Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, September 16, 2016

From the Homestead (9)--love in granite

In the barest of outlines, their coupling seems, at best, a marriage of convenience. The husband, Daniel Freeman, way out on the cusp of the frontier, hunting buffalo and fighting hostiles, is lonely, wants some relief of at least part of the high drama his life has handed him for years, throughout the Civil War, when he worked as a Northern spy. These days, despite the wild life, he’s flat out lonely. He’s got land. He’s got a place. He needs a wife.

So he asks a woman who seems convenient, Agnes Suiter, a schoolteacher back in Iowa. He knows her very well. She’d been engaged to his brother James, who, most sadly, didn’t return from the Civil War. Early in their correspondence, she addresses him as "Brother Dan." but then already with the next letter, she starts things differently: “Dear Friend Daniel.” A subtle change, but a change nonetheless.

It's easy to judge their coupling as loveless, too easy in fact. Daniel was a divorcee, and Agnes considered herself something of a widow. Given their lives' circumstances, both seemed destined to loneliness; both recognized that future, however, and opted for the alternative. Why not? Better than living alone, each might well have thought.

Letters are exchanged, little more than a year passes, and they marry, thereby ending their loneliness. Agnes bears Samuel seven children, suggesting their relationship could not have been bereft of passion, although on the mid-19th century frontier, a passle of kids doesn't necessarily connote love or even intimacy.

Maybe it's their shared gravestone up the hill at the National Homesteading Monument that suggests something cold, something merely convenient. I don’t know why. By most accounts, Daniel wasn’t an easy man to love, and Agnes Suiter was a entire generation younger, 17 years. Could they have loved each other?

And there’s the strange fact of their meager correspondence doing all the heavy lifting. Daniel Freeman wrote her first sometime in 1863 (that letter is lost); the two of them were married in her parents’ home in Iowa in February of 1865. Barely a dozen letters, but it didn't even take that many before promises were offered.

Maybe it seems like pure convenience when you consider photographs of actual homesteaders. You’ve seen those homely pictures a hundred times--sun-scorched cheeks, greasy hands, stiff-with-dust work clothes on sober folks in front of a sod house. Why would a young educated lady come out to frontier Nebraska for homesteader 17 years her elder?

I wonder if the letters themselves may document an answer. Pioneers like Freeman are characteristically incapable of expressing feelings, if in fact they have them at all. But it's Daniel who brings up the pain he felt at the death of his brother and her fiance’. “. . .the caus of my writing to you on the 4th I was thinking of James no one can tell my feelings unless they hav lost an only Brother,” he tells her in his own bungled style; and then, “Before his death I never was lonsom or homesick no difernce where I was But now I am lonsom wheather in company or alone in a city or on the Planes.” (His burden, his urgency, seems heightened by all those scrambled spellings, doesn't it?)

He writes her because he's been thinking about James's death. “I always got leters from him and that was the caus of my writing to you thinking you might write a friendly leter in return—“

When she writes back, she follows suit with a confession rising from as close to her soul as her heart can be. "Tis Sad to loose an only brother. I lost my only sister last Spring. She was young—had not attained to the age to share my joys and sorrows—and I know I feel lost without her.” 

She’s answering him directly, but not without some nuance, moving slowly and carefully into a dialogue he began, a discussion of hurt and the loss of the man she loved. "But when James died it was more than a friend,” she tells him. “It is strange how we learn to love some one person more than a brother or sister.” That's her underlining.

What she risks in that approach is minimizing the wound Samuel Freeman had revealed for her. "But Natures laws are such, and we can not avoid it. You know perhaps all the facts in the case. Theirfore I need not tell you that I loved James—your brother—more than any other person living or dead. He was indeed my first love and I often think that no one other can take his place in my affections. . .”

And then this warm and almost surprising qualifier—“at least that is the way I feel now.”

Her consciousness of Samuel’s reactions suggests an admiration, even the hint of something more. “Excuse me for telling you this if you did not wish to hear it,” she tells him.

I can't help thinking that's the beginning for them and of them. That’s how their relationship, by post, began. The honest emotions both offered each other in these opening letters were found by each of them to be of such great value that more, much more, begged to be requested. Confessing the depth of their mutual sadness opened something in both of them. It's what I'd like to think.

The names of Samuel and Agnes Freeman are carved in stone up on the monument hill. Both of them, I’m sure, were made of granite—they had to be to live life where they did and do it successfully and joyfully. 

But I can't help thinking that what the letters suggest about them is not the simply the monumental strength of their characters but the blessed tenderness of their love.

An odd couple, really. This nation’s very first homesteaders. Lovers, I’d like to think.

The letters of Samuel Freeman and Agnes Suiter are available at the National Homestead Monument’s website. 

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