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Fayette County, Iowa
Past and Present of Fayette County Iowa, 1910
Author: G. Blessin
B. F. Bowen & Company, Indianapolis, Indiana
Vol. I, Biographical Sketches
GEORGE WILLIAM FITCH
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, born October 13, 1844, he is the second son and third child born to George and Deborah (Boleyn) Fitch, natives, respectively, of New York City and Ashtabula county, Ohio. The Fitch family has been identified with the growth and progress of this country from early colonial days. (For fuller genealogical record see personal sketch of Elmer E. Fitch, in this volume.)
The early members of this family were devoted to educational and philanthropic pursuits, one of the ancestors being the founder of Yale College, at which several succeeding generations were educated. Another was the founder of a free hospital near Cleveland, Ohio, for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, during and following, the war of 1812. This was, probably, the first free hospital in America. None of them were “money makers.” In the sense of extensive accumulation, but devoted their means to the relief of others and to the upbuilding of public institutions. Among them are found in history, noted physicians, the first pastor of Saybrook Colony, the first governor of Connecticut, and officials and professionals of lesser prominence all along the line of six generations in America. They have been a law-abiding race, moral and upright, though not distinguished as rigid adherents to church creeds. They have been more devoted to teaching than preaching, though each profession has had its able representatives.
The Boleyn family, as represented by the mother of the subject of this sketch, is also of English origin, and was founded in America (Virginia) soon after the Cromwellian insurrection. In fact the founder of the family in this country, Col. Robert “Bolling,” was one of Cromwell’s exiled officers. They have been an intensely loyal race, and have borne arms in defense of American institutions throughout all the early wars with Indians and the mother country.
The maternal grandfather of the subject was a soldier in the Indian wars, and also in the war of 1812, losing all his toes by freezing during his service in the latter. And though disabled for life, and very poor, he strenuously refused to apply for a pension, and went to his grave feeling that no man who is able to provide for himself should ever become a pensioner on the government. He was a cooper by occupation, and was thus enabled to provide a scanty living.
After the death of his father, in 184-, George W. Fitch was thrown mostly upon his own resources. His mother, during her widowhood, devoted herself to school teaching, and thus a maternal home was seldom established. For a few years the child lives with his mother’s people, but from the age of nine years, and part of the time before that period, he lived in the families of strangers. Under his mother’s supervision, it was always arranged that the boy should attend school, and in this way he acquired the rudiments of a common school education in the backwoods of northwestern Pennsylvania.
From the age of nine to fourteen he traveled two and a half miles to school, over unbroken paths, across fields and through the woods, often in deep snow and intense cold. But this was not the worst of it! Being the only male in a family composed of two invalid women, one an extremely old lady, and her invalid (old maid) daughter, it became the lot of the boy to not only do the chores outside, which included the milking of two or more cows, the care of a mare and from one to three of her colts, attending to hogs and chickens, preparation and carrying in of fuel, but most of the house work as well! This experience is cited here as an incentive to the boys who now “work for their board” and attend school from other than the parental home. Surely, boys, it is no “sinecure,” which, in this sense, means “snap!”
But at the age of fourteen, his mother having gone to Iowa in 1852, the boy ran away from the embraces of sundry sticks of stove-wood, wielded by the sickly (?) old maid, and thenceforth paddled his own canoe! He made two or three trips across the mountains with droves of cattle and sheep, and was much incensed at the habitual call along the route by farmer lads, “Come boss—forty cents a day and no dinner!” But the drover boys were more aristocratic than the farmer boys knew, for they had “six o’clock dinners” that were partaken of with a relish born of starvation.
In winter time, the boy always pulled in somewhere and attended school. In fact it was his early ambition to acquire an education, and a term or two of schooling was always a consideration in making his arrangements with would-be employers. He worked one summer in a stone quarry at Shaw’s Mill, Allegheny county, Pennsylvania, and a short time in a coal mine near the same place. But the killing of the wheat and corn by an untimely frost in 1858 was a crushing blow, not only to the farmers who employed help, but more especially to the homeless boy who depended upon them for the means of existence.
There were no rich farmers in that day—at least not in northwestern Pennsylvania, and this was before the days of labor-saving farm machinery. All the hay was cut with scythes, and the grain was cut with cradles, or even the hand sickles, of which the present generation has no practical knowledge. In order to forestall the husky fellows of mature years, the boy was obliged to pose as a first-class mower and cradler, and, be it said to his credit, he made good the claim! At the age of sixteen, he could cut more grain with a cradle than any man could rake and bind behind him, and this was the “stint!” A few years later he posed as a first-class stacker, though he had then never laid a sheaf in a stack, but had “observed” how others did it! He made good there, also, as farmers now living in this county can verify, and his services were eagerly sought, at “harvest wages.”
But in the fall of 1858, after the big frost, the outlook for the boy was gloomy, indeed. After many fruitless efforts to find a place where he could work a while in the fall, and chore for his board through the winter, he was directed to one James A. Phillips, near Butler, Pennsylvania. It was stated that “Jim” had no boys, but had eight girls! Think of that, boys! The appeal from a pale, immature boy, for the privilege of attending school from his house, touched the big-hearted Phillips, and he wept like a child! “Yes,” he said, “You can stay and go to school from my house!” And to the credit of the fatherly Phillips, and the discredit of his self-imposed ward, let it be said that Phillips got up before daylight and went to a big barn on another part of the farm, and fed a large herd of cattle, attending to the horses, cows and hogs, without ever waking his sleepy “boy.” He would then come to the stairway and call the boy to breakfast in a voice as tender and kind as though he were calling his own child! The best that the boy could do after that, was to skirmish around and get in some water, and a scuttle of coal, and away to school. “Jim’s boy” committed to memory the “Speech Before the Virginia Convention,” and was to recite it at school. After hearing sundry recitals, Mr. Phillips observed a hole in the elbow of the boy’s coat, and straightway he went to town and bought him a new one. No father, mother or sisters could ever have been kinder or more indulgent than this noble family. Mr. Phillips was drafted into the army and lost his life at the battle of Hatcher’s Run, Virginia.
The winter of 1860-1 found the boy at school in Butler, paying his board, besides the usual choring on a farm, by threshing rye with a flail. All the Saturdays and holidays were spent in this way. In march, 1861, he hired out on a farm for eight months, at the munificent salary of eight dollars per month. But the war-cloud had darkened the land, and however tired he might be, he made it a point to attend all “war meetings,” taking a great interest in the doings and saying thereat. In fact, his zeal was so great that he was selected to assist in enlisting men, and was promised a non-commissioned officers’ place in the company being organized (which he never got till three years afterward). But the first day of July, 1861, he became a member of Company D, Sixty-second Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, and was assigned to duty with the Army of the Potomac, then under command of Major-Gen. George B. McClellan, who had just then superseded Lieut.-Gen. Winfield Scott. The Peninsula campaign, beginning in March, 1862, was the first real service, though he had taken part in several skirmishes; but for the most part the army was engaged during the fall and winter of 1861 in strengthening the fortifications around Washington. The sixty-second and several other regiments encamped on the historic estate of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, and that chieftain’s late home was turned into headquarters for the “Yankee” officers.
George W. Fitch participated, with his command, in all the early engagements of the Peninsular campaign, and was taken prisoner in the battle of Gain’s Mills, within seven miles of Richmond, while heading a squad of seventeen men endeavoring to recover the dead body of their colonel (Sam W. Black). This was in the heat of the battle, the colonel having fallen some distance in advance of the colors of his regiment and the rescuers were surrounded by half crazy, whiskey-enthused rebels, and all went to Richmond by a different route than that intended or hoped for. The only thing for which these boys were specially thankful to their captors, was the fact that they were among the first squad of prisoners ever “corralled” on Belle Island. The ground was clean, if the scanty ration of pea soup was not. For a short time the Union people in Richmond were permitted to drive out to the camp and throw loaves of bread over the stockade to the prisoners, but the military authorities soon stopped this proceeding, and only the limited rations provided by the Confederacy wee permissible. The sweetest morsel of bread Mr. Fitch ever ate, he says, was the remnant of a loaf he caught from the hand of some “darky” employed to stand in the rear of an open wagon and throw the bread across the high fence surrounding the prisoners. Being taller than the average height of his comrades, and having the advantage of a little hillock, he was able to catch a loaf above the myriad of hands reaching for it; but by the time it was on a level with the “repository,” nothing remained but the portion squeezed into a doughy mass in the palm of his hand!
The subject was exchanged in time to join his command on the march to the battlefield of second Bull Run, and the year’s work culminated in the disastrous defeat of Burnside at Fredericksburg. Then, in May, 1863, came another defeat at Chancellorsville, under General Hooker, followed soon after, by Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. Up to this time there had not been a general engagement fought in which the Rebels did not win, or, at least, hold their own. The spring of 1863 presented a gloomy outlook for the Union cause. And the “fire-in-the-rear” policy of disloyal Northerners, opposition to the draft, encouraging and concealing deserters, the unfriendly attitude of some foreign nations, and a disloyal press doing business in nearly every large Northern city, all conspired to belittle the Union cause and extol the Confederacy. But there was a grant at Vicksburg, and Pennsylvania had sent a young brigadier to the front a year before, in command of a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. This was now Major-Gen. George G. Meade. General Hooker realized his incompetency, and asked to be relieved on the march to Gettysburg. This was done, and General Meade was placed in command. The whole world knows the result of the two great battles, fought simultaneously, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The “back-bone” of the Confederacy was broken, and, fortunately, it was too old for the “vertebrae” ever to knit.
The subject of this article re-enlisted in December, 1863, and served the last year of the war as a member of Company A, One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania Infantry. As a member of these two organizations, he participated in thirty-eight general engagements, altogether, with the Army of the Potomac or on raids into the enemy’s country therefrom. He was once captured by Mosby’s guerillas, when it was the custom of that lawless band to murder every prisoner taken. But the “immaturity and child-like appearance” of the boy-soldier saved his neck, and he only sacrificed a part of his clothing, what little money he had and a much-prized gold pen. He was paroled on the field, and went immediately to his command, handed the parole to his captain, who destroyed it, and took his accustomed place in the company! Fortunately for him, the same parties never captured him again!
The ranks of these companies were decimated by daily casualties, until neither companies nor regiments had sufficient number of men to entitle them to full quotas of commissioned officers. Many worthy men received promotions, but could not be mustered because of the fact above recited. It was nothing unusual for a sergeant to be temporarily in command of a company, until a commissioned officer could be transferred from some other company or regiment more fortunate. After serving four years, lacking eight days, the subject of this sketch was discharged at Washington, D.C., and soon found his way to his maternal home in Fayette county, Iowa. In less than a month after reaching home he attained his majority, though he had voted the year previously while in the army. He cast his first vote for Republican candidates, and has never voted otherwise on national or legislative affairs.
The student-soldier carried a full set of text-books, and some others, all through the war, or if they were lost, others were secured. He had successfully passed a teacher’s examination in Pennsylvania, at the age of sixteen, and thought he ought to do s well in Iowa. He received his first teacher’s certificate from Rev. John M. Wedgwood (long since dead) in Winneshiek county, Iowa, and taught several years at Castalia, in that county. He then combined teaching with farming, and taught the “long term” in the Wadena schools for eight consecutive years. About the close of this teaching career, he bought a farm in Bethel township, built a house and made other improvements, and moved his family there in the spring of 1877. In the autumn of that year, the Republicans made Mr. Fitch their candidate for the office of county superintendent of schools, a position to which he was three times re-elected. He inaugurated many reforms in the school system of the county, and some of his “pet” theories have been incorporated in the school laws of the state. Some of these were the gradation of rural schools, and the keeping of systematic records of each pupil’s advancement during the term; another was “uniformity of text-books”; another, “compulsory education,” and one of the most important was “a graduation system for rural schools.” All of these things have been brought about through successors in office, and through legislation, while many other desirable features have been added. Mr. Fitch established the first county school paper in the state, and conducted it during his term of office, turning it over to his successors, who continued it for about twenty years.
Soon after retiring from the office of county superintendent of schools (in 1886) Mr. Fitch became interested in the publication of local and general histories throughout the United States, and was tendered a position with a Chicago firm of historical publishers. With these, and one other firm, he traveled extensively for several years, devoting most of his time to writing history and genealogy. But in 1895 he became associated with the Bowen Publishing Company, then of Logansport, Indiana, but now of Indianapolis. With the exception of three years, while writing the “History of the Anthracite Coal Regions” of eastern Pennsylvania, and the “Centennial History of Ohio,” he has been with this firm, continuously. He has written histories, or assisted in their preparation, in nearly every Northern state, and several Southern ones.
The culminating point in this varied career is now in the hands of the reader of this sketch, and has been the ambition of the author for many years. The publishers have been importuned on several occasions to undertake the publication now before you, and we feel certain that the author has done his best, and that to the lapse of many years, and the unfortunate destruction of public records, must be attributed any lack of completeness, rather than to indifference or incompetency upon the part of the author.
George W. Fitch was married April 15, 1866, to Roxcie A., daughter of Rev. William and Catherine (Robbins) Moore, pioneers in Illyria township. Mrs. Fitch was born in Ashland county, Ohio, December 18, 1845. She has lived in Fayette county since the arrival of the paternal family in 1854, and was educated in the public schools, and under private tutor. For a number of years she has been an invalid, almost helpless from rheumatic troubles. Previously to this affliction, she was very active in church, Sunday school and Woman’s Christian Temperance Union work. Has also been active in the Women’s Relief Corps, of which she has been president, and also served several terms as president of the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and one year as county president. She was reared in the United Brethren church, of which organization her father and two brothers were ministers. But for the last thirty years Mrs. Fitch has been a Methodist.
Of a family of ten children born to Rev. and Mrs. Moore, seven are now living. The eldest, Rev. Samuel W. Moore, was killed in the army during the Civil war; Mrs. Mary J. Dye resides in West Union; Mrs. Vesta A. Schaffer lives at Tame, Iowa; both these are widows; Mrs. Samantha McKellar died in Clayton county in 1896; Mrs. Fitch was next in order of birth; Mrs. A. R. Moats resides in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Robert Clark Moore is a prosperous farmer in Nebraska; Edwin O. owns a good farm near West Union, but is also the owner and operator of the Farmers’ Creamery, and lives in West Union. Rev. Jasper S. Moore owns the old homestead in Illyria township, of which he has added by purchase until he has two hundred and fifty acres of fine farming land, with excellent buildings. The farm is leased at present, and he and his family live in West Union. Francis K., the youngest of the family, died in 1893, leaving a wife and one daughter.
To Mr. and Mrs. Fitch were born seven children, of whom five are living. The three eldest of the family now living are represented in this work in personal sketches, viz.: William E., Mrs. J. E. Palmer and Denzil A. Mrs. Clara (Fitch) Iliff resides on a farm near Atkinson, Nebraska, and Mrs. Maude (Fitch) De Sart resides at Mendota, Illinois. Mary Luella, a young lady of bright promise, was drowned, at the age of twenty-one, while driving across a swollen stream. George Porter died at the age of ten months, in 1878. All the children were educated in the West Union schools and three of them were teachers. Mary was a music teacher, driving to her classes when she met her untimely death, February 7, 1890.
Mr. Fitch is a Mason and member of the Grand Army of the Republic, being a charter member of Abernathy Post No. 48, of which he was the first adjutant and second commander. He has held the offices of township clerk, assessor, secretary of township school board, justice of the peace, etc.
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