1812: M. B. S. to Lieut. Peter Pelham

The author of this letter remains a mystery. Her initials “M.B.S.” and the stampless letter, postmarked in Portsmouth, Ohio, provide the only clues. Given that the author rips into the young Lieutenant with a relentless fury of invectives for deceiving and abandoning her in Ohio, it is probably best that her identity remains obscure.

The letter was sent to Lt. Peter Pelham (1785-1826), a native of Maysville, Kentucky, where his father, Maj. Charles Pelham (1748-1829), a veteran of the Revolutionary War, had established a plantation, growing cotton and tobacco. Ohio Census Records reveal Peter’s presence in Greene County, Ohio, as early as 1809.  He received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the 21st Infantry in Massachusetts on 12 March 1812.

The Battle of Chrysler’s Farm where Lt. Peter Pelham was wounded and taken prisoner by the British

Pelham’s service with the 21st Infantry swept him into a campaign during the War of 1812 designed to take the war to the very gates of Montreal. The thrust into Canada by American forces led to a series of conflicts known collectively as the St. Lawrence Campaign. In a lost battle that caused the campaign to fizzle, fought on 11 November near the town of Williamsburg in Ontario, Lt. Pelham was seriously wounded in the thigh and taken prisoner. He was exchanged a few weeks later near the close of 1813 but his wound never healed properly and left him in constant pain.

Pelham was promoted to captain in February 1814 and retained that rank after the war. Since this letter was addressed to Pelham while a Lieutenant, it is reasonably conjectured that it was written in November of 1812.

After the war, Pelham was transferred to the 5th U.S. Infantry in May 1815 and was stationed in Detroit. During the winter of 1818-9, however, Pelham was sent to Philadelphia as a recruiter and while there, signed on a former officer, William G. Oliver, as a Lieutenant. In the spring of 1819, these two officers, with other recruits, made their way to their new post on the Upper Mississippi where they feuded with one another for the better part of 18 months. Charges being filed against one another, a general court martial was held in 1820 that exonerated Pelham and all charges were dismissed. [See Frontier Feud: “1819-1820, How Two Officers Quarreled All the Way to the Site of Fort Snelling” by Helen McCann White, Minnesota Historical Society.]

After the war Pelham was honorably discharged from the army in 1815 and accepted a position as a sub-agent for Indian affairs in Florida Territory. While in Philadelphia during the winter of 1822 on a furlough from this position and seeking medical care, Pelham stayed with his brother Atkinson — a medical student — boarding at the home of Anna Folger Coffin. Being ill, Capt. Pelham rarely left his room, and often found himself in the company of the proprietor’s daughters, including 16 year-old Martha Coffin.

“Pelham allowed Martha to borrow books from his collection and they enjoyed long conversations about what she read. It proved to be an illuminating experience for Martha, who had only read religious and moralistic texts prior to his arrival. Now she indulged in Samuel Johnson, Plutarch, novels and comedies, — books that her parents would never have encouraged their children to read.

“Captain Pelham was thirty-seven, a retired military officer, and the son of a slave-owner; an extremely unlikely candidate to become the beau of a sixteen-year-old Quaker. Martha was an independent and precocious young woman, however, and in spite of their differences, she quickly fell in love with the Captain. He was intelligent, educated, and offered Martha an escape from her mundane existence in Philadelphia.

“Martha’ s mother was less than pleased to discover their budding romance. Anna sent her to live with her sister Eliza, in another part of the city, forbidding Martha to have any contact with the Captain. Anna was genuinely fond of Captain Pelham, but there could be no question of her daughter marrying outside their faith – it was strictly forbidden. Captain Pelham was determined not to lose Martha, and before she was sent away he wrote her a letter, pleading with her not to forget him:

“…Suffer me, my dear Martha, to repeat that I have never loved any woman as I love you & am convinced that I cannot long live after the extinction of the hope of a nearer connection.”

“He continued to write to Martha without her family’s knowledge, smuggling love letters to her hidden in the pages of his books, which she continued to borrow. He assured her repeatedly of his affection, and argued that difference of religious faith could be overcome:

“Never having embraced the dogmas or been educated according to the forms of any religious sect, I am simply a Christian, and why then may I not under your instructions adopt the discipline & forms of your society?”

“Anna was eventually persuaded to allow them to have chaperoned visits. During this period, Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, twice requested that Captain Pelham return to Florida. He refused, choosing to remain in Philadelphia, near Martha. As a result he was dismissed from his position as an Indian Agent. If Anna had been reluctant to have her daughter marry a non-Quaker, she certainly had no desire to see her teen-aged daughter married to an unemployed non-Quaker.

“In Sept. 1823, Captain Pelham traveled to Washington, D.C., seeking another position. The United States Government had just signed a treaty with the Seminole tribe in Florida, confining them to an inland reservation. The government intended to build forts along the coastline to defend American settlements. Captain Pelham was offered a position at Fort Brooke, near Tampa Bay. He would be tasked with selling provisions to the soldiers stationed there, and would be allowed to trade with the Native Americans nearby, and any white settlers who later arrived. He wrote Martha that he had “exchanged” his former occupation “for one 2 or 3 times as profitable.”

“He spent the next thirteen months traveling throughout the South, establishing his store at Fort Brooke, purchasing supplies, and establishing contacts in Mobile and New Orleans. He wrote in October of 1824 to tell her that he would be returning for a brief time to Philadelphia, and he hoped that when he arrived she would consent to marry him. Martha was just two months shy of her eighteenth birthday, and after two years, her mother had given up hope of preventing the marriage. Consent was given, and they were married in Philadelphia on November 18, 1824, in a Methodist ceremony. Martha was promptly disowned by the Quakers for marrying “contrary to the order of our discipline, and by the assistance of an hireling minister.”

“Soon after the ceremony, Captain Pelham wrote to his father, describing his new bride:

Martha Coffin Wright, the former wife of Cpt. Peter Pelham

“In my wife you will find a daughter worthy of your esteem…I have the strongest pledge of her being endowed with all the virtues essential in forming an intelligent friend and an amiable wife…

My dear Martha will leave these relations (including her mother, a brother, & two sisters married in this city) and share with me the inconveniences and dangers of a voyage, as well as to submit to all the privations attending a first residence in an unsettled country. And when it is recollected how full of ease, and how many enjoyments attend a city life, the place of one’s birth & the abode of one’s relations, this is no paltry sacrifice.”

“The couple sailed to Florida aboard the sloop Hope. The ship was wrecked off the Florida coast. The Pelhams waded with the other passengers to a nearby island, where they were later rescued. They were safe, but most of their possessions were destroyed. Years later, Martha told her children that while she “enjoyed the escape from conventionalities” that life in Tampa offered, “the annoyance of swarms of fleas & mosquitoes all year round & cockroaches in your chambers & in your food…made it anything but pleasant to me as a permanent residence.” Still, she appears to have made a good impression on the officers at the fort, one writing to a friend that Martha was “a lady of no common stamp. Her mind of the highest order, naturally well cultivated and refined.”

“Martha soon discovered that she was pregnant, and Captain Pelham was determined that she should give birth in Philadelphia, where there would be physicians, and her relatives, on hand to aid in the delivery of their child. In May 1825, Martha sailed home, leaving Peter behind to cope with his responsibilities at the fort. His health was still precarious, and he found life as a merchant intolerable, writing to Martha at length about the “knavery, envy, dissimulation and falsehood of the trading world.”

“Martha gave birth to their child, a daughter she name Marianna, on August 26, 1825. She returned to Florida later that year with Captain Pelham, but their reunion proved to be brief. Captain Pelham’s health continued to deteriorate. He died on July 10, 1826, leaving behind a teenage widow and an infant daughter, far from home, with virtually no means of support. [Source: A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights, by Sherry H. Penney & James D. Livingston. pp. 16-26 (Boston: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2004)]

Pelham’s wife, Martha Coffin, was the younger sister of Lucretia (Coffin) Mott — the famed Quaker preacher and reformer. Lucretia and Martha Coffin were the daughters of Thomas Coffin and Anna Folger.  Pelham’s only child, Marianna Pelham, married her cousin, Thomas Mott — Lucretia Mott’s son.

Martha and her second husband, David Wright were persuaded by Martha’s sister, Lucretia Mott, and by William Lloyd Garrison, and others in Philadelphia, to become ardent abolitionists as well as campaigners for women’s suffrage.

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TRANSCRIPTION
Addressed to Lieut. P. Pelham, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Forwarded to Plattsburgh

[Postmarked Portsmouth, Ohio]
Monday, 3d November [1812]
One whole fortnight since the date of my last to which I entreated an instant answer

The delightful renovating season’s fleet Earth is covered with the fallen shriveled foliage. This yellow harvest the greatest the husbandman will see this sad year, covers my feet as I walk. The winds rave through the stripped trees. The hoarse blast seems to roll sullenly along the distant sounding shore, and be returned in dismal murmerings. My ear closes with chillness as I hear it. Everything in nature announces the rapid approach of gloomy heartfreezing, relentless winter, and you come not. You write not. No kind intimation. No friendly notice. No considerate message betokening constant remembrance appears, to renew my desolate heart. The agony I sometimes endure is intolerable. The agony I at this moment suffer — I can bear it no longer.

Mr. Pelham, what do you mean by this unfeeling, shameless conduct? Tell me. Answer me. I will not bear it. You must give me some satisfaction. Were I a man on the equal footing of friendship with you, you know in your own conscience, you would not dare use me thus, or were I one who would bring an arbiter between us, you would not. But here you rest in conscious safety. ‘Tis this gives the incurable wound. Tis this distracts — anything else I could bear, but this cruel disappointment! Where I believed all honor, truth, candour, dignity of sentiment, manliness of feeling, and nobleness of conduct, to find this mean evasion of right, to the powerless and defenseless — this sort of trickish escape from justice, because you are secure from seizure — this dishonorable and selfish disregard of obligation, which there is no law to enforce. You defraud me in the most valuable good, because you think you can do it with impunity. You have placed yourself securely out of my reach. I cannot lay hold on you. I cannot reach you. I cannot compel you to afford me any satisfaction that you do not will. You know I cannot follow, pursue you, beset you, but with my letters, which seem to have literally “passed by you, as the idle wind, which you regard not.” It seems almost impossible that so many of them in succession could have met your observation without obtaining the slightest mark of notice. Oh! I cannot be thus imposed on. Tell me. Answer me. What is it you aim at in this unaccountable silence, this unjustifiable neglect? (Can you. How can you answer it to Heaven or earth — you will not always be able to answer it to yourself) thus to torment one, whose worst fault is her strong, unalterable affection to yourself — an affection which asks but to be assured of the correctness of our virtue, and to hear continually of your welfare. When a few hours rescued from dissipation, or convivial idleness would give her content — or but one hour, snatched from an occupation, which you had but poor right to engage in, at first, without her acquiescence obtained (& still poorer to continue engaged in) without rendering her the account she desires (without the sanction of an interchange of communication with her whose right is the first property in your heart) would at least relieve her distress.

What right have you to waste, in a feverish dream of misery, the life of her, whose first wish is to promote your happiness, who would share no pains, who could not know an indolent feeling, where the smallest thing that tended to you was the object proposed — who knows no happiness but the consciousness of having the power to give you pleasure? What right have you to do this. I ask, when the smallest attention on your part — only such conduct as the most common promptings of humanity must prduce, would give her peace? If any extraordinary exertions — any going ____ of your way, were necessary to effect what is required, your deficiency would not be so reprehensible — but it is only that which you can perform, with the slightest trouble or inconvenience — present self reproach — or apprehensions for the future — without moving from your chair, by your comfortable, cheering fireside — without fear of offense — without danger of hurting the feelings of any fellow creature. Tis but an intercourse with you, or rather an acquaintance with — a knowledge of you, your concerns, interests — your happiness and your misfortunes, your joys and your sorrows, which is perfectly consistent with the most exclusive attachment that a man whose affections have wandered through such a variety of regions and found such different homes, can possibly pretend (or be believed by the woman herself, if he __ so pretend) to have, for any object than can now come after such as have gone before in his heart. Tis indeed scarcely an interest that is required. Tis but a courtesy entirely consistent with the most delicate regard for another. This I mean for your general regulation, but for this particular exigence for my present relief.

Task, I demand an explanation — an immediate, minute, satisfactory explanation to relieve me from agony — to save me from distraction. After that is given, you have it still in your power to refuse any farther, but so much I insist on. You waste my time. You destroy my existence and wantonly — yes wantonly it is — deny me all satisfaction the slightest explanation — are careless of my entreaties for some consideration. Give me some — any — kind of explanation, I again repeat, for I can bear it no longer, and live.

Send me directly those things you s long ago, in a letter of te____ promised me you wuld bring, so long ago that I have written in the time, three (unnoticed) lengthy letters. Send them, I say. I can no longer await your tardy movements — or depend on your uncrtain feelings and principles. I can no longer have sufficient faith in your deceitful word. I would rather they were burnt to save trouble and cost — but I have no longer that confidence in you that would enable me to trust in your doing it. If I do not hear from you within a week, I will write to some of our acquaintances in Pittsfield to whom you would be very sorry I should address to try what influence their persuasion will have to induce you to do me the small right I request. They are those who will not turn a deaf ear to my request, and tho I make with no strong hope of effecting the ultimate object of my wishes, yet it will be a relief to my feelings to make it.

FOOTNOTES

The letter requesting the exchange of prisoner Lt. Peter Pelham:

Dated 31 December 1813


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