Tag Archives: Joseph Underwood

Scenes from a Companionate Marriage

Joseph and Elizabeth Underwood and their home, Ironwood

Joseph and Elizabeth Underwood and their home, Ironwood

In the Winter 2014 issue of Ohio Valley History, WKU assistant history professor Jennifer A. Walton-Hanley’s article uses the letters of Joseph and Elizabeth (Cox) Underwood, housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, to study “an antebellum southern companionate marriage.”

Married in 1839 when he was 48 and she only 21, Joseph and Elizabeth Underwood experienced long periods of separation from 1847 to 1853 when Joseph, serving as a U.S. Senator in Washington, left Elizabeth to raise their children (and stepchildren from his first marriage) and manage their Bowling Green, Kentucky farm.  During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of letters that offer, as Walton-Hanley writes, “a case study of one Kentucky man’s struggles to preserve his domestic connections and maintain his family position.”

Using the letters as evidence, Walton-Hanley shows how Joseph relied heavily on Elizabeth to run their household but remained actively involved in all its affairs.  He consulted and advised on finances, closely monitored his children’s health, education and behavior, and eagerly sought reports on even the most ordinary details of life at home.  But Joseph’s practice of 19th-century “masculine domesticity” did not stem simply from a sense of male privilege; rather, it reflected his unabashed yearning for home and family.  Worrying about his children and candidly expressing his love for his intelligent and capable wife, Joseph bridged their separation and maintained an emotional presence in Elizabeth’s life even as she exercised considerable autonomy within their partnership.

Click here to access a finding aid for the Underwood Collection containing the letters of Joseph and Elizabeth Underwood.  For more collections on Bowling Green families, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The Earth Yawned”

John E. Younglove; Joseph R. Underwood

John E. Younglove; Joseph R. Underwood

The earthquake that struck Haiti two years ago today reminds us that generations throughout history have experienced the physical and psychological destruction accompanying this violent act of nature.  For example, from December 1811 to February 1812, four major quakes originating along the New Madrid fault in what is now Missouri caused extensive property damage, landslides, and geographic upheavals so extraordinary that for several hours the Mississippi River appeared to reverse course.  Some of the responses of Kentuckians to the New Madrid earthquake can be found in the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.

In Bowling Green, druggist John E. Younglove preserved the comments of old-timers who had experienced the disaster.  The earthquake “was felt here for several days,” they remembered, “the houses shaking so much that the dishes in the cupboards and shelves rattled and caus[ed] great consternation among the inhabitants of this region.”  Many citizens were so terrified “that they met in the churches for Prayer and supplication.”

In February 1812, Joseph Underwood wrote to his uncle in Barren County from Lexington where, he reported, “the repeated shocks of earthquakes have alarmed the timorous inhabitants of this place.”  A man told Underwood that his wife had not eaten anything for days.  “I suppose she was under the dreadful apprehension of being swallowed up by the opening of the earth.”  Stories circulated of night watchmen hearing “aerial songs,” voices from above “which seemed to portend an awful desolation,” but Underwood suspected only “a base attempt to impose on the credulity of the people, who are now ready to believe in and wonder at miracles.”

Twenty-five years after the quakes, Betsy Taliaferro passed by the town of New Madrid on her steamboat journey from Louisiana to Versailles, Kentucky.  She feared coming near “that awful place” where “the earth yawned,” and found it “scarcely improved” since the disaster.  The real tragedy, however, was not property damage but damage to the human psyche.  “What must the inhabitants have experienced during that awful period!” Betsy wrote in her journal.  “That the inhabitants were horror stricken is not to be wondered at, but that they were anything but lunatics afterwards is.”

Click on the names to download finding aids for the above collections.  For more about our collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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