Saturday, 23 May 2009

Moving On

Selling up and moving on
After her husband's death, my great-great-great grandmother
left Indiana for Texas

There's nothing like history for a bit of context.

Over the past year, as banks have been bailed out and the economy has shrunk and anxiety has settled over all of us like a fine choking dust, my youngest daughter and I have been reading through the entire "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had read the books as a child, but it is quite a different thing to approach them from an adult's perspective. Underneath those happy family tales of fiddle-playing and prairie adventures, there is an obvious subtext of privation, danger and lots of darn hard work. Compared to the pioneers of the 19th century, we are all such dabblers. We are so used to our glut of luxuries and comforts and social service safety nets that the use of the word "depression" has suffered from galloping inflation.

Just this morning, on the BBC, I heard some politician pontificating about how we are moving into "uncharted territory" in terms of the economy. Well, in a way, I suppose that is always true. The future is always a new twist on the past, and perhaps we really can't make projections anymore . . . but could we ever? I can't help but think of poor, uncomplaining Ma Ingalls -- who keeps on having to pack up her little china shepherdess and other small keepsakes and move, once again, into completely uncharted territory. A literal frontier; and there's no grocery store on the corner, if you run out of milk.

Last night I was reading a journal that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. It is a diary of the trip that the family took, by covered wagon, from DeSmet, South Dakota to Missouri in 1894. Lane begins the account by describing seven years of drought, of failing crops, of losing the farm, of failing banks, of 25% unemployment, of the rampaging "Coxey's Army" of the unemployed. On the Way Home is not a "story" in the way that the other books have been crafted to be; instead, it is a journal of observations, with most of the feelings left out, although a reader can certainly infer them. Wilder describes the crops in the fields, the brutal summer temperatures, and most poignantly, the other covered wagons -- about half going towards the Dakota Territory, and the other half going to Missouri. With farms failing everywhere, there is the sense that families don't know what else to do . . . other than to "move on" and hope for the best.

The Ingalls Wilder collection are probably the best-known "pioneer" tales, but I wonder how many American families have similar stories to tell? In the past couple of weeks, I have discovered some information on some of my ancestors (with thanks to B.S. Duvall), and these tantalizing fragments from the past have my imagination completely engaged. If given a few details, is it not inevitable that we attempt to fill in the blanks?

One of the most compelling fragments is the Public Sale notice, pictured above. I really cannot articulate the choked feelings I have when I read this record of a family's belongings. Elizabeth Shaw's husband, Andrew Jackson Shaw, had died of Bright's Disease in 1886 -- about three years before this notice. Did she try to carry on running their small farm, with the help of her seven children? What set of circumstances made her decide to sell everything: animals, land, house and furniture?

The Homestead, Daviess County, Indiana

How did a family of nine live in that small wooden house? I know that photographs lie, and this one is sadly tattered, but doesn't it look desolate? There is something so pathetically small and played-out about it. . . as if the wind and bad luck had blown nearly everything away.

After selling the Indiana farm, Elizabeth Shaw and her children boarded a train heading for Ft. Worth, Texas. They arrived on February 4, 1889 -- just a few weeks after the public sale. I have a picture of the faded post card of the train station, and the date, but these small notations can't answer any of my questions: Why did they decide to come to Texas? Did they have a contact there, or had they just heard rumors of a new place with opportunities? How did they begin the story of their new life there?

The Shaw Brothers Dairy
Ft. Worth, Texas

Between the third and fourth "Little House" books, there is a gap of time that Ingalls Wilder chose not to describe. My daughter was indignant about how the story suddenly "skips." For whatever reason, the author barely alludes to the scarlet fever which struck the entire family, and blinded her older sister Mary. She hardly touches upon large debts caused by failing crops and illness. She doesn't mention a younger brother and sister being born; she never mentions that the younger brother died. I wonder so much about the stories that she chose not to tell. Were they just too painful to remember?

In a similar way, I wonder how the Shaws went from selling all of their belongings in 1889 to building up this family Dairy in 1900. Where did they get the capital to build this business? How did they go from that small primitive house to the considerably grander one pictured below? If "moving on" is the quintessential American story it is only because there is always that hope of moving on to something bigger and better.

The farm house by the Dairy
The entire Shaw family lived here in 1900

Elizabeth (seated in middle) and her children
at her 70th birthday party
My great-great grandfather George
is second on the right-hand side

Family legend has it that the Shaws were always strongly matriarchal, in that generation and the one that followed. Elizabeth Shaw outlived her husband, Andrew Jackson by thirty-four years. Her 75th birthday, in 1919, was celebrated at Trinity Park in Ft. Worth -- a place I used to visit with my own Shaw grandmother -- and she was surrounded by a huge crowd of descendents.

The very image of a prosperous family.

But it makes me sad to think of Andrew Jackson Shaw, left behind in a grave in Indiana. His grandchildren remembered a few things about him, as told to them by their parents. He was born in Pennsylvania to Irish parents, who died when he was a young child. An aunt and uncle spirited him away from an orphanage. He played the fiddle -- not just for his family, but at entertainments all over Daviess County.

He was named for the President always associated with the frontier.

Andrew Jackson Shaw


JaneyV said...

Wow Bee that is fascinating. How wonderful is it that you have all these photographs to look at. I was blown away by the notice at the beginning. To have such tangible access to your own personal history is a real blessing.

Identity is a complex concept borne from a myriad of sources. We are made up of layers of choices both of who we want to be and what we chose not to be, of our wishes and dreams for the future, the paths we've taken to get where we are and also the paths worn by the family that's gone before. The contribution of our ancestors to who we are is difficult to quantify but I have to believe I inherited much more than DNA. There must be personality traits, shared values or even prejudices. And how has each generation changed form the one that went before?

Perhaps the thing that is most satisfying is that more than 100 years after that decision was made to upstakes and move to Fort Worth, the family still remembers and still appreciates the sacrifices that were made.

Thank you for sharing this with us.
(Also it made me smile that you are just a little bit Irish after all).

Catalyst said...

Bee, fascinating family history. You might want to check your link for Bright's Disease, however. My paternal grandmother (whose maiden name was Daisy Berry!) also died of that disease before I ever knew her.

Star said...

What a fascinating look into your family history Bee. I loved reading it and looking at the photographs etc. Isn't it amazing that with just a little hop, skip and a jump, we find ourselves in what looks like a tiny shed, sharing with many others and eking out a living? We have a lot to be thankful for these days and not least the hard work and dedication of our not so ancient ancestors.
Blessings, Star

willow said...

Of course, you know I adored this post! It's fun to think that you, all the way over across the sea, also have Hoosier roots. Your Daviess County is much farther south than my Howard, but still "back home again in Indiana", nonetheless.

Meri said...

Found him in the 1860 Census as a single man in Daviess County, Indiana. He was a farmer and had attended school within the past year. Do you know where he was in 1850?

Reya Mellicker said...

Fantastic history telling and pictures, too.

When I was reading biographies of the U.S. founding "fathers" I was struck again and again by how tough they were physically. Or looked at conversely, how weak we are by comparison. John Adams regularly took 10-15 miles walks to steady his mind. In those weird white hose and those late 18th century shoes! They were not trainers those dudes were wearing.

My grandmother was born in the back of a covered wagon while her mother was crossing the prairies en route to eastern Colorado. Can you imagine being in labor while bumping along in one of those? Oy vey!

Thanks for this. It's a wonderful twist on what Memorial Day is all about. Very cool!

Bee said...

JaneyV - You know, I hadn't seen any of these mementoes until two weeks ago! It was quite an overwhelming feeling to discover them. has been an amazing resource. I have been in touch with all sorts of distant relatives -- and one close one.

Don't you think that DNA includes things like personality traits? I wonder if Americans, more than most people, want to know where they "come from."

Catalyst - Thanks for picking up on the link. I'm not sure how that happened, but I fixed it. (I had never even heard of it, but all sorts of illustrious people were afflicted by it -- including Emily Dickinson, apparently.)

Star - It really does amaze me to think of how life has changed in just a few generations. It gives me chills, actually.

Willow - I've never even been to Indiana. We always thought that all of our ancestors were from the south, so this is interesting. (BTW, as I was writing this post I thought of you! In various ways, you really gave me some encouragement to get started with this project.)

Meri - I have that census record, too. I have no idea who any of the other people in the household are, though. He married in 1863, and I have a picture of their marriage certificate. I don't know anything about how he got from Pennsylvania to Indiana. I would LOVE to know what he was doing in 1850. And how did he learn to play the fiddle?

Anonymous said...

Bee, what a bright write you are. I love that you have read between the lines.

willow said...

I didn't immediately recognize any of the names you gave me, but I will poke around a bit and see what I come up with. My surnames that have ties to Virginia, ones off the top of my head, would be Adair, Bowman, Bright, Creek, Hay, Hopkins, Mason and Shaver.

Merisi said...

I am thrilled that you have all these family treasures!

I know where I come from, but tangible pieces of my family's history are few and far between, two wars have swept them up and away.

I have to come back to read your previous posts!

Beth said...

Names and dates give us so little as to our family history - just enough to stir our imaginations. And pictures are wonderful - and tantalizing. I wish my ancestors had kept journals - they were probably too busy simply surviving...

Of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, The Long Winter has stayed the clearest in my memory. That one actually frightened me.

Your post has provided some well-needed perspective.

Elizabeth said...

So moving and utterly fascinating.
Yes, lives lived long ago certainly make ours here in Britain/ the US very soft and pampered.
How wonderful you were able to get all this precise documentation to work with.
Yes, I feel very sad about all the children who inevitably died young often of diseases we no longer fear. To me diptheria sounds particularly horrible.
Yes, so many writers leave all sorts of things out. I'm not surprised.
I'm sort of jealous that you have all these real ancestors....I'll just have to make do with my adopted ones!

Nimble said...

That's rather a dandyish picture of A.J. Shaw. Pretty cute for a fiddling farmer.

julochka said...

i've been thinking about the little house books of late as well...ever since pondering why we're all going back to handicrafts.

i love how you've woven the story from your own family into your ponderings on the subject.

i've got the little house books in my amazon basket, but haven't pressed order. maybe i will now. i really want to share them with sabin.

i didn't know there was a little brother, but i did always wonder about the illness that blinded mary and why it didn't figure in the stories. maybe it just seemed too much to share it all.

i remember that they made me want to build and live in a sod house at some point. i'll have to get husband on that task. it would involve digging and he'd love it. :-)

An Uncommitted Pundit said...

I remember Aunt Catherine had a brown, somewhat rusty icepick that said "Shaw Brothers Dairy" on it. Presumably all that remained of that once going concern -- and even that is likely lost to some antique store in Salado. I recall the lore being that they went under during the "real" depression, after bootlegging to makes ends meet. Boom and bust seems the American narrative.

Anil P said...

In moving on there's so much else we carry with us, memory, hope, and sometimes pain. To forget the pain is to forget the good times.

I wonder what emotions must have surged within Elizabeth Shaw when it came time to board the train for Ft. Worth.

Leaving a home is about leaving a part of one's life behind in remembered memories of places, people, and the patch of sky above the home uniquely its own.

Sometimes I wonder if one can truly move on, ever, notwithstanding physical displacement.

A poignant narrative.

becca said...

I cannot believe you posted a blog about geneology.....
Becca :)

Anne said...

What a fascinating bit of history! I love learning more about a family's past.

Your mention of the Little House books make me think of my dad's family: some of them, way back, were apparently among the first European/American settlers to come west into what would eventually become the state of California. I wonder what prompted them to take that journey, what they left behind, and what they went through in creating their lives here. I like to think that I have some deep familial roots here, even as the whims of education, life, and employment might carry me (have carried me already) away from here.

Rinkly Rimes said...

What a marvelous account! You bring the whole thing to life. It's true, we are all 'spoilt'. Although, in Australia, there are many farmers who are having to sell-up and move on because of drought. I suppose it hurts as much whichever century one is in.

Bee said...

The Things That We Carried - Thanks for the kind words.

Merisi - It's really sad that so much gets lost.

Beth - We're reading The Long Winter right now. It IS frightening.

Elizabeth - I wish that I had as many "tangibles" for the rest of my ancestors. These were truly a gift. Speaking of diptheria, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband almost died of diptheria when they were a young married couple!

Nimble - I agree. It makes me wonder if he had lots of personal charm, too.

Julochka - You've GOT to read these books with Sabin . . . particularly since you are from South Dakota.

An Uncommited Pundit - We really need to compare memories! I don't remember that ice pick at all. I agree with you about the American narrative . . .

Anil - Can we ever truly move on? An interesting thought. I think about this issue a lot because I wonder which of their two "homes" my children will ultimately identify with most.

Becca - Are you really surprised? :)

Anne - Yes, I've also thought about what makes people want to explore uncharted territory. Maybe someday you can do some research into your father's family.

Rinkly Rimes - One thing that hasn't changed is that farmers are always at the mercy of the weather. There has been a long drought in Texas's Hill Country, too.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you gave me a scare when I read “selling up and on after her husband’s death.” It’s still sad that your gggran had to suffer through it. I loved the LIW series too. Your old documents and photos add a lot to this post.

It sounds like you are having fun digging into the past. It could be a biography or even an historical novel based on fact.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Bee, what a fascinating family history you have, and wonderful that you have such evidence and source material to draw from...

I feel quite dull and grey by comparison with your relatives and their stories and lives...

Stacy Nyikos said...

Very very cool family history. I'm intrigued by the plight of our forefathers and mothers. What they went through. As an interesting aside, my mom's parents left Indiana to move to Houston in the 1950s. Texas was one of the last frontiers I guess. I think my grandmother had a sister living down there already. Moving. It's humanity's answer to down and out times.

Bee said...

Sarah - My grandmother was always talking about her childhood in Ft. Worth in the Depression. What I would give to be able to hear those stories again -- with adult interest and a pen in hand!

A Woman of No Importance - So were your family all cosy and settled then?

Stacy - Yes, Texas only became truly settled with the advent of air conditioning. The thought of all of those covered wagons criss-crossing made me feel rather melancholy.

Lucy said...

Fascinating stuff, Bee, and it's all really only just out of living memory.

Jenny Woolf said...

I always find tales of immigrant life inspiring and love to hear how people have built up their lives from nothing. You only have to read about the lives so many of these people left behind, to realise that however miserable the circumstances in America, they did at least have HOPE. They really were set free.

That little cabin is surely tiny for nine people but in England large families lived in cottages of a similar size AND they had everything they did controlled by the local nobility and gentry. They ate standing up, slept where they could find a space on the floor, and inevitably spent most of the day outdoors, whatever the weather.

Better to do these things in a country where you had a real chance to move onward and upward!

Bee said...

Lucy - Yes, that's so true. I got these pictures from a cousin who heard the stories from her father -- who was Elizabeth Shaw's grandson.

Jenny - That is exactly what I was trying to convey by linking my family story with the well-known "Little House" books.