The Life and Times of Gideon Truesdell

      The Research and Writing of Western Fever
            During the 1970s James Michener’s Centennial became a best seller that were turned into landmark mini-series that grabbed the attention of millions of people, including a real estate developer named Patrick Truesdell.
            He wanted to hire somebody to research his ancestors who lived in Kenosha during the 1840s, so he placed a “help wanted” advertisement in the Kenosha News that caught my eye because even crummy jobs were hard to find that summer. I had just graduated from high school, and was working for an electrical contractor stockpiling cash for tuition and books, but once the job was over, I knew I would still need money.
            I gave Mr. Truesdell a call at Truesdell’s Auction & Galleries, and learned that he wanted somebody to dig through old courthouse records. I hadn’t done this type of work before so I was thorough, which caused him to ask me to travel to New York, Michigan, and New Mexico between semesters to see what I could dig up.
            I returned with hundreds of copies of documents back when courthouses only had one Xerox machine in the building, and an “out of order” sign meant taking pages and pages of notes. I also brought back some local history books that I was able to purchase, which gave me a feel for the various communities that Gideon Truesdell lived in.
            It was a good start, and there were a few surprises like the Billy the Kid connection. He lived with the Truesdells for five months, and academic scholars agree they knew him well. There was a close relationship because Louisa Truesdell cared for his mother when she was dying of tuberculosis.
            A few months into the research, Mr. Truesdell was thrilled with what I found, and this occurred at a time when nobody had heard of the Internet. At the age of nineteen, I really didn’t know what I was looking for but I began running across stray pieces of information.
            I knew from old Kenosha County courthouse records that Gideon Truesdell was declared bankrupt in Chicago, and I spent months trying to determine if there was still a file somewhere with his name on it. I knew this was important because it would give us a financial snapshot of his holdings in 1873, and from there I could reconstruct a lot of information. My research at that stage was very amateurish, but I was running across a lot of interesting information.
            He was declared bankrupt a long, long time ago so I wasn’t sure anything existed, but since I was able to go back a hundred years in the Kenosha courthouse, I figured I should be able to do the same. The only drawback was that there were entire buildings in Chicago that housed records, whereas in Kenosha there were five or six filing cabinets in the basement of the old courthouse.
            In 1977, while visiting the extremely busy Cook County Clerk of Court’s office in Chicago, a secretary took pity on me and pointed me in the right direction. This was right after Roots was on television and it seemed like everybody was researching their families. All you had to do is say “I’m looking for information about my family,” and employees would give you a hostile look.
            I had learned to preface my request with “I’m working my way through college and I was hired to do some research,” which usually worked. I mentioned that I wasn’t even sure if the bankruptcy papers still existed until she snapped “young man, the federal government never throws anything out,” as if any idiot would know this. She was right; I found a 233-page file “In the matter of Gideon Truesdell” was sitting out on Pulaski Road in a federal records archive.
            Another discovery was the confidential R.G. Dun & Company credit reports at Harvard, which gave detailed information about Gideon Truesdell, Harvey Durkee, and Durkee, Truesdell & Company. These reports weren’t 100% accurate but valuable in so many other ways.
            While waiting for an archivist to photocopy the entire bankruptcy file from 1873, which I learned was rarely done, an archivist asked if I had checked Gideon’s income tax records.
            I had never heard about a person’s tax records becoming a matter of public record, but during the 1860s the larger tax returns were often published in the newspapers, and it came from records that were warehoused in the federal archives.
            After traveling around the country between semesters Mr. Truesdell asked me to swing by Sacramento where he lived, and when he heard that accounting was my major, he asked me to look at his books, which were a complicated mess with over $60,000 of past-due bills lying in a box. (That was $60,000 in 1976 dollars!) I was there for a few weeks, and I put together a list of accounts payable, although after I left, I’m sure he went back to the cigar box system of accounting. He always regarded paying bills, taxes, and record keeping as a pain-in-the-neck.
            As interesting as my research was, by the end of my second year of college my part-time job ended when interest rates ruined Mr. Truesdell’s real estate business. I hadn’t been paid. I later discovered that appearances notwithstanding, he was strapped for cash right from the start of our relationship although I didn’t figure this out until it was too late. He was an interesting guy, and one of the best stories I heard him tell was how he bought an old string of pearls.
            This was back in the late 1960s when he would drive out to the old farming towns looking for farmhouses that belonged to older people, much the same as they do on American Pickers. At one particular farmhouse he noticed what he thought was a leftover Christmas wreath on the front door, that turned out to be a funeral wreath. Back in those days, this wasn’t unusual in rural areas when the funeral was conducted from the home, but when Pat pulled into the driveway, he had no idea that this wreath signified a death in the family.
            An older man opened the door and invited Pat into the house. “I’ve got a lot of my wife’s stuff you can buy cheap” he grunted, and sold him a couple of boxes of decent jewelry. On his way downstairs Pat sensed there was something odd about the sale, because there wasn’t any haggling, and just about everyone haggled over the price.
            “Is there anything else you might be interested in selling,” he asked? He thought for a couple of seconds before mentioning that his wife had a string of pearls if the price were right. Pat said that he would have to see them before he could make an offer so the old man walked over to a set of double doors, slid them open, and ushered him into an old-fashioned parlor where a casket stood in front of the windows.
            “Funeral’s tomorrow,” he said as he opened the casket. After Pat got a grip on himself, he realized that the necklace was worth at least $4,000 but he thought that he could get it for a lot less. “They’re beautiful but there isn’t much of a market for them, and she probably wanted to be buried with them,” he said feigning disinterest. The old man grunted that she would never know, and Pat said “I understand…they’re worth nothing in the ground.” The old man said that he was glad that she was dead, and Pat figured that she had been sick for a long time.
            Pat said that he really couldn’t go any higher than $600, which was true because that’s all the cash he had left, and much to Pat’s surprise the old man agreed. When the old man didn’t make any attempt to remove the pearls, Pat leaned over the casket, unclasped the pearls, and heard the old man mumble “I want to get rid of everything that bitch owned.”
            During the 1980s a few descendants ran across my research, and they were interested in who Gideon and Julia Truesdell were. In 1984, Hattie Truesdell Hector traveled to Silver City, and somebody gave her my last known address. She got in touch with me, and was stunned to discover that I had over a thousand pages of research about her great grandfather. “My Dad’s family was dirt poor…. how could they possibly have had that kind of money?” She was very interested in my research, and I was looking for a descendent to pass the torch too. I sent her what had become the “Truesdell mess” and she was very pleased to have it.
            I really hadn’t thought about Gideon Truesdell until 1991, when Jerry Weddle gave me a call inquiring about the Truesdells. After considerable research in Silver City, he ran across my work, and asked if I knew where he could find pictures of the Truesdells for the book he was writing about Billy the Kid’s early years in Silver City. I gave him a few names and addresses, and he was able to locate the pictures that appear in Antrim was my Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid.
            It was a thoroughly researched and superbly written book, and it has earned a place in the relatively small collection of books that are recognized by the academic community as definitive works. When it comes to Billy the Kid, you can discard about 80% of the books and magazine articles because most of it is fiction bordering on fantasy.
            During the 1990s a wealth of information found its way to the Internet, and after some preliminary searches I found a lot of new information. I would say the Internet and access to online newspaper collections easily tripled the volume of source materials that I now had at my fingertips. I discovered some fascinating historical overlays.
            Gideon’s partner in Durkee, Truesdell & Company was Charles Durkee, who was friends with a lot of important people in Washington where he served as a Congressman and Senator. He was on a first-name basis with Andrew Johnson, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of State William Seward, and Secretary of the Treasury William Fessenden.
            His brother, Harrison Durkee, was a charter member (1837) of the New York Stock Exchange, and was intimately connected with railroad tycoons Cornelius Vanderbilt and Erastus Corning. I also ran across the “lost Durkee millions,” a spectacular lawsuit against the federal government for $64 million ($1.9 billion today), when he had become a supplier of coal, provisions, and railroad ties for which he was paid in Union Pacific and Central Pacific bonds.
            Another surprise was Gideon’s Chicago attorney, who happened to be a close friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, and during the 1860 campaign he spent the night at Henry and Althea Blodgett’s Waukegan residence. Gideon’s other attorney, and he kept several of them busy because he would sue at the drop of a hat, was Orson Head, stage and screen legend Orson Welles’ great grandfather. Gideon was also a partner in the Kenosha Pier Company, one of the largest on Lake Michigan, where John V. Ayer, was a partner, and he was Gerald Ford’s great, grandfather.
            I found these unexpected historical twists and turns fascinating, and after a fifteen-year gap in my research, I found my interest renewed, more out of curiosity than a historic sense of duty. At the age of forty I found Gideon’s life and times far more interesting than I did at nineteen, and had been told that I had unearthed a lot of history. Nothing earth shattering, but a detailed look at life 175 years ago in specific towns.
            I’m not a writer but I always thought I could hire others to turn what I had into a regional history, which is what Professor Buenker suggested many years earlier when I submitted a copy of my thesis. During the early 1990s I recruited the first of four writers, mostly graduate students, to reduce over a thousand pages of complicated research into a manuscript, which in hindsight was a mistake.
            Each person had their own interpretation of the story with a distinct bias that crept into their writing. They described some people in a way I knew they weren’t, sensationalized research data that should have been left alone, and included notes from interviews that should have been used as background information. It wasn’t what I envisioned, because I knew the story they presented was inaccurate, and misleading in many areas.
            When they failed to put together what I envisioned as “the story” I was ready to give up, and yet I wasn’t quite ready to throw the “Truesdell mess” into the garbage. I asked the University of Wisconsin if they had any interest in the papers, and they did but only if they were indexed and organized.
            I began this complicated task whenever time and motivation permitted, putting the papers in order similar to the chapters in this book, tracking down information that I gave away to family members decades earlier, and filling in a few gaps. But plugging these holes only raised more questions and increased my curiosity so I kept digging as time permitted.
            Twelve years later this caused me to take another stab at telling the story, only this time I figured I’d write it myself and have somebody else clean it up. I pushed ahead with years where I did next to nothing, and years where I spent a fair amount of time pulling things together.
            Writing something this complex was a challenge, but when I ran across Cicero’s advice to the historian it pushed me in the right direction. “The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true, moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.”
            I knew mistakes were inevitable, so I sent a couple of drafts to some academic people for review, because my greatest concern was accuracy, although for a long time I wasn’t so sure that I would ever have the time to get this project completed. It needed so much work and I had so little time.
            Soliciting help from the academic community improved the accuracy of the information, and in some instances, they sent me information that helped amplify what I had or caused me to discard a page or two when my research didn’t fit. I considered the time period in which Truesdell lived to be a critical part of the back-story, and Kenosha News Editor and historian Don Jensen thought that what I had was a collection of discreet stories about the frontier.
            Once in a while I ran across descendents or they ran across me, all of whom were helpful and courteous, and who tried to put me in touch with the family keeper of old diaries, letters, and yellowed newspaper clippings. The story really began back in 1900, when Gideon Truesdell’s sister-in-law sat down and recited the family history to a grandson. She was married to Gideon’s younger brother.
            It was told by Rhoda Truesdell (1815–1905) who at the time was eighty-five, and what she recited was typed into five pages thirty-nine years later. During the 1900s her grandson began writing letters to family members, and thirty years later another branch of the family began looking for information. This led to letters between Gideon’s great grandson, E. Frances Devos and distant cousins. Gideon’s grandsons, Gideon and Chauncey Truesdell, tried to explain what they remembered, and people who had lost touch decades ago began talking to one another.
            In 1952, Chauncey’s son, who was Vice President of Zenith, sent his father a television. A talk show on NBC asked “old timers” to write about their experiences, and Chauncey sent two pages that included a few paragraphs about Billy the Kid. Robert Mullins of the Haley Memorial Library & History Center, conducted an interview that contradicted some long-accepted details of Billy the Kid’s life as a teenager, and scholars accepted this interview as a critical piece of history.
            Gideon was an interesting person but I’m not so sure he was that fascinating, at least no more so than a lot of other pioneers. But he was typical of so many settlers who came to the frontier with little more than a fierce determination to succeed, and they worked unbelievably hard to overcome obstacles. It took plenty of guts and perseverance for the people in this story to have survived, much less prospered.
            During the 1830s the opportunities in the Old Northwest Territory were unlimited, but doing business in the wilderness, bank failures, crooked politicians, land grant frauds, crop failures, and the limitations of life during that era were staggering. Those who got ahead had to be at the top of their game to overcome monumental challenges.
            When it came to telling “the story” I thought the best way to make sense of the research was to tie it together with the times in which Gideon and Julia Truesdell lived. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live 175 years ago, I think you’ll find the first-hand accounts in this story just as fascinating as I did.
      —Richard Fritz