by George W. Schwarz Jr.
There are many of us today whose parents or grand parents came to this country as immigrants from foreign lands across the globe. Who can deny the excitement of the ability to read of their daily lives in their native countries or of their quest to reach America and of their labors, setbacks, and rewards when establishing a home in a new land? Each of us may have a rich family history lying at our fingertips waiting only for someone to gather the information and put it to paper.
I am now in my senior years and am saddened with the realization my children and grandchildren have no written record of their family’s history. Like me, their knowledge of their ancestors will be limited to stories told to them or overheard in hushed conversations. Since my discovery, I have become outspoken in my advocacy of recording family history. This was once done in family Bibles with changes and events duly recorded by the family elder or the local parish minister, but today the computer makes the process easier. Regardless the medium, what finer legacy can there be than a written record of the family from its earliest known beginning to the current date for present and future generations?
Who among us has not wished for a written record of their ancestors’ daily lives and their deeds? If your family is one of those who do not have such a ledger, it is something that could be started today. Living relatives can be contacted, documents gathered, records searched, and it could be argued such an undertaking would strengthen families in their appreciation of their ancestral past.
I clearly recall my Mother begging my Grandfather to chronicle his colorful past, but in his advanced years, he took her benign request as a challenge of the truthfulness and authenticity of his claims. After he passed and my Mother reached her senior years, I pleaded with her to do what she had asked of Grandpa – to put on paper her memories of her rich younger years, but while she always promised she would, she did not. I am now left with only my childhood memories of their stories of a much earlier time in America and must be content to repeat only what I remember of those tales I heard as a youth.
Think of how exciting it would be for my family if they could open a book and read the detailed accounts of their grand parents, great grand parents of their lives and experiences, especially when one of them was a Native American!
My Grandfather was born on an Indian reservation in the Oklahoma Territories just prior to the Civil War. As a member of the Osage Nation, he attended a government school on the reservation, and because of his academic achievements, received a scholarship to continue his education in the East. My Mother always boasted he attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, but I have no proof of that claim.
He attended medical schools after his graduation from college with the idealistic goal of returning to his people and administering to their medical needs. When he completed his medical education, he had diplomas proclaiming him a `Doctor of Medicine’; `Doctor of Surgery’, and `Doctor of Dentistry’. Then considering his plan to return to the reservation fully qualified to administer to his people’s needs, he also had a diploma declaring him a certified `Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.’
His stories were captivating of the culture shock he suffered when he finally returned to the harsh environment of the reservation. He lived in relative comfort while attending schooling and had forgotten the deprivation living standards he had experienced as a youth.
Harsher still, the `white men’ responsible for the reservation’s management resented his education and would not recognize his medical degrees nor did they credit him with returning to help his people. In their eyes he was just another Indian dressed in fancy clothes. They refused his repeated requests to establish a private medical practice on the reservation and to provide suitable facilities to establish a medical clinic. If he was to stay on the reservation he could expect no more than that provided to the Indian residents. He had believed his thought his education would lift him above the stigma of being an Indian, but he was wrong.
It did not take long for Grandpa to realize his dream was unattainable so he set out to practice medicine in the rapidly expanding West. Old photographs of him come to mind of him posing stiffly in a fancied ruffled shirt with starched collar worn beneath a Chesterfield- style coat, wearing pinstriped trousers, and with his top hat in hand. A real dandy! Traveling from town-to-town on the Western frontier, he quickly learned he could not hide his identity regardless of his education and diplomas. As soon as he entered a town and hung his shingle announcing a new doctor was in town, word eventually reached the community of his Indian heritage and he would be forced to move on or starve.
Grandpa eventually joined a traveling medicine show out of desperation after what must have been numerous attempts to establish himself as a doctor. The medicine shows frequented small rural towns selling `squaw tonic’, a concoction of dubious ingredients and foul smelling by design meant to strengthen the claims of its potency.
“The tonic claimed to cure all ills, hangnails, lame horses, and remove rust,” he would explain with a wry smile and a slight wink of the eye.
His tales never clearly explained his role in these shows, but my Mother suggested he appeared with the vendor dressed as an Indian to attest to the tonic’s source and its vast healing powers.
Time and competition eventually brought `show business’ to the medicine shows to attract larger audiences, and in response, Grandpa increased his worth by learning to juggle and had acquired several small dogs he trained to perform tricks.
In the 1890’s, my Grandfather made the leap from the traveling medicine shows to the popular vaudeville shows of that day in the larger Western towns in which he appeared with his trained dogs and his feats of juggling. (I have vivid recollections of the colorful posters he had hanging in his residence advertising vaudeville shows with his name listed) It was during his days in vaudeville he met and married an English dancer who also traveled the western vaudeville circuit and in 1897 my Mother was born.
My Grandmother taught my Mother to dance when she was 5-6 years of age and they appeared onstage together dancing in the wild and wooly saloons across the West and even San Francisco. My Mother and Grandparents arrived in San Francisco soon after the earthquake and the scenes of the devastation from the quake and fire that consumed the city made a lasting impression upon my Mother. It was about this time my Grandmother took ill and died whereupon my Grandfather re-married another dancer.
My Mother’s stepmother had relatives working for a circus and the small family soon joined the circus as performers. My Mother was trained to perform acrobatics on horseback in becoming a `bareback rider’ and also trained to perform on the trapeze.
Her parents understood it was time she attend formal schooling when she reached her pre-teen years and she departed for Virginia to live with her stepmother’s relatives while my Grandfather and his wife continued performing in the circus. In the early 1900’s, my Grandfather appeared in several shows with Buffalo Bills’ Wild West Show traveling across America. One of his friends from those shows, Pawnee Bill, later formed his own Wild West Show. These two men corresponded until my Grandfather passed away in the 1940’s.
Prior to WWI, my Mother, Grandpa, and his wife joined a larger circus in which she resumed her acrobatics and trapeze work with her stepmother and Grandpa performed with his trained dogs and juggling. This circus would eventually become known as Ringling Bros Circus. My Mother spoke fondly of these times remembering Wallace Berry who as a teenager worked with the elephants and later became an award-winning movie actor, and playing young John Ringling North, a few years her junior.
Ringling Bros. Circus later merged with Barnum & Bailey to become the largest, most famous of circuses in America – Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. One of my annual treats came with the arrival of the circus to the city. My Mother and I watched the circus train unload in the pre-dawn hours and we followed the `elephant walk’ of the animals and the circus trucks taking the brightly painted circus wagons to the site where the `Big Top’ would be erected. While I watched the thrilling scene unfold of the 100-or so `roustabouts’ raising the main tent - `Big Top’ - my Mother went to the circus office to see John Ringling North, her former playmate and now owner and manager, and returned with reserved box seat tickets.
My fondest memories of my Grandfather were of the times we spent together. I have vivid memories of his appearance at our home on Sunday mornings usually before anyone was awake. My Mother would let him in and then scurry to the bedroom to bath and dress. I awoke at the sound of the doorbell and stood waiting at he end of the hallway to watch the ritual.
Grandpa would carefully remove and place his white Stetson 10-gallon hat on the table in the front hallway then hang his suit coat in the closet. He then removed the hairpins that his braided hair in a coil beneath the hat allowing them to hang loose over his shoulders. He next removed the bright, silk bandana around his neck and placed it near his hat. The bandana slides he wore were of carved bone of animal figures or of hammered silver with turquoise inlays.
When he went out into the public, he was very meticulous with his dress and made sure there was no mistaking his ethnic background. He always wore a Western style suit with narrow pant legs, tailored suit coat, a brightly colored silk shirt with an equally bright bandana, and polished cowboy boots. But what surely caught the eye and turned heads was his white Stetson with an unbroken stovepipe crown, broad brim, and a beaded hatband adorned with an eagle’s feather. His braids were usually worn coiled beneath the Stetson, but on occasion he appeared in public with his braids down adorned with ermine tails or beadwork - a rare sight to be seen on the sidewalks of Chicago in the 1930’s.
Grandpa came to our home on Sundays to spend the day with his daughter and her family and I was the main beneficiary of his visits. If I was not already waiting in the hallway for him, he would come to my bedroom and we would retire to the enclosed porch on the back of our home where my toys were stored. He went through the toys selecting those that suited his purpose and he began to juggle the toys regardless of size or weight with me seated on the floor as his audience. My building blocks, toy cars, baseballs or just about anything he could get his hands on were juggled much to my glee. Sometimes he balanced a baseball bat or my mother’s broom on his forehead while he juggled or he threw items up in the air catching them on the end of the bat or broom. The performance ended when my Mother called us to breakfast and I pouted as I joined them at the table realizing another week must pass before I would be entertained again.
On one of his Sunday visits, Grandpa arrived with a stainless steel canon ball, a souvenir from his vaudeville days. For my pleasure he began his act by tossing the steel ball into the air and catching it on the back of his neck. From there, he rolled the ball down each arm and back to his neck repeating this routine several times before tossing the ball up in the air with the flip of his head then caught it again on the back of his neck! My Mother would appear briefly in the doorway in response to my shouts of glee and she would smile and watch for a brief moment before returning to the kitchen. What child wouldn’t be thrilled to have a real live Indian grandfather who could juggle, too?
My Mother made major purchases for our home in the large stores in Chicago’s `Loop’, and on these occasions, Grandpa was asked to take me for the afternoon at his residence. This was as thrilling for me as were his Sunday visits. Grandpa’s home was a virtual museum of Indian artifacts he had collected over the years and he had them displayed on every wall and tabletop. The walls of the front hallway were covered with his medical diplomas and publicity posters of vaudeville and circus shows in which he appeared. The front room held Indian artifacts of all description – beaded and decorated deerskin articles of clothing, war implements, stone pipes, and framed photos – dozens of old photos of famous Indian chiefs and gun fighters of the West. I knew enough to never touch anything so Grandpa would go about his writing while I moved around the room in awe examining each item bothering him once only in a while to answer my questions. I believe I had every item in his apartment memorized, and you are correct if you guessed I spent most of my time fascinated the bow and arrows, the buffalo hide shields, and the buckskin skin pouches and a beaded vest adorned with scalps.
Grandpa and I would sometimes venture outdoors on nice days to visit a park or see a movie. My choice of a movie made me understand even at my young age how serious his heritage meant to him. I mistakenly selected a cowboy movie and when the cowboys battled the `blood-thirty savages’ and killed them by the score with revolvers that never needed reloading, Grandfather took me in tow and we left the movie theatre.
While my Mother was an accomplished automobile driver, Grandpa had an aversion to the machine called the automobile. He had a Model-T and he swore it did not have a reverse gear. If he failed on his initial try to pull into a parking place, he would drive around the block then curse loudly if the parking place had been taken when he returned. It sometimes took him an hour to park his car!
My Mother escaped from circus life during WWI to grow-up as a normal girl, but always feared her former life might be exposed. Nice girls of that era did not perform in saloons nor did they perform in the circus.
This could have been her reason for resisting the idea of recording her youth, her life as a dancer, and a circus performer, but my family is poorer today for the loss of the information. Would not all those stories and experiences under one cover have been an exciting book to read? What a wonderful gift it would have been to pass on in my family for the stories to be forwarded for generations to come?
So my message to all who read this is to consider writing of your life’s experiences regardless how mundane they may sound today. If your parents or grandparents are living, convince them of the importance of recording their memories of their earlier years and those of their parents. There are undoubtedly many people living today who are the survivors of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, etc. all of whom have stories worthy of recording. The modern electronic publishing techniques of today make it possible for anyone to publish a loose leaf book for little cost and what a treasure it would be to those in your family and to those yet born.