- “I Anticipate Nothing but Ruin and Destruction”: Agricola Wilkins in 1830s Mobile
On february 28, 1837, agricola wilkins, a new yorker living in Mobile, wrote, “I am truly sick of Mobile and every thing connected with it & I think I have strong reason so to be.” He wrote these sobering words in one of the fifty-seven letters from Mobile to his uncle Nehemiah Denton in New York. Researchers have used and quoted from Wilkins’s letters in studies about antebellum Mobile or the Gulf Coast more generally; none of these studies, however, focused on Wilkins himself. A study of all the letters he wrote while in the South shows how his experiences fit in the larger narrative of the history of Mobile, revealing how this one man dealt with life in the tumultuous 1830s. As a family descendant said of the young man’s experience, “Mobile at that time was no place for a man like Agricola Wilkins.”1
Founded by the French in 1702, the port city of Mobile was at times also controlled by the British and Spanish before becoming part of the Mississippi Territory of the United States in 1813. There [End Page 40] were approximately 300 people living there then.2 Within only a few years, “Alabama Fever” struck the United States. More settlers moved to Alabama after the US took control of the port of Mobile and opened what is now south Alabama to travel from the Gulf of Mexico. By 1830, with the expansion of cotton cultivation and the forced departure of Native Americans, south Alabama proved more appealing to settlers, and Mobile’s population grew to 3,194. That number increased dramatically to 12,692 in 1840, making the 1830s the decade with the highest rate of growth in antebellum Mobile.3 This influx of people did not simply consist of southerners moving to the growing city. New Yorkers like Agricola Wilkins and other northerners made up a significant part of that growth, although finding exact numbers on these immigrants is difficult.4 An estimated 360,000 northern-born persons lived in the South before the Civil War. Regardless of the exact numbers in Mobile, it is clear that northerners “brought entrepreneurial zeal to a primarily agricultural state.”5 Northerners, particularly those from New York, “supplied the catalyst that stimulated the economic development of Mobile after Americans occupied it during the War of 1812. In the resettled town [End Page 41] local residents apparently welcomed anyone, regardless of birthplace, whose activities boosted the cotton trade that burgeoned the port.”6 Wilkins was among those welcomed to the city to support and profit from the cotton trade.
Agricola Wilkins was born in New York around 1800. A family descendant wrote that Agricola was born in 1803, but church records show that he was christened on April 29, 1798, at First Presbyterian Church of Hamptonburgh, in Campbell Hall, New York. The son of Jason and Martha Denton Wilkins, Agricola had four brothers: James, Henry, Thomas, and Samuel.7 His mother had a wealthy brother, Nehemiah Denton, who was a miller, property owner, and banker in Brooklyn. While in Mobile starting his business as part owner of a dry goods store, Agricola also acted as his uncle’s agent. Records regarding Agricola’s life are sparse. His will, probated in 1875 after his death, lists neither wife nor children.8 The New York Evening Post in 1830 includes advertisements that show Wilkins sold such items as mosquito netting, fabric, and other sundries. Wilkins’s letters to Denton show that by 1831 Wilkins was living in Mobile. These letters indicate that he lived in Mobile from 1831–1840, with perhaps a few extended trips home to New York during that time.9
Although later letters show that Wilkins had little good to say about Mobile, we do not know his initial impressions of this city, as his first letter clearly indicated he had been there for some time. Numerous [End Page 42] letters include valuable information and sometimes harsh judgments about the people, city, diseases, politics, religion, fires, and other aspects of life in this growing city, but letters that might...