We’re diving into the biography and the life and times of a woman named Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Elizabeth Oakes Smith was a household name in the mid- nineteenth century. She was a journalist, she was a women’s rights activist, she traveled across the country speaking on the lyceum circuit, and she was also a well-known published author. Famous writers such as Edgar Allan Poe reviewed her written work and gave her raving reviews. But something happened. Elizabeth Oakes Smith was essentially erased from history.

Transcript for Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley Cousins PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Elizabeth: Dear listener, today’s podcast is a biography of a woman that most of you have probably never heard of. We’re going to be diving into the biography and the life and times of a woman named Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Elizabeth Oakes Smith was a household name in the mid- nineteenth century. She was a journalist, she was a women’s rights activist, she traveled across the country speaking on the lyceum circuit, and she was also a well-known published author. Famous writers such as Edgar Allan Poe reviewed her written work and gave her raving reviews. But something happened. Elizabeth Oakes Smith was essentially erased from history.

Sarah: There are a few theories as to why, which we will get into a bit in this podcast, but at the end of the day her story is not unlike many other women in history– lost, forgotten, and overshadowed. Yet,  Elizabeth Oaks Smith left volumes of written work, allowing us to unearth her contributions to American literature and the first wave of the American women’s rights movement. However, her race and class sets her apart from the millions of other nineteenth-century women who are unaccounted for in our public records because they left no published records.

Elizabeth: So think about that as we go through this podcast about Elizabeth Oaks Smith. She was a working to middle class white woman who was educated and was able to write and publish literature and yet she is overwhelmingly forgotten. If somebody who was essentially a household name in the 19th century is so forgotten, that puts into perspective how the poor, working class, and particularly women of color have just simply vanished from our historical record.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Sarah

And we are you historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lisa, Karl, Karen, Hanna, Jessica, Maria, Denise, Edward, Lauren, Colin, and Susan! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Elizabeth: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of other historians and scholars. I am indebted to Timothy Scherman who has made it his life’s work to resurrect Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s life and legacy, and to the Elizabeth Oakes Smith Society. Scherman’s latest books put some of Oakes Smiths writings into context, Elizabeth Oakes Smith: Selected Writings, Volume I: Emergence and Fame, 1831-1849 and Elizabeth Oakes Smith: Selected Writings, Volume II: Feminist Journalism and Public Activism, 1850-1854. Volume III is on its way. Other scholars work that I found helpful while writing this episode are Adam Tuchinsky, Cynthia Patterson, Ashley Reed, Paula Bennett, Caroline M. Woidat, and Nina Baym.

Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith (Mrs
Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith (Mrs by National Gallery of Art is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Sarah: Elizabeth Oakes Prince was born August 12, 1806, near North Yarmouth, Maine, to David Prince and Sophia Blanchard. Her father was a merchant seaman and died at sea when she was just three years old. Elizabeth and her mother lived with her maternal and paternal grandparents. Elizabeth’s mother eventually remarried another sea captain, and the family moved to other coastal towns, ending up in Portland, Maine.

Elizabeth: Elizabeth attended various schools for girls while growing up and was very interested in learning. She even wanted to be a teacher herself. However, when she expressed her desire to become a teacher, her mother quickly squashed those dreams. Elizabeth was shortly thereafter married off to a man twice her age. In 1823, at the age of sixteen, she was married to thirty-one-year-old Seba Smith, a writer and editor of a Portland weekly paper, The Eastern Argus. Her name changed to Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

Sarah: Oakes Smith seems to have resigned herself to her fate, as society didn’t really allow her any other options. Later, writing in her autobiography, she wrote bitterly about her lost childhood, alluding to her underdevelopment, both physically and mentally when she was married. She wrote,  “I was well, but not fully developed, for I grew nearly two inches afterward. [the marriage] Mr. Smith was almost twice my age, wore spectacles and was very bald… I was so foreign to all this, so unfit for the occasion- I, a dreamy, imaginative, undeveloped child, whose head was not furnished with a fibre [sic] of the actual.”[1]

Elizabeth: Mind you, she’s writing these words many years after the fact, writing as a grown woman looking back on her stolen childhood and her wedding to, in her eyes, an old man. However, this was the way things were at the time and she went along with what society expected of her. Both Elizabeth and Seba fell into their assigned gender roles. Elizabeth later wrote of those early years, “most conscientiously did I bend my young faculties to redeem the obligations involved in my new position. My husband was most exacting, and greatly disinclined to the responsibilities of a family man. He was essentially a bachelor, yet, having a wife, he was not disposed to allow her to let up on any point of duty.” It sounds like Seba was a pretty stern husband, expecting a certain level of wifely obedience even as he had no desire to create a warm home.

Sarah: Oakes Smith went on to explain how she found some modicum of fulfillment in her wifely duties through her ingrained sense of duty. She wrote, “Happily, perhaps, a sense of duty was my weak point… Thousands of young housekeepers could sympathize with my short-comings, and those of a poetic turn will see how carefully I folded my wings that I might not be remiss in any one home duty. The folly and sorrow was that I felt myself to be a poor, weak creature, unfit for the place occupied. I had lost my girlhood, and found nothing better to take its place.”[2] This experience informed her later critiques of marriage and her arguments that women should marry for love and equality rather than economic security. In her life’s writings, Oakes Smith criticized traditional marriage as limiting women’s potential and reducing them to property. She advocated for women to have more educational and professional opportunities beyond just being wives and mothers.

Elizabeth: Over the next thirteen years Elizabeth Oakes Smith bore six sons, four of which survived into adulthood. Her days must have been extremely busy as she raised a house full of young boys while also overseeing the printers and apprentices who worked at The Eastern Argus and who lived within the household. During this period she contributed poems, and stories to journals that were edited by Seba. In 1833 she took over as acting editor of The Eastern Argus while her husband was in Boston overseeing the publication of his book, The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing.

Sarah: This scenario is pretty typical of middling families during this period. Apprentices and younger, unmarried workers commonly lived under the roof of their “master,” where they learned a trade while under the watchful eye of a paternal figure. In this system, women often participated in the day-to-day operations of the business while also managing the household and servants. A wife would often step into the role of manager when her husband was away or incapacitated. Although this could sometimes allow women to wield a great deal of power, it still fell under the auspices of coverture, or femme covere, which legally dictated that a woman became subsumed by her husband upon her marriage. Therefore any contracts or transactions that she participated in were ultimately under the authority of her husband.

Elizabeth: Oakes Smith was already a voracious reader but she took this time of her life to dive into the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir William Blackstone. Blackstone was an English jurist and is most famous for his Commentaries on the Laws of England, which became the best-known description of the doctrines of the English common law. The Commentaries had a particularly strong influence on law in the United States. The early Supreme Court relied heavily on Blackstone’s writings. Often, and especially on the American frontier, Blackstone’s Commentaries was the only book available to those studying and practicing law. Blackstone included his plan for a dedicated school of law in The Commentaries, and this plan became the basis of the modern system of American law schools. Oakes Smiths understanding of the law became important in her later critiques of patriarchy.

Sarah: In 1837 Elizabeth’s prospects changed drastically. Seba lost most of the family fortune during the Panic of 1837, by speculating in land sales. The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis in the United States that triggered a major economic depression, which lasted until the mid-1840s. It began when a slowing economy led investors to cause a bank run. When banks in New York City ran out of gold and silver, it started a collapse of the financial system on May 10, 1837. Banks immediately suspended payments, and stopped redeeming commercial paper in specie at full value. This created a ripple across the northeast, triggering significant economic collapse in all commercial ventures. Compounding the issue, the lack of a central bank to regulate the American economy (which you’ll remember, President Andrew Jackson had ensured by not extending the charter of the Second Bank of the United States) was an important factor in prolonging the Panic. Despite a short recovery in 1838, the recession lasted for seven years. During the Panic, over 40% of all banks failed, businesses closed, prices declined, and there was massive unemployment.

Elizabeth: In 1838 Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote and later published Riches Without Wings, a moralist novel which targeted the victims of the Panic and favored spiritual over material wealth. That fall she traveled with Seba to South Carolina where he was attempting to recoup some of their losses by investing in a machine that was designed to clean seagrass Cotton. (I had to look this up because I had no idea what sea grass was.) Seagrass is a plant that grows on the ocean floor and it can be harvested and used as twine and a material for making baskets and rugs. Unfortunately for Seba and Elizabeth, the invention proved unmarketable and the family struggled financially throughout the late 1830s and 1840s. They moved to Brooklyn in 1839 and lived with Oakes Smith’s cousins. The family survived on the unsteady money both Seba and Elizabeth earned by freelance writing.

Sarah: Even as finances were always a bit precarious, the 1840s was the period when Elizabeth Oakes Smith earned a reputation as a writer in her own right. She began her career publishing  under the name Mrs. Seba Smith or a pseudonym, “Ernest Helfenstein.” However, by the mid-1840s she was well established as a writer in her own name. Nevertheless, supporting a family of eight was no easy task. In 1842, Oakes Smith wrote to the editor of Graham’s Magazine practically begging for work:

“Heaven knows I am willing to work, to write, copy, do anything that woman may conveniently do to relieve us from this terrible anxiety … why, I must do something … I am sure you will pardon the liberty I take, awkward in the extreme, for this is the first time I have begged for a situation.”[3]

The family’s money struggles were compounded by Seba’s increasingly failing health. In 1843, he wrote to the publishers of a gift book he was narrating, apologizing that his prose was a month late due to his reoccurring illnesses.[4]

Elizabeth: However the move from Maine to Brooklyn, and later to New York City was good for the Smith’s literary careers. It also provided Elizabeth with opportunities to attend lectures and events. Against the advice of her cousins, she went to see the controversial Fanny Wright speak, almost ten years before she would launch her own public speaking career.[5] Fanny Wright was a vocal advocate of birth control, equal rights, sexual freedom, legal rights for married women, liberal divorce laws, and the emancipation of slaves. Wright was born in Scotland but became an American citizen in 1825. She was well connected, having been a kind of ward of the Marquis de Lafayette. Nevertheless, Wright’s increasingly radical takes on the abolition of slavery, working-men’s rights, and of course feminism made her a “radical” by the mid-nineteenth century. But the ability to engage with radicals like Wright was an important step in Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s political education.

Sarah:Oakes Smith’s need to support her family was ever present. She published the novel, The Western Captive in 1842 and it’s important to highlight what she wrote in the book’s dedication. She says this book is dedicated to “those of her sex, whom the desire for utterance, or the necessities of life, have called from the sanctity of womanly seclusion.” Scholar Nina Baym sums it up this way, saying that her “dedication presents writing as a call and makes a woman’s “desire for utterance” equal to her need to earn money.”[6]

Elizabeth: The book itself uses the genre of Indian captivity narratives to explore issues of women’s freedom and identity in nineteenth-century society. Oakes Smith undermined the traditional captivity narrative by depicting Margaret Durand, the white female protagonist, as a woman who found freedom and self-fulfillment among her Native American captors, as opposed to viewing her captivity as something to escape from. In The Western Captive, the heroine Margaret is adopted by an Indian tribe as a child and grows up to enjoy a position of respect and independence that would have been denied to her in white society. Margaret declares “The Swaying Reed is beloved by the tribe, and none may dare to take her away. She is her own mistress, and goes and comes at the bidding of none.”[7]

Sarah: Scholar Caroline Woidat highlights parallels between Oakes Smith’s own life experiences and those of The Western Captive’s fictional heroine, Margaret. Oakes Smith felt stifled by the expectations placed on women in nineteenth-century American society. In The Western Captive, she imagined alternatives where women could develop their talents and identities outside of marriage and domesticity. However, Woidat also points out the complexities and contradictions in Oakes Smith’s depictions of Native Americans. While her white heroine found freedom among Native Americans, the Indian women were portrayed as jealous rivals or domestic drudges, thus reflecting both a critique of white patriarchal society and problematic racial stereotypes of the time.

Elizabeth: Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s most popular piece of literature was also published in 1842.  The long-form poem “The Sinless Child,” was published as a serial in January and February of 1842. It was then repacked and published in a collection, The Sinless Child and Other Poems, in 1843 to great commercial success. The poem explores themes of innocence, spirituality, and the relationship between humanity and the natural world. The poem’s protagonist Eva, is portrayed as a child with an almost supernatural ability to commune with nature and understand divine truths. Her purity and goodness are contrasted with the corruption and materialism of the adult world around her. Eva has a special affinity for animals and plants, and is able to perceive spiritual realities that are hidden from others. The poem suggests that Eva’s sinless nature (which could be defined as her virginity, or her childishness, or even a spiritual ethereal quality) allows her to maintain a connection to the divine that most people lose as they grow older. The work reflects many of the ideals of the Transcendentalist movement that was influential in American literature at the time. Oakes Smith’s Eva is also the prototype for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Sarah: After the success of “The Sinless Child,” she ceased to sign herself “Mrs. Seba Smith,” adopting instead the name “Elizabeth Oakes Smith.” Later, she changed her son’s last name to Oaksmith (all one word), which is pretty progressive and just more insight into her critique of patriarchy. She continued to write short stories and poems for popular magazines and gift books. She also published her second novel, The Salamander, an allegorical story about iron workers in the Ramapo Valley, in 1848.

Elizabeth: By the time Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others made the call for the Seneca Falls New York women’s rights convention, Elizabeth Oakes Smith was already a household name, known for her prolific writing and of course her poem, “The Sinless Child.”  Oakes Smith did not attend the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, although some places on the interwebs say she did. I emailed Timothy Scherman just to double check, because he’s the expert on Oakes Smith and he assured me that there is no evidence that Oakes Smith attended and he reminded me that she was not part of the circle of abolitionists that were present at Seneca Falls. Nevertheless, Oakes Smith did attend the 1850 women’s rights convention held in Worcester, Massachusetts and she was at the 1852 meeting in Syracuse, NY, so she was no stranger to the major women’s rights movement. When she spoke at the 1850 Worcester meeting she suggested that the women’s rights movement create their own newspaper and publicity apparatus so that the women who were actually involved in the movement could speak to the public directly, not dictated through male newspapers.

Sarah: Oakes Smith first articulated much of her feminist thinking through a series of articles in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in 1851. She asserted that women should have the same rights as those proclaimed for men by the Founding Fathers. She argued that the world needed the action of what she called “Woman thought” for two major reasons: first, like many of her contemporaries, she attributed to women feelings of humanity and an understanding of suffering that made them better at analyzing the evils that surrounded them; second, she was concerned that “the majority of women in society are suffering in the absence of wholesome, earnest, invigorating subjects of thought; expending themselves on trifles, and fretting themselves and others for lack of employment” [8]Basically she’s saying that women were wasting away because they had nothing of substance to keep their minds sharp. Instead she promoted the value of labor, and encouraged women to assert their right, before or instead of marriage, to “pecuniary independence” as a means of enhancing their self-esteem and developing their own abilities.[9]

Elizabeth: She addressed a range of topics that included physical activity for women, women’s legal parity with men, increased educational opportunities for women, equity in marriage, even women’s right to the vote. She exhorted women to take a “woman’s view” of life, to look into their own needs and thoughts for the truth instead of accepting men’s opinions and viewpoints, and to “reject the hardness of materialism which the masculine mind engenders.”[10]

Sarah: She went on to attack the lack of equality in marriage, and she criticized the conditioning of females to believe in marriage as the only acceptable life for women.[11] She questioned why it was okay for a man to be single but every woman must marry if she was able. She asked why a girl “Must give up the name so dear and sweet to her girlhood? must merge her being, be absorbed and annihilated in marriage? be an extinct world, a gone-out soul…?”[12] This was essentially a critique of coverture and it spoke to her own experience of being married off at 16.

Elizabeth: To promote reform, Oakes Smith put forth the concept of “noble womanhood” as an alternative to the popular “True Womanhood” ideal. Noble women were intellectual, spiritually enlightened, and dedicated to improving society. While still endorsing some gender differences, this concept encouraged women to be active in public life and social reform movements. And here I want to read you at length some of the remarks she made to the National Woman’s Rights Convention at Syracuse, September 8, 1852, because honestly? They are pretty radical in my opinion. She begins her speech with this: “My Friends, do we realize for what purpose we are convened? Do we fully understand that we aim at nothing less than an entire subversion of the existing order of society, a dissolution of the whole existing social contact?”[13] Um, wow. An entire subversion of the existing order. A dissolution of the existing contract?  Those are some BIG WORDS.

Sarah: Right, I’d say that’s pretty radical for the 1850s. She then goes on to talk about her idea about a woman’s rights newspaper, building on the idea that she had proposed at the Worcester convention two years earlier:

“Let us pledge ourselves to the support of a paper in which our views shall be fairly presented to the world. At our last Convention, in Worcester, I presented a prospectus for such a paper, which I will request hereafter to be read here. We can do little or nothing without such an organ. We have no opportunity now to repel slander, and are restricted in disseminating truth, from the want of such an organ. The Tribune, and some other papers in the country, have treated us generously, but a paper to represent us, must be sustained by ourselves…The newspaper and the lecture room have become greater than the pulpit – more effective in stirring up human hearts to great movements. Let us pledge ourselves to the support of these, in the work in which we are engaged.”

We must work more diligently than in times past, that our sons may be fitted to nobler humanitarian purposes.… Yes, we have looked to the pulpit, but in vain; and now in spite of St. Paul, we must ourselves preach. We have looked to Legislation, and now… we must vote.”

Elizabeth: So here she’s promoting the idea of a newspaper and essentially a press bureau but then she ends it with, and now we must vote. There’s no tip toeing around here. The vote is the answer. Yet she knows it’s an uphill battle because she is well aware of women’s (and in this context we’re talking about white women) status as economically dependent on their husband’s and fathers. She says, “and yet I say this to a race of beggars, for women have no pecuniary resources. Well, then, we must work, we must hold property, and claim the consequent right to representation, or refuse to be taxed.” So here’s the argument that so many suffragists were adopting, no taxation without representation. Give us the vote or we should refuse to be taxed.

Sarah: Something else about Oakes Smith’s speech at the Syracuse Convention, just in case you’re thinking “well I’ve never heard of this woman, she must not be that important…” A majority of the convention wanted Elizabeth Oakes Smith to preside as the president of that meeting. However, Susan B. Anthony thought that Oakes Smith was dressed too fashionably to represent the cause and her nomination was withdrawn. Lucretia Mott was appointed as the president and Paulina Wright Davis and Elizabeth Oakes Smith were nominated as Vice Presidents. Side note: Apparently Oakes Smith was known for being a fine dresser. In a letter from 1851, Paulina Wright Davis refers to women like Elizabeth Oakes Smith, whose beauty will “give grace and elegance to our movement.”[14] Later commentators also commented on her fine dress and form.

Elizabeth: Oakes Smith had started speaking publicly about women’s rights on the lyceum circuit beginning in 1851, one of the first women to regularly speak on the circuit. She traveled throughout New York, New England, and then west to St. Louis and Chicago. From 1851 to 1857 she presented her feminist views to lyceum lecture audiences throughout the country.

Sarah: As both poet and feminist, she demanded freedom for individuals to respond to their inmost nature. Following Margaret Fuller in her emphasis on the unique qualities of the “woman-mind,” she insisted that women’s latent powers must be freed from the restrictions and false standards imposed on them by men. Though Oakes Smith idealized women as ethereal and inspired creatures, she found the key to their emancipation in economic independence. Her personal experience of sudden poverty had taught her the importance of having the means for self-support, and she urged that every woman have a trade.

Elizabeth: Oakes Smith harshly criticized the legal subordination of women in marriage, likening wives to “household chattels.” Yet, as scholar Adam Tuchinsky argues, Oakes Smith was adamantly against liberalizing divorce laws. She believed indissoluble marriage was necessary to protect women and children from the ravages of individualism in the market economy. She saw the family as a bulwark against market values, even as she criticized its patriarchal elements. Oakes Smith’s complex position reflected broader tensions in American society and grappled with how to balance equality and morality with the realities of competitive individualism. It just shows how these questions about marriage and property and love were complex and how many of the arguments don’t neatly fit into a liberal or conservative category. There were a variety of perspectives within early feminism on issues of marriage reform.[15]

Sarah: Elizabeth Oakes Smith became interested in Spiritualism and her own clairvoyance and published two novels dealing with Spiritualist subjects. She continued writing through the 1850s, publishing a book about Spiritualism entitled Shadowland; or, The Seer. Shadowland is an extended account of Smith’s dream world. In the book she speaks, sometimes in dreams and sometimes as a cognizant author, on religion, astrology, and other various topics. Sometimes as narrator she also channels other unnamed presences. While her earlier work, “The Sinless Child” predates the formal Spiritualist movement, it does share some thematic connections and could be seen as a precursor to some Spiritualist ideas. Eva’s innocence that allowed her to access spiritual truths was similar to Spiritualist notions of certain individuals being more attuned to the spirit world. This suggests that some of the ideas in “The Sinless Child” may have been early expressions of concepts she would later explore more fully through Spiritualism.

Elizabeth: In 1854, she published two novels, Bertha and Lily, which presented many of her women’s rights positions and also explored Spiritualist themes, and The Newsboy, about the exploitation of child labor in New York City.

Sarah: Additionally Oakes Smith edited and wrote for Seba’s new ventures in journalism, including The Weekly Budget magazine and Emerson’s Monthly Magazine. In 1859, Elizabeth and Seba moved to a new home on Long Island, which they named the Willows. Elizabeth continued to write, producing several adventure tales for the new dime novels of the 1860s and contributing occasional letters and articles to periodicals until her death in 1893.

Elizabeth: So why did she disappear? Some scholars say that Elizabeth Oakes Smith isn’t well known because her writing “style” fell out of favor. But plenty of her contemporaries are still known. Scholar Paula Bennett argues that poets and writers like Oakes Smith fell out of favor. when American women poets, starting in the late 1850s, began to break away from the “high sentimentalism” of earlier generations and instead used their poetry to challenge idealized notions of womanhood, marriage, and domesticity. Bennett labels Oakes Smith as part of the earlier generation of “high sentimental” poets that the later writers were reacting against. She notes that Oakes Smith was “keenly aware of the oppressive potential within nineteenth-century marriage” and experienced “severe marital difficulties” herself. However, Bennett argues Smith and her contemporaries still wrote within the sentimental discourse of their era, retaining “the home (the realm of sensibility) as a locus of unimpeachable power for women.” This contrasts with the more openly critical stance of the later poets Bennett focuses on.

Sarah: So this can be part of it, but plenty of Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s contemporaries are still well-known so this still doesn’t explain the complete “forgetting” of one of the most popular writers of the 1840s. So perhaps it was because she stuck her neck out for women’s rights? Though reviewers praised her ladylike appearance as well as her oratorical skill on the lyceum circuit, this unfeminine entry into the public arena alienated some of her more conservative literary friends. Her increasing outspokenness for the inequalities within marriage and patriarchy in general were undoubtedly too radical for many of her blue blooded readers.

Elizabeth: Another issue that worked to erase her importance as both a writer and a feminist was a scandal involving her family during the Civil War. In the 1850s, Appleton Oaksmith, Smith’s son, entered the shipping industry and acquired several vessels. He also became entangled in General William Walker’s filibuster expeditions in Nicaragua, serving as secretary in Walker’s self-proclaimed government and aiding in supplying Walker’s small military force.

Sarah: After Walker’s failed attempt to gain U.S. recognition and subsequent expulsion from Nicaragua, evidence suggests Appleton began using his ships to aid the Confederacy, at least in weapons smuggling if not slave transportation. Appleton was apprehended on Fire Island, New York, in December 1861 and charged with outfitting a ship for illegal African slave transport. With President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in place, Appleton was swiftly imprisoned and later found guilty.

Elizabeth: This situation placed the entire family in a precarious political and social position. Consequently, the Civil War period proved particularly challenging for Oakes Smith’s family, who maintained Appleton’s innocence throughout. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a good look and most evidence pointed to Appleton at the least breaking the law and at the most, being a traitor to the Union cause.

Sarah: Appleton was either released, or possibly escaped, from prison and he was exiled in London. Oakes Smith spent many years trying to get Appleton’s record cleared. She met with President Andrew Johnson and requested a pardon for Appleton, which was refused. She later secured one from President Ulysses S. Grant.

Elizabeth: After the war the family’s fortune continued to fall. Her son Edward died of yellow fever in 1865. Seba, her husband, died in 1868. Another son drowned in 1869. She sold the Willows in 1870 and moved in with her son Alvin and his family. Then, in 1879 Appleton’s daughters (her granddaughters) also drowned in a boating accident!

Sarah: Appleton moved back to the states after his pardon and Oakes Smith split her time living with Appleton in North Carolina and Alvin in Long Island. In 1879, she spoke at the 11th National Woman’s Suffrage Convention, in Washington D.C. She continued to write poetry and began an autobiography that was never published. She also turned towards Catholicism in her later years.   

Elizabeth: Luckily we still have a lot of her writing and we have a diary from her later years. In reflecting on her life’s writing and her fading importance in literary circles, she wrote in her journal that so much of her autobiographical writing reflected not her life but “the promise of her childhood.”[16] And as much as I hate to sum up a life based on past events, it’s hard not to see how her early marriage to Seba and the shock of being pulled out of childhood and married to an older man affected her the rest of her life. And then the trauma that the Panic of 1837 inflicted on her, setting her on a lifelong course of having to support a large family through her own writings. Although Seba did have some literary success in his own right, it seems he was never able to support the family well. And so all of these personal experiences really seem to have shaped her view on women’s position in marriage and women’s necessity of having their own work and their own money, even as she believed that liberalized divorce laws were not the answer. In that way she was leaning into the Spiritualist understanding of marriage, that women and men should be equal partners in marriage and have a soul connection. A connection that I get no sense she felt for Seba, nor him for her.

Sarah: Right. These life experiences definitely influenced her critique of patriarchy. However, in her speech to the Syracuse Women’s Rights Convention she was clear that she wasn’t working for women’s rights to improve her own life. She realized it was too late for her. She knew she was doing it for future generations. She told the audience there in 1852:

 “If we have private griefs (and what human heart, in a large sense, is without them), we do not come here to recount them. The grave will lay its cold honors over the hearts of all here present, before the good we ask for our kind will be realized to the world. We shall pass onward to other spheres of existence, but we trust the seed we shall here plant, will ripen to a glorious harvest. We “see the end from the beginning,” and rejoice in spirit. We care not that we shall not reach the fruits of our toil, for we know in times to come, it will be seen to be a glorious work.”[17]

Elizabeth: That’s beautiful. So, let us all use our private griefs to make the world a better place.

Thanks for listening.


Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Patterson, Cynthia. “Illustration of a Picture”: Nineteenth-Century Writers and the Philadelphia Pictorials, American Periodicals, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2009):136-164

Reed, Ashley. Heaven’s Interpreters: Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-Century America. Cornell University Press, 2020.

Scherman, Timothy, ed.. Elizabeth Oakes Smith: Selected Writings, Volume I: Emergence and Fame, 1831-1849. Mercer University Press, 2023.

Scherman, Timothy, ed.. Elizabeth Oakes Smith: Selected Writings, Volume II: Feminist Journalism and Public Activism, 1850-1854. Mercer University Press, 2024.

Tuchinsky, Adam. “‘Woman and Her Needs’: Elizabeth Oakes Smith and the Divorce Question.” Journal of Women’s History 28, no. 1 (2016): 38–59.

Woidot, Caroline M., ed. The Western Captive and Other Indian Stories by Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Broadview Editions, 2015.

Wyman,  Mary Alice. Two American Pioneers: Seba Smith and Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Columbia University Press, 1927.

[1] Quoted in Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (University of Illinois Press, 1993), 258.

[2] Quoted in Baym, 258.

[3] Cynthia Patterson, “Illustration of a Picture”: Nineteenth-Century Writers and the Philadelphia Pictorials, American Periodicals, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2009):146.

[4] Quoted in Patterson, 147.

[5] Mary Alice Wyman,  Two American Pioneers: Seba Smith and Elizabeth Oakes Smith,

(Ithaca: Columbia University Press, 1927), 102.

[6] Nina Baym, Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870, page xi.

[7] Smith, Elizabeth Oakes, The Western Captive, in The Western Captive and Other Indian Stories by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, edited by Caroline M. Woidot (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Editions, 2015), 72.

[8] EOS, Woman and Her Needs, 17.

[9] EOS, Woman and Her Needs, 45.

[10] EOS, Woman and Her Needs, 22-23

[11] EOS, Woman and Her Needs, 42-43

[12]  EOS, Woman and Her Needs, 43.

[13] Copied from The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Syracuse September 8 th , 9 th and 10 th 1852, printed in Syracuse by J.E. Masters, accessible via Hathitrust.org at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.rslfbl&view=1up&seq=9. Some punctuation has been regularized.

[14] Letter from Paulina Wright Davis to Emma R. Coe, August 17, 1851, https://rbscpexhibits.lib.rochester.edu/exhibits/show/womens-rights-movement/dress-reform

[15] Adam Tuchinsky, “‘Woman and Her Needs’: Elizabeth Oakes Smith and the Divorce Question.” Journal of Women’s History 28, no. 1 (2016): 38–59.

[16] “The Elizabeth Oakes Smith page: Chronology”.

[17] Copied from The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Syracuse September 8 th , 9 th and 10 th 1852, printed in Syracuse by J.E. Masters, accessible via Hathitrust.org at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.rslfbl&view=1up&seq=9. Some punctuation has been regularized.


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