Local History Sent from England
Allegan County history can be found in many unlikelyplaces. Recently a copy of three letters was received from a gentleman namedTony Hibberdine of Berkshire, England.
The letters hadbeen received in 1864 and 1876 by his great-great-grandfather, from a brotherwho was trying to make his living in America. He lived first in Ganges Townshipand later moved to the outskirts of Saugatuck. Not only are they an interestingwindow on the struggling new farmer in Michiganin 1864, but, on a broader view, offer an Englishman's point-of-view on theAmerican civil war and other points of national politics. Some excerpts fromthe first letter, written on February 2, 1864;
It seems a long time since I heard any thingfrom England.We have been having some intensely cold weather, such as was never everwitnessed before not only cattle & hogs but many people have been frozen todeath. This taken in conjunction with the short crop last year makes thingslook very gloomy. I understand the present draft in this town is nearly made uplacking only one more man, but the talk now is of calling out 500,000 more andfinishing the thing up. I cannot see the necessity, the North has now over I,000,000 men in the field, it seems to me to be aspeculation to make the rich man richer and the poor man poorer. I am awarethat the working mans wages are higher than they were but not in sufficientproportion. Corn that used to be 21- pr. bushel is now 91, potatoes that were26 are 76/- & all other things in proportion. lbelieve this coming year will be a good one for farmers. More than half of myhay was spoiled in the stack by being drawn in too green, but I had to get abarn when I could. I have a cow and three calves & 3 hogs and have not feedanough to last them a week and there is but little tobe bought without going 30 miles after it. If I sell then I cannot get halftheir worth, if I can keep them through they will be worth a good deal to me. Ihave about 4 acres of wheat growing, shall have about 3 acres to plant to corn,& a potatoe patch & garden besides my hay tocut next summer, so that another fall if l can attend to it I shall be wellsupplied, if I cannot get a team I dont think I shalltry, but just let the ground lay & work out by the day.
A team of oxen & wagon would now cost 25pounds, they used to be bought for 15 pounds. and I think these prices will continue for several years.English money is now worth 30 percent more than it will be when the war isover; if I had realised all the necessary things& expenses attendant upon working a farm I never should have undertaken it,but if I can get once started to raising crops it will soon begin to pay well.
Today I believe is Selma's birthday 2 years older than myself, it hardly seems possible to me, my life is as adream, but dreams like life pass away. I dont knowwhy it is but it seems to me as if I could visit my native home once more &return & see my family comfortably settled, l should be ready to die.
Marthahas a brother just returned from the army sick. I think it doubtful if he everrecovers but if he does he will probably be ruined for life, very few thatreturn from the south sick ever wholly recover.
The people alreadybegin to be excited about the election of another President. I should notwonder if Mr. Lincoln is re-elected. I look forward to raithertroublesome times & expect to see, if I live a few more years, quite achange in our government affairs. I little envy Maximillianhis new throne, the American people will never long consent to an empire thisside of the Atlantic, it is evident they mean to make themselves a first classfighting power both by sea & land & their present struggle must endbefore long. There is no doubt but when the leading spirits of the South aredisposed of the people soon become loyal to the one flag. ...
I have spent 2 or 3 days trying to find something for my cattle to eatso far without success. l am going again today, if I dont succeed I shall have to seelthem for what I can get. I had no idea things were so scarce or I would havelooked out sooner. We are having quite a sick time in our house the last fewdays. Martha & her sister are both under the doctorscare. I feel gloomy this morning & long for winter to end,my neighbours are doing well with their reams theyget plenty of work for them at 4 dollars pr day more than t can pay.
Black asthings seemed for the Hibberdine family in Ganges they were going to get worse. In May the farm wassold at public auction for debt. On May 2, 1864, James penned a second letterasking his brother for financial assistance. He needed $60 to enable him to buythe farm back at the auction: "I have just attended the sale by publicauction of my land and according to agreement it was bid off to me at thespecified price of 400 dollars. That is the closing sale money and the deed andtitle are perfectly good but there requires to be paid 60 dollars in 5 weeks& English money is worth 70 per cent premium so that 9[pounds] would aboutpay it. I wish you could send it to me it will release me from all carerelative to my land. I expect to commence working out in about 10 days I getgood wages and think I shall be able to fetch every thing round all right by nextwinter."
There is no notation anywhere thatthe money was sent or received from England. On August 30 the couple'sonly child, an eight-year-old son, Charles, died and was buried in the Loomiscemetery.
In desperationJames Hibberdine enlisted in the Union army, CompanyI of the 17th Infantry. On September 6, 1864, he was mustered in at Jackson and arrived in Virginiain time to participate in the last months of the siege of Petersburg, and its fall on April 3, 1865. Hewas mustered out June 3, 1865, as a corporal, and returned to Allegan County.The couple moved to Saugatuck where they owned a small plot of land on thenorthwest corner of Maple and Allegan streets. Three children were born thereto James and his wife, the former Martha Veeder.James Eugene Hibberdine became a sailor on the GreatLakes and died in Michigan Cityin 1939. Sue, or Susie, was a popular young lady in Saugatuck, but died in 1897following surgery for a tumor. Emma Kate became the wife oflumbering and shipping magnate Oscar E. Parks of Michigan City, Indiana.
The third letter was written in1876 and addressed vaguely to "My dear Friends." Tony reports thathis ancestor had died and the letter was received by the widow. In it Jamesphilosophized:
... what a checkered life ours is to look back, manyseasons of joy, many of disappointment and bereavement. .. I still look forbetter brighter days but it will take some time to get started again, we are sobadly torn to pieces. .. all I can do is the best Ican.
As he had feared James neverrecovered from the hardships of army life and died in 1888, at the age of 60.His wife, Martha, died in 1901.
Copies of the letters found their way backto Saugatuck after James' great-great-nephew visited the Singapore Bank Bookstorehoping to find trails of his ancestors. When asked to share the fetters withlocal historians he responded promptly. In his kind letter of transmittal hewrote: if you can find out any more information about my relatives, I would bemost grateful. .. It is unlikely that I shall be able to visit Saugatuck againduring my lifetime, but one never knows. It is a delightful spot and it is nowonder my
ancestors settled there."
James Hibberdine obituary
[As we seek information on ourpast we can only imagine some of the wonderful historical documents andartifacts that dwell in family archives throughout the world. I often wish thateach historical society would share with their counterparts in other places,items that come to them that have an emphasis outside their immediate area ofinterest, in the hope that other societies will do the same.]