Sketch of the Life of James Townsend

Written by his son Jesse H. Townsend


It has been said, and I believe truly, that an elderly person is more apt to recollect incidents that occurred in the earlier years of their lives than those of more recent date. Of course I am too young (70 years) as yet to be very good authority on this subject, but in order to make a little tryout of this theory I am setting myself to the happy task of indicating some items with reference to the life of my father, James Townsend.

My father was born in Knox County, Ohio, near Fredericktown in the year 1811, and lived to the age of 94.

About my earliest recollection is of being taken by him to Fredericktown to Dr. Allen's office to have my tongue string cut. The red striped stick of candy, which was my reward for submitting to this minor surgical operation is clear in memory now.

Another incident at about the age of five years, was the bruising of my great toe, when being in too close proximity to a rolling sugar cask, the contents of which I was too anxious to see. This was in the old Townsend sugar camp near our home a mile north of Fredericktown. The name of the Standard remedy which father applied (Okodildock) I believe, made as much impression on my youthful mind as did the aching toe.

My father was, I believe a model man on many lines, as head of a household, and trainer of children. He was optimistic, hopeful, and joyful; a lover of music and made home bright with song and smile.

The rod was very rarely substituted in our home for moral suason. The exception to this general rule occurred with the writer, and of course I thought the variation of the rule was entirely out of order, which on reflection, and hearing my explanation, he, in the tenderness of a true father's love, asked my forgiveness.

He was a pronounced anti-slavery advocate, and our Knox County log house was one of the main stations on the underground railroad, and many a weary, frightened Canada bound fugitive, found shelter and comfort under the Townsend roof and my mother's sweet ministration of love and Christ-like sympathy.

The stories related by those slaves and their weird plantation songs were of stirring interest to all our household. Father tells of one of these slaves who was hotly pursued by his master and was in hiding in the wheat bin of our barn, and as he received the platter of breakfast which mother had sent him, he drew a large dagger knife from his belt which looked decidedly war-like to a Quaker, and in answer to the question whether he would use it if overtaken by his master, replied "Wal, taint my disposition to mislist nobody; but if he try to take me back, I don't know what I won't do."

It took courage to act as agent on this night transportation of bondmen, guided by the pole star to the land of freedom. But I am proud that my father faltered not even in the face of danger, and was never harmed in his labor of love for the fleeing bondmen. I remember with what keen interest father and mother read to the family the thrilling story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," then being published in the weekly "National Era." How at intervals we would all weep and then the crying would turn into irrepressible laughter as the author would graphically picture those plantation scenes under the peculiar rule of those slavery days.

I come now to one of the events of peculiar interest in my father's history, namely, that of breaking up of the old Ohio home and immigrating to Iowa in 1852. The distance was about six hundred miles. Uncle William Townsend having removed there about a year previous, gave such glowing accounts of the country that it was easy to believe that it was the right thing to do. Griffith Lewis and Joseph Gibson and families with ours made the caravan. My mother was in delicate health and my baby brother Edgar but about two years old. The undertaking seemed truly venturesome, but the travel was a tonic she needed. The jolly camp life and change of scene and diet brought life and renewed strength. The opening of a wild Iowa prairie farm tried the muscle and character of my father especially, and showed the mettle and sterling worth of the men as the sequel will show.

The beautiful Ohio horses of which we were all so proud soon began to fail under change of feed, lack of shelter, etc. One after another died until only poor old Snap was left. During all this special loss of horses and other trials attendant upon pioneer life, I do not remember to have heard my father utter a word of discouragement or regret that he had made the move to the new western homestead. When a horse would die and we boys would look so hopeless and discouraged, he would say "It will not do to fret, we cannot being them to life. Let us cheer up and earn something to buy another horse." Father had a favorite saying that is worthy to be passed on, which will aptly apply here:

"Of all the evils under the sun
     There is a remedy or there is none
If there is a remedy, find it;
     If there is none, never mind it."

The death of our dear mother and the breaking up of the Iowa home was a crushing blow to father; but his confidence that she was ready for the call and that her work was accomplished comforted him and he cheerfully walked hopefully on to cheer and scatter seeds of kindness on life's way. His subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Gouger, whom he had known in early manhood, proved a blessing and comfort to both parties. The marriage and the sale of the dear old farm marked one of the great events of his long life.

The heavy financial loss by the exchange of the Iowa farm for boom priced California property was borne with his usual characteristic optimism and without a word of regret or complaint. There were several years here in California after he was unable for active work, when he gave pleasure and comfort to many by conveying them in his phaeton to his favorite show spots around the limits of beautiful Pasadena.

Among his special friends here were the children of John Brown of Ossawatomie, and he was on of the pall bearers when Owen Brown was buried on a high peak of the Sierra's north of Pasadena. The acquaintance with John Brown and his men began when they came from Missouri with a load of slaves en route to Canada, over the underground railroad.

Before closing, I must speak of my father's strong convictions on the subject of the prohibition of the liquor traffic and as in the slavery conflict he had voted with the anti-slavery party from its first organization. He was found in the foremost ranks of the prohibition party at its beginning.

His struggles to free himself from the tobacco habit should here be mentioned as an encouragement to any of our Townsend clan, or others who may have fallen victims to this filthy and expensive habit. As nearly as possible I here give his story of his fight and happy victory.

"I had two great struggles. The first proved a failure. In my second effort my dear Susan rather discouraged me, as she said it seemed to cause me such nervous suffering. But I was fully convinced that the filthy habit was unbecoming in a Christian man, and without telling any one. I took a solemn vow, partly in the words of Patrick Henry, 'Live or die, survive or perish, I will never use tobacco from this time forward.'" This vow was faithfully kept through all the many years of his life that followed. He would often tell his tobacco afflicted friends that there was only one text in the Bible which in anyway might be used to justify the filthy practice, viz, "Let him that is filthy be filthy still."

I remember with much pleasure, some of my father's favorite hymns which we frequently sung together, especially the "Sunbright Clime," "I Know that my Redeemer Lives," "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I'll be There," and others.

I regret that we did not secure a record of his sweet voice, that it might cheer us on in these days of conflict; but let us move joyfully on to join him soon in the Sunbright Clime to sing the new song of Him who has redeemed us and washed us in his own blood.


Sept. 1912