Saturday, September 8, 2012

Love Letters

One of my greatest treasures in the jackpot of heirlooms my maternal grandmother left behind are the love letters between my 3rd great grandparents, Robert Hawkins Smith and Octavia M. Wood, dated 1837.

Robert was born in Buckingham County, Virginia on October 9th, 1817 and as a child, he and his family traveled to Georgia and then finally settled in Elkton, Todd County, Kentucky. Octavia, the 8th born child, had been born in Williamson County, Tennessee on May 21, 1821. Sometime before she was 16, her family migrated to Christian County, Kentucky, either in or just outside of Hopkinsville.

So in 1837, Robert is in Elkton, Kentucky and Octavia is in or around Hopkinsville, Kentucky. If you look at a map, you'll see these two places are about 20 miles apart, which today is but a mere half hour drive according to trusty Google Maps. On horseback, this would take about 5 hours at an average walking gait (according to Wikipedia, a horse's average walking speed is about 4 miles per hour). At an average trot, this time would be halved but your horse would be more worn out. So it's safe to say that Robert and Octavia were conducting what we would call a long distance relationship. How did they meet? I don't know, that remains a mystery. One suggestion made was that they could have met at a church function, such as a revival meeting.

What I do know is that by 1837, they were sending letters to each other expressing their feelings for one another. The ones sent to Octavia were addressed to Hopkinsville but since there was no postal service outside the city, those who lived in rural areas had to travel into the city to pick up their mail. Octavia's father was a farmer, which is what makes me think they were living just outside of Hopkinsville. Octavia's letters to Robert were addressed to "Elkton" or "Near Elkton".

To the right is the first surviving letter, from Robert to Octavia, in which he seems to be revealing his feelings for her for the first time (note how he says he has concealed his feelings from her as long as he could). There is no date to be found on the letter but since the rest of the letters openly discuss their feelings for one another, this one must come before them in chronological order. It is difficult to read and I could not make all of it out, especially with there being a big hole over at least one word, but this is what I managed to transcribe:
"Sitting alone it is then that I think of thee. It is on thee that all my future happiness depends as to my sincerity or that you may depend for I would not deceive you for the world. Believe me for I am truly your lover. Dear Octavia would it [illegible] with my [hole in document] feelings or in other words could you consent to become my companion through life. If I am your choice it will shortly render me happy through life. If not, My Dear, I have more regard for your feelings than to persuade you contrary to your tender feelings. I have concealed my feelings from you as long as I can so you must not think me bold in this address to you for my love to you is so great that I could not [for bane?]. So excuse my Boldness. It is my desire that you answer me as soon as you can. Remember me your affectionate lover until death,
Robert H Smith"
As you can see, the letter was then folded up several times and the address was written on the back so apparently envelopes weren't used.

Octavia's response to Robert's profession of love are lost to history, her responding letter has not survived. There are five surviving letters in total, each in varying degree of legibility. The second surviving letter is also from Robert to Octavia and dated May 24, 1837. How many letters there had been between the first and second (or prior to the first) is unknown. Since the first letter is not dated, there is no way to guess how many letters could have been sent before May 24.

In the second letter (right), Robert tells Octavia that she is "as dear to me as life itself" and tells her "doubt not what I say for every word comes directly from the heart." He then promises to see her in a short time and will have "the most exquisite pleasure of embracing one who I am ever anxious to see." He finishes the letter by saying he "remains your affectionate and dear beloved until death." Obviously eager to hear back from her, he adds a rather demanding P.S. of "Answer this letter immediately".

The third letter (below), dated June 2, 1837, is the most interesting of all as Octavia tells Robert,
"You must give me a generous reward for transacting this generous act but alas I fear the consequence. Round is the ring that has no end."
What is going on here? My mother's theory, one I can't help but be inclined to agree with, is that Octavia's "generous act" was one of a sexual nature and that she fears the consequence of either getting pregnant or someone finding out and her reputation being ruined and therefore as her "generous reward" she is expecting him to marry her. "Round is the ring that has no end" certainly sounds like a pretty obvious reference to a wedding ring.

But this is mere speculation. You wouldn't have thought that they would want to save letters which could prove they engaged in premarital sex and tarnish their reputation. But if it's accurate, Octavia need not have feared for not only did Robert marry her, she did not give birth for the first time until well after their marriage, which occurred in the year following the letters, on February 20, 1838.

The fourth letter (right and below), dated June 24th, is obviously Robert's response to Octavia's fears. Covering a page and a half and written in what appears to be larger and sloppier handwriting than his other letters, it shows how anxious Robert must have been to reassure Octavia:
"Dear Miss I hasten to answer you letter but alas how can I express my feelings to one who I consider if I should use the expression as dear to me as life itself and the letter that I received from you was a dear consolation to me. Dear Miss, doubt not what I say for every word comes directly from the heart of one who is and shall prove to be your friend and as to the regards of the love I have for you, is beyond expressible. Dear Miss, I hope you will for this time I beg to excuse me of not answering your letter sooner for I was so engaged in my affairs that I could not. But I am in hopes that I will see you in person and that will be the most enjoyment to us both. My Dear, you speak of a generous reward from me for transacting so generous an act. I say by all that is sacred and by all that is dear to man and men that I pledge myself again and again that I will prove to you what I ought to do on that subject. Oh my dear, give me your heart and hand and that is all I ask and if you do not, I am ruined forever. Dear Miss, you will permit me to subscribe myself your most obedient friend. But I would write something more on that, but I thought as you would be convinced in this letter the love that I had for you."
You may notice that Robert is beginning to reiterate some romantic sentiments that he used in the second letter! But Octavia too uses some of the same phrases as Robert and so I think these were common phrases of affection at the time.

Robert's post script in his final surviving letter is the most romantic of all, in my opinion, because it is not found elsewhere in any of the letters by Robert or Octavia and is therefore a unique sentiment rather than a recycled or commonly used term of endearment:
"My dear it is you and you alone that I love and no other can win my affection from you."
The fifth and final surviving letter (right) is from Octavia and dated November 15 so there is another gap in the timeline here in which some letters are probably missing. In it, Octavia reflects on the many transactions between them but I found it to be the most difficult letter to transcribe and therefore her thoughts come across very brokenly. She talks of Robert's "respectful attention", which perhaps suggests there was never any sexual intimacies between them after all, and his "sincere friendship". She calls him "my darling", "my beloved", and "dear lover", all terms that Robert used for her as well. She ends the letter with the final insight we have into their world and hearts:
"May god bless and preserve you and believe me that I remain forever your affectionate lover until death."
We hear so much about arranged and political marriages from the past that it is refreshing and heartwarming to see a genuine love like this develop. Robert and Octavia married 3 months after the final surviving letter and settled in Pembroke, a small rural town just outside of Hopkinsville, where they had 12 children and became members of the Christadelphian Church.

Octavia died on January 10, 1894 when she was 72 years old and Robert followed her six years later on January 6, 1900. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of Octavia but I do have one of Robert looking rather old so perhaps it was taken after Octavia's death:

With 12 children, there are many descendants of Robert and Octavia out there. I hope these letters can help provide them with some personal insight into their ancestor's lives. If anyone out there has any additional surviving letters, perhaps some of the ones I am missing, please get in touch with me, either by commenting below or you can send me a message through

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