1841: Charles W. West to Sidney Smith Allcott

West’s statue on Grave in Cincinnati

This letter was written by Charles W. West (1809-1887) in 1841 when he had not a farthing to his name and could not repay his creditors. He eventually became a philanthropist of note in Cincinnati where he made a fortune as the proprietor of two wheat mills. [See — A name in history: Charles W. West was a philanthropist and co-founder of the Cincinnati Art Museum]

Born of Quaker ancestry in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, West’s first business venture was a flour mill in Rochester, New York. We learn from this letter that the venture was a failure and left him deep in debt. In this 1841 letter, written just after his arrival in Cincinnati, we discover that he got his start in the flour mill business from the man who would one day be his chief competitor — Cornelius Sanders Bradbury (1799-1871). He later partnered in business with Joseph Torrence and after thirteen years accumulated enough wealth to retire and and become a capitalist. His principal investments were railroad and bank stocks. He never married and died in Cincinnati in 1884.

“From the earliest days of the city [Cincinnati], from the very time when commercial intercourse with other cities had its beginning, flour had been one of the principal articles of trade, having been one of the articles on the first flatboat to float down the two rivers to New Orleans. There was never any question of there being an oversupply — the only consideration that regulated the growth of the business being the supply and the transportation. Consequently, with the ever-improving transportation facilities and the influx of farmers to the Miami valley from the east and from foreign countries — especially from the British Isles and Germany — the four trade was a dominating factor in the prosperity of the city. There were, in 1851, fourteen mills, which afforded employment to sixty-five hands. Of course, most of the mills manufactured white wheat flour and steam-dried corn meal for local consumption and for the foreign markets, but there were also mills for the manufacture of oil cake meal and horse feed. C. W. West & Co. and C. S. Bradbury were the proprietors of the two largest businesses, the former owning two mills here together capable of manufacturing 350 barrels of flour a day; and the latter’s mill at the corner of Eighth and Broadway having a capacity of 150 barrels of superfine flour, 140 barrels of steam dried corn meal, and 500 pounds best quality farina for use in preparing puddings, custards, etc., per day, the valuation placed upon the output of the fourteen mills for the year was $1,690,000. [Source: Memoirs of the Miami Valley — Vol. Two, Manufacturing and Commercial — Cincinnati]

West wrote the letter to Sidney Smith Allcott (1803-1867), the son of Amos Allcott (1783-1824) and Mehitable Simons (1785-1854). Sidney was married in 1825 in Berlin, Connecticut, Delia C. Hubbard (1810-1834). In 1836, he took Julia Maria Beckley (1813-1860) as his second wife. Julia was the daughter of Orrin and Harriet (Pattison) Beckley. The Allcott’s lived in Rochester, New York, where Sidney took over his father’s business in the manufacture of cotton goods. In the 1830s, the Allcott’s moved to Calhoun County, Michigan, where he was a merchant miller and the first president of the village of Marshall (1839). He relocated to Boston in 1858 where he engaged in the wholesale flour business.

In describing his journey from Danville (Illinois) to St. Louis, to Louisville and Cincinnati, we learn that West was traveling in company with another man named “Mr. Beckley.” This was probably an in-law of Sidney Allcott’s with whom he shared a debt.


Addressed to Sidney S. Allcott, Esq., Marengo, Calhoun County, Michigan
Postmarked Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati [Ohio]
June 14th 1841

Sidney S. Alcott, Esq.
Dear Sir,

I am at a loss of language strong enough to express how I hate myself for being so negligent about writing to my friends. This is the first attempt that I have made since I left Danville, Illinois, to write to Michigan when I dropped a hasty line to Mr. Mitchell of which you probably heard tell. The fact is I waited from time to time hoping something would turn up that would be interesting to communicate but I found that crisis not likely to come. But as you have probably not learned anything of us, I will commence at Danville where Mitchell’s letter left us and give you a hasty sketch of what has come to pass since.

Well we left Danville after resting two days & three nights and proceeded to St. Louis where we arrived on Monday 26 April — just two weeks from Marengo. The roads the whole distance were uncommonly bad and you may guess that we presented a sorry figure going into the City with a lame & foundered horse, old dirty barouche, and Sheep’s Grey dressed gents from Michigan. We put the horses to livery for they would not sell in their (then) condition for any price. The carriage was in such a plight that we had to lay out forty dollars on it before we dare offer it for sale. We fixed up a little, presented our letters [of introduction] and were well received by the good folks at that great City.  Mr. Dayton to whom Mr. Pratt ¹ gave me a letter, I found to be a very clever fellow. Messrs. White & Smith to whom you gave me a letter I found to be as Col. Stone said — of but little consequence though I believe they are doing a good business. Mr. Pease to whom Mr. Frink wrote by me is a hardware merchant & a ____.  Mr. Coff I could not find. Nor Professor Lathrop to whom I had a letter from Mr.Shearman. Though there was much doing at St. Louis, I did not find anything that would meet my case. The fact is, the city is filled with people on the same errand that I was.

We spent three weeks there and having sold the horses for $212.50 without any prospect of selling the carriage at any price, we put it & ourselves on board a boat and landed at this place on the 20 May and succeeded in selling the carriage & harness for $200, having paid $40 for repairing & $4 freight to this place. Hence you have but $156 for the carriage & harness. This you will say is too low, but it was the best I could do with it. Hence charge me $156 & whatever you think is right for the use of it to St. Louis.

We made but a short stop at Louisville where times are said to be very dull. I presented my letter from Col. Stone to Mr. Bradbury ² who owns mills here and have engaged with him for 6 months from this day at a very moderate salary hoping when we get better acquainted that I can command a fair salary at least. Tomorrow I start on an experimental tour for the purpose of getting wheat at points on the Ohio Canal from Portsmouth up to Columbus. I shall be gone probably two weeks. The reason of going into this new business is that there is a prospect now that crops in this section will be ligt & the mills here will not get their supply from the places they have formerly depended upon. I believe Mr. Bradbury to be a good sort of a man and as he does considerable business & lives in the country 2 miles from town, I hope to be able to make it an object for him to give me a good chance as I used to keep his books — that is post for him while I am here.

On Saturday, 22nd May, Mr. Beckley & myself left here for Portage County & I to Springfield, Ohio, and Muncietown, Indiana. At the former place to see Arnold’s friend & at Muncie to see my brother, out of whom I had expected to raise some money. But I found him in a situation that places what he owes me beyond a contingency at present. Hence I am here almost out of money & Mr. Peacock at Rochester & my brother at Philadelphia unpaid. I had hoped out of the carriage and horses to have got money enough over & above our expenses to have paid a part at least of those debts. But have spent much more that I expected would be necessary, and notwithstanding there existed a fair understanding between Mr. Beckley & myself that we would use every economy and deprive ourselves of all luxuries & unnecessaries and strive to get into business as early as possible, I regret to say that although he knew my circumstances & that he was owing me when we started, & that I had paid for the horses & was charged with the carriage & the money with which I started, yet regardless of all this, he seemed determined to persevere in prodigality — and very little exertion did he make in reference to business. I therefore offered no opposition when he proposed to go to his Uncle’s in Portage County for while I had a dollar, I am satisfied that he would have always been on hand for at least two-thirds of it. I settled with him at the time of parting and took his note for $226 & odd cents which left him with about $18 after paying his fare to Stow where he was going to stop.

I mention these circumstances to you, not out of any hard feeling towards Mr. Beckley, for a person cannot feel hard towards him if he would, but because I know you will expect some account of our proceedings. Mr. Beckley expects his Uncle will do something for him. I hope he may, for he is too clever a fellow to suffer & I fear is incapable of taking care of himself.

The salary I get will but little more than support me at present. I am anxious that Mr. Peacock and my brother should be paid, as they took my notes on my word that you would pay them, if not to the day — at least in a few days after. If you can, by any possibility pay Mr. Peacock the $125, I will try & make up what I owe my brother. That done, I will be in easy circumstances again & will not do anything immediately to involve myself again. I called often at the Post Office during the three weeks I stayed at St. Louis expecting a letter from you and a letter & papers (The Expounder) from Mr. Shearman but they did not come.

I am therefore without news from Michigan since I left there & also the same in reference to Rochester. I should be pleased to receive a letter from you as soon as convenient & I think I will not be so negligent in future. If not too much trouble, I wish you would send The Expounder to me at this place. Mr. Beckley when we parted promised to write me in a few days but I have not yet heard from him. I presume he has written you e’re this. With best respects to Mrs. A., and Willie, allow me to subscribe myself yours respectfully, — C. W. West

¹ Possibly Abner Pratt who came to Marshall, Michigan from Rochester, New York, where he had been the prosecuting attorney of Monroe county. He was circuit judge 1851-57, and was also United States consul at Honolulu, Sandwich Islands. He was in the State senate 1844-45, and died while holding the office of mayor of the city of Marshall.

² The 1842 Cincinnati City Directory includes the Cornelius Sanders Bradbury flouring mill at the corner of 8th & Broadway; Bradbury’s residence in Columbia Township.

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