Born August 12, 1806 near North Yarmouth, Maine. Father dies at sea, March 26, 1809, family lives alternately with her maternal and paternal grandparents until mother marries Captain Lemuel Sawyer and family moves to Cape Elizabeth, then Portland. At age twelve begins to teach in Sunday School for black children. Plans to become a teacher, but mother demurs. Married, instead, on March 6, 1823 to Seba Smith, editor of a Portland weekly, The Eastern Argus.
Manages Smith household (possibly a house at the north end of Tukey's Bridge, North Deering), which includes both the family and apprentices and printers of The Argus, who board. Bears six sons, Benjamin (1824), Rolvin (1825-1832), Appleton (1828-1887), Sidney (1830-1869), Alvin (1832-1902) and Edward (1834-1865). Contributes poems, sketches, stories, to journals edited by her husband, the Daily Courier and Family Reader, either anonymously or over the signature "E," and acts as editor when her husband travels to Boston in 1833 to supervise the publication of The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing. In an unpublished autobiography claims during this period to have read and studied the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Blackstone, Mill and others after the rest of the family had retired to bed.
As Seba Smith loses his fortune speculating in the volatile market for land preceding the Panic of 1837, attempting to recover his losses by backing an invention designed to clean Sea Grass Cotton, Oakes Smith writes and later publishes Riches Without Wings, a moralist novel which targets the victims of the Panic. Travels with her husband to Charleston, South Carolina, where the invention proves unsaleable,and where she is exposed for the first time to the reality of slavery.
Smith family boards in New York with cousins of the Princes, Dr. Cyrus and Maria Child Weeks, plan to make their living writing. Smith publishes stories in the Godey's Lady's Book, the Snowden's Ladies' Companion, and other journals, over the signature "Mrs. Seba Smith," or a pseudonym, "Ernest Helfenstein." First wide literary notice with "The Sinless Child," published serially in the Southern Literary Messenger Jan-Feb 1842. First edition of her poems, The Sinless Child and Other Poems, published by John Keese later that year, with introductions by Keese, John Neal and H.T. Tuckerman. Continues writing poetry and fiction for other popular magazines and gift books throughout the decade. Her second novel, The Western Captive, appears as two "supplements" (nos 25-28) in Park Benjamin's New World in 1842. Contributes short stories, poems, and probably editorial to The Rover, edited by her husband from 1843-45.
Summer 1842, moves with her family to Brooklyn. Poems reprinted as The Complete Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, by Rufus Griswold in 1845. Edits the gift book The Mayflower for two numbers, 1846 and 1847. Publishes three volumes of children's stories (The True Child, The Moss Cup, and The Dandelion), all subtitled "stories not for good children, or bad children, but real children." In 1848, Putnam publishes her third novel, The Salamander (later reprinted as Mary and Hugo), with illustrations by Darley. Acknowledges the "death" of her pseudonym "Helfenstein" in the preface to The Salamander, yet publishes occasionally under the name in later years as "by the late Ernest Helfenstein." In this period also begins writing plays. Her first, Old New York, or Democracy in 1689, is advertised to producers by fellow member of the New York Literati William Cullen Bryant, eventually appearing on Broadway in 1853 starring Anna Cora Mowatt.
Attends Women's Rights Convention October, 1850 in Worcester, MA, and begins a series of ten articles for Horace Greeley's Tribune entitled "Woman and Her Needs" (Nov 1850--June 1851), published in pamphlet form by Fowler and Wells in late 1851. Begins lecturing in New York in June 1851, and by fall has several engagements in New England. Lecture tours in spring and summer 1852 bring her west to Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago. Continues writing--publishes Hints on Dress and Beauty and Shadowland; or, The Seer, projects a woman's magazine, The Egeria, soliciting $500 in support and fifty subscribers. At Women's Rights Convention at Syracuse, September, 1852, her nomination as President of the Convention is rejected when she arrives in a dress exposing her neck and arms. Writes two more plays in a classical backdrop, The Roman Tribute, and Destiny: A Tragedy.
Plans for The Egeria curtailed when Paulina Wright Davis begins The Una in February, to which she contributes. Continues lecture tours through New England, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio,attends yearly Woman's Rights Conventions. In New York, helps to edit The Weekly Budget with Seba Smith (1853-54). Publishes two new novels, Bertha and Lily; or the Parsonage at Beech Glen and The Newsboy. Spring of 1855, moves back to New York City with family. Articles in Tribune on marriage and divorce, capital punishment for women. May also have written, in this period, a novel manuscript entitled Queen of Tramps.
In 1856 becomes co-editor, again with her husband, of Emerson's United States Magazine, reprinting earlier stories and poems. Writes voluminous editorial matter, unsigned, on women's rights and related issues. In November 1858, family buys the magazine, which continues as The Great Republic, published by Oaksmith and Co. for one year. In 1859, Smiths purchase a large home and property in Patchogue, Long Island, name it "The Willows."
Lives a more retired life in Patchogue. Lectures occasionally on woman's rights, temperance, and other reforms. Addresses Union troops at a small pageant near her home in October, 1861, contributes cloaks and mittens to the soldiers. Son Appleton is captured and indicted for equipping a slave-ship, December 1861. With Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, he is quickly jailed, but soon escapes or is mysteriously released. Visiting friends in New York, Smith is caught in a draft riot in July 1863, and later records the experience in her diary. Visits Appleton, exiled in England, returns to find Appleton's estranged wife has left "The Willows" deserted. Begins publishing "Autobiographic Notes" in Beadle's Monthly, continues to seek aid from Gerrit Smith, Thurlow Weed and others to have Appleton pardoned. Seba Smith dies, July 29, 1868.
Living in dire financial straits--perhaps with her son Alvin's family in nearby Blue Point, Long Island--Smith donates a selection of books to the Bowdoin Library and the Portland Historical Society, but is forced to sell much of her library. Son Sidney dies in a shipwreck in 1869. "The Willows" sold in 1870. In 1874, sails for Beaufort, North Carolina, where Appleton has settled, loses almost all her possessions in a shipwreck. Continues to publish poetry and articles in both popular and religious journals. Serves as pastor of The Independent Church in Canestota, NY in 1877, and continues to attend conventions on Women's Suffrage. In January, 1879, delivers "Biology and Woman's Rights" at 11th Woman's Suffrage Convention, in Washington D.C..
Spends summers in Blue Point, Long Island, winters in Beaufort. Writes much of her autobiography, "A Human Life," between 1881-85. Lectures on "Emerson and his Circle." Finds herself forgotten by most, her friends dead. Burns large quantities of correspondence. Appleton dies in New York City, 1887. Although editors at The Home Journal advertise her autobiography as near completion, it is never published. Writes in her journal that she is ashamed to see so much of this writing reflect not her life but "the promise of her childhood." Dies after a short illness in Beaufort, N.C., November 15, 1893, buried next to her husband in Patchogue.