Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Charles and Sara Robinson – a love story

| 2016 Q2 | story by PATRICIA A. MICHAELIS Ph.D., Historica Research & Archival Consulting | images from the Kansas State Historical Society, kansasmemory.org
 Love Letters

Robinson Tombstone in Lawrence

The challenges of settling in Kansas territory often included long separations between husbands and wives, complicated by the fact that the only means of communication was mail. It would take days or weeks to exchange letters. Lawrence’s “first couple,” Charles and Sara Robinson, endured numerous separations in the 1850s.

Charles Robinson, born in 1818, practiced medicine for a time after graduating from Berkshire Medical College. Adventurous as he was, he headed for the California gold fields in 1849. While there, he supported John C. Frémont’s efforts to keep slavery out of the new state. He served in the California House of Representatives from 1850 to 1851, when he returned to Massachusetts to marry Sara Tappan Doolittle Lawrence.

 Love Letters

Charles Robinson

Sara Lawrence was born in Belchertown, Massachusetts, in 1827. She received a classical education and was said to be “an excellent Latin scholar and could read German and French fluently.” She began “seeing” Charles Robinson before his trip to California. After his return on Oct. 30,1851, they were married. The Robinsons were both ardent abolitionists and became involved in the struggle to have Kansas enter the Union as a free state. By spring 1855, Sara joined Charles in Lawrence. During the next few years, the couple was separated for long periods of time while Charles made trips east to lobby for Kansas interests in Washington, D.C. and Sara made extended visits to Massachusetts to visit family and friends. The letters that survive from this period show their feelings for each other and the difficulties of being apart.

In a letter written Jan. 27, 1857, Charles writes Sara from Boston. In this letter, he expresses his love for her and apologizes for neglecting her while dealing with Kansas-related matters in the east. He says he hopes to eventually give her a comfortable home. He also writes about how he feels business affairs are competing with his desire to be with his wife.

… I have been too much engrossed in political & business matters. I have not even taken time to love my own good wife as I ought. As I have caught a quiet moment like the present when business pressure was removed, I have partially realized the blasting nature of too much thought of the details of business. I can, just now, at this moment, appreciate your chidings of me for being so absent & absorbed in the thought when I ought to think of & love the good & loving little creature by my side. I can now realize that my conduct must be chilling to you although nothing is farther from my intentions. … I forget for the time that you cannot enter with my feelings, & that while my thoughts & perhaps affections are given to business matters you are pining for the love your nature, & all good natures, crave. If you will pardon the past I will try to do better in future, although I am awful anxious to complete the schemes as fast to get some money for my wife & myself & to secure a free state of Kansas. If for a while longer I am too indifferent, apparently, & fail to pay the measure of love I owe, please do not attribute it to anything worse than a too great devotion to business matters. I know my love is as deep as ever, & is only for the time eclipsed by worldly affairs, I trust only to grow to more fervently when this foreign body shall have passed by, & left us a comfortable little home with enough for our comfort. If you know how my heart yearns for your presence, & how much of the time my thoughts are with you, you would not think me too cold. No, you would rather fear for your safety, & prepare to defend yourself from the crushing or devouring impulses of my heart. I do love you most fervently & will try in future to make you realize it at all times. I hope to leave for Kansas this week if I can get through in Boston. In the mean time I am your own loving husband.

 Love Letters

Sara Robinson

In September 1857, Sara was in Massachusetts, and Charles wrote to her there.

I have been waiting patiently for a letter from you but none came. I wrote you last week a line or two. If I don’t get a letter soon I shall conclude that you have sloped [sic] if nothing worse. … I am getting the house on the hill plastered all through. … I believe that is all the news. Now what are you & Eliza about? … Political matters are comparatively quiet & I have less anxiety than usual & would have a little leisure to love you if you were here. As it is I will improve the time to get rested & grow fat. …

In much love Your own C_____

Charles was in Washington, D.C., in December 1857. In this letter, Charles complains about not getting many letters from Sara. He is also dealing with issues concerning Lawrence and writes about the health of various friends. (Health was discussed frequently in 19th-century letters.) In today’s context, Robinson’s complaints may seem sarcastic, but the comments about not hearing from his wife appear to be sincere.

The Lawrence case will be taken up tomorrow by the Land Commissioner – How long it will take him to decide I do not know – My health is I think better although I have gained but little flesh – Tappan has a bad cough & looks sick. Things look favorable so far as I can judge.

I hear nothing from Lawrence except your first letter – It is now a month almost & I have written 5 or 6 letters & received one – There was a time when I received letters oftener than once a month. However it affords some consolation as it shows that you are not dependent for your happiness upon my presence or correspondence – On the other hand it is comforting to know that I have a thought bestowed upon me as often as twelve times in a year –

Once they settled in Lawrence, the Robinsons were very involved in the promotion of Lawrence and making Kansas a free state. Charles helped found the Free-State Party in 1855 and was elected territorial governor under the Topeka Constitution, which would have banned slavery in Kansas but was not accepted by Congress. In 1856, Sara also contributed to the free-state cause by writing “Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life.” She described the political situation as well as the acts of violence in “Bleeding Kansas.” Once Kansas entered the Union, Charles was elected the first governor of the state from 1861 to 1863. He served in the Kansas State Senate from 1873 to 1881. He was superintendent of the Haskell Institute from 1887 to 1889, and a regent of the University of Kansas for twelve years.

The excerpts of letters shared here illustrate the devotion of this couple to one another but also to their adopted home in Lawrence and the free-state cause. The Robinsons lived in Lawrence the rest of their lives at Oak Ridge Farm, north of Lawrence. Charles died in 1894 and Sara in 1911. They had no children so they contributed most of their estate to the University of Kansas, including the land for the main campus.

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