Civil War - Civil Union:
Chapter 4: Troubles Mount (1883 - 1912)
Civil War-Civil Union
Chapter 1: 1842-1862
Chapter 2: 1862-1863
Chapter 3: 1863-1882 Chapter 4: 1883-1912
Chapter 5: 1912-on
Descendancy Chart (to come)
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While there were certainly good times on the farm, there were causes for serious concern. Since the war, David’s health had declined steadily. His hearing became so bad that he could no longer understand ordinary conversations.[i] Worse were his headaches, which grew more severe each year. Moreover, his memory began to fail. By 1884, Mary described an “attack” that had lasted six weeks and stated that he was “insane” at least half of the time.[ii] Due to his condition, David could no longer work. Instead, Mary conducted most of the farm’s business.[iii]
The consequences of David’s declining health began to threaten all that the family had worked for. And Mary responded. With David unable to support the family, she looked to other sources of income. The family attributed David’s illness to the Battle of Stone’s River and decided that it was imperative that he receive an invalid’s pension. But there was one formidable obstacle – the U.S. Army had declared David Troop Elderkin a deserter in 1875.[iv] Knowing this, David nevertheless filed for his pension on October 7, 1882.[v]
What followed was seven years of affidavits, letters, and pleas to get David’s pension and proper discharge. David and Mary made errors in the beginning that contributed to the difficulties in winning their case. Mary and her brother Michael Finity attempted to obscure David’s prior hearing and speech problems, though those problems were well-known to all who knew him. Then David and Mary hired Michael to drum up support for the case in Will County. Over the years, Michael served as “a witness, attorney, and chief advisor” for David. However well-intentioned, Michael was declared by federal examiners in the case a “fraud” when it was shown he had both lied about David’s prior disability and falsified the testimony on an affidavit he took in Will County.[vi]
The pension office had been skeptical about the case from the outset. It was clear that David had had a hearing deficiency before the war, and that fact disinclined them towards approval of the pension. But there was also the “mental irregularity” that seemed related to David’s service. The pension office put two special examiners on the case who spent a great deal of time locating and interviewing David’s boyhood friends, neighbors, fellow soldiers and relatives. Both examiners recommended rejecting his pension application due to deafness but thought that he deserved something for “shell wound of left jaw and results.”[vii] Unfortunately, a reviewer at the pension office back in Washington, D.C., did not agree.[viii]
So the saga continued. In 1886, David’s pension was introduced in H.R. 5995 for approval by the U.S. Congress,[ix] as was required. Both the House and Senate approved his pension, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it, probably because of his dishonorable discharge.[x]
The rejection of David’s pension added to Mary’s many burdens. She had to do all the women’s work, plus the farming business that her husband could not do. And she had children ranging in age from four to twenty. But she never buckled under the strain. She took David from doctor to doctor. The family practitioner, D.M. Wick, said David was “listless, indisposed to work, rather unconcerned as to what is going on around him, and sleeps poorly.”[xi] Every doctor who examined David recommended that he receive at least a partial pension.
Finally, on December 9, 1887, David received his honorable discharge, dated to June 11, 1863. With one hurdle finally over, it should have been a mere formality to receive the pension, especially since it had been sent to Congress for approval the year before Unfortunately, it would be another two years, as the bureaucrats haggled over whether they could attribute any external injury to David’s mental difficulties. This seemingly endless and cruel bureaucratic nightmare became so frustrating that Mary wrote the pension office an emotional appeal dated May 6, 1889, that questioned why they “will not give him the benefit of the doubt.”[xii] Fortunately, as she wrote the letter, their struggle had finally come to an end. David T. Elderkin’s pension claim had been approved two days earlier on May 4, 1889.[xiii]
It had been clear for a long time that David’s condition was not going to improve. Mary knew they had to get off the farm and move to town. She probably had put off this decision for a long time in the hope that the pension money would come. By March 1889, it seems likely she had given up on that notion and scraped together enough money to buy a lot in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a few miles south of the Finchford farm. Because David was incapacitated and unable to communicate, Mary bought the land,[xiv] an unusual transaction for a woman of that era.
David’s pension of $27 per month, with pro-rated back pay to October 1882, probably came in a lump sum payment of about $885 that summer. That would have given the family enough money to build a house. It is possible that David and Mary’s 20 year old son, Silas, built the house in Cedar Falls,[xv] honing his skills for his later profession as a house carpenter.[xvi]
It must have been a relief to escape the burdens of the farm. Between renting their land and receiving the pension, the family was able to send several of their children to college at the Iowa State Normal School in Cedar Falls.[xvii] But the house was small and David’s ill state of health must have affected his children. The oldest three children were the first to leave home. William married in 1892 and went to Chicago.[xviii] In the late 1890s,[xix] Silas and Louisa headed west to Butte, Montana, where David’s older brother, Charles, had moved his family around 1881.[xx]
After prospering in Will County, Charles Elderkin, his wife Julia and their ten kids had homesteaded for a short time in Trego County, Kansas. Their farm was near David and Charles’ sister Julia, the one who had been both deaf and unable to speak from a young age. Though her brothers probably thought her unmarriageable, she had married Isaac Kightlinger when she was 37 years old in 1870.[xxi] Isaac was also deaf, and they lived their lives as farmers in Illinois and Western Kansas.[xxii]
The land in Western Kansas was not nearly as fertile as that in Illinois, so it is no surprise that Charles Elderkin moved his large family again. Butte, Montana was just beginning to prosper, and Charles must have seen what opportunities it could provide for him and his children. Only his oldest son continued farming;[xxiii] the rest went into real estate, started their own businesses, and married within the Butte community.[xxiv] Few spent any time in the mining industry.
For David and Mary’s children, their Montana aunt, uncle and cousins must have been a revelation. In Charles, perhaps they glimpsed an alternate vision of the man their father might have been. Charles was a vibrant and active man, with a keen political interest that he maintained until his death at the age of 91.[xxv] The cousins were numerous, and provided connections to jobs and people.
Despite the pull west, David and Mary’s younger children remained in Iowa to help out their parents. In 1900, Lily (24), Belle (22), and Amos (16) were still living at home,[xxvi] and Charles (27) also had his own place in Cedar Falls.[xxvii] But how long could they realistically delay discovering their potential as adults? Lily and Belle needed to live someplace where they could find good husbands. There were plenty of single men in Montana, and by 1902 or 1903, they had joined their siblings out west.[xxviii]
In Iowa, Mary struggled to look after her husband, whose health was in continual decline. With her children grown and gone, she needed help with David’s care. Though 16 years had past, David still was receiving a pension of only $27 per month. Capably asserting her talents as the head of a household, as she had done before, Mary helped David apply for an increase in his pension in March 1905. Again, the request was denied at first. But again she persevered, and upon showing that her husband was totally deaf, they began to receive $40 per month in February 1906.
Yet her burdens were still too great. In January 1907, after a quarter century of caring for her ailing husband, Mary needed a break. They drew up papers that appointed her David’s legal guardian.[xxix] Then she heeded the advice of doctors, sending David to the insane asylum in Independence, Iowa.[xxx] It must have been one of the hardest decisions that she had ever made. But it gave her a measure of freedom that she had not had in years. While serving as caretaker, she had been unable to leave David alone, but now she was able to travel to her youngest son’s wedding 45 miles away in Cedar Rapids[xxxi] and to take some time for herself.
Two years later, perhaps to Mary’s surprise, David had recovered sufficiently for her to bring him back home. She was dismissed as his guardian in October of 1910,[xxxii] and the couple spent their last two years at the house in Cedar Falls. David Troop Elderkin died on November 12, 1912 of a cerebral abscess.[xxxiii]
David T. Elderkin pension certificate no. 430469, Examining Surgeon’s
Certificate, S.M. Pierce, Examining Surgeon, Cedar Falls, Black Hawk
County, Iowa, 22 November 1882.