Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Tale of Woe from 1878

by Jaime O'Neill

At an auction, I buy a box lot containing nearly a half century of back issues of  American Heritage magazine, that richly illustrated compendium of the nation's history through good times and bad, with lots of special attention to the bad times -- the droughts, the downturns, and the disasters that tried the souls of our forebears. I pay $10 for the whole lot -- more than 600 magazines--and if I chose to stack them, they would make a pile of yellowing paper much taller than I am, more than ten feet of colorful characters, arresting episodes, and the vulgar pageantry of American life as it has played out over four centuries, all of it acquired for less than a buck a foot. History at less than a penny a pound. A great bargain.

 Over the period of a year, I nibble at all those back issues, grabbing a handful when I'm heading off to the beach, or about to board a plane somewhere.

A stack of historical magazines as tall as two tall men is bound to contain lots of particularly bad things that happened to lots of particular people who came before us. And, though our times are now quite bad, our predecessors on this land knew much worse.

From somewhere in that enormous number of old magazines, I stumble upon a letter written in 1878 by one James Fitzwilliam, a man whose words reveal bad luck and trouble in a measure that Job would recognize. In that year, Fitzwilliam was writing from Fort Worth, Texas, responding to a letter from his sister back east. She had written him seeking help because her own circumstances were bad and, though it appears that Mr. Fitzwilliam wanted to offer aid to his kin, he'd suffered a few troubles that made it impossible for him to accommodate her request. Here is why he couldn't help her, from the letter he wrote expressing his regrets.

"My Wife and little girl was kill'd by the Indians. House and everything in it burn'd. They took 27 head of horses. I was out after cattle. When I cam ehome everything was gone. I with 9 others took their trail and followed for 8 days. Came on the band numbering about twenty-five. We kill'd 7 and we lost one man kill'd. I was shot in the arm with an arrow and the first finger of my left hand was shot off. I came back to my ranch and sold out what cattle I had and what horses I had for $7000 and went to New Mexico. Bought 1500 head of sheep. Drove them to Texas and the first Winter lost about 900 of them caused by Snow -- cold Weather and Wolfs. Sold the remainder out for less than cost as I did not have Snow Sheds. I then went to work running cattle and worked a year. Made $300 dollars. I then went hunting Buffalo. Hunted them for three years. Quit that with about $900. Went to Henrietta Clay Co. and bought an interest in a Hotel. Run it about 8-1/2 months and lost money at it. While hunting I contracted a catarrh in my nose. It has disfigured me considerable. In fact for the past five years I have had a terrible hard time."

History takes little note of people like James Fitzwilliam, or hundreds of thousands like him who live through times before historians have found names for those times. "The Roaring Twenties" were not known by that nomenclature to the people whose lives roared through that decade, and people living out their lives in the years after the Civil War were denied the solace of knowing that period would come to be known as "Reconstruction."

We're living through our own historic time right now, a period of hardship and vast uncertainty for millions of people. How these times will come to be known to those who come after us will be determined by how things play out.

As bad as things are, however, no one in our time is likely to match the misfortunes James Fitzwilliam knew in 1878. Misery, as they say, loves company, and the miseries of that long-dead Texan give us perspective on our own miseries, and make us slightly less lonesome as we deal with our own losses.

But the travail of James Fitzwilliam offers us a model of stoic courage and perseverance in the face of adversity, and reminds us of the kind of people we once were -- and perhaps still are.


alex654 said...

Having an interest in American history I was impressed by the many problems faced by James Fitzwilliams and how he continued to fight for survival. Americans at that time were a hardy breed facing adversity and fighting to overcome their problems. Could we do the same today?