Recently I came across an old, xeroxed copy of the genealogy on my Mother’s side of the family. It had been researched and written back in the early 1970s and detailed a family tree stretching back over 350 years, to an ancestor in Middleton, CT in 1658. The lives of the Willis and Ranney families seem to have been well-documented. I never met my mother’s father, Orlo Willis, he passed away in 1944 and there appears to be little to know about him. But of his relatives, there is a great deal to be known, much of which was put down in the family history.
I’ve been very taken with a written account my great grandfather (on my mother’s side) left to his son Sidney. Sidney was my grandfather’s younger brother and was living in Shanghai, China with his aunt and uncle at the time this letter was written in 1925.
The account of life in turn-of-the-century Colorado is what I find so fascinating in this collection of family memories. My great great grandfather, Willet Ranney Willis Jr. , after a business failure in his hometown of Brownsville, New York, packed up his wife and five children and took a train out to Colorado to join his brother. Below is a selection from a letter written by his son, Frank. Frank would have been 58 years old at the time.
From a letter written by Frank Grimes Willis to his son Sidney on April 12, 1925
“When we left New York in November 1872, there were five of us little tots from six years down to six weeks. On the way out west we all came down with the whooping cough and we had a real time on that train. Each one had a bag of camphor around the neck and we took proper turns in coughing.
While crossing the plains we saw herds of Buffalo and of Antelope and one of the herds of Buffalo I can see now in my mind as it stretched like a long dark winding string across the prairie, then when the train came close they started to run and some of the men shot some of them and the train was stopped to take them on. From Pueblo (Colorado) we made the trip in covered wagons to what was then known as Spanish Peaks, the name given to the Post Office in the Cucharas Valley at the foot of those grand peaks and about twelve miles from them.
Father went into the sheep business and so we moved into the mountains in Summer where there was plenty of pasture and then in Winter moved back to the valleys where the snow fall was less and the weather milder.
The country was wild. Deer passed by very often and grouse were seen whenever we left the main trails, and often while following these trails. Bear were often seen and sometimes quite bold. The fear that these animals would catch the little boys out after the cows, usually on foot and through the dense timber, caused Mother many uneasy hours.
The ranch when we moved onto it consisted of possibly twenty acres of plowed land, five acres of meadow part of which was so rough it had to be cut with a scythe, and the remainder of brush and hill sides. We first fenced the tillable land, when not busy with crops, and then cleared a lot of the brush land and plowed it, gradually coming to the building of barn, sheds and corrals.
I recall that Father bought two young colts and they grew to be good-sized horses and made a fine team, but as soon as they were well broken he sold them, feeling that he could not afford to lose them, and in those wild days horse stealing was as common as automobile stealing now. If caught the thief was much less leniently dealt with but with many miles of wild country and slow means of travel, and no telegraph or telephone, they were not often apprehended.”
It’s hard to even think of a time when buffalo roamed the country in great herds across the plains, or of a time when you had to take into consideration whether or not horse thieves would run off with your animals. I grew up watching “Gunsmoke,” “Ponderosa,” “Wagon Train” and a host of other TV westerns. Coming across this family history has put me square into the early days of our country and life in “the Wild West” in a way those shows never could. No wonder I still consider myself a part of the West!