1837: William J. C. Kenney to James Brown Sawyer

This letter was written in January 1837 by William J. C. Kenney (1809->1884) of Danvers, Essex County, Massachusetts who was, at the time, working with a crew in constructing the Oglethorpe Hotel in Brunswick, Glynn County, Georgia. This four-story hotel was constructed of hewn timbers from local pine forests, its sides clapboarded, its roof shingled, and its interior walls plastered according to Kenney’s description. Kenney worked with an eighty man crew — many of the laborers coming from his own town. Among those mentioned by Kenney: Lincoln Simeon Putnam (1809-1892), James Gardner Phelps (1808-?), George Porter (1809-?), and probably Putnam or Samuel Webb, all from Danvers.

The letter is significant in that it provides a first-hand account on the construction of the first Oglethorpe Hotel in Brunswick, Georgia, and its adjoining cook house and stable during the winter of 1836-7.  In the post script of the letter, Kenney says he expected to be home by April 1837, suggesting that the Hotel was scheduled to be completed by then, pursuant to the timely arrival of building materials. Indeed, it appears to have been completed in May, 1837 (see footnotes below). It may be that the New England craftsmen were contracted to assemble the structure and perform the finish work.

Thomas Butler King, Planter & Politician

The letter also illustrates the significant role that Georgia Legislator Thomas Butler King played in the construction of the Oglethorpe Hotel by intervening on behalf of the New England craftsmen who were prepared to walk off the job due to wage and treatment grievances. I have not been able to positively identify the Capt. Hammond who appears to have been associated with the project as a supplier. However, it is conjectured to be Capt. M. H. Hammond of St. Mary’s, Georgia, thirty miles south of Brunswick. The man identified by Kenney simply as “Willson” was Moses H. Wilson (1803-?) of Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts, a contractor specializing in the construction of wood and brick structures. [See advertisement in footnotes below.]

Also evident from this letter is the poor opinion held by the New England workforce of Irish laborers who served the Brunswick docks as stevedores and came into Georgia by the hundreds to dig canals in segregated work crews with the local slaves.

One last item of interest is the mention of a “boat race” — or regatta — held in January 1837 on the Frederica River on nearby St. Simons Island near the cotton plantation “Retreat” owned by Thomas B. King.

William Kenney married Elizabeth Whittier in 1829. They had at least two children by the time this letter was written but it’s believed they had both died young; Kenney does not mention them in his letter. They would eventually have five more children who lived to adulthood.

The recipient of the letter is conjectured to be James Brown Sawyer (1806-1847) who was born in Ipswich but moved to Danvers prior to his marrige in 1835.  He apparently lived in the north-east part of Danvers, in an area known as “New Mills.”  Sawyer was the son of George Whitefield Sawyer (1770-1855) and Polly Killam (1773-1860); he married Rachel Matilda Potter in 1834.

Stampless Envelope

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Addressed to: Mr. James Sawyer
Danvers New Mills, Massachusetts

Brunswick [Glynn County, Georgia]
20th January 1836
[note: should be 1837, see date at bottom of letter, and confirmed that Jany 21 was a Saturday in 1837.]

Dear Sir,

I take this oppertunity to inform you that we are all well and am in hopes these few lines will find you and the rest of my friends the same. I have been waiting to have a line from you, but none comes yet and no signs of any except by Joseph Porter’s letter to George. He says you talk of writing some time this week.

1837 Map of Brunswick, Georgia showing the Oglethorpe Hotel near juntion of F and Grant Streets. The two structures on the same lot fronting Y Street may be the cook house and stable. Click on image to enlarge it.

Our work goes on slowly as yet on account of our not having any boards. The stable and cook house are up, boarded and shingled. The Hotel is four stories high, all of ton timber is raised without accident or dammage. The building has an actict [attic] story on it 28 feet by 36. It looks noble and lofty as the other buildings in this town are nothing more or less than what we should call tax house in the North. Had the stock been here, the building would at this been plastered. Perhaps you will say, what have they been about. Nothing, only hewing timber in the woods for pastime, untill within _____ days. We have swore off for we did not make a contract to that effect. Our living is good now as can be expected. We have quit work once on account of our pay. We called for it. Willson went to Hammond, the Agent, and got me the Dollars, and said that was all he had. It was enough to pay us by about five hundred dollars. We would not take it . He went again and got more. We told him then we would be paid once a month. Our month has gone past and no money yet, but expect it tomorrow. We shall all quit in the morning and wait untill we get it. We have to watch him sharp as he is the same Willson. We began from the first — this was before Wilson got here – what we would have and what we would not have. Hammond said he did not know us us nor anything about us, but would give us the same [pay] as the Irish had. But this would not do for us eighty men and all hang together as much as a gang ought to do.

This Agent, Capt. Hammond, is an old sea captain. He assumes supreme power. He says he has for twenty five years and will have it now. He went some six weeks ago and bought five hundred barrels of bread, and it landed here. He gave orders to the Irish to wheel it up to the cook house. We were then using it for a workshop and Willson told us to put the window frame stuff in the chamber and went off. Whilst he was gone, old Hammond came and told us not to occupy the chamber as he wanted it to put bread in. We told him what our orders were. He said he did not care a dam for any one. We told him we did not know him as he told us before. Says he, my orders are superior to anyone here. We could not help that. We did not know him, which made him mad. And now he tells Willson, the first man that says they don’t know him, he will knock him down. It is more than he dare do for he knows there is too many to ride him on a rail through the sandy streets of Georgia. Wilson is afraid of him and will not say any thing to him, but tells us he says so and so, which is his old way. We have been waiting this two weeks for T. B. King to come here. Wilson said he would see him and tell him how things were. He came here last Wednesday. It was, come Wilson, King has come, go and see him. Oh, says Wilson, there is time enough yet.

On Thursday morning, King and Hammond went to St. Simons Island to the boat race. As soon as they had gone, Wilson said he saw him and told him he wanted to see him very much. He told him if it was of very great importance, he would not go. Oh no, it will do just as well when you get back. In one hour after, Wilson came along and told us he had not seen him at all. Wilson said dam’d if he did not see him when he came back from the Island. He came back to night. I told Wilson he had come. Says he, I don’t want to see him for any thing that I know of, but he went out and Webb, T. G. Phelps and myself watched him. He did not go near him. He came back and said he had seen him. We knew better for we watched him all the time he was gone from the shanty, but we say nothing to night about it. I quit [writing] untill morning.

I now begin again. Saturday, 11 o’clock. We quit this morning for our wages – every man. Thomas B. King came to our shanty. We chose a Committee to wait on him, viz. Daniel Caldwell from N.H., James G. Phelps, Lincoln S. Putnam, and the Hon. Wm J. C. Kenney. We told him the whole from beginning to this far, our living wages & and that we had come to the last stand, but only waited to see him. We told we were not slaves to be trampled upon, nor Irishmen to be drove, but we were men and all we wanted was to be treated as men. He said, I see by your countenances that you are men of spirit and ambition – just what we want – and thanked us for our determination. Says he, you have done as men ought to do and as I like to see [you] stand for your wrights, he told us he would be responsible for our pay. But as to this we told him we did not fear as we knew the company were good. He said lookout for us and see that we were used so far as respected the company. That was all we asked for, for the tongue of man he cannot control — meaning old Hammond — whose stay is short in this place. We are determined if Old Hammond insults any one to lay him flat. When I left this letter last night, we were all agreed to quit this morning and come home or somewhere else, but now the scale is turned since we have seen King and are all satisfied as to our living, our pay, and our comforts, &c.  Says he, let not a man of you quit unless you inform me. Things are straightened and will go smooth.

P.S. Call and see my wife. Tell her we are contented so far as can be, being from home, and shall be on our way home by the first of April certain. I shall wright to her today and mail it with this. We are all well and in good spirits. Give my love to all inquiring friends. Wright in answer to this as soon as you receive this. Don’t make as long of it and I remain yours, &c. – William J. C. Kenney

Brunswick, Glynn County
21 Jany 1837
I wish you all a happy new year.

  • “OGLETHORPE HOUSE is the name of the Hotel erected in Brunswick during the last Winter. We doubt if there is in the whole country a house superior to it in point of comfort or even elegance. It is sixty feet in length by fifty in width, built of wood, four stories high, and a basement of brick. A piazza ten feet wide on each side of three stories, protects the rooms from the sun and affords a delightful promenade, while from the cupola is opened an extensive and beautiful prospect of the Sound and Islands. Wide entries extending through the building, and windows springing from the floors nearly to the ceilings, permit the free circulation of the breeze, which blows daily from the ocean, mitigating the intensity of the Summer heat.” Source: The Brunswick Advocate, Thursday, 8 June 1837, Vol. 1, No. 1; Pg 2, Col 5.
  • “NOTICE—M. W. WILSON will contract to erect buildings of wood or brick in Brunswick during the coming Autumn and Winter on the most reasonable terms and in workmanlike manner. Letters directed to him at Lynn, Mass. during the summer will meet with prompt attention. For a specimen of his work, be referred to the Public House built under his direction in this city. For more particular information apply to Mr. J. Davis of the Oglethorpe House. Brunswick, June 8, 1837.” Source: The Brunswick Advocate, Thursday, 8 June 1837, Vol. 1, No. 1; Pg 3, Col 6.
  • The following story, from a history of Danvers, relates the experiences of  William J. C. Kenney as a fire captain in Danvers in the 1840’s.

“The first engine at Danvers Plains was what is called a Leslie tub, a suction engine, with side brakes. Afterwards, the “General Putnam” was purchased. At the time of the great fire in Danvers in 1845, Mr. Kenney was living in the South part of the Town, now Peabody, and at that time was Second Director of the Genl. Foster Engine Company, It was a very warm day, unusually so, and when the alarm was given, the company gathered and hastened to the scene of the fire. The engine was drawn by two horses, Mr. Kenney being seated on the forward horse. He remembers when they came to the Hooper hill, near the Rogers farm, that he spoke to the men, requesting them to leave the engine, as the speed down the hill would be so rapid that the lives of any who might remain with the engine would be in great danger. One man, however, clung to the engine and came out safe —  Mr. Isaac Hardy.

“On reaching the square, Mr. Kenney called upon the people to take hold and stop the engine, lest when the stop was made the engine would run upon the horses. This company was stationed during the fire near Mr. Amos Brown’s house. While getting here across from the square, the heat was so intense that only six men went with the engine and Mr. Kenney was very badly burned on his neck and the whole of one of his arms. He retired from the fire for a brief time while his neck and arm was covered with  molasses brought from the store of Mr. Daniel Richards, by his son George. Mr. Richard’s store was located [at Locust and Maple streets]. Mr. Kenney afterwards returned to his company, and the heat becoming so intense, two men held a barn door between the fire and the engine so that the men might work and be shielded somewhat from the heat of the  fire. Those who remained, finally drew the engine out from the fire and thus saved it from destruction. Owing to the intense heat of the day, the men worked in their shirt sleeves. This was the most disastrous fire that ever occurred in Danvers.

“In 1848, the Third Congregational Church, which belonged to the Society now known as the Maple Street Society, was burned to the ground. The fire occurred about nine o’clock in the evening and soon the church was destroyed. Mr. Kenney was then foreman of the General Putnam Company and relates the following incident in connection with that fire. The man who was afterwards convicted of setting fire to the Church, during the progress of the fire, worked at the engine as hard as any member of the company, and not only  that, but after the fire was over, and the company had returned to their house, he wished to have his name proposed as a member; he was accordingly proposed and at once voted in. In a few weeks his accomplice in the crime turned State’s evidence, implicating the young man, as the man who  had set fire to the church. The young man was convicted  and sentenced to a term of ten years in the State Prison at Charlestown. After having served a number of years in prison, a letter appeared from him in the “Bunker Hill  Aurora”, a paper printed in Charlestown. It was a very interesting letter and Mr. Kenney having been informed of it, went to Charlestown to see him. He talked with him and  after leaving, he was strongly impressed that it was wrong for him to remain there longer, while the really guilty one was at large. He interested others sufficiently to get a release from prison for him. The young man came to Danvers after leaving the prison, and remained over night with Mr. Kenney. Afterwards he went to work in a brush factory, probably at Natick, He made two brushes for Mr. Kenney, one of which he still has in his possession. Mr. Kenney did not see him after this until one day about the first of the Civil War, when he met him in Boston. He had enlisted. He went to the front and sometime during the war was killed.”

  • An 1884 Map of Danvers, Essex County, Massachusetts shows the residence of William J.C. Kenney near the foot of Peabody Street in the upper right-hand corner of this image.

Residence of W. J. C. Kenney in 1884 (click to enlarge)

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