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?
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?
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.
Elizabeth (seated in middle) and her children
at her 70th birthday party
My great-great grandfather George
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