An American Planter
Stephen Duncan of Antebellum Natchez and New York
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Series: Southern Biography Series
Cover, Title Page, Copyright
I first began my research on Stephen Duncan while a greenhorn graduate student pursuing my master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Little did I know then that twenty years later I would still be thinking and writing about this topic...
Prologue: "An Important Crisis Is at Hand"
On a fall day in October 1831, United States senator Josiah S. Johnston of Louisiana opened a lengthy letter from a concerned citizen that began with the alarming lines: “I am satisfied, an important crisis is at hand, which it behooves the wise...
1. "To Seek His Fortunes in the Distant South": Stephen Duncan's Migration from Pennsylvania to the Mississippi Territory
Tucked within the gentle rolling hills of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, surrounded by the Blue and Kittatinny Mountains, lies one of the oldest towns in the state west of the Susquehanna River—the borough of Carlisle. Here...
2. Laying the Foundations of Mastery: Land, Slaves, Capital, and the Network of Elites
As the dawn of the antebellum era crept over the ever-changing landscape of the nation, hints of monumental economic and social change could be glimpsed on the horizon. Slavery, race relations, the expanding economy, and growing sectionalism all loomed as pressing issues...
3. Slaves, Politics, and Family: Stephen Duncan and the Challenges to Mastery
Throughout the 1820s, Stephen Duncan exhibited mastery over his land, slaves, and money, as well as the familial, social, and economic connections he forged through marriage, friendship, and business. Yet such intertwined relationships could also be fragile. In spite of his wealth and...
4. "We Will One Day Have Our Throats Cut in this County'': Stephen Duncan and the Challenges of Slavery
In the 1820s, Stephen Duncan slowly and meticulously built his family’s wealth and anchored its position of power within the inner circle of the region’s most important social and economic networks. As the 1830s opened, he held a variety of valuable assets...
5. Power and Position: Redefining Economic Self in Boom and Bust Times
In spite of his myriad apprehensions about the growth of slavery, in the early 1830s Stephen Duncan embarked on a path that perpetuated those very fears: a systematic expansion of his family’s wealth and power through plantation profits. Like other wealthy Mississippians, he had been...
6. Public Duties and Private Worlds: The Roles and Dynamics of the Duncan Family
On December 12, 1837, Stephen Duncan and several of his associates, friends, and relatives spent the day in downtown Natchez conducting their daily business. William Johnson, a free black barber and small farmer, noted their presence in the city that morning. Later that evening...
7. Survival of the Fittest: Preservation of Wealth and Family
In the late 1830s, as Stephen Duncan grieved over the death of his daughter, loss of a very different nature swept across the nation. The panic of 1837, which hit Mississippi the hardest of all the states, wreaked havoc on the antebellum economy and caused...
8. An Empire Realized: The Concentration of Wealth and the Negotiation of Shifting Networks
In the winter of 1853, the prominent Natchez geologist and agriculturalist Benjamin L. C. Wailes reflected that Stephen Duncan was “perhaps at this time the wealthiest cotton planter in this state,” adding, “Dr. D. is one of the most systematic observing and calculating planters. . . . He promises me...
9. Underground Networks: Slave Communities and Slavery on the Duncan Plantations
In the late spring of 1849, Stephen Duncan anxiously informed Charles P. Leverich that cholera “of unusually virulent character” had broken out in the Mississippi Delta. In an attempt to protect his massive slave force from the deadly effects of what had become a nationwide epidemic, Duncan traveled...
Epilogue: "We Are in the Midst of Perils"
“We are in the midst of perils all our lives—& at this particular juncture, we are beset with troubles on all sides,” Stephen Duncan wrote his sister, Emily, on the eve of secession in December 1860. “A universal bankruptcy, was [sic] about to take place,” he...