Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Extracts from Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 28 July 1819

Extracts from Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) to Martha Jefferson Randolph

Poplar Forest July 28th 1819

Grand papa and myself are in the habit of sitting, some time after dinner, in conversation, upon different subjects, and it was but the other day, that, speaking of education, & the influence exerted by mothers over their children, he paid to his grandchildren the compliment of all others the most valuable, that of alluding indirectly to what he considers their excellences, and ascribing them to education and the influence of example.

With all my wishes and all my efforts to make the best use of my time whilst here, I have not yet done much. we have had some interruptions from company, and one, much more serious, from the dangerous illness of Burwell. the little house-keeping which this threw on our hands, was too trifling to be taken into the account of time, but I lost many hours from real anxiety, I might almost say unhappiness, for the life of a servant so faithfull, so attached and so usefull to my dear Grand father, was of sufficient value to justify very acute feelings. the complaint was an obstruction in the bowels which refused to give way to any remedies, untill Dr Steptoe tried bleeding him untill he fainted or very nearly fainted. I never saw any one suffer more; he had been sick some time before he gave up his usual employments, and then it was some days before a physician could be procured. our simple remedies & those recommended by Dr Steptoe, (whilst Burwell was still well enough to go to his house to consult him,) thinking it an ordinary cholic, had all failed—he had been two nights without closing his eyes; on the third I sent him a small dose of laudanum, (the doctor had told him he might make use of it to abate the violence of the pain),1 and it appeared to me impossible for any body to suffer such agonies for such a length of time without danger of inflammation and mortification; this produced the desired effect of giving him a quiet night, but the cause was not removed, the pain returned, and a day or two2 after, the doctor found the danger so pressing as to devote almost two days to him, although his own brother was very ill at the time. I never saw any body more uneasy than Grand papa, and his constant anxiety by convincing me still more of his extraordinary value for Burwell, increased my own fears and feelings to a degree that surprized even myself. I had taken it into my head from the beginning that the disease was a billious cholic and consequently very serious—but I did not know what was necessary to be done, no help was at hand, and I thought very frequently, good god! if he should perish for want of assistance. He is still weak from the effects of the bleeding, but I hope completely out of danger & has gone to work glazing again, although he cannot do much at any thing as yet. John Hemmings paid him attentions which were really affecting, I always believed him an excellent creature but I think better of him now than ever. I really believe that at one time his advice and application of a warm bath, by the temporary relief it procured, enabled Burwell to stand against the violence [of the?] complaint untill the doctor’s assistance was at last obtained. I d[o think?] Grand papa Cornelia and myself make as complete a trio of ignoram[us]es as I do know, and I do not believe our three heads combined contain as much medical knowledge as would save a sparrow. I am determined to qualify myself for taking a degree as soon as I go home.

RC (ViU: Coolidge Correspondence); extracts, consisting of dateline, conclusion of first paragraph, and first three-quarters of third paragraph; unsigned; mutilated at seal; addressed: “Mrs T. M. Randolph Monticello near Charlottesville Albemarle.” In the unextracted portion of this letter, Randolph acknowledges a recent letter with the latest news of her mother’s “state of sickness and suffering” and Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s “devoted attachment” during that illness; alludes in passing to the “unpleasant day we spent on the road, the friday after leaving you”; reflects on her improving relationship with her sister Cornelia J. Randolph; approves of the orderly and industrious way Israel Gillette (Jefferson) substituted for Burwell Colbert as “chief waiter” during the latter’s illness, work with which TJ was “quite delighted”; informs of the birth of a baby in the neighborhood; asks that ink and paper be sent “by the carpenters” for use in Latin and Spanish exercises as well as correspondence; and sends her love to the family.

On this day Cornelia J. Randolph also described the dangerous illness of burwell Colbert in a letter to her sister Virginia J. Randolph (Trist): “Sister Ellen is probably telling mama all about Burwell’s illness whose life was save’d evidently by a bleeding. every remedy had been tried without effect to give him relief till at last it was found necessary to bleed him to prevent inflamation, this they did untill he was near fainting & that produc’d the desired effect. he had been sick for three weeks & the last days suffer’d extremely the doctor when he came said it was a spasm in the bowels, we had settled it was a bilious cholic and were in terror every morning when we got up lest we should hear that a mortification had taken place, but even if we had known what to give in such cases we should have been afraid to give more than a dose of castor oil or a few drops of laudanum this we did but the castor oil had no effect & the laudanum only gave temporary relief. Daddy [i.e., John Hemmings] who nursed him constantly with the greatest care and attention gave him a warm bath which I suppose relieve’d him from the same cause that the bleeding did that is weakened him so that it made the spasm give way, this was the best thing that was done before the doctor came, but he soon relaps’d & was iller & in more pain than ever. he is now recovering the pain is gone off & he feels nothing but the effects of fasting, bleeding &c which have rendered him exessively weak” (RC in NcU: NPT; partially dated “28 [July] 1819”; initialed “C. J. R.”; addressed [torn]: “[. . .] Randolph [M]onticello [n]ear [Cha]rlottesville”; stamped).

On 4 Aug. 1819 Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) reported to her sister Virginia that “Burwell has had another attack, not so alarming as the first, and was releived from a state of violent pain by the application of blisters. I do not know what to think of his case, but he is a great deal better, and is going about quite cheerfull” (RC in ViU: Coolidge Correspondence; addressed: “Miss Virginia J. Randolph Monticello near Charlottesville”).

As August 1819 ended, word reached Poplar Forest of the death at Monticello of Critta Colbert, Burwell Colbert’s wife. Ellen Randolph wrote home that “Burwell as you may suppose is overwhelmed with grief, I have not seen him since he heard the news which was last night. but although h[e] did not shew himself, he came out early in the morning and did all his business as usual. he did not lay by and send us the keys as I expected he would.” Ellen was herself “very much distressed at hearing of poor Critty’s death, for independant of the shock to Burwell, I cannot forget that she was my nurse for a good many years, and whether she discharged the duties of her office properly or not, yet the feeling that attaches us to those immediately about us, is instinctive, and not altogether depending on their merits. I shall miss her a great deal. ever since I grew up I have found her services really valuable & most cheerfully rendered.” Recalling that her mother, Martha Jefferson Randolph, had promised to give her one of Critta Colbert’s children, Ellen requested Martha Colbert or, failing that, Theana Colbert, although she would “waive the claim” if Burwell Colbert “should be averse to the distributing of all his children” (Ellen W. Randolph [Coolidge] to Virginia J. Randolph [Trist], 31 Aug. [1819] [RC in ViU: Coolidge Correspondence]; partially dated; bottom corner of page torn; addressed: “Miss Virginia J. Randolph Monticello near Charlottesville Albemarle”; stamped; postmarked New London, 2 Sept.).

1Ellen Randolph here canceled “if it continued.”

2Reworked from “and two day.”

Index Entries

  • building materials; window glass search
  • castor oil search
  • Colbert, Burwell (TJ’s slave;1783–ca.1862; Critta Colbert’s husband); and wife’s death search
  • Colbert, Burwell (TJ’s slave;1783–ca.1862; Critta Colbert’s husband); children of search
  • Colbert, Burwell (TJ’s slave;1783–ca.1862; Critta Colbert’s husband); illness of search
  • Colbert, Burwell (TJ’s slave;1783–ca.1862; Critta Colbert’s husband); TJ’s relationship with search
  • Colbert, Critta (T. M. Randolph’s slave; Burwell Colbert’s wife) search
  • Colbert, Martha Ann (T. M. Randolph’s slave; Burwell Colbert’s daughter) search
  • Colbert, Theana (Thenia) (T. M. Randolph’s slave; Burwell Colbert’s daughter) search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); and C. Colbert’s death search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); letters from, to M. J. Randolph search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); on B. Colbert’s illness search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); visits Poplar Forest search
  • education; effect of mothers on search
  • glass, window; for Poplar Forest search
  • health; bowel complaint search
  • health; colic search
  • Hemmings, John (TJ’s slave; b. ca.1776); and illness of B. Colbert search
  • Jefferson, Israel Gillette (TJ’s slave; b.1800); as waiter search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Family and Friends; relations with grandchildren search
  • Latin language; study of search
  • medicine; blistering search
  • medicine; bloodletting search
  • medicine; castor oil search
  • medicine; laudanum search
  • oil; castor search
  • Poplar Forest (TJ’s Bedford Co. estate); builders at search
  • Poplar Forest (TJ’s Bedford Co. estate); glass for search
  • Poplar Forest (TJ’s Bedford Co. estate); slaves at search
  • Poplar Forest (TJ’s Bedford Co. estate); TJ visits search
  • Poplar Forest (TJ’s Bedford Co. estate); TJ’s grandchildren visit search
  • Randolph, Cornelia Jefferson (TJ’s granddaughter); and illness of B. Colbert search
  • Randolph, Cornelia Jefferson (TJ’s granddaughter); visits Poplar Forest search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); children of search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); health of search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); letters to, from E. W. R. Coolidge search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); slaves of search
  • Randolph, Thomas Jefferson (TJ’s grandson; Jane Hollins Nicholas Randolph’s husband); and M. J. Randolph search
  • slaves; death of search
  • slaves; health of search
  • Spanish language; study of search
  • stationery; letter paper search
  • Steptoe, George; illness of search
  • Steptoe, William; as doctor search
  • Trist, Virginia Jefferson Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); correspondence with siblings search
  • women; letters from; E. W. R. Coolidge to M. J. Randolph search
  • women; letters to; M. J. Randolph from E. W. R. Coolidge search