Peeling the Onion

Col. J.J. Jones Post 226 did not start out at Formoso, but was transplanted there from another little burg which a history of Kansas G.A.R. posts refers to as “Onion.”

I frowned at the name for a minute or two before realizing that anyone seeing the handwritten name “Omio” from Post 226’s original G.A.R. charter, could easily mistake it for the word “Onion.”  “Onion” has the advantage of at least being a real word, while “Omio” may have been spun out of thin air, said to be an Indian lament on the order of “oh me, oh my.”

Settled in the mid-1870’s, Omio flourished for less than a decade.  Failing to attract a railroad, the town had begun to falter before it was absorbed by Formoso, much the same way White Rock was succeeded by Lovewell around that same time.  The transformation from Omio to Formoso was accomplished swiftly because the older settlement lay only about three miles south of the handsome new Rock Island Depot at the northern edge of Formoso.  

The new town offered free commercial lots to businesses which were willing to pack up and leave Omio.  Buildings were knocked apart, transported on sleds and reassembled in their new location.  A firm was chartered especially for the undertaking, the Omio and Formosa House Moving and Bridge Company, evidently formed before a railroad section chief decided to change the final letter of the new town’s name.  The little two-story house where I grew up was built in Omio a few years before being lifted from its foundation and hauled north by teams of oxen to the northwest corner of Patterson Ave. and Turner St. in Formoso, where, I’m happy to report, the well-kept dwelling still hosts a family to this day.

The name “Formoso” sometimes fares no better than “Omio” when handwritten records of Civil War veterans are transcribed and shared electronically in the digital age.  Post 226 member Alfred B. Balch was one of Formoso’s pioneer settlers and community leaders.  Captured by Confederate armies and paroled twice during the war, Capt. Balch is referred to as “Batch” in the index to his Civil War record on Ancestry, which also lists his hometown as “Forwood”

It’s fairly easy to see why some of these mistakes occur, despit the fact that the penmanship on Balch’s record is graceful, neat and legible.  Deciphering handwriting is often a game of expectations.  We scan the undulating landscape of a written line, the hills, valleys and peaks, and sometimes have to squint until a recognizable word pops into our heads, the way the solution to a puzzle board on “Wheel of Fortune" suddenly lights up our synapses.  Why hadn’t we seen it all along? 

Depending on the habits of the man wielding the pen, individual letters are often no help at all.  “O” can look like “a” or even “c.”  Lowercase “l,” “i,” and “t” can be nearly identical, differentiated only by a dot or a crossbar.  If the writer had been in a hurry, we’re sometimes forced to guess which little peak has been dotted, or which one has been crossed.  A horizontal scratch might run across the lot of them, while a dot hovers vaguely in the air, daring the reader to decide which summit owns the crown.  In other words, a handwritten letter from that era can resemble a coded message, sprinkled with a few precious clues.

Consider the request shown above, written in 1883 by the newly-elected commander at Mankato’s Jim Lane Post 34, addressed to a comrade in Topeka.  Several of us at my workplace who had a go at deciphering the letter, immediately saw a word in the second line as “Joplin,” probably because Joplin is a nearby city and thus a name we’re used to seeing.  It quickly became apparent that the word isn’t “Joplin” - it’s “paper.”  

A word that leapt off the page as “Junction” or perhaps “luncheon,” turned out to be “purchase.”  If we hadn’t worked out that the purpose of the letter was to learn how guns might be purchased cheaply from U.S. arsenals, we would never have recognized “accoutrements,”  a noun which was not only carelessly scribbled, but misspelled.  The complimentary closing, “Yours in F. C. & L.” required a trip to Wikipedia to learn that the founding principles of the Grand Army of the Republic were fraternity, charity and loyalty.  

It’s only after figuring out that the postscript concerns a public installation of officers and a campfire on July 1 (which Commander Harrison implores the recipient of the letter to attend), can we interpret the final line as, “If you can we will have a big turn out.”  Lacking context, those words would remain undecipherable squiggles.  Paradoxically, it’s impossible to read the letter without first knowing what it says, which one can’t know before reading it.  It occurs to me that we’re forced go about deciphering a handwritten document from 150 years ago, the same faltering way we learned to read in the first place.  It’s definitely a rusty skill-set.

Typewriters became commonplace fixtures in American offices after the mid-1880’s, and not a moment too soon.  Unfortunately, G.A.R. forms had not been designed to fit into the new contraptions, nor does it seem probable that many grizzled Civil War veterans ever trained their fingers to operate them efficiently.

So, those of us struggling over transcriptions made from handwritten documents penned long, long ago, need to bear in mind that the landscape in front of us will be dotted with Forwoods, and the ground littered with Onions.  And if, where we expect to find a family of Lovewells, we spot a bunch of Lovenrills living there instead, remember to squint, shut one eye, take a closer look, and buy a vowel if you can.  

© Dale Switzer 2023