19th Century Life: Handwritten Letters Detail Lives Of Freed And Enslaved African Americans (PHOTOS)

PHOTOS: 19th Century Letters Depict African-American's Lives

Life for an African-American southerner was a mixed bag of "troubles" and personal success circa 1841, experiences revealed in a series of 27 handwritten letters that have been recently acquired by the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS).

"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," Jennifer Duplaga, Manuscripts Curator at the Kentucky Historical Society, told The Huffington Post.

The letters, written mostly by a woman named Isabel/Isabella Watson between 1841 and 1883, originate in Mississippi City, Miss. and include news of people's health and illnesses, activities, church and religion, the enslaved status of people in the Hopkinsville, Ky., community, births and deaths, and the sale of individuals.

"The bulk of these letters were written before 1859," Duplaga said. "The post Civil War letters, which begin in 1873, appear to have been written by a different generation."

Those later letters focus more on individuals working as teachers, buying homes, purchasing household items, and their general health and economic situations, Duplaga explains. Those written before the war are more outward looking, she says, detailing efforts to gather information about others, while the post-war letters focus more inward and offer more personal insights.

Several of the letters are addressed to a "man of color" named Reuben Faulkner and a colored servant named Violet Ware, according to KHS, but the relationship between the correspondents is unknown. "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 says.

KHS staff have been working to establish a family history of the correspondents, but records from this time period, particularly for the enslaved, are sadly limited.

Perhaps one of the most touching exchanges within the letters is the news a man named Ferdinand Robertson relays to his "uncles" Ruben and John Robertson about his status as a slave. In a letter dated 4 August 1850 he writes, “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.”

Based on research from the 1850 census, it is believed that Ferdinand would have been 28-years-old at the time.

Aside from Ferdinand, however, none of the correspondents write about their enslaved status, Duplaga said. "Slavery, in fact, is hardly acknowledged in the letters, except in cursory statements about acquaintances being sold or having new masters."

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

A similar time capsule acquired by the Library of Congress earlier this year offered a glimpse of former slaves' lives some 70 years after they'd been set free.

PHOTO: A letter handwritten by Ferdinand Robertson.
19th century life

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