1901 Letter from Samuel A. Gray to brother Robert P. Gray

September 7, 1901
Transcribed with Commentary by
Great-great grandson Larry Pearce


My wife and I are lovers of the old TV series Little House on the Prairie, much of which is based on author Laura Ingells Wilder’s years spent near De Smet, South Dakota, which began in 1879. Recently, we stumbled upon a DVD collection entitled Fans of Little House on the Prairie Will Love This Collection. Many of the 9 movies refer to life in Missouri and South Dakota during the late 19th century. All this is to say that we now can visualize the homesteading experiences of my Great-great uncle Samuel Alexander Gray (1842-1919), who staked claim to land in Livingston County, MO, just after his service in the American Civil War. In an earlier three-part series on Uncle Samuel, I covered his time in the war, an 1863 letter from a Civil War camp to his mother back in Pennsylvania, and his post-war days in the mid-west. This article provides a transcription and commentary on the content and context of a letter he wrote to his brother, my Great-grandfather Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928), in 1901. Samuel is farming in South Dakota while Robert, who has inherited the family property, is farming in Western Pennsylvania.

Samuel A. & Margaret Gray (c. 1870)

Samuel A. & Margaret “Maggie” Gray
(c. 1870)

The letter was the first of many artifacts preserved and catalogued by my cousins Janet Kellar Hull, Dr. David Gray, and his wife Phyllis. A summary of the materials is also now available. I plan to transcribe and comment on additional letters in the future. As with all the articles on this website, revisions are made and posted regularly, so you are invited to check back periodically. Samuel uses a pencil on aging tablet paper, so many of the words now are lost to time. Occasionally I have to guess and/or simply inject [illegible?]. The task of transcription is even more difficult where the pages have been folded.

Uncle Samuel begins, “Dear Brother,” from Parker, a tiny town in Turner County, just north of Souix City, South Dakota. Ironically, Parker was established in 1879, the same year that the Ingalls came to the Territory. Today the county seat’s motto is, “Life’s A Little Bigger In A Small Town.”

We don’t know that Samuel owns the land he is working in South Dakota; he may be simply part of a gang of itinerant workers who go from farm to farm where the cutting and gathering are needed, in this case the hay crop. We do know that his homestead back in Missouri is experiencing a terrible drought and he is desperate to provide for his family. The last appreciable rain he recalls on his farm was the beginning of May, and the only potential crops there are wheat and clover. He has been away from home for about seven weeks, and was glad to “see everything fresh and green.” In the letter, Samuel says that it had rained the night before, so hay making has come to a halt. He refers to his daughter Lulu, whom we know was Mary Luella Gray (1870-1941). She married William Canning the year after this letter was written. In a recent letter she has confirmed that the drought is continuing back in Missouri. She is afraid the well on the farm is running dry, despite the repair work her father had done to it just before he left for South Dakota. If the well can no longer provide, the family will be forced to haul water from the nearby river, which Samuel says, “is a big job.” Later in the letter, he talks about his son Will, whom we know was William Alexander Gray (1874-1931), perhaps a bachelor. At this point we wonder if Will was homesteading in South Dakota, and if Will was one of the reasons Samuel had headed north. Will is apparently doing well with his crop: Corn, wheat, and oats. As any good father would, Samuel conjectures about how Will could have produced even more: “He would have done better if he had sewn all oats.” Samuel mentions the town of Centerville, about 30 miles from Parker, also in Turner County, where Will had first worked upon coming to South Dakota. We know that Will is only 6 miles from his father in 1901. Though mostly illegible in his letter, Samuel uses what looks like the term “clubbing,” which may refer to the agricultural work gang mentioned earlier. He says, “[Will] and I started in alone but it went slow so we ‘clubed’ in with the man we board with. He was running 4 hands so we give him 2 days.” He continues by describing how working for that operation was easier on his health. The hay making was surely more efficient. Unfortunately, we cannot decipher many of the agricultural terms and measurements Samuel uses. Perhaps some older farmer in our community, even an Amishman in Southern Somerset County, can help with the transcription. The meaning of such terms as “stack” and “rick” as pertaining to early hay making are available on the internet.

We know that Samuel’s wife Maggie, whom we remember as Margaret Montgomery Gray (1844-1934), “is not well and does not like to have me away,” as he writes. The implication is that Samuel is only away temporarily, perhaps on a work gang as we said earlier. Samuel and his wife were both in their later 50’s, and especially with him complaining about a heart condition, it seems that neither should be away from each other. The good thing we know is that Samuel lives another 18 years after the letter is written, and Maggie another third of a century. How sick could she have been? Perhaps she just misses Samuel.

While the drought conditions on the Gray farm back in Missouri are bad, we get the feeling that relations between Samuel and his youngest son Harry, whom we know was 19-year old Harry Bliss Gray (1882-1967), were even worse. Samuel writes regarding keeping the homestead farm running, “Harry could do the work, but he is young and thoughtless and worries his mother so much.” We know that Harry married just 6 years later and produced the generation that we associate with our Missouri cousins today, so no doubt things turned out alright. While Samuel and Maggie had lost six children under various circumstances, in 54 years of marriage they raised four healthy ones. Only one, Robert Grant Gray (1872-1923), named after his uncle and the Civil War general and later President, returned to Western Pennsylvania and tragically lose three wives. But that’s another story.

Finally, about halfway through, the letter reveals a sad commentary but by the end leaves us with a hopeful one. Samuel informs his brother that he will not be able to send any money this year to their younger sister Mattie, whom we know as Martha Ann Gray Edmonds (1853- ), the wife of a preacher who lived in the Pacific Northwest. From other letters, we believe that she was helping the family financially through small loans rather than accepting money for her family’s church work. In fact, after the death of Elizabeth Gray, Samuel and Robert’s mother, in 1895, Mattie and her husband took in their unmarried sister, Sarah Jane “Jennie” Gray (1838- ), who had lived at the home in Pennsylvania. With the severe drought in Missouri, we certainly understand Samuel’s position. Thank heavens for Mattie. In the end, Samuel warmly shares this with his brother: “It appears as if you and I were to have a close run through our lives, but I suppose it is alright. I have reason to be thankful. I have always had enough to get along with.” On that positive note, Samuel signs off, “Love to all. Yours truly, S A Gray.” Here then is the wonderful, revealing letter between brothers in 1901:

Robert P. Gray (c. 1920)

Robert P. Gray
(c. 1920)


Parker, South Dakota

Dear Brother,

Is this a damp day, and we are stopped making hay. It rained last night. I thought I would write to you. I got your letter this week. Have not been home since the 20 of July. We were entirely dried up in Missouri. Had no rain to do any [illegible] from the 4 of May till I think about the 1st of Aug. since I came up here. Had a letter from Lulu this week and she wrote it was dryer than ever. We did not raise anything but wheat and clover. I tell you it looked nice when I came up here to see everything fresh and green.

This is a fine county but land is very dear. It runs in price from 26 [dollars an acre?] for unimproved up to 50 for improved. There [are] many drawbacks too. It looks strange to see nice, almost level land with so many stones on it, boulders of all sizes and shapes and colors. I have mown about 80 acres since I came up here. I started in with a new McCormack mower and have all the sharp points of the guard all [bunged?] up, some broken off. Broke one clear off. Had to put on another. About the three years a mower is used here it looks very [motley?] but runs alright. The best grass makes about 2 tons per acre, is fine feed and I see is worth $12.00 per ton in Kansas City. They are expecting 6 to 7 (dollars per ton?] here in Stock Shippers Press [?] and ship a great deal of it. Souix City is the nearest to this place. It costs one dollar per ton to bale. Will [unknown] is 6 miles from Parker but he can haul 2 loads a day. I think Will will have 75 to 80 tons to sell. He had about 80 acres to mow. He and I started in alone but it went so slow we [clubed?] in with the man we board with. He was running 4 hands so we give him two days. For me it gives me more mowing to do, which is much easier on me. I am not stout like I used to be. I have so many spells of heart trouble. Sometimes my circulation runs at 35 per minute and is irregular at that. I never saw hay put up as fast as they do it here when the weather is good. We run two mowers in the forenoon then start in two ten-foot sulky rakes and [illegible] it, then start the buck, which is a two-by-twelve plank 10-feet long with 6 teeth made of 2 X 4 by 6-feet long [clivile?] at each end of the plank [folded?] out. An inch rope 30 feet long doubletree hitched in the cutter. One man and a team can drag in as fast as three can [juich?]. On stack drives one horse each side of [winnow?]. You would not believe what a pile of hay they can drag in at once. Makes ricks 30 to 40 feet long. One rake brings in the scattering. Makes the stack in the center of the rick up as high as possible of the [gearing?], then take the wagon and top out. We put up 7 stacks last week and was a [poor/good?] week for hay on account of showers.

Will has some wheat and oats. Wheat is not good [as?] oats. He would have done better if he had sewn all oats. I think he will have over a thousand bushels of corn. They had such a wet spring here. They had a hard time to get their crop in.

I wrote Mattie a letter last week. I’m afraid I will not be able to pay her any money this year as it will take all we can get to buy feed to get our stock [through?] till we can raise a crop for feed. It’s so dear. That was one thing that brought me up here, but everything is dear here, and it costs 22-cents per hundred to ship from here to Chillicothe. I went to see the freight agents of both roads last week. Oats is 35 [cents or dollars per bushel?] on truck here. Corn 50. Potatoes 1.25. Wheat is low 52 to 54. I want to take home a can of grain for ourselves and some of the neighbor’s when I go home, if I am not called home too soon.

Maggie is not well and does not like to have me away. Harry could do the work, but he is young and thoughtless, and worries his mother so much. Lulu wrote me last week that water was getting scarce. I dug and walled a well just the week before I left home. There was as high as 19 barrels have let from it in a day since I left, but Lulu says it is dipped [illegible?] now every day for our own. I am afraid it will give out then we will have to haul from the river, which is a big job. This years drought is going to be an awful setback to the farmers of our state. It seems strange it is only about a hundred miles from our place up here and they have had more rain than they need and never dried up. I had 23 acres of the finest young clover I ever saw, but it dried clear down and I’m afraid our old clover meadow will go too. It had been sewn four years, but was thick yet.

This is Monday the 9th and is a very dark, cloudy day. Looks like it might rain more. Do wish it would clear up so we would get through with the hay. The grass is nice and green yet just browning to turn a little on top. In places there is a wonderful lot of hay made in this neighborhood. I stood in one spot and counted 52 long ricks last week, but it is not all over [illegible]. Will and I drove 30 miles down to Centerville where he worked the first year he was up here, and when we got out, ten or twelve miles, there was very little grass. Most all the land in crops. Our man started [illegible?]. They don’t have any fall wheat here, all spring. There do not [illegible?] snow falls here to protect from the winter winds. We had had no more rains here since I have been here than we have in MO. I am so sorry [illegible?]. I hope you was going to geet a raise but it appears as if you and I were to have a close run through our lives, but I suppose it is alright. I have reason to be thankful. I have always had enough to get along with. If I could [illegible?]. The 14 of last March he was to leave Seattle, Washington, next day in Skagway, Alaska [illegible?]. to get in three weeks.

Love to all. Yours truly,

S A Gray

[PS. illegible?]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.