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Child of the Frontier (1873–1889)
AS HE NEARED HIS NINETIETH YEAR, Bamum Brown determinedly struggled to compile his notes for an autobiography. After decades of racing around the planet in pursuit of paleontological plunder, this project afforded him a rare opportunity to reflect on a life filled with adventure and intrigue. Even his very first memory involved a solitary encounter with a universe that he would later come to revere and explore on his own terms with energy and determination. As Brown described the moment: "My earliest recollection is of lying in a clothes basket under a tree as I looked up and saw the leaves moving overhead. I was probably less than two years old at the time."
What could be more prescient for the most successful field paleontologist in history than to root his perception of consciousness in the wonder of the natural world? Fortunately for Brown, an eye for nature was not unique to him within his family. His parents nurtured his instincts for the outdoors throughout his childhood on the raucous frontier of the Midwest's rolling hills and grassy plains.
Almost twenty years before Barnum's birth, his father took a calculated gamble and renounced the relatively settled landscape of the East to strike out for the fabled expanses of the American West. Brown, who in his notes anoints his father as "My Most Unforgettable Character," admired his father's sense of adventure, but he also had profound respect for the sense of responsibility that tempered it. As Brown explained,
My parents both came from old pioneer stock: William Brown, my father, was born in Virginia in 1833. He had a deep abiding love for horses and other livestock, for the soil, and for his country. There were those among the pioneers who were merely drifters, fiddle-footed and restless, that wandered westward either to escape an unpleasant situation in the east, or in the hope of getting something for nothing in the west.... Father's pioneering was purposeful: he was hard working, with a good head for business; he sought and found promising opportunities worthy of the heavy investment of thought, time and labor that he poured into them.
Cognizant of the burgeoning wave of westward migration, and catalyzed by events following the Mexican War and California gold rush in the late 1840s, the twenty-one-year-old William Brown hitched his oxen to his covered wagon and headed west in 1854, the same year that Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act establishing the Territory of Kansas. With his eye trained on Kansas, Brown first traveled to Wisconsin by way of a bustling Chicago, with its thirty thousand residents, in order to assess "how the pioneers of the generation before his own had dealt with the problems of their frontier." The rich fields of Wisconsin were already studded with prosperous farms, one of which belonged to Charles Silver, a former army officer who had "fought as a private against Tecumseh at Tippecanoe in 1811." Silver attained the rank of captain during the War of 1812 and participated in the Battle of Bad Axe in 1832, where he fought against the legendary chief of the Sacs and Foxes, Black Hawk. In the years between his tours in the military, Silver developed a large dairy farm in Green County, where he owned his own cheese house. In 1855, Brown, while accumulating more capital and livestock in preparation for his foray into Kansas, met Silver's fifteen-year-old daughter, Clara. They married the same year. Four years later, the young couple—now with a daughter, Melissa—
loaded such of their possessions as were not on the hoof into [their] ox-drawn covered wagon, and headed westward.... They averaged 10 miles a day on the way to Kansas Territory where, near Lickskillet in Osage County, my second sister, Alice Elizabeth, was born on the 4th of January, 1860. Father went from place to place in the Osage County area, sizing up the opportunities.... Finally, he picked the spot for his future home on one of the rolling hills.... Seams of coal cropped out around its slopes, so the pioneers named it Carbon Hill.... Father set to work with a will; they lived in the wagon for the short time it took him to build a log house. The windows at first were greased paper; the tables and chairs were made of boxes and barrels that contained supplies. And they were home!
Although this pioneer family's home seems initially to have been a happy one, the same cannot be said for the greater region into which they had immigrated. Tremendous tensions were building in the Kansas Territory, especially regarding the question of slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise, which stipulated that any new states admitted to the union north of latitude 36° 30'N must be "free" states. Stephen Douglas, who was a railway promoter, believed that the citizens of a territory being considered for statehood should have the right to vote, through "popular" or "squatter" referendums, on whether their territory would become a free or slave state. He was also pressing for the first transcontinental railway to run through Chicago. In order to overcome the opposition of southern legislators to his preferred railroad route (they wanted the transcontinental railway to run from New Orleans to southern California), Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which southerners favored because it would essentially overturn the Missouri Compromise by letting residents of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories vote on whether to become free or slave states. The population of Nebraska was dominated by free-staters, so little question existed about the anti-slavery orientation of that territory.
But Kansas was a different matter. In his biographical notes, Brown wrote that waves of settlers from both northern and southern states rushed into the region to establish new farms, with many of the "Yankees" being spurred on by "abolitionist promoters ... specifically to provide an anti-slavery majority." Violent raids, such as the sacking of Lawrence in 1856 by pro-slavery militias, were quickly followed by retaliatory attacks, such as the one by John Brown in which five pro-slavery settlers were killed along the Potawatamie River.
All these tumultuous events, often referred to as "Bleeding Kansas," helped bring about the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858, a central issue of which was the question of slavery in new states. Douglas continued to advocate his position of "popular sovereignty," whereas Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories and states. Their widely watched debates, noteworthy for their eloquence, fueled Lincoln's ascendancy to the presidency in 1860. Shortly thereafter, Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter—the first shots of the Civil War. The effects of these epic events in U.S. history were directly felt on Carbon Hill. Barnum relates:
Kansas was admitted as a Free State in 1861. Raiders of all persuasions, lawless guerrillas and partisans, stole or destroyed much of the crops and livestock. Father saw that he would never get ahead at that rate, so he put adversity to good use. He was a good man ... with wide experience in wagon-train freighting: he kept close watch on his animals, got good, strong covered freight wagons and a government contract. During the war years he was home at the cabin during the winter; spring, summer and autumn he hauled supplies from the railheads at Fort Leavenworth and thence by a roughly triangular route to the frontier posts in western Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Santa Fe, and back to Osage County. He hauled anything for which the Army gave orders ... [including] staples such as corn, flour, sugar, and coffee. His train consisted of five enormous covered wagons, each with a capacity of six tons of cargo, and each with its reliable driver of the three yokes of oxen that pulled the loads.
Although the family prospered, William's absence for much of the war years presented numerous challenges for Clara and her two young daughters. In essence, the hostilities in Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War represented an extension of the prewar tensions and violence of the late 1850s. In Osage County, combatants included not only the troops of the Union and Confederacy, but also guerrilla fighters and militias not directly under the command of either formal army. The pro-Union guerrillas were called jayhawkers, a term that lives on as the nickname for the sports teams at the University of Kansas. Their pro-Confederate counterparts were called bushwackers, in reference to their most common tactic, the ambush of opposing individuals or families in rural regions—like Carbon Hill. As Barnum recounts: "Mother used to say that during the War it was not uncommon for Federals to stop for food in the morning, Rebels at noon, and Bushwackers at night. She never dared to say where their sympathy lay for fear of retaliation by shooting the family, burning down their house, or destroying their property."
After the Civil War, changes transformed the region as newly constructed transcontinental and regional railroad lines sliced across the frontier, following the old covered wagon trails. In his biographical notes, Brown explained that the burgeoning rail lines
little by little spelled the end of profitable wagon freighting in the years after the war: the Union Pacific joined the Central Pacific to complete the first transcontinental line in 1869, and by 1880 the old Atchison and Topeka Railroad, chartered in Kansas in 1859, had reached Santa Fe.... Father's last freighting trip ended with the home stretch from Santa Fe, along the trail of that name, to Carbondale, close to whose cemetery traces of the old trail could still be seen a few years ago. Gone are the oxen and the men who drove them, but in some unbroken pasture land, in the summer, you can still see the remnants of the historic trail outlined by a golden blaze of Mexican thistles, the seeds of which had been transplanted by the feet of the oxen.
With peace in the country more or less restored and more time to spend around his homestead, William set about increasing the acreage of his claim and diversifying his farm's productivity. The oxen that had once pulled the freight wagons were now yoked to plows and scrapers in order to clear and tend fields for crops as well as to expose the coal seams for fuel, which the family used themselves and sold to outside buyers. William also sought to enhance the comfort of frontier life for Clara and his two daughters by constructing a more "modern house ... of brick and clapboards, 'salt-box' fashion, with two big rooms downstairs, bedrooms upstairs under a gable roof, and a large cellar." In time, William came to control 640 productive acres around Carbon Hill, a full square mile that supported "500 head of cattle, numerous hogs, and a fine well of ever-cold water." In an account published by the Carbondale Centennial Association in 1972, Mary Snell and Rosalind Metzler reveal that the Brown home was acclaimed as "the best residence in this section of the country," based on a historical document compiled in 1883. (Unfortunately, as Snell and Metzler go on to recount, the house burned down in 1971, "as a blow torch was being used to remove paint in the process of restoring the old house.")
This phase of domestic expansion coincided with a population boom in the family. William and Clara's first son, Frank, arrived on the scene in 1867. Six years later, Frank, along with the rest of the family, eagerly awaited the arrival of a third sibling. However, another impending event was competing for Frank's attention, and it would come to leave an indelible mark on the life of the new child. As Barnum's daughter, Frances, explained in the short biography she penned about her father in 1987,
In the early 1870s, the fame of P. T. Barnum had already spread from Brooklyn to the midcontinent. "Barnum's Great Traveling World's Fair" ... was traveling far and wide.... The master showman heralded his approach with posters plastered on barns, trees, town buildings, everywhere a likely spot could be found to titillate public attention. ... The barns and buildings of Topeka were no exception. Small wonder that the bright eyes of a six-year-old lad [Frank] ... spied the gaudy pictures. He could dream of no greater delight than to be taken to see the real thing....
An event of greater delight to his parents was the safe arrival of their second son on February 12, 1873.... Frank was pleased that he was going to have a younger brother to boss around, a task he felt well qualified to assume after being on the receiving end so long from his older sisters. However, nothing could long hold his attention away from the approaching P. T. Barnum Show. Therefore, when the new baby remained unnamed for several days because the family could not agree on what he should be called, it was Frank who burst in on one of the arguments with "Let's call him Barnum."
The name stuck, and almost ninety years later, as the boy with the showman's name looked back on his life, Brown could only conclude: "There must be something in a name, for I have always been in the show business of running a fossil menagerie."
Although Barnum was a child of the frontier, his early years were anything but an exercise in loneliness. In addition to his family, a seemingly enormous crew of thirty-one men helped William run the farm, and a local girl was hired to help Clara keep everyone fed, a monumental chore performed daily with spectacular aplomb, especially considering that all thirty-eight dined in two separate sittings in the large kitchen. Summoned by a large bell, the family and crew feasted on
eggs and bacon, pancakes with sorghum syrup, and coffee for breakfast; dinner at noon when the table groaned under steaks, potatoes, green vegetables fresh from the garden or canned, apple butter, jam, pickles, kraut, beans, thick slabs of bread, piles of hot biscuits smothered in honey and butter, apple, peach, blackberry, raspberry or pumpkin pie fresh from the oven—all homemade. Supper at six was another banquet of fricasseed or fried chicken, fried potatoes, stacks of hot biscuits with honey and butter, dessert that was sometimes hot shortcake topped with wild strawberries we had gathered earlier in the day and thick whipped cream. Gallon pitchers of milk stood on the long table. No one ever got up hungry from the Brown table.
Nevertheless, Brown freely admits that life was not all "rosy" on the farm, as livestock losses from "disease, drought, flood, and famine" bedeviled his family's operation. Brown became acutely aware that "all farmers are gamblers at heart and in practice, whether they know or admit it or not. They gamble on what the coming season will produce, they gamble on what the prices will be for what they can produce ... but they have nothing to say about the prices of the things they must buy. Lo, the poor farmer!"
Hen cholera and other poultry diseases took their toll, as did an invisible blight on corn in drought years that resulted in black leg, a bovine disease triggered by the ingestion of bacteria living in the soil that caused cows to abort their calves or, at worst, ended in death. According to Barnum's recollections, drought years were somewhat cyclical, with four wet years "of plenty" followed on average by three years of drought, during which "there would be so little rain that the corn wouldn't even sprout." As the wells dried up, "We would watch the primer which checked the amount of water left in the cistern.... We frequently had to haul water from Wakarusa, five miles north of us, for our livestock, sometimes making two or three trips a day."
In wet years, climatic conditions could veer toward the biblical. "One spring," Barnum recalled, "it rained off and on for forty days and forty nights. Then Berry Creek became a surging river, and much of Carbondale built in its valley was destroyed. Up on our hill, we escaped the flood.... The cattle ... were so covered with mud that you couldn't tell a cow from a steer, or a Poland China hog from a Cheshire White.... Nevertheless, these abnormally heavy rains replenished the ground water and improved the yield of crops next season."
As soon as he was old enough, Barnum was enlisted to pitch in on the daily and seasonal chores. Presumably due to his relative youth and lack of seniority, his first assignments fell under the supervision of his mother. In his notes, Barnum is unabashedly proud of this early supporting role, even though it involved what might have been viewed as "women's work": "[My mother] always said I was the best 'girl' she had, for Melissa was romancing and Alice, who resented being a girl and loved men's work, was raising cattle on her own, helped by brother Frank.... So little brother got a lot of housework."
Excerpted from Barnum Brown by Lowell Dingus, Mark A. Norell. Copyright © 2010 Lowell Dingus and Mark A. Norell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted October 24, 2014