Monday, February 6, 2017

Henry Wilson’s Walks

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Elmiran Henry Wilson took something rather mundane, in his case, walking, and made it extraordinary. He could walk a lot and over long distances. To my knowledge, he made two such long, walking “tramp” journeys: one in 1895-96 and one in 1901-2. This is what I can piece together about his trips. They’re a rather remarkable look at the life of a local black man that transcends many typical narratives of that time period.

In July 1895, the local papers reported that “local colored boys” Henry Wilson and Frank H. Jones were planning to walk across the country if they could get enough money to do so. There was no real mention of their motives for doing so. At some point, Jones must have dropped out of the plan, because on August 4, Wilson alone departed from Elmira wearing a “black velvet suit with knickerbockers” and pulling a little red wagon.

By August 7, Wilson made it to Hornellsville. There he laid out his itinerary with the local paper. He planned to go though Salamanca to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and the Santa Fe route to California, all the while following train lines. He suspected it would take 13 months. Wilson planned to collect signatures from newspapermen and hotel proprietors “as evidence of good faith.”

By the end of November 1895, made it to northern Arizona. He sent a letter to an Elmira friend saying he was doing well and making some money giving lectures. He next would have to cross the Mojave Desert, however, facing about 200 miles “without water or shelter along the route.” Everything he needed he had to carry in his wagon. He wanted to be in California by Christmas.

There is a bit of a gap in the record at that point, but we do know that he made it to San Francisco and then started the return trip home. In August 1896, Wilson’s half-brother was killed jumping off a train in Ohio. At the time of his death, he may have been going west to see his brother, who was in a hospital in St. Louis. Wilson reportedly had been held up significantly in his return with “mountain fever,” which required substantial hospitalization. Wilson eventually recovered and made it back home. In April 1897, he lectured about his trip at the Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Wilson’s walking career didn’t end there. In 1901, he and another Elmira man, William Boggs, were hired to walk across the country and to go to England and France to promote the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, by handing out promotional images and flyers.
Ticket for the Louisiana Purchase Expo
On November 12, 1901, Wilson and Boggs set out at 10 am pushing a three-wheeled wagon with an American flag atop the canopy. They started at the corner of Lake and Water Streets and were sent off by a small crowd, including two sad young women who “followed along for a few blocks gazing wistfully after the stalwart young men.” Wilson and Boggs were wearing “knee bicycle trousers and stockings, russet shoes and canvas hunting jackets. Each man had a tight-fitting skull cap.”

The paper praised the two men, but did also include some racist commentary about them; they were reportedly “pushing their cart and looking as happy as if they were bound for a water melon picnic or a cake walk.”

The men were scheduled to first go north through wine country and then on to Buffalo. When they reached St. Louis, their contracts with the Exposition were said to begin. From there, they would go to Charleston, S.C. for the Midwinter Exposition. Then they would head back to New York and board a steamer to Liverpool, from where they would go to Ireland and France. France was a big part of the plan; the men were supposed to tell the French people how “the American people are to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana purchase from Napoleon in 1803.” Along the way, Wilson and Boggs were also doing vaudeville-style performances and dances, in part to draw attention to their advertisements and to also make a little extra money.

After their departure, the last reference I can find of them is from early January 1902. After that, the trail goes cold. I have no idea if the trip was a success or what happened to either man. Understandably, this could have been a dangerous assignment, and something could have gone wrong. So for now, this story ends abruptly. If I find more information, I’ll post an update.

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