Roadside inn

A 19th century roadside inn – sometimes known as a tavern – was a welcomed site for travelers. Most inns were much smaller than this one and not often comfortable. Sometimes a half-dozen or more guests were confined to one room. In Mississippi in the 1830s, attorney Seargent Prentiss stayed in many taverns and homes as he traveled the court circuit. (Credit: “The Inn on the Roadside,” E. Sachse & Co., publisher, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.) 

In the days when lawyers banded together two centuries ago to travel from court to court in Mississippi – before the days of the railroad – they traveled together on horseback. 

Every county had a courtroom and cases to be handled. There were the river counties of Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne, Warren and Wilkinson – which could be reached by steamboat part of the way -- and the interior counties of Hinds, Rankin, Madison, Yazoo, Holmes and Carroll. Sometimes a Natchez or Vicksburg lawyer would find himself in the middle of a wilderness trail camped out for the night with the stairs as his ceiling. 

Most times, however, the lawyers would find a tavern or inn in some small settlement that took in nightly guests. One room might be filled to the brim with lawyers sprawled across the beds and on the floor. 

Like most young men, they were easily bored. They occupied their spare time by drinking and gambling. They talked law and discussed the cases before them. 

Among those lawyers on the Mississippi circuit in the 1830s was Seargent S. Prentiss, a brilliant, well educated man who was born and reared in Maine. Prentiss was a man on the rise – destined to become a great politician and orator and soon to be renown as one of the best trial lawyers in the country. 

When he arrived in Natchez in the late 1820s, Prentiss taught school while studying for his law license at Rokeby Plantation in Jefferson County. One of his pupils was Joseph Dunbar Shields, who years later wrote a book about Prentiss. By the early 1830s, Prentiss had established a law practice in Vicksburg, then a thriving town attracting new residents every day. 

“Lawyers … radiating from Vicksburg, had to travel (always on horseback) hundreds of miles into the interior,” wrote Shields. “They would generally start together, armed with briefs and baggage in their saddle-bags. 

“They were almost all in the heyday of young manhood and brimful of enthusiasm, and, not infrequently, of ardent spirits. Although Prentiss, from his physical infirmity {a lame right leg}, was a poor walker, he was an untiring rider, and fairly reveled in it. It was on these legal raids that he would pour out in profusion his fund of anecdote, wit, poetry, pathos, raillery, badinage, and, sometimes, deep philosophy. 

“Arrived at their destination, where the accommodations were often primitive and the fare plain, the fraternity would be huddled together by twos, threes, and sometimes half a dozen, in one room. The days were spent in legal combats in court, the nights in jocularity. Notwithstanding that the labors of the circuit rider were heavy, Prentiss always seemed to thrive upon them. 

“Card-playing was the most usual relaxation, sometimes for mere fun and sometimes for deeper stakes. I have said that the circuit-riders generally went in troops, but on one occasion it so happened that Prentiss got caught, out on a circuit, alone at a little house between two creeks during a freshet, therefore he could neither retreat nor advance, and there were no books or papers with which he could while away the time; he consequently became very restless, but in looking around he noticed that the clock upon the mantel did not run on tick, but was dumb—here was a chance for something to do. He called the landlady.” 

‘ARE YOU A CLOCK-MAKER?’ 

Sheilds quoted the conversation: 

Prentiss: "Madame, is your clock out of order?" 

Landlady: "Yes; it hasn't run for years." 

Prentiss: "Why don't you mend it?" 

Landlady: "Because we haint got any clock-makers about." 

Prentiss: "I can put it in apple-pie order if you'll let me." 

Landlady: "Are you a clock-maker?" 

Prentiss: "No, madame." 

Landlady: "Are you a silversmith—did you ever work in a shop?" 

Prentiss: "No, madame." 

Landlady: "Well, how can you expect to repair my clock? No, sir, you mustn't touch it." 

Prentiss: "Well, madame, what'll you take for it?" 

Landlady: "Well, I suppose it's worth a five; you can have it for that anyhow." 

According to Sheilds: “Prentiss closed the bargain at once, paid the money and took down his treasure. He took it all to pieces, cleaned every part and nicely oiled them, then, strange to say, put them together again just as deftly as a clock-maker could have done. The thing started into new life and kept as good time as ever. 

“The question arose, what was he to do with his property when he left? It was ‘an elephant’; it could not run in his saddlebags while it was trotting on horseback! He had no idea, however, of transporting his ‘elephant.’” 

As he was leaving his hostess spoke up. 

Landlady: "What are you going to do with your clock?" 

Prentiss: "I'll make you a present of it. 

Landlady: "Oh, but you paid me for it." 

Prentiss: "That makes no difference." 

According to Shields: “He had killed time in starting it, and that was all he wanted. And so the extempore ‘Yankee clock-maker’ … left, amidst the profuse thanks of the landlady for his kindness and liberality. She little knew what a distinguished man had honored her humble dwelling … “ 

A LETTER HOME 

Prentiss could not stand idle time, but as his workload grew and grew, he longed to return to Maine to see his mother and sisters, whom he missed enormously. Much of his correspondence with his mother dealt with his longing for home: 

“Vicksburg, August 23, 1834.  

“My dear Mother and Sisters: —  

“I suppose, upon seeing a letter dated as late as this, at Vicksburg, it will be almost unnecessary for me to say that I shall not embrace my dear mother and my pretty sisters this summer. I did hope, notwithstanding the detention which I informed you of in my previous letters, that I still would be able to steal away a couple of months this fall, and redeem the promise, which I have broken so often that I presume by this time it has become worthless. But in addition to the business concerning which I have already informed you, there has been an alteration in the time of holding several of the most important courts, at which my engagements require my personal attendance.  

“I start out to attend them in about ten days, so that you will perceive at once the impossibility of my coming home this fall. I will not ask you to be confident that I shall come next year, but I feel confident myself that I shall. This much I do most solemnly promise, that I will make all my arrangements in business, with an eye to doing so, and nothing but inevitable accident shall prevent it.  

“Since I have been in this country, there has not been a year in which I could not have left the State with less sacrifice than during the present. I know it will be gratifying for you to learn, that I feel almost confident of being able, hereafter, to make at least three thousand dollars a year. This year I have attended to more business, than all the time I have been practicing before.  

“I have, in particular, engaged in a great many capital cases, where men have been tried for murder and other enormous crimes, and I have been very successful. Heretofore, I have made little money, and even now, the fees for most of my business are still owing to me. I hope hereafter to be able to do more for those I love. If my views are not too sanguine, I shall be able to gratify myself by so doing.” 

‘I AM IN A GREAT HURRY’ 

Six months later, it was more of the same: 

“Vicksburg, February 7, 1835.  

“My Dear Mother: —  

“I have just returned to Vicksburg, after an absence of six weeks on business. At least two-thirds of my time is spent from home, in attendance upon courts and other professional engagements. This is the occasion of the irregularity, which has, of late, crept into my correspondence. Though I arrived here but yesterday, I am compelled to leave again tomorrow, and shall not be back for several weeks. Indeed, my business presses me so much, that I have hardly time to write the few lines you are reading.  

“Our weather has been exceedingly warm till within two or three days, since which time it has been as cold, I think, as I ever knew it in Maine. Even now, as I write, I hear the earth bursting, and the vessels breaking every instant. It seems, indeed, like old times. I think there is nothing now within the ordinary occurrences of life that can prevent ray coming home next summer. I shall not be able to start till some time in the latter part of June. I anticipate a degree of pleasure beyond anything I have known for years, in this visit.  

“I am in a great hurry, and will have to crave your indulgence for so poor an epistle. I know, however, that I can rely on it; for you are well assured that, whatever may be wanting in my letters, there is nothing wanting in the feelings and warm affections that dictate them. My love to you all; and, with the hope of seeing you soon, I remain  

“Your affectionate son,  

“Seargent” 

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