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John Curtis and Mary Snell Smith Papers

Call Number: RG 207
Scope and Contents

The John Curtis Smith and Mary Snell Steele Smith Family Papers consist primarily of seven letterbooks (originally eight letterbooks; one letterbook which was in poor condition was dismantled and the letters put in folders), three journals, one memorandum book, and a number of unbound letters, now in folders, which may have been intended for several more letterbooks. Counting the letters in the letterbooks as individual items, the collection consists of a total of just over 2,000 items. Other items beside letters and journals include small bits of fabric (samples from the girls' dresses), a few programs from various school ceremonies, essays written by the children, a parrot feather, an ordination sermon, certificates for a children's fund-raising project, a copy of the printed sermon preached at John Curtis Smith's funeral service, a few family genealogical papers, and photographs of John Curtis and Mary Snell Smith and their children. However, the collection is almost exclusively letters; most of them are from the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s.

The vast majority of the correspondence in this collection concerns the offspring of John Curtis Smith and Mary Snell Steele Smith. The children were sent or brought to the United States to live with relatives. There are scores of letters from the families with whom the children stayed, as well as letters from the Smith children in the United States to their parents in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and letters from the children to each other in the United States and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). For instance, one letterbook consists of letters that her siblings sent to Mary E. Smith, the youngest child, who lived alone with her parents in Udupitty, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), from 1861-1865, while her five older siblings were residing in the United States. Some letters from John Curtis Smith and Mary Snell Smith to their children survive in the collection, the majority of letters are ones sent out to John and Mary Smith in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) by their children, their children's caregivers and other relatives during their long separation from each other. Other items in the collection include a "memorandum book," (a daily journal kept by Smith with detailed accounts of his work in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) during 1861-65), notebooks that Smith wrote detailing his two voyages out to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) (1841-42, 1860-61), an account of Mary E. Smith's voyage to the United States from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) when she was twelve years old, and a letterbook (which has been dismantled; the contents are now in folders) with letters to John Curtis Smith from his siblings, four of whom were living in the United States and one of whom, Asa B. Smith, served for a time as a missionary to Native Americans in the American West and in Hawaii.

This collection provides intensive documentation for the lives of missionary families, especially "missionary children," and their extended families in the 1850s and especially the 1860s and early 1870s. By traveling to distant lands to convert the "heathen" to Christianity, missionaries were considered by those in America to have made the ultimate sacrifice of health and material comfort. In deciding to send their children back to the United States, thousands of miles away from their foreign households, missionaries made additional sacrifice. Missionary mothers, like Mary Smith, gave up their children so they could continue their missionary work abroad. In nineteenth century culture, indeed, even today, the extended separation of a mother from her children is considered to be a most painful experience. To have "given up" six of her children by sending them thousands of miles away from her for years at a time, Mary Snell Smith placed her calling as a missionary above the temporal earthly maternal ties that were so celebrated by her culture.

Pious relatives in New England also made a sacrifice on behalf of faith. "I never thought I would see you again in this world," wrote Mary Snell Smith's father to her of her departure from Boston in 1836; she did not return to the United States until more than twenty years later. The piety of those left behind who believed fervently in the "mission" of their loved ones in far off lands is nowhere more evident than in their willingness to take in the "orphaned missionary children" who were sent back to the States to be educated. Some sheltering relatives had already raised families and most were hard-working farmers; some had never married and had little experience with child-rearing, or had several children and grand-children of their own to care for. Many letters began with apologies for not writing sooner or more often, and a laundry list of the chores and illnesses and difficulties that had prevented keeping up the correspondence. These were not affluent families; expense was often an issue. Hard-working farm families accepted the Smith children into their households, where the children were educated. Smith boys helped with farm chores and the Smith girls learned the household arts. In several cases, the labor of the children was considered payment for their "board" while living with aunts, uncles and cousins. The relatives' letters to the Smiths in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) are not only filled with updates on the children, "home news" and a chronicle of the health, births and deaths in their own and neighboring families, news of their local churches and clergy, but profound expressions of their own Christian faith, in the value of the Smiths' missionary work and the awesome responsibility of raising the missionaries' children.

A particular value in this collection is the great number of letters written by the Smith children themselves. There may be few collections of any kind that hold so many letters written by child siblings in mid-nineteenth century America. The six children in the Smith family were all born in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and spent at least half of their childhoods there before being sent or taken to live in the United States. The "culture shock" was both wonderful for them (snow!!!) and difficult (bland Yankee farm cooking, separation from parents and moving from household to household). Even though all five Smith children lived in New England, months or years would pass when they would not see one other, and they were only all five together in one place, perhaps three or four times in the years that their parents were away. The children felt varying degrees of attachment to their sheltering relatives, and accepted that they had little choice in the matter. In their letters back to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the children expressed compliance with their parents' wishes to have them live apart from them, there was a great deal of sadness and sense of loss which the children openly explained and some rebellion. When Thomas Snell Smith, the oldest sibling reached his mid-teens he began to assume a paternal role in overseeing the education and well-being of his younger siblings in the United States, and in assuring that a regular stream of letters from the siblings reached their parents in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The letters created a "virtual household" for the children and their parents during the time of separation.

Aside from the value of these letters to those studying missionary culture, the documents in this collection provide an important window into nineteenth century American culture in general. The letters, written by relatives, many of whom were from pious New England farm families, detail daily life in New England towns and on the farms—money problems, the Civil War, deaths, births, harvesting, cooking, celebrating holidays, church life are all documented here. The Smiths' relatives, while literate, clearly found letter-writing a chore, and were the sorts of people who wouldn't have ordinarily left such a complete documentation of their lives. . A sister of John Curtis Smith, Laura Smith Parkhurst, married and moved to a remote part of Illinois in the 1840's. Her comprehensive letters detail living in a log cabin in isolation from neighbors, and her struggle to bear a living child would be of interest to women's history scholars and students of the American West. Any student of nineteenth century American children would find these letters of value for the accounts of the daily activities of the Smith children and especially the various ways they were educated—in small village schools that met for three-month terms, in their relatives' homes, with local clergy, and in boarding schools and colleges. There are particularly rich and detailed accounts of Thomas's four years at Amherst College in the mid-1860's, and the months spent at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary by Eunice and Laura. For those studying children and evangelical religion in the nineteenth century, these letters provide documentation of the spiritual struggles of children and young adults. The diagnoses and treatment of Eunice's and Laura's fatal illnesses would be of interest to scholars in the history of medicine and to those investigating nineteenth century women's health, or tuberculosis.

This description is excerpted from a more detailed essay about the collection prepared by Elizabeth C. Stevens, which is available in Series IV, Box 7.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright has been transferred to Yale University.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Philip C. Smith, grandson of Henry Hill Smith, 2006.

  1. I. Correspondence, 1837-1873
  2. II. Letterbooks, 1853-1868
  3. III. Journals, 1841-1865
  4. IV. Personal Items and Memorabilia, 1841-1866
Majority of material found within 1853 - 1869
3 Linear Feet (7 boxes)
Related Names
Smith, John Curtis
Smith, Mary Snell Steele
Language of Materials