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Young Love in 1823

September 21, 2020

Butler University. Anyone who has spent any time in Indianapolis has heard about this wonderful educational establishment. Its christening name in 1850 was the North Western Christian University. Ovid Butler donated twenty acres of his own land downtown for the site of the university.

A crowd gathered at Ovid Butler’s residence at 13th St. and Park Ave., Indianapolis in honor of his birthday. Indiana Historical Society, PO411

Years before any of these events, around 1823, Ovid Butler was a young lawyer courting Cordelia Cole. They would have their letters delivered by porter when they were apart. Some of these letters, in the form of poems, have survived and are now in a collection available at the Indiana Historical Society.

This information was new to me as I am relatively new to Indianapolis. I am an intern in Collections here at the Indiana Historical Society through IUPUI. I have the rare opportunity to do before I learn.

The beginning of this journey has been processing small collections of papers. This particular collection of letters appealed so much to my humanity and not just the historian in me. I read the documents before researching the people writing them and these poems of expressed love are so heartfelt. I was rooting for these two to have their happily-ever-after before I even knew who they were. It is not every day that I get the opportunity to connect with someone that lived 200 years ago. I’ve included a transcription of part of my favorite poem here:

This poem (transcribed below) is one of the beautiful exchanges between Ovid and Cordelia. Indiana Historical Society, SC0159.

Ovid writes to Cordelia, in the form of a poem around the year 1823.

“Cordelia could my song delight thee
Gladly would I tune the lyre
Touch the strings harmonious lightly
Bid the muses all inspire

But thou canst inspire me better
Thine’s a name of magic spell
A rosy chain a silken fetter
A thought on which I love to dwell

Thine’s a name that can awaken
Within my heart the song of love
A rustling joy like green leaves shaken
When zephyrs fan the vernal grove

Thou hast a voice as sweetly soothing
As the music murmuring rill
Like a fountain gushing oozing
From your rocky shady hill

Soft and sweet as whispering breezes
Uttering sighs of happiness
Music that so highly pleases
Wraps me in a trance of bliss”

They did marry in Shelby County, Indiana in 1827. They had six children, three surviving. Sadly, Cordelia died in 1838. This appears to be the end of their love story, but thanks to the preservation of these documents, it can live on through their sweet messages to each other from so long ago.

Ovid sent this sweet drawing to Cordelia. The text reads: “This little device will Cordelia approve, Tis the union of hearts in the circle of love.” Indiana Historical Society, SC0159.

Ovid did remarry two years after Cordelia’s death and have eight more children. He was a partner in a law firm with Calvin Fletcher and an active abolitionist. He certainly left a lasting legacy here in Indianapolis. I would like to think, though, that he always thought of his first love, Cordelia, and missed her greatly through all these successes.

Joanna Reese is a graduate student at IUPUI in the Public History and Library Science programs. She works in the Collections department at the Indiana Historical Society as an intern. Her favorite time period is the Revolutionary War and she has visited nine of the thirteen original colony sites.

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