Stanley Nelson

CREEKS ABOUND in northwestern Catahoula Parish, including Sugar Creek (above). Others include Hooter, Haggerty, Kennedy, Rawson, Ford, Hawthorne, Rocky, Salem and Brushy. (Concordia Sentinel photo)

In a letter to his mother in January 1845, Seargent S. Prentiss, expressed concern about one of his three sisters: “ … were it not for the illness of dear Abby, the past year would be one of pleasant remembrances; but I trust that cause of sorrow will be removed, and her health fully restored.”

Prentiss was a lawyer and a native of Maine where his mother still resided. He was 37 years old, newly married and a father. He had arrived in Natchez in 1827 looking to make his way in the world. He taught school in Jefferson County while studying the law. Shortly after earning his law license, he moved to Vicksburg where he developed a thriving practice and became renown across the country as an orator, Mississippi politician and Whig Party leader.

However, a reverse in fortunes – mostly due to an adverse U.S. Supreme Court ruling that took from him prime real estate investments in Vicksburg during a national depression – he was forced to move to New Orleans to practice law. He wrote brother George: “My property seems to be useless in the payment of debts, and as I have no lamp of Aladdin, some of my debts will have to wait a little …”

To cheer them up, he and his wife, Mary Williams, often visited Mary’s family home in Natchez.

“We are going to Longwood,” Prentiss informed his brother, “and shall make a visit of eight to ten days. Mary and the children are in excellent health; indeed, I never saw such strong and healthy children in my life.”

Abby had experienced health problems throughout her life, but by the mid-1840s her illness appeared to be worsening. Sister Anna had spent almost a year with her brother in 1840. Now Abby planned to travel south to stay for an extended period with Seargent.

“We have been expecting a letter from Abby with great anxiety,” Prentiss wrote home to Maine, “but have not received one for several weeks. I am anxious for her to get here … and regret exceedingly that I could not go for her … Mary and the little one are dying to see her. Jeanie talks a great deal about Aunt Abby, and we are all truly delighted at the prospect of having her with us all winter. I am certain she will pass a pleasant winter, and return, I trust, with her health fully restored.”

‘AUNT ABBY’ ARRIVES

By November 1845, Abby was with her brother’s family in New Orleans. Prentiss wrote his mother:

“We have been in New Orleans a week, and are now fairly settled down in our own house, and begin to feel as if we were at home. We have a very comfortable house, in a delightful situation, and are all quite pleased with our move. We had to stay two or three days at the hotel; but we all went to work immediately, putting up furniture, and laying down carpets. You would have laughed to see me … sewing away at the carpets, with Mary and Abby,” who was “of great service, and did as much or more than any of us; so as you may judge how her health has improved. You can't tell how delighted we are to have her with us.

“The children are already as fond of her as they are of me, and ‘Aunt Abby’ seems so necessary a part of the family that I don't see how we shall be able to part with her next spring. But the best of all is, her health has improved so wonderfully that you would hardly know her. She has scarcely any cough, and walks a mile or two through the city without fatigue. She says she can hardly realize the rapid and favorable change. Indeed, she improved all the way on her route, notwithstanding the fatigue and exposure of traveling.

“Now that we are settled down, and she can get a little rest, she will improve still more rapidly. The only regret I feel about her being here is that you are left lonely. If you were only with us, my dear mother, how happy we should all be … Abby is going to send you a letter today, so I will stop. All join in love and kind remembrances.”

‘A TERRIBLE WINTER’

On New Year’s Day 1846, Prentiss updated his mother on the family’s life in New Orleans and on Abby:

“We have at length got fairly settled down in New Orleans, and begin to feel at home. I am much pleased with the change, and like New Orleans a great deal better than Vicksburg. We are quite pleasantly situated, and have a nice house. I am gratified with my prospects here, and do not doubt I shall succeed very well.

“ … The weather has been unusually cold and rainy, though now it is delightful. It is astonishing how Abby has stood it. I think she has continued to improve ever since she came out, notwithstanding the bad weather, and I have no doubt if she continues to hold on till the warm spring days, she will then improve rapidly.

“You cannot imagine what a comfort it is to have her with us. Mary loves her very much, and the children are as fond of her as they are of their mother. I don't know how we should have got along without her this winter.”

But by spring, Abby appeared to be taking a turn for the worst.

In April 1846, Prentiss wrote his youngest brother George:

“We have had a terrible winter. I never knew so much inclement weather in one season. It has been raining now for four or five days. My health has not been as good during the winter as usual. I have suffered severely from inflammatory cold; but I am now much better.

“Mary and the children are quite well, and dear Abby as well as we

could expect; though she suffers much from her cough. I think as soon as we get fairly into our spring months, she will improve rapidly. She is certainly a great deal better than when she arrived.”

‘WE WILL WEEP TOGETHER’

By the summer, Abby, still suffering from a bad cough, returned to the northeast. In August, Prentiss wrote his youngest sister, Mary:

“Abby writes from us from New Bedford that the doctor attributes her cough to a disease of her throat, and not consumption {tuberculosis, a dreaded disease}. God grant it may be so, for then we can entertain some reasonable hopes of her speedy recovery.”

But as the days passed, the family realized that Abby would not recover. By early 1847, she was dead.

In early February, Prentiss attempted to comfort his mother:

“My heart bleeds to the core, as I sit down to mingle my tears with yours, at the terrible misfortune which has befallen us. We have just received George's letter, informing us of the sad event; which, however, we had for some time been anticipating. Still, though I thought I was prepared for it, I cannot realize that it is all over, that I shall never again, in this world, see our dear, dear Abby; so good, so affectionate, so resigned. She was the best of us all, and gladly would I have given my own life to preserve hers.

“But we have consolation, even in our extreme grief; for she was so good, that we know she is now in Heaven, and freed from all care, unless it be that her affectionate heart is still troubled for us, whom she loved so well. We can dwell with satisfaction, after we have overcome the first sharpness of our grief, upon her angel-like qualities, which made her, long before she died, fit for the Heaven where she now is.

“But what shall I say to you, my dearest mother? How shall I express the deep sympathy I feel for your loss, and your sorrow? All I can say is, that I partake of both. You have lost the purest, noblest, and best of daughters; I, a sister, who never, to my knowledge, did a selfish act, or uttered a selfish thought. We will weep together then, my dear mother, and when our tears shall he dried, we will remember the virtues of our dear departed one, and find consolation even in our grief.

‘You, my dear mother, must remember, too, that you have children still spared to you, who love you with all their hearts, and who will strive, if possible, by increased affection, to make amends for the loss they cannot supply; and not only children, but grandchildren, who, though they have never seen, know and love you, as if they had always lived with you … God bless you my dear mother, and give you strength to bear up under this great affliction.”

‘SHE GENTLY FELL ASLEEP’

In his two-volume book of his brother Seargent’s memoirs, George Prentiss wrote:

“Abby Lewis Prentiss died on Saturday, the 30th of January, 1847, at the age of thirty-two. Long and wearisome sufferings, such as usually attend pulmonary disease, preceded the final struggle. It was towards the close of a stormy winter’s day, that she gently ‘fell asleep.’ A little while before, she had imagined herself in a ‘very beautiful region,’ which her tongue in vain attempted to describe, surrounded by those she loved.

“Among her last half-conscious utterances, was the name of her brother Seargent. The next morning witnessed a scene of such glorious beauty and loveliness as made the presence of Death seem almost incredible. The snow, and mist, and gloom had ceased; and as the sun rose, clear and resplendent, every visible object—the earth, trees, houses—shone as if enameled with gold and pearls and precious stones. It was the Lord's day; and well did the aspect of Nature symbolize Him who is ‘the Resurrection and the Life.’"

In thankfulness that Abby was no longer suffering, George quoted the character Portia in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”:

“The quality of mercy is not strained,

“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

“Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

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