“My Dear Nell:” The Love Letters of John Moultrie

Letters and Correspondence

May 6, 2019
by George Kotlik Also by this Author


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Dr. John Moultrie was born in 1729 in South Carolina to a father of the same name, one of five brothers. Educated in Edinburgh, he graduated in 1749 before returning to the United States where he took up residence in Charleston. In subsequent years, he held numerous prominent positions within the colony. In 1763, when East Florida was annexed by the British, he purchased land grants upon which he later built plantations. From 1771 into 1774, John Moultrie served as an interim governor of East Florida, following Gov. James Grant’s term, until Gen. Patrick Tonyn replaced him.

When the War for American Independence began, John remained loyal to Britain and continued to serve as a government official. Three of his four brothers, on the other hand, all supported the rebellion (the fourth had died in 1765); his brother William Moultrie became one of South Carolina’s most senior, and most famous, military officers.

John Moultrie. (Wikimedia Commons)

Long before the American Revolution, John Moultrie served as officer during the First Cherokee War between 1759 and 1761. Like many young soldiers, Moultrie kept his mind off of the rigors of campaign by writing regularly to his beloved, Eleanor Austin. He referred to her affectionately as Nelly in courtship letters that described his experiences with the army as well as the affection he had for her. These letters, eleven in total, reveal much about a man who became an important loyalist in East Florida during the Revolutionary War, as well as offering first hand experiences from the First Cherokee War.

The first letter is dated November 1, 1759, and is addressed to “My dearest Nelly.” Written from “Camp Congrees,” a military encampment on the Congaree River, Moultrie briefly described the army’s situation before delving into his feelings for Eleanor. He mentioned tokens of remembrance that Austin had given him before he set off on his campaign.

Moultrie wrote of his desire to be with her again, but that his duty to his country stood in the way of their love. Much of this letter, and subsequent letters, were just elaborations of many sweet nothings described in a multitude of different phrases designed to woo her. Her reaction is unknown, for in the two years they were apart, Austin never answered any of his letters, much to his pain and eventual acceptance.

On November 12, 1759, Moultrie sent another letter, again from Camp Congrees, much like the last one. In this one he wrote of wanting to reach the Cherokees quickly so that he could return to Eleanor Austin faster than the current rate of the campaign would allow. He implored her to write to him and expressed how her silence hurt him. He also wrote of protecting his love from any danger:

Since we have been in camp here we have had one day & night of prodigious heavy rain & cold weather, plenty of water in our tents, but the thoughts of you being kind to me made my situation tolerable; nay very comfortable. And if cold & wet in the wild woods, were not visitors too rude & rough to touch my dear Nelly’s soft limbs, I cou’d live in these thin huts with her happy & delighted, it will not be so; when we come together which I hope for soon, you shall have a better Tent than this, to guard you from the injuries of the weather, while I will strive with unmarried care to ward off danger.[1]

Moultrie wrote of the army’s situation. “We are to march from this place tomorrow for the Cherokee nation, but [I] believe [we] shall stop at 96 to make a fort, so that the next time you hear form me will be (very likely) from Keowee, among the squaws. Then I shall be three hundred miles from my dear Nelly, but she shall not be 3 miles out of mind, in return pray think now & then of me; if you knowe; I deserve it.”[2] Keowee was one of the Cherokee “Lower Towns,” the principle of these towns in the Cherokee low country. Moultrie ended this letter, “Your most sincere & affectionate, John Moultrie.”

On November 18, 1759, John sent another letter, this one from Salady old town. Austin had not replied to any of his messages. Moultrie justified the brevity of this letter, compared to those before it, as being due to illness: “I am scarcely able to write, I have just got up out of a fever & my head not rightly settled; which I hope you will think a sufficient excuse for my not writing a long letter just now.”[3] He then expressed his emotional turmoil at her silence:

you cannot imagine how uneasy I am about you; I have not heard a word since I left you; do, my dear, write to me; if I, nor my love deserve not a line; pray write out of Charity, & give a little satisfaction; a thousand times more wou’d I do for you, & with pleasure too.”[4]He ended the letter by reassuring his love that his sickness should cause her no worry: “Don’t imagine that I am very bad for I shall be well enough in two or three hours time, to goe out & walk all over the Camp.[5]

By the fourth letter, dated November 28, 1759, and written from “Camp at Ninety six,” Moultrie had begun to feel foolish for not hearing a word from his love.

I reckon my dearest Nelly that you look upon me as too fond & a foolish fellow, to be so often writing to you, & still telling you the same thing, that I still love you & for ever will. However, pray believe it dear Girle & repay me with love as your sweetness & mildness can, & hope it will, & then I hope we both shall live completely blest . . . I will fly from the mountains down to my Nelly’s arms, as fast as the wind of purest love will carry me. We shall march from here tomorrow, & shall not stop again till we get among the Indian Warriors & Princesses; & then I will write to you my dearest Girle again, & hope not to lose my scalp.[6]

Moultrie did not write to Austin for a year. But he did not hear from her either. Finally on  November 24, 1760, he wrote again:

My much loved, dear Girle . . . I very much want, if it be once in my life, to receive a line from you, then shall I be certain indeed that you regard me, that you put some confidence if me, & think me worthy of conferring a considerable favour upon; for be assured I shall always look upon it as one of the greatest & tenderst marks of affection, love & favour, & will for ever, greatly love you for it my dear Nell.[7]

John then mentioned a picture he had of her, of which she gave him:

You cannot think with how much pleasure & how often I look your sweet little picture; I am afraid I shall almost wear it out; but before that I hope the much loved dear original, will be in my possession; ‘tis mine I know already, you told me so the night we parted, & until heavenly angels turn deceitfull evil spirits I must & will believe my dear my sweetest Nelly.[8]

Nearing the end of this letter, John wrote of the dangers he faced on campaign, particularly scalping at the hands of the Indians, before mentioning a Guitar in his possession that, should he die, he wished her to have: “If I shou’d be so unfortunate as to loose the top of my head, & its handsome suit of hair, I beg you will be fair Mistress, & accept of my Guitar, & learn to play unto it, in remembrance of one who dearly loved once.”[9]

On December 19, 1760, John found himself once again back at Camp Congree where he wrote another love letter to Nelly. A great majority of this letter said nothing substantial; only at the end of it did he mention more of what Eleanor Austin gave to him before he left:

I have with me the Orange that went to Keowee before, received from [your] pretty hand at the Quarter house this time 12 months [ago], the old valuable blue ribbon, the handkerseif [handkerchief], the mask, the fan, the sweet picture in my bosom & the lock of hair of inestimable value at the back of it, all these I look as often at & with as much devotion & fondness as religious Catholicks do on the relicts of their dear departed saints.[10]

This is the first time the correspondence makes it clear how much interest Austin had in Moultrie. The gifts she gave John prior to his departure, numerous and sentimental, highlight her feelings for the officer.

Eleanor Austin did not hear from Moultrie again until his letter of February 28, 1761, where he wrote once again from Camp Congrees. This letter was short. “I think if I am so lucky as to come alive & not disfigured home I ought to be happy after the rough work, & as a reward rest peaceful & happy in the Arms, & on the sweet bosom of the only Girl I love.”[11] The rest of the letter included much of the same loving content similar to the correspondence that came before it.

March 28, 1761 saw another letter from Camp Congrees. It is clear from this letter that Moultrie had accepted Austin’s failure to write back to him. He said, essentially, that he did not want to bother her (but he nonetheless continued to write).

Another reason for my not writing as often as I shou’d like, & wou’d do it gladly, is, that the situation in which I have the Honor to be just now, takes up almost my whole time . . . but you, who I feel constantly in my bosom, & a thousand times a day rise in mind, spur me on with pleasure, & makes every toil & fatigue goe cheerfully on. Only think my dear of having between five & six hundred as rough & riotous fellows to manage, as ever got together; add to these some young gentlemen that require a good deal of looking after & management & these are not all for there are some of your sex among us, whom though not very delicate I will call camp ladys; you may imagine this sort of Cattle are noisy, riotous & troublesome; I have found them so, & been obliged to give them some military Lectures & discipline too.[12]

He elaborated on the beauty of the camp and how pleasing it looked, at least to his eye. He described the rows upon rows of tents situated on the banks of the Congaree river, the trees overhanging from above and how they created a picturesque image. Within that image, John described a bower that he called a “temple” for her: “I have a pretty Bower opposite my tent, on ye river’s brink, with a shady walk to it. I may call it my temple, dedicated to my lovely Nell, for there I constantly goe each day for a mile in the evening to be silently happy by thinking with honest love of you my gentle bosom friend.”[13]

Moultrie had learned through a friend of Austin’s ill health, and mentioned it in his letter dated April 28, 1761. The letter, however, contained more of military matters than anything else. Moultrie had relocated to Camp Ninety-Six, where he was given more responsibility:

After I wrote you I did not remain long there, to sacrifice in my temple to you dedicated for I received a letter, from the Commander in chief my old friend, & in it orders to march forward to this place with half of the best of our Regiment to encamp here to build a fort, to form magazine to take upon me the command of the Rangers & all the forces here; I am obliged to him for distinguishing me with this post, as it is one of honor & a good deal of confidence reposed in me; I hope you are pleased & obliged to him too, as you ought to be concerned for my honor & Character.
I have been here about three weeks & in the midst of much busyness & hurry; but have now got over the worst of it, so that now I have nothing to do but look sharp, often think of my dear Girle & wait for the coming of Col Grant & the Grand Army, wich will be very soon, when we shall immediately push forward.[14]

He discussed the hardships of campaign life:

I have had a pretty little walk of about 200 miles & many a wet jacket & britches, especially in this last march from Congaree to this place, all the way afoot, & often up to the middle in creeks & rivers; but still in high health & spirits except one thing, & the only thing that could cloud or make me uneasy, which made me sorry & thoughtful, sometimes when I ought not to have been so; & that was your being unwell. Believe me my dear I was much concerned to hear it. Col Laurens told me he left you much indisposed, & this was the very moment that I marched off as he had just then come to camp, but I hope long before this, that you are well recovered & be in high health, happy & as full of honest love as me.[15]

On July 10, 1761, Moultrie wrote from Fort Prince George. He commented, “This is a region of the world so rude & rough.[16] He went into detail about the British attack on Cherokee settlements, and explained his feelings of sympathy for the Natives, revealing something of the mindset of some British officers regarding their actions in the Indian Country:

I hope you will not be angry or jealous of me for making free with the Cherokee squaw, I think it was being pretty free to drive them naked out of their beds to hide in the woods & mountain. But this among others I did without much conscience besides burning of houses, destroying fine fields gardens orchards so till the tears of the squaw first melted & made me sorry; You see by this that I am so soon touched by the fair that the tears of a savage one damped my anger, & made me feel with her.[17]

Along the margins of the letter, he concluded by saying:

The picture, the lock of hair, [the rings], the fan, the orange, the nutmeg grater, the Poems, & songs, the handkerchief, have been the whole campaign with me, & been at the burning of 15 Indian towns, and much more mischief. The picture, lock, rings & nutmeg grater are constant attendants on my person, & looked upon with much devotion.[18]

By the last letter, dated September 1, 1761, and written from the safety of Camp Fort Prince George, Moultrie had been on campaign against the Cherokees for almost two years. The note outlined his readiness to come home after the army had met all of its objectives, which included the confrontation of the Lower Towns of the Cherokee nation. He told her that he must stay longer to see the breakup of their forces, accompanying his commanding officer, Col. James Grant, who would later become the first inaugurated Governor of East Florida. He also remarked: “Every night Col. Grant, Sir Harry Seton, our pleasant friend Monepenny, my self & some times one or two more, meet & sit till eleven & we never miss bringing you into the company; where we constantly drink health to Dona Eleanora.”[19]

John Moultrie made it back to Charleston in one piece. His time on the frontier became a period of his life where he experienced daring adventure, during which he contented himself with thoughts of coming home to his love, Eleanor Austin. The love-struck young man had still another letter to write.

Eleanor Austin’s father, George Austin, was a wealthy English tobacco planter with extensive holdings in South Carolina. He opposed Moultrie’s interest in his daughter, prompting Moultrie to write this undated letter attempting to win his favor and imploring his consent to their marriage:

Dear Sir, Forgive me if you think I am too importunate on the interesting subject on which I am about to write to you since nothing but the purest Love and most sincere regard for your fair daughter, cou’d prompt me again to beg an alliance with you so near as a son through her; after you have once signified your disapprobation, and treated me in the genteel manner you and your good Lady have done; I think you will rather pardon and be sorry, than resent and be angry, though you cannot alter your opinion, as I cannot help loving the Lady, & great happiness I expect from her.

But the hopes of your being entreated to consent to our desires of making each other happy, and to look with an Eye of pleasure upon our Love, since fixed upon a noble foundation, free from guilt, rational & tending to make us the happiest of our kind; & too firm to be shaken or hurt, by any shock, if you but guard it. It is this alone, that has again push’d me to beg most earnestly, that you will never see cause to repent, (we will endeavor that you shall not) but when you look on us hereafter, see us with satisfaction, and be pleased that you was prevail’d upon to make us happy; as I hope sir our regard for each other is not such as bring the common run of Couples togeather, but more genuine & noble, and such also as some few happy pairs, have experienced, to be the Basis of a mild an happy Life, & sure defense against anything that attempt to ruffle or disturb their quiet.

The marrying of your Daughter is among others, one of the most weighty matters that you have now to transact in this life; therefore I know must make you pause and think; but let me beg of you dear Sir to think favourably of me; I have motives strong enough within me to make me strive equally with you to make her happy; and I am sure we can attain it notwithstanding the circumstance of my having two Little ones, which you are afraid may be a cause of disquiet; but I think Sir if you was fully acquainted with me and them, and how they are circumstanced most of your fears wou’d subside, and in their room quite another prospect arise, of their being link’d to her in love and gratitude, which wou’d give pleasure but never pain. I must confess I have seen children of a first marriage, the cause of the uneasyiness in a second, but as often have I seen their own children the cause of as much trouble, even each party disturbing each other, their own parents causing uneasiness; their relations, Estate, nay their very sacred friends, things which our Great Maker intended as blessings, by their own tempers & wantonness, turn’d to curses, & productive of a very unhappy Married Life. Added to good dispositions and prudence, there is nothing so effectuall to make us happy, & in shutting discord out in a married state, as a well grounded Love & friendship; such is ours, it will sweetly season all our enjoyments, and render them too pure to be alloy’d with any tincture of sorrow or discontent.

These considerations are too weighty, and have been too often reconsider’d not to keep me continually on my guard that it be not my case; to suffer the blessings of Heaven to be turned by my folly into cuases of pain; besides sir your great apprehensions of my Babes (that will offend no one) making the dear Lady unhappy, wou’d be another forceable reason for our taking great care, that these blessings do not sully our happiness, but rather add Lustre to it; a little benevolence is all that is requisite in our situation to make a mother in Law appear amiable in the Eye of the world, and to gain a thankfull & tender Love of the children; & I think Miss Nelly has some of it in her constitution.

I beg dear Sir that you will not look upon this as the affect of a heated Imagination, or blaze of Love too fierce to last or the sentiments of a man blinded by it but consider it as the thoughts & principles of a man, calmly, but sincerely transacting a business of the highest importance with a man of sense and gravity; & as proof, I do not urge to consent precipitately, but rather that you wou’d take every opportunity of informing yourself concerning me, & alow me to have the company of yourself and family whereby you may know me more exactly, and if then you think I have falsified, or promised more than it is likely I can perform, I shall then take your absolute denyal, tho’ with sorrow, peaceably, thank you for your generous, and genteel treatment, and for ever after (as I now am) remain an inviolable friend fo you and yours, and am, Dear Sir, Your most obedt servt, John Moultrie Jnr.[20]

It can be inferred from this letter that George Austin was concerned for his daughter’s happiness in the marriage, particularly because it was not Moultrie’s first. Moultrie had two children by a previous marriage, whom he referred to gently as “Babes” and “Little ones.” Integrating them into a new marriage was clearly a major concern of Moultrie, and appears to also have been of George Austin. Moultrie wrote eloquently of the challenges that children could impart on a marriage, but offered that their parentage was no predictor of the impact they might have, good or bad.

Moultrie, it can be argued, attempted to manipulate George Austin’s love for his daughter to gain his blessing. At the beginning of the letter he wrote, in effect, that his blessing would allow for a happy marriage and that Moultrie’s motives were aligned with Austin’s, saying that where they strove “equally . . . to make her happy; and I am sure we can attain it.”[21] He was certainly cunning, but that should not cast doubt on the sincerity of his motives. He offered assurance that the marriage was not proposed out of blind love or lust, and placed a serious importance on what he referred to as their “transaction.” Moultrie concluded the letter on a positive note, indicating that even if Austin did not accept their union, he would hold no ill will and look upon him as a friend.

George Austin did not accept the marriage, but John Moultrie and Eleanor Austin went ahead with it anyway; they were wed in January 1762. The elder Austin returned to his estate in England, Aston Hall, the same year. A family tradition holds that a family friend, Henry Laurens, who also achieved fame in the American Revolution, assisted the young Moultrie couple in an attempted reconciliation. On a trip to Shropshire, Laurens visited Aston Hall with a gift: a painting of Eleanor Moultrie with her two young sons by her new marriage, John and James. Finding George Austin not at home, Laurens presented the picture to the house staff who hung it in the dining room. When Austin returned, he was angry with his servants for allowing such an intrusion—but left the painting in place, where it still hung well into the nineteenth century.

Aston Hall, Shropshire, home of George Austin, was eventually inherited by John and Eleanor Moultrie’s son John. (A Holmes / Aston Hall, Shifnal / CC BY-SA 2.0)

John and Eleanor Moultrie enjoyed a prosperous life in America with success in the tobacco trade. When the colonies broke away from Great Britain, John Moultrie remained loyal to the crown in opposition to the sentiments of his four brothers. The end of the war saw their fortunes reversed, but in the mean time Eleanor had inherited her father’s estate in Shropshire—but managed by trustees in such a way that her husband did not have access to her wealth. The couple moved into Aston Hall in 1784. Upon Eleanor’s death, she left the house to her son John Moultrie, born in 1764, George Austin’s grandson by the marriage that he never approved.[22]


[1]John Moultrie to Eleanor Austin, November 12, 1759, M.C.B. Gubbins, transcriber, Transcripts and abstracts of Moultrie family papers, 1746-1965, South Carolina Historical Society,


[3]Moultrie to Austin, November 18, 1759, ibid.



[6]Moultrie to Austin, November 28, 1759, ibid.

[7]Moultrie to Austin, November 24, 1760, ibid.



[10]Moultrie to Austin, December 19, 1760, ibid.

[11]Moultrie to Austin, February 28, 1761, ibid.

[12]Moultrie to Austin, March 28, 1761, ibid.


[14]Moultrie to Austin, April 28, 1761, ibid.


[16]Moultrie to Austin, July 10, 1761, ibid.



[19]Moultrie to Austin, September 1, 1761, ibid.

[20]John Moultrie to George Austin, no date, M.C.B. Gubbins, transcriber, Transcripts and abstracts of Moultrie family papers, 1746-1965, South Carolina Historical Society.


[22]“The Moultries of South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine V5#4 (October 1904), 247-149; “Shifnal’s Tobacco Plantation,” www.bbc.co.uk/shropshire/content/articles/2007/02/28/slavery_moultrie_austin_feature.shtml.

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