My family is donating its family papers to Chapman University. These are not just papers of my mother, my father and myself. They are papers of my grandparents: Burgess Dempster, Nell McBroom Dempster, Roland Stahr, and Dudley Casteel Stahr. And they are in some cases papers of my great-grandparents, including my namesake Walter Casteel and my adoptive great-grandfather George Edwin Rogers. There are some letters from others in the Rogers family, notably his father, George E. Rogers, born about 1853 and died about 1936. And there are letters from many many others: friends, family, in some cases total strangers.
Often, with folks who died fifty or a hundred years ago, it is possible to find where they lived and where they worked, but not much about their inner life. That is not the case for George Edwin Rogers. The papers we are giving to Chapman include dozens of diaries, covering more or less the last sixty years of his life, and dozens of letters, including the letters that he wrote home from the Alaska Gold Rush.
George Edwin Rogers was born on 25 May 1872 in Illinois. He shows up in the 1880 census as a boy of eight, living with his parents in Butler, Illinois, with three younger siblings: Florence, Grace and Charles. Rogers apparently studied engineering at Purdue for three years; I see him in student directories and (much later) he answered a census question by saying he had three years of college. After college he apparently taught school; one of his gold rush letters talks about how he does not want to return to teaching when he returns from Alaska.
The first letter, or perhaps I should say first letter that I dared to open, for many are in very fragile condition, is from Ballard, Washington, 18 Apr 1898, addressed to his mother Louise in Thayer, Indiana. Edwin and his brother Charles are working on a ship, the Steamer Evans, and hoping to leave soon for Alaska. A few weeks later he writes that they are leaving any day, and then on 30 May 1898 there is a long letter explaining why they are NOT leaving: the ship has ceased to pay their wages, the ship is subject to thousands of dollars of claims, including hundreds of dollars owed to each of Edwin and Charles. Here is the letter in part:
“[The ship Evans] has been libeled to the extent of over $11000 with 3 or 4 thousand to follow. If not settled the case will go to court June 9. Chas. has claims against her for nearly $200, I for more than that. Besides work there is my money paid in for freight. I think I can recover it. Have seen a lawyer, the best in Seattle. The worst thing about this is this: Delay first. Second a shortage to make the trip and buy outfit on. One should have $800 to be in the best condition to start out for 18 months. $500 is too little. It would have been very well if I could have worked my way up. The regular fare is $300 besides freight. One can go however now for that money with freight. It looks as though I may be compelled to stay here this year and work in order to have sufficient funds to make the trip in safety. I shall not start unless I feel that I’m safely provided for. It would mean failure and total loss of the money and I shall write to my grubstakers to this effect and if they are not suited offer to refund the money which I can do if I get it out of the Evans. If they say refund it will be Washington or vicinity instead of Alaska. I’m sure I can get work here at fair wages and in a short time. This is a better place than Indiana for a working man, and the west is likely to see me from now on.”
Somehow this worked out and the brothers left for Alaska on board the Evans that summer. There is a letter from Edwin, from the steamer Evans, in the Yukon River, dated 22 Sept 1898. Here is that letter, in part:
“The thermometer now stands at 30 and we cannot run many days more. Our pilot says that it is doubtful if we can reach Fort Yukon, but should make Rampart City alright. I hope so as it is but 95 miles from Circle City where I want to get this winter on account of the mail. Wood here sells for 10 to 15 dollars a cord. If Chas. and I get frozen in where the mines cannot be conveniently reached we will cut wood no doubt and hold it till next summer and then sell to the steamers. We have but two axes and will need two more for safety sake, and a grindstone. If we can get these at Rampart we will be all right. They will probably cost about two ounces. Bacon sells at 40 cents, sugar 25 cents, condensed milk $10 a case of 4 dozen. Flour $5 a sack. Evaporated fruit 25 cents per pound. I believe that good money can be made here in raising a small garden, but seeds are not to be had so far. If you can send me a few hardy seeds in letters (packages won’t come early enough) to Circle City, also to Rampart City, 3 packages each of lettuce, radish and onions. I’d like to give them a fair trial. Chas. traded for two foxskins of which we will make a pair of socks for each of us wearing the fur inside.”
It seems that the brothers did not make it to Circle City that winter, but stayed in a cabin near Rampart City, for there is a letter from there in February 1899, explaining that he was in town to buy provisions after their cabin in the woods burned down. Edwin and his brother did reach Circle City, however, for there are several letters from there, the first of which is 26 July 1899, which includes the great quote: “This is a country where one must hustle to live at all, but one gets paid for hustling. I hope to clear from 500 to 1000 dollars for myself the coming year.” The brothers stayed in and near Circle City for about a year, surviving in the winter, and seeking gold in the summer. There is a letter from there on 13 June 1900, which reads in part:
I wonder if it isn’t warmer here today than in Thayer. The sun shines from a cloudless sky; there is scarcely any breeze and one is reminded of tropic lands. Bright flowers are on every hand; the willows’ dark green and the lighter green of the grass form a pleasing contrast. The creek murmurs a sleepy song. Butterflies flit from flower to flower. Robins dart restlessly about. The moss on the hill opposite is like a meadow.
It would appear that Edwin came home that summer; he notes in another letter that Charles was thinking of staying on for another year.
On 26 June 1901, George Edwin Rogers married Maud McBroom in Lafayette, Indiana. A few days later he wrote to his parents that he supposed his sister Florence “has told you about the ceremony. It was so uncomfortable a sensation I’d not want to experience it very often! I guess the witnesses had a more comfortable time than I did! Maud says I was pale but I could have made affidavit that my face was the color of a May strawberry, it was so hot.”
There are a couple of letters from 1901 addressed to Edwin and Maud in Milwaukee, but it seems that by the next year they were in Chicago and Edwin was working for the Chicago Iron & Bridge Company in Washington Heights. There are several letters addressed to Edwin and Maud Rogers in that year, some to the company, some to two different home addresses. Soon they were in Chicago, and he was working for the Chicago Iron & Bridge Company, apparently on RR construction projects.
By 1911, however, it seems that they had settled in El Paso, Texas, for there is a letter that year from Edith McBroom Bryan to her mother, Francenia McBroom, and her sister, Maud McBroom Rogers, in El Paso. And starting in the next year Maud McBroom Rogers appears pretty often in the El Paso Herald paper, singing in the Presbyterian church choir, playing bridge with other ladies.
From my perspective, the most important decision Edwin and Maud Rogers made was to adopt my grandmother, Nell McBroom, after the death of her parents. I know some of this story and can guess at other parts. I know, for example, that Edwin and Maud Rogers had no children of their own and that my great-grandmother Mary McBroom died of consumption in March 1916. Because it was consumption, her death was not a surprise: were there perhaps conversations even before her death about what would happen to her only surviving child, Nell? Did Maud Rogers say to her brother Lynn MacBroom (he spelled his name differently) something like “do not worry, if something happens to your wife, Edwin and I will look after Nell?” Did Maud discuss the issue with Edwin?
Not long after Mary’s death, in Burlington, Vermont, in March 1916, Maud Rogers got on the train in El Paso, Texas, went all the way to Vermont, brought Nell back to El Paso, and started to care for her there. My grandmother, when I interviewed her late in her life, recalled that she had more or less ruled herself when her mother was dying, and that her aunt imposed rules and order. The Chapman collection will have letters from this period, from Lynn and Maud and Edwin and even little Nell, which shed some light on family relations and hopes. For example, there are lovely letters from 8 Dec 1917 from both Edwin and Maud Rogers to Lynn MacBroom in Norfolk. Lynn had been battling illness, and Edwin urges his brother-in-law to think about a warmer, healthier climate. Maud writes about Nell “what a wonderful college girl Nellie Maud would make reared with that idea as her star! For ten years your daughter is well educated. She is now entering the most delicate and trying period of her whole life.” Note the vocabulary: Nell was still Lynn’s daughter, just a long-term boarder with her aunt and uncle, not yet their daughter. This is confirmed by a newspaper report from the El Paso paper, noting that the Rogers family was moving to Dallas with their “small niece.”
A few months later, in February 1918, Lynn Rowland MacBroom died in Norfolk, perhaps an early victim of the flu epidemic. Again, I can imagine the conversation: Edwin and Maud would have told Nell not to worry, that she would live with them in Dallas, that they would raise her as their own daughter. I do not know if there was an official adoption but should perhaps look for that. I do know that, in 1920, when the census taker showed up, Edwin told him that Nell was his adopted daughter.
Edwin was a civil engineer, working on the RRs. He appears in the 1921 and 1923 directories of the American Society of Civil Engineers as an employee in Dallas of the Texas & Pacific Railroad. The high school yearbook for North Dallas High School for 1925 notes of my grandmother (Nellie Maud MacBroom she spelled her name) that she “her brain was out of all proportion to the rest of her body.” Edwin and Maud ensured that Nell DID go to college; she went to SMU for one year and then to the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1929. It was not unheard of for women to receive four-year degrees in 1929: a bit of quick research suggests that 48,000 women did in that year. But it was not common, not the way it is standard for both men and women to go to college today.
In 1930, Edwin and Maud appear in the census living in Hobbs, New Mexico. It seems that he was working on the so-called New Mexico extension of the Texas & Pacific RR. Among his diary entries for that year is one on May 31, noting that my grandmother Nell married Burgess Dempster on that day at the Unitarian Church in Dallas. It was, Edwin noted, a “lovely wedding.”
Let me close with a quote from a 1957 letter from my grandmother to the man she referred to as “uncle.” She writes “your birthday is Saturday the big day. I’ve been thinking and thinking about you as I have been rushing from place to place—how wonderful you are, how patient, long suffering, kind and generous, forgiving, and with such a keen mind interested in such a wide variety of things.”
Edwin died about two years later, 16 Sept 1959, in Santa Ana, I assume at the home of my grandparents, but I suppose perhaps at a hospital.
I am hoping that this “teaser” will prompt someone to go to Chapman, to look at the Edwin Rogers materials, and to write a better longer biography, perhaps an article for an Alaska history publication. I may do it myself someday, when I am done with Salmon Chase.