Independence Day

By Paul Hosford

The trouble with never throwing anything away is that sooner or later you run out of space for everything. Save things over a span of generations and it can really get crowded. While waiting for fireworks on the Fourth, I decided to sort through an old suitcase in hopes I could throw it away. It turned out to contain papers, photos and one old table knife that had belonged to my great aunt and uncle.

It was fascinating to go through. He passed away in 1963 and at the top were bills he’d paid shortly before his death. Their natural gas bill had been $5. Property taxes for their farm were $337 – today they’re $2,947! The sale of their farm equipment had netted them about $1,200.

Moving deeper into the pile carried me backwards in time. He stopped farming with horses and bought a 12 horsepower Allis-Chalmers “C” in 1949 from Warner Farm Supply, Phone 17. The tractor cost $1,174 and a mounted 2-row lister $225. Today you could multiply those prices by 100.

There was a card for a businessman in “Habana, Cuba” from before Castro’s revolution. Then there were owner’s manuals for a 1960 Chevy and a 1954 Crosley TV, both of which were still in use far into my childhood; directions for a hearing aid built into a set of horn-rimmed glasses and instructions for a trick card deck that enabled my great-uncle to cheat without getting caught.

There were lots of old black and white photos. Some faces were familiar, but most were not. None had names, but a few had dates: August 1944, October 1941, Thanksgiving Day, 1938.

Near the bottom of the suitcase was a set of hand-written directions on how to tame a wild horse. It concluded with the simple observation that if you love the horse, the horse will love you. It was dated 1872, 15 years before my great-uncle’s birth.

There were also copies of two sale bills from pre-Civil War Kentucky. One began “Having sold my farm and am leaving for Oregon by ox-team…” and goes on to list what the farmer is leaving behind. Two cows and a mare, two yoke of oxen and an iron plow, 1,500 fence rails, a 60-gallon soap kettle, 10 gallons of maple syrup and a barrel of 7-year-old Johnston-Miller whiskey. He was also leaving 12 pitchforks, 2 spinning wheels, 30 lbs of tallow and a figle (?) with bullet molds and powder horns, along with six fox hounds, “all soft mouths but one!”

As an afterthought were listed “6 negro slaves, 4 men, 2 boys and 2 mulatto wenches.” Mercifully, they were to be sold “all together to one party as will not separate them.”

The second sale bill was dated Sept. 26, 1859. It was for a farmer moving from near Harrisburg to Missouri and started by listing “1 Buck N—– 25 yrs. Old wt. 219 lbs. 4 n—– wenches 18 to 24 years old. 3 n—- boys 6 years old.” It went on to list oxen and carts, whiskey jugs, “2Bbl saur kraut” and 2 tons of tobacco. Oh, and “1 extra good n—– whip.”

I suppose one must be prepared for anything when looking into the past…

I want to think that these sale bills didn’t involve anyone in my great-uncle’s family, that they were copied and preserved as a window to the past, but who knows? His family did come to Nebraska from Missouri, so the second sale bill (which doesn’t list the seller’s name) might have had a connection to his family.

I hope not.

Somewhere the descendants of those slaves sold at auctions in Kentucky, like the descendants of all slaves, struggle to come to terms with the lives their ancestors led. But to the rest of us, slavery is a wrong that happened long ago and righted by the Civil War. We intellectualize it today, like the Crusades or the Black Death. But stumbling on those sale bills and reading about those poor souls being sold like they were oxen, made slavery much more real to me.

Independence Day marks a milestone in human history, but July 4th, 1776, meant nothing to slaves, and we would do well to remember that Americans did not become free all at once. Independence has instead been an on-going process — a process that must continue until men, women and children everywhere are at last free.