A collection of thirty-eight manuscripts, 21 July 1851- 5 May 1853, document the turbulent courtship of physician and planter John Howard Furman (1824-1902) and Susan Emma Miller (1832-1892), daughter of Col. John Blount Miller and Mary Elizabeth Murrell Miller. Dr. Furman, a widower with two small children at the time he married Sue Miller, was a grandson of Richard Furman and son of Samuel Furman, Baptist minister and professor at Furman Theological Institute. The letters exchanged by John and Sue are in no way routine nineteenth-century courtship correspondence; rather, they constitute a remarkable record of an uneasy relationship between future in-laws, of dowry rights and questions surrounding ownership and management of valuable property inherited by a daughter not yet of legal age from the estate of her wealthy planter father, and of relations between members of the couple’s extended families inextricably linked through their ties to Bethel Baptist Church, a congregation pastored by the groom’s father.
The earliest letter in the collection, sent by Sue Miller to Julia Furman on 21 July 1851, indicates that she was recuperating from an illness and expresses disappointment that she had not recently heard from “Somebody,” presumably Julia’s brother, John. While the letters yield few clues as to how Sue and John met—a 23 March 1853 letter from Sue suggests that the following day would be one year since “I first saw and loved you,” by 13 September 1852, when John wrote to propose marriage, their relationship was firmly rooted. “I now offer you my hand,” he declared; “my heart is already yours—and should I be so blessed as to call you my own, it shall ever be one of the chief aims and pleasures of my life, to promote your happiness—for your happiness will be mine.” “Wealth,” he noted, “I have not to offer,” but he claimed to be unencumbered, “dependent upon no one, and my Children are liberally provided for.”
In accepting John’s proposal on 5 October 1852, Sue forewarned that she did not want to leave her mother who was “old and afflicted.” Were she to do so, Sue asserted, “I would feel that I was neglecting my duty, [but] should I be spared longer than my mother I will then be willing to go where-ever it is to your interest to reside.” Mrs. Miller reportedly was “unwilling that you should make any sacrifice in her account,” but Sue remained “confident that you feel as I do on the subject.”
John Furman visited Sumter District later that year, for a letter of 20 December 1852 reports that the Wateree bridge was near collapse and refers to having seen his parents. By Christmas day he was back in Scottsboro, Ga., and told Sue about a slave, Osborne, formerly owned by her father, who had been sold to Judge Johnson—“He says Judge Johnson bought his wife but finding she was unsound he returned her to her former owners,” further noting that Osborne was to visit him and could deliver in person a message from Sue’s mother. With regard to their wedding plans—attendants, a place for the ceremony, either church or home, and whether by candlelight, Dr. Furman noted that he would leave these details up to Sue but stated his preference to be wed in church by candlelight.
Furman took obvious pleasure in sharing with Sue the childlike enthusiasm his younger son exhibited when told her name. Such ebullience did not characterize Mrs. Miller’s reception, however. Writing on 6 January 1853, Sue conveyed some unsettling news. Her mother, it seems, would welcome John to live in their home but she would not give over control of the plantation to him, as she had previously agreed to do, claiming that the stipulations of her husband’s will specified that the executor, Mr. Pugh, retained control throughout Mrs. Miller’s lifetime. John’s response came in a lengthy reply composed over two days, 12 and 13 January. He reminded Sue that, while she preferred to live with her mother, she had agreed to go wherever he made a home. And, he suggested, it was possible that he might need to remove to an area of southwestern Georgia where travel between mother and daughter would be difficult at best.
Despite such dynamics, plans for the wedding were progressing, with Sue announcing on 13 January that she had decided upon “a ‘quiet little wedding’ at home” with six bridal attendants. Mrs. Miller was not about to relinquish claim to her late husband’s property though, so arguments between prospective mother-in-law and son-in-law continued. On 20 January 1853, Sue wrote that her mother found John’s response on the matter of the plantation showed “a want of confidence in her” but it was “her desire to do everything in her power to promote our happiness, and...her wish we should live with her.” Acceptance was conditional, however, for, as Sue went on to say, “if you act towards her as she thinks you ought, you will find her a friend, but that she cannot give up the entire control of things to you, but is willing that you should superintend for her as Mr. Pugh has been doing...and...if you wish to purchase negroes and plant here she has no objections to your doing so.” And the letter further cautions—“I hope you will make many allowances for her, and I beg you to be calm when the subject is mentioned, and not to say that which might seem unkind to her, please don’t reproach for any thing, you will be sorry for it afterwards.”
As the standoff dragged on, Sue found herself caught increasingly in the middle. Writing on 17 February 1853, she admitted that it was probably best that they not live at the plantation—“I am willing to live any where except here, for I am certain we would not be happy. I would rather endure privation elsewhere than remain here, while these feelings exist towards you, and I now think to myself, it would be better for us to leave than Mother in her old age, and although you have the right to come here if you see proper, please don’t insist on it, if she will suffer herself to be so much influenced by others as not [to] see the injustice she is doing me, let her enjoy all she can, it may in the end be for our good....” Such entreaties seemed to do little to mollify the ill feelings, and Sue’s 6 March 1853 letter seems to indicate that angry words had been exchanged between John and Mrs. Miller.
When she wrote again, on 14 March, Sue reported that her mother was unrelenting and had stated her determination to leave if John moved there. A letter from John “had the contrary effect on her from what you hoped it would, [and] instead of softening her feelings toward you, she is more determined not to yield to us, says that she can never live with you, and that if you come here she would be obliged to leave, and that I will never consent to, we could not be happy if that should be the case.” Sue feared that her mother would write him directly “and acquaint you with her feelings and views about this matter,” so she urged John to remain calm. “When you receive a letter from Mother,” Sue pleaded, “I hope you will not reply to it...and for my sake when you meet her again please be kind in your manner, and don’t allude to what has past, if she should, remain silent or ask her not to name the subject again, and should you meet with any of the rest of the family be kind to them, even if they are more cold and distant towards you than you may expect, show them that for my sake you will not resent it.”
The awkward position in which Sue found herself ultimately gave rise to questions that spilled out onto the pages of her letter of 18 March 1853. “...if I loved you less or had but little confidence in you,” she wrote, “I would say that our engagement must be dissolved, but I will not believe what has been and may be yet told me, unless you say it is all true. Mother fears your ‘quick temper’ so much she says she is confident I will repent it if I marry you, and thinks you may be unkind to me after you get me among strangers, but my heart tells me that you love me, and will cherish me as long as I am kind and affectionate towards you, I feel that I am right, am I not dearest?” Mrs. Miller apparently had suggested that John was unkind to his first wife and implied that he only wanted to marry to gain access to the Miller’s property. She had even gone so far as to report that John had shown a copy of her father’s will to another relative. Moreover, Mrs. Miller had censured Sue for having communicated with John through his sister Julia the previous summer and having accepted his gifts of a photograph and a Bible—“she blames me very much for accepting it, and reproaches me with a want of confidence in her because I did not show it to her and tell her what had passed.”
Letters from late March and early April 1853 reveal that John H. Furman had received a letter from Sue’s mother, but he had burned it in hopes that the matter would pass from his memory. There is also discussion of postponing the wedding date and of John’s proposed removal to Thomasville, Ga. Sue responded on 11 April 1853—“You say you cannot promise me much, that we will have to live plainly, I have always been accustomed to that. I like it best, and for the sake of being with you I would be willing to live much plainer than I now do, I am not hard to please, as long as I know any one is doing what they can I am satisfied I would not ask more, and you know I have always lived a retired life.” Her mother had agreed to “give up every thing to us at the end of the year, and will leave the place,” if Sue would relinquish all claim to a portion of her estate—“she says she does not ask it because she is unwilling I should...enjoy any of it, but she is anxious to see justice done to every one, and as I have received a much larger portion from father than the rest, she think[s] it would be right to give all of hers to them. I have told her I would relinquish all claim, I hope you will not oppose me.”
John’s response, sent on 17 April, assured Sue that he “would avoid in every way doing anything that ever looked like unkindness to her,” but he felt it “to be my duty to do all I can to have justice done you. Do not understand me as accusing your mother of an intention to do you injustice. I only state what I feel & believe to be right and hope that she will prove by what she does that she had no such intention.” Finally, on 20 April, Sue wrote agreeing to a 8 May wedding date and stating that her mother had declared her willingness for them to be married before all the business details concerning the property were worked out.
The final dated item, a brief note from Sue, expresses relief that John had arrived safely and asks that his father meet them at the church early so that they could be married soon after arriving. “Don’t let any one see this note,” she noted, and then added, as if a postscript, one additional comment—“Mother sends her respects to all.”