She arrived in America later than my maternal ancestors, but the Statue of Liberty must have meant something to my father, that handsome, debonair, troubled, gifted man who sailed past her into New York Harbor to the land of opportunity. His people were English, and he was the only one of his relatives to come to the United States. Why, I will never know.
There is no longer any record of how my mother's people came. There is only a legend about one of them. A man, whose surname was Swisher, came from Germany and took an unusual route to becoming an American. Judging by the Swishers I knew, he must have been short of stature, ready for adventure and not about to die of hunger. There were fearful shortages of food all over Europe in the late 1700s, and there were few advancement chances for young men.
When the English recruiter came to Hesse, the legend goes, this Swisher signed up to fight for the British in their colonial war against the upstart American rebels. We can only imagine his good-byes to all his relatives and his last looks at his town or family farm as he left all that he knew. We can imagine his short training, the voyage over the Atlantic and how he must have felt to be on dry land in the New World.
We can only imagine his impressions of life in this Land of Opportunity, how he first began to dream his larger dream, when he first knew battle, and how and when he prayed. We can be nearly certain that he was at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night, 1776, when Washington crossed the Delaware River. We also can assume that he was involved in the battle the next day, for the Hessians did the fighting there for the English; of course, they were defeated by Washington's cold and hungry forces.
We descendants know he survived the battle because we are here. He faded into the forest of this new country, and his son – or grandson – took a Conestoga wagon west to Ohio. There the family settled at Mogador, which no longer exists. My grandfather, Milton Euclydus Swisher, told me his grandfather went to visit his father at St. Johns, Indiana, which is also non-existent now, but was near Auburn, Indiana. He died there and had the dubious distinction of being the first white person to be buried in the old cemetery near present-day downtown Auburn.
The Swishers were almost all farmers – those who stayed nearby. Others drifted on to Montana and Texas. Most were great workers and owned many acres for that time.
On my maternal grandmother's side, all were of English stock, and there were many pioneer spirits among them. One I like to think of is her maternal grandfather, the Rev. Josiah Shugars, a circuit-riding Presbyterian minister from Cairo, Illinois. He rode horseback many miles to conduct church services and Christian rites. He also was a carpenter. I have a butterfly table that he made of cherry wood and two picture frames that he carved.
Some years ago I circled the Statue of Liberty in a tourist boat, marveling at the statue and all that it has meant and means now to so many people. I couldn't help but be happy that some of my ancestors braved the elements – and maybe their families – to come to America.
When I was a young anyone-can-cover-everything reporter, I covered a speech by a stirring orator who talked about these people who dared so much. His key phrase was: "And only the brave came!" It was an awakening experience to hear him, for life then was safe and orderly in the Midwest. He went on to tell us that those brave people who came had their horizons widened by the vastness of the land before it was settled. That unknown orator and the Statue have given me much to think about.
My father did see The Lady. He was a failure in England. Apprenticed to a printer, he failed. As a soldier in the British Army in Egypt, he was thought to have been "bought out." He was given passage money to America, where he promptly made it to San Francisco in time for the great earthquake. He did some high-wire work and had his own medicine show – traveling, that is.
If the high hopes he felt when he first saw The Lady never materialized, he was seldom bored; England could not have offered him what the new land did. A columnist for 17 years, a radio personality for 11, owner of a repertoire company, a clown with Barnum and Bailey – he did all of this and found at least 20 other ways to pass the time. I'm sure he was glad he came.
Father, the son of a Chester, England, silk merchant, passed The Lady three times. The second and third time he was with his first wife, a blonde Cuban. They were hired as entertainers for a large ocean liner. They visited his relatives in England and returned. At that time they were adagio dancers. She died in childbirth shortly thereafter.
I know he didn't realize all his dreams – no one does. He wanted to act on Broadway. He started in early movies, with a bit part in one of the "Perils of Pauline" series, but that was the high point of his movie involvement.
Years after he died, his only daughter, her husband and six grandchildren would see and admire The Lady, circling her in a small craft. Traces of Ritchie – or Rube, or Hokus-Pokus, but really Harold Charles – could be seen in their vague resemblance to him, as well as in their theatrical use of six mother-and-daughter blue-on-white polka dot dresses.
Yes, The Lady could not have failed to interest him. Knowing him I wonder: Did he wink at The Lady as he passed by her?
After all, he winked at life.
Betty Brown Hicks
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.