By LYDIA WARREN
PUBLISHED: 14:41 EST, 2 August 2012 | UPDATED: 16:58 EST, 2 August 2012
Cakes, the weather, bouts of illness and, on occasion, the sale of their neighbours: these were the concerns of African Americans living in the South in the mid-1800s.
A newly curated series of letters at the Kentucky Historical Society has given a fascinating insight into the lives of a group of slaves and free African Americans between 1841 and 1883.
Across 27 handwritten letters, the friends and relatives discuss their health, the need for religion, deaths and marriages – but refer sparingly to their enslaved statuses.
In one particularly moving letter in 1850, a man named Ferdinand Robertson writes to his relatives: ‘I remember that you wished to know whether I was free or not. To this I answer dear uncles, I am free.
Insight: The Kentucky Historical Society has acquired a collection of 27 letters written between 1841 and 1883 by a group of African Americans living in the South
Freedom: In one letter on 4 August 1850, Ferdinand Robertson writes to his uncles Ruben and John Robertson to tell them ‘I am Free’ – and that he, his brother and sister are very much ‘injoying’ it
‘My dear sister Mary and dear brother Nelson… are all well and in possession of a clear and indisputable title to their freedom – and they enjoy it.’
The letters refer to places including Hopkinsville, Lexington and Paducah in Kentucky, Mississippi City and Brandon in Mississippi and Williamson County in Illinois.
Most of the early letters are written by a woman named Isabella Watson, who updates her friend Violet Ware on her working status and intentions to get to church.
‘I am keeping house by my self with my little Boy & growing chickens for my young Boss,’ she writes in May 1846. ‘He treats me just as he always did – I do not see any difference in him.
Catching up: Most of the letters are written by a woman named Isabel Watson. Here is a letter from May 1846
Working life: The letter to her friend Violet Ware explains: ‘I am keeping house by myself with my little boy and growing chickens for my young Boss. He treats me just as he always did.’
‘There is a Methodist preacher here,’ she continues, ‘and a mighty good old man and good preacher, so all tell me – but I have never got out to hear him. But if the lord spares me, I am going soon.’
1850: DEAR UNCLES, I AM FREE
Ferdinand Robertson to Ruben and John Robertson, 4 August 1850
Dear uncles Ruben and John Robertson,
With pleasure do I get down to write you a few lines to inform you of the present of my health. It is very good at this time and I hope this letter will find you as it leaves me.
I remember in your answer to my letter that you wished to know whether I was free or not. To this I answer dear uncles, I am free.
You also wish to know how many children I have. To this I answer three two boys and one girl. All of them fine, prosperous looking children.
My dear sister Mary and dear brother Nelson join with me in sending their love to you. They are all well and in possession of a clear and indisputable title to their freedom and they enjoy it at this time.
Nothing more at present only I remain your ever dear and affectionate nephew.
Nephew until death,
She adds in a later letter: ‘You must write me word whether you have ever found Christ or not – you were on the way when I left you. I hope you will find your God. He never will deceive you.’
Religion is also the subject of a letter from Ibby Tegarden to her ‘brother’ Reuben Faulkner in July 1846, in which she thanks him for his insight.
‘Your letter was a great treat to me especially because it contained so much good advice in it on the subject of religion,’ she wrote.
‘I was much grieved to hear that your wife had not yet joined the church for she is one of my most dear friends and therefore you know of course I take a deep interest in her welfare.
‘You must give my best love to her and tell her that I hope, in your answer to this letter, that I will see the glad tidings penned on paper that she has taken the only road to happiness.’
As an after thought, she added: ‘P.S. Please tell Charles he must put me up some dried fruit, and tell him if he can I would like to have the peaches with out the peeling.’
Aside from Ferdinand Robertson, who wrote about his enslaved status to his uncles, none of the correspondents talk about it. Only one letter refers to the sale of slaves in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
‘Slavery, in fact, is hardly acknowledged in the letters, except in cursory statements about acquaintances being sold or having new masters,’ manuscripts curator Jennifer Duplaga told theHuffington Post.
Telling: The letters reveal the daily concerns of the African Americans living in the South in the mid-1800s, from their housework to their health and devotion to the church (picture of Kentucky home, 1859)
Owed: Another document shows the work account for Reuben Faulkner between April 3 and June 25 1859
As they continue to write to each other following the abolition of slavery in 1865, the subjects of the letters become more detailed about their jobs, economic status and buying homes and items.
1846: A LETTER ON RELIGION
Excerpts from letter from Ibby Tegarden to Reuben Faulkner MC, 19 July 1846
My dear Brother Reuben,
I received your kind and affectionate letter. I was much grieved to hear that your wife had not yet joined the church for she is one of my most dear friends, and therefore you know of course I take a deep interest in her welfare.
You must tell her that I hope in your answer to this letter that I will see the glad tidings penned on paper that she has taken the only road to happiness.
Godfrey last Sunday week came to see me, he now lives in New Orleans with Mr. Kendle. He looks very well which was very comforting to me, for you know there are so many temptations in a city like New O-s for a young man like Godfrey.
P.S. Please tell Charles he must put me up some dried fruit, and tell him if he can I would like to have the peaches with out the peeling. I forgot to tell you that I was getting a greater deal better in health.
The Kentucky Historical Society noted that most of the letters were written before 1859, and that the ones after the Civil War ‘appear to have been written by a different generation’.
Letters to and from a family named the Robinsons describe family matters such as a wife’s death, the children’s health, a remarriage, the farm and freedom, while another comments on baking a cake.
Some of the letters are to a ‘man of color’ named Reuben Faulkner and a servant named Violet Ware, but the Historical Society is unaware of the links between the two.
‘They often refer to each other as brother and sister, but it is unclear if they mean that in the biological sense or if they are simply members of the same church family,’ Duplaga said.
Staff are trying to figure out the family history and connections between the correspondents, but have found that records are limited.
‘We hope that by making these letters available people will contact us to share their connections to these letters,’ she added.
‘These letters are really a treasure trove of family history information,’ Louise Jones, director of KHS Library and Special Collections, said. ‘They offer a rare glimpse into the lives of both free and enslaved African-Americans in Kentucky.’
The collection, referred to as the Watson and Robinson letters, was bought by the Kentucky Historical Society Foundation, a private nonprofit organisation that supports the Society.
Correspondence: The letters were sent between – and mentioned – Mississippi, Kentucky and Illinois towns
Archives: The 27 letters have been curated at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Kentucky