe to go into the forest to furnish stocks or saw logs for this wonderful "sawmill" to convert into plank, and when I tell you that about 250 feet of plank is about as much as two stout hands could saw from "early morn to dewey eve," you can readily see why it has been thrown away and forgotten. It served its day, and we give it all due honor. I shall revert to this wonderful sawmill again later on.

In his home in Madison county, Ala., the family lived twenty years, and here all the children were born and grew up, except the youngest, who is writing this history. I suppose this was the most beautiful and best loved home, the family ever had. It required hard labor to make it, as well as years of precious time. The houses were built of logs, negro quarters, barn and all. The great house, "Old Massus' house," (called "greatust" by the negroes), was built of hewn logs, neatly daubed and pointed, and was a very handsome house, and the most comfortable that can be built, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. These old-fashioned log houses are to be seen at this late day, and it is remarkable how long they have lasted, and how long they will last when properly attended to. I love the old log house, for in it I was born, and in it I lived all my early life until manhood, and in solid comfort and convenience. I fear not to compare it to the delicate, fashionable cottages of to-day.


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