At their best, obituaries aren’t just about the details of death. They’re about the details of life.
And as time passes, they’re not just about the life of the person who died. They’re about life of the era in which they lived.
Flossie Hulsizer, a stalwart in the Ohio Genealogical Society’s Clark County Chapter, is constantly occupied these days unearthing stories of life in the Springfield of the 1850s.
Hulsizer moved up to that decade after she and husband, Bob, helped to lessen the gap in local historical death records with their publication of their abstracts of obituaries from 1844-1851.
Some of the reports are just strange.
Take this one from 1850:
“Two young married men by the name of Davis went to Cincinnati last week with a load of cheese, and both died in or near the city with cholera. They resided near Mechanicsburg in Champaign County, and were sons of Noah Davis, Esq., late of that county.”
The Hulsizers’ goal as the move on is to record the complete obituaries. Some of those will be the subject of an article on Page B1 of Monday’s edition.
Today, their work allows us to imagine ourselves into the too-brief life of Mr. Samuel Houck.
The 24-year old was described as “another Californian fallen” in the headline of Springfield’s Republic of Friday morning, Sept. 10. But “Californian” in that time of the gold rush seems to have been used for anyone heading that way.
Like many Springfielders of the era, his life’s journey hadn’t started here. The obituary says that he was born in Frederick County in western Maryland on Feb. 11, 1828 and that he was a boy of 7 when his parents, George and Mary Houck, moved their family “to the West,” meaning Springfield.
On the 24th of March, 1852, just after turning 24, Houck did what his parents had done before him and New York editor Horace Greeley had told a generation to do: Go farther west.
“He left for California, intending to take the overland route,” his obituary explains, “having made arrangements previous to leaving Springfield with a gentleman who intended driving a lot of cattle.”
The description conjures up a cattle lot as the forerunner of a car lot, maybe one filled with Mustangs, Pintos, Broncos and others. But the drive blew a tire, or maybe a hoof, along the National Road.
“On his arrival at Independence (Mo.), he was informed that the gentleman (organizing the cattle drive) had failed in his enterprise, consequently disappointing Mr. Houck.”
Would Mr. Houck would have expressed his sense of disappointment as politely as the newspaper account?
The obituary provides reason to think so.
“A young man possessing some amiable traits of character,” it reads, “he joined the M(ethodist) E(piscopal) Church some four years ago and lived a consistent life, and died as he had lived.”
The source of that information is the physician who attended him at his death and said this: “Mr. Houck was a very moral young man, loved by all the company, and no doubt his soul is in the regions of the blest.”
After being disappointed by the cattle man, House remained “determined … to risk his fortune in California,” the story says.
“He, with his brother and Mr. Samuel Stuart, of Springfield, fell in with a train of Messrs. Bevingtonand Smith numbering 40 or 50 persons leaving Independence for Sacramento City, Calif.”
The story does not mention what the Bevington and Smith party had in common: A business venture, a search for gold? Nor does it say whether the Houcks had enlisted in the party’s plan or merely were along for the ride, which had begun on the 12th of May.
“With bright anticipations, the train moved slowly off, traveling from 12 to 18 miles a day,” the account said. “All hearts seemed buoyant and lively; until the 5th of June, sickness and death entered the train, casting sorrow and gloom upon every countenance.”
The cause of death is not listed. But a fair guess may have been the same thing that struck down the Davis men who had innocently departed for Cincinnati with their load of cheese.
“Mr. Houck was attacked with the diarrhea (a common symptom of cholera);,” the obituary says. “He lived until June the 7th (two days later), 1 o’clock, when his spirit took its flight.”
The description of his place of burial brings to mind the song “Bury me not on the Lone Prairie.”
The young man was “truly a stranger buried in a strange land,” far form the habitation of any civilized man,” the obituary says.
“His remains lie 187 miles west of Fort Kearny (Neb.) on North Platte (River), 160 miles from Fort Laramie (Wyo.).”
On a continent whose plains were largely abandoned, Houck had died, in his time, in what was the middle of nowhere.
Still, along with “an aged father and mother … numerous relatives and friends” mourned, but “not as those that have no hope,” the obituary said.
As the obituary printed on July 9, 1852, about 21-year-old Robert Miller said, the expectation is that they were headed elsewhere.
“In his death, cut off, as he has been so young, and when just entering upon the stage of a useful life, we all are taught the oft-repeated lesson: be ye also ready … to met that dread hour so uncertain and yet so certain to come. At the appointed time may each of us, like him, be able in truth to say, ‘I have found a ransom.’”
Thus endeth the obituary of the too short life of Samuel Houck.