Letter from William Baker to Mary Baker regarding life and hardships in Texas, 14 October 1866

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As the Civil War drew to a close many southerners, emotionally and financially defeated, ventured westward in search of better land and new beginnings. Manifest Destiny dominated the American vision in the second half of the nineteenth century and in 1862 Congress enacted the Homestead Act, legislation that enabled people of humble means to claim ownership of property on the frontier. The newly minted national railroad system played a large role in facilitating the movement of Americans to the West.

The letters and journals composed by the men and women who braved the frontier voice the collective American desire for land. Despite extended, and possibly permanent, separation from family members in the East, untamed wilderness, and the constant threat of Indian conflicts, people went West.

No story of the West or westward expansion would be complete without the enduring image of the cowboy hero; William Baker set out to be that cowboy. A native South Carolinian, Baker served in Texas as a Confederate solider during the Civil War. In its aftermath he returned to Texas to start a cattle farm. In this letter Baker describes the difficulties of life on the frontier, including an increasing number of conflicts with Native Americans. He further recounts the number of cattle he owns and the amount of land he has under cultivation.  In lieu of the many hardships he has experienced on the frontier, Baker suggests that the rest of his family is better off in South Carolina. 

Little information is known of William Baker other than the details provided by this letter.  This document is notable for conveying the loneliness and isolation from family, friends, and society that was often experienced on the frontier.  Many settlers paid this price in exchange for new land and new opportunities.


Letter, William Baker to Mary Baker, 14 October 1866.  Manuscripts Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Caroliniana, Columbia, S.C.


[Punctuation has been added and spelling has been corrected]

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The state of Texas Parker County

October the 14 To Mary Baker

Dear Mother I seat myself this morning to drop you a few lines to let you know we are still alive and able to get round.  My health is not good I have something like the [physics?].  Sarahan’s health is not good.  She is able to tend to her business.  The rest of the family is all well.  We hope these few lines may reach you and find you all well and doing well.  Mother it has been a long time since we have heard from you.  I have come to the conclusion that a great portion of my friends in Carolina may be disturbed by this cruel war as surely some of them would think it naught of us a few lines to let us know who was still alive.  The times in this country since the break up of the war has been very bad.  We have had no protection from government the Indians and [?] broke into our  country at a desperate rate.  They kill women and children carry off [?] drive horses and cattle out by thousands.  Our legislation in now in session they have made some provisions for the frontier.  This war has told the tale who is honest and who is a thief.  Oh what a great thing it is to be honest and truthful and to have the law of Christ [shed a broad in our souls?].  So we can stand the persuasions of a frowning world.  I have had some little experience of things during this war.  I started in the Cavalry series to drive beef to Vix-

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Burg [Vicksburg] before the fall of that place.  While I was running stock one cold, sleety day my horse fell with me and caught my leg between him and the frozen ground and broke my leg and mashed my ankle.  I had to lay five weeks on my back before I could turn either way and have my leg lifted like a helpless babe which has made a cripple of me for life.  I have got so I can walk around the farm and tend my business.  I can’t follow a plough.  I can ride and tend to my stock.  We have some 300 head of cattle, 26 head of horses, 320 acres of land, 70 acres in cultivation.  Crops this year was tolerable.  I raised 400 bushels of wheat.  Wheat is 100 cents per bushel.  Corn 50 cents per bushel.  12 ½ beef steers $15.00.  Cows and calves from ten to $12.  Horses from $50 to $100.  Money is very scarce.  Coffee 3 lbs to the dollar.  Sugar 5 lbs, calico from 20 to 25 per yard.  There is a great many people moving out from this country on the account of the Indians.  I don’t advise any person to come to this country at this time without protection.  We can’t stay here in any safety.  I will just say to all of my friends if they can make a living there in that Country they had better stay there than to break up and move over the country.  I am well aware that if you could count my steps and experience what you have that you would say so to Texas won’t make a living for you if you have stock here you have to run after it continually then the Rogue will get a portion.  We have some good men in this country, have many bad ones.  The Lord only knows.


I will tell something concerning our children.  Mary A and Harriet M are fine, hearty girls, Calvin is a tall, slender boy big enough to drive a team of cattle and ride a pony and herd stock.  Lawrence Orr is a fine boy big enough to ride a pony.  Elizabeth Zerd is big enough to go to school.  Our baby Bailey Lay [?] two years old February last.  [A whaling big boy?].  Ann and Sharlet is still living with us yet Ann has three boys.  Mother I want you to write or cause it to be done after you get this letter.  Speedily I received a letter five days since from G Lewis stating that G L Baker was dead [although?] I’m [? ? ?] In his letter that W R Baker was dead also S G Clayton was dead.  The last letter I received from Carolina was soon after the death of father.  I want to hear what has become of sister Mary, tell me all you know about the connection.  Where Brother Jacob’s wife and family is and how they are getting along, tell me who Sister Adeline married and where she lives, tell me where Sister Harriet is and how she is doing, tell me how Thomas Stewart and wife are getting along.  Give all my connections my best respect.  It looks like out of so many connections as I have there that I might get a letter once in four years.  Tell me all you know about the Lynch family Sarahan wants to know how many of the brothers died in the war, you all have a better chance to mail letters there than

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I do here.  I do suppose you had to go to old Pickensville to mail and on the way expect to meet a drove of Indians that would kill you and take your [?].  I don’t think you would send many letters for I am very doubtful that you don’t send many this way.  Give my best love to Uncle [and Aunt Allgood?], tell Uncle to write me.  It would be good to know how Father Lynch’s estate was managed.  I requested Uncle Allgood to inquire into that estate and write the particulars.  We don’t much expect to ever get anything.  Still if the land comes into sale we should have our portion, we would be glad to hear how it was wound up.  We have never heard a thing since Father Baker in his lifetime wrote the will was no account.  They can all understand that we have enough to live on although still we don’t want to be cheated out of rights.  Tell me weather old Tayne is having yet or not.  I request my people to give my best love to all inquiring friends and let any person or persons read this that wish to.  Harriet, I request you to write to me, I expect you to have heard that W R Baker is dead, if you are still single and living at the old place tell me how things look round there and how you are getting along.  I must close my letter.  I want no exception taken from this letter.  I send the [?] to one and all, I give my best love to you all.  I ask you all to try to meet me in heaven where parting of friends will be no more.  Farewell at this time.

Wm Baker

Correlating SC Social Studies Academic Standards:

Standard 5-2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the continued westward expansion of the United States.

Indicator 5-2.1 Explain how aspects of the natural environment—including the principal mountain ranges and rivers, terrain, vegetation, and climate of the region—affected travel to the West and thus the settlement of that region.

Indicator 5-2.2 Illustrate the effects of settlement on the environment of the West, including changes in the physical and human systems.

Indicator 5-2.3 Summarize how railroads affected development of the West, including their ease and inexpensiveness for travelers and their impact on trade and the natural environment.

Indicator 5-2.4 Provide examples of conflict and cooperation between occupational and ethnic groups in the West, including miners, ranchers, and cowboys; Native Americans and Mexican Americans; and European and Asian immigrants.

Indicator 5-2.4 Explain the social and economic effects of the westward expansion on Native Americans, including changes in federal policies, armed conflicts, opposing views concerning land ownership, and Native American displacement.

Standard 8-5: The student will demonstrate an understanding of major social, political, and economic developments that took place in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Indicator 8-5.4 Compare migration patterns within South Carolina and in the United States as a whole in the late nineteenth century, including the population shift from rural to urban areas, migration between regions of the United States, the westward expansion, and the motivations for migration and settlement.

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