Elizabeth (Abbot) Raitt’s life
The story below I have transcribed from a photocopy of what was presumably the original hand-typed source dating from around 1937 or so. I have corrected a few obvious typos and grammatical mistakes, but have otherwise left it exactly as typed (except for changing the typeface). It is a powerful and poignant story, written in a sympathetic and wonderfully flowery style. It gives an excellent insight into a hard life we have never known and can only wonder at these days. Whereas back in Arbroath Elizabeth had just to walk down the street to the corner baker shop, now she had to make her own bread on the plains. Fish caught fresh from the sea a few yards away in Arbroath, was probably now a luxury if obtainable at all in Chester Precinct. Clothes for the children could have been bought locally in Arbroath, even perhaps woven by neighbours and relatives; in Nebraska she made everything herself. In Arbroath, she could take the train to the city a few miles way whenever she wanted; in Nebraska it was an eight hour round trip once a year on a horse-drawn, springless lumber wagon to get provisions from Wahoo. She left family and relatives behind in Arbroath, as well as Illinois, to start her life anew in Nebraska with only her husband and their offspring.
What is also remarkable to me is the very fact that her children have written up some of her stories and thus some of the life and times of this immigrant family have not been lost. While this is highly significant to her descendants, it is also of huge interest to me for the meagre gleanings I can obtain of my own ancestors and the way they may have lived and worked - albeit back in Arbroath. Like his father, John, and his brother James Dorward, my great grandfather, David Dorward, was a master mariner and sea captain. No records survive to my knowledge of their exploits or that of their wives. True, I know that my great grandfather also survived shipwrecks a few times, but the details are sparse. From Elizabeth’s story, I can imagine that he, too, and his wife, must have lived fairly decent lives on a Captain’s salary - but their is no legacy remaining.
The photocopied pages, sent to me by one of my new-found cousins in America, start thus:
The following series written by Mrs. Elmer Scott and printed in the North Bend Eagle, tells of the life of Mrs. Elizabeth Raitt of this city who is 95 years of age, and will be of much interest to her many friends her as well as at North Bend. We give the first of the series:
DEAR OLD TIMER
Dreams of long ago!”
Strange, isn’t it, how a series of events, can conjure up the melody of an old song. Then, as you hum it over again and again, the words emerge from some long forgotten cranny of your brain, dimly at first, and then at last in triumphant burst of recollection. That’s how I reclaimed the couplet above. You see it was just a week ago that I spent the whole of one day with one who has almost ninety-five years of memories to warm her heart by; memories of England and Scotland and the isles of the sea; memories of childhood’s innocent happiness and love’s young dream. Do you wonder that the words of an old song sang me to sleep that nite and that I dreamed I was sailing the seven seas?
I was so glad that day when Mrs. Perle Hair consented to accompany me. Pontiac and I are excellent friends. We have wonderful times together, we two, but I must confess the conversation is a bit-one-sided. It’s really better to have a third party along lest, some over zealous patrolman catch me muttering and pick me up as one suffering from a dementia praecox. Such is the weakness of the human flesh that, so long as some one is in the seat beside you at whom you may hurl your conversation, you may gossip about your neighbour, ruin a reputation, or blaspheme your God without fear of molestation; but just, try talking aloud to yourself, even if you are composing a poem, preparing a speech or saying a prayer. You’ll be looked upon with suspicion. Folks will give you a wide berth as they pass you and I’d hate to, be caught at it by a policeman.
Dear! Dear! Where was I? Oh yes! Mrs. Perle Hair and I were on our way to David City to interview her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Raitt, and we were so interested in the subject of our quest that the miles fairly flew although the speedometer never registered over forty-five.
Out of my talk with Mrs. Hair, I gained one impression, an important one, namely: the genuine admiration she had for her mother. That is the first test an "Old Timer” must pass. Their own must find something to admire in them, and Grandma Raitt passed it with flying colors. Can you think of anything more commonplace and prosy than a lumber wagon? Who of us ever saw it save as a clumsy farm tool until someone wrote "Wagon Wheels" and now every one of us who has suffered the pangs of nostalgic thrills every time he hears, "Wagon Wheels carry me home." Life is like that. There are those who see it nothing but drudgery and monotony. They never wake to the fact that every day fairly runs over with drama, did they but open their eyes to see it. You can’t write stories about such people. But there are others who drink the cup of every experience to the bottom. They live on the hilltops when they are glad and what reach they that they have to descend to the depths of sadness at times or that they have to do desert stretches between, life is a thrilling adventure to them and their own admire them. They are the material from which stories are made. Do you wonder a bit that my pulse accelerated as I listened to Mrs. Hair.
Grandma Raitt fulfilled my fondest hopes of her, too. I had written to her we were coming for sure, and she was all dressed up in a soft, crinkly crepe, lavender dress with her white hair combed smooth and, when we had put off our coats, she herself led me into the parlor where her favorite chair stood.
Incidentally she had a picture of herself seated in that very chair sketched for her by her very good friend, Dale Nichols, celebrated Nebraska artist who exhibited a collection of his Nebr. paintings at the Jocelyn Memorial last fall. Dale Nichols comes to see Grandma Raitt every time he visits his farm-home birthplace which happens to be near David City.
It was Nichol’s sketch of Mrs. Raitt that introduced me to the autograph albums. She keeps them in the drawer of the library table near her hand and every new friend she acquires gets a chance to write in them and she always wants the new acquaintance to tell the circumstances of his first meeting with her. I only hope the story I shall write of her, will be worthy of the place she offered me in her autograph album.
Before we started on the life story, she showed me her handiwork – a rag run which she was knitting and when I admired it, she straightway had her daughter get one she had finished to give to me. I’m using it as a cover for my piano bench and I shall keep it as a memento of this "Old Timer" friend of mine, who at ninety four finds life so full of zest.
Grandma Raitt does no complaining, She does not sigh for the years that are gone nor groan over present aches and pains. She knows what her neighbors are doing but she doesn’t gossip. The biggest event of her year is her annual birthday party which has taken place every August 30th for twenty-five years.
For this birthday party she has a method all her own. All year she plans for it and every new friend she makes, gets an invitation if they pass the test. When the new ones are added each year to the old friends and relatives the resulting gathering is of no small size. Two years ago, the party numbered over one hundred which is the largest party of all, I think. I tell you I felt highly honored when she put her soft old hand on my cheek and said, “I’d like to have you come next year."
One other characteristic I must mention before I turn back the pages of history for my story. That is the marvelous repertoire of poems stored away in the mind of this interesting old, Scotch lady. Hundreds of poems, lyric and epic, she knows and she recites them with real interpretive ability. She has a verse to fit any turn the conversation may take, but her masterpiece is an epic poem concerning border warfare in early Scottish history which contains sixty verses. I shall tell you how she got this remarkable ability to retain poetry later, but here I must tell you that just two years ago she appeared before the Women’s Club of New Castle, Wyoming, in a program of verses. At that time she was ninety three years old and she stood on her feet almost an hour and recited poetry. She’s proud of that day’s accomplishment and justly so.
What more shall I tell you of that day’s visit? The delicious dinner prepared by the daughter, the trip past Dale Nichol’s home, the glimpse of an old music box whose silver tinkling first tickled my ears when Pearl Scott and I were girls in school. All these and more I could tell but space forbids.
© Nebraska, 1887. Solomon Burke
Part VIII – Anchors Away
"Anchors Aweigh!" That is the cry when a ship’s anchor is lifted and she is posed for flight. "At Anchor," is the sign when her voyage is over and she’s safe in port.
As old age approached him, the mind of James Dorward Raitt, the farmer, turned more and more to the adventures of his youth. To be sure he was proud of his four sons, every one of whom towered a head above him physically. Indeed he had his picture taken with them to show their stalwartness. He enjoyed the knowledge that his life as a farmer had been successful. He was the proprietor of 240 acres of land where once he had labored as a common farm hand laborer. Life had been full for him, but he longed for the sea. Oh, to be captain once more, pacing the deck of the good ship Water Lily! Oh, to cast his eyes once more far out and farther still into the blue horizons of the restless sea.
When of evenings he’d walk up and down the length of his little living room - "treading the deck,” he called it – he’d chant to himself this bit of poem:
"The sea, the sea, the open sea,
The calm, the blue, the ever free.”
And the family would know that he had bridged the gap of his years as a farmer and was a sailor once more. Strange, isn’t it and oh how human. That return to the loves of one’s youth as old age comes on.
Then came the day when he embarked on his last voyage and "Anchors Aweigh" it was for his restless spirit. "Anchors Aweigh" to that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
They laid that part of him which was mortal in the little cemetery at David City and
when Elizabeth came to the time when she contemplated putting up a memorial stone
at his grave, she pondered long. Then one of her childhood poems came to her.
“My Willie’s on the dark blue sea,
He’s gone far o’er the main, And many a weary hour I’ll spend,
Ere he comes home again.
Then blow gentle winds, o’er the dark blue sea,
Till Willie’s safe at home again,
In his own dear native land.”
Why, her man WAS safe. The restless wanderings of his ship of life were over. His ship was
"at anchor.” So she had them engrave an anchor on his headstone and underneath she ordered written:
James Dorward Raitt, born October 3, 1840, died July 22, 1917, "At Anchor."
Of course, Elizabeth was lonely after he left but she stayed in the home he had bought for her and there she is today surrounded by the treasures that have come to her through the years. Undoubtedly she looks out into the future. She’ll live every mortal day to the full when at last the Almighty Arbitrator of her destiny cries, "Anchors Aweigh," she’ll embark and as always she’ll look out eagerly for the landing.
Dear Old Timers: I hope you have had as much enjoyment reading Elizabeth’s story as I have had writing it. Just this last week a letter came to me from St. Edward, Nebraska. It was signed by
a former Sunday School pupil of Captain Raitt’s in that little Methodist church in Saunders county, where – and I quote "cluster some of my fondest childhood memories."
This lady, too, is a newspaper correspondent by way of a most interesting hobby as well a lucrative side and her lovely letter is stored away in my "Scribblers Bonus“ box.
The Raitts were still living in the sod house when the blizzard of 1888 swept over the country. Indeed it was mother Raitt’s high privilege - for such she deemed it - to entertain all twenty two of the children with their teacher from the local district for breakfast the morning after the storm. John Raitt, Tom Nemets and Joe Ladenburger who were the schools three big boys were decidedly the heroes of that occasion and father Raitt undoubtedly owed his life to his rope.
There was one holiday which the family always celebrated and for which the mother of the group prepared in advance, namely, July 4th. It fell to her lot to see that the children each had 25 cents to spend on the nation’s holiday and so she always contrived to have some chickens ready for cash sale prior to that date so that her boys and girls could squander a little for firecrackers and chewing gum in honor of Uncle Sam’s birthday.
Thus they lived, rigorously, by hard work and self denial in the sod house until they got the farm clear of debt and enough money ahead to build a frame house and barn. Then again catastrophe struck, the new barn burning to the ground. Did it wipe them out? Not so you could notice it. They just saved enough to rebuild that barn. Ah, the fortitude of the pioneers! They saved themselves out of debt and the success of their methods gives the complete lie of the fallacies promulgated by white collar new dealers of the present age.
"Spend yourself out of debt, "says the new deal crowd, “and let your children pay the bill," “Save yourself out of debt,” said the pioneers, “and leave your children a farm,” and rather than bow their necks to the yoke of the present farm bill to which the farmers all over America are harnessing themselves like dumb oxen, they’d have starved to death and let their children starve. They had a little independence in those days and a little forethought.
Two more children were born to James and Elizabeth Raitt while they lived in Saunders county, namely, Daisy, April 5, 1885 and Claude, March 7, 1887. During that time, too, they became members of the Spring Creek Methodist Church.
In 1904 they sold their holding in Saunders county and invested in 240 acres of land in Union township, Butler County, near David City. This farm was unique in that it was exactly three miles from three small villages where there were grain elevators, namely, Millerton, Rising City and Foley. They wanted this particular farm because the farm of their daughter Lily and her husband adjoined it and they wanted to be near her, said Elizabeth.
"My laddie’s my laddie till he gets him a wife, but my lassie’s my lassie the whole of her life."
So they moved to David City to be near Lily, little dreaming that “man proposes but God disposes." The move was made in Sept. 1904. In Dec. just three months later, Lily passed away, leaving a desolate home in which a husband and seven children mourned her loss. Who knows but that a kindly providence so planned that Elizabeth should be near to mother Lily’s children at that sad time.
James and Betsy spent the rest of their working days on that farm and in March, 1910, they rented it to their youngest son, Claude, and moved to a house they had purchased in David City.
© Homestead, Nebraska, 1888. Solomon Burke
PART VII - A sod shanty in Nebraska.
As was often the case in pioneer days, father Raitt came out to Nebraska ahead of his family. He wasn’t just sure what he’d find here and besides he wanted to have a home located for his clan when they got here. This made it necessary for Elizabeth to travel alone with the seven children when she joined him.
They came by train to North Bend reaching here on Washington’s birthday, 1883. To their arrival Elizabeth had adapted a very fitting joke. She herself tells it this way:
“We landed in North Bend very early in the morning and the children were sleepy. Indeed I had quite a time getting them awake and dressed ready to get off when the train stopped. We made quite a crowd, too. The conductor lifted each of the children down one by one until seven of them had landed and by that time his eyes were bulging out. “My God, woman,“ he burst forth when my turn came to be helped down, “Are these all yours or is it a picnic?” To which she very sweetly replied, “ Sir, they’re all mine and I assure you it’s no picnic!”
It certainly was “no picnic” to be the mother of seven children in those pioneer days when there were so few devices to lighten a woman’s work.
From North Bend, where father Raitt met them, they went in a lumber wagon to the farm in Saunders county, Chester precinct, where their new home was. Their first home was on a rented farm belonging to one Jake Yargis and their nearest neighbor was Mr. Jim Hall. On this rented farm belonging to Mr. Hall they lived for two years while they were erecting the buildings on their own 160 acres, which they had bought in 1882. During this time a daughter, Anne Violet, was born, Oct. 7, 1883.
They moved to their own land in 1885 and thus began their life in a soddy for the buildings were at first all made of sod. It was a cozy place, that little sod house sitting like a mother hen upon the Nebraska
prairie, hovering beneath it’s earthly wings the brood that was the Raitt family. Winter winds could sweep over, rustling its thatched feathers, but never a breeze disturbed those it sheltered. It was a homey place,
for love was there and hard work, and co-operative effort. It was a crowded place, too, so crowded that it wasn’t long before father Raitt felt it necessary to add a huge sod kitchen to the main house.
Elizabeth seldom ventured forth from her home. An occasional all day visit at a neighbor’s. A sing or a spell down at the school house and church whenever she could attend, these were the only outings she had, save once each year when they took the whole family and spent a day in Wahoo, shopping.
Wahoo was seventeen miles away from their home, which distance they covered in a lumber wagon behind the workhorses. Long before dawn on their annual shopping day, they’d be up; and, at daylight, on the way, all twelve of them. By dint of traveling at the rate of - say four miles per hour – they’d arrive at their destination at about eleven o’clock . They did their trading at the John Killan general merchandise store and its genial proprietor always took the whole family home to dinner. He could well afford to do this, too, for often the bill from their day’s shopping amounted to $150. Invariably father Raitt made the same speech at the close of their annual shopping day: “Ah, she’s a good one to empty a man’s pockets, is Betsy,“ and invariably this speech would make Betsy "mad as a wet hen," and with good reason. Fancy feeding and clothing a family of twelve for a year on $150 now-a-days.
The next few weeks after the trip to Wahoo would see Elizabeth busy indeed. Yards and yards of calico to be made into wrappers and aprons and mother hubbards; bolts of muslin from which to manufacture chemises and petticoats and drawers and nightgowns, enough denim for the overalls of five men, with an equal quantity of shirting for the backs of the same five; all this she made up by hand the first few years. How she longed for a sewing machine, but they had one unbreakable rule at their house namely; what they couldn’t pay cash for, they did without until they could get the money; ergo Elizabeth sewed by hand so long that the purchase of her sewing machine was a real event.
It was on a Saturday that they got home from Wahoo with her lovely new “White” sewing machine, and so late at night that she didn’t get a chance to run even one seam upon it and tomorrow was Sunday. Sunday at their house meant no unnecessary labor; it meant Bible study and decorum. Elizabeth wouldn’t have that of trying out the new machine on Sunday, and so she had to wait for twenty-four whole hours to pass to see how the treasure worked. That was one time she welcomed blue Monday with all her heart.
When he first began farming in Nebraska, James Raitt wasn’t able to afford a leather harness and right here his sailor’s training stood him in good stead. He did have on hand his sailors’ ropes and out of these he contrived a harness fearful and wonderful to behold. It served his purpose too, but the children were a bit ashamed of it. How the kids at school did laugh when they first beheld that harness but their laughter soon turned to respect when, at the teacher’s request the erstwhile sea captain came to the school one day to show them the art of tying knots and to tell them of his wonderful experiences at sea. From then on until his death wherever he went Captain Raitt had a following of admiring children for he never lacked an invitation to demonstrate knots and to tell stories in the public schools.
PART VI - Hired Man’s Wife
It was while they were living at Chenoa, on Dec. 28, 1871, that Elizabeth’s second child was born, this time a daughter, and true to her promise, Elizabeth called her baby girl Lily, after the good ship Water Lily. It was in March following Lily’s birth that they began their first job in America.
There is an apt couplet that Captain Raitt was wont to recite to his lady at such time as they had a difference of opinion. "Ah well," he would say, "when she will, she will, you may depend on’t, and when she won’t she won’t and there’s an end on’t.
That couplet applied just as aptly to the hired man’s wife. Elizabeth had made her choice and she was determined to play her part to the limit.
Their first job took them to Deer Creek in Tazewell county, Illinois where James Raitt went to work for one E. G. Chaffer. There were several small tenant houses on the Chaffer place and in one of those they set up their lares and penates. Here Elizabeth began her career as the hired man’s wife. It wasn’t an easy role as she soon discovered.
She had never seen a cook stove. What cooking she knew had been done in a fireplace. The oven of an American range was a seven days wonder to her. She hadn’t the haziest idea how to make bread and the first batch of biscuits she attempted to make, would have served beautifully as grape shot for a Big Bertha. How was she to know that yeast cakes were not to be put to soak in boiling water? Her lovely, soft white hands became hard and calloused and scarred from burns and scratches. There isn’t much compatibility between wash tubs wherein clothes for two active children and a farm laborer husband are painfully scrubbed on a board and lily white hands. Oh, life was not easy for the ex-captain’s lady.
It was in the boss’s wife, Sarah Belle Chaffer, that Elizabeth found the good friend to help her through this hard time. Sarah Belle showed her how to make bread. Sarah Belle came in when the children fell ill. Years later out of pure gratitude Elizabeth named a baby girl Sarah Bell.
Nor did the captain find his life as a hired man easy. There is a certain grace about the manner in which an experienced farm hand swings a pitchfork. There is an art to backing a team, all of which comes from experience and James Raitt had no experience. Especially at corn picking time did he chafe under the knowledge that the other men brought in far bigger loads than he, without working half so hard. It was here Elizabeth “leapt into the breach." Not if she could help it would her man be bested; and so she rose at four o’clock in the morning, hurried through her work and rode four miles to the field where she added the labor of her hands so that his load would not compare unfavorably with that of the other men. Thus they slaved and saved and served out their apprenticeship for four years; during which time three more children were born to them namely: James Dorward (Elizabeth kept her promise to Uncle James) – July 28, 1873; Mathilda, Nov. 11, 1874; and Elizabeth, March 28, 1876.
Their material prosperity was not aided during these first four years by the fact that a disastrous fire destroyed their house and all their possessions late in the last summer. Mathilda was a babe in her cradle at the time. Elizabeth didn’t confess it until years afterward but she was to blame for that fire. The day was windy and the weather had been dry. She really should have known better than to empty the ashes so close to the house. It was too late when she recognized the fact. All she could do then was salvage what she could for she was alone when she discovered that the house was afire. First she carried out along some quilts and laid Mathilda upon them. She was in the loft getting her man’s clothing when the neighbours came and in their haste to get things out completely covered Mathilda with clothes. Before the frightened mother could get her uncovered, the child was black in the face and by the time they had her revived, they were too thankful to lament about the loss of their household goods. Then, too, the neighbors were kind and offered Elizabeth a sum of money to replace the things she had lost, money which Elizabeth in her Scotch independence refused to accept. Life hadn’t beaten the captain’s lady yet, not by a long shot.
The March of Elizabeth, Jr.’s birth saw them ready to go to farming for themselves on a rented farm with a team of horses and meagre bit of equipment. They stayed on their first farm three years and during that time Sarah Belle, Sept. 14, 1877; Colin Dorward, Febr. 21. 1879; and Marian Violet, June 14, 1880 were born and the dates mentioned after their names. It was during this period, too, that James Dorward Raitt the elder, became a naturalized citizen of the United States, completing the process on Oct. 30, 1880.
They lived on one other place as renters in Illinois for another three year period, a period filled with events. Henry Motley came to join the Raitt crowd Nov. 17, 1881, and just two months before his arrival the barn on the place took fire. The father of the family was away that day and Elizabeth, busy in the house, did not notice it until it had burned thru the floor of the loft where it started and licking around the heads of the horses tied therein. It was no place for a man to enter let alone a woman in Elizabeth’s condition, but did she hesitate? Not Elizabeth! She got that team to the door, too, and just when she thought them safe a burning timber fell upon the lip of one causing him to jerk back raking her arm along a red hot timber. She wears the scar to this day. As for the fear of the crazed horses they ran back into that inferno and were burned.
Now that fire was bad enough but when to it must be added that it occurred just 2 months before the birth of their son Henry and three days after the death of their daughter Marian it proves again the adage that trouble comes in battalions. Baby Marion was the victim of whooping cough and her death was the first break in the family circle.
The next year death again struck their home. This time it was the year old Henry who was taken. Truly the last three years of their stay in Illinois were filled with tragedy and they were glad to leave it all behind them when on February 15, 1883, they set forth by train to make a home in Nebraska.
Part V - The Water Lily
It was Captain Raitt’s good fortune some five or six weeks after his return from Norwegian waters, the burial ground of the ill-fated Rosebud, that the White Star line should be completing a new vessel and that he should be assigned to its command.
High up on the prow of this new ship was carved a water lily, for that was to be her name. Elizabeth Abbott Raitt was present at the christening. Indeed it was her privilege as captain’s wife to perform the age old act of christening and to confer upon the ship her name, "The Water Lily," and furthermore it was her privilege to go with her husband on the Water Lily when she made her maiden voyage.
Elizabeth had suffered too poignantly during those long weeks after the wreck of the Rose Bud to risk separation from this man whom heaven had spared to her so miraculously. She just couldn’t bear to have him leave her so he took her with him. It was on this trip that they touched on Australian shores and visited India. On this voyage, too, they encountered rough, weather and heavy seas. Elizabeth spent most of her time hanging over the rail. Some folks call it "feeding the fish." Others are more refined, they say, "mal de mer.” She called it plain, old fashioned sea-sickness, she was very miserable and ill and she resolved that if only she could live to get back to Arbroath, she’d be satisfied to stay there always – there she’d wait for her captain to return to her. She was through sailing the seven seas, so she resolved.
Heaven was kind to her. She did get home again, but somehow the rest of her resolve wasn’t so easy to keep. When her man left on the boundless sea she was haunted by her fears for his safety. She was especially blue and discouraged when the time drew near for the birth of her first child. Here again heaven was kind to her. The child was born a fine young son, and she called him John after the captain’s father.
In a letter written to her man some time after the boy’s naming she told him a whimsical tale of going to his father’s home and finding two old men, the father, John, and his brother, James, in hot argument over the baby’s name. James declared the boy should have borne his name.
”To satisfy your Uncle James, “ she wrote, "I had to promise him that my next son should bear his and your name, “ a promise she kept to the letter.
As time went on the whimsical notes in her letters grew fewer and fewer. She worried constantly about their separation. Dreadful dreams of storm-tossed seas, broken vessels and of drowning men tormented her.
"0h, I’ll be willing to suffer any hardship, if only we could be together," she wrote. "Why can’t we make a home in America?" He tried to reason with her. "The sea is the only occupation I know. I’d have to start at the bottom in any other trade."
She couldn’t see it and finally he wrote her to meet him in London for a conference.
Now her position as the wife of a sea captain was rather an enviable one. She had leisure, more silk dresses and fine raiment than most of her neighbors. Her hands were white and soft and she could take a trip now and then as she met his ship in the various ports. On the other hand, if they went to America, she’d be a common laborer’s wife. His salary would be small, no more fine raiment. Her social position would be nil. Back and forth they argued these two alternatives when they met in London and finally he thundered, “Ye can live in London and be a captain’s lady or ye can go to America and be a hired man’s wife. Now choose….."
Thus did he put their future entirely in her hands and she chose America.
He had a brother living near Peoria, Illinois, and they decided to make that the point of their destination in the new world. They then set about the preparations for the great step they were
about to take.
Reluctantly he resigned his command of the Water Lily and bade farewell to life as captain of a sailing vessel. Passionately Elizabeth vowed she’d make it up to him. She’d name her first daughter, Lily, in honor of his ship. She’d work by his side as hard as he. She’d never complain again, no matter what came. She kept those vows.
Finally it was all over and on July 14, 1871, they left Arbroath, never to return. Each took a memento of the days upon which this day locked the door. His was the sextant that had guided him three times around the world, and had survived three shipwrecks with him; the sextant that had lain in the bottom of the ocean for two whole months. Her memento was a massive family Bible that she had acquired book by book as she could afford them and had bound in one volume afterwards. Years later she gave this bible to her youngest daughter to cherish.
The trip from Arbroath to Glasgow was made by a sail boat, and from Glasgow to New York they traveled in a steam driven vessel. Perhaps that voyage by steamer helped the captain to realize more than ever before that the sun was far to the westward in the day of the sailing vessel; that steam instead of sails would motivate the ships of the future.
Their young son, John, celebrated his first birthday on board that steamer, and he had the advantage of his maternal grandmother’s presence to help with the celebration, for Elizabeth’s mother came to America with them until the time of her death, February 19, 1880.
They arrived in New York July 31, 1871, and took train immediately for Chenoa, Illinois, where they stayed until March 1, 1872.
PART IV - Norway
Those three months while she waited for her captain to return were the longest in Elizabeth’s life. You see her people were soldiers. She’d had no experience with the sea and she was filled with apprehensions. Finally however the time came for his return and return he did only to sail away again after a few day’s leave.
Elizabeth never took a long cruise aboard the Rose Bud, for she wasn’t a good sailor, but whenever it was possible she met him in whatever port his ship docked, stayed with him while the cargo was being unloaded and the ship took on ballast, and then sailed with him to wherever his next cargo was waiting to be loaded. By that much she could lengthen their time together before once more he’d leave her on shore to watch the Rose Bud cross the bar and put out to sea. Then she’d go home to Arbroath to wait for his letters. This continued all thru the first year of her marriage.
It was necessary for the newly made captain to spend considerable of his salary for an outfit, that first year, but by November it was quite complete. Fine braided uniforms, expensive nautical instruments, he had them all and she was so proud of him that November day he sailed away.
They had a little rite which they always observed when he left her. Together they would kneel their arms about each other, the whole time they prayed that he, who ruled the deep, would keep them safe and bring him back to her alive. It was thus they parted in November 1869 just three days before dire catastrophe descended upon him.
This time he put out to sea from Edinburgh straight into the North sea, which at that time was apt to be stormy. Three days out they were caught in a terrific storm of snow and wind. The Rose Bud was carried
far off her course and after a day spent in battling the elements she struck on a sunken reef off the rocky coast of Norway. In no time at all the ship was ground to pieces and the crew strewn out into the icy waters. Only two of them ever saw the light of day again.
Somehow - and who shall dare to say that the parting rite of prayer he always observed with his wife was not the reason - somehow, the captain rose to the surface and found himself clinging to a broken mast. In a few minutes the head of the cabin boy appeared, near enough that the captain and the cabin boy clung together, two bits of human flots adrift on that stormy sea.
The captain soon saw that their mast could not long keep them afloat. He also knew that they could never swim burdened with so much clothing. Cold as it was, there was just one thing to do: undress, and this they proceeded to do. They had just got to their underwear when their mast slipped away from them, and they were on their own.
Fortunately by this time they had drifted close to a bit of an island but such a landing! High over their heads rose a perpendicular rock and against it the waves were dashing. Their one hope was to ride in on a wave and somehow manage to cling to that rock. Time and again they tried, scrambling, clinging, tearing their fingernails to the bone only to be sucked back into the maelstrom below as the waves receded.
Just when, their strength about gone, they were ready to give up in despair, a strange thing happened. There came a huge wave that dashed them up and onto the rock, and close in its wake, a few moments of absolute calm. It was as if heaven had claimed the sea that they might be saved, for in that interlude of respite given them, they were able to clamber out of the reach of the dashing sea.
In telling of his experience afterward Captain Raitt always said, "If ever I believed in God, it was at that moment."
Well, they stayed on that rocky islet all the rest of the night with not one stitch of clothing to protect them but their underwear which was wet from their immersion in the sea. The cabin boy cried and sobbed, "Oh, captain "I can’t die of cold here." To which the captain would reply, "Can ye swim in that sea to shore? Walk man, walk or ye’ll freeze for sure." Thus they passed the long night.
When morning brought them the gift of light, they saw at some distance out on the sea a boat. Hastily they fastened a red handkerchief, which luckily the cabin boy had tied round his neck when he discarded his clothing, upon a stick of driftwood and signaled frantically.
The fishermen - for the occupants of the boat were Norwegian fishermen - soon saw them and came to their rescue, but when they tried to get down from their rocky perching place they were unable to do so. This circumstance will give some idea of the height of the waves during the storm. Finally the fishermen succeeded in tossing a rope to them and with this for a life line they climbed down into the boat and in this fashion got ashore. They were taken to the hotel and put bed to thaw out for the feet of both of them had been frozen.
How long they stayed abed is problematical for the only thing the captain remembered about that period was the greeting of the serving maid when she brought them a meal some days later. She was a Norwegian girl and knew only one English sentence, a thing she’s picked up from some traveler and she had no idea what it meant.
"Good morning, Captain Good For Nothing!" which was exactly the way the captain was feeling, when he considered that he had lost his ship, that he hadn’t even a shirt for his back and would have to beg his passage home. However, they interpreted the maid’s speech in terms of her friendly smiles instead of her actual words, and all was well.
It was six weeks before Captain Raitt and his man Friday, the cabin boy, succeeded in getting passage back to Edinburgh. True he had sent word to his sailor father that he was alive, but that six weeks was a time of such great anxiety to Elizabeth that she could never again be reconciled to his going off to sea.
One day Elizabeth was calling upon a neighbor in Hannah street when she spied a poorly dressed individual coming down the street. Instantly she recognized him and rushed out to fling herself into his arms in a perfect paroxysm of relief.
“All mine! All mine!’ sobbed the man who had lost every other earthly possession save the wife he held in his arms.
Right there in the middle of the street they knelt down to thank God that his life had been spared and they were together again. They were so truly grateful for these blessings that they never gave a thought to the loss of his uniforms, his maps and charts, even his precious sextant without which no man can navigate the seas.
It may be that the sextant was restored to him as a reward for his piety. Anyway it truly was recovered from the sea and returned to him. It all came about in this way.
Some months later when a group of men were exploring the sea floor in one of those glass bottomed boats such as are used today for sightseers at Catalina Island. From this craft they spied the instrument near the hulk of the Rose Bud, brought it to the surface with grappling hooks and returned it to the rightful owner. He never parted with it from that day until his death and Elizabeth Raitt has it in her possession to this very day. A sextant that lay for two months at the bottom of the ocean, is a possession from which
one does not part easily.
PART III - Arbroath
When Elizabeth Abbott was five years old – in 1848 to be exact - the family moved from the village of Glamis to the larger sea-faring town of Arbroath. Much of Arbroath was located on land so dangerously near sea level that a huge double sea wall had been built to protect it in time of storm. This sea wall and the sandy beach beyond became the play place of Elizabeth and her friends. Here they learned to swim, wading out at first to let the waves roll over their heads; and if perchance, they swallowed great quantities of brine, what of it. Their mothers said that sea water had great medical properties.
Here, too, on foggy days – and there are many foggy days in that part of Scotland, near Edinburgh - they listened to the deep tones of the bell on Bell Rock twelve miles out at sea. There on Bell Rock later a light house stood, but in Elizabeth’s youth only a bell warned seafarers of the dangerous sunken, reef located there. Often when they heard the ominous tolling of that bell they told each other of the grim nemesis which overtook certain pirates of the North Sea, who, in years agone cut the cable that ran the bell and were punished, by being the very first ones to wreck their ship on the jagged reef whose presence the bell would have announced.
One of the merriest times of the year for the children of Arbroath was the eve of New Years, which they called "Hoggmanay." On that night they gathered in crowds and went from house to house chanting a quaint Scotch limerick.
“Rise up good wife, and din-na (do not) be swere (lazy),
and dale (deal) out your bread, as long as ye’re here.
The day’ll come when ye’ll be dead and ye’ll neer care for male ner bread;
We’re but children come to play, so gie (give) us now our Hoggmanay”
Whereupon the good wife would rise and divide among them a huge pan of shortbread she had made for the occasion. This shortbread was made of butter or lard, sugar, salt and flour. It had no leavening in it and must have been like pie crust. No good Scotch housewife would be caught without a shortbread in readiness to "dale" out to the children on Hoggmanay night. As for the children they kept at their caroling until their stomachs would hold no more.
But Elizabeth’s life in Arbroath was not all play. Her mother soon found work in a weaving plant, this time a factory where sail cloth was made, and the young lady was again pressed into service to recite her poems at first and later to work at the looms herself. This was her first contact with ships and seas but not her last by any means, for the time was drawing near when the little god of love should take her heart for a target.
She was a comely lass as the lads in the Hannah street neighborhood soon saw. When of evenings they gathered to dance their lively folk dances in the moonlight she never looked for admirers but she laughed at them all until one night Cupid’s arrow hit the mark.
They were playing a game in which they stood in a circle with one person outside who ran round the group while they sang – “Who goes round my house this nite?" To which the one outside replied: “It’s none but bloody Tom.” Then those in the circle sang: “No don’t steal all my chickens away”
whereupon Bloody Tom would put his hand on one head and sing, “It’s none but this poor wan (one)”, and remove that one from the circle.
That night there was a young sailor at the party who had just come home on leave, and somehow to Elizabeth the game took on new magic, especially so because every time the young sailor became Bloody Tom, he always put his hand on the same "poor chicken’s head," namely that of Elizabeth Abbott." Oh, there’s no doubt about it, there was magic in the air that nite for them both.
One morning early, a few days later Elizabeth was awakened by a tap at her window. It was the young sailor. He was leaving for his ship and he wanted to know if she’d write to him while he was gone. She promised she would and he went away happy.
How she looked for the letters, and how she loved them when they came. She saved them all little dreaming that years later a beloved grandson named James Keill would make of their stamps a prized collection. She answered them, too, faithfully until one came in which he had forgotten to tell her where to send her next letter. She was stumped. There wasn’t a thing she could do but wait until he wrote again. It was a long wait too, for James Dorward Raitt was a hot headed youngster. Finally he could stand the silence no longer and wrote, but what a letter! No husband of twenty years wedlock ever chided his mate more severely. When she answered, she gave him as good as he sent. "Did you," said she, "think I could dream where to send a letter, inasmuch as you failed to send me an address?”
That little tempest seemed to clear the air for them because from then on their romance by letter seemed to flourish. Then came the day when he returned to Arbroath. The first thing he did was to come to see her and they went for a walk down Hannah street. His proposal was short and to the point.
"Betsy," he always called her Betsy, "what’s the use of being two when we might as well be one?" - and Betsy agreed with him.
In those days when a young couple contemplated marriage, the law required them to have their intentions proclaimed in the church. Three methods were open to them depending on the cost: It would be done in three weeks at a cost of seven shillings; in two weeks at a cost of twelve shillings or in one week at a cost of twenty shillings. Inasmuch as the young sailor had only one week’s leave they had to take the most expensive method of proclaiming their intention to wed.
They were married before the week was out on December 18, 1868 in her mother’s house with a houseful of guests to witness the ceremony and take part in the festivities afterward.
Of course there was a big Scottish dance in the evening but there was one drawback - the groom didn’t dance. What could they do if the bride didn’t lead the reel? Finally Willie Doog, a long time friend of the family, solved the dilemma by substituting himself for the groom and dragging the reluctant bride onto the floor. The young husband was furious. "For two bucks," he told her when he got her alone at last, I’d have been gone and you’d never have seen me again.
Thus nearly did Elizabeth come to losing her young husband the very day she got him. At least so he said.
Now up until the week of his marriage James Dorward Raitt had been a common sailor and, later a ship’s officer, but he had been studying hard and that is how it came about that one week in mid-December, 1868 brought him, a wife, a captain’s certificate and oh, most fortunate circumstance, a ship to sail.
The good ship “Rose Bud" was a three mastered schooner of the White Star line. She was due to leave port on Sunday night. Her newly appointed captain was married on Friday. You can see from that how short days and he sailed away from Elizabeth Abbott Raitt who saw him no more for three long months.
PART II - Scotland
Strathmore in the year 1200. A fairy castle where Shakespeare wrote his immortal couplets! A grim redoubt bathed in the blood of border warfare. High vaulted rooms hung with priceless tapestry and filled with ancient furniture! Long halls down whose lofty ceilinged corridors marched double rows of ancestral forms, caught and held immortal by the flamboyant portraiture of olden times! Ghostly secret chambers where hid the loyal knights of feudal days! Mammoth fireplaces into whose gaping maws a coach and four could drive! A far cry, with much romance, more of adventure between!
A great wall surrounded the grounds which frame the picture that is Strathmore. In this wall were four gates, each guarding a mile long lane where hid the castle entrances. Clustered around each of these gates lay the humble cotes of the villages, where lived the tenants of the Earl of Strathmore. It was in one of these villages that the heroine of our story was born.
The village of Glamis – pronounced Glomis - lies at the east entrance to Strathmore park. It’s tenants were weavers and little Elizabeth Abbot’s mother was no different from the rest. No doubt she spared from her work only the time necessary for the little daughter’s birth that late summer of 1843; for long before the child was five years old, the mother was back at her loom with her neighbors, laboring with flying fingers
that her family might have the wherewithal to pay the rent and to afford the little luxuries she so dearly loved to have in readiness when her soldier husband came home for a visit.
They had one great pleasure, these women of the nimble fingers or shall we call it recreation. They loved poetry and, since their eyes must be glued to their work, they employed the services of the little Elizabeth to indulge that pleasure. Long poems, short poems, epics, lyrics did the little girl learn so that, day after day, she could stand in the spinning room reciting poetry for the edification of her mother’s friends. She never forgot those poems and that is how it came about that nearly a century later, when she was an old, old woman, she could amaze and delight her friends by her remarkable repertoire of verse. Thus early she learned that the high road to life abundant is signposted by the way of service. Once only did the little Elizabeth get to see inside the castle of the young earl, to whom she curtsied whenever he passed through the village. Once only, but the picture was stamped on her brain so indelibly that it became the subject of many a story to her own boys and girls as they sat by the fire in their sod shanty home on the plains of Nebraska.
One other event of major importance came into the life of the little Elizabeth while she lived at Glamis, namely: the visit of Queen Victoria to Strathmore. She came disguised as a commoner to the little Scottish village, did the great Queen Vic, but she didn’t fool these shrewd folk long for she stopped and shook the hands of the village children as they flocked around her carriage. You may be sure the little Elizabeth was one of the favored group whose hand the great queen touched and what is more she was fully aware of the honor she and her playmates were receiving. Not lightly would one place his hand in the hand of the greatest earthly empire builder the world has ever known.
It was while she was on this visit to Scotland that Queen Victoria recited a poem that showed her to be an advocate of peace and the remedy she suggested could well be used today. Victoria was a young woman then. She doubtless didn’t realize what was ahead of her as Britain’s Queen but her remedy still stands:
“If I were Queen of England, or, better still, the Pope of Rome,
I’d have no fighting men abroad, no weeping maids at home.
All the worlds should be at peace, but if kings must show their might;
I’d have the men who start the quarrels be the very ones to fight.”
That verse became a part of the repertoire of the wee Elizabeth in her spinning room appearances and she grew to love her queen so deeply that when, years later, her husband renounced his loyalty to the British queen to become a citizen of the United States, she was very angry.
“Give up Queen Victoria,” said she, “Humph," none would appreciate that expressive value of that ”Humph” without seeing it and the shrug of the shoulders that accompanied it.
Thus five years in the life of Elizabeth passed and, even for one of so tender age, she was living them to the full.