The House Of Percy, by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

“Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family”

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Author

Oxford University Press 1994


The secondary title of this book certainly sums up the Percy family and many others mentioned therein.  This is a family of apparent brilliant and famous writers.  In most instances a reader is brought into what we could call the world of dementia or depression of the first class and it continues through generations.  So why read a book that spells out the family’s inherited mental illness, trials and tribulations?  Well, let’s just say I was “Ware-ry”


There is nothing to draw you into a story more – than finding a potential ancestor mentioned.  Page 62 is the first mention of Nathaniel A. Ware, a young lawyer of Woodville, just south of Natchez.  It seems that our Nathaniel was a part of the “leaders of artistic and literary life in that part of the Southwest” – Nathaniel, it is said, “took up science, especially botany, geology and archaeology” with physicians William Provan, and John W. Monette.


Page 77 tells of Major Nathaniel Ware, handling the affairs of three gentlemen of close Percy linkage – Thomas Percy himself who was the home manager of the households when the “others” were away.  John Walker was an esteemed statesman and Samuel Brown who was an adviser on medications and education.  Where did Major Nathaniel fit in?  The “three” relied on Nathaniel for financial capital, counsel and he was married to Thomas’s sister, Sarah Percy Ellis. While they considered Ware “to be intellectually alert”, it seems he was a formidable man and considered too detached to be on intimate terms with any of them.  The Major is reported to have traveled but visited often.  In 1822, we learn of Thomas missing a   payment on a hefty loan from Major Ware, his sister Sarah’s husband.


From this point the story begins to switch from Nathaniel’s involvement with the Percy family as an in-law, to his relationship with wife Sarah and their two daughters, Catherine and Eleanor/Ellen.  Seems that Sarah was considered deserted by Nathaniel by the Percy family.  Sarah’s first born child, Thomas George Ellis and his family were devoted to mother Sarah – who is seen to be “troubled and wanders” the estate.


Just as most families, there a bunch of recycled names, Thomas Ellis’s oldest daughter was named for Sarah Percy Ellis Ware.  Sarah Ellis in later years remembered her grandmother in the latter years of her life.  Sarah Ware died when Sarah Ellis was only seven years of age but had made quite an impression on this namesake.  Now we find that Sarah Ellis is also an author having written in a semi-biographical novel.  In this novel (name not given) she recalls Sarah Ware’s beauty, exquisite hands, molded form and her hopeless melancholy.  Sarah Ware was very gifted and talented – music, embroidery and would busy herself with her plants and pencil.  Sarah E. observed that grandmother Sarah Ware would have spells of recognizing the family and then retreat into a deeper and darker “melancholy’’.


Sarah Percy Ware was buried in the Routh family’s brick-walled cemetery on Homochitto, Street in Natchez  It is said that a large tombstone identifies her as Sarah Percy Ware 1835 but according to William Johnson’s diary, a free black, she died on 30 May 1836, just after large distributions of her property to her two daughters by Nathaniel Ware.  Nathaniel did not correct this known mistake even in later court documents.  Sarah Ware’s eldest daughter Mary Jane Ellis LaRoche followed her mother’s fate in mental decline.  Mary Jane’s husband, Rene’ LaRoche, was concerned only with his professional advancement and his wife’s illness was not recognized for years.  Mary Jane and Rene’ are said to have married in 1824 and she was cared for in her illness by John Bell who was in their wedding party.  She died in 1844 at age 35-36 years.  This death of their half-sister, Mary Jane, was a devastating event for Nathaniel’s two daughters, Catherine Ann and Eleanor (Ellen).


Catherine Ann and Eleanor/Ellen Ware, are compared by Wyatt-Brown as the “Southern Brontes”.  Feeling abandoned by the death of their mother, Sarah Percy Ellis, and wanderings of their father Nathaniel, led them to “literary expression”.  Being Nathaniel’s daughters did have its compensations; in his apartment in Philadelphia they had a English governess; they wintered in Florida or Mississippi on daddy’s plantations.  Catherine and Ellen’s strong affection and competitiveness grew out of needing love and companionship after the death of their mother.


Although no portraits have been found of the sisters, descriptions of Eleanor/Ellen and Catherine have been found.  “Eleanor was the better looking with exceptional fair complexion and blond hair,  blue eyes the color of heaven, her features statuesque – now here is where it gets confusing…the last part of this description says “her hair black with a purple tinge”.  Now either this reporter was color blind or she had one heck of a hair dresser!


This brings us to little Catherine who thought herself plain but this same reporter’s (name unknown) description continues “had the Percy eye, dark gray with black lashes and a forceful chin”.  “Catherine was 5ft 3in, stood very erect, she had black hair like mother Sarah’s and half-sister Mary Jane’s”.  Catherine and Eleanor were of very different temperament.  Catherine was 16 and married Robert “Elisha” Warfield, 3 January 1833 in Cincinnati – her father’s new residence. Here it gets interesting again as Robert’s father, Elisha, had been a business associate of Nathaniel’s, Thomas Percy, Samuel Brown and Samuel Worthington in 1829 in the purchase of lands in the Mississippi Delta.  Catherine and “Elisha” had six children.


Eleanor/Ellen was not so quick to marry and at age of 20, on 25 May 1840 she married Henry William Lee, a Norfolk member of the Lee clan of Virginia and cousin to Robert E. Lee.  As the story progresses Henry William becomes “Gay Harry” who apparently was quite a striking figure of a man though shy, too shy to ask for her hand – so Eleanor/Ellen did it for him by speaking to her father for him.


Catherine and Eleanor are said to have been precocious children and had access to their father’s extensive library.  Major Ware supported and sanctioned his daughter’s intellectual pursuits.  Major Ware, in 1848 published “Henry Belden” a story based on his North Africa travels.  In the meantime the sister poets dubbed themselves “The Sisters of the West” and were gratified their father thought their work publishable.  In 1843 a Cincinnati publisher presented the 268 page volume “The Wife of Leon, and Other Poems”, in 1845 it went into a second edition.  In 1846 Nathaniel commissioned a New York printer for the girls when they published “The Indian Chamber, and other poems.  Wyatt-Brown says “the sisters were more likely to dwell upon “doom”, “gloom” and “tomb” than to rime “June” and “moon”.


Eleanor/Ellen Percy Lee died of Yellow fever in Natchez 1849.  Major Ware had settled in far distant Kentucky, yet he had chosen Galveston, a thriving port he thought one day would rival New Orleans, in which to buy blocks of property.  In 1853 Major Nathaniel Ware died of Yellow Fever as did his daughter Eleanor/Ellen.  Catherine was grieving still, her mother, half-sister Mary Jane and half-brother George Ellis now she added her sister Eleanor and father, Nathaniel.


Major Ware had lavished wealth and education but a dreary life.  Catherine, now middle aged, resumed her writing at the insistence of a niece.  In her book “The Household of Bouverie”, published in the same year as Lincoln’s first election, was a two volume, 783 page gothic romance.


Major Ware had high ambitions for wealth and fame as an explorer, botanist even at the expense of the love of his children and wife – hearth and home.  Major Ware, it seems, found marriage embittering and enslaving.  Catherine saw some male family members as barely acknowledging the existence of her mother and her mental illness.  The role of Catholicism in the Percy family is seen as salvation and a way of coping with the family malady of depression.


Squire Thomas George Percy of Huntsville, Alabama first bought land on Deer Creek in 1829.  The plan was to develop a vast plantation on land seized from the Choctaws.  Family members joined forces but Major Nathaniel Ware bailed early.


A family member, LeRoy Percy around 1910-11 when running for office was compared to “Major Ware, acting Governor of Mississippi, whose high toned manners had alienated the Jeffersonian voters of his day”.


This book is about the “Percy’s”, their talent as writers, the depths of their depression through generations so it is not too hard to understand that only through a marriage into the Percy family is Nathaniel Ware is even mentioned.  No mention of his parents or how and when he became “Major” Nathaniel Ware.  The Ware part of the story is more about the daughters and how they dealt with the inherited Percy depression in their own lives and to call attention to their father, Nathaniel’s depression, and their relationship with their father.  Catherine and Eleanor/Ellen were writers of poetry mostly in the early years, Catherine wrote novels in her later years.  The connection to the Percy writers, who seem to be quite accomplished and published, is carefully linked to the talent of Catherine and Eleanor.  We learn more about Nathaniel in bits and pieces as he is scattered and banded about in the story of the Percy’s – and through his own talented daughters, Catherine and Eleanor.


Bertram Wyatt-Brown did an amazing job of research and writing in telling this story of these talented writers, the Percy’s, their Southern honor and Southern heritage.  I thank him for including Nathaniel Ware and his family that we might know of the genius that extended to the daughters, Catherine Ann and Eleanor/Ellen and Nathaniel’s apparent genius as a businessman and contributor of information to the time and history in which he lived.


Book review by Cleo Holden

31 May 2011

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