LITTLE FALLS: FAILURE – VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE
Fergus described Minnesota Territory as "a new country where I can buy land cheap and where I will commence some business for myself next Spring." Conceding "the situation is further north than I like but the opportunities for business are good and the chances to make money in property better than in older countries," he concluded that "Society here is also excellent—being removed from the influence of Slavery—our greatest fault here as a people are the love of money—common to Americans generally—and luxurious habits in dress and living." [James Fergus to father, January 6, 1854, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM.] James, perceptive as usual concerning society and business, soon discovered that national currents even affect the frontier, especially in the area of economics. His careful plans to escape slavery's influences and hopes for profit through speculation and appreciating property values soon crumbled under the weight of major national events.
Though Fergus harbored no concrete business plans he did not worry, for he possessed adequate money to provide family necessities, or, if needed, to invest in a promising business. Of course, his skill as carpenter and millwright remained in demand and he could always mark time as a salaried employee until the right opportunity presented itself. Fergus continued flirting with the foundry idea, despite his doctor's warning. In November 1854, F. and J. B. Gilman, St. Paul, offered James their foundry and machine business, including fixtures, steam engine and building, for $6000. When Fergus declined, they later encouraged him to join their firm "as there is a prospect of a great plenty of business in our line the coming season." [F. and J. B. Gilman to James Fergus, November 6, 1854, and February 23, 1855, Box 4 F. 13 and Box 5 F. "G Miscellaneous," FP, UM. His thoughts leaned to the foundry business even before he sold his interest in the Moline Foundry, for late in December 1852, Charles M. Bonip, St. Paul, encouraged Fergus to join his business. Bonip to Fergus, Box 1 F. 67, FP, UM.]
Fergus' activities between January and July, 1854, are unknown, but in mid-July he and a partner purchased "two rafts of logs bought of Stenchfield and Cormick, one to be delivered at the head of the Rapids for thirteen dollars per thousand and one in Lake _____ for nine dollars and fifty cents per thousand." Though cautious with his money, Fergus apparently preferred to speculate in timber rather than hold a salaried position. He maintained this pattern the rest of his life. [Legal Notice, July 1, 1854, Box 1 F. 67, FP, UM.]
Marshall and Company of St. Paul pleaded with Fergus to join their furniture making business; strapped for money, they offered him fourth interest in the company if only he paid the interest on their loan. In addition, he could assume superintendency of the mill. He rejected this offer also. [Marshall & Co. to James Fergus, October 2, 1854, Box 7 F. 43, and October 3, 1854, Box 7 F. 41, FP, UM.]
James considered and rejected one additional major project before moving farther up the Mississippi River. In December 1854, he considered a contract with Ramsey County, Territory of Minnesota, to lease Hennipin Island for twenty years, during which time he was to dam the Mississippi, build a containing pond for logs and a by-pass canal. Apparently Fergus would have built a sawmill and powered it with water. However, he also declined this proposal and once again set his face to the north. [Contract with Ramsey County, Territory of Minnesota, December 1854, Box 13 F. 15, FP, UM.]
Fergus harbored other plans during the fall of 1854. In October he and C. A. Tuttle journeyed north to Fort Ripley and worked their way back towards St. Cloud on foot, searching out water power sites for industrial development. After locating a satisfactory river site they returned to St. Anthony, completed the arrangements and early in February organized the Little Falls Manufacturing Company. William Sturgis, Little Falls, Calvin A. Tuttle, Minneapolis, and James Fergus, St. Anthony, agreed to:
Associate ourselves together in co-partnership . . . for the purpose of operating and improving said property at Little Falls by making lumber, grinding grain, farming, cutting logs, making a town, selling goods, and doing any other thing or things, conducive to the benefit of said company in the premises. [James Fergus, Ft. Ripley, to Pamelia, October 6, 1854, Box 17 F. 15, FP, UM. Agreement between William Sturgis, Calvin A. Tuttle and James Fergus, February 5, 1855, Box 20 F. 7, FP, UM.]
Sturgis, who owned the Little Falls property, sold two-thirds of it to his new partners, with Fergus buying five-twelfths and Tuttle three-twelfths. Each promised to do his best until the sum of $20,000 had been invested, in proportion to his share. Sturgis agreed to repair the dam, finish the flour mill, supply logs and encourage area farming. Fergus, who like Sturgis would live at Little Falls, agreed to manage he milling and lumbering operations, oversee principal business about town, and keep the books. Tuttle planned to remain in Minneapolis, help supply the town site, and provide advice. [Ibid.]
The venture showed initial prosperity and James proudly wrote his father:
We have sawmills, a large farm—own a new town, a fine water power on the Mississippi, a good store have large public house good schools and ministers—employ about 60 men 19 oxen and 8 horses average daily expenses 20 pounds of your money. [James Fergus to father, March 8, 1855, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM. Fergus often wrote a longhand rough draft of his letters in which he was careless with punctuation. At that time one pound equaled about $5.00. For example, on December 5, 1868, Fergus received a receipt from a London bank for $247.50 or fifty pounds as one pound came to $4.95 then. See Box 12 F. 27, FP, UM.]
James explained that provisions had to be freighted up from St. Paul, about 110 miles south on the river; consequently, distance, high freight charges and scarcity drove prices to excess. At that time twenty-two families lived in Little Falls and the partners owned about two thousand acres of land in and near town, most of it undeveloped. [Ibid.]
By the spring of 1855 the mill had not been completed; besides, money could be secured only with difficulty, and then at up to 5 per cent per month, Still, Fergus returned from a St. Anthony visit with a contract for one and a half million board feet of logs. [James Fergus to William Sturgis, March 17, 1855, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM.]
A year passed, and Tuttle began worrying about lack of profits and excessive bills. He was being forced into mortgaging his Minneapolis property to finance the Little Falls operation. The mills had not been completed and he insisted they must concentrate efforts there and not on less profitable areas like the public house. [C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, May 5, 1856, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM.] Fergus ignored this advice, and through the spring of 1856 worked on the road, the upper mill and the dam. Tuttle labored to force a bridge charter through the legislature, simultaneously urging Fergus first to improve the mills, then to promote the store, which would help secure their lands, and third, to encourage farming; Tuttle considered the public house a luxury they could not afford. He also implored Fergus to hire a bookkeeper and keep business affairs in order, for he thought James spent too much time away from the main job—"to watch over the mill." James ignored the suggestion, probably because he wanted to save money and considered himself a competent bookkeeper, possibly because he wanted no one looking over his shoulder. [Ibid., February 24, 1856, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM. Paradoxically, at about the same time Tuttle implored Fergus to give more attention to the mill, the two formed the town of Cakogun, "situated on Forrest Bay Mille Lace [Lake], Minnesota Territory." Tuttle served as president and Fergus secretary of the speculative venture. Fergus owned fifty shares of stock. Certificate of Stock Ownership, date blurred but in 1850-60 period, Box 14 F. 5, FP, UM. Nothing came of this.]
With money scarce, debts piling up and the mill not yet completed, disaster struck the spring of 1856. The Mississippi flooded, carrying off $40,000 worth of logs. Already in debt, the three partners could not recoil from this staggering blow and they were forced to form a joint stock company, which Tuttle later darkly described as the "foundation of most of our troubles." [James Fergus to Dr. E. A. Wood, Sabula, December 25, 1886, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM. C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, February 16, 1860, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM.]
Since the mill operation did not succeed, the company, early in 1857, leased it for five years to a St. Anthony firm which agreed to saw lumber and shingles for the Little Falls Company at reduced prices. [Legal Agreement, January 3, 1857, Box 20 F. 7, FP, UM. They leased the mill to Stuart Seely and Jonathan Dow of St. Anthony.] The three original partners, Sturgis, Fergus and Tuttle now worked for others as well as themselves. Fergus, however, became the company's principal representative in Little Falls "and as such [was] authorized to sell lease and convey the real estate of the Little Falls Manufacturing Company." [James Heal to C. A. Tuttle, April 6, 1857, Box 20 F. 22, FP, UM.]
In addition, the company store in Little Falls floundered during these difficult years. Its manager, O. A. Churchill, also suffered in the early stages of frontier depression. By early January 1857, Fergus began questioning Churchill's business ability; they quarreled, and by that fall Fergus bought the goods of the defunct Churchill and Company, planning to run the store himself. [O. A. Churchill to James Fergus, January 16, 1857, Box 2 F. 12; also Fergus memo of 1857, Box 20 F. 7, FP, UM. Apparently, James planned to operate the store under the name of James Fergus & Co., Box 20 F. 1, FP, UM.]
Tuttle, who remained in Minneapolis and seldom if ever went to Little Falls, became increasingly depressed, and wrote Fergus, "I was never more disappointed in my life than I am in the result of our operations up there." He brooded over company reports, concluding they would have at least $75,000 on hand with $30,000 in profits from trade. That, however, was not the case, much to Tuttle's dismay. [C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, March 1857, Box 20 F. 31, FP, UM.]
By 1857 the earlier frontier depression had receded to the east and grown into a full-blown national depression. With money very scarce and interest rates high in the East, frontier conditions became desperate—interest rates skyrocketed, ranging from 36 to 50 per cent. Business withered in the financial drought and property values plunged. Fergus wrote his father, "This panic bears very heavily on us and our prosperity. Property generally throughout the country has depreciated very much in value. Last spring my own property could have been sold for $50,000, and today I would willingly take $10,000 or even less." [James Fergus to father, September 30 and November 1, 1857, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM.] For example, "Lots on main street in Little Falls that had readily sold for $1000 [can] hardly be given away." [James Fergus to Little Falls (Minnesota) Herald, n.d., Oscar O. Mueller Collection, Montana Historical Society Library, Helena, Montana. Hereafter cited as: MC, MHSL.]
Grasshoppers compounded the company's problems, for they devoured half the crops in 1857 and left nothing standing in 1858. "In that year there was not a bushel of oats, wheat, rye, potatoes or other vegetables raised in Morrison County." [Ibid.] Grain, needed to sustain both animals and men, had to be hauled 400 miles; inflated prices and higher freight charges made it terribly expensive. [James Fergus to father, September 30 and November 1, 1857, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM.]
Even in this depression period, however, James could philosophize to his father:
A few years make great changes in any country and particularly in this and I often think of what use is the property of yesterday if it will not buy a dinner today. But myself and family are thankful for health and if our property in these hard times all goes to the dogs or to pay our debts we have able hands and willing hearts and we live in a country where industry will have its reward.
Thus Fergus prepared himself for the probable result and bravely expressed confidence in the future, especially when living in his opportunity-laden adopted country. [Ibid., November 1, 1857, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM.]
Through the financial panic lessened in eastern cities, money remained scarce and interest high on the frontier. Still, the company struggled on and by the spring of 1858 Fergus had completed a wooden bridge across the Mississippi, some 210 feet in length and costing about $12,500. [Ibid., April 25, 1858, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.] That fall Fergus wrote old friend George Stephens, Moline, forecasting the loss of his Little Falls property. Stephens "consoled" his Minnesota friend by indicating the business depression also gripped Moline, for his company had over $20,000 in uncollectible notes. [George Stephens to James Fergus, October 28, 1858, Box 10 F. 23, FP, UM.]
During these depression years, Fergus, as he had earlier, encouraged his brothers to leave Scotland and join him. In 1853 he urged them to come, insisting that despite the major fault of slavery, America would certainly prosper, because of "the vast amount of uncultivated land the rapid increase of population the rise and increase of her cities all suspect for her to a great destiny." [James Fergus to father, August 30, 1853, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM.] At one point in the mid-1840's, older brother Robert almost seemed ready to break away: "It will not wonder me much to see us all in America if we can sell this place (us young ones). Father has got better." [Robert Fergus to James Fergus, January 7, 1846, Box 3 F. 30, FP, UM.] But they did not leave then, possibly because father Fergus became ill, or they saw promise in Scotland, or they lacked the determination and adventurous spirit James possessed; it might have been, as Robert mentioned a few years earlier that "Andrew and me are just working away as you left us . . . and the old man is very overbearing and will not allow us money sufficient." [Ibid., February 10, 1840, Box 3 F. 30, FP, UM.]
During the depression of 1857-58, Fergus again urged Robert and Andrew to come, insisting it would be to their advantage as land values remained low and "a little money will buy a good deal of land." [James Fergus to father, November 1, 1857, Box 11, F. 55, FP, UM.] Still they clung to the Scottish soil; consequently, James began encouraging his younger half-brother William to join him in Little Falls. William, he maintained, could buy land for little or nothing; besides, if Fergus had to sell property to pay debts, "I would rather you had it at one fourth of its value than anybody else." Fergus insisted, ". . . with one half of the economy you practice in Scotland an industrious sound headed man can not fail to make money" in America. The possibilities interested William but he felt duty bound to his aged parents and chose to remain in Scotland. [James Fergus to William Fergus, August 1, 1858, and October 13, 1858, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM. One reason Andrew did not come was that he felt obligated to care for their insane brother Charles, who lived with him and Robert.]
Though William felt he could not leave Scotland, he did loan James money during those trying days, about $200, and probably more. William soon owned twenty-four lots in Little Falls and fifty shares of company stock. [William Fergus to James Fergus, June 23 and September 29, 1859, Box 11 F. 56; a Fergus memo, dated February 10, 1859, gives the status of his original 200 shares of stock, Box 20 F. 14, FP, UM.] In July 1859 William expressed interest in coming; James, his speculative bent undiminished, encouraged his half-brother to send money and he would "buy about 1000 acres for you and go on and improve it. We could divide it afterwards or sell it when improved and money more plenty at a good price and divide the proceeds." William, however, did not come at that time either. [James Fergus to William Fergus, September 29, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM. William Fergus to James Fergus, February 8, 1859, Box 3 F. 31, FP, UM.]
Company affairs became desperately tangled by 1859. Since early in the depression it had been forced to issue shares of Little Falls Manufacturing Company stock as security on loans or debts, and the creditors applied increasing pressures to recover their money. [Agreement between James Fergus and the Doan King & Co., January 1, 1857, Box 12 F. 16; Wm. P. Moore to James Fergus, December 3, 1859, Box 8 F. 25; C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, August 31, 1859, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM, give indication of this practice.] Of course, the company hoped to put its creditors off until "confidence is more restored amongst the trading community and money becomes more plenty, so that we can sell property for cash and collect our debts." [James Fergus to William Fergus, August 1, 1858, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.] James received increasing criticism from Tuttle and the board of directors on one hand and the Little Falls citizenry on the other, for he represented both in the community. He lamented, "The troubles . . . fell heavily on me as the middle party being cursed by all hands." [James Fergus to O. A. Churchill, December 18, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.]
In January 1859 Fergus met with Tuttle and the board of directors about company problems. They reviewed accounts and discussed company debts, especially the bridge and dam problem, but accomplished little. Fergus insisted he "spent a good part of one day giving them Hell about their charges against me." The in-fighting among the directors disgusted James; Tuttle and President William Babbitt raged bitterly at each other. [James Fergus to C. A. Freeman, January 28, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM. Freeman and Fergus, in March 1857, had become partners in "a general land agency business." Agreement of March 16, 1857, Box 20 F. 5, FP, UM.]
Fergus returned to Little Falls and immediately resigned as a company director. He felt the others, led by Babbitt, had found excessive fault with his leadership, and though expressing themselves "fully satisfied with my honesty and integrity—they would not take any action to recall those charges [therefore] I consider it my duty to resign which I did." Fergus acknowledged mistakes but insisted his only concern had been for Little Falls:
I acknowledge my errs and short-comings but the greatest of these has been a too strong devotion to the interest and well-fare of Little Falls. I have sacrificed my own property and the property of the Little Falls Co. for its advance and now my property is gone and I have not even the thanks of the Directors (whom I elected) for my pains. [James Fergus to James Hall, February 9, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.]
There followed a period of charges and counter-charges, with the company leaders blaming each other. Fergus tried to get the board to acknowledge some responsibility for the Little Falls disaster. He blamed them for not carrying out their agreed-upon goals, especially that of building a dam by the fall of 1857 to promote the city's main industry—water power for the mills. Since the board did not dam the river, Fergus and Tuttle built with their own money and later received much criticism but no reimbursement for doing so. [James Fergus to Directors & Stockholders of Little Falls Manufacturing Company, February 12, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.]
The board of directors, for its part, charged Tuttle and Fergus with mismanagement and poor business practices. In addition, they felt the two had overcharged the company for services and materials in building the dam and bridge across the Mississippi. [Samuel Hidden, author of 1859 Committee Report, to Little Falls Manufacturing Co. board of directors, Box 20 F. 13, FP, UM. Sturgis seemed to be in the background in all of this.]
Tuttle occupied his time worrying from distant Minneapolis. He knew where to place the blame, on Fergus and the board of directors, but especially on Babbitt, who "is not worthy of belief in anything. He is trying to do all the mischief in his power." Fergus, though not as emotionally depressed as Tuttle, also distrusted Babbitt, insisting, "I honestly believe [Babbitt] to be a bad man." [James Fergus to Aldrich, a company director, September 12, 1859, Box 11 F. 56; C. A. Tuttle to O. Rockwell, February 22, 1860, Box 20, F. 13, FP, UM.]
Tuttle remained absolutely convinced the board was trying to swindle him out of the Little Falls bridge, which he helped finance largely by mortgaging his house and Minneapolis property. Ultimately, Tuttle became paranoid to the point where he believed everyone had deserted him. [C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, February 16, February 25, 1860, and October 5, 1859, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM.] He considered suicide, convinced he would lose his Minneapolis business, his house and all personal property, not to mention his self-respect:
If it were not that I have so many dependants mother and sisters all poor I should not be long in determining what course to pursue but as it is I do not see any other way only to do my best to take care of them as I best can and to do this I must save all possible. [Ibid., November 20, 1859, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM. Concerning his mental state at the time, Tuttle would later confess: "The terrible condition of the country was in at the time and the Babbitt rascality made me crazy and afraid to move (business-wise)." Tuttle to Fergus, March, 1898, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM.]
In the end, he claimed to have been swindled out of $70,000 plus profits. [W. D. Babbitt to James Fergus, March 8, 1860, Box 1 F. 17, FP, UM. That may have been his losses; whether he was swindled is debatable.]
Tuttle could not acknowledge he had been partially victimized by forces over which he or Fergus had no control—a disastrous flood, a depression and two years of crop failure. Instead, he accused Fergus of misuse of company money, poor management and inaccurate bookkeeping; he suspected they had been "sailing without a compass." [C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, January 5, 1860, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM.] His greatest mistake, Tuttle felt, came in being too liberal with too much money and not exercising enough direct control. [Ibid., February 25, 1860, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM.] Tuttle began to seriously question Fergus' honesty:
When I entered into the Little Falls business I had an ample fortune to last me through life. But I trusted my money to the care of what was thought to be an honest capable man. In this I have been most amply deceived for I am convinced he was neither to my everlasting sorrow; he has ruined me with his willful fool hardy deception and gone off with my money in his pocket. Mr. Freeman no man need tell me that the business at Little Falls has been honestly or honorably conducted there has been deception and deceit from the beginning. O Treachery.
I have been asked the question many times the past two years. Is Fergus an honest man? If so why does he do as he does? [C. A. Tuttle to C. A. Freeman, April 17, 1860, Box 20 F. 13, FP, UM.]
Fergus anticipated Tuttle's suspicions, insisting:
I am completely discouraged Mr. Tuttle and would leave the country at once if I had anything to leave with. I have done my best since I have been at Little Falls, to be sure I have committed some erors but so have we all. I am willing to conceed that anything else is your constant complaining and fault-finding. . . . I would not say a word against it now but for this, that my silence might be construed into asserting to your complaints and your statements of the case. . . . Mr. Tuttle I never stole or took a dollar of the company's money, or property, and more I don't think that you believe I did, although you have often hinted so in your letters. [James Fergus to C. A. Tuttle, December 26, 1859, Box 21 F. 1, FP, UM.]
Though Fergus claimed to be financially destroyed, he was too perceptive not to anticipate disaster and too much of an organizer not to salvage something from company ruins, even if he did not make his fortune. While losing the estimated 10,000 pounds sterling ($50,000), his worth in 1857, he managed to preserve at least $10,000, mainly by placing much of his property in his wife's name. Considering the scope of the disaster, Fergus thought this to be "not so bad after all." [James Fergus to William Fergus, September 29, 1859; James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, September 29, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM; George Stephens to James Fergus, October 28, 1858, Box 10 F. 23, FP, UM.]
Since company records are not available, it is almost impossible to assess with any degree of accuracy which individual, if indeed there is only one, who should shoulder major responsibility for its failure. The board of directors apparently did not comply with their initial agreement to dam the Mississippi; instead they engaged in constant fault finding. Tuttle seemed content to forward advice from a distance—perhaps he should have spent some time in Little Falls—such efforts may have improved communications with James and, at least, made his suggestions more relevant.
Whoever deserved the most criticism soon became a moot point. The company floundered and ultimately failed. James Fergus, Little Falls Manufacturing Company manager and bookkeeper, the man in the center of the storm, inextricably became the focus of criticism from both within and without the company. It may be that he earned at least some of this criticism and a portion of Tuttle's mistrust. Perhaps he overextended his activities; instead of engaging in town speculation, managing a public house and general store, he should have concentrated exclusively on milling and lumbering, as Tuttle advised. Perhaps his bookkeeping was inadequate and money was misused—not dishonestly but to develop peripheral company interests.
Still, the series of uncontrollable events (flood, depression, crop failures) received scant consideration as at least a contributing cause of the company's collapse, especially from Tuttle. Whoever or whatever produced this business disaster, Fergus emerged in considerably better financial shape than Tuttle. While it may not have been conceived in dishonesty, at some point in the company's decline, James transferred his assets to Pamelia, enabling them to salvage something from their shattered venture. Tuttle believed Fergus had purposely swindled him; Fergus insisted he had not. [Tuttle lost his Minneapolis property worth three to four thousand dollars and relocated to Two Rivers, Minnesota, where he did business as a "manufacturere of and dealer in all kinds of hard wood lumber." Mrs. C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, April 15, 1884, Box 10, F. 73, FP, UM.]
During these turbulent years other areas occupied Fergus' time in addition to business—politics, for example. In February 1855, just days after he and Tuttle initiated their partnership, they began lobbying the Minnesota Legislature for a townsite charter. The following year the three partners labored to establish Morrison County, with Little Falls as the county seat, [C. A. Tuttle to James Fergus, February 25, 1855, Box 10 F. 72, FP, UM. Wm. Sturgis to James Fergus, February 17, 1856, Box 10 F. 42, FP, UM.] while in the fall of 1856 Sturgis traveled to New York to sell Morrison County bonds and finance a court house. Sturgis also wanted to build a library and supply it with books; he expected Fergus to play a major role in the project. That same fall James was elected Morrison County Judge of Probate. [William Sturgis to James Fergus, August 21, 1856, Box 10 F. 42, FP, UM. Sturgis expected to suffer a 25 per cent discount in the East but had no choice if he wanted to sell the bonds. Election results, November 3, 1856, Box 13 F. 15, FP, UM.]
The fall of 1857 Fergus ran for the state legislature from the 21st representative district, campaigning on the following platform:
Called by the partialities of my friends, for the first time to become a candidate for a seat in the State Legislature, I take this method of stating that, being pledged to no party, or set of men, if elected I shall do my best for the district at large, irrespective of party, creed, or location, whether they be citizens by birth, or citizens by adoption, and I come before you frankly, and openly, preferring defeat with honest votes, to success with dishonor. Neither have I any personal feeling against any gentleman, who is before you as a candidate. But I am opposed to the system of ‘log rolling' and whisky Electioneering practiced here, by some at the present time, I am also opposed to the system of special legislation for private purposes, that disgraces our statute books—to that system, that has burdened our county,—already too poor, to pay a single dollar of last years school tax with an additional $700 this year, of interest money on bonds, issued without the consent of the people, to build a Court House, unneeded, and so far unfinished.
Gentlemen,—Minnesota calls on you, to elect men, to make laws for a people and not for a party,—to make these laws general, and not special, or for private purposes; give such men your votes, and above all scorn the man who would buy your votes, with whisky. Such men, are not fit for Legislators, much less, are they worthy the name of American Citizen. [Political Flyer: October 13, 1857, Box 14 F. 1, FP, UM. Apparently Fergus was not elected as no further mention is found of this.]
Earlier that spring, Fergus had been chosen Morrison County's delegate to the Minnesota Constitutional Convention by the Republican party because he "cherished the principles of true Republicans and was a strong temperance man. [S. Crosswell, Secretary of Republican Party Convention, to James Fergus, May 21, 1857, Box 7 F. 67 FP, UM. It is not known if Fergus was elected and attended the convention or not. He probably lost as it is not mentioned again.] In addition, James represented Morrison County at the state's first Republican nominating convention after Minnesota became a state in 1858. He helped nominate Alexander Ramsey for Governor and Ignatius Donnelly for Lieutenant Governor. [James Fergus to Helena Herald, n.d., (probably late 1870's), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 24, FP, UM.] Besides serving as Judge of Probate, Fergus held at least one other Morrison County office—that of county treasurer from 1858 to 1860. [James Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d., Box 2 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 78, FP, UM.]
Ignatius Donnelly, who later represented Minnesota in Congress as a liberal, sought Fergus' help early in his political career. James first met Donnelly in the late 1850's when the latter was "stumping the state in behalf of the new Republican party." Fergus entertained Donnelly, introduced him around Little Falls, and provided him an opportunity to address the community. [Newspaper clipping, n.n., n.d., Box 21 F. 5, FP, UM. Fergus wrote this soon after Donnelly's death in 1901.]
After this first meeting, Donnelly relied on Fergus to supply information relative to his political stature in the Little Falls area. He asked this, for example, when seeking the Republican nomination for Second District Congressman in 1862. Fergus supplied the analysis Donnelly requested; Donnelly thanked James for the positive opinion and his "expressions of friendship and pledges of support." [Ignatius Donnelly to James Fergus, May 31 and June 12, 1862, Box 2 F. 61, FP, UM.]
The war between the states closely followed the depression years of 1857-58. By 1860 Fergus was, as he described himself to his father, "tinged with the cares of business and the frosts of 27 years (in America) somewhat eccentric, to be sure, and wearing more hair on his face than Americans generally, but still independent, thinking and acting for himself, and following the dictates of no man or set of men." But James was also forty-seven and in poor health; consequently, though opposed to slavery he could not enlist in the army. [James Fergus to father, March 16, 1860, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM. James Fergus to William Fergus March 5, 1862, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM.]
Since the War Department granted Governor Ramsey permission to raise the 5th Regiment, Fergus hoped to raise and command a company of young men from the Little Falls area and thereby help suppress southern rebellion and free slaves. However, he soon found that most able bodied young men had either already enlisted or had, because of the depressed state of the lumbering industry, moved to other areas. The dejected Fergus conditioned himself to watching from the sidelines: "I would like to serve my state and country in some capacity where I could be actively and usefully employed, but my age prevents my enlisting. So I suppose I must remain an idle spectator for the present." [Ignatius Donnelly to James Fergus, November 1, 1861, Box 2 F. 61, FP, UM. James Fergus to Ignatius Donnelly, October 30, 1861, Roll 9 Ignatius Donnelly Papers, Minnesota Historical Society Library, St. Paul, Minnesota. Hereafter cited as: DP, Minn. HS.] James tried but failed to raise a company and later expressed guilt that he had moved to "open an empire for civilization" instead of risking his life "for the preservation of our unity as a nation." [James Fergus speech, Helena Independent, August 30, 1885. Alexander Ramsey, Governor of Minnesota, to James Fergus, November 14, 1861, Box 7 F. 66, FP, UM.]
Earlier, Fergus expressed his opposition to "war and warring in all its phases," a sentiment he later reaffirmed. [James Fergus to father, January 6, 1854, Box 11 F. 55, FP, UM. At this time, Britain, France and Turkey opposed Russia in the Crimean War. Also, Cornelius Hedges to James Fergus, January 25, 1901, Box 6 F. 18, FP, UM. The Spanish-American War had just ended in 1901.] Though Fergus opposed war, he apparently felt in 1860 that combat remained the only method of preserving the union, suppressing the southern rebellion, and extinguishing the evil influence of slavery, especially after the South seceded.
James held strong opinions on one point concerning the military, however. Despite the necessity of conflict to preserve the nation, he opposed the election of military men to Congress, explaining:
The principle objection I have in sending . . . any officer to Congress is that war, warriors, large armies and navies are in opposition to the spirit of our Republican institution, that whenever we begin to pet our army or army officers we are adding power to a dangerous influence in our midst. [James Fergus to Ignatius Donnelly, June 8, 1862, Roll 10, DP, Minn. HS.]
Such sentiments reflect the obvious concern of a person bent on maintaining a republican form of civilian dominated society. Other generations echoed this feeling in the following hundred years.
Donnelly agreed with Fergus' concern for "the tendency of our nation towards military rule." He felt "the great danger lies in that direction; and the longer the war the greater the danger, because so much the farther do the soldiers depart from their old characters as civilians and acquire the habits of a system more despotic in its nature and intrinsically anti-republican." [Ignatius Donnelly to James Fergus, June 12, 1862, Box 2 F. 61, FP, UM.]
Early in February 1859, Fergus resigned as a director of the Little Falls Manufacturing Company. A year later he sought a final settlement with the board of directors. After presenting their claims, both he and the board felt the other owed about $43,000; therefore, they agreed to cancel each other's debts. [Agreement between James Fergus & Co. and the Little Falls Manufacturing Company, January 6, 1860, Box 20 F. 15, FP, UM.] That, however, did not terminate his troubled relationship with the company, for it began issuing stock assessments to reduce debts and improve the Little Falls operations, especially the mill and dam. Thus on January 30, 1860, the company informed James he owed it $500, an assessment of $10 a share. Fergus protested, saying not only did he lack the money to pay, but he should not have to pay since he believed the stock company owed him well over that amount. [John D. Browne, Agent, Little Falls Manufacturing Company, to James Fergus, January 30, 1860, Box 7 F. 17, FP, UM. James Fergus to E. Headderly, February 4, 1860, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM.]
The company ignored his argument, forcing him to either pay the assessment or lose his remaining stock. It is not known if Fergus ever paid this assessment to preserve stock of a doubtful value in a questionable company. He had not paid it by January 20, 1862. However, he did pay assessment on 85 shares for William Fergus, George Stephens, Nichols and James Dillin, shares used as collateral for money loaned to Fergus. [C. B. Ames, Secretary of Little Falls Manufacturing Company, to James Fergus, January 20, 1862, Box 1 F. 16, FP, UM. Memorandum: November 5 and May 25, 1860, Box 17 F. 36, FP, UM. The distribution: Wm. Fergus, 30; Stephens, 30; Nichols, 3; Dillin, 2. For some reason these were assessed only $5 a share.] Fergus held the stock at lest through February 1862, for he then tried to sell it. However, a Minneapolis adviser felt it would be "utterly impossible" to sell it then; "in fact, I question whether it could be given away subject to an assessment of $5 per share." The company seemed inactive and leaderless and no one appeared to know of its plans. [John D. Browne to James Fergus, February 14, 1862, Box 1 F. 67, FP, UM.]
By early 1860 Fergus began seriously planning to leave Little Falls. He had considered leaving earlier, the spring of 1857, when he confessed to his father that ill health and poor business encouraged him to terminate relations with the company and move from Little Falls, probably in two years. [James Fergus to father, April 25, 1857, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.] At that time he planned on moving to Fergus Falls, a townsite laid out by friend Joseph Whitford that winter and named after Fergus, mainly because James provided the grubstake. Whitford, infected with town-speculation fever, a common affliction of those days, hoped to make his fortune in that fashion, and had claimed the site on his return from Grahams Point, then the head of navigation on the Red River of the North, where he also hoped to locate.
Whitford stayed in Fergus Falls, dabbling in farming and logging but losing stock to the Indians for the next three years, waiting for Fergus to join him. Though James owned $2600 worth of lots there, he seldom saw the village. However, after visiting Fergus Falls the autumn of 1859, Fergus liked it so much he determined to move there the following spring. [James Fergus to N. Rice, August 15, 1889, Box 11 F. 60, FP, UM. James Fergus to J. H. Rice, August 16, 1889, reprinted in Fergus Falls Daily Journal, fall, 1889, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, pp. 80-81. Also, John Whitford to James Fergus, November 18, 1859, Box 11 F. 36. FP, UM. Unfortunately, the Sioux killed Whitford during the uprising of August, 1862.]
Fergus was also tempted with other possibilities. Early in 1857 Lyman Aymen worked to convince James to help finance and build a road from Little Falls to Grahams Point on the Red River of the North, and thereafter speculate in steamboating. [Lyman Aymen to James Fergus, January 7, 1857, Box 1 F. 16, FP, UM.] Fergus declined, but did visit the Red River area in the fall of 1858, liked it, and urged George Stephens of Moline to join him and develop lumber mills there. Stephens considered the offer but rejected it as he could not sell his Moline business. After thinking about the venture, Stephens decided that Fergus could make a "nice little fortune," if anybody could, by remaining in Little Falls. Besides, "Society is bad enough there, it is still better than none at all at Red River [where] you are about out of civilization and cannot expect to find or have schools for at least some time." He continued, ". . . now I know you love your children. Do not forget to consult their advantages before going into less refined society." [George Stephens to James Fergus, Letters of November 28, 1858, February 15 and 27, 1859, December 21 and 31, 1859, Box 10 F. 23, FP, UM.]
Fergus apparently agreed in part. At least he did not move to the Red River, though he did later consider joining another frontier entrepreneur in a lumber and flour mill operation on that northern stream. He also repulsed the temptation to buy a Minnesota farm. [John Tait to Fergus, February 25, 1860, Box 10 F. 74, FP, UM. Wm. H. Fletcher to Fergus, February 28, 1860, Box 3 F. 47, FP, UM.]
Thus Fergus considered possible alternatives in trying to break away from his Little Falls entanglements. Financially destroyed, in part by an unusual series of events over which he had little control—a disastrous flood, two years of locusts, a major depression—he still had spirit and looked to the future confident of success. Therefore, he asked brother Andrew to:
. . . tell father that although badly bent, I am not completely broke but bound to make something yet before I die. [While] it is difficult to say what business I shall go into, one thing is certain that I am going into some business just as soon as I get our old company matters settled up and I still expect to make money in my older days. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus and William Fergus, September 29, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.]
Like many American men of the time, the thought of quick wealth through the adventure of gold mining had probably lurked in Fergus' mind since news of the California strike electrified the nation. It undoubtedly became more attractive as business problems intensified, and by the summer of 1858 he expressed interest in a rumor of Iowa gold. [W. D. Babbitt to James Fergus, June 15, 1858, Box 1 F. 17, FP, UM.]
Exactly when Fergus decided to replace the risk of town development for the gamble of a gold pan is uncertain, but by mid-March 1860 he was defending his decision to leave his family and cross the plains to Pike's Peak for the summer: "You might consider this a foolish move for me, but I am doing little or nothing here for myself. There I will see the country, probably lay the foundations for a future business, and if nothing else, I may be able with my own hands to dig the gold to pay you for the money you sent me." [James Fergus to William Fergus, March 14, 1860, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM.]
James Fergus had the habit patterns of a very organized man; therefore, before leaving he made detailed preparations and left written instructions to guide his wife in dealing with company business, the children, their land and livestock. He gave Pamelia the power of attorney over his property and company shares so she could act in his behalf. [Memo: James Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, March 25, 1860, Box 17 F. 16, FP, UM.]
James gave Pamelia advice dealing with the animals—which and when to fatten, slaughter, or sell—and about the land—what and when to plant and harvest. When it came to business matters she was to seek and accept advice only when absolutely necessary and to get receipts for all papers let out from his files. James hoped to lose no more of their property than absolutely unavoidable.
Last but no least you must take care of your own health, and the health of the children for none of you are overly healthy. . . If you have any more of those spells send the children for some of the neighbors at once. It might be well if your mother was to come, to keep one of the children from school, kept them all dressed warm, be careful about letting the girls wear low necked dresses when I go away, as they have not been used to them and will very readily catch chold. Keep Andrew out of and away from the water as much as you can, don't get angry with the children but reason with them, be firm but mild. . . . You must give them all good advice. You will find yourself as the head of a family with more responsibilities, and very differently situated from what you ever was before. I hope you will meet them as they should be met—you are pretty well provided for and if your mother comes up you should enjoy yourself (keep things up from under your feet) and keep your temper.
[Memo: James Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, March 26, 1860, Box 17 F. 16, FP, UM.]
With such pompous advice to sustain his wife, James hurried away, leaving Pamelia the formidable job of holding the family together and fighting off an angry partner (C. A. Tuttle). In addition, James expected her to somehow preserve most of their property in a depressed community. All this was to be done through she apparently had been experiencing poor health. That she accomplished most of his goals is testimony to this remarkable woman. While it would have been unusual if Fergus had taken his family to the gold fields in 1860, Pamelia's contribution to his efforts proved invaluable, like the unmeasurable help of countless wives before and since. Perhaps James should never have crossed the plains at all, for he did risk his family's well-being in quest of highly uncertain wealth. In that position, however, he did not act alone, for in the mid-nineteenth century the women stayed behind—a task in many ways more difficult than the hardships experienced by their Argonaut husbands.
At any rate, Fergus left for Minneapolis to settle whatever company business he could before leaving the state. Evidently, the board again presented its accounts against Fergus and then dismissed them when he agreed to pay the assessments on one hundred shares of stock, give the board fifteen shares, forgive his accounts against them, and sell the balance of his stock to pay assessments. Fergus regretted "giving them pretty much their own way, but it was the best I could do, and I am glad it is done." But for the work of Babbitt, James felt he could have done at least $1000 better. [James Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, March 30, 1860, Box 17 F. 16, FP, UM.]
About this time, Fergus waxed poetic, and dashed off a poem to his wife and children:
Farewell, dear wife, to distant lands
Where Kansas streams bear golden sands
I went my way through wet and cold
to dig for you, the hidden gold.
Farewell, farewell, my children dear,
Tis for your sakes I leave you here,
to buy for you with toils and pains
The golden dust on Kansas plains.
To buy for you no idle bread
Live place no finry on your head,
Tis to store your minds with useful lore
That I leave you whom I adore.
Thus children dear, when I'm away
Let not your youthful steps go stray
Obey your mother; the mith tell.
Dear Wife and children fare you well.
["The Pike's Peaker's Farewell to his Wife and Children," Box 20 F. 30, FP, UM.]
After which, Fergus responded with "A Reply to the Pikes Peaker":
Old bald headed "Peaker"
Old Stick in the mud
You'd like to go with us
Old spiller of "grub"
You judge us by yourself
And cry out bad luck
But, old eater of bones
We've got better pluck
We'll keep out the mud holes
We'll not be so cold
And come home in autum
With plenty of gold
O then your old eyes
Will but out a feet
You'll wish you'd been with us
Through wet snow and sleet
Then you'll think a peaker
With plenty of gold
Is a beautiful sight
If he's ever so cold
Old bald headed Peaker
Old stick in the mud
Just stay at home with you
We can go without you
["A Reply to the Pikes Peaker," Ibid.]
Thus the emotional break was made, and armed with pictures of his children James turned southward toward Omaha and the jump-off point for Colorado. Before leaving St. Anthony, James left Pamelia one last bit of advice, namely: "Please preserve all my letters carefull on file as I put them up in a paper holder if you can find a spare one as I want to see those that are on business when I come back." [James Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, March 31, 1860, Box 17 F. 16, FP, UM.]