A Letter Home from Mecklenburg, Virginia, 1849
January 19, 2010
In the 1840s, the Northern and Southern United States were still quite distinct regions, both socially and economically. The South focused on agriculture, and was still very rural. The North developed larger cities and various industries. Plantation life and slavery dominated the lives of Southerners. A newly acquired letter in our collection (see image at left), dated July 8, 1849, captures the rural life of pre-war Virginia from a Northern point of view. The author of the letter, N. H. Hubbard, was a Northerner (from Massachusetts) who visited Mecklenburg County in southern Virginia, and wrote a letter home to his brothers and sisters.
The letter contains a description of a Masonic funeral, a "barbacue" in the woods, and a hunt on horseback with hounds. Hubbard expresses amazement at all of these activites, as they were quite different from his life back in Massachusetts.
First, Hubbard described the Masonic funeral. He writes that the funeral took place "under a large arbor built in the front yard, the house was also full so we took seats in the arbor." He reports that there were about 100 Masons from 4 different lodges who marched in procession two-by-two for the Masonic funeral of a Mr. Parish. He describes the Masons as dressed in white aprons, white scarves, with a piece of white fabric around their hats. The account continues, "The grave was not in the field, a short distance from the house and was surrounded by posts, with a rope, passing around them, so as to form a large circle." Hubbard and the rest of the spectators stayed outside the rope. The Masons marched into the circle headed by a man carrying a large Bible and then stood in a ring around the open grave. Four Masons placed a black piece of board in the shape of a coffin in the grave. Another read from the Bible and talked to the other Masons. Then "they put in a white lambskin aprin [sic], which they said was an emblem of innocence." The Masons circled the grave and each one threw in a piece of cedar, an emblem of faith according to Hubbard's account. And, in fact, Hubbard was correct: The cedar tree is known for its long lasting qualities and is considered a symbol of eternity in Freemasonry.
Hubbard further recounts the Masonic funeral, explaining that the Masons at the funeral "all stood in a ring again, and clapped their hands first over their heads, and then across the breast, then down at the side, repeating it 3 times." This "salute" is known as the public "grand honors," and is still used in Freemasonry today. Finally, one Mason from each lodge threw a spade of earth on the grave and they all took turns until it was filled.
In addition to the Masonic funeral, Hubbard also describes other local events, including a July 4th "barbacue" held in the woods by the Virginians he was with. This was a new way of celebrating Independence Day to this Northerner. First a large ditch, or pit, was dug "as long as your school house" and 2 or 3 feet deep. Next, hickory poles were laid across it. Finally, the sheep, lambs, and shoats [piglets] were dressed whole and spread across the poles to roast. They were then rubbed continuously with butter, pepper, salt, and vinegar. Live red coals from a nearby fire were "shoveled in under the meat to keep it roasting."
And finally, another activity that Hubbard describes in his letter home is the gentlmen's hunt. He writes that these Virginia hunters, with horns around their neck and shoulders, took a pack of hounds with them out to hunt. When the hunters wanted to call their pack of hounds together, they would blow the horn. Even though there were several packs of hounds out, each dog responded to its own horn as well as its name. While this method of hunting was traditional in the South, it was quite novel to this Northerner.
Autograph Letter signed by N. H. Hubbard to his Brothers and Sisters, Mechlenburg county, Virginia, 1849. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, A2009/78/1.