And you think times are tough


At a yard sale, I bought several boxes containing nearly a half-century's worth of American Heritage magazines, that richly illustrated compendium of the nation's history through good times and bad, with special attention paid to the droughts, downturns and disasters that tried the souls of our forebears.

I paid $10 for more than 600 magazines. If I chose to stack them, they would make a pile of yellowing paper much taller than I am -- more than 10 feet 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 last year, I've been nibbling at all those back issues, grabbing a handful when I head off to a doctor's office or prepare to take a trip somewhere. A 10-foot-high stack of historical magazines is bound to contain lots of bad news. It's taught me something important: Even though times are tough today, our predecessors on this land knew much worse.

I stumbled upon a letter written in 1878 by one James Fitzwilliam, a man who experienced so much trouble that Job himself would sympathize. In that year, Fitzwilliam was writing from Fort Worth, Texas, responding to a letter from his sister back east, who was seeking help because of her own circumstances. Although it appears that Fitzwilliam wanted to help, he'd suffered setbacks that made it impossible for him to accommodate her request. This 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. When I came home everything was gone. I with nine others took their trail and followed for eight days. Came on the band numbering about 25. We kill'd seven 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 $7,000 and went to New Mexico. Bought 1,500 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. 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 the hundreds of thousands like him who lived through times before historians even had official names for those times. The Roaring Twenties, for example, were probably not called that by the people whose lives roared through those years; to them, that decade was simply "now" or "the present time."         

We're living through our own historic time right now, a period of hardship and vast uncertainty for millions of people. How these times come to be known to our descendants will depend on how things play out. But as bad as things are, few contemporary Americans are likely to know the misfortunes James Fitzwilliam did 131 years ago. Misery, as they say, loves company, and the miseries of that long-dead Texan may give us perspective on our own miseries, and make us slightly less lonesome as we deal with our losses. 

James Fitzwilliam makes a good role model here. The way he dealt with his "terrible hard time" sets us an example of courage and perseverance in the face of adversity, and reminds us of the kind of people we once were -- and perhaps still are. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

tough business
Jun 21, 2009 02:57 AM
broke my brain and back slavn fer baby boomer hippis who didnt shed a crocidile tear when they strangled me with low wages and forced me to tango with the blackberrys weeks-on-end for a pittance. If you got an extra ten bucks to blow on a ceiling pile of musty old Remington mags about injun arrows and colera swaamps then how bout throwin a little something out our way? Jesus. Might not be no more conistogas but we still gotta make rent and pay fer gas, you fuzzy old hoot
Hard Times
Jeanie Patton
Jeanie Patton
Jul 13, 2009 04:17 PM
Have worked every year of my life since I was 13; saw high times and low. Lost the house in the fall, though the loan was good and we never missed a payment, due to husband being out of work for 2 years and having to go back to school, paying full tuition and hundreds of dollars for books each semester, in a program that will take 3 years. I'm sole support, 62 years old, and just learned I'm being laid off. He's 60 and will be, do the math, 63 when/if the degree happens. Lost savings paying for the mortgage; lost what little retirement we had to criminal activity of soulless plutocrats. No kids or pets, so don't have to shelter or feed anyone other than the two of us. Brother out of work, so no help there. Health is faltering; employer-paid benefits dissolving. It ain't Indian raids, but it's what the 21st century offers. A different kind of hardship, but I guess I should be consoled, courageous, and perseverant because my fingers and toes are still attached. Who will pay the rent in January?
Goldman Sachs will help
Adam Guilford
Adam Guilford
Jul 13, 2009 05:11 PM
The "souless plutocrats" will be there to help you, just contact Goldman Sachs. I am sure they will be glad to share some of their (legally) stolen government bailout money to help you come January, in fact lets just sign over the entire US treasury to them since their bubble blowing skills have proven to be so effective at spreading prosperity around,improving economic conditions and expanding our middle class. The wonder kids there are the answer to bringing back the American Dream. We all know that banks make terrible servants but wonderful masters, that is why things have been so hunky dory since we repealed all regulations on them back in 1999. Since banks are so much more vital to our economy than farms, factories, schools and roads, I think we should give them the entire pie so they can share with the rest of pathetic peons. Of course things will be so much better for all when we have government of Goldman Sachs, by Goldman Sachs and for Goldman Sachs, so write your congressman and tell them you want to bring back the good old days of the 1870's to 1890's when the Plutocrats did such a great job of sharing the wealth with regular American's. If we just give them more control, I am sure Goldman Sachs will bring back the good old days.