William Kirkman played a meaningful role to many in the valley of Walla Walla. Upon his passing, the town acknowledged him as a great man, husband, father, and citizen. Many people held his generosity and kind heart dear and with his death they lost a great friend and leader. Kirkman made numerous friends on his journey across America and learned many valuable lessons and skills along the way. Once he settled in Walla Walla, Kirkman made a name for himself, but how did he get from Bury, England to the valley?
Bury was a small town in the Lancashire region of Great Britain at the end of the Pennine chain. Lancashire is on the west coast of the British mainland just south of Cumbria.The town was an industrious textile area, which was an important part of the economy in 19th century England. During the American Civil War, Lancashire was a significant importer of the southern states cotton. There is some debate whether Kirkman’s hometown is Bury or Ramsbottom. Both of these places were small towns that were situated closely together. Ramsbottom is approximately 15 miles from the center of Manchester, England. In the collection of letters that has been assembled that Kirkman wrote home to his family, he has mentioned both towns in speaking of his homeland.
Kirkman went to common schools in England as a young lad. As he was growing into a man, he decided to take a great step in life. He cherished his beloved England, but he knew there was much more to this world than his small hometown. On March 8, 1853 Kirkman decided to take upon the greatest adventure of his life. Leaving his homeland, his many relatives, and his doubters, he left for the “Land of Opportunity”.
Kirkman walked onto American soil on April 19, 1853 after spending forty-two days on the ship “unknown”. Settling in the state of Massachusetts, he decided to live in south Boston. The cities of Malden and Edgeworth were two of the towns where he resided. In the next two years, the young Englishman, moved from town to town.
Upon arrival to this fast-paced country Kirkman had to maintain confidence and persevere through any adversity that came his way. Finding employment would be his first priority. But this was already covered when he became an agent for the Marseilles Textile Company in England. This company may have paid his duties to come to America and he was to repay them by selling fine cloth. He had his rough times selling the cloth material for he did not know anyone and most likely did not have much salesman experience.
The first ten days in America was extremely difficult for Kirkman because he had not sold ten yards of cloth at that time. When he was offering his goods at a dollar per yard, he was sternly told that one could purchase a yard of cloth in New York for eighty-four cents per yard. This only lowered the confidence of the young man. He was quite dejected, but he maintained his dignity and assured himself that he would not quit.
Kirkman resolved that he should venture around the towns and make a word for himself. He was inclined to be the best salesman that he could be and that plan was needed with a little bit of luck. He started by sending some introductory letters about the cloth industry and its fame to friends and acquaintances around the area. He initiated this scheme in the middle of May 1853 in Edgeworth, Massachusetts. Kirkman’s first idea was to visit all the tailoring establishments in Springfield. This was the first setback because the businesses treated him like an outsider and wanted to distance themselves from him. Once again this did not deter him of his goal. He kept trying-stubborn like a mule.
With his head held high, Kirkman traveled to Ware Villages in which he sold up words of thirty vests. The next town on his list was Worcester. He visited a small shop named Parker’s. Kirkman gathered himself together and addressed the owner about his company, their goods, and his dilemma.
He proclaimed, “I have come from the old country with a large quantity of Marseilles Vestings and hesitate not to say equal to any in the states. If you don’t want any, I want you to look and tell me the reason why I can’t sell.” This pretty much startled the owner, Mr. Parker, and it definitely made an impression on him. He saw a young English man trying to sell his goods with a passion and understanding. Yes, Kirkman may have been getting slightly frustrated, but he wanted to know why the people of the towns were not buying any of his cloth.
Mr. Parker sincerely believed that Kirkman could sell most of his cloth to other stores in Worcester. Mr. Parker admitted that many shopkeepers were weary of impostor salesmen trying to deal imitation Marseilles goods, because those vestings are very rare. Mr. Parker took a few of Kirkman’s goods since he already purchased enough earlier to sell for the upcoming season. The generous owner did not stop there with his helpful hand.
Mr. Parker told Kirkman that he would introduce him to some of the neighbors and other shop owners. Mr. Parker was so enthralled by Kirkman that he tried to sell his Marseilles goods to the next owner.
Parker proudly spoke, “Mr. Hudson, here is a young man from England, an agent for Marseilles manufactory there. He has some of the best Marseilles I have seen this season and cheap.” Mr. Hudson admitted the goods were fine of material, but he had already purchased enough too. Mr. Parker persisted that Mr. Hudson should acquire some cloth from Kirkman. As Mr. Hudson checked his books, it was noticed that Kirkman was selling his goods for a quarter less than the previous salesman was. Kirkman stated that he had 300 yards of material to sell him and Mr. Hudson explained that he did not care if he had 400 yards to sell, it did not matter, because he had already purchased enough already.
Mr. Hudson introduced Kirkman to Mr. Hirvey who was a cloth cutter person. He explained that he had been cutting vests out of cloth that he obtained for a dollar and thirty-seven cents a yard and it was not as good as the material that Kirkman was selling. Mr. Hirvey took several pieces for his business and Kirkman was on his way again.
Kirkman was impressed with the hospitality of the business owners in Worcester and he hoped that he would be graced with the same politeness and luck in the next town that he visited.
The town of Lowell, Massachusetts was the next stop along the road to sell his cloth to make his life successful. He battled and bargained as he was gaining confidence in his selling abilities. He sold over 90 yards of cloth and someone even bought some of his pale blue cloth that had not sold in a long time. Many of the owners told him to return to the area next March and they would possibly buy him out.
Kirkman felt anxious to give it another try for next year, because the money is too good. He had a good friend named Sherwood who sold for the Marseilles Goods Company also. Kirkman admitted to his sister in a letter, “Sherwood seems inclined to carry it out(selling cloth), but for my part I think it requires too much time to sell it.” This was difficult work for him, but he was young and adventurous. He was a wise young man also. He knew to make it in America one was learn a trade.
Kirkman held many small jobs in the Boston area at the same time as the clothing agent. He worked in a log wood shop in Boston for a short while. He left it rather fast since it was a dirty job with long hours. He also reserved his time at a file-cutting establishment. There was one block vacant there where he could prentice for a year. But he would have a better chance at more pay if he intended to learn the file-cutting machine. Kirkman also worked with a train company that built locomotives. He labored for many employers to earn enough money to make ends meet and to strive for happiness in his new homeland.
Earning money was a very tedious undertaking in the 1850’s. Most men worked ten hours a day and toiled in a mucky work environment. Kirkman was fortunate to get four dollars a week at the file-cutting machine business and six dollars a week when he was employed at the train yards. He worked in the towns instead of the country, because laborers at the mill earned only two dollars per week. Along with his job as the clothing agent, Kirkman was living a decent life in the Boston area.
Kirkman spoke highly of America and wrote home of the many differences between the old country and the states. He mentioned that Malden was famous for their fruit and how the young boys would roam the fields at night just to grab as many peaches or tomatoes as they can. He also indicated how the potatoes are very numerous and free from disease.
He admired the educational system that was present in America. “I can assure you this is a famous country for education. It is quite common for boys such as me going to school (9) months in a year,” Kirkman acknowledged. He marveled at how much information was included in one issue of the newspaper. He said, “I can get for one cent a daily paper which contains as much as I can read in a day.”
Kirkman was now becoming more confident of himself after his first four months in the states. With letters from his parents every few months, he was getting assurance from his family that he was going to make it in America. In a letter to his parents Kirkman revealed, “I know that morality is to a young man what the north pole star is to the mariner.” He knew that he was going to struggle in this country, but he also knew that he was going to make it. After describing the country in his letter, Kirkman proudly conceded, “I think I can get along very well.”