Trains stopped running through Osgood, Missouri, years ago, and the United States Post Office no longer serves it. The handful of old-timers who remain are mostly widows, in their well-kept wood-frame houses where they've lived for decades. From their old Midwest-style porches, complete with rockers, hanging swings, or wicker chairs for »sitten a spell,« they look out over deserted streets. Across the railroad tracks on the east edge of town and down the country road about two miles is Campground, where the first white settlers arrived in the 1830s. Among those pioneers was Agnes Smedley's maternal great-grandfather, Morgan Ralls, whose mother, Naomi Ralls, was the daughter of Alexander Montgomery, a Revolutionary War patriot. Campground was part of the northern Missouri county of Sullivan in 1886, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad purchased forty acres of nearby land from another pioneer, Elbert McNabb. A depot and station supply house were erected, and the town was named Osgood after a company official. Thus Sullivan County's »thickly settled« population of approximately 17,000 had themselves a new town, which by 1900 encompassed six full and six partial blocks around a Main Street two blocks long. The first passenger train arrived in Osgood in 1888, changing rural America as profoundly as the westbound wagon had before it.
Agnes Smedley's father, Charles, came to Campground from Kansas in 1879 at the age of sixteen, along with his older sister Mary, Mary's husband Jacob Armstrong, and their seven children. Charles and Mary Smedley were of English stock, except for a grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian. In 1885, when she was seventeen, one of the Ralls girls, Sarah Lydia, ran away with her neighbor, Charles Smedley. Sarah's father, John Ralls, who believed »you could never trust Indians or foreigners,« thought Charles's Indian blood made him shiftless and therefore unable to provide a secure future for his daughter. After getting married in a small town nearby, Charles and Sarah hid in the house of Charles's elder sister, Mary Smedley Armstrong, by then a widow. When John Ralls stormed over to retrieve his daughter, events took a curious turn: he fell in love with the widow, »Aunt Mary«. In Battle Hymn of China, Agnes Smedley repeated the rumors that one still hears in Osgood: »John's wife was still alive, and to judge by faded tintype, very beautiful. But she died shortly after, following a long illness, and my grandfather [John] married Aunt Mary. In the small drab villages and isolated farmhouses of northern Missouri little rumours often grew to gargantuan proportions. The gossips specialized most of all in the gruesome, and more than one farm woman [talked] of strange things that were supposed to have happened in my grandfather's house—of evil widows and poor ailing wives... and poison« (p. 4).
Charles and Sarah Smedley eventually moved from »Aunt Mary's« to a windswept two-room cabin in a field about one mile south of Campground. At the edge of a grove of trees and surrounded by purple thistles, the cabin stood on a hill overlooking stony fields. In 1976 its occupants were cows. It was there, on February 23, 1892, that Agnes Smedley was born, the second of five children.
Smedley later wrote about Campground in brutal yet lyrical terms. She recalled the earth—all its colors and odors, its demands and its harvests. She said that because the two-room cabin was so small, she was terrified at an early age by seeing her parents in the act of intercourse. She decided that her mother was accepting a terrible humiliation, and later claimed that she lost all real respect for her at that time. She remembered realizing that her father valued the birth of a son more than the arrival of a daughter. Her father she recalled as a singer of songs, a spinner of tales—a romantic figure full of life and full of dreams, a man desperate to blur the sharp edges of everyday reality. She remembered his chronic discontent and his talk of moving off the land and getting rich somehow. She recalled that she got much more attention when she was sick than when she was well. And she remembered that her mother beat her, more frequently as more children arrived and the arguments between mother and father escalated. She wrote that her mother never sang, that »her tears... embittered my life« (p. 37).*
- *Ruth Ralls Fisher, Osgood's town historian and a distant relative of Smedley's, has written: »[Smedley] also was a writer, and among her books was an autobiography which she called Daughter of Earth. This book completed the alienation of her Missouri kin, for in it, she dragged to view family skeletons she should have been ashamed to bare« (This Small Town—Osgood [Milan, Missouri, 1975], pp. 28—31). Smedley indeed bared many family skeletons, and this one—that Sarah Ralls Smedley beat her children—has been the most painful for the Rallses who remain. They insist that Sarah Lydia was a good woman-— a good mother and gentle; that if Agnes became anything at all, it was because she had a good mother; and that if Sarah Lydia was willing to walk two miles barefoot to the well for water each day with heavy buckets, and if she was reluctant to share her husband's dreams, it was for the sake of her children. Even Agnes's close friend Mamie Weston, who shared a double desk with her at school when they were nine, ten, and eleven years old, remembers Agnes's mother as a. gentle woman. (Interviews with Ruth Ralls Fisher and Mamie Weston McCullough.)
In contrast, Smedley saw her grandmother, »Aunt Mary,« as a strong and independent woman, who managed her farm and her husband efficiently. Significantly, Aunt Mary's favorite stepchild was Tillie, Sarah Lydia's beautiful and self-assertive sister. Tillie demanded the right to hire herself out as help on a nearby farm in order to support herself and buy pretty clothes. Her father objected, arguing that this would make it harder to marry her off into a respectable family. But John Ralls lost to his new wife, and Tillie was allowed to hire herself out for three dollars a month.
According to old-timers, women rarely farmed alone or hired themselves out, even if widowed. Spinsters were dependent on relatives to take them in. There were no women's organizations in the county until around 1910, when they sprang up out of church groups. Jobs were scarce in Osgood, because the town was new and most work was concentrated in small family businesses; it was still considered improper for a woman to take a job outside the family. The alternative open to the few prosperous families—sending their daughters away for a higher education—was not considered respectable either. The first local woman daring enough to go away to school for a teaching certificate did so around 1912. For the Smedley women, this was out of the question. As Agnes's father quipped, »Education is only for dudes«.
Agnes's closest school friend from 1901 to 1903, when she was between nine and eleven, was Mamie Weston. Mamie recalled that Agnes had to walk a mile to Knob Hill School, where about twenty-five students of all ages recited lessons from readers and did lots of memorizing, math, and spelling. Agnes always did her lessons and recited them easily. She disliked math, excelled in spelling. During recess they played bat and ball, with a homemade ball and a board for a bat. Mamie would sometimes walk over to visit Agnes at the Smedley cabin, which was built partly of logs and was poorly furnished; the family's prized possessions were a clock and a sewing machine. In the winter the girls played dominoes (Agnes had a doll but wouldn't make clothes for it), and in the summer they helped with outside chores or searched for wildflowers. Mamie recalled that Agnes's mother worked at other houses, canning, gardening, and picking fruit, in exchange for food. She remembered that Agnes's father, a short, stocky man, did odd jobs around the Campground area but little farming at home. The Smedleys had a small vegetable garden and some chickens, but no cow. Agnes's mother had to walk to a neighbor's place to get milk. Mamie went to Sunday school at Campground but didn't remember Agnes ever attending—"Just didn't have the clothes, I suppose«. Though her mother and father had been orphans and were poor themselves, Mamie thought Agnes's family had a harder life, mainly because the father was seldom at home. In 1903 Mamie and her family moved to California because of her father's health. When she returned eighteen months later, the Smedleys had moved away.
Charles Smedley deserted his wife and family in the autumn of 1903, saying he was going off to apprentice himself to a doctor. For the winter, grandfather Ralls moved Sarah Lydia and her children to a shack on the edge of Osgood. The yard had no trees, flowers, or grass, only baked yellow clay. The shack had no plaster on the inside; to prepare for winter, Sarah and the children papered the drafty board walls with newspapers soaked in flour and water. In the spring of 1904 Charles Smedley returned to his family, penniless and on foot. He never said what had happened. He had another dream now: to move his family to the West.
Within weeks of Charles's announcement, the Smedleys moved by train to the mining area of southeastern Colorado. To the twelve-year-old Agnes, raised in Campground, Missouri, their destination must have seemed like a city out of a fairy tale. Nestled among juniper-covered mountains, Trinidad, Colorado, stood at 6,000 feet beneath the crags of Fischer's Peak, with the snowcapped Rockies in the distance. A thriving cultural and commercial hub, Trinidad was surrounded by vast cattle ranches and tied to mining camps by various spur railroad lines. Since the arrival of the railroad in 1878, coal-mining had become Trinidad's most important industry. As early as the 1880s, the town boasted an elaborate, two-balconied opera house, a Catholic convent, one of the West's oldest and most active synagogues, beautiful Victorian homes, and a school that looked like a fortress. The school's annual photos and lists of graduates showed remarkable ethnic diversity: Blacks and His-panics mixed with whites, whose numbers included many recent Slavic and Italian immigrants. During the time the Smedleys lived there, Trinidad's population of about 12,000 was served by fourteen churches and ten newspapers, three of which were in Spanish.
Although Trinidad's public schools were integrated and open to everyone, southern Colorado was economically and politically a near-fiefdom of the coal companies; the Trinidad area was dominated by the Victor American Fuel Company and the Rockefeller-controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Conditions for the miners there were no better in 1904 than in 1915, when a federal commission reported: »Two entire counties of southern Colorado for years have been deprived of popular government, while large groups of their citizens have been stripped of their liberties, robbed of portions of their earnings, subjected to ruthless persecution and abuse, and reduced to a state of economic and political serfdom«.
The Smedleys pitched a tent on the banks of the Purgatory River across from Trinidad. Outside the tent Charles built a wooden shed for a kitchen, and then hired himself out with his newly acquired team for three dollars a day, hauling sand and bricks. At first, all went well for the family. Charles's three dollars a day was unheard-of wealth, and Sarah Lydia was happy because her children could now go to a proper school.
Sarah Lydia's excited letters soon brought Tillie, her independent-minded sister, to Colorado—even though she was engaged to marry the eldest son on the Missouri farm where she had been working. When Tillie arrived, Charles and Sarah urged her to hire out in a private home, because girls who took the better-paying outside jobs »went bad«. Insisting that she could take care of herself, Tillie chose laundry work, where she could earn seven dollars a week on the mangle and work up to the stiff-shirt machine that paid eleven dollars. From the beginning she was a paying guest and gave most of her money to Sarah. As Agnes wrote in Daughter of Earth, »For years it was her money—earned in one way or another—that furnished us with most of the colorful and good clothing we had« (p. 49). Agnes worshipped Aunt Tillie. She noticed that economic independence gave her aunt equal status with her father, who couldn't boss her or hit her the way he did her mother. Also, Aunt Tillie would invariably step in to protect her sister in arguments with Charles. Often she became so angry with him that words failed her: »She would whirl with a rapid movement and just before flinging out of the room would, with a flash of her hands, hoist her skirts to the waist in the back. My father was left speechless with rage. There seemed no answer to such an insult« (p. 50).
The Smedleys' good fortune in Trinidad was short-lived. In the spring of 1904 a flash flood swept through the Purgatory riverbed area where their tent was pitched and they lost all they possessed—the clock and the sewing machine brought from Missouri, Tillie's beautiful clothes, everything. Charles then contracted for himself and his team to work around mines up in the hills, far from a town or schools. Sarah and the children followed, found a small house, and took in boarders. From May to November of 1905, Charles worked from sunrise to sunset. When the time came for him to be paid, Sarah Lydia prepared what the children considered a banquet for the mine owner, while the family ate the usual beans and bacon. After the mine owner finished his meal, he explained that the contract Charles had signed (without being able to read it) entitled him to next to nothing in payment for six months' work. Sarah Lydia's tears did not move him; he said he was only »stickin' to the contract«.
After this, Charles set off to seek work in another mining town, Ter-cio, and Sarah and the children returned to Trinidad. With what money they had and some from Tillie, Sarah Lydia rented a house at 611 Cottonwood Street—on the other side of the tracks, by the banks of the Purgatory River—and opened what she called the Tin Can Boarding House. Agnes returned to school, proud of her mother. But Sarah Lydia had trouble getting boarders to pay their rent, and the enterprise soon failed.
The situation grew worse for the Smedleys as 1906 dragged on. Charles Smedley, away in Tercio, was drinking more and sending home less. For a while Tillie's earnings from the stiff-shirt machine kept the family going. When this amount could no longer be stretched far enough, Tillie turned to waitressing. Agnes's older sister, Nellie, now over sixteen, quit school to work in the laundry. She, too, became a paying guest and thus had her own room. Agnes, now turning fourteen, was sent to work after school in the homes of other people, and her small earnings went straight to her mother. Much of what she saw in these homes horrified her, and she concluded that for women, marriage meant nothing but imprisonment and humiliation. Before long, however, she lost her job as a domestic helper: she had been drinking the cream off the tops of the milk bottles each morning to ease her hunger pangs. On the day she was fired, Agnes took hours to return home, afraid that a beating awaited her. When she arrived, her recently returned father was throwing Tillie out of the house. In a rage, he accused her of being a whore and threatened to kill Sarah Lydia if she left the house with Tillie. Tillie shouted back that it was he who had made her what she was by sitting in saloons and not providing enough food and clothing for her sister and their children. His response was to get an axe and wait for her to leave. Tillie soon moved to Denver.*
- *Whether or not Aunt Tillie had become a prostitute depends on how one defines the term. Smedley's definition was a woman who slept with men for economic reasons. Calling her aunt a prostitute in Daughter of Earth (New York, 1929) deeply offended Tillie and other members of the family, who preferred to see Tillie's escapades, particularly her periods as a »mistress,« as different from prostitution.
With Tillie gone, the family's fortunes hit rock bottom in 1906-07. Charles bolted again, claiming to be outraged that Sarah Lydia had refused to tell him how she would vote in her first election. Sarah Lydia's only recourse was to hire herself out as a washerwoman for $1.30 a day—which meant 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. A frail-looking woman with big-veined hands and disheveled hair knotted at the nape of her neck, she worked in other people's homes in order to get »free« meals and thus save money. The children ate potatoes and flour gravy and kept themselves warm by burning coal they found along the railroad tracks or scrap wood they »snitched« from the lumberyard. Agnes took an after-school job in a tobacco store, stripping and rolling cigars. Later she recalled that union men there had good working conditions compared to the nonunion »girls« in the back room, who had bad lighting, worked longer hours, and were expected to work faster. When Agnes admitted to the owner that she read books, he advised her that too much reading would lead to daydreaming, and she was soon dismissed for being too slow. She now took a place by her mother's side at the washtub. As the winter wore on, she became increasingly bolder in her »snitching« and also lost interest in school, where she had once been at the head of her class. She took up bragging and swearing with the kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and she heard their version of »the facts of life«.
Charles Smedley was in Ludlow, Colorado (a nearby mining camp), living with another woman. Early in the spring of 1907 he returned to Trinidad and tried to persuade Sarah Lydia to take him back. She threatened divorce and sent him away. But she desperately needed help. With the coming of good weather, people started doing their own wash again, and she had to reduce her price for an increased amount of work. Agnes quit school to help out.
One day Sarah Lydia stayed home, too sick to move. But no one thought of calling a doctor. Doctors were only for rich people. As Agnes wrote: »We always just waited to get over a sickness. I heated hot bricks all day long and kept them against her back and the side of her head. And each day I cooked potatoes and made a flour-and-water gravy for us all« (p. 95). Then her father turned up again, and this time he wasn't sent away.
Aunt Tillie's Missouri fiance, Leonard Hutchinson, also showed up in town. Having received a letter in which Tillie said she wouldn't marry him after all, he had followed her to Denver, where she refused him again—not because she didn't love him, as she told Agnes years later, but because once a woman marries, her husband starts bringing up her past. Mr. Hutchinson's response was to return to Trinidad and propose to Agnes's older sister, Nellie, who accepted. The family was about to leave for Delagua, another small mining camp up the canyon from Ludlow, where Charles and his team had a contract, and so the marriage ceremony was performed right away. Agnes was shocked: the idea of Nellie engaging in sex was repulsive to her. She never saw her sister again. The Smedley family Bible records that Nellie died in childbirth two years later in western Oklahoma.
Agnes's new home, Delagua, was entirely owned by the Victor American Fuel Company. The underpaid workers lived in company housing, bought necessities at marked-up prices at the company store (the only store in town), and drank at the company saloon. They were paid in company scrip, which had to be converted into U.S. dollars at a loss in the banks of larger towns like Trinidad. Of course, the company also hired the schoolteacher. Successive attempts to strike for better treatment culminated in the famous Ludlow massacre of 1914: six men, two women, and eleven children were killed when the National Guard attacked a strikers' tent colony.
Fifteen years later, in Daughter of Earth, Smedley took pains to reconstruct the conditions of her life in Delagua: the tensions that preceded the Ludlow massacre, the unhealthy and dangerous conditions in the mines, the cheating by company officials, the blacklisting of miners, and the rape and abuse of poverty-stricken women by soldiers brought in to keep order. Husbands and fathers were too frightened to intervene: »no one would have dared touch a >uniform< of the United States«. (p. 99). Since »nearly all native American [white] working men feared the mines,« all but a fraction of the mine workers were foreigners, mostly Mexicans; 80 percent of the miners spoke no English. Charles Smedley and his »native American« or Anglo crew were in Delagua with a contract to do hauling work outside the mines. The Smedleys therefore had no place socially among the company people, and they chose not to associate with the foreign miners. They were poor, but in Delagua, at least, they were better off than most. The majority of miners and workers in the camps were men without their families who had come with the intention of making some quick money and then returning home. A few never returned, but sent instead for their families. What Smedley did not explain in Daughter of Earth was the important role the schools played in pacifying the inhabitants of the mining settlements. Along with the company stores, school buildings physically dominated the camps. In their memoirs and oral histories, former students, and their teachers, uniformly expressed gratitude to the coal companies for giving them the opportunity to go to school. Most of them were immigrants, and they knew they would have remained illiterate in their native countries.
Working under Charles were eight teams of Anglo men and their horses, whose feeding and housing were looked after by Sarah Lydia, Agnes, and the younger children. Agnes later described these cowboys, who arrived with all their earthly possessions on their horses, as »courageous, kindly, trusting—and foul-mouthed. When they received their wages they spent it in one night in Trinidad, 'on the hill' where women sold themselves to men's desires. When they married, which was rare, they married only virgins. Women had nothing but virginity to trade for bed and food for the rest of their days. Fathers protected the virginity of their daughters as men guard their bank accounts; with a gun slung at the hips and a gleam of warning in the eye. But now I was growing up and my father let all men know that I was not to be trifled with« (p. 107). One of these men, a lanky twenty-nine-year-old up from a ranch in New Mexico, paid special attention to Agnes, who was now fifteen, but he didn't trifle with her. He gave her a gold watch-chain and promised her a pony, a good gun, and half his ranch back in New Mexico if she would marry him. The pony and the gun fired Agnes's imagination, and she was ready to accept. That evening her father and mother called her in and told her she was too young for marriage. Besides, her father continued, »there's things in marriage you don't know nothin' about... there is dooties« (p. 110). Repulsed, Agnes announced that she would have nothing to do with that: »dooties be damned«. The proposal was rejected and the cowboy left town the next morning.
In 1907 the fortunes of the Smedley family rose and fell, depending on the bids that Charles got and how much he was drinking and gambling. They stayed in Delagua only a few months and then went back to Trinidad. Sometime in late 1907 they moved to Tercio, another company town much like Delagua. Always in the background was the tension created by unorganized miners' strikes, which company officials dealt with heavy-handedly, using sheriffs and police to protect strikebreakers. This is how Smedley remembered her parents' response:
- My mother listened to all the news from the camp during the strike. She said little, especially when my father or the men who worked for him were about. I remember her instinctive and unhesitating sympathy for the miners. She hated rich or powerful people or institutions. Through the years she had been transformed from a poor farming woman into an unskilled proletarian. But my father was less clear. As a »native American« himself, with hopes of becoming an employer, he tried to identify himself with the sheriff and the officials of the camp against the strikers, who were foreigners. Still he was unclear; he had men working for him and yet he was an ignorant working man himself, and however hard he worked he seemed to remain miserably poor. He was too unknowing to understand how or why it all happened. But he, like my mother, had certainly come to know that those who work the most do not make the most money. It was the fault of the rich, it seemed, but just how he did not know. He drowned his unclearness and disappointment in drink, or let poker absorb his resentment, (p. 119)
Confirmation of this image of her father comes from a photograph of Charles Smedley in Trinidad posing proudly with six-guns and a sheriff's badge.
It was in Tercio in early 1908 that Agnes Smedley got her first break, a chance to step out on her own. A red-haired gradeschool teacher encouraged her to take a county teacher's examination in the neighboring state of New Mexico. She met the prerequisite, which was an eighth-grade education. Agnes borrowed the teacher's blouse and skirt and rode across the border to take the examination. Although her marks were mediocre, she passed and was assigned to a school. The pay was forty dollars a month.
In the summer of 1908 Agnes returned to Osgood, Missouri, with her mother and her younger sister, Myrtle, to attend the funeral of her grandfather, John Ralls. Not until 1943, in Battle Hymn of China, did she expose in print the town gossip she heard about her grandfather's last days. It was talk that in another century might have had Aunt Mary burned as a witch: »As he lay dying, rumor ran, he wanted to cleanse his soul of the sin of poisoning his first wife, but Mary had smothered his confession by placing her hand across his mouth« (p. 4). During this visit Agnes spent some time with her old friend and former classmate Mamie Weston. On the way to the train station on the day Agnes left, they exchanged mementos. Smedley gave Mamie the gold watch-chain that had been given her a year earlier along with a marriage proposal, and told her that the cowboy »didn't mean much to her now«.
After a brief visit to Tercio, Agnes resumed her teaching job. From the fall of 1908 to February, 1910, she taught primary school in and around Raton, a town of about 4,000 in Colfax County in northeastern New Mexico, which had been in need of schoolteachers since the railroad line and coal-mining had produced a boom at the turn of the century. In Daughter of Earth, she recalled her schoolteaching years in New Mexico as a lonely but happy period in her life. She was the unmarried, white, »educated« virgin schoolteacher in the area, and this gave her status and protection. She spent many nights square dancing into the late hours or riding into the countryside and singing Western songs with the cowboys around a campfire. She taught mostly Spanish-speaking people who spoke little English outside her classroom (though, so far as is known, she made no attempt to learn Spanish). Some of the students were her own age. She sidestepped her weakness in math by calling on the older boys to do the harder problems at the blackboard. By answering an advertisement in a women's magazine she gained a male pen-pal from »back East« who sent her books. She admired his penmanship greatly, thinking that if she could only write like that, she would really be educated. Her social conscience was still relatively undeveloped; when attracted to a handsome Indian-Mexican student, she »felt ashamed«.*
- * A January 2, 1909, postcard to her younger brother Sam reflects the racial prejudices that were so much a part of Smedley's social milieu: »Dear old Droggle Tail: Was in Trinidad yesterday afternoon and until ten o'clock this morning. What resolutions did you make for the New Year? I resolved to beat Mexicans and Dagos—beat time out of them too!«
Smedley's carefree life as a schoolteacher around Raton came to an abrupt end one snowy day in February of 1910. A message brought to her classroom said that her mother was dying. She left immediately for Tercio, and for three days and three nights she sat by Sarah Lydia's bedside. A doctor treated her mother's abdominal pains with bicarbonate of soda. He said it was inevitable that a woman who lived on potatoes and flour-and-water gravy should be sick; undernourishment and tuberculosis was his diagnosis. At the age of forty-two, Sarah Lydia had only one tooth left in her mouth. As her mother lay dying, Agnes remembered initiating an embrace for the first time, and that her mother called her »my daughter,« a thing she had never said before, since »affection between parents and children was never shown among my people« (p. 135). Sarah Lydia died, of a ruptured appendix, in her daughter's arms. Her husband's reaction was to rifle Sarah Lydia's trunk, take the money hidden in it, and go out to get drunk.
Aunt Tillie came from Denver to help the family take Sarah Lydia's body to western Oklahoma, where she was buried near the Hutchinson homestead—beside her daughter Nellie, who had died in childbirth the previous September. Upon returning to Tercio, Agnes, now eighteen years old, quit her teaching job and for the spring took over sole responsibility for her sixteen-year-old sister Myrtle, her brothers John and Sam, aged fourteen and twelve, and Nellie's infant son. But she had no more success than her mother in keeping Charles Smedley sober and nonviolent. And so in about June, after an incident in which she managed to stop Charles from horsewhipping one of her brothers, she took the baby and fled to Aunt Tillie in Denver. Arrangements were made for Myrtle to work for a family in New Mexico and for the two brothers to go to Oklahoma to work on Leonard Hutchinson's farm. Throughout her life, Smedley expressed guilt over becoming »hard« enough deliberately to leave her family: »And my hardness called itself principle. I threw up fortifications to protect myself from love and tenderness that menace the freedom of women; I did not know then that one builds fortifications only where there is a weakness« (p. 156).
Since education seemed to be the only way to escape marriage and the sort of life her parents had lived, Agnes pleaded with Aunt Tillie to help her go to school. Tillie agreed to pay for a short stenography course—not in Denver, but in Greeley, Colorado.*
- * For reasons that are not entirely clear but probably related to her love life, Tillie did not want Smedley living with her in Denver. Later, in a letter to Florence Lennon dated June 17, 1924, Smedley recalled what crude and awkward country girls she and her friends in Greeley were: »the girl with whom I went had her teeth all pulled out and solid plated gold ones put in to attract attention because she was so unattractive. She was a sight when she laughed«
*Returning to Denver after a few weeks, she found that Leonard Hutchinson had come from Oklahoma and taken his infant son away, much against Aunt Tillie's wishes. (According to Agnes, Leonard called Tillie names at first and
then pleaded with her to marry him. She again refused, fearing that he would always hold her past against her.)
Tillie helped Agnes find a job in Denver as secretary to an elderly man who edited a local magazine. Within a few weeks he tried to seduce her and she quit. Tillie then found her a similar job with another magazine editor. For a while this man treated Agnes like a daughter and won her over as a friend; but then he started asking for more—love, he called it—and told her she needn't be afraid of having children. When she told him she was afraid of sex itself, he laughed and she dissolved into tears. In Daughter of Earth she admitted that she had seen this coming and hated herself for letting it happen—which she did because she wanted so much to learn to write for his magazine. Although this editor did not force the issue, Agnes was uncomfortable around his office, and so she asked him to put her »on the road« selling magazine subscriptions. Both Aunt Tillie and the editor tried to dissuade her, arguing that it was no life for a woman. But she insisted.
Smedley worked as a magazine agent for about six months in 1911, from early in the year until the beginning of summer, traveling mainly by train throughout Colorado and New Mexico. She quickly learned to avoid conventional homes with respectable housewives who rudely slammed doors in her face. She sold instead to newsstands and businessmen, making contacts through local newsboys. On trains, women who were friendly at first sometimes moved to other seats when they learned what kind of work she was doing. Men reacted differently, but often on the same assumption—that she was a loose woman.
Her career as a magazine agent ended dramatically in the dusty little Texas town of Tascosa, two dozen or so adobe buildings about a half-hour's walk up a canyon from the train depot. It had several saloons with gambling tables at the back, and from outside Agnes could hear the squeaking of a violin and the stomping of men's feet as they danced. Founded during buffalo-hunting days, the town was located halfway between the range lands of two warring cattle companies, and the graves in the local boot hill testified to the violence of their competition. When Smedley arrived, Tascosa was on the decline. The rough signboard on the Exchange Hotel where she stayed was riddled with bullet holes. Shortly after she lay down on her bed there, faint from hunger and completely broke, the hotel proprietor tried to rape her. After a struggle convinced him that she was a virgin, he became solicitous and proposed marriage — which Smedley of course refused.
The next day, in desperation Smedley wrote to Big Buck, a forty-two-year-old cowboy with a moustache running from ear to ear who had often worked for her father. When the cattle business began to decline, Buck had become a mechanic in the copper-mining town of Clifton, Arizona. In Colorado, Big Buck had taught Agnes to shoot, ride, lasso, and do tricks with a jackknife. She later wrote that he »had tried hard to blast out of me everything feminine,« and that he was the one man she felt she could trust: »The memory of Big Buck is dear to me.... Was there ever a man closer to the spirit of the West than he, I wonder: a strain of ironic humor in all he did: generous in all material things he possessed or earned; very remote in thought and spirit; stubbornly convinced of the inferiority of Mexicans, Indians, Mormons, and men frail of body« (p. 169).
In reply to her letter, Big Buck sent Agnes the money for a train ticket from Tascosa to Clifton. He arranged for her to stay in his hotel and introduced her to all as his sister, telling Agnes she had better »let that stand put«. He paid for her meals at the »Chink« restaurant across the street and convinced her to rest up for a month in order »to put some beef back on her bones«. Smedley's intention was to find a stenography job after a month and repay Big Buck. While resting, she made friends with a young unmarried Mormon forest ranger, going on long rides with him in the surrounding countryside. This was the summer of 1911, when Congress passed a bill granting Arizona statehood. On the way to a celebration dance, Big Buck declared his jealousy of the Mormon and proposed to Agnes. She was startled; she had always thought of him as old. Gently, she replied that she didn't think she would ever want to get married. At the dance itself, held in a pool hall with Chinese lanterns strung up to illuminate the flags, Agnes happened to talk with a woman who said that she was leaving the next morning by train for a teachers training school at Tempe, just outside Phoenix. Agnes bragged that she had already been a teacher and a stenographer and had »finished [her] education long ago«. The woman politely replied that she didn't see how that was possible, for at the school she attended one had to study for six years—four in high school and two in normal school—before becoming a teacher. Big Buck easily read Agnes's jealousy and her desire to go back to school. On the way home from the dance he offered to stake her to part of her school expenses for six months. After that, he said, he hoped she would return to Clifton and take him up on his marriage proposal.
Tempe, Arizona, was a quiet little town at a railroad and ferry junction on the Salt River a few miles southeast of Phoenix. Since the 1880s it had been the home of a small normal school (teachers college), the majority of whose students were Mormon girls from the surrounding area. Nearby Phoenix was the bustling capital of the new state, with a population of about 25,000; it had a Chinatown and a large Mexican-Indian community, and most of its civic leaders were Mormons. Just south of Tempe was the much older Yaqui Indian settlement of Guadalupe, which Smedley described so lyrically in Daughter of Earth. And beyond that was the desert, serene and hot, inhabited by Papago and Pima Indians.
Agnes Smedley entered Tempe Normal School on September 11, 1911, as a special student because of lack of documentary proof of a high school degree. To questions about her family, she declared that they were all deceased; she gave her father's occupation as »doctor«. She became a lab assistant for the school's popular biology and chemistry teacher, Frederick Irish, whose bachelor apartment near the campus served as headquarters for many of the school clubs in which Agnes was active. A group photograph shows her with the Kalakagthia Society, a Bible study group of twenty women who met in the dorm every Saturday night and studied scripture for two hours. Despite her poverty (she had two dresses to her name), unusual background, and special-student status, she was well liked by her classmates, who recalled that she loved literature and debate and was the founder of the campus Greeley Club.
Agnes also joined the school weekly, the Normal Student, as a staff writer. After January 12, 1912, when she was elected chief reporter, her articles were signed, and on March 29, 1912, the Normal Student announced her election as editor-in-chief. In her first editorial Smedley urged her classmates to use their education to understand better those less fortunate than themselves. Despite its self-conscious and flowery language, this was her first statement of the role she saw for herself as a writer: to serve as an interpreter for the disadvantaged, a person who could explain what it is like to be »in the darkness of not-knowing... to be so far removed from the world of knowledge« that one cannot think but only react (p. 120). The March 29 issue included two other signed pieces of hers: a short story entitled »The Romance« and a book review of The Mind of Primitive Man by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. Transparently autobiographical, »The Romance« demonstrated the liberating impact of Boas's study of racial prejudice and cultural differences, and it established a method of work that she would refine in later years: she would explain the implications of a scientific or academic study in the form of a story. In »Romance« a mother tells her children how she overcame her own racial prejudice in order to marry an Indian, and many of her emotions are clearly drawn from Smedley's attraction to a Mexican-Indian boy two years earlier in New Mexico. Shortly after this story appeared, Agnes publicly acknowledged her own Indian ancestry and asked to be called »Ayahoo«.
Just as her first journalistic success was giving her a new sense of dignity and self-respect, Smedley's six-month support from Big Buck ran out. In a letter from Clifton, he said that he assumed she wasn't taking up his proposal, and that he was going off to join the Mexican Revolution (according to family lore, he died in it). Agnes never heard from him again, but among the personal papers she gave to a friend for safekeeping in 1949 was a photograph of a cowboy named Big Buck. By April she was struggling to scrape together enough money to stay in school. She washed dishes in a restaurant and took on any kind of household work she could, putting off studying until late at night. After about a month of this, she decided she would have to leave school in order to support herself. She felt trapped and deeply depressed because she considered her prospects, even as a schoolteacher, extremely limited and unattractive. But just as she was deciding to quit school, she met two persons who set her life on a course she had never imagined.