Sunday, December 16, 2018
Letters from the Heart
What Americans Once Were
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
There is little doubt America has lost contact with its past.
It has become a permanent affliction, the loss of grasp to a physical world that created interesting people. For some time, I have planned to share glimpses of Mary Belle Shelley Rice. Born in 1877 in Nolanville, Texas, she was the second child of Peter and Emily Shelley who came west to New Mexico in 1884. There have been traces of her including the printed account of The Cup, the tin cup that was attached to a small chain and hung from the tower of the hand dug well near the entrance of her home.
Another glimpse of her was associated with TheChair, the hand-crafted chair that now resides in the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum. It was the only piece of furniture that accompanied the Shelley family from Texas. It was used as the replacement of the spring board in their covered wagon by day, and, by night, it was used to sooth the fears of Mary Belle and her three siblings who were rocked one by one by their mother by the evening fire in that immeasurable expanse of empty frontier.
Mary Belle Shelley would be known by several names. In most of her letters to relatives, she signed Love, Aunt May. In records, it was her full given name, but to her children and grandchildren it was simply, Ma.
She was a teacher by formal education. Very likely the first college graduate in the history of her family, she was part of the first class of what was then the New Mexico Normal School (which later became New Mexico Teachers College which then became Western New Mexico University). She graduated with the class of 1897.
Remembered by one of her grandsons, “Ma never taught professionally, but taught every day of her life. She was always teaching us something.”
Invariably, her gifts were books or words that she would share verbally or in written form. She was a constant note taker. She kept a daily diary which was usually updated in the wee hours of the morning. Often, she would record the time and about 3:30 seemed to be the time she would set it aside for a little nap before getting up to face the day.
From those writings, though, so many things come to life. There are things that I didn’t want to know. There are things that shed light on events or people that appeared differently without knowing the background. Her love for each and every family member and innumerable friends was immense, and it was set forth in phrases and words. The more people at her table the higher her spirits would become. She would record the memory.
She never indulged in many things. Aprons were a departure. She never owned a pair of silk stockings, but she left each of her four children a ranch.
Letters from the Heart
In a letter to her children that was written over several days around February 19, 1954, were the instructions it was “for you four and my grandchildren and great grandchildren -NOT anyone else”. In an attempt to honor to a greater degree her demand, at least some of its contents must be shared on its historical significance. The focus was the Apache raid in the spring of 1885 some six months after the family had arrived on Mogollon Creek, New Mexico Territory.
Word had been received that Geronimo was on the prowl. Joined by the family of Peter Shelley’s brother and several men who were establishing ranches nearby, the family offered their hospitality and what protection they could muster together as a safeguard against an attack. Lulled by the delay in anything happening, they neglected to gather most of their horses and the Indians took advantage of it. All but a single saddle horse and a team of wagon horses were stolen in a night that was marked by the hounds barking and howling.
That long night prompted Ma to remember her disgust in how the Apaches fought. Her father was used to dealing with Comanches in Texas “who would come out in the open and fight like white men … Geronimo’s band was cowardly”.
Regardless of age, every person who was old enough to pack a firearm was expected to carry and use one in the event of a fight. At a point in the long day that followed, her sister stepped on a mesquite and one of the men, Mr. White, told the others to go on and he would remove the thorn and carry the little girl. Ma’s mother, Emily Jane, was then carrying two rifles hers and the injured sibling, Ella, who cried silently throughout the painful removal (all the children had been “taught to be silent or the Indians will get you”).
Finally, barricading themselves in what must have been Absolem Davis’ one room cabin, the group waited for the full assault. Peering out of a slot in the wall where chink had been removed as a firing port, young George Shelley shouted, “Here they come!”, but it was not Indians. It was a cavalry troop, likely Buffalo Soldiers, from Ft. Bayard some 55 miles to the east. They were led by Emily Jane’s brother, Frank York, who had ridden all the way from Penasco, Lincoln County, east of the Rio Grande. The hostilities that day were brought to closure.
Finally, arriving on the Gila River and relative safety, Ma’s Aunt Ellen hugged her and kissed her. “Madie”, she said, “I was afraid I’d never see you again.”
The problem is … none of us will likely see people like that again.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “In another of Ma Rice’s notes this was found, “That our forfathers (sic) liked peace so well they kept a loaded rifle in the cabin all the time.”