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Signature of James L. Dusenbery and several photographs artistically combined.

Introduction to the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal Site

Erika Lindemann

At the heart of this website is the journal of James Lawrence Dusenbery: the "book of verses and fragments" that he kept to chronicle his senior year at the University of North Carolina from 1841 to 1842. To help recreate the world Dusenbery inhabited, we have surrounded the journal with numerous manuscripts and images that document his family and schoolfellows, as well as the cultural and social milieu that we glimpse within the journal.
A map showing Davidson County in 1823, a year after it was split off from neighboring Rowan County.A map showing Davidson County in 1823, a year after it was split off from neighboring Rowan County.

This map is part of the North Carolina State Archives collection, and is made available as part of the North Carolina Maps website

Dusenbery was born on December 14, 1821, in Rowan (now Davidson) County, NC, the oldest son of Lydia Davis (1797–1857) and Henry Rounsaville Dusenbery (1794–1852). After a preparatory education at the Caldwell Institute in Greensboro, NC, [1] James entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1839 as a sophomore and joined the Dialectic Society. During his senior year he lived in #23 Old West on the University campus. Sometime before graduating, Dusenbery began copying out poems and songs that he found especially meaningful, and in July 1841 he began "Records of My Senior Year at the University of North Carolina," a series of weekly entries describing his activities as a University student. He graduated in 1842, together with 28 other seniors, and returned to Lexington, NC, to study medicine with physician C[harles] L[ee] Payne (1798?–1865). In 1843 he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's Medical Department. As Dusenbery tells us near the end of his journal, he received his MD degree on April 4, 1845. The subject of his graduating essay at the University of Pennsylvania was "Empiricism." By 1850, according to census data, Dusenbery was living in Statesville, NC, in the home of physician David Chambers, age 60, and 29-year-old farmer, P. B. Chambers. By 1852, the year in which Dusenbery's father died, James had returned to Lexington to practice medicine. During the Civil War, he served with the 14th Battalion, Lexington Home Guard. Though he survived the conflict, three brothers, two brothers-in-law, and three nieces died during the war years. After the war Dusenbery resumed his medical practice in Lexington and served as a University of North Carolina trustee from 1874 until 1877. He died on January 28, 1886, and was buried in the Lexington City Cemetery. [2] He never married.
Liber Carminum et Fragmentorum (Book of Verses and
                        Fragments). Page 4 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal."Liber Carminum et Fragmentorum" (Book of Verses and Fragments). Page 4 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Journals such as James's renew our appreciation for the ways in which students give their college experience meaning. They provide an entertaining glimpse into college life as it was lived over 160 years ago. The events and people students chose to write about tell us much about who they were, what they valued, and what kind of young men they became. Like many students today, James thoroughly enjoyed his senior year in college. He appreciated his friends, enjoyed sports, music, and dance, and despite his active social life, completed his studies successfully. So far as we know, he was a good son and brother. At times his feet seemed planted squarely in adolescence, yet he nevertheless became a successful physician and, we assume, led a productive and rewarding life. James intended his journal for his own use. He never meant for us to read it, nor could he have imagined the technology that would give anyone with an Internet connection access to it. For these reasons, let us approach his work with some caution and generosity of spirit, since any inferences we may draw from his journal are likely to be incomplete. We cannot know the precise circumstances that shaped the events he recorded. The people in his life also were more than his perception of them. And the journal is not the man. That said, it has been an engaging pleasure to prepare James Lawrence Dusenbery's journal for the Documenting the American South website. We hope you enjoy reading it and learning more about his life as an antebellum student at the University of North Carolina.


^1. The Caldwell Institute was founded by the Orange Presbytery in 1836 and represents the second classical academy and preparatory school by that name in Greensboro, NC. (The first was established by Rev. David Caldwell in 1767 and closed in 1822). Named for Joseph Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and president of the University of North Carolina, the school was first taught by Rev. Alexander Wilson and Silas C. Lindsay. The school was moved to Hillsborough, NC, in 1845 in the wake of a typhoid epidemic (Smith 137).

^2. Dusenbery's tomb in the Lexington City Cemetery is unusual in several respects. It is a brick, above-ground mausoleum with a white marble plaque attached to the front. The plaque misspells Dusenbery's last name as Duesenbery and dates his death as February 28, 1886. This evidence notwithstanding, the Charlotte Home Democrat published Dusenbery's obituary on February 12, 1886, more than two weeks prior to the death date noted on the tomb's plaque. The obituary notes that "Dr. James Dusenbury, a prominent citizen" of Lexington died on January 28, 1886 (3).

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