Ephemera: A Grandson’s Discovery

Ephemera is a lucrative and sometimes overlooked category of antiques that can make headlines at auction houses all over the world. It is defined as written or printed works, often intended for short-term use. This term covers items such as letters, documents, autographs, maps, and photographs. Historical ephemera generally draws interest because it was created by famous people, or it represents witness to events by the participants who were there as history was being made.

Such was the case several years ago when a client came to free appraisal day with a box full of old letters, manuscripts, and photographs once belonging to a John Wallace Crawford, known to history as “Captain Jack” Crawford, the Poet Scout. As it turned out, the contents of the box were obtained by the client’s grandfather who was the attorney that probated Crawford’s estate. Because Crawford died penniless in 1917, the contents of his desk was all that the attorney received for payment for his services. This box began one of the most interesting research projects of my life.

Jack Wallace emigrated to America from Ireland at the age of 14. At 17 he enlisted as a volunteer In the Civil War, and he saw heavy fighting at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. He was wounded twice, and he learned to read and write from a Sister of Charity while recovering from his wounds.

In 1875, Crawford headed west during the Black Hills Gold Rush and became a correspondent for the Omaha Daily Bee. He reported on the activity in the gold mining camps. It was there that he began his lifelong friendship with Col. Buffalo Bill Cody. Crawford became a civilian scout while acting as a war correspondent, reporting many of the events first-hand that shaped the Westward expansion of America.

By this time, he was becoming a well-read reporter, and he began publishing many of his short stories. By the 1890s he was nicknamed “The Poet Scout” from his writings, known as an entertainer telling stories of the untamed West. He became such a great orator that he was called upon to stump for politicians and was a staunch advocate for prohibition.

Crawford’s accomplishments and associations read like a who’s who of the American turn-of-the-century era. When he died, newspapers across the country reported on his life and the nation’s loss. Obituaries spoke of him as a soldier, scout, reporter, adventurer, explorer, entertainer, speaker, and poet—celebrating a life well lived.

As I sorted through the contents of that box, cataloging the contents, I read every word written in Jack’s own hand. It was as if he had been reading them to me himself. The photos gave a timeline of his life from a young wild-eyed buckskin-clad scout, to his later days in the Yukon gold rush camps, where so many endlessly looked to strike it rich. I recall several short story manuscripts, capturing stories from Jack’s days with the Native Americans.

So, the next time you get the urge to throw away old letters and documents from your family’s past, think twice. While the attorney in this story only got a box of old papers for his work, his grandson got a huge payday!

John Bottero is Vice President of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries at 51 Atlantic Highway, Thomaston. For more information, call (207) 354-8141, email [email protected], or visit thomastonauction.com.

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