Elizabeth Oakes Prince was born in North Yarmouth, Maine, on April 18, 1806, the second daughter of sea captain David Prince and Sophia Blanchard. Her father was lost at sea when she was two; her mother remarried, and Elizabeth grew up in Portland.
In 1823, she married thirty-six-year-old Seba Smith, editor and publisher of the Eastern Argus and the Portland Courier, later the author of a popular political satire, The Jack Downing Letters. Four sons survived to adulthood. Although Oakes Smith "hazard[ed] little scraps of prose and poetry for her husband's newspaper" ( Nealxxiv), her first outside encouragement came from John Neal, when he published her unsigned poem in the New England Galaxy in 1835.
Seba Smith sold his newspaper, then met with financial ruin through land speculation in the 1830s. After an ill-fated journey south to market a gin for Sea Island cotton, the Smiths returned to New York in 1839 to write, Oakes Smith with more success than her husband. In the same year, "Mrs. Seba Smith" published Riches without Wings ( 1839), a didactic children's story.
By the early 1840s, Mrs. Seba Smith was publishing both as Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Ernest Helfenstein. During the 1850s, she became well known as a writer, lyceum lecturer, social reformer, and woman's rights activist. Her poems, criticism, and essays appeared regularly in Ladies' Companion, Southern Literary Messenger, Graham's, and Godey's Lady's Book. Later she wrote outside the mainstream, in Religio Philosophical Journal and for The Lily and Una, among emerging women's magazines.
Her work appeared in the ubiquitous gift books, and Oakes Smith edited the