James Dinsmore (1790 – 1872)

James Dinsmore

Born in Windham, New Hampshire, James moved away from home in 1814, one year after graduating from Dartmouth College.  He slowly made his way to Natchez, Mississippi Territory, where he studied law and began working for the wealthy Minor family.  As law faded into the background, James became a tutor to the young Minor heirs, Stephen and William, and managed the family’s several plantations during their time away.

In 1828, James and John Minor bought about 400 arpents of land in Terrebonne Parish and became partners in the sugar plantation industry.  Dinsmore was to live on site and run the plantation, while Minor furnished half of the funds needed.  Ever keen to keep up with contemporary technological advances, the partners invested in the latest steam engine – to run both a saw mill and a sugar mill.  In May 1829, James returned east and married Martha Macomb in Burlington, New Jersey.

By 1831, the family was settled on Bayou Black and James had forty to sixty enslaved African Americans clearing and ditching the land and raising sugar cane and cotton.  It was a fast-paced life for someone like James, who was described by his brother as lazy, and he soon became disillusioned with the whole enterprise.  Debt was a constant problem, but he had other concerns, too.  With three young daughters growing up, he dreaded the yellow fever, a prevalent disease that laid him low for several weeks one year and worried him enough that he wrote out his last will and testament.  He also worried that his daughters might grow up without knowing what a hill looked like.

So when Uncle Silas Dinsmoor wrote James about a beautiful tract of land near the Ohio River in Boone County, Kentucky, James was very interested.  He traveled north in 1838 to look the land over and was pleased enough to sign an agreement with Israel Clore, the owner.  There were many reasons for the move other than James’ debt and his health concerns:  in Kentucky he could raise grapes and make wine, he could raise sheep and goats, and he would be very close to the growing city of Cincinnati.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, James would be close to his aging uncle and aunt.

By 1842, James’ house in Boone County was completed and the family moved into it.  He brought eleven enslaved men, women, and children north with him to do the farming, while he continued to hire out about fifteen slaves in Louisiana.  Corn, oats, hay, beans, and potatoes were the main crops raised on what was an 800-acre farm in 1848.  James sold grape cuttings from his vineyard and in 1860 he produced 300 gallons of wine; he also had 140 sheep and goats roaming the hills that gave James over 100 pounds of wool.

In addition to the African Americans who worked on his land, Dinsmore relied on tenants and wage-laborers.  The tenants lived in cabins on the property.  By 1854, many of the tenants were German-born immigrants and they started up a basket factory on the farm – they raised osier willows and made them into large market and clothes baskets that were sold in Cincinnati.

Before the Civil War, James sold off some of his land to a neighbor, leaving himself with 400 acres.  This is about the amount inherited by his daughter, Julia Dinsmore, after his death in 1872.  James supported the Union cause during the Civil War even though, by 1863, he must have realized that slavery was doomed.  Following the war, most of the African Americans who had been slaves, moved to Indiana and elsewhere.  One family, the Hawkins, continued to live in a cabin on the Dinsmore property until after James’ death.

In the last year of his life, James described himself as being over six feet tall and weighing over 230 pounds.  Because he suffered badly from rheumatism, he wrote that he walked like a “crippled terrapin.”  He died on December 21st, in the dining room of the home he designed.

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