As a Special Collections librarian, I’ve read, inventoried and described thousands of letters, but those drafted in the 19th century are my favorites. During this period, letters did more than convey information; they revealed the writer’s character. People took great care with the neatness and style of their correspondence, showing their respect for others by carefully choosing words and writing them in the best hand. Good penmanship suggested a person of refinement and discipline whose word could be trusted. For these reasons, working with these letters is especially rewarding to me.
Two Saturdays ago, I arrived at the Ohio History Center to volunteer in the Archives/Library. After a long week, I was ready to focus on something different. I was also a little sad of heart, discouraged by how difficult it is to develop and sustain friendships in this age of instant communication. I was ready to read some old-fashioned letters, composed with care, where feelings and facts alike were expressed in thoughtful ways.
As soon as I opened the first folder of the collection John had chosen for me to work on, and I read the first sentence of the document inside, I knew that the next few hours would cheer me up and restore my spirit. So, for Valentine’s Day, here are some excerpts from the letters that tell the story of this Ohio couple’s courtship and first year of marriage.
“Considering the nature of your call the other day, I can but regret that our interview could not have been longer, as it was so unexpected to me (you having never before made known your desire) and the brevity of the visit taken into consideration, omitted to ask some questions which judgment prompts me to do so now, although I would have preferred asking you had I thought of them then as it is quite embarrassing to me to write first to a gentleman. I hope you will not consider them impertinent questions for I assure you I respect you as a friend and would not wish to do you or myself injustice by asking improper ones; should they be satisfactorily answered I would be better prepared to respond to your proposal.”
So begins the letter Mary Jane Pond wrote to Carlos Forbes on April 22, 1861. Eager to see how this story developed, I could hardly put down the 245 letters between Carlos and his future wife, Mary, which comprise MSS 1491.
Responding to Mary on May 2, 1861, Carlos said, “My intentions are to provide a home….I should wish my wife (if it is for me to possess such a treasure) to enjoy the privilege of performing the same kind office of familial affection and duty….I cannot give you so good a home as you will have to leave; I have asked you to give me yourself, and in return for your home pleasures, for your free life of happiness, I propose to give you – a welcome to life’s sorrows, a welcome to the toiler’s lot, to a life of cares, of trials, perhaps of hardships, of privations, and mayhap now and then a cruel heartache.” He concluded his letter, “May I always be worthy of your friendship.”
Carlos Forbes was born on February 15, 1837 in Parma, Ohio. Mary Jane Pond was born on November 5, 1837. Carlos wrote first from Parma, then from Oberlin and Sandusky; Mary Jane corresponded first from Fairfield, and later from Olena and Hartland, Ohio. The couple’s letters document their daily activities and the time in which they lived, their thoughts about marriage, and their feelings about each other.
As I read, I congratulated Mary for the good head she had on her shoulders, and I cheered when I read the answers Carlos gave her.
Writing to Carlos on September 17, 1861, Mary shared that she “would never wed a man that was a slave to tobacco.” In his letter dated September 30, 1861, Carlos responded, “You do not know how much I regret that you should ever have the occasion to speak of the use of tobacco as you did, or rather that I should have allowed the habit of using it to have got so strong a hold on me. I have always had to acknowledge it as a bad practice, but for all that, I kept using it until I had become, well, a confirmed tobacco chewer to make the best of it. Well, I was not going to tell you yet, but as you have said what you have and perhaps will want to know how the ‘coat fits’ I will say that since the Monday that I saw you last, I have not tasted tobacco in any form, and now that my system has recovered from the need or want of it I know of no reason why I should ever take up the use of tobacco again. I thank you, I thank you.” Anyone who’s ever hoped that their beau would give up a vexing habit can appreciate the effect these words would have had.
As an only daughter who enjoyed the company of her parents, Mary was not convinced that signing up for a life with Carlos would be a prudent decision. “It seems like asking a good deal for a pledge from a lady of this kind when she has a good home and surrounded by kind friends until she knows whether she is to share in another comfortable home,” Mary wrote on September 17, 1861. “Remember a lady has to make many more sacrifices in every sense in settling for a life than a gentleman.”
Reading what Mary had to say on September 30, 1861 — “I suppose you think that I am an “odd sheep” and I fully agree with you in the belief” — I knew why I liked Mary so well. Again, on November 19, 1861, she wrote, “I imagine I hear you say, “What a queer girl” and I suppose I am differently constituted from other folks.” Carlos won me over when I read his reply on November 24, 1861. “Truly, I have sometimes thought that you were somewhat differently dispositioned from others that I have known. Mary, you do not bear in mind that perhaps this is the very reason why I have sought to gain your love.”
Carlos added to his appeal when he wrote Mary on February 26, 1862, “Shall I tell you that I received a Valentine not long ago, and you must not smile too loud when I tell you that it was the first one that I ever received and that I never sent one away in my life.”
Even though these letters were written long ago, they offer instructive lessons to follow today. Reading the advice Carlos gave Mary on March 29, 1862, I felt like he could have been talking to me.
“Asking you to receive what I may say in the same spirit of kindness in which it is written, and from one whose earnest desire is to be worthy of your confidence. You are unhappy! You allow your mind to become intoxicated as it were with though or in other words you think, but you think to no purpose, and thus you become perplexed. Now, you must allow no more of this sort of thinking. When you find that your mind is busy with any subject merely as an abstract subject, you must instantly banish all thought. Then calmly place your mind on something different and you will soon overcome the habit of immoderate thinking which has given you so much trouble. You can never realize the wonderful power which you possess over your own mind, until you have occasion, and do test it in this very way.”
Poor Carlos got some bad news when Mary wrote the following to him on April 13, 1862. “I have received and read letters from you with commingled feelings of grief and pleasure….I feel that I must perform the painful duty of saying that I think there is but little use in deferring longer. It is hard for me to write thus. I hope our correspondence and interviews have not been without profit to both of us. I shall ever think of you as a friend while memory is true to her mission, and ask that I may be cherished as such by you. I shall, however, expect to hear from you again and will now bid you farewell.”
However, he handled it like a true gentleman. Responding to her on April 23, 1862, he wrote, “Mary, can you spare me a few moments in writing to me sometimes? I hope you will. I shall ever be glad to hear of your prosperity and happiness. May God bless you and help me!”
Thankfully, the “true and faithful friends” continued to write to each other. Their correspondence seemed to have strengthened their friendship. On April 20, 1862, Carlos wrote to Mary, “I have only to thank you a thousand times for the kindness and regard you have shown me in our intercourse thus far and I ask you to ever remember me as your friend and I will try to deserve the name.”
Their letters continued during Carlos’s Civil War service; he enlisted as a private in the 72nd Regiment of the Ohio Infantry, Company A, on October 24, 1862 and was mustered out on July 30, 1863 at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Writing Mary on August 1, 1863, he said, “In our wonderful preservation from death on the field, I recognize the hand of a ‘Savior caring for us’ and I hope never to be ashamed to own and worship Him.”
Suffering from poor health after his wartime service, Carlos was first employed on the Sandusky, Dayton and Cincinnati Railroad, working on the Wood Train, or the construction train of the road. As part of a crew of 31 men, he kept the different wood houses full along the entire route, to transport building material along the line, and, in case of accident to either mail or freight trains, to help them perform their regular trips and prevent the delay of mail or express matter. His part of the work was to take care of the sleeping car and to see that whatever was necessary for the comfort of his colleagues was obtained. “My place suits my condition of health exactly but I do not like my surroundings. I am not in a pleasant society and often I am almost obliged to start for home,” Carlos confessed to Mary on April 10, 1865.
Carlos also participated in an historical event, and shared the experience with Mary through a letter. Writing her on May 4, 1865, Carlos provided a detailed description of the funeral demonstration for Abraham Lincoln in Columbus. He was part of the procession which marched, four abreast, from the Depot to the Statehouse. “It was not until nearly eleven that I could get into the Capitol to view the corpse,” he wrote. “His face was a good deal discolored, but the features and expression was perfect — the sweetest and the saddest expression I ever beheld. I shall never forget that face – may its memory inspire the many thousands who have lately witnessed it to deeds of honor and acts of virtue, in imitation of him whom ‘our nation mourns’ as a Father slain, a Preserver torn from our embrace by the hand of violence.”
Carlos’s letters make it obvious that he was trying to deserve the friendship that Mary extended to him. When he found that he was unable to visit her because of his responsibilities to his employer, he wrote on May 18, 1865 “to explain the circumstances which compel me to disappoint you” and to express how disappointed he is after anticipating “such a pleasant visit at home with parents, brothers, sisters and you and other friends.” Three days later, he wrote to apologize again, saying, “I am sorry to have disappointed you so, but it was unavoidable and I hope you will accept my previous explanation as a sufficient apology for my conduct.”
On May 24, 1865, Mary thoughtfully responded, “Certainly I accept your explanation in regard to the contemplated visit which you are necessarily detained from making at present. Of course I was disappointed but perhaps no more so than others…. To be sure the future is uncertain yet as circumstances have shaped I deem it best to defer my visit & trust the future.” Carlos responded on June 10, 1865, “I thank you for the consideration shown me in this matter and if you can make it just as convenient to make your visit so much later in the season, I shall be very glad that the necessity of changing the program occurred as it did.”
That visit did take place, and the correspondence that follows resumes an earlier theme. On August 9, 1865, Carlos wrote to Mary, “We don’t feel satisfied with your visit here at all and are in hopes that you can make it convenient to come again next week. I will call for you at any place you can appoint. I must see you again. Dear Mary, if there is any change in your feelings, in my favor, oh, be generous enough to tell me so!”
Responding that she needed “direction from on high to guide me aright,” Mary wrote on August 26, 1865 that “the future has presented rather a gloomy picture to gaze upon….You have been brought very near the grave and your constitution undoubtedly impaired for life, which I fear will unfit you for securing and providing a good home, that is unless you obtain a situation that will be light employment and yet a paying one.” Although she was concerned about having to leave her parents, she concluded that “if it is the will of God that such a union take place, He is able to prosper you henceforth, both as to health and in temporal things” in a letter dated September 10, 1865. Carlos responded on October 6, 1865, “If indeed God favors our union, I do hope that it may be as soon as February or March.”
But it wasn’t that soon. In April 1866, Carlos wrote, “Many miles of distance intervenes to separate us, and our circumstances are such that we may not hope to enjoy each other’s society very often, but since you have bid me ‘hope’ I shall no longer repine at my lot but trust in an overruling and favoring providence that ere many months we may have acquired a competency and position sufficient to justify us in our future union….Dear Girl, I am so glad that I have been able to win the affections of one so noble and so lovely as your own dear self.”
The couple postponed their wedding until Carlos’s health and financial prospects improved. Deciding to forgo new outfits and a party, they anticipated setting a day “as early as seems expedient.” “Just think of it — our correspondence seems to be nearly to a close; aren’t you sorry? I am. Well, let’s enjoy it fast and often while it lasts!,” Mary wrote on February 24, 1867.
Carlos and Mary Jane were married on April 2, 1867. After their marriage, Carlos and Mary were separated while he performed joiner work on a church in Cleveland. “I would like to see you of course but it appears to be our fortune to be separated a good deal and maybe it is for the best. Hope it as such as is our lot,” Mary Jane wrote on September 23, 1867.
The couple’s letters of this period provides insight into what must have been a trying time for the newlyweds. On October 13, 1867, Mary wrote, “It will be five weeks Tues. next since you left here, and you remarked then ‘that you should be out again in a week or two.’ I did not expect you would, but I begin to feel as though I am placed in a trying situation and need all the sympathy and encouragement that I am entitled to feel in a husband. If you are not able to come, of course I do not ask it, but if you are unable to work, and do feel able to take the journey, why not spend some of the weeks with your wife, who has the best claim to your attention? I cannot help feeling rather gloomy when I think of your decline in health, and my own prospects and of our limited means.”
The collection also includes a poem that Mary wrote Carlos on their first anniversary, dated April 2, 1868. It includes the following lines: “…And we hail with our anniversary day/A ten weeks old baby, a bright little lad/To cheer up the heart when o’erburdened and sad/The ‘pet’ of his father, his own ‘darling boy’/The pride of his mother, her hope and her joy.”
Carlos supported his family by working as a farmer and a carpenter. He died on January 6, 1915; Mary Jane died August 30, 1924. Both are buried in North Royalton, Ohio.
Carlos and Mary Jane’s great-granddaughter, Anne Bartlett Hines, donated the letters to the Ohio Historical Society. If you’re interested in reading them, visit the Ohio History Center’s Archives/Library and request the finding aid that fellow volunteer Jim Edge and I prepared for MSS 1491. Unfortunately, the collection does not include any photographs of Carlos and Mary Jane. How I’d like to see them dressed for their wedding, with Carlos in his black suit and Mary Jane in her merino wedding dress with slate-colored gloves and silk bonnet.