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Travel accounts are among my favorite historical sources. Recently, while doing research on the mosquito and malaria in antebellum Arkansas, I came across a letter written in 1852 by a Texas-bound traveler which illuminates a darker side to early Arkansas and its residents.

The Arkansas Family Historian, the journal of the Arkansas Genealogical Society, has published a great many historical resources over the past half-century. The summer 2015 edition contains an article titled "A Trip Through Arkansas in 1852," which includes a letter by Isaac W. Cox of Fayette County, Texas, dated November 1852, and addressed to his "Respected Friends" back in Virginia.

Cox began his letter in a relatively upbeat manner, telling of arriving "in the Far West." They had traveled overland as a family, including at least one enslaved "boy," from Lee County, Va,. to the vicinity of modern La Grange in southeast Texas. Cox was proud of the fact that the family made the trip in only two months and eight days--including seven days laid up with malaria in Washington (Hempstead County).

He was less pleased with the cost of the trip, $95.75. Much of that cost must have been for ferry charges, but it would also include fees paid to a physician in Washington and the cost for a small coffin in which to bury a six-day-old baby.

Isaac William Cox was born about 1820 at the small town of Jonesville, Va. Situated near the Cumberland Gap high in the Allegheny Mountains, Jonesville would have been considered a relatively safe place to grow up. At least the area was free of the swamps which harbored the malaria-spreading mosquito.

Malaria usually results about two weeks after a person is bitten by an infected female Anopheles mosquito. Single-cell microorganisms, tiny parasites, work their way into the bloodstream and result in severe fever, chills, tiredness, and infections that can cause death--especially in children. Having never been exposed to malaria, the Cox family was highly susceptible, as we shall see.

Isaac and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Woodward, had at least four children as they packed all their possessions in what was apparently a single covered wagon and set off for Texas. Just before departing, Isaac traded for a new horse, a mare which "stood the trip fine and is now with foal."

The two-horse team pulling the wagon met many challenges during the more than 1,200-mile journey. Isaac, who complained in his letter about having to borrow an unfamiliar steel tip pen to compose his letter, also complained mightily about the roads. Though the worst single stretch was a road in Tennessee, Isaac concluded definitively that "Arkansaw had the worst roads on earth."

Having crossed the Mississippi River at Memphis, the Cox family encountered high water as they traveled across what is today St. Francis County. Isaac, who had lived his entire life in the mountains, was not happy with "land level as a floor." He especially complained about "swamps and mud up to the axle tree [of the wagon] for 25 miles ..."

"We would wade in mud and water knee deep and cut a way through cypress scrub and cane brakes," Isaac wrote. Occasionally the Cox party would come across "wagons and horses bogged down and waiting for other travelers to come along to help pull them out."

Eventually the family made its way to Little Rock where it crossed the river on one of two ferries serving the city. Emerging from the lowlands at Little Rock, the family made much progress. They crossed the Saline on the ferry at Benton, and the ferry at Rock Port took them across the Ouachita.

Isaac was forced to halt his journey at Washington due to illness and the birth of a child. Employing a prudish euphemism, Isaac wrote that "Elizabeth was taken sick on the same evening we got there, and a little after dark she gave birth to a fine daughter--the baby lived only six days."

Isaac reported the distressing news that he was so sick when his daughter died that "I was unable to sit up." He sent his two sons--the only members of the family still mobile--to get a coffin "and they got a fine one already made and dug the little grave and buried the baby."

The family left Washington early on the morning following the burial. Both Isaac and Elizabeth were still too weak to stand, so they lay in the wagon while the sons drove the team. Isaac explained the rapid departure: "You must know it was a distressing time. The reason we started on so quick [was because] almost everybody in the country was sick with fever and a great many dying. The physician that tended us advised us to leave at once or we might all die."

A full month had elapsed by the time Isaac wrote back home, and much of his grief and sorrow had been replaced by a visceral disgust for Arkansas--its people as well as the sickly conditions. "I wish I could portray the dismal condition of that country. Its inhabitants are no more than pirates and highway robbers and look like the picture of death. The mosquitoes have sucked [out] their blood and they are like petrified skeletons going out as pack horses for the devil."

I suspect the reference to highway robbers referred to the relatively high prices charged by local merchants and farmers. He had earlier complained about having to buy green corn for his horses since quality grain was not available.

Isaac and Elizabeth built a life in Texas for a decade before her death in 1862. The following year he married Mary Eubank, with whom he had a child given the exotic name of Didama. The family lived in several Texas towns before moving to Oklahoma. Isaac died in Oklahoma in 1895.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 09/01/2019

Print Headline: Traveling in sickness and in health


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