mad in pursuit journal

DISPATCHED FROM THE CROSSROADS

Those Who Go. Those Who Stay.

The past couple days I've been trying to write another radio script, on the theme of going vs staying.

Maybe because my radio station is in Chicago, I've zeroed in on my great-grandmother Ellen Gibbons, who arrived in Chicago just in time to see it burn down.

In Ireland of the 1870s, the famine was over. But for young women like Ellen, there were no jobs and no men worth marrying, so at the age of twenty, she got up and went. Sailed to New York. Caught the train to Chicago. Arrived on September 27, 1871. On October 8, O'Leary's barn caught fire. Chicago burned for three days. 100,000 people were homeless.

Did Ellen stick around to help clean up and rebuild? Not on your life. Like a bat out of New Orleans, she headed for the next stop on the migrant trail -- St Louis.*

Look at history. Those who stay through wars, famines, epidemics and disasters are admired for their courage and dedication. They are the Healers, the Resistance, the Freedom Fighters, the Citizens. They are the roots of society.

But those who take to the road have their own power. They are the exiles and explorers. The restless migrants and adventurers who see the future just over the next hill. They don't preserve society. They invent it as they go along.

It took Ellen 10 years to find a good husband. She joined Frank Barrett and his family of homesteaders out on the rolling farmland of Missouri. But within 10 years she'd had enough of that too -- enough of sharing a log cabin with her in-laws, enough of miscarriages, enough of riding horses side-saddle to church every Sunday. She did not want her tombstone planted on the prairie. That was not her idea of America. That was not her idea of Ellen Gibbons Barrett. So she badgered her husband till he took her and their children back to St Louis.

When the going gets tough, some of the tough tough it out. And the others get outta town.

8.15.2008

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*I'm guessing a little here. I'm assuming she worked as a domestic in St Louis. I did find such an "Ellen Gibbons" in the 1880 census, but I'm not sure if it's her.