Sunday, September 23, 2012

Do You Know Me?

Carrying on from my post about the mystery photos found in one of the boxes of ancestry stuff passed down from my grandmother, here are a bunch more. They seem to all have been taken in Philadelphia, sometimes the Chestnut Hill area, in the late 19th century. And I'm pretty sure they are friends or relatives of my Fallows and/or Rorer branches. If you recognize any of these people, please contact me by commenting below or sending me a private message on

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

Monday, September 3, 2012

Colonial Facts and Stats: Culture and Life Part 2

The last installment of this topic involves less statistical information and is more focused on the roles within the family unit. Again, this is just a small portion of the wealth of useful information from Family Life in 17th and 18th Century America.

  • Family feasts were popular to celebrate common milestones and events of life; there were feasts for a lying-in, births, baptisms, churchings, starting school or an apprenticeship, betrothals, weddings, anniversaries, house-warmings, recovery from an illness, and even after the setting of a gravestone. On the other hand, many Protestant sects were "hostile" to seasonal or annual feasts related to Catholicism like saints days but some could not be suppressed. 
  • Younger sons were often able to follow their own path in life when the father could only afford to send one or two sons to college. However, it often meant they could only find work in "less desirable" careers like sailing, tailoring, blacksmithing, or carpentry. 
  • In very rural areas, many children had only very basic writing skills with little more ability to spell out much more than their own name. In more populated areas, there were often laws requiring public schooling: in Connecticut every town of 80 families had an elementary school, and those with 500 families had to establish the equivalent of a high school. Similarly, Massachusetts required every town of 50 families to appoint a schoolmaster. Under Dutch rule, public schooling was not common in New York but under English rule the Dutch were more motivated to establish their own schools in attempts to maintain their culture in light of the increase in English residents. Higher education was still needed though and so college's began to be founded: In the northern and middle colonies were Harvard (1636), Yale (1701), Princeton (the College of New Jersey, 1746), the University of Pennsylvania (1751), Columbia (King's College, 1754), Brown (1764), Rutgers (1766), and Dartmouth (1770). In the south, there were William and Mary (1693), Hampton-Sydney College (1776), and Transylvania College (1780). 
  • Prior to the American Revolution, Philadelphia had some of the best schools with the most comprehensive curricula. However, Quaker families were suspicious of any government-run organization and preferred to home school their children, providing them with adequate fundamental education.
  • In the south, planters and merchants commonly hired private tutors or sent their children to private schools, often even shipping them back to England to attend private school.
  • Just like today, college students would often explore their new freedom by behaving badly and binge drinking, even breaking the law. They would sometimes harass local women in town (the school body was all male) or take up with prostitutes. Students and sometimes entire classes could be expelled or dismissed for a term because of riots, abuse of the faculty, or vandalism.
  • Unlike in some homes today where children are always welcome in their parent's home, once colonial children, particularly sons, left the home and established their own household, they would be expected to pay for room and board if they ever returned.
  • A teacher's annual salary could range from around £75 to £150 depending on the level of instruction required.
  • Men were expected to work to support their family and those who relied entirely on allowance or inheritance were often viewed with suspicion.
  • The society was broken down into four classes: 
    • Upper class, who were mostly politicians and plantation owners.
    • Middle class, consisting of skilled workers such as tradesmen, craftsmen, and farm owners (not to be confused with large plantation owners).
    • "Laboring poor" or lower class, who did mostly unskilled work (often on farms) such as digging ditches, rolling wheelbarrows, carrying timber, pitching manure and hay, etc but it also included sailors and fishermen. 
    • "Miserable poor" or the unemployed, were often criminals and prostitutes. 
  • The most abundant crop grown in the south was not cotton but corn (maize). However, the most profitable was sugar, adding about £3 million to Britain's wealth annually. Also common was tobacco, rice, and indigo. 
  • Plantation owners, though members of upper class, were often cash poor and in debt, all of their money being tied up in their plantations.
  • On average, farmers tended about 18 acres of crop per 100 acres. The rest was used as pasture and woodlots or left to recuperate after many seasons of over-farming.
  • To solve the issue of coin shortage, each colony produced it's own paper money, Maryland's being most successful.
  • Under Dutch law, marriage was an equal partnership with equal claim to their combined wealth. Upon the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse was entitled to half the estate and the right to administer the other half for heirs.
  • Quaker women did not deal with business, economic, or legal matters but did carry authority in the community such as being responsible for approving marriage applications as a group.
  • In English culture, a widow was entitled to 1/3 of the household goods and income of real estate but a husband could will her more. If he willed her less, it was often contested in court for the standard 1/3 and usually ruled in favor of the widow.
  • Childbirth was the leading cause of death among women.
  • 1 in 10 infants died within their first year and 4 out of 10 died before age 6.
  • Once past toddlerhood, children spent the most time with their same gender parent, sons learning the occupational skills of their father and daughters learning domestic skills with their mothers. Girls as young as three were expected to help with the household chores and were taught to knit from age four.
  • Diarying and gardening were among the most important of a farm woman's tasks (diary, especially cheese, was a more common source of protein than meats).
  • Farm housewives spend their morning milking cows so breakfast was usually very simple and included toast and cheese or leftovers from meals of the previous day. Dinner, what we'd call lunch, was the biggest meal of the day and served at noon. Supper, an evening meal, was similar to breakfast. Southern plantations had bigger breakfasts with cold meats, fowl, game, hominy and hot breads.
  • While many parents disciplined with physical punishment, not all parents condoned it.
  • Many free black girls were apprenticed with another family to perform household chores where they would also learn to read. The indenture served as proof of their freedom, safeguarding them against being sold into slavery.
  • Some indentured servants were criminals who were indentured for life, essentially an enslavement but one which did not pass on to their descendants. 
  • Indentured servants had rights that slaves did not. When ill, they were entitled to care and the time of service lost could not count against them. They could not be sold out of the colony in which they arrived and could not be cheated out of the items due them at the end of their service. They could take their masters to court for neglect (not providing food or clothing). In many ways, they had a similar legal status to children.
  • Colonial jails usually served only as temporary holding cells, not long term confinement. Whipping, flogging, branding, ear cropping, etc were preferred methods of criminal punishment than confinement.