The contents of the collection reflect various aspects of Bryan's career and generally portray the political and legal history of antebellum North Carolina.
For convenience and cohesiveness the collection has been divided into series. These include files labeled General Correspondence (1766-1869), Tennessee Lands, Rockfish Manufacturing Company, Institute for Deaf and Dumb, N.C. Railroad, Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, Tyson Matter, Law Case Files, Legal Papers, Financial Papers, Miscellaneous, and Published Material.
The General Correspondence files contain over three hundred letters touching upon a variety of topics but dealing primarily with court cases and the legal profession. The eighteenth century correspondence consists of two business letters (1766, 1777) to John Simpson of Pitt County, one of which pertains to the shipment of naval stores from Martinsborough (Greenville) to Washington, N.C.
For the period between 1819 and 1829 the major emphasis centers around legal matters. Correspondence concerning court suits pertains to the ownership of Negro slaves (1820), estate settlements, the Revolutionary War service of one Benajah Turner (1826), and default charges against the state treasurer. Included is a report (1823) on comments made by William Gaston concerning legal matters. In the realm of politics, the letters contain lists of constituents (1825-1826) for Bryan as Congressman, and commentaries (January, 1827) on the activities of the General Assembly, state and national politics, William Gaston and Edward Stanly, and the possible presidential or vice presidential aspirations of John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. Also on the subject of politics are a report (March, 1828) on a Hyde County meeting in support of President John Quincy Adams, and commentaries (April, 1828) in support of the president. A third area of interest for the 1820s concerns internal improvements and includes letters advocating Savannah, Georgia, as a naval depot (1825); describing the need for a lighthouse or lightboat at the mouth of the Neuse River (1827-1828); requesting more pay for the mail career between New Bern and Beaufort (1828); reporting on the postmastership at Beaufort (1828); and commenting on the construction of Fort Macon (1828). Miscellaneous information pertains to the educational quality of Hyco Academy in Caswell County (1819), social life and gossip in New Bern (1826), and a suicide attempt in Washington, D. C., by Frank Stanly of New Bern (1827).
Although court-related matters continue to dominate the correspondence during the 1830s, significant commentary is included for a variety of topics. Political discussion includes a letter (1834) from Matthias E. Manly in which he tells of the current session of the General Assembly and mentions a controversy between former Governor John Branch and Congressman Jesse Spaight. He also discusses the very controversial question of state instruction of U.S. Senators, particularly in reference to Senator Willie P. Mangum; comments on opposition to Martin Van Buren; and predicts passage of a Constitutional referendum. Other correspondence for the period concerns personal business and financial affairs, the character and health of John Stanly (1830), the sale of slaves and cotton in Alabama (1833), a suit involving the Bank of North Carolina (1834), and debts incurred by Rev. John Witherspoon as guardian to orphaned Thompson children (1834). For the second half of the decade, subjects discussed include a comparison of the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad and the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad (1837), economic conditions and prices current in New York with the opening of the Erie Canal (1837), the lack of trade and commerce in New Bern (1839), and the "disgraceful" actions of a New Jersey Whig congressman relative to an unspecified issue (1839).
The greatest quantity of general correspondence is concentrated in the period of the 1840s. Whig Party politics continued to be of major interest as letters comment on the presidential election (1840); a Whig rally in Rocky Mount (1840); controversy in the U.S. Senate over a bankruptcy law, during which a heated debate developed among Thomas Hart Benton, Nathaniel Tallmadge, and Henry Clay (1842); and national, state, and local party politics (1842-1849). On the subject of slavery and the Negro, commentaries continue throughout the decade. Of particular note are legal suits involving slaves (1840-1842, 1846-1849). Included in these cases are ones pertaining to a slaveowner who attempted to buy "a good breeding slave" (1842), an appeal by a Bryan slave who had been mistreated by a boss (1843), a debt owed by the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad to a Negro employee (1847), and the comparative advantages of Liberia, Ohio, and Indiana as future homes for freed slaves (1849).
As is true throughout the collection, New Bern and eastern North Carolina are frequent topics of discussion. Two letters (1842) describe a great storm which destroyed property, washed ships out to sea, and covered the coast with wrecks. During the following year, correspondence describes the burning of New Bern and the decline of the town due to the fire. Among other local news are comments (1843) regarding Beaufort as a resort town. Other topics for the 1840s include railroads and banks, the great loss to N.C. law by the absence of William Gaston from the bar (1841), life in Washington, D.C. (1842), cotton sales in Mobile, Alabama (1842), the editorial shenanigans of W. W. Holden (1843), and the possible purchase by U.N.C. of an anatomical museum (1847). Naturally, court- related activities in N.C. and other states dominate the bulk of the correspondence for this period as it does for all others.
For the 1850s the correspondence continues in a similar vein as in the past decades. In politics, N.C. Whigs see their party decline as one correspondent (1850) contends that William Biddle Shepard is the only candidate who could defeat Democrat David S. Reid for governor. Other correspondence discusses conditions in Washington, D.C. (1850), congressional elections (1851), lack of support for President Millard Fillmore (1856), and the Preston Brooks--Charles Sumner affair (1856). Court-related matters of particular note include comments on lodging facilities in Goldsboro (1850), the temperament and disposition of Judge (future governor) John W. Ellis (1850), a lawsuit involving newspaper editor Josiah Turner, Jr. (1853), cases involving slaves (1855, 1859), and a case surrounding ownership of a paper mill on the Neuse River for which future governor Daniel G. Fowle was agent (1856, 1858).
New Bern-related letters are somewhat limited for this period and are concerned primarily with a fire in New Bern (1858), steamboat travel between New Bern and Hyde County (1858), and local activities such as meetings of the Odd Fellows fraternal order and the Methodist church. Also included for the 1850s are letters concerning courses and studies at U.N.C. (1852), former Governor Charles Manly's refusal to donate to an Episcopal church project (1856), future governor Tod R. Caldwell's efforts to gain employment as bank cashier (1857), financial problems of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad Company (1858), and travel to Cuba (1858).
Very little correspondence is included for the 1860s. An 1860 letter using the government franking privilege of N. Y. Congressman Daniel E. Sickles seeks support for the Pacific Railroad bill then before Congress. Other letters concern the raising of troops in Craven County (1861) and the agricultural and economic conditions in Sumter County, Alabama, at the end of the Civil War (1865).
Undated correspondence describes a rain that flooded New Bern and washed out bridges. It also bemoans the inactivity and decline of the Whig Party.
A second series of Bryan papers have to do with lands in Tennessee owned by John Herritage Bryan and members of his family. This property was located primarily in the Weakley County area and was granted originally to John Gray Blount and Thomas Blount. It apparently came into Bryan's possession through the Shepard family. Papers (1796-1867) deal with land values, trespassing problems, scarcity of money in Tennessee, building of a railroad through the area, reactions to the coming of the Civil War, the military situation in the area, and conditions after the war.
The records of Rockfish Manufacturing Company of Fayetteville constitute a major division of the collection. This cotton textile factory was incorporated in 1836 and began operation in 1838. Plans called for the eventual activation of 4,500 spindles and 100 looms, with a saw mill, planing mill, grist mills, store, and dwelling houses for employees included in the overall operation. Stockholders included Bryan, Governor John Owen, Edward J. Hale, and George W. Mordecai. Records (1836-1867) include correspondence, stockholders' reports, treasurer's reports, and other statements reflecting the growth and development of the company for almost thirty years. The bulk of the material is concentrated in the 1840s and includes descriptions of the facilities, commentaries on financial difficulties, reports on production, national economic factors, employees, and sales. Included for the Civil War period are lengthy statements by Bartholomew F. Moore concerning the operation of Rockfish in accordance with the Exemption Act of the Confederate government and Confederate taxation as it related to the factory. Final items pertain to debts owed to the company by the state of North Carolina and the state's inability to pay.
Papers (1845-1851) for the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb are few in number but their unique nature justifies separate treatment. Included are a copy of the 1845 law providing for the creation of the institute, correspondence pertaining to the operation of the school, and reports (1850, 1851) of the directors and a joint committee of the legislature.
The fifth series of papers pertain to the North Carolina Railroad Company and a lawsuit instituted by J. B. Jones in 1858 against the railroad. This file contains correspondence, testimony, legal briefs, and other material pertaining to the case in which slaves belonging to Jones mistakenly boarded a train in Goldsboro and were transported to Raleigh. The slaves apparently suffered from exposure to subfreezing weather before being returned to their owner, and Jones held the railroad responsible. Included are commentaries concerning plots to lure slaves away through the "underground railroad." Arguments in the case include statements from B. F. Moore and S. F. Phillips.
A separate series has been established for items pertaining to the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. This division consists of two letters and a legal brief (1836-1846) concerning stock sales, indebtedness of the railroad, and state involvement in the disposition of the insolvent railroad corporation.
A final minor division of the Collection is that labeled Tyson Matter, 1855-1858. Included is correspondence, receipts, legal papers, and related material concerning a financial dispute between Henry Tyson of Baltimore and Charles F. Fisher of Salisbury. The object of the controversy is the sale and ownership of the Manteo and Perseverance Mining companies of North Carolina. Included in the company operations are the Jones and Lafflen gold mines in Randolph County and the Russell mine in Montgomery County.
Law Case Files (1792-1867, undated) make up almost one third of the total collection. This section consists of testimony, legal briefs, court orders, court dockets, petitions, and other documents relating to civil and criminal cases tried in state and federal courts in North Carolina. Bryan practiced in most counties east of Raleigh and the files reflect cases tried in Pitt, Hyde, Wayne, Greene, Onslow, Craven, Chowan, Jones, Lenoir, Beaufort, Johnston, Wake, and Warren counties. Some Piedmont counties, such as Orange, Forsyth, and Mecklenburg, are also represented. Considerable difficulty was experienced in attempting to date many items, and the last observable date was used for arranging purposes. Because of the nature of the material and the number of cases involved, it was not practical to arrange the section alphabetically by case.
Although many files pertain to personal debts, land disputes and estate settlements, a significant number are worthy of specific note. Slavery-related cases include a court order for the 1805 emancipation of a New Bern slave (see oversized folder os1), suits regarding slave ownership (1820, 1827, 1831, 1835, 1837, 1838, 1839, 1844, 1852, undated), a Craven County petition by Donum Montford to free his son whom he owned as a slave (1827), and indictments for trading with slaves (1829, 1839). A case (1855) of considerable interest involved a suit brought by the Bank of North Carolina against the Manteo Manufacturing Company, a paper manufacturing company located on Crabtree Creek near Raleigh. The company, which originated as Neuse River Manufacturing Company and was known as Raleigh Mills, had Daniel G. Fowler as its trustee, and the case involved a loan from the State Literary Fund. Other cases pertain to purloined geese (1821), marriage contracts between Britton Simms and Kaziah Coleman in Wayne County (1823) and Sally Leary and Thomas J. Charlton in Chowan County (1827), ownership of a shoe store in Craven County(1834), the Warren County estate of William P. Little and Ann Little (1848), land in the town of Bath (1840), plumbago (graphite) mining in Wake County (1843), and the illegal selling of liquor within two miles of Chapel Hill (1845, 1847). Also of interest are cases involving the financial rights of U.N.C. (1852), construction rights in Orange County for the North Carolina Railroad (1855), and a gold mining swindle in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and Union County, S.C. (undated).
The Legal Papers division of the collection consists of wills and land records. Included are copies of wills for Thomas L. Cheeke, Richard West, and Meketable Thomson, all of Craven County (1809, 1819); William Adams and Major John Clark, both of Beaufort County (1825, 1850); James Broadstreet and Briton Simms of Wayne County (1809, 1825); Elizabeth Simpson of Pitt County (1804); and Frederick Wood of Onslow County (1814). Land records (1730-1839) are for Craven, Wake, Wayne, Hyde and Pitt counties and are made up of deeds, indentures, mortgages and plats.
In the Financial Papers section are accounts of the sale of Richard Nixson property (1799), doctors' accounts (1817-1819), Bryan guardianship accounts (1819-1827), subscription for a "reading room" in New Bern (1833), receipts for the Lancasterian School of Alonzo Attmore and Newbern Academy (1833), receipts for pew tax at Christ Church in New Bern (1833), account of school supplies (1832-1833), expenses for trip to Shocco Springs (1833), receipt for stock in N.C. Railroad (1853), and receipts for metered gas supplied by the Raleigh Gas Company (1862).
Miscellaneous items include a listing of slaves (1817), carriage tax lists for Johnston and Wayne counties (1814), a power of attorney for War of 1812 veteran Moses Prescott of Craven County (1815), a political speech for Winfield Scott for President (1852), and a poem entitled "Gen. Bryan Grimes."
Printed material consists of a Report of the N.C. Board for Internal Improvement (1824), a report of the public treasurer of N.C. (1846), Public Laws of N.C. (1846-1847), cases at law before the N.C. Supreme Court (December, 1856), addresses before the Literary Society of U.N.C. (1848, 1853, 1854),
The Old Paths: A Sermon by R. R. Thomas Atkinson (1857),
Monthly Reports of the Department of Agriculture (1867-1868) and
Bible Union Quarterly (May 1859).
The oversize folder contains a List of Acts of the N.C. General Assembly for December 1790, a map of the mouth of the Genessee River flowing into Lake Ontario (1829), and newspapers, including the
New York Semi-Weekly Tribune (March 9, 1850),
National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C., May 5, 1859),
Semi-Weekly Standard (Raleigh, Sept. 6, 1856, July, 29, 1857, Nov. 21, 1862), and the
Semi-Weekly Raleigh Register (Nov. 30, 1861). Also contains a letter from David (Davy) Crockett to John H. Bryan (May 26, 1829). Crockett writes from Dresden, Weakley County, Tenn., on behalf Elisha W. Glass and William L. Petty John, two men who want to lease land owned by Bryan. Crockett also discusses his chances of winning an upcoming election.