Roped into Berks History: Uncovering the Thomas Jackson Letters

“He’s was like combination of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore – a powerful commentator on life at that time.” – John Paling on his ancestor, Thomas Jackson

It all began with a small family heirloom. At the time, John Paling didn’t know anything about the letters or his great-great uncle, Thomas Jackson. But Paling’s persistent attitude and fascination with history has lead him from Oxford, England to Gainesville, Florida to Berks County, where he uncovered enthralling stories about an idealistic Reading businessman, the struggle for abolition during the Civil War, what life in Reading was like when Lincoln was shot, and much, much more!

After more than decade of research and correspondence with Berks History Center staff and others here in Reading, Paling visited the Berks History Center last month (click here) where he was able to connect with the people who have helped him along his journey. Here is his story!

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John Paling during his visit to the Berks History Center in March 2018

What started out as an unwanted responsibility has turned into a major fascination with the history of the American Civil War and an unknown relative’s passion to see slavery abolished. By chance, a battered metal hat box that had been passed down through my family for 150 years, finished up in my hands upon the passing of my mother. It contained an unsorted trove of old letters, many near impossible to decipher but clearly important enough so that what was clear was that “somebody” (not me for sure) should take a look at them and try to make sense of all the contents.

I have spent over 10 years trying to give them away to that “Somebody” who would put in the hours and hours necessary to transcribe and correlate them and also take them off my hands and store them somewhere for posterity. Also, if appropriate, I hoped that “Somebody” would use them as the basis of some historical research papers and maybe, even a book.

Once again, I totally failed in my intentions.  Instead, I turned out to be the “somebody” who has dedicated over a decade of my life to researching the letters; The Library of Congress (click here) has become the organization that “took them off my hands” and where the original documents are now safely curated: And the book about Thomas Jackson is still to be written.

In brief, Thomas Jackson (click here) was the son of a seemingly uneducated English rope maker who was a passionate admirer of America. So much so that his father could not be suppressed from advocating that the American colonies be given their independence – not a popular position to advocate in the days of George III. As a result, he was pilloried three times and finally imprisoned for a year to shut him up!

Thomas Jackson Rope BHC Collection.JPG
Rope Samples from the Thomas Jackson & Sons rope company, newly accessioned to the BHC Museum Collection

The young Thomas Jackson was radicalized about America as being the most perfect country from the time he sat on his father’s knee. When he was 22 years old, he came over to America and struggled to start a rope making company in Reading, PA. Not long after his arrival, when he visited Richmond to get supplies, he was appalled to stumble across a slave market and witness the more obvious degradations of slavery.  These experiences so conflicted with his idealized image of America that he became a fervent abolitionist and started to write powerful, first-hand accounts about the civil war and the cruelty of slavery and sent them back to his relatives in England with the request that they get them published in English newspapers. His intended strategy seems to have been that he wanted to ensure that citizens in that country would not be disposed to allow the British politicians to support the Confederacy- and hence slavery –  even though their economy was hurting from the massive shortage of cotton supplies.

The full story of Thomas Jackson has many twists and turns and would even make a good film script about the power of passion and the costs that can come with a dedication to a cause that many locals did not support. But by the time of his death he was much respected and lauded by his local community. The local newspaper reporting his funeral quoted. “On the coffin rested a cross of flowers and a wreath placed there by prominent colored citizens in acknowledgment of Mr. Jackson’s devotion to the colored race and opposition to slavery.”

After a busy career as a biologist, and later, a filmmaker for the Wildlife Film Company, John Paling has spent his retirement uncovering the secrets of Thomas Jackson’s letters. As an Ambassador for Thomas Jackson and the Curator of the Thomas Jackson Collection of Civil War letters, Paling has compiled a comprehensive digital directory for the letters, making them publicly available to researchers and history enthusiasts. The Thomas Jackson letters are now being preserved in the Library of Congress where the letters will be the subject of 3 major projects. To learn more visit thomasjacksonletters.com

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