Literacy of my ancestors is a topic that always interests me, when I can make a determination. Many of my Arkansas farmer and hillbilly ancestors could not read or write. However, it appears that most members of my Reeves ancestral line had at least basic literacy skills.
My fourth great-grandfather, Jordan Reeves, Jr, c 1773 - c 1845, was probably literate. I presume this based on unclaimed mail addressed to him in Nashville TN in 1805 and 1806 -- he had moved to Wilson County by 1805. Twenty years later, Jordan Reeves Jr settled in Independence County Arkansas, living southeast of Batesville, near Newark. He is listed in the Arkansas Gazette as having unclaimed mail at the Batesville post office several times between 31 Dec 1825 and 31 March 1827. This does not prove absolutely that Jordan was literate, but it raises the possibility. It is also possible that his wife Mary Magness was literate, rather than Jordan, and read the letters for him.
The 1850 census contains a column that should be checked if the person being enumerated is “over 20 years of age and unable to read or write.” This column is unchecked for Elias Morgan Reeves who could evidently do both, but it is checked for his wife Terissa Gilbreath Reeves. They are my third great-grandparents.
My great-great-grandfather, David Robertson Reeves, was orphaned at the age of four and is found in the 1870 Independence County, Arkansas federal census living with his sister Cynthia Reeves Drennon with an occupation of “works on farm.” He was thirteen years old. On the 1870 census there are two columns labeled “unable to read” and “unable to write.” Both are checked for young David, and indeed, for everyone in the household. By 1880, David has apparently learned to read and write because the same two columns are unchecked for both David and his wife, Mary Caroline McDoniel Reeves. David’s sister Cynthia and her husband both died in 1871, leaving him alone again at age fourteen. It is not known who he lived with until his 1878 marriage, but apparently he was given educational opportunity at last.
By 1900, the census provides three columns: “can read,” “can write,” and “can speak English.” For both Teressa Jane Reeves Henderson and her husband John C Henderson (my great-grandparents), all questions are answered “yes.” Subsequent generations all achieved literacy.
By defining literacy as the ability to read and write, I'm setting the bar pretty low. It is doubtful that any of these "literate" ancestors achieved anything close to the equivalent of a high school education. Adult literacy has never been great in rural Arkansas, and continues to be an issue to this day.