Plantation heiress kills herself on fears fiancé died in Civil War

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The Hambrick Plantation House today. Bess's bedroom was on the second story, left side, spanning two windows.

Tyler, Texas, June 22, 1865:
Plantation heiress Sara Elizabeth “Bess” Hambrick, 20, took her own life last evening, after retiring upstairs to her bedroom, following supper with her father, mother and brother in their elegant dining room at the Hambrick Plantation house 14 miles west of here.

Her father, Burrell Hambrick, had discussed many things at the meal, including deeding 3,000 acres of his 3,200-acre Hambrick Plantation to his 57 former slaves. Hambrick said it was only right that the slave families who worked with him to build the plantation should be entitled to live comfortably on the land and to farm it themselves since they are now free.

It is not known if this discussion of giving away the family plantation had any effect on Bess. But, family members say there is no doubt Bess had been heartbroken and despondent over the past two months when the love of her life, her fiancé, and a close family friend, Henry, failed to return from the Civil War. Bess and Henry had planned to be married immediately after the war.

Her father, two of her brothers and her beloved Henry, all left for war together to fight on the side of the Confederacy three long, bloody years ago.

Her father and one brother, James, came back in May. Her other brother, George, died in the dreaded Camp Douglas prisoner of war camp in Chicago. Her last letter from Henry was in May 1864, and no word on his fate since the war ended. So, recently, Bess and her family feared the worst. After all, they reasoned, if Henry had been able, he would have been home long before now.

The family speculates that when Bess got to her bedroom last night, she lit a candle and sat it down on the front window ledge as she has done every night for the past three years. It was a flickering signal to Henry that she still cared. She would peer into the blackness every night searching for Henry’s lantern light moving jauntily down the road and hoping to hear his familiar shout when he approached her house, “Where’s my Bess ole gal?” Last night, Bess saw no lantern and heard no shout.

Apparently, overpowered by inconsolable thoughts, she left the window and moved silently toward her bed. Her parents – in the dining room below – heard nothing. Reaching under her feather mattress, she retrieved the derringer her father had given her long ago for protection. Last night that derringer had an entirely different mission, as she put it to her temple and pulled the trigger.

Bess Hambrick will be buried today in the family cemetery on the Hambrick estate.


The poet Robert Frost once said, “In three words, I can sum up everything I have learned about life: “It goes on.” Well, life certainly went on for the Burrell Hambrick family, but not in the way they were accustomed before the war.

Just two weeks after Bess’ suicide, the long-lost Henry did come marching home. He was happy, healthy and ready for marriage, only to hear the frustrating and tragic story of Bess’ death and to visit the love of his life at her still flower-covered grave, separated now, not by war but by life itself.

A few days after his daughter’s death, Uncle Burrell, as I call him, did, in fact, deed 3,000 acres of his plantation to his former slaves. Over a hundred of those slave descendants still live on the former Hambrick Plantation in the community they named Redland. To this day, the descendants readily admit all their landed possessions did come to them as the result of the generosity of their former slave holder. They built a successful school on their land and still tell the story to their children.

After Uncle Burrell had deeded the land to his former slaves, he moved to Tyler to start another, albeit less opulent, life. He and two partners built East Texas’ “first cotton and thread factory” in Tyler, costing them $35,000 ($55 million dollars, today, using the Relative Share of GDP Indicator). Uncle Burrell soon put 70 workers on the payroll and had 1,200 spindles in the factory. After so much tragedy, life again appeared good for him.

But as life went on for Uncle Burrell, the factory he built was open only two years before a freak fire burned it to the ground. It was a total loss. He had no insurance. No more money. No place to go.

Uncle Burrell never recovered financially or physically from this devastating loss. He died six months later in 1868 at the age of 58, leaving only a tiny estate for his once wealthy family to divide.

Tim and Carolyn West, who provided the information for this story, bought the now 200-acre Hambrick Plantation several years ago and have done a marvelous job of restoring it. Recently, the Wests sold Roseland, the beautiful bed and breakfast side of the Plantation, to Steve and Debbie Toth (pronounced like “both”). Both families ensuring that for years to come what is left of the Hambrick Plantation shall remain a part of my family’s and all of our family’s Southern Memories.

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