Letters offer a glimpse of life in 1850s Lexington

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comAugust 7, 2012 

  • Want to see the letters?

    To view the letters, go to History.ky.gov and click "Search our Collections." Choose the Kentucky Historical Society Collections Catalog and search for "Watson and Robinson."

In the 1850s, a Lexington man named Ferdinand, who had been a slave, wrote to his uncle Rueben in Western Kentucky about the death of Ferdinand's wife, his children's health and his newfound freedom.

The correspondence is included in a collection of 19th-century letters that the Kentucky Historical Society acquired July 9 from a family that lives out of state.

Ferdinand wrote four of the 27 letters that depict the lives of free and enslaved families alike in Lexington and Hopkinsville. Other letters were written by Isabel Watson, a slave who had apparently lived in Hopkinsville and moved to Mississippi, said Louise Jones, director of Special Collections and Library at the Kentucky Historical Society.

"I remember ... that you wished to know whether I was free or not," Ferdinand wrote in a letter dated Aug. 4, 1850, "To this I answer dear uncles I am free."

Ferdinand apparently was a free man in 1850, 15 years before slavery officially ended in 1865.

"What makes these letters so interesting is that they give us a glimpse into the personal and social lives of African-Americans before the Civil War," Jones said. The war occurred between 1861 and 1865.

Ferdinand Robinson sent uncle Rueben Robinson, "man of color," a letter written in the care of Richard Faulkner, Hopkinsville. Jones said she thinks Faulkner was Rueben's owner.

The letter, dated Feb. 18, 1850, mentions the death of Ferdinand's wife and mother, and the death of his "mistes," which Jones said could have been Ferdinand's owner.

In a September 1851 letter, Ferdinand said he had about $3,000 worth of property and that he was preparing a garden to sell at market the next spring.

Ferdinand told Rueben: "All the family is well with the exception of my youngest child is troubled with worms."

In a letter dated Jan. 15, 1852, Ferdinand said that he married "a free girl," that his brother was unmarried and that his sister had three children who were all free. He wrote about his property and said he had cows, horses and hogs.

The spellings of the surnames, and of Rueben, frequently change in the four letters.

Ferdinand referred to his own last name as Robertson, Robinson and Robison. He identifies the last name of Rueben as both Robertson and Robinson.

Jones said state history officials know little about Ferdinand and Rueben at this point and have not located any of their descendants.

"The true significance of these letters won't be understood until more information about these individuals and their communities have been unearthed," Jones said. "We hope that by making these letters available, people will contact us to share their connections to these letters."

Jones said she thinks Ferdinand's last name is probably Robinson. A Ferdinand Robinson is listed in the 1850 U.S. census records for Fayette County and is identified as a mattress maker, she said. Jones said that research is being conducted to determine whether he is buried in Lexington.

The Kentucky Historical Society was contacted by the family that owned the letters, spokeswoman Lisa Cleveland said.

Jones said she did not have permission to release the family's name. She said the family is not aware that their ancestors lived in Kentucky, but they know that some lived in Tennessee near the Western Kentucky border.

"They needed to sell the letters, but really wanted them to go to an organization where they could be properly preserved and made public for future generations," Cleveland said.

The Kentucky Historical Society is an agency of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. It is supported by the Kentucky Historical Society Foundation, a private non-profit organization.

The foundation bought the letters for $8,700, the appraised value of the letters, Cleveland said.

Other letters in the collection were mostly written by a woman named Isabel Watson. Those letters originated from Mississippi and include news of a family's health, activities, church and religion, births and deaths; and they describe slavery in Hopkinsville, Jones said.

Isabel Watson wrote about how attending church and finding Jesus would help her friends through their "troubles."

A letter dated April 5, 1841 from Watson to a woman named Violet Ware in Hopkinsville said, "You must write me word whether you have ever found Christ or not you were on the way when I left you."

Jones said that in some cases, the relationship between the correspondents is unknown. They often refer to each other as brother and sister, but she said it is unclear whether they mean that in the biological sense or if they are simply members of the same church.

Kentucky Historical Society staffers have been working to establish a family history of the correspondents, but records from that period, particularly for the enslaved, are lacking, she said.

In some cases, Jones said, slavery is hardly acknowledged in the letters, except in cursory statements about acquaintances being sold or having new masters.

The bulk of the letters in the collection were written before 1859, Jones said. Two post-Civil War letters, which begin in 1873, also are written to a woman named Violet.

The later letters, written by women in Texas and Illinois to Violet, focus more on people working as teachers, buying homes and household items, and their general health and economic status, Jones said.

The letters have been catalogued and digitized.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409.Twitter: @vhspears.

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