In places, the letters read like they could have been written by anyone missing family from a great distance.
“I begin to feel anxious to see you all,” Hannah Valentine told her husband, Michael, in one message. “I am afraid my patience will be quite worn out if you do not come back soon.”
The very next line, however, reveals the unusual circumstances of the letter, written in the spring of 1838.
“You must write and tell me when Master talks of returning,” Valentine, a slave in Abingdon, wrote to her husband, who had been taken to Richmond.
The master was Virginia Gov. David Campbell, who brought slaves with him when he moved into the Executive Mansion and left others behind at Montcalm, the Campbell family home in Southwest Virginia.
Hannah Valentine and another slave, Lethe Jackson, were left to care for Montcalm but dictated a series of letters sent to their loved ones in Richmond and to the Campbells.
Their letters are housed in a library at Duke University, but their words now have a place at Virginia’s Executive Mansion.
Last month, first lady Dorothy McAuliffe dedicated a garden outside the old slave quarters and kitchen to the Valentine and Jackson families.
Six bronze plaques with quotes from the letters are affixed to the garden wall, and biographical information about the two families hangs in the 19th-century kitchen.
“The letters show us the intimate feelings of families separated by slavery,” McAuliffe said in a statement announcing the dedication. “As parents, it is unthinkable to imagine being forcibly separated from our children.”
“We believe that it is imperative to tell the story of all of the families who are part of the mansion’s history, not just the first families,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe said.
The garden concept was the work of several organizations and groups, including Virginia Commonwealth University students, the Garden Club of Virginia, and the mansion Citizens Advisory Council.
The idea began with the letters, part of a larger collection of Campbell family papers in Duke’s library.
Several letters can be read on a university website, which describes the documents as providing “a rare firsthand glimpse into the lives of slaves and their relationships with their owners.”
In a letter addressed to “Miss Virginia,” Gov. Campbell’s niece, Lethe Jackson said she was pleased and flattered that her mistress would think of her on “the retired hill of Montcalm” from the “gay metropolis” of Richmond. She goes on to describe leaning on her faith to overcome hardship.
“I try Miss Virginia to be contented at all times and am determined not to let anything make me unhappy,” Jackson wrote. “We are taught to resemble our Maker and He is always happy, therefore it is our duty to be happy too.”
The letters also contain lighter moments, including updates on the well-being and misadventures of farm animals.
“I am sorry that Masters cow has so little manners as to eat Onions — in the City of Richmond too — well what a disgrace!” Jackson wrote to Virginia. “I wish you to tell her that our Mountain Cows are better trained than that — and that if she will come up here we will learn her to be more genteel and not spoil the Governers milk.”
Among the rundowns of daily events are expressions of love and well wishes sent to and from members of the extended families.
“Tell Richard that Aunt Lucinda sais she has Dreamed about him several times since he Left Here,” Hannah Valentine had someone write in the margins of an 1837 letter to her daughter Eliza. She sent updates on Eliza’s own children, saying “Your Little Daughter Mary is one of the best Children in the world.”
Signing off, Valentine said: “No More at Present But Remain your Most Affectionate Mother Until Death.”