PAMELIA: ". . . A FAITHFUL WIFE, A LOVING MOTHER,
A TRUE FRIEND AND AN HONEST WOMAN."
By 1880 James and Pamelia Fergus had been married thirty-five years. As the wife of an active, independent and strong-minded man like James Fergus, Pamelia received blessings and burdens, mixed in amounts which other women did not experience or possibly tolerate. As with many couples, the first few years of their marriage were not all honeymoon; in fact, there was no honeymoon of the traditional sense, for the day after they married in March 1845 Fergus returned to his struggling foundry, a pattern he maintained those first years. James later described their developing relationship to a daughter:
Mother and I were both human neither of us were saints. She had been the family pet. I had just gone into a new business (in Moline) where I had to learn to make contracts, to be a moulder, machinest, furnace man, blacksmith, patternmaker, bookeeper, shipper and collector, had to work Sundays or post books [consequently] no time was left for petting. Mother could not understand it I was quick tempered. She was stubborn and unyielding . . . but was refused nothing, always had all she wanted.
This extreme capacity to and devotion for work created family tension. In addition, "Our ways were different I was a book worm she wanted petting and had pets." [James Fergus, penciled rough draft of letter to a daughter, undated, Box 11 F. 65, FP, UM.]
Their combined maturity and a growing family kept them together during these trying years. James' devotion to work brought prosperity but forced him to sell the foundry to preserve his health. They left the relative comfort of Moline and within two years settled in Little Falls on the Minnesota frontier. Pamelia struggled the rest of her life on frontiers of varying refinement, for she had married a restless man who felt tied to no area and sensed opportunity just over the mountains or across the plains.
Financial problems placed increasing burdens on Pamelia during the Little Falls business failure. By the spring of 1860 James extricated himself from the company and headed for Pikes Peak, leaving his wife in charge of four children. While never suffering physically as many women in similar circumstances, Pamelia experienced mental anguish. James left her to raise the children, manage the house and livestock and try to salvage something from a foundering company. She was to carry out these assignments with little or no apparent income; in fact, James urged her to sell some of their town lots to provide money, despite a depressed economy. All of this agonized the inexperienced Pamelia; in addition, she worried about her distant husband's welfare, like any concerned wife.
While in Colorado, James noted his wife's torment and did his best to console and build her self-confidence. He insisted, "My going away has and will be a great benefit to you, by throwing you on your own resources and leaving you to do business for yourself." [James Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, October 10, 1860, Box 17 F. 17, FP, UM. Pamelia also suffered through the 1862 Sioux uprising while James mined in Montana. She never mentions experiencing any physical harm. Actually, she did not discuss it with James, unless those letters have been destroyed. Considering this magnitude of the danger (at least the potential danger) and what terror Little Falls probably weathered, one would expect her letters to be saturated with such an event.] As things turned out James proved at least partially right, for Pamelia's Little Falls burdens provided the steel she needed to survive the Montana frontier. However much James expected of his wife and however much he complimented her by entrusting her with business and family, he assumed a dangerous risk. A lesser woman might have been crushed under the weight of these overbearing problems. That Pamelia was not is mute testimony to this remarkable woman's inner strength. Nonetheless, Pamelia rejoiced when Fergus returned after a disappointing eighteen months in Colorado.
six months James again left his family in Minnesota, this time for the
Beaverhead gold mines and ultimately
Alder Gulch. Pamelia was left to manage alone once more and suffered the trials of an Indian uprising without her man. As in Colorado, James wrote faithfully regardless of his exhaustion; but this time he could send more money, for he prospered instead of failing. By the winter of 1863-64 Pamelia had been separated too long, and though she yearned for the comforts of civilization, she loaded their children and belongings and left Little Falls for good, pointed towards the Montana mining frontier.
The glue which held the Fergus family together those first twenty years was devotion—Pamelia's devotion to James, though she would have chosen a different life, and James' devotion to his family, in business and while in the mountains. Unlike many men, when he left his family for the mines he did not forget them but kept wife and children in the center of his being, a primary concern. [For example, in 1875 John Alt died. Alt left his family in Minnesota and headed for the mountains. Unlike Fergus, he never provided for them or returned. Fergus commented: "Poor John has made a great deal of money in this country, he ought to have had his wife here and been well off but he has lived fast, been always in debt, spent his money in eating, drinking and with women. I think he thought a great deal of his wife, but with him it was out of sight out of mind. In her last letter to us about two years ago she said she had not received a dollar from him since he left Minnesota." James Fergus to William Butler, March 20, 1875, Box F. 58, FP, UM.]
According to James, he and Pamelia never really grew close or learned to understand each other "until we worked together or had interests in common or rather until she had her own way with the Butler Stage Station." Before that their relationship had been more of a restrained partnership devoted to their children. [When exchanging letters between the mountains and Minnesota, James usually addressed them "Dear Wife," and closed with "James Fergus." She addressed him "Dear Husband," and closed with "Your Wife," or "Pamelia."]
Like on many other issues, Fergus held very definite views on marriage. His oldest daughter, Mary Agnes, married R. S. Hamilton while Fergus mined in Colorado [sic, should be Montana]. Before he learned of their intent they had married, though he opposed it because "I never knew two persons less fit to live together in my life." Both were hot tempered and quick to find fault. They soon had troubles, prompting these words of advice to Agnes the fall of 1866:
You must not receive visits from John Ross or any other man during Robert's absence (I have written Ross to stay away) don't talk back so much to Robert. When he abuses you with his tongue let him go on. When you want money to buy shoes or any thing ask him for it at once. Get what clothes you need. Learn to be economical in cooking, lay aside your novel reading and learn to write a decent letter one that your friends will not be ashamed of. Keep your house neat and tidy. Everything in its place and your husband whatever may be his faults will think more of you and will have less cause of complaint.
James agreed with his tempestuous daughter that her husband should be home more but "unless that home is pleasant and his wife takes pains to make it pleasant he may have some thought or reason for staying away."
Neither did Fergus hesitate to write his quick tempered son-in-law, scolding him for failing to provide his daughter with adequate clothes. He encouraged Robert to stay home more often and thus encourage Agnes to do the same for "a man's place in his spare hours is at home with his family as well as a woman's" [James Fergus to Agnes Fergus Hamilton, August 23, 1866, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM. James Fergus to R. S. Hamilton, September 9, 1866, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM.]
Of course James issued this advice based on his own marriage. James spent his time either at work or at home with his family. He neither smoked nor drank. [The only record of a James Fergus drinking bout surfaced in 1859 when numerous St. Anthony Falls, Minnesota, notables invited him to help celebrate the Robert Burns centennial. Speeches became more bearable when washed down with several tubs of Scotch whiskey. Fergus sat across from an old Scotsman who "took good care to fill my glass as often as empty, which unfortunately to be fashionable in such a gathering was not seldom, and to tell the truth I drank more than I have in many years and probably as much as any man their. A few could not navigate when I left and I was sober as a judge and stranger still next morning I had no head ache and have had none since." This bragging was done in a letter from Fergus to C. A. Freeman, January 28, 1859, Box 11 F. 56, FP, UM.] When working closely with Granville Stuart in the Moccasin Roundup he encouraged the elimination of whiskey and gambling in the field, probably without success. Stuart agreed, though he did not think it a problem on his ranch, insisting he simply fired any cowboy caught drunk. [Granville Stuart to James Fergus, April 10, 1885, SC, YUL.] Fergus considered swearing vulgar, especially in women, and opposed novel reading as a waste of time.
James may have been home when not working but he was, by his own admission, not an affectionate man. He viewed kissing, other than with his wife, as "repugnant." [James Fergus to Luella Gilpatrick, October 16, 1887, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.] Though he loved his children, James tried to inculcate self discipline, a trait he considered most valuable and of which he was quite proud; as might be expected from an orderly man, he encouraged more reading and less rough-housing. Luella, his second daughter, later viewed it this way:
We were not allowed to talk to our mother never. But everything is changed and different [now]. You speak of the young people today being noisy and rough. The real fact is father we Children were very quiet more so than the generality of children in our day and you have never been accustomed to a lot of noisy boys and girls. [Luella Gilpatrick to James Fergus, January 17, 1894, Box 4 F. 25, FP, UM. Luella then raised a question plaguing every older generation: "And then too I think that even city girls and boys are noisier and ruder than they used to be. The fashion of saying rude things thinking they are smart is quite the fashion even among those from whom you expect better things. This running around dancing and card playing is being carried to extremes in both city and country. There are dances every night here in town but it is considered more fun to go out in the country to dance and not get home until morning."]
The Fergus children apparently had few parties, and those Pamelia organized. Still, though he did not approve of excessive frivolity, he loved his children enough to leave work and briefly visit these gatherings. Luella reminisced: "I could not help but think of our parties and that Father was never to busy that he could come over from the office and see us at the table, and have something to say to the children. [Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to Andrew Fergus, December 1, 1875, Box 15 F. 1, FP, UM.]
For Pamelia the 1870's came to be a decade of something more than hard work on ranch and stage station. These years brought them closer together. By the end of the decade the girls had all married and left home, while Andrew spent much time working another ranch in the Prickly Pear Valley. But Pamelia achieved her greatest contentment in the 1880's, though again she labored for her remaining family. She knew Armells represented their last move and she grew secure in this knowledge.
They both worked hard. In 1883 James described himself as "the Old Man [who] is doubling up fast, though always busy, always walking with a cane and sometimes two." He pictured his wife as the "Madame [who] fails less than I do, works hard, doing nearly all the work for nine men, makes butter, raises chickens, has flowers and plants indoors and out and is always busy." [James Fergus to "Friend Mills," May 7, 1883, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.]
Armells may have been her final home, but it was lonely on the plains for the gregarious Pamelia. Her nearest neighbor, the Granville Stuart family, was twenty long miles toward Maginnis. With her youngest daughter married and in Oregon, she was often the only woman at Armells. In addition, Pamelia "never left the ranch unless the men folks were going some place on business." She never lacked things to do, however, for like the rancher, his wife's work is seldom done. She raised chickens, cared for the garden and flowers, made butter and cooked for the men. She sewed rags for carpets, braided rugs and pieced blocks for patch-work quilts during the long winter evenings, while James read aloud to her. [Fergus sketch by Mrs. Allis Stuart, Manuscript Case, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL.]
A friend described Pamelia as "very industrious, a fine housekeeper and a natural home maker, always cheerful and helpful." In addition to looking after her household, she found time for books and kept well posted, prompted by the interest James held in current events. Her "gentile sympethetic nature" brought love and respect from all. "The men that worked on the ranch one in all loved Mrs. Fergus and would do anything for her, and was careful not to do anything that might displease her." [Ibid.]
Pamelia endured trying times on the ranch, however, even though "once settled at Armells she was very happy." After reaching Montana, Pamelia gained recognition for her "courage, tact and cheerfulness," and on occasion needed all she could muster to survive. Though she had known Indians from childhood, living in the isolation of Armells, twenty some miles from Fort Maginnis and military protection, proved unsettling at best. Armells sat astride traditional hunting grounds and Fergus needed the first few years to determine who would control them, the ranchers or Indians. Worse still, Pamelia seldom had women available in whom to confide fears or apprehensions; her first summer at Armells she did not see a white female for three months as Granville Stuart had not yet brought out his family. [Fergus County Argus, December 18, 1908. Actually, she may not have seen a white woman even then for Granville Stuart married an Indian.]
One potentially explosive incident illustrates her courage and tact. With James and Andrew absent, some sixteen Crow warriors stopped at the Fergus ranch. Mistreated in their last encounter with whites, the angry Indians remained for what seemed like days—fully thirty-six hours, but Pamelia handled them "so cleverly, that, while they remained at the ranch . . . they were friendly and grateful when they left, and no collision of any sort had occurred. They had come demanding food and good treatment and were in an angry mood, ready to destroy any who didn't provide both." [Ibid.]
James and Pamelia grew closer with age, increasingly dependent on each other. James acknowledged their close relationship in the years at Armells:
Our Children being all married but Andrew he seldom at home and me an invilid we were always together and thought far more of each other than we did when we were young. I think people of good sense generally do, having lived so long together they become forgiving and one becomes as it were a necessity to the other, I know it was so with us. [James Fergus to Mrs. Harding, n.d. (probably late 1887). Box 11 F. 65, FP, UM.]
By the fall of 1886 Pamelia experienced "shooting pains in her right side," which she first thought to be a cold and then rheumatism when it grew worse. As her condition deteriorated, James became alarmed and "looked up all the medical books in the house and came to the conclusion it was cancer." Andrew at once took his mother to Helena for medical aid; James made plans to send her to the states, possibly accompanying her, for additional help. [James Fergus to Mrs. D. P. Shafer, February 1887, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.]
Pamelia stayed in Helena with Luella that winter, receiving available medication. She spent the spring at Armells to have the last few months of her life with James:
She endeared herself to us all but particularly to me during the past year on account of her sufferings which were such that how-might it greave us to part with her for her own sake we were reconciled to some extent when they were over. The sufferings of our nearest and dearest and our constant care and efforts to relieve them creates a sympathy and kindness that nothing else can. [James Fergus to Mrs. Harding, Box 11 F. 65, FP, UM. Though Luella vowed to her father on March 12, 1887 (Box 4 F. 21, FP, UM) after Pamelia had breast surgery, "never mind the money matters so long as Collins or I had a cent she would have every chance that medical aid could give her," the cancer had spread, within a few months, to the point where little could be done. As her doctor said, "al that could be done was to palliate the pain as much as possible and to keep her comfortable." Luella to James Fergus, October 3, 1887, Box 4 F. 21, FP, UM.]
Late in September Pamelia returned to Helena to receive what medical comfort she could. James saw her the last time as he helped her on the train: "I went to the railroad 125 miles with them with my own conveyance expecting to follow them in a few days after I got home but on reaching Helena she died within three days after she got there," on October 6, 1887. [James Fergus, rough draft in pencil, to a Glasgow, Montana, friend, 1888, Box 11 F. 60, FP, UM.] Following a lawyer's advice, just before she died, James had Pamelia deed all her land to him so they would not lose it. He worried especially about the desert land claim as it contained the orchard and lay adjacent to the main homestead and house. [James Fergus to Luella Fergus Gilpatrick, October 4, 1887, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.]
The family held a small funeral four days after Pamelia died, which Andrew could not attend. He accompanied Fergus cattle to Chicago before his mother went to Helena and did not learn of her death until later. Even in his sorrow James thought of his absent son, writing him before and after the funeral services—it almost seems as though James found comfort in writing:
I write this while friends are gathering for mothers funeral. She lies in a gorgeous coffin surrounded by satins and flowers which are in marked contrast with her thin cold emaciated face and surrounded by her sorrowing children and friends. Lewis Randall crying like a child. T. C. Power, A. M. Holter, Judge Hedges, Robert Barnes, Culbert and some other that I can't remember. Yes it is a joke Feldbert, acting as paul bearers. Sanders makes some remarks, will finish this when the funeral is over. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, October 10, 1887, Box 4 F. 3, FC, MHSL. Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
As James himself described the funeral to the Mineral Argus, "due to the wishes of the deceased, no religious services were held. Col. Sanders made appropriate remarks." ["A Friend" to Mineral Argus, October 11, 1887.] James requested Wilbur F. Sanders, for years a close friend, to give some non-religious comments. Sanders readily agreed, closing with some thoughts Fergus wrote:
Friends—the dead wife, mother and friend who lies here belonged to no religious sect, believed in no religious dogma and desired no religious services over her remains. The wishes of the living will be kept as a sacred contract with the dead. While she could not understand how she could live after death, or locate a heaven or a hell, she clearly comprehended the duties appertaining to her station in life and in their performance was an obedient child, a faithful wife, a loving mother, a true friend and an honest woman, performing her full duty in all stations in life, beloved by all, leaving not an enemy behind. When our end comes may as much be said of us. [Helena Independent, n.d., Box 21 F. 5, FP, UM.]
As services concluded and friends left, James returned to Luella's and finished his letter to Andrew:
5 oclock. funeral over had a moderate attendance owing to no paper being published today, but it was select, mostly friends. Col. Sanders delivered a beautiful and appropriate address. The coffin was covered with wreaths of beautiful flowers and lots strewed on the grave. The girls cried themselves sick.
James then resigned himself to the situation, acting like the stoic he tried to be. "So poor mother is gone. It is but a mater of time when we will all go the same way." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, October 10, 1887, Box 4 F. 3, FC, MHSL.]
Though Fergus expressed less outward sorrow than his daughters and most friends, he missed Pamelia more than any other. As Luella wrote Andrew, "Poor old Father it was a hard blow for him but he seems resigned now." [Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to Andrew Fergus, October 12, 1887, MC, MHSL.] James did not like undue fuss nor being the center of affectionate attention; nor did he enjoy Helena but for short visits. Besides, he had a large ranch to manage, and with Andrew in Chicago, James returned to Armells, however lonely, six days after the funeral. Even then he took the time to thank his daughters and friends for their help during the funeral. Though not an emotional person, James came as close to emotionalism here as he ever did, though of course it emerged on paper and not verbally:
Everything is as usual but no Mother here. How I would like to tell her about my trip and how she would like to hear it. How I started in a snow storm. How you waited for me to get there. How Collins and Sanders met me at the depot. How I was met with kisses formerly so repugnant to me, but tolerated and rendered pleasant by the friendship and warmth with which they were given. How by the exercise of a mistaken duty I was not allowed to enter her room, of the sympathizing friends the beautiful casket, the more beautiful flowers which she so much admired and loved, of the absence of religious services according to her wishes, of the beautiful words spoken by Mr. Sanders, of who was pall-bearers about the pleasant burial plot, away from unsightly stones and to oneside, of the delicacy without being hinted at of leaving a space outside of hers for Father, if need be as if to protect her if needed in death as in life, and of the general sympathy and kindness among all classes,
But Mother is beyond all that, she has fulfilled one of natures laws; she and us following the same laws will soon be forgotten. Still while she was but little to the world she was wife and mother to us and will live in our memories while we live, through a long life I have tried to be a stoic and philosoper, but this has brought me down to humanity, and here alone I can pour out a flood of tears, which of itself will be a tribute of love. I know that you children have only done what you believed to be your duty. Still as a father you have all my heartfelt thanks for your kindness and in this to me the greater affliction. And to Collins in particular for the delecate and judicious manner in which the whole was conducted. [James Fergus to daughters and friends, October 16, 1887, Box 4 F. 21, FP, UM.]
With Pamelia gone James' life at Armells changed, though he continued to work with the ranch for fifteen long years. Pamelia had been, for over forty years, the core of his life, his companion and trusted confidant. With her gone James had no such person at Armells, where he remained almost constantly, with whom he could candidly "talk." Andrew shouldered an increasing share of ranch management but left often; then too, they did not always agree on policy. Thus James dearly missed his wife, especially during the late 1890's, when he consumed hours worrying of ranch management and dividing his property among the children.
That December James and Andrew remained at Armells for Christmas. Though lonely, neither felt much like celebrating in Helena; possibly they were somehow drawn together without Pamelia. [Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to James Fergus, December 28, 1887, Box 15 F. 1, FP, UM.] Two years later Luella paid tribute to her mother. Luella, in her maturity and having, to her, serious problems while living in the comfort of a city, marveled at her mother's ability under primitive conditions.
Mother was not one to tell of her experiences so we may not know many of them. I often wonder how she worked as she did all through the change [of life] and no doubt many times hardly able to keep up but never complained. The older I get and know what she did I think her a remarkable woman. Her energies of brain and muscle went in her work and she had the time to use her brain in other directions without so much muscular or physical labor she would have been remarkable in some other line but she did what was given her to do and did it abley. [My work] seems a drop along side of her daily work. [Ibid., March 24, 1899, Box 5 F. 2, FP, UM.]