James McMurry’s letter to the “grands”

Today’s post is about a letter that James Miller McMurry wrote to his “Grands”—presumably his grandnephew Arthur (Art) and Art’s wife Ezelpha. I received a photocopy of this letter from my grandmother, Dorothy Ruth McMurry Black—Arthur’s first cousin. I saw the original letter in 1990 when visiting Art, and I’m hoping someone in the family still has this letter.

I hadn’t read this letter in over 25 years, and upon re-reading it I discovered a bounty of new information: I learned of another two relatives who fought in the Civil War, including one who possibly died at Shiloh. I realized that the recipient was my cousin Arthur Edgar McMurry, not my great-great-grandfather Arthur Webster McMurry. I learned a bit about James McMurry’s wife Grace Aitken and her life before she and James met. I learned a bit more about the timing of the McMurry’s move to Arkansas, and the location of their land there. I got a bit of description of the area around James’ last home, in Sutter County, California. I also learned a bit more about James’ adopted son and his latest sailing voyage.

Let me start with a transcription of the letter:

May 5th Started this a month ago, not in good condition since Tap #4 not so good internally, reduced only 5 inches too portly already.


Mr. and Mrs. Arthur McMurry


Dear Grands:—


I am late about telling you that I was much pleased to receive your Christmas Greeting, I was not feeling very well about that time, as I was full, not the usual chistmas Liquor, but 3 gallons of serum in hold No. 1—which is not very pleasant for a month before Taps the 2nd of which was Jan 10th. 3rd one March 28″—4th due about the time of my 84th mile post. —A continuous quarterly performance, I understand that its young things that are sappy, so this must be my second childhood, that we hear about, —haha!—


I am hopeing you will escape the present world war, in which the U.S. will soon be shooting. I don’t know of any McMurry’s in first world war,—there was an Uncle of Ella and I, in the Civil War. —(civil compared to present methods) His name was Thomas, was killed at [continued below]

the battle of Shilo-hill. I have a splinter from Andersonville Prison¹ — The Horor of the Civil war, — A bullet picked up on the battlefield of Duca, Miss, 27 years after the battle², by Oliver H. Smith, a Neph. of my mother’s, who lived with Uncle Josh, (Miller) at Pasadena Cal, was Capt. in an Indiana regiment, also a lock of hair, said to be from the head of Jefferson Davis, was authentic memoranda with it, but has been lost. — This was given my wife when a girl in Baltimore, Md. — Would you like to have these articles? They will not be of interest to any one here after I am gone — I am not good at figuring out relationship, but both Uncle Tom and Cousin Oliver are Kin of yours.


My wife worked in a Baltimore Studio 3 years. Some time previous to our acquaintance — She was Native of Brooklyn, N.Y.


I would sure like to see my Great Grand Niece. Cant you send me a snap shot? I would like to know where Mays’ girls are, and their names. I am getting to be a way back number, [continued below]

Corrections ¹, Seems to me now, if was Libby Prison, at town of Andersonville. You can determine from some book in City Library which is right — there was memo, with the splinter, but is lost. I remember that after the war, father had an illustrated book about that prison + its horrors. — Was and old [tobacco?] warehouse, situated on bank of ___ river. ² Not picked up by Oliver Smith but kept by him. memo, with it.


After some thinking, it seems to me my wife said she was told that when Jeff Davis had a hair cut the same was sold in small bits for the good of the cause. (to raise money) was how the person got it that gave it to her, —I think this is right.


I suppose that at some time I have shown these, and lost the two memos. I well know that I had them.

We moved to Ark, Feb. 1874, where we bought a quarter section of land partly timber part Prairie, on one corner + adjoining, was still visible the marks, (grass not perfect) where [continued below]

there had been a Confederate camp, showing thus –> OOOOO

We picked up several bullits like this one.


That was 3 miles from the town of Carlisle. — The farm was about a mile from Memphis + Little Rock R.R. and the town in R.R. and our P.O. On a July 4″ Picnic, we carried the first U.S. Flag, that any one had dared to unfurl there. I held the flag, a big beauty we had taken with us from Ills. Your grandfather was with some Base Ball boys. My father was driving a. On the way, a couple of Southern Young men came riding up, Pistols in boot legs (their custom) rifles in hand, one shouted, “By G— guess we had better get away from here, before bullets come over this way.” Said father, “I think you had, I have as good a barker as ever spit fire.”


Exit young rebs, — All we had was Base Ball bats. — Well this may not interest you, But as we get older we live more + more in the past. We went on to picnic with the few Northern fellas, Hated Yankees, that were there [continued below]

West of us about 7 miles is “the Buttes” — An ancient volcano cone, that looms up out of the level valley, jagged and high peaks. They say there is a lake in the Crater, + a stream runs down on the west side with a waterfall up toward the crater. — Mrs. Dewey  + son, close by, took Mrs. C_ + I around one Sunday to go up to waterfall. Drove as far as he could, then we started climbing on a trail that follows the creek.


[in margins:] Buttes is privately owned + fenced for pasture. Miles of stone fence. Springs for water.


But Mrs. D being an extra heavy weight, + Mrs. C, plenty stout, + I no good afoot, we did not get far. The ashes over this valley made the soil, and is one reason so much alkali land. — Not right here tho. Soil is wonderfully fertile. — They plant the garden in ditches, I call it [continued below]

the Jungle. — If a small bed diked around to irrigate — they gather bushels of vegetables from among the weeds. Can only pull them when wet, + the vines come up with them. — We had 4 mo. of rain, and no end yet to cold wind.

The boy George left Frisco March 2nd in S.S. Genl. Grant, for the Orient to go as far South as Singapore the great English naval base. (Did not mention Australia). Thence back via Cape Horn, up west coast S.A. + to trinidad, (where U.S. base is being built.) to N.Y. + back thru Panama Canal to Frisco. — Due back about July.


Had this on the blocks some time, On 23rd George came in, thumbed or Hitch hiked his way back across Pacific from Hong Kong, India. Is painting kitchen. — Taps #4 on the 29″ am getting on feet again. For 3 or 4 weeks, legs + feet swell back before Taps.


Wishing all the best of luck, Uncle James

Some thoughts on some topics mentioned in James’ letter:

  • The recipient of the letter is almost certainly Arthur Edgar McMurry, the grandson of James’ brother Arthur Webster McMurry (my 2nd-great-grandfather).
  • The letter is undated, but there are enough clues to allow me to date it to just after May, 5, 1941.
  • The “taps” appear to have been a medical procedure that involved drawing off excess fluid. The letter predates the invention of dialysis, so it must have been some other procedure.
  • This letter pushed me to uncover the identity of “Oliver H. Smith, a Neph. of my mother’s.” I have a photocopy of a photo from Pasadena, California, dated 1899 with James McMurry, Oliver Smith, and Josh Miller (see image at right). I hadn’t initially noticed the “GAR” (Grand Army of the Republic) note, but in light of James’ description of Oliver as a Captain in an Indiana regiment, it makes sense. James’ mother Elizabeth Miller had seven brothers: David, Benjamin, Solomon, Isaac, Joshua, John, and Aaron. Of these, none appear to have had a son named Oliver, so I’m going to have to continue to look into this.
  • Which relative died at Shiloh? According to James, his name was Thomas and he was an uncle to himself and his sister Ella, which would mean he would have been either Thomas McMurry or Thomas Miller. His mother had no brother named Thomas, but his father had a younger brother named Thomas (Thomas Hisner McMurry) who died at the Battle of Champion Hill in Mississippi on May 16, 1863 (not the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862). James would have been just shy of 6 years old on May 16, 1863, so I suspect that his young age led to him confused the facts about his uncle’s death when he recounted it in this letter nearly 80 years later.
  • The tidbit about James’ wife Grace having worked in a Baltimore studio for three years may help me uncover the currently unknown history of Grace between 1880 (when still living in Brooklyn) and 1890 (when she married James in Port Townsend in the Washington Territory.
  • Who were Mrs. C and Mrs. Dewey?
  • James’ adopted son George wasn’t due back until July, but apparently arrived back three months early (April 23?) after hitchhiking his way back from Hong Kong. What happened to get him coming back early in such an unusual way? The story of George Faulkner McMurry is one I hope to uncover and tell someday not too far off. He was apparently quite the stereotypical hard-drinking, hot-tempered sailor, and yet James and he appear to have had a close if sometimes strained relationship. Was George part of the reason an elderly James left Washington for California?

5 thoughts on “James McMurry’s letter to the “grands”

  1. Thanks for another interesting blog.

    In reference to the beginning Of James’ letter stating “I don’t know if any McMurrys in the First World War…”

    My Great Grandfather, Otis “Cactus Jack” McMurry of Pittsburgh, KS served in the Army as a Marksmanship Instructor stationed in France during WWI. He later made a living as a gunsmith in Pittsburgh.

    There’s quite a bit of documented history available on Great Grandpa McMurry. If you are interested please let me know.

    Thanks, Jeremy McMurry

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Thanks for your comment—it’s always great to see another new face reading this blog.

      I’m interested to learn how we’re related. I’m guessing we are, as pretty much every U.S. McMurry/McMurray I’ve researched has ended up being related. Where do your McMurrys hail from, before Kansas I mean?

      All the best,


  2. Michael,

    I’m out of town on vacation right now but I have a copy of the McMurry Family History book published in the 70s/80s at home. If you haven’t seen the book, it’s very comprehensive. It traces us back all the way to immigration to America. I should be able to look up James and Thomas and trace them from there forward. Those are both prominent first names in the McMurry Family going back to the 18th century.

    I’ll reply next week after I return home. Thanks, Jeremy

  3. Hi Michael,

    I’m an independent historian working on a project on early women photographers, I’m researching the life and career of Grace McMurry, and found your very informative posts that mention her and her husband (and their adopted sons). I’m going to be giving a talk in Port Townsend on my project in March, and would love to connect with you to see if you have any any more information about Grace that you’ve uncovered since your last post about her. You can reach me through my website, p3photographers.net (it’s a website about my project and the related podcast I do). Thanks in advance!

    –Lee McIntyre

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