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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walter Whitman, Sr. and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 18(?)-28 February 1848

[Dear Parents,]

...2 Our captain though[t] he would run the risk and save the time (it takes some time longer to go through the canal) so he got a flat-boat and took out some of the freight, and we started to go over the falls.3 Father can judge how fast we went, when I tell him it is a fall of twenty feet, within a space of three miles. And what is most dangerous, the bottom is covered with very large rock which leave a very small channel for the boat. When you get about the middle there is a large rock in this channel, and one on each side of it, the one on the right side is a little distance from the one in the middle, just room enough for a boat to pass through. So you have to take a very sudden turn, or the boat is smashed all to peices. It happened we got off with a little bump on each rock, we should not have got that (for we had the best pilots that could be found) but one wheel would not work. The fun of the whole thing was, the fright we all had, some of the passengers went to bed, others walked the cabin floor, looking as gloomy as if they were going to be hung. Altho I was frightened a good deal, it was not so much as some of the men were. If the boat had sunk we were within a few feet of the shore, but I dont think we could have got there, the current was so swift.

Mother, you have no idea of the splendor and the comfort of these western river steam-boats. The cabin is on the deck, and state rooms on each side of it, their are two beds in each room. The greatest of all these splendors is the eating (you know I always did love eating) department. Every thing you would find in the Astor house in New York, You find on these boats.

I will give you a little description of the way we live on board. For breakfast we have: coffee, tea, ham and eggs, beef steak, sausages hot cakes, with plenty of good bread sugar &c &c. For dinner: roast beef d[itt]o mutton d[itt]o veal boiled ham roast turkey d[itt]o goose with pie and puddings and for supper every thing that is good to eat.4...

Saturday noon  Last night we had a very hard storm, it rained hard and blew harder. We expect to get as far as Cairo to night on the Mississipi river. Nothing has occurred since yesterday of importance

Sunday night. We have arrived at last, at New Orleans we came in on Friday night about ten o'clock. Saturday  Walter found a board in Poydrass st cor St Charles

You must dirrect your letters thus, Walter Whitman, New Orleans, La. Saturday it was a drizzely rainy day.

I hope[e] they dont have many of them

Monday. Yesterday was quite warm. I saw a good many peach trees in blossom to day. Walter will get the first number of his out on Sunday next.

Dear Mother I must bid you good bye for a little while. I will write to you again pretty soon.

Dear Father I will write to you also pretty soon  until then good bye one and all

Jefferson Whitman

Dear Mother, write often


  • 1. Very little is known about Jeff Whitman before 1848, but one can, perhaps, gather something about his early relationship with Walt on the basis of the latter's short sketch, "My Boys and girls" (1844). Here Walt mentions many family members, but he reserves his fondest words for Jeff: "Around the waist of the sagacious Jefferson have I circled one arm, while the fingers of the other have pointed him out words to spell."

    In the 1840s, while Walt experimented with fiction and poetry, he devoted his greatest efforts to journalism. He edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from March 1846 until about January 21, 1848, when he was replaced because he denounced slavery and supported the Wilmot Proviso. Fortunately, a few weeks later, on February 10, 1848, J. E. ("Sam") McClure met the newly unemployed journalist in New York and offered him a job with the New Orleans Crescent. Walt accepted the post and also procured a position for Jeff as office boy. On February 11, the brothers began the two-week trip south described in Jeff's first letter. Once in New Orleans, Walt became a father figure in a very real sense: for three months he was Jeff's guardian, tutor, and role model.

  • 2. The first page or two of this letter is missing. [back]
  • 3. The falls of the Ohio River, located just below Louisville. Walt Whitman also described this section of the journey in "Excerpts from a Traveller's Note Book—" (Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose [UPP] of Walt Whitman [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921], 1:189). [back]
  • 4. Walt Whitman noted that despite the high quality of the food "everybody gulps down the victuals with railroad speed" (UPP, I, 188). [back]
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