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“i Then Went Hunting Buffalo…”

November 2023
1min read

Western pioneers, by and large, were not a wordy lot. Nor were they much given to complaint. But the following letter surely sets some sort of record for taciturnity in the face of hardship. It was written from Fort Worth, Texas, in 1878 by James Fitzwilliam, an ex-Confederate who had headed west after the Civil War, to a sister back East from whom he had just heard after a period of years. Her half of the exchange is lost, but she evidently had suffered a severe reversal of some kind and had written to see whether he might send her some money to tide her over.

His letter begins with an expression of sympathy for her “altered circumstances” and a promise to help out just as soon as he can. He, too, had had some reverses, however: he had a new job “sampling cotton,” but pneumonia laid him low for a time, and he ran up some eighty dollars worth of bills with his landlady and the local doctor. And then he had some other bad luck: “My Wife and little girl was kill’d by the Indians. House and everything in it burn’d. They took 27 head of horses. I was out after cattle. When I came home everything was gone. I with 9 others took their trail and followed for 8 days. Came on the band numbering about twenty-five. We kill’d 7 and we lost one man kill’d. I was shot in the arm with an arrow and the first-finger of my left hand was shot off. I came back to my ranch and sold out what cattle I had and what horses I had for $700 and went to New Mexico. Bought 1500 head of sheep. Drove them to Texas and the first Winter lost about 900 of them caused by Snow—cold Weather and Wolfs. Sold the remainder out for less than cost as I did not have Snow Sheds. I then went to work running cattle and worked a year. Made $300 dollars. I then went hunting Buffalo. Hunted them for three years. Quit that with about $900. Went to Henrietta Clay Co. this state and bought an interest in a Hotel. Run it about 8½ month and lost money at it. While hunting I contracted a catarrh in my nose. It has disfigured me considerable. In fact for the past five years I have had a terrible hard time.”

A month later, Fitzwilliam wrote to his sister again, according to his greatgrandnephew, James L. Cunningham of Des Pères, Missouri, who sent us the letter, and he enclosed the battered tintype above, displaying his maimed hand—all that he had left to remind him of his life on the frontier.

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