4 Letters from Liberia to Kentucky

Robert Wickliffe of Lexington, Kentucky, was the second husband of Mary Owen Todd Russell, the rich heiress of the frontiersman, Col. John Todd. Wickliffe was a powerful pro-slavery politician and real estate lawyer when he married "Mrs Polly" in October of 1826. She had April of the previous year formally purchased two slaves (Milly and her son Alfred) from J.B.R. McIlwain of Louisville (a slave trader who was handling her deceased mother's estate). These two slaves were owned by her mother, Jane Hawkins Todd Irvine, until her death in 1822. According to Lexington gossip (started by Robert S. Todd and publically exposed in a pamphlet by his cousin, Robert J. Breckinridge), Milly was the octoroon lover of Mary Owen Todd Russell's son, John Russell, who was visiting his grandmother in the summer while on vacation from Princeton. Whoever impregnated her was probably white, since she birthed a white, enslaved, son. The boy was named Alfred, and sold to Mrs Polly along with his mother when he was "10 or 12 years of age" according to the 1825 deed.

In March of 1833, Milly and Alfred left for Liberia with their cousin, Lucy Russell, and her four children (Sinthia, Gilbert, George and Henry). Sometime later they were joined by a George Crawford whom Alfred reported as dying suddenly in 1846 in Liberia. Milly wrote a long letter of thanks from their first stop in Frankfort (reproduced below), revealing their fears of being two women alone with children. They had traveled overland by foot to Frankfort, and then to Louisville to get on the riverboat Mediterranean. They sailed down the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans where they were joined by 27 other emigrants -- 6 from TN, 19 from OH, 2 from New Orleans. They boarded the brig Ajax on April 20, 1833, with the white missionary A.H. Savage & H.D. King, agent for the TN Colonization Society. The cost of the expedition ($5,000) was defrayed by the American Colonization Society with a donation of $2,300 from the KY Colonization Society. Cholera, whooping cough, or a bowel disorder forced the brig to put in for many days at a West Indian island and 30 (mostly children) died during the passage.

On July 11, 1833, 146 new settlers (31 men, 42 women, 74 children age 12 & under, mostly farmers) arrived in Liberia after 3 months aboard the brig Ajax. According to the ship records, 119 of the passengers were from Kentucky: 16 born free, the rest were manumitted -- 24 by Richard Bibb (a white clergyman in Logan Co. who gave them clothes & $400); 12 by William O. Dudley (a planter in Adair Co.); and 7 by Mary O Wickliffe. They were put under quarantine upon arrival by Dr. Mechlin who then sent them to Caldwell & Millsburg on the St. Paul's River (formerly Bassa country) where 26 soon died, 2 others returned to the US, and 1 migrated to Sierra Leone. See the 17th Annual Report of the A.C.S., 11; African Repository, IX (Oct 1833), 243.

"They were the last of more than 1400 new settlers to arrive in the colony during the Mechlin administration.... They arrived at a time when the limited resources and facilities of the colony and medical service was almost nonexistent. Housing was inadequate, food was scarce, and medical service was almost nonexistent. Much of the time, Doctor Mechlin was the only trained physician in the colony, and his duties as Colonial Agent, the distance between settlements, and his recurring bouts with malaria, made it impossible for him to practice medicine effectively.... [Mechlin resigns one month later] He left the colony in appalling condition. Almost every public building needed repairs, the treasury was empty, there were thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, and a noticeable paucity of available public property left in the colony. In addition, the public store was completely destitute of necessary articles for daily consumption, the judicial system was in complete disarray, and agriculture had been almost totally neglected. Except for vegetable gardens and 12 acres of coffee trees planted by the Rev. Colston M. Waring, a former Vice Agent and Baptist minister from Petersburg, Virginia, there was scarcely fifty acres of land under cultivation in the entire colony." (James Wesley Smith, Sojourners in Search of Freedom: The Settlement of Liberia by Black Americans [Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1987], p. 122.) According to the 1855 letter from Alfred to Robert Wickliffe, his mother Milly died of "dropsey" in 1845.

Milly Crawford on her way to Liberia from Lexington Kentucky
A letter to Mary Owen Todd Russell Wickliffe

March 10 1833 Saterday night

My Dear Misstress we have all arrived at frankfort in safety and health little George Lucy and all the children are well. My dear Misstress how shall we thank you for all your kindness too us. We sometimes despond being all females and children haveing no male protecter of our own. but we try to put our trust in the Almighty and go on in his srength. whatever betide us. My Dear Mystress you have done your whole duty. and may the [Almighty] bless and reward you a thousand fold. Lucy all love and thanks to you for your goodness care and kindness to us all. the children all desires me remember them to Mystress.

Mystress we all desire you thank Mayster for his goodness and kindness to us.

I hope the Lord will bless him give our love to miss Margaret miss Mary Mys Sally Wooly [Robert Wickliffe's three living white children] and all our friends. the Lord has raised up manny friend to us in fankford we are treated with so much kindness by all who see us. the gentleman at whose house we now lodge Mr Gray trets us with the utmost kindness - he had us all in his dining room prayed with and for us - the gentleman you wrote too received your letter recommending us to him he took us home with him gave us supper and we returned again mr grays you will hear again from us att Louisville May the bless preserve and reward you for all kindness is the prare of your unworthy but affecunate servant

Milly C

(Wickliffe-Preston Family Papers, Box39, University of Kentucky Special Collections and Archives)

Letters from Liberia

Lucy Russell, 1835
Alfred Russell, 1855
Lucy Russell Briant, 1857

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Posted 12/28/97