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The Sound of Wings
The Life of Amelia Earhart
By Mary S. Lovell
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1989 Mary S. Lovell
All rights reserved.
The small town of Atchison, Kansas, seems an unlikely birthplace for a woman whose name, more than fifty years after her death, remains synonymous with adventure, heroism, and posthumous mystery. Atchison is a typical midwestern town, built in the 1860s literally in the heart of America and situated on the Missouri River. The town owed its survival to the fact that for the huge wagon trains on the trek westward, it was a good place to cross the great river, and for a while Atchison was the last outpost of civilization before the Wild West.
And yet is it so unlikely? Is there a more American heroine than Amelia Earhart? Amelia had that particular brand of questing courage that typified American settlers in the century in which she was born. Although her early years were spent in the safe and sheltered communities of Atchison and nearby Kansas City, almost every adult with whom she came in contact was, to some degree, a pioneer. Perhaps the drive to succeed that she displayed as an adult germinated in these early relationships, fostered by the town itself.
Her distant ancestors were European and although Amelia grew up to be more appreciative of her maternal connections, the Earhart family's lineage was impressive, too, with one strand stretching back to Mariah Josephs, a Frenchwoman thought to be a niece of King Louis XV. Mariah is said to have fallen in love with a German officer, Anthony Altman. The pair were married against the wishes of the king and both subsequently were disinherited by their respective families. To avoid magisterial wrath, the newlyweds fled to America and settled in Pennsylvania.
The Altmans had one son, Philip, who with his wife, Louisa, moved to Indiana County, Pennsylvania, in 1789.
... when the country was very new and before the Indians had all left the county ... at one time provisions became so scarce that ... the family had to cook greens for their daily food for some time, and to insure getting safe plants for their greens, they followed the cows to learn of them the kind of plants that could be used safely. Besides the fear of Indians [who were encamped on the Altman's 102-acre farm] venomous snakes were very numerous, as were the copperhead and rattlesnake.
It must have been very different from life in the French court. Along with the other women, Louisa made all the clothing for their family of nine children — from clipping the sheep, to spinning and weaving the wool, to making up the clothes. Indeed, the lot of women was so hard that in 1897, on reading about their daily life, a descendant inquired of the author of the account, "What did the men do?" The men did plenty, for the country was rolling and hilly, overgrown with brush and timber. Clearing the land was a backbreaking and endless task and besides that, homes had to be built, families kept fed, and farms established.
It was Philip Altman's daughter Catherine who married into the Earhart family in 1813, when she took David Earhart as her husband. The third son of this union (there were nine sons and two daughters) was David Earhart, "a modest and happy man" who became a preacher in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In 1841, the Reverend David Earhart married Mary Wells Patton, whose family was of English descent through Colonel James Wells of Revolutionary War fame. The Earharts had twelve children, three of whom died of scarlet fever and one who was killed in her cradle when a bolt of lightning shot through an open window. It was their son Edwin Stanton Earhart who was to become the father of Amelia.
In an autobiographical memoir, the Reverend David Earhart recalled:
Kansas was opened for settlement in 1854. But owing to a border ruffian conflict [and] the proslavery and antislavery parties, settlement and improvements in the country were much retarded till 1857. In 1860, the year I moved to Kansas, there was such a severe drought [there] that the farmers' crops almost entirely failed. The people of Kansas had to be assisted by other States to secure the means of a livelihood. The following year, the civil war broke out. ...
The country being new and largely settled by poor people, and having had [for] two or three years a border war, a year's drought, and then the civil war, it was a hard time to gather and organize churches. Not twenty members were in organized Lutheran churches in Kansas when I moved there in 1860. A few years thereafter several plagues of grasshoppers ravaged the country. During the drought in 1860 I received about $100 ... and during 1861 and 1862 $150 a year, from the Home Missionary Society. By teaching school and other secular labors I managed to live and rear a large family. ...
For thirteen years, Reverend Earhart preached twice "nearly every Sunday in churches that were anything up to sixty miles from his home." One, "though fifty miles from the place I lived, I visited and preached [in] for several years, riding mostly on horseback or sulky every four weeks, summer and winter, never failing for heat or cold." As regent of the state agricultural college for six years, Reverend Earhart frequently had to make the one-hundred-mile journey to that establishment before the Kansas Pacific Railroad was built.
Such was the stuff of the Earharts, Amelia's paternal relations.
On the maternal side, the family history has been traced back to England in 1581, when John Otis was born in Barnstaple, Devon. He sailed for America in 1635 with his fifteen-year-old son, also named John, and drew house lots in the first division of land at Hingham, Massachusetts. The Otis descendants produced leading scholars, politicians, lawyers, and physicians. One married into the family from which Abraham Lincoln descended. Various family members served with distinction in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Amelia's grandfather, Alfred Gideon Otis, was a noted lawyer and, later, judge. Born in 1827, after the age of nine he stayed with his grandparents in New York, while his young parents traveled west to the new state of Michigan and settled there. Alfred was succeeded by ten more children, but it was not until he was fourteen that he joined his parents. Then, as the eldest son, he threw in his lot as a farmer, pursuing classical studies in Greek and Latin each evening after the day's work was done. At the age of twenty-two, he decided upon a more cerebral career and, financially unaided by his family, put himself through college, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1852. He then went south to Mississippi, where he taught school and studied law at the same time, graduating in 1854 from a Louisville law school.
In October 1855, with "some other young bloods," Alfred Otis moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. Shortly afterward, he transferred to the township of Atchison, then no more than a few timber buildings at a convenient crossing of the vast Missouri River, where he worked for a law practice. He was kept busy with land litigation cases that proliferated in the new territory, and over the next few years he worked hard and prospered.
Prior to 1854, Kansas was part of Indian Territory. The Kickapoo Indians were relocated from the east and occupied the land in 1832. Only white men holding the rare and necessary permits were allowed to enter this area until the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress in spring 1854, opening the land to settlement. The site that would become Atchison was selected by a resourceful early settler who built a small log cabin at a suitable place on the river, from which he operated a ferryboat across the river during the 1848 and 1849 California Gold Rush, supplementing this income by supplying wood to the steamboats that plied the great river.
The town was named after the famous Missouri senator David Atchison, who was pro tem President of the United States for one day. Just about the same time as Alfred Otis arrived there, the great Mormon wagon train was encamped some three miles to the west, equipping for the trek to Salt Lake. These were exciting days for the young lawyer as the town grew along with his practice. By 1858, the town was served by a steamship and by the daily arrival of the four-horse stage. Then it took "only four days" for a copy of an address by the President to reach Atchison from Washington, its impressive speed aided by the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. The progress of the railroad and the advantageous location of the town for equipping the wagon trains that constantly streamed west made Atchison's future secure. For two building lots in the business section of the town, a member of Congress from Pennsylvania paid three thousand dollars. On the hills surrounding the town, desirable residential plots fetched up to $350.
The merchants of Atchison [did] a great trade with the Indians. For several weeks a great number had been in Atchison nearly every day to get their winter supplies. They never left until all the money paid to them by the government disappeared. The Indian men, women and children came to Atchison on beautiful ponies and usually brought along a few to sell. They generally wore nothing on their heads ... moccasins ornamented with beads and ... winter or summer ... a coarse blanket was thrown over their shoulders. Around their waists, tied in their hair and hanging from their ears were pieces of ornamental tin. Sometimes the Indian men would come to Atchison with painted faces and with Eagle feathers in their hair.
The town's great new asset, the Massasoit House Hotel, opened in September 1858 and was headquarters for the Overland Stage line. It had many famous visitors such as Abraham Lincoln, Kit Carson, Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, and even Jesse James! By 1860, there were forty-six freighting firms doing business out of Atchison, and in June of that year, the town heartily celebrated the completion of the Atchison and St. Joseph Railroad.
The gestation of the town was not without its problems, however. Neighboring Missouri was fiercely proslavery, and Kansas settlers tended initially to adopt this policy, but there were a few abolitionists. There were some unpleasant incidents of tarring and feathering, scuffles and gunfights. Alfred, a lifelong Democrat, was known to be an active abolitionist, smuggling runaway slaves — covered in grain — to safety in his wagon. Small children were carried in trunks as part of his luggage.
At the age of thirty-five, with his future looking ever more secure despite the great drought of 1860, Alfred Otis, now a full partner in law practice, decided to set down his roots in the booming little town.
Almost certainly, Alfred met his future wife, Amelia Josephine Harres, when she visited her elder sister Mary in Atchison. Mary had recently married Mr. W. L. Challiss ("he wore the smallest shoes ever seen on a man"). Amelia Josephine was a fine young lady from Philadelphia, handsome and of prosperous Germanic stock. Alfred's attraction must have been great indeed to entice her to Atchison, though the nearness of her sister undoubtedly played some part in her decision to move to the little frontier town. True, she did not find it necessary to travel by covered wagon, for she "traveled as far as St. Louis by train and then came down the river on the steamboat." Nevertheless, Atchison, Kansas, was far different from the civilized society of Philadelphia. At this point, it could not even boast a paved sidewalk.
Alfred and Amelia Josephine were married in the Harres home in 1862, after which they returned to Atchison and moved into the fine new house built by the industrious bridegroom on the high bluffs behind the town, which looked down on the fast-flowing Missouri River and the rich, flat farmlands beyond. This pleasant, brick- and timber-clad home, with its large, high-ceilinged, cool rooms was later to become the birthplace of Amelia Earhart.
A period of service in a Kansas regiment during the Civil War hardly interrupted Alfred's career and he was soon regarded as one of the town's leading citizens. In retrospect, the couple's lives appear to have been idyllic. They had eight children, six of whom survived childhood. Life was busy, but Alfred's success had made him a wealthy man, so the traumas of life in the midwest were inevitably cushioned. In 1876, Alfred was elected to the bench and served with distinction.
Amelia Earhart's mother, Amy, the couple's oldest surviving daughter, was born in 1869. Hers was a privileged existence. The home on Quality Hill was not a typical midwestern homestead. Its amenities included crystal chandeliers, a piano in the drawing room, Irish maids and cooks, and men to keep the riding and carriage horses in the large barn and to tend the extensive gardens. Little Amy's grandmother had come from Philadelphia to live with the family, and the child was petted and loved by everyone. She and her siblings were all good riders. Amy rode her own pony "sidesaddle and with long skirts," and the whole family "loved the smell of a book." The house had a well-stocked library and books formed a great part of the family's life, as did travel. At least once a year, the family took a trip:
... father took the whole family. He went with a sense of responsibility, and mother just went because she loved it. We all had to know all of our own country first, before we went to Europe and of course that was very unusual ... because the first thing you [usually] did upon graduation ... was to take a trip to Europe. Father and I loved California. ... [He] would often have the coachman stop when we got to the top of the hills and have him turn the carriage around so that we could see the rivers and hills and valleys, and fields of grain waving. ... He wanted us to have seeing eyes, and said, "Your eyes were given to you to see things and I want you to see and remember."
There were other trips to Utah, Oklahoma, and Colorado, and Amelia's mother thus saw much of the great continent of America when it was still unsettled and grazed by herds of buffalo.
Amy was not physically strong and her health often caused concern. Despite a number of absences from her studies at prep school, her natural intelligence enabled her to fulfill her college-entrance requirements, but she was unable to capitalize on her success due to a bout of diphtheria. In any case, she said, "Mother didn't want me to go so far away," so she stayed in Atchison.
Her physical delicacy was, however, no impediment to her adventurous spirit, for on a trip with her father to Colorado in the summer of 1890, Amy became the first woman to climb Pikes Peak. For the first ten thousand feet, donkeys were used, but then the party had to proceed on foot; some of the men who were affected by nosebleeds had to turn back. Amy was the only woman to attempt the last hazardous quarter-mile climb.
That same summer, when Amy was twenty-one, her parents threw a coming-out ball for her in the garden of their home. It was a warm June night and the syringa and heliotrope made the whole bluff fragrant. Amy's parents had a timber dance floor built over the grass; they couldn't move an old wrought-iron Stag-at-Eve, so they built flooring around him and Amy put a garland of scarlet roses around his neck and hung a lantern on one of his horns. Wires were strung between the trees and every few feet or so, Japanese lanterns were hooked on, to be lighted at nine o'clock, just as it began to get dark.
It was a beautiful evening with very little breeze, which was fortunate as [Amy's father] would not have let us have the lanterns lighted, for fear of the candles tipping and causing fire. ... Seven musicians came down from St. Joseph and played music for the Virginia Reel and the Lancers, as well as for waltzing.
One of the guests introduced to Amy by her brother Mark was Edwin Stanton Earhart, a young lawyer. The young couple were soon deeply in love, but when Edwin subsequently petitioned the judge for his daughter's hand, he was told, not unreasonably, that he would have to be earning at least fifty dollars a month. It was fully five years before Edwin's earnings reached the required sum, but eventually he was able to re-present his suit and win Amy's hand. The pair were married on October 16, 1895, whereupon they moved to their own home in nearby Kansas City. The house, fully furnished down to its library of books, was a wedding gift from the bride's parents.
The railroad company was one of Edwin's clients in his legal work, but even so, his means were vastly different from those of Judge Otis. Nevertheless, the marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one despite some initial tears on Amy's part. She was unused to housework and was made further miserable by the miscarriage of a baby girl within a year of their marriage (caused when she was thrown against the brake lever of a cable car). When Amy found she was pregnant again, it was quite natural for her to return to her parents' home in Atchison for the confinement, where she would be pampered and well cared for.
Excerpted from The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. Copyright © 1989 Mary S. Lovell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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