Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Harper’s Book of Facts (1895)

Warning: Truckload of facts ahead. This 115-year-old desk encyclopedia is a wonderment of information. I first stumbled upon it at googlebooks but found it hard to use there. So I shopped online and turned up a used copy in good condition at a reasonable price.  Thanks to the Queens Borough Public Library who gave it a home for who knows how long before discarding it. It has a new home now.

The book's full title is Harper’s Book of Facts: A Classified History of the World Embracing Science, Literature, and Art. Adapted from a British fact book, it has a transatlantic bias. But it’s full of facts and data that say a lot about what was considered worth knowing at the end of the nineteenth century.

What’s there (and what’s not there) makes for hours of both reading and reading between the lines. Here are a few items picked at random as they relate to the American West. 

Map of Manhattan Island, with Hudson River, 1776; created 1878
Cowboys and Indians. Cowboys get a single short paragraph. It begins with a factoid dating back to the Revolutionary War that was new to me. According to the book's editors, the term "cowboy" first applied to “British marauders and Tories who plundered the people east of the Hudson river, in New York, during the occupancy of New York city by the British, 1776-82.” This is followed by mention of “herdsmen on the ranches of the western states and territories.” That is all.

By comparison, Indians get five and a half pages of “facts.” A listing of tribes in the U.S. shows a total population of 249,273. Separate numbers are shown in Oklahoma for residents of Indian Territory, home of the five so-called civilized tribes (52,065), members of 17 other tribes, including Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache (8,708), and “colored populations and claimants” (14,224).

Chiricahua medicine man, c1885
Under a heading “Indian civilization,” the acculturation of the American Indian is summed up in a paragraph of statistics. Out of a total of about 192,000 (excluding data for the five civilized tribes in Oklahoma and the New York tribes), the numbers from the Department of the Interior show the following:

Engaged more or less in civilized pursuits (27,394)
Occupying houses (17,203)
Wearing civilized clothes (62,625)
Speaking English (26,223)

Numbers are also shown for horses and stock owned, acres cultivated, fence built, lumber milled, wood cut, butter made, crops raised, hay cut, horses and stock owned.

Under a separate heading “reservations,” we learn that a total of 150,231 square miles are occupied by Indian reservations. The entry notes that area reserved for Indians is rapidly diminishing. As recently as 1880, there were 241,000 square miles of reservations. Just the facts, of course. There’s no comment as to whether this development is good, bad, or indifferent.

Pullman advertisement, 1894
Railways. Horses don’t get much of a mention in the book, but railroads get several columns. Progress here is definitely on the march. Total miles of railroad in the U.S. increased from 23 in 1830 to 171,804 in 1893. Topping the list of 66 principal railway systems are the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (9,346 miles), the Union Pacific (8,034), and the Chicago and Northwestern (7,952).

One of the most recent factoids in the history of the railroad in the U.S.: “Last spike in construction of the Great Northern’s extension to the Pacific, the 5th transcontinental line, driven, in the Cascade mountains. 6 Jan 1893.”

A certain Charles Francis Adams, Jr., writing in 1879, is quoted as having said that travel by train is sixty times safer than travel by the old-time stagecoach. There follows a lengthy listing of spectacular train wrecks. Most by far were in the eastern states. Listed are collisions, bridge collapses, derailments, and runaways, with numbers of casualties. Among those in western states:

1883 – Wreck near Tehichipa, California (15 killed)
1883 – Northern Pacific Railroad in Montana (18 Chinamen killed)
1890 – Train runs into open draw-bridge near Oakland, California (13 drowned)
1890 – Collision near Florence, Colorado (5 killed, 33 injured)
1891 – Wreck near Aspen Junction, Colorado (9 killed, 6 injured)
1892 – Wreck near Grand Island, Nebraska (7 killed)

Train wreck, Chatsworth, Illinois, Harper's Weekly, 1887
The number of accident-related deaths for rail passengers in 1893 was 178. Add to these the deaths of employees (424) and trespassers (89) for a grand total of 691. 

Map of Arizona, 1895
Arizona. There’s an entry of some length for each of the states and territories in the Union. I’m taking Arizona as an example of what the compilers considered fact-worthy.

1869 – The 10-man Powell expedition on the Colorado River
1872 – Geologist Clarence King exposes the Arizona Diamond Swindle
1873-74 – General Crook’s war with the Apache and other hostile tribes
1885 – Law passed to prevent polygamists and bigamists from holding office or voting
1890 – Forty lives lost when a mining dam broke on the Hassayampa river
1891 – Labor Day declared as a holiday on the first Friday following February 1
1892 – Yuma nearly destroyed by flooding

During all this, about once every decade, the state capital was relocated. First in Tucson (1867), then Prescott (1877), then Phoenix (1890). Population of the territory in 1890 was 59,620. No mention of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, however.

Politics and government. You get an idea of national demographics by looking at the descriptions of the political parties (Republican and Democratic) and the numbers of state representatives in Congress. First the two main parties in 1895:

Republican: Formed 1854, on the issue of opposition to slavery. Elected 5 presidents, including Lincoln and Grant. Advocated preservation of the Union, full payment of the national debt, free ballot, generous pension legislation, build up of navy and coastal defenses. Curious comment: “This party, while showing many able men, has never had a leader.” What was Lincoln?

Democratic: Formed 1828. Elected 6 presidents, including Jackson. Advocated state rights, free trade, annexation of Texas, Mexican war, Dred Scott decision, fugitive-slave law, acquisition of Cuba, frugal public expense. Opposed Chinese immigration, strong government, and improving conditions for freed “negroes.”

Chamber, House of Representatives, late 19th century
A chart showing the 44 states electing representatives to Congress shows the vast influence of the populated East in governing the whole country. In 1893, of the 8 states admitted to the Union since the Civil War, only one (Nebraska) had more than two representatives in Washington. So the single congressman from Montana, for instance, was only one of a total of 356 lawmakers. How hard it must have been to be so far from the seat of power and so outnumbered.

Harper’s Book of Facts is available online free at google books and at AbeBooks.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
The Man From Laramie (1955)
Saturday Book Group review, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness


  1. Interesting. I see the Republican Party still has about the same items on their agenda, while the Dems have changed a little. With the Colorado River dammed off, there shouldn't be any more flooding in Yuma.

  2. Charles, good for getting mentally into that period.

    Leah, you bet.

    Oscar, I give you credit for reading all that. Thought of you when I picked Arizona to include.