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Salmons, Brian

The Axtell family letters: discursive

constructions of self and society

at Fort Brooke, Tampa,

Florida, 1844-1850.

Term paper for

ANT4935 “Rethinking Anthropology”

Michael V. Angrosino

and

ANT4432 “The Individual and Culture”

Jay Sokolovsky

Spring 2001

University of South Florida

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Abstract

In this past century, the value of personal documents (oral or written) to the study

of culture has been more fully realized in the social sciences. However, the use of written

correspondence (letters) as primary source material is a particularly underdeveloped area

in anthropology. In this study, a group of letters written in the years 1843 to 1850 by

members of the Axtell family of Tampa, Florida will serve as primary source material.

Some terminology and ideas of discourse analysis will be used to reveal how the writers

create and re-create themselves and their culture in the letters they have written to each

other.

Keywords: personal documents, letter-writing, discourse, social language,

identity formation, frontier Florida.

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Introduction

The use of personal documents, both oral and written, in anthropology (and other

social sciences) has a long history going back to the beginnings of the discipline, since

which time numerous studies have been published (Angrosino, 2001). However,

relatively few of these studies have bothered with the use of letters, principally because

the focus in anthropology has traditionally been upon “primitive”, non-literate cultures

(Kluckhohn, 1951). As a result of post-modern philosophy and its concern with

“reflexivity”, the scope of cultures considered appropriate for anthropological inquiry has

expanded to include newly-literate, non-Western societies, as well as the literate, Western

societies from which the discipline of anthropology sprang.

In the spirit of this paradigm shift, a group of letters written in the 1840’s by

(therefore, literate) members of a white, upper-class American family will serve as the

primary site of analysis in this study. The text of the letters will be analyzed to reveal how

the writers create and re-create their self-identities and their relationships to their culture

and the world around them. The main contention of this paper is that, in these letters, the

writers describe and activate a particular construction of self and society that revolves

around an illusion of control (over nature, other members of society, etc.) and, where

control is impossible, the supplanting of this notion with a fateful outlook of divine

providence. This construction is idiosyncratic to time and place (the historical and

cultural context of the writing of the letters).

Theory and methodology

The theoretical perspective of this study will resemble that of Gullestad in her

study of a Norwegian man’s autobiography (1994), in which she specifies the influence

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of post-modern developments within the field of literary criticism upon her work,

specifically the ‘new historicism’ or ‘poetics of culture’ (see also Poynton & Lee, 2000).

In these approaches, written texts (be they highly structured novels or informal jottings)

are used in the study of culture not only in terms of their content (i.e. ethnographic

detail), but also in terms of their form. In the careful analysis of a text itself, important

themes and ideas structuring the writer’s presentation of content can be made salient and

then correlated to cultural, historical and psychological currents involved in their creation

and realization. The problem approached by this form of inquiry is “how to redefine

narratives in relation to experiences, lives and contexts without reducing the narratives to

the mere reflection on an ontologically prior, essential or empirical reality” (Gullestad,

1994: 124-125)

The main methodological model that will be used in this study is that of discourse

analysis, as presented by Gee (1999). In particular, the ideas behind his terminology of

“socially-situated identities”, “Discourses”, and “Conversations” will be borrowed. His

conception of “social language” will also be used, though in a modified form, to a focus

on the supra-grammatical (e.g. selection of what to write and what not to write about,

selection of words, etc.), rather than grammatical composition.

Historical background

The Axtell family came to Florida in the mid- to late 1830’s from their home in

Batavia, a town in western New York State1. In 1843 they moved to Tampa where the

father/husband of the family, Rev. Henry Axtell, had been assigned as Military Chaplain

to the garrison at Fort Brooke. Henry and his wife, Juliet Lay Axtell, were both born in

1802 (him in New Jersey, her in New York) and they were married in 1830 in New York.

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They had five children, two of whom died young (Alfred Henry, whose death is

mentioned in the letters, and Cornelia Clarisda [Gordon, 1989: 27]). The other three were

Harriet Tracy, born 1831 in New Jersey, Juliet L., born 1834 also in New Jersey, and

Mary Matilda, born 1839 in Florida (U.S. Census 1850). Henry, Juliet, Harriet, Juliet and

Mary Matilda are the authors of the group of letters herein referred to as “the Axtell

family letters.” Most of the letters are addressed to Harriet, who on 24 April 1844 was

sent back to Batavia to attend school (Rumsey, 1964: 83).

The Axtell family letters were written during the period of Harriet’s absence, from

7 May 1844 to 23 December 1850. This also coincides with the period of uneasy peace

between the Second (1838-1842) and Third (1855-1858) Seminole Wars, which were

fought between the U.S. Army, American civilians and Creek and other Indian auxiliaries

on one side and Seminole Indians and escaped African-American slaves (“black

Seminoles”) on the other. The purpose of the wars, from the United States’ perspective,

was to open up the state of Florida for American settlement by entreating the Seminoles

to either move to a reservation in Oklahoma or be killed. These wars were the reason for

the existence of Fort Brooke and, thus, of the Axtells’ presence there and then. Florida

was at this time essentially a frontier, a place of inter-cultural contact, both

confrontational and peaceful (Covington, 1954; Mormino, 1985: 48; Paine, 1843;

Rumsey, 1964: 9; Sprague, 1946). Thus, it is significant that there is very rarely mention,

in the body of the letters, of a person of an ethnic group other than that of the authors

(Rumsey, 1964: 99, 102, 108, 112, 113).2 The reason for this is not to be found in the

relative presence of these groups at Fort Brooke, but rather in the particular construction

of society that is created by the authors in their letters.

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Society, ethnicity and the natural world

One application of discourse analysis is to examine “the distribution of social

goods” that is accomplished through a particular use of language (Gee, 1999: 12, 94). In

other words, how are relationships of power, status, and aspects of social identities (e.g.

gender, race) created and perpetuated through language? The use of language to this end

is an exercise of control (generally, over others): it is a “social language” of control. This

language of control pervades the discourse of the Axtell family letters and will serve as

the point of departure for discussion of them.

As stated above, other ethnicities are conspicuously absent from the narrative of

the letters. In the instances where they are mentioned, it is for an exceptional reason.

Thus, when Harriet’s father writes to her that “our very servant in the kitchen is named

Harriet and her (ebon) face is often seen covered with a peculiar smile of intelligence and

joy as your name dwells upon our lips” (102), he mentions her because of her similarity

in name. In a letter to her friend Lucy, Harriet relates that her mother “has had the honor

of dining with ‘Billy Bowlegs’…the notorious Indian Chief” (99). It is only because

Billy Bowlegs is a chief that he is recognized as an existing in society. A social language

of control is at work here and is constituted by the condition with which “ebon”-faced

Harriet and Billy Bowlegs are included in the narrative: a condition of exceptionality.

Though present in the physical and social reality of Tampa in the 1840’s, ethnic “others”

are presented here as marginal props, largely irrelevant to this particular construction of

society, except in certain exceptional circumstances.

The social language of control operates in a manner parallel to this when the

narrative turns to aspects and objects of the natural world. Just as ethnic minorities’

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inclusion in the narrative depends on the writer’s perception of their relevance, nature

figures into the narrative only when it is made part of society, physically or symbolically.

For example, animals are mentioned only as pets (92, 98, 100, 116). With few exceptions

(e.g. 117), remarks about the landscape and the Fort’s environs are couched in terms of

their being complementary to the writer’s social world and the physical organization of

the military settlement. For example, Juliet relates to Harriet: “The gentleman serenaded

us the other night…they came up on our piazza and we had delightful music. It was a

beautiful moon light night which made it very pleasant” (100).

The correlation between control of nature, control of society and Tampa being a

military settlement is apparent in Harriet’s mother’s description of the town in a letter

dated 2 August 1845: “Tampa is constantly improving in beauty under the Col. hand and

is governed by the same military law and strict discipline - the morning and evening gun

usher in and sound the knell of the departing day, the fires still blaze brightly on those

little stands that remind me so forcibly of the alters erected to the unknown God, the

police still make their rounds and with rakes shovels and broom keep Tampa what it has

ever been, a perfect jewel of neatness” (101). Perhaps influenced by the “military law

and strict discipline” which governs the social life of the officers and soldiers stationed at

Fort Brooke, the Axtells create a picture of a society in control of things external to it

(nature, “others”). These external things recognize the centrality of this society and pay

deference to it in word and action: Harriet’s father tells her that “the very cat on the

carpet moves her whiskers at the mention of your name” (102) and that “ebon”-faced

Harriet “almost cries for joy…when your letters come” (102); her mother relates that a

few days after Harriet’s departure for Batavia, their lackey Dolon appeared “hoe in hand

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– almost the first word he uttered was a request for forgiveness for past impertinence and

an assurance of better conduct in the future” (91). Evidently, the very first words he

uttered were not as important as this request which, when Mrs. Axtell repeats it, places

her in a position of social importance and superiority.

Even the powerful destructiveness of nature must eventually succumb to the

Axtells’ social world. In September 1848 a hurricane passed over Florida and the winds

and flooding laid most of Tampa to waste (124). Juliet related to her sister in a letter

dated 24 October 1848: “Everywhere may be seen the same destruction and could you

see it you might well say ‘Tampa is no more’”(123) and later in the same letter: “A little

after dark the wind subsided and the stars appeared, the elements seeming to say ‘we are

satisfied’” (124). With these words, she emphasizes the control that “the elements” have

over society. However, control is reestablished over nature with the statement,

“Nevertheless that all destroying gale…we have still a snug little parlor, in which to

receive and read your ever welcome letters” (126).

Social integration and being “agreeable”

It has been shown in the previous section how other ethnic groups (e.g. blacks,

native-Americans) are included in the narrative of the Axtell family letters only

marginally and under a condition of exceptionality. The relative exclusion of these

groups is a result of the writer’s perceptions of them as outsiders, not part of the Axtells’

social world. This point can be made more clearly by looking at who is included in the

narrative and, thus, who does form a part of their discursively constructed society. An

examination of the text reveals that most of the people mentioned are officers, members

of the officers’ families and civilians with important social roles (e.g. Mr. Allen, the tutor

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and store-keeper). Significantly, they are almost always mentioned by name. There are a

few instances where these people are straightforwardly stated as members of “our

society”, or as desirable “accessions” to it (e.g. 98, 112, 122). Absent from the list of

persons referred to be name in the letters are volunteers and enlisted soldiers. When

soldiers are referred to, it is as a group and even then their occurrence in the text is often

accompanied by that of an officer (e.g. 105). The lack of references to soldiers as

individuals in the discursively constructed society presented in the letters is probably

indicative of an actual social separation between the officers’ and their families’ social

world and that of the soldiers.

A localized social language is used to describe and define those who belong to the

Axtells’ social world. This social language revolves around the use of the words

“agreeable” and “pleasant” to positively describe and define members of society. Within

the context of the Axtell family letters and the upper-class society that produced them,

these words have specific meanings and, when uttered, they both create and recreate that

society. By using these words in their letters, the writers are communicating to each

other whom is an accepted member of their social group. Sometimes when describing a

person, the words “agreeable” or “pleasant” are used without further elaboration as to

why they are so. Often though, specific characteristics or abilities are mentioned in

association with these words. These are a part of the social language which aids in the

discursive construction of society. Some of the qualities which make an “agreeable”

person include politeness, intelligence, unpretentiousness, industriousness, piety,

conversational ability, vivacity, attentiveness, talent, gentlemanliness, fashion sense and

physical attractiveness. Politeness is mentioned somewhat more than the other qualities

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(98, 104, 112, 125). The two qualities most often mentioned are musical ability and, for

women, a pleasant speaking voice. The use of these criteria to differentiate “agreeable”

people from those who aren’t is apparent in a letter from Juliet to her sister, in which she

speaks of their new German kitchen servant: “As she is a foreigner she speaks broken

English but in so sweet a voice that it is pleasant to her hear and as mother says she does

not seem like a Campwoman” (108). Often many “agreeable” qualities and abilities are

used in conjunction, making their association clear:

“Miss Eagles is a girl of more than common pretensions, not quite so tall as myself,

black eyes and soft hair, and gentle manners mingled with vivacity and

sprightliness, with more than common powers of conversation, with a laugh that

reminds you of Moumerall , and a voice that warbles like the nightingale, and plays

the guitar” (104).

When musical ability is brought up in the narrative, it is sometimes in association with a

specific musical instrument, as with the guitar in the foregoing example (also piano [98,

126] and violin [100]). Singing ability is often mentioned as well. For example, Mrs.

Axtell writes to her daughter, “We have an accession of another Brevet Lt. Named

Wainwright, a fine looking man with a splendid bass voice. He assists us in church music

as do several other officers” (98). The above quotation also demonstrates the association

between two more qualities (musical ability, singing voice specifically, and speaking

voice) and suggests that a good speaking voice is valued because of the speaker’s

potential to participate in the music-making, which is apparently an important aspect of

the Axtells’ social world.

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Associated with use of the words “agreeable” and “pleasant” and their

connotations is the phenomenon of “visiting”. The significance of this word lies not in its

localized meaning, its definition within the social language so to speak, as is the case

with “agreeable” and “pleasant”, but with its function within a social context and the

context of the letter’s narrative. Simply stated, in a social context the purpose of

“visiting” is to establish a person or persons as “agreeable”. It is a form of social

integration and a way of maintaining bonds between people. Textual association of the

word “agreeable” (and its connotations) with the word “visiting” is common: “The next

day Mrs. Brown arrived…quite an agreeable woman, we have exchanged visits. She

sings church music very well” (91). Here, Mrs. Axtell informs her daughter of the arrival

of a new person at Fort Brooke and then designates the new person as “agreeable”. To

back up this designation, she states that she and Mrs. Brown have exchanged “visits”.

Then to further establish her claim she notes a particular quality (the ability to sing

church music) that is deemed “agreeable” by society. In the context of the letters its

purpose is the same, only in an indirect way. When Harriet’s mother writes to her about

the people she interacts with, what is happening in their lives and the life of the

community, she is helping her daughter to maintain social bonds with the “agreeable”

people of Tampa. Harriet must also reciprocate in writing; and she does (her mother’s

remark, “The Col. was gratified by the manner of your mentioning him”[101] attests to

this.) Similarly, her mother is attempting to help integrate her into society by using this

social language with its implicit endorsement of the set of qualities deemed “agreeable”

by society.

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Letter-writing as “visiting”

In the previous section, it was explained that the act of “visiting” is a way of

integrating and maintaining bonds between members of society and that writing of these

encounters in the social language of being “agreeable” accomplishes the same thing, but

on an absentee basis. Mrs. Axtell endorses the various qualities of being “agreeable” by

writing letters in that social language to her daughter. If Harriet had been living in

Florida with her mother at this time, instead of going to school in New York, it is likely

that similar dialogues about being “agreeable” would have transpired between them.

Thus it seems that, in writing these letters, an important enculturative act (the use of a

social language of being “agreeable”) is resituated in a new context: letter-writing. It

could be argued that letter-writing is actually a form of “visiting” and, in fact, there are

numerous references in the narrative of the letters which substantiate this argument. For

example, while describing their new living quarters after the hurricane destroyed their

home, Juliet remarks to her sister, “Even now we have our parlor arranged so you need

not be afraid to visit us in the form of a letter” (127). Among the many things mentioned

in the letters, the desire for Harriet’s physical presence with her family in Tampa is most

often expressed. This expression takes many forms, from the straightforward

declarations, “We felt lonely, desolate, sad, the evening after you left” (91) and “The

weather is delightful, but alas! time seems to linger with a leaden pace without you” (95)

to attempts at symbolically bridging the physical space between them. For example,

included in many of the letters to Harriet, especially from the youngest daughter Mary

Matilda, are dried flowers (103, 109, 113, 129), physical pieces of her Florida home

which are meant to take her back in memory to the social and personal world she

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experienced there (“I inclose an orange blossom. It is gathered from the tree by your

window where you used to sit so many moonlight evenings” [109]). A common

manifestation of this theme of bridging separateness are the words “filled with love”. For

example, in a letter dated 2 June 1845, Juliet justifies the brevity of a letter to her sister

by saying, “Its getting late so goodbye” and then tries to balance out this un-“agreeable”

statement with, “The rest of this sheet you must imagine full of love for you all” (100).

In a similar way, Mary Matilda writes to her sister in the postscript of her letter, “…One

more kiss now, and good bye again” (107). In these examples, a mimicking or

reproduction of aspects of face-to-face social interaction is attempted by the writers.

Whether those aspects are kisses and love or (culturally significant) orange blossoms and

dandelions, their letters are carriers of social realities that have been re-contextualized as

written words, partly for the purpose of socially integrating a spatially distant member of

society.

One aspect of letter-writing as “visiting” which has not been discussed yet is the

relevance of the different personal qualities embraced by the terms “agreeable” or

“pleasant”. In the face-to-face “visits” referred to in the narrative of the letters,

coordinating and exhibiting “agreeable” qualities and recognizing them in others are

central to the discursive process of identity formation (Gee, 1999: 18). In the Axtell

family letters, a coordination and exhibition of “agreeable” qualities by the writers is

attempted as part of a process of identity formation. Construction of the self in the text of

the letters largely conforms to that of society.

Musical ability is, again, a frequently occurring quality in the narrative. The three

daughters, Harriet, Juliet and Mary Matilda, wrote much about their musical abilities,

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accomplishments, and the praise that they received for it. For example, “By the by I can

play two or three tunes on my guitar learned by ear, and two or three tunes sacred, and

others by note. Mother and father say I do very well considering that I have no

instructors but themselves…” (126). Less emphasized in the dialogues concerning social

life in Tampa, the “agreeable” quality of intellect, or education, is more prominent in the

daughters’ narratives. Juliet, in a letter to Harriet, 6 March 1847 wrote:

“I wish now to tell you something about our studies. Matilda can read a little

Spanish and can play two or three tunes on the Piano and evidently shows an ear

for music, she has been once through Mosses Geography, is ciphering in

multiplication and has already transposed several pieces of simple poetry. I am

translating ‘The Death of Abel’ from the French and writing a series of questions on

Watts’ on the mind besides other common studies. Now tell me how you improve

in music &c, above all write often…” (108-109).

As a part of education, the ability to write well is an “agreeable” quality. There are

numerous examples within the text where the narrative reflexively turns to the subject of

the letter itself, the quality of its composition, and the writer’s penmanship (e.g. 107, 110,

129). This is important in that it underscores the role that letter-writing plays in identity

formation. When Juliet wrote to Harriet, 2 November 1846, “not that my heart is cold,

but good language comes so slow that it seems unworthy of the gushing emotions which

flow from it. I hope however, that in my correspondence I shall imbibe some of the ease

and grace with which you communicate your thoughts” (107), she says that one’s self-

worth depends on one’s ability to communicate well in a written form. Communicating

one’s thoughts with “ease and grace” is necessary for identity formation. Also, with this

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statement, she defines for herself an ideal that she hopes to attain and that,

simultaneously, will help to build an identity within her society. Thus, the letters do not

simply create a connection between the Axtells and their spatially distant daughter,

communicating cultural norms and updating her knowledge of Tampa social life: they are

a site for the discursive construction of self, as well as of society.

Emotionality and self-control

Thus far, the social languages of control (over other segments of society and over

the natural world) and of being “agreeable” have been examined, as well as the

correlation between being “agreeable”, “visiting”, and letter-writing, in terms of

discursive construction of self and society. These themes form a part of a larger,

integrated discourse concerning the expression and control of one’s emotions.

Expressions of and commentaries on emotion abound in the narrative of the Axtell family

letters and a majority of these are associated with the fact of Harriet’s absence from the

social life of her family.

In a letter from her mother dated 12 July 1847, Harriet receives advice, which she

often did in her parents’ letters: “Now my dear daughter I think you have those

qualifications of both heart and mind which may draw around you a circle of a few

congenial spirits wherever your lot may be cast…” (113). Couched in this statement is

the idea that these “qualifications of…heart and mind” are desirable traits to have: they

are advantageous in the social world. Thus, letter-writing ability, an important activity in

the long-distance “society” of Harriet and her family, is tied closely to having and

expressing strong emotion. For further example, the relation between emotion and

femininity becomes apparent in Harriet’s mother’s comment about the “expressions of

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affection” Harriet has for her aunt and uncle: “…did you not feel tenderly attached to

them I should think you deficient in those sensibilities of the heart which ever form the

charm of woman” (106). And between emotion and family life: “Write then to us, my

own dear daughter, often, pour out your heart with all the freedom which affection

prompts…since we cannot be blessed with your presence, why give us all that remains, a

free and frequent transcript of your mind and heart” (111). These and many other

statements in the letters reflect a concern on the part of Harriet’s parents for her growth as

a person, in both psychological and social contexts. They effectually redefine the social

language of being “agreeable”, from its social and inter-familial usage to an intra-familial

usage. The messages accompanying discussion of emotional expression in this intra-

familial social language of being “agreeable” consist in the encouragement of its

expression and development of the ability to do this in writing (e.g. “Tell her I love her

just as well as if I wrote” [119]). There does seem to be a limit however to the utility of

letter-writing to express emotions: “Our hearts seem too full to write to you” (113).

In contrast to encouragement of emotional expression, the writers often express a

wariness about its expression. Most notably they draw a distinction between emotion

expressed by members of the family and emotion expressed by those who are outside of

their discursively constructed society. For example, Juliet described the reaction of the

residents of Tampa to the arrival of a steam-boat in the harbor: “You of the North would

doubtless have laughed to see the general excitement produced by this arrival, even the

family at head quarters hastened down to the wharf, and soldiers and Camp-women

watched and exclaimed at every moment” (117). Here, she contrasts the behavior of an

officer’s family, an enthusiasm described as being out of character, with the behavior of

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lower-class individuals (soldiers and their families, lower-class civilians), a childish, non-

control of their excitement that is manifested “at every moment”. This brings us to a

contradiction in the Axtell family’s discourse on emotionality: they encourage it

expression in writing, yet simultaneously discourage it. The attempted control of

emotionality, and the desirability of this control, is demonstrated most matter-of-factly in

the first letter written to Harriet from her mother after she left, dated 7 May 1844:

I shall…follow your bright example and forbear to express our keen regrets at your

departure and our daily pinings for your society and presence lest it should mar

your contentment. Our most fervent aspirations are for your happiness both

temperal [sic] and eternal and to secure your best good we are willing to sacrifice

our own private feelings (91).

Control of emotions in reaction to the agitation of others, both inside the family and

outside of it, are also important components of this dialogue. In a letter to her sister, 28

February 1848, Juliet reacts to Harriet’s failure to write back in a timely and productive

manner: “Oh you ingrateful one!…I have a good mind not to write you but they say love

predominates, do they not? (I do at any rate) So I believe I shall have to return good for

evil and write you a letter” (117). Harriet’s father, in a letter dated 15 May 1848,

encourages her to “shelter all the virtue there is in sensitiveness until it gradually

becomes modest confidence”, that is if someone should say she is too sensitive (121).

Similarly, in reference to her “faculties and gifts and graces”, her father advises her: “let

not others abuse them, nor yet make a point of proving them models by argument – let

not others even examine them rudely” (121). When frustrated by her studies at school,

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her mother tells her to “keep your mind and heart calm and your head cool if you would

arrive at ultimate success” (125).

In these statements, the importance of maintaining a balance between emotional

expression and emotional control is apparent. The use of letter-writing (and writing in

general) is advocated and practiced as tool to mediate these two positions on

emotionality. Yet, in the letters, there is a strong preoccupation with the feeling of

emotion as a “gushing” (96) and uncontrollable event, and this “gushing forth” of

emotions sometimes occurs in the narrative directly after a declaration of control over

emotion (91). The reason for this contradiction is to be found in another aspect of the

narrative.

As mentioned in the introduction, the Axtells had an additional member of the

family who died as a boy, Alfred Henry Axtell. His death is brought up often in the

narrative of the letters in association with the fact of Harriet’s absence. The similarity of

emotional reactions to the death of a close relative and the (temporary) separation of

close relatives has been noted elsewhere (Rosenblatt, 1983). Here, many comments

made by members of Axtell family to their daughter/sister Harriet demonstrate the

similarity they see between death and separation. For example, “You see, my Dear

Harriet how we all love you and never forget you – least of all ‘over Alfred’s grave.’ His

image when in health is almost always coupled with yours” (102) and “The house is

lonely, so lonely without our first born and our son!” (94). Letter-writing is a necessary

part of the Axtell family’s discourse of social integration: without it, the discursively

constructed society of Tampa is not reproduced for Harriet in Batavia, and she is basically

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as good as dead to her family. Thus, when weeks have passed and no letter from Harriet

has arrived, her mother writes, “we began seriously to apprehend some calamity” (101).

God and the “mingled cup”

Death is a fact of life. Its effect in the emotional and social worlds of an

individual is, generally, far-reaching and intense. The Axtells reaction to the death of

their son/brother is consistent with this. Thus, the question remains: if death is an

uncontrollable fact of the Axtells’ social world, and the Axtells try to establish control

over their surroundings through a discursive construction of society and the world in

general, how is it that the illusion of control is sustained in the face of such a blatant,

contradiction. The answer is to be found in another discourse present in the letters: that

of spirituality and God.

Associated with talk of death and separation is talk of divine providence.

Whenever, something seems beyond their control, the writers invoke in their narrative the

presence of God. For example, in justifying Harriet’s attending school up north, and the

separation of her from her parents and family, as a necessity, her father expresses his lack

of control over the situation: the “will of Heaven” has deemed that “others should take

the place of your parents” (93), those others being her aunt and uncle with whom she is

staying. In a letter dated 31 March 1845, Harriet’s father explains a slip up in the mail,

which would obviously have an important effect on the social life of the family, as “one

of those mistakes for which nobody seems to blame, and by which our Heavenly Father

teaches lessons of experience” (102).

The Rev. Henry Axtell, as would be expected of a minister, has much to tell, or

preach, about life and how to live it. One frequently recurring theme in his letters is the

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phrase “mingled cup” and variations thereof. For example, “we have many mercies

mingled in one cup, and you should rejoice rather than mourn – that our lives are spared

in the midst of so much danger and such general wreck” (125), “…Our Heavenly Father

has mingled his cup with mercy” (125), and “the bitter drop is mingled by the Hand that

creates it and doubtless at the right time” (129). What he means by this turn of phrase is

that, ultimately, God is in control. He mixes the cup, mercy with pain, from which they

drink their lives.

Conclusion

Hopefully, in this study, the correlation between the historical and social reality of

Tampa in the 1840’s and the representation of it in the letters of the Axtell family has

been adequately demonstrated, and that the relationship between text and social reality is

in fact one of mutual creation and re-creation. In the discursive construction of self and

society presented in the Axtell family letters, there exits certain contradictions: control

versus helplessness; expression of emotion versus withholding it. These contradictions

are consolidated in and by the act of letter-writing, a site for discursive action. Of the

discourses present in the narrative of the letters, the discourse about death and divine

providence is the key point in this consolidation. Though combined with a discourse of

control (at times, a weak and tentative one) over nature and most aspects of the social

world, it does contain an ultimate acquiescence to the uncontrollability of life, through its

recognition of the uncontrollability of death. Within the discursive balance achieved in

the letters, the world was made bearable so that lives could be lived.

20
Postscript

The shift in anthropology, mentioned in the introduction to this paper, is an

important one for the future of this field. Its emphasis on the anthropologist and his/her

culture places written documents in a position of utility, and widens the study of culture

to include the personal manifestations of societies that no longer exist. The abundance of

written documents filed away in archives and tucked away in attics and second-hand

stores can now lend themselves to new studies. New perspectives and insights will be

generated from these studies The new anthropological concern with Western societies

seems to be an ultimate disassociation from the paradigm of ethnocentricity most

manifest in the early days of anthropological inquiry. For most of the discipline’s history,

“primitive” cultures from the colonial corners of the world were the primary means

through which anthropologists strove to understand the human condition and Western

humanity’s place therein. But now, with the advent of post-modern thought,

anthropologists have come to the realization that culture is culture, whether it be in, for

example, the Madagascar interior, at a nineteenth-century garrison settlement in Florida,

or in a newly built suburban community somewhere in the mid-Western United States.

Thus we have come full circle: seeking first for ourselves in distant lands of Oceania and

Africa, then returning West to discover the exotic Nacirema, Naidanac and Naeporue

peoples back home.

21
1
Most of the officers stationed at Fort Brooke in the period 1843 to 1850 were born in the states of New York and

Pennsylvania, followed closely by Massachusetts, Virginia and Maryland. Most of the rest came from elsewhere in the

U.S., though one was born in Ireland and another in France (Gordon, 1991).

2
Hereafter, citation of Rumsey’s Letters to Harriet Tracy Axtell… (“the Axtell family letters”) will be given only as a page

number in parentheses. For example, (102).

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