Once upon a time in America: A tale of Charles Erskine Scott Wood
A soot-black Roman oil lamp from Pompeii. Scores of yellowing letters from a place called Los Gatos, Calif. Vague references to the Indian Wars, Mark Twain, and poems that spoke of “the stars above the hills.”
At the bottom of it all — the story of a bearded man whom my grandfather (on my mother’s side) met by chance nearly a century ago while working in a small San Francisco antique shop in 1918 — a mysterious stranger who changed the trajectory of the family forever.
The man had flowing hair and a military gait. He had visited the shop out of curiosity and chatted up my grandfather after eyeing the bric-a-brac from Japan and China. Tokutaro, then in his mid-20s, detailed his life story in broken English: both parents dead of typhoid in Tokyo at age 4, packed off to SF on a tramp steamer with $10 in his pocket to labor in an uncle’s fine arts business, quite literally, as an indentured servant.
“How much do you make?” the man asked. “Nothing,” my grandfather replied. “Just food for my wife and children and the roof over our heads.”
“Young man,” he said. “What your uncle is doing is against the law and I urge you to seek legal advice.” He scribbled the name of a lawyer and offered other help. My grandfather eventually did the very litigious, un-Japanese thing of hauling his uncle to court. He won a settlement, allowing him to set up his own business and move into his own home.
It was the seed of what (until Pearl Harbor) would be a successful dealership selling Asian objects d’art to wealthy Americans. The bearded man would become one of my grandfather’s first clients.
As I would discover, his name was Charles Erskine Scott Wood or C.E.S. Wood, the American poet, author, soldier, and champion of civil liberties. His wife, the suffragist Sara Bard Field, would become my mother’s godmother, bestowing “Sara” as her namesake.
I feel compelled to share this story of Wood and his interaction with my grandfather, not because it’s exceptional, but because it’s a yarn that spans many generations and peoples.
There are millions of stories like this – perhaps one for every immigrant who passed through the aisles of places like Ellis Island. At the same time, it’s a story that says something about America – with all its warts and irrepressible idealism. Moreover, it’s a tale of personal discovery as it’s taken me nearly 40 years to piece together the threads of Wood’s life and his ties to my family from letters, books, artifacts and more recently, the Internet.
As a grandchild of Asian immigrants to the US, I must confess that I sometimes felt ashamed of my grandfather (in the face of a dominant white culture) for “not being American enough.” He raised me when he was already old. I chided him for his less-than-perfect English and seeming lack of ties to his adopted land. Only now do I realize how misguided I was.
In the words of his biographers Edwin Bingham and Tim Barnes, CES Wood led a most extraordinary life. He was a “Soldier, poet, attorney, satirist, philosophical anarchist, reformer, bon vivant, boon companion, painter, art patron, bibliophile, and pacifist … Approaching the Renaissance ideal of the universal man.” His friends included Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens, Langston Hughes and a host of luminaries of the last century.
Born in Erie, Penn. on Feb. 20, 1852, his father, William Maxwell Wood, was the first Surgeon-General of the United States Navy and a close friend of general, later president, Ulysses S. Grant. It was Grant who nominated young Wood to attend the US Military Academy at West Point.
Restless Wood never took to cadet life. He amassed demerits and was a mediocre student. His most pivotal experience at The Point occurred by chance when he was ordered to give Twain (already a literary supernova with his publication of Tom Sawyer), a tour of the venerable institution on the Hudson.
His wry individualism and passion for writing impressed Twain. It was the start of a life-long friendship. One of Wood’s favors to Twain, at the time, was to secretly print “1601,” a ribald satire about 17th century England (written anonymously by Twain) on the academy’s printing press.
Wood was commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army upon graduation from West Point in 1874. He was posted to the Pacific Northwest where he explored the pristine wilderness as far as Alaska and developed a storyteller’s fascination with the folklore and culture of the local Thlinkit tribe.
Nez Perce War
Not long after, the shavetail lieutenant was recalled to the field following bloody clashes between white settlers and the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho.
The Nez Perce War of June-October 1877 was the culmination of a series of broken treaties by the federal government in which the Nez Perce, who had once ranged across the Pacific Northwest, were coerced into an ever-smaller reservation in northern Idaho. Isolated revenge killings involving Indians and whites gave the government a long-awaited excuse to herd the remaining “non-treaty” Nez Perce onto the reservation.
The tribe, led by Chief Joseph and other chiefs balked. A last-ditch effort by the Nez Perce to negotiate peace failed and the tribe reluctantly began its northward escape from Idaho toward Canada in a vain effort to link up with Sitting Bull’s Sioux.
The flight of 750 men, women and children pursued by 2,000 army regulars nearly led to the extermination of an entire people. It also served as a last round-up for the Indian Wars. In addition to the infantry units where Wood served as an aide-de-camp to Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the forces included the Seventh Cavalry – newly reconstituted and in no mood to be charitable to indians after being wiped out in 1876 with Custer at the Little Big Horn.
Wood wrote tirelessly throughout the campaign. His notes later formed the basis of “The Pursuit and Capture of Chief Joseph” – now considered a classic in the literature of the Old West.
The Nez Perce fought gallantly in five major battles with the US Army, killing many soldiers in some of the fiercest fighting of the Indian Wars. Wood grew to admire and later feel deep compassion for his adversaries as the fighting dragged on. His remorse was the remorse of a participant.
As he recalled in verse:
Chubby babies, with a blue bullet-hole
In the innocent breast, the soft little belly.
And mothers whose bosoms ran blood with the milk.
They lay quiet in great dignity;
Their eyes staring at us indifferent;
Howard was an abolitionist general who lost an arm in the Civil War, fought at Gettysburg, and went on to found African-American Howard University. Like Wood, he was disturbed by the horrors of the campaign against the Nez Perce. But as a military man he followed orders from Washington.
In the end, Joseph and his people dug in along some snowy knolls in eastern Montana. They hunkered down in freezing trenches with their women and children eating dead horses. Even in this extremity, they managed to repulse a final charge by the Seventh Cavalry.
With his main body of troops just three days away, Howard tried to end the slaughter by dispatching two friendly Nez Perce to Joseph’s camp with offers of good treatment if they would surrender.
Wood was at Howard’s side and recorded every detail. “Then old ‘Captain John’ brought his reply (and his lips quivered and his eyes filled with tears as he delivered the words of his chief,” Wood later wrote in “Chief Joseph, the Nez-Perce.”
The words delivered to Howard and translated (with some embellishment) by Wood, are part of history. The best-remembered lines read:
“Hear me my chiefs: my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever!”
Joseph stacked his guns hoping the tribe would be allowed to return to their ancestral lands in Oregon. Howard promised they would, unless “higher authorities” intervened. Washington did just that. The Nez Perce were dispersed to dusty prison camps in Kansas and Oklahoma until 1885 when some were freed to settle in Washington State. Others tramped back to the reservation in Idaho.
Joseph’s retreat was the longest in US military history. If you count the Nez Perce as an organized “American” military force, their over 1,700 mile fighting retreat against Howard’s infantry and cavalry, from Idaho to Montana, covered more miles than the retreat of US forces from the Yalu in the Korean War or WWII’s Battle of the Bulge.
The fighting at Bear Paw Mountain was the last major face-off of the Indian Wars. There would be mopping-up actions after this, but no set-piece battles.
In 1975, they made a TV movie about the Nez Perce War called “I Will Fight No More Forever.” Sam Elliott played Capt. Wood. (Should be Lt. Wood), James Whitmore played General Howard with Ned Romero donning feathers as Chief Joseph.
Unfortunately, quite a few folks have seen the movie but scarcely anyone remembers the real Joseph or C.E.S. Wood.
Wood, by war’s end, was disgusted with Washington’s treatment of the Nez Perce. He bonded with his former foes after the fighting ended, eventually resigned his commission, and became close friends with Chief Joseph.
Henceforth, he would never trust governments or the politically correct views of his day, and he would always extend a strong hand to the underdog.
He became a radical lawyer who defended the likes of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, championed Philippine independence following the Spanish-American War as a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, penned a famous religious satire named “Heavenly Discourse,” and produced volumes of poetry. Along the way, the lifelong Democrat helped found the Oregon National Guard where he attained the rank of colonel.
He and Sara built a rolling artist’s estate near San Jose in Los Gatos, Calif. named “The Cats” where they received friends and visitors. It was richly decorated with Oriental rugs and objects d’ art from China and Japan. The entrance was flanked by two mammoth stone cats (honoring the town’s Spanish name of Los Gatos) that remain a local attraction to this day.
The old Roman oil lamp alluded to at the start of this piece was a gift that Wood brought back for my mother after visiting Pompeii during a 1920s trip to Italy. It’s a lovely object decorated with the figures of satyrs. My mother kept it on a shelf for years until one day, a small piece of it broke off exposing the slag metal beneath its blackening that exposed it as a fake.
Poor Wood was duped long ago by a devious souvenir seller in Pompeii. It reminds me of that old American Express TV ad where the tourist plunks down $100 for an ancient vase and the storekeeper goes to the cupboard and takes out one just like it after his victim departs.
But it was on this Italian tour that Wood visited Rome and found the inspiration for one of his most irreverent poems, “Billy Craddock in Rome.”
The final stanza goes:
I am sick of herds of churches
And the foolish tales they tell.
The ranches, O, the ranches,
And a good, clean chance at Hell.
O what to me, by day or night,
Is old Peter’s wart of the dome?
Squaw-Butte can knock it out of sight,
Away back home.
His words wouldn’t please Pope Francis. But Wood had no use for organized religion. His spirit was one with the prairie where he soldiered as a young man.
As Wood made clear in the same poem, he had one favorite place on earth:
O, the stars above the hills,
The neighing of wild horses
Where naked starlight spills;
The breath of dawn that blows so cool
Upon a sleeper’s face;
The gallop of the sunrise,
A stallion in a race.
My mother recalls riding in my grandfather’s Ford Model T to Los Gatos in the 1920s. Wood, in those days, was much the poet-in-residence, meeting people by appointment only. You might call him California’s first guru. Tokutaro would chat with him in the parlor while my mother played in the garden. But “Col. Wood” would always come out to see her, and my mother would cherish the doll with moving eyes that Sara gave her on one of these visits.
Tokutaro and Wood had one thing in common – they were both artists. Among his many achievements, Wood was a landscape painter of no mean talent who painted outdoors with another friend – the American painter Childe Hassam. My grandfather, in addition to being an art dealer, was a watercolorist in the classical Chinese tradition and a skilled woodblock print artist who went by the art name of Kakunen. This was likely why they hit it off on their first meeting. So while Wood talked “making book” with literary friends, he would talk brushes and palette knives with my grandfather.
Sara Bard Field
Sara Bard Field was famous in her own right. The former Baptist missionary in Burma had driven cross-country with two other women in 1917 to deliver a petition to President Wilson with a half million signatures demanding that women be given the right to vote.
She was a pre-feminist writer of her day whose best-known work was “Barrabas,” an epic poem about the Crucifixion viewed not from Christ’s vantage, but from that of Barrabas, the Jewish insurrectionary pardoned by Pontius Pilate who executed Jesus in his place. When a shrill chorus erupted in Washington to ban Japanese immigration for fear that their yellow hordes would overwhelm the West Coast, Sara publicly protested and praised the birth control savvy of Japanese women to a congressional committee.
She was a confidant of the Provincetown Players, a celebrated colony of writers and artists who gathered at the tip of Cape Cod in the early 20th century. Her closest friends included the novelist John Steinbeck and attorney Clarence Darrow of Scopes Monkey Trial fame.
As a woman activist, she was a familiar sight in the radical salons and meeting houses of Portland, Ore. in WWI. This is where she met Wood, (introduced by Darrow) and eventually wed him in what would be a second marriage for both. He was 58, she was 28.
In was in Portland that Sara herself played the fateful matchmaker. In an oral history given to researchers at Berkeley documenting the history of the women’s movement, Sara says flat out that she was the one who first introduced the American revolutionary John Reed to her friend, activist Louise Bryant, “at a dinner party at a friend’s house” in 1915. The pair later became lovers in one of the most fabled romances of the Russian Revolution.
Reed, the Harvard grad who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World,” was just one of her acquaintances. I believe it was Sara who introduced my grandfather to an up-and-coming playwright who wanted to decorate a residence named “Tao House” that he was building in the hills south of San Francisco with Asian art. In addition to Ming vases and Japanese statuary, the new client (an angry, lapsed Catholic) had a deep interest in Asian religions – especially Zen. So what began as a business relationship with my grandfather (a practicing Buddhist) soon morphed into an extended seminar in comparative religion.
Tokutaro once mentioned visiting this playwright on his deathbed in Boston in 1953. It was only after rummaging through his effects after his own death in 1977, that I realized that my grandfather was one of the last people to see the American playwright Eugene O’Neill alive. He never told me what they discussed in that Boston hotel room. But from what I now know about the two, I’m quite sure it was about God.
Needless to say, our family’s world was shattered on Dec. 7, 1941. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, there were two Marines with fixed bayonets and a roll of barbed wire outside the house on Webster St. in San Francisco. They were just one of thousands of other West Coast Japanese families to be sent to desert relocation camps in the Southwest.
Wood, his wife, and pitifully few (on Left or Right) protested this gross violation of constitutional rights. Even ardent New Dealers like Harry Hopkins believed that Japanese, born in the USA or not, were an “enemy race.” Charles and Sara protested the Japanese “Relocation” to no avail. They posted many letters to my family to keep their spirits up in the former cavalry stables in Poston, Ariz. where they were quartered.
Wood died on Jan. 22, 1944 at the age of 91 in Los Gatos. He never lived to see the defeat of the Axis powers he so detested. Sara mailed a letter a few months before he died saying how Charles’ health was failing, but how he hoped the fight with Hitler would soon be “done with.”
She outlived him by 30 years and passed away in Berkeley, Calif. also at the ripe old age of 91 in 1974.
Wood’s daughter from his prior marriage, Nan Wood Honeyman, would become Oregon’s first US congresswoman.
The moral of the story …
Is there a moral to this long story? There are several.
First, let me say that CES Wood and Sara Bard Field embodied all that is best and bright in the American spirit. They were passionate freethinkers who fought intolerance in all forms, while refusing to be bound by rigid ideologies or institutions. My journey through the past has likewise convinced me of the karmic threads that bind us all, regardless of race, color, or creed, to the One — whether we like it or not. And as we enter the last stretch of the most forgettable presidential race in US history, I’m sure that both Charles and Sara, were they alive today, would be busy on social media reminding us of Emma Lazarus’ words that America, at its bedrock, is about lifting that “lamp beside the golden door.”
One other thing — if there’s anything exceptional about America (there is), one aspect is its ability to revisit unkept promises and right past wrongs.
In Wood’s case, he asked Joseph many years after the war to let his 14-year-old son Erskine stay on the Nez Perce reservation in Colville, Wash. After two summers at Colville where he learned to ride and hunt, young Erskine asked Joseph what his father could do to repay his hospitality. The chief thought and replied that he might do with a new stallion to invigorate his herd. Erskine never told CES Wood, the promise wasn’t kept, and it haunted the son for the rest of his days.
But I read with satisfaction on the Internet that Wood’s descendants had chipped in to fulfill Joseph’s wish in 1997. According to the Seattle Times, the Wood family presented Joseph’s 250-odd descendants with a 3-year-old, black and white Appaloosa stallion.
“If there is a promise that can be fulfilled after 104 years, surely you have to have hope,” Keith Soy Redthunder, Joseph’s great-great grandson told the paper referring to the tribe’s larger hope of someday returning to their ancestral homelands in Oregon.
In my family’s case, President Reagan signed a bill in 1988 that officially apologized for the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II and compensated the survivors for their economic loss.
I will end the story here. You needn’t agree with everything I’ve written. But I assure you that all this did happen once upon a time in America.
Doug Tsuruoka is the Editor-in-Chief of Asia Times. He is a newspaper editor and former foreign correspondent who’s worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia Times’ original print edition, Newsweek, AP-Dow Jones News Service, Investor’s Business Daily and other major media. He has reported from Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.