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 firstname.lastname@example.org.