Robert Lewis Gipson left us this memoir, posted to the Internet by a relative, Jane Wisdom,of Topeka, KS. The picture is of an 18th century cabin in North Carolina, that illustrates Gipson's description of his boyhood home.

Gipson claimed to be 120 years old at his death, but this Find-a-Grave link cites contradictory census data. The picture may or may not be Gipson. It appears with postings for other old timers.

Old people spin yarns. Others unravel them. What shall we make of Robert Lewis Gipson? He claimed to be the oldest man in the United States in 1884, when he "decided to have a few sketches of my life written." He was unschooled, so his story comes through an unknown collaborator. Gipson promised "nothing flowery, but just simply my words." Probably they are his words, mostly. Where does that get us?

He says he was born on Christmas day, 1766 in Randolph County, North Carolina. We know he died in Macon County, Missouri in 1886. That would make him 120 years old. If true, who could dispute his claim of being the oldest man in the United States?

His story got into the History of Macon County, Missouri, published in 1884, and they take his word for being 118 years old. The Internet begs to differ, citing discrepancies in U. S. Census records. They chronicle his receding birth year. In 1850 the census listed his age as 65 (birth year 1785). In 1860 his birth year drops back 1780. By 1870 it was 1778, and by 1880 it reached 1767. The older he got, the older he got. Some observers assume Gipson, who loved a good story, padded his age as contradictory witnesses disappeared. Probably true, but let's look a little further.

The shovel plow Gipson says he used for decades was probably similar to this one at Mount Vernon. The link is to a short history of the Plow.

In the census takings prior to 1880, the information probably came directly from Gipson, as he was the only adult in the household. His age wanders, but so does the age of his son, William. In 1850 William is listed as 22 (birth year 1828). In 1860 he's 26 (birth year 1834). By the way, in 1860 the census tags William with a disability: Idiot. Probably that's why he continued living with his father. In 1870 William is 40 (birth year 1830). By 1880 both Robert and William are living with Robert's son, Hezekiah, and the census information might have come from him. That's the census that has him at 113, and William at 60 (birth year 1820). The drifting birth year could confirm a propensity to exaggerate, or maybe he wasn't good with dates.

Gipson's first wife, Grace Smith, is said to have been born in 1794, although the provenance of that date is unknown. Genealogical researchers cite1812 as the year of their marriage, based on something called a "Marriage Bond" of that date in North Carolina. Gipson says he was married when he was 35. Others make it to be 30. You can't get to 1766 by subtracting either 30 or 35 from 1812.

Probably Gipson never gave much thought to age until people took an interest in him approaching the century mark. It is easy to hear the voice of an "aw shucks" braggart in his "sketches." If he padded his age by twenty years, or so, that makes him about 100 when he passed away on April 6, 1886. He may not have been the oldest man at that point, but it's pretty old for the time. Maybe we'll forgive him for imagining a few extra decades. What else do those sketches tell us?

He reports an amazing prowess at wrestling and fighting, even into old age, but let's pass over that. Story telling is addictive. Think what he might have claimed if he'd had an Internet. What did he tell us that our history books, and most storybooks, don't? "Uncle Bobby," as his latter day contemporaries called him, gives us a clear-pane window into an ancient "present moment." We get a sense of what it felt like to be alive in that primitive time.

This man in Winslow Homer's painting from 1865, is using superior technology to Gipson's earliest recollections of cutting wheat with a sickle. He never saw hay, he says, until the invention of the mowing machine. The picture links to a sort history of hay in America. It suggests there was hay being made in America in Gipson's youth, but not much. It largely supports Gipson's recollections.

Some of the details he surely lived for himself. Some he may have "inherited" from the adults of his youth. Take that claim of having voted for George Washington. Some Internet observers accuse Gipson of bloviating, because there was no popular election for Washington. They're probably right about Gipson, but not Washington. There was a hastily organized popular election in December 1788 (polls closed on January 10, 1789). Electors were chosen and the Electoral College voted unanimously for Washington, as had been expected. Slightly more than 43,000 votes were cast. None came from North Carolina, where records place Robert Gipson until at least 1837, because North Carolina had no electors. The future State had not yet ratified the constitution. Gipson did not vote for George Washington in 1789, and probably not in 1792 either, since he was probably only about seven years old.

Gipson tells us no one had any money during his childhood. The currency and coinage situation in Colonial America was chaotic, and the chaos carried well past the presidency of John Quincy Adams. Click the image for a currency history.

The farm wagon has become the icon of early rural life, along with the haystack. Gipson tells us he never saw one until he he was fifteen years old. That was probably in the early 19th century. This history of farm wagons, and their predecessors, sleds, bears him out.

What we likely hear in Gipson's claim is the voice of the zeitgeist of his youth. Everyone wanted a link to George Washington, the most famous man in the world. Cultural residue of his parent's generation may account for several items in his sketches, and where his experience emerges from theirs has become murky. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. His testimony sounds authentic, and gets us within a generation of the action. That's better than most books, movies, graphic novels, or Facebook postings.

Uncle Bobby was a farmer. He used a shovel plow in his youth. The introduction of the wooden, moldboard plow left him in "wonder and amazement." He says he was forty-five when he first saw it. He is probably referring to the plow designed by Thomas Jefferson and tested in 1794. Local histories document its introduction into Midwestern farming between 1830 and 1850. Depending on which date of birth we assume for Gipson, he started using the moldboard plow in 1811 or 1830. Either date is plausible; so let's pay attention to his reaction. This man's dinner came from his hands, and he is as enthralled at Jefferson's innovation as we are at the iPhone.

So great was Washington's popularity that generations of Americans sought a link to him. Gipson claims to have voted for him, which he assuredly did not since North Carolina had no presidential elecotors in 1789, but we can take it as indicative of the popular mind. All old people were expected to have known Washington.

He gives us a technological progression of the moldboard plow, and beyond. At first it needed a man, a boy and a horse to operate. The plow tripped frequently out of the ground, and required cleaning with a stick carried for the purpose. Several decades later came the Kerry plow, better, but not good. At last he used the Diamond Plow. Gipson, we learn, plowed twice as much ground with the Diamond plow as the Kerry, and three times as much as with the moldboard, which was incomparably better than the shovel. The Diamond plow more than tripled his economic value.

When most of us think of early farming we get images of wagons, haystacks, and, if we're straining for historical context, a team of horses. Uncle Bobby predated all of that. At least, his familial memory did. He remembers the first time he saw a wagon. Think of it. The icon of westward migration, and it didn't exist in his youthful experience. It wasn't pulled by a modern team, but by two horses in line. The driver rode the first and led the second. Gipson refers to a "check line" as a major innovation, unknown at that time (and largely unknown to us). The check line connects each rein to the opposite horse, allowing them to work in tandem. The entire theory and practice of harness, specific adaptations for special tasks, was the subject of volumes in 1900, and is as unknown today as building pyramids.

History books tell us horse racing was a gentleman's sport, practiced by the elite. Gipson gives us a more rural perspective, from the viewpoint of a participant. Even allowing for exageration, his account sounds authentic. The picture links to an historical viewpoint.

Prior to the introduction of wagons, sleds were used. They worked reasonably well in snowy country. Not so well elsewhere. Uncle Bobby tells us the main obstacle to wagons was their price, $50, at a time when there just wasn't any money.

By the way, it's become fashionable to reduce the horror of the Dark Ages; to reinvent them as a period of mild duskiness. This may owe to the increasing difficulty for PhD candidates to write something new about that period. If you encounter such reengineering of the fall of civilization, keep this in mind: when Rome fell, wagons disappeared. They didn't come back to Europe until the sixteenth century, and were not widely used for agriculture until the nineteenth. That's pretty dark indeed.

How did Uncle Bobby remember harvest time? Grain was separated from chaff by cutting it, piling up the stalks, and threshing them with willow limbs, made limber for the purpose. Later, the resulting mass was dropped repeatedly through a breeze manufactured by two men waving a sheet, and the seeds collected on another sheet as the stems and chaff blew away. Mowing machines were another wonder of Robert Gipson's recollection.

Uncle Bobby gives us several paragraphs about his wrestling prowess. It is one of the most expansive, and detailed descriptions of this sport from someone who participated. Teeth and eyes figured promiently. The picture links to the book "Sports in America."

Today, a retrospective painting of early rural life must include a haystack. Robert Gipson says he didn't see one until he was thirty-five years old, because there was no hay. He used a reap hook (what we now call a one-handed scythe), for cutting grass, and it was too inefficient to make hay. He tells us the scythe and cradle replaced the reap hook, and the mowing sickle replaced them all. After the mowing sickle arrived, people began making hay. We know the scythe and cradle came into general use in America between 1800 and 1840. The horse drawn reaper, or mowing machine seems to have come to America via Peter Gaillard in Pennsylvania, around 1812. When it reached Robert Gipson depends on where he was living at the moment it caught up with him, North Carolina, Kentucky, or Missouri.

Uncle Bobby gives us plenty of reason to be glad we don't live in the time of his childhood, and yet, he maintains, "I enjoyed life better, and made a living easier." One reason he gives for this judgment is the lack of want, because there was nothing to want. There were no stores, no money, and nothing people couldn't provide for themselves. It was a simpler time. Does this sound familiar? Our present age longs for the simpler life now buried in history. Psychologists tell us this is simply a longing for the innocence of childhood, the Peter Pan impulse. It seems to have afflicted the human species for a long time.

Gipson's sporting descriptions are strongly echoed by his contemporary, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870), in his book "Georgia Scenes." Longstreet's descriptions of Gipson's sporting genres mark Gipson as thoroughly authentic in his accounts. The image links to the book. Or, read this critque of the book.

After deploring the "painted ladies" of his later years, and the fashions and money spent on clothes, Gipson gives us a wonderful description of the clothing of his youth, all home spun from hemp grown nearby. He wore a "hunting shirt" made of buckskins, hemp or flax. His wife's wedding dress, flax-filled cotton chain. The cotton was ginned and spun by hand. Parties were organized to pick the seeds from the cotton. He never saw a "piece of store goods" until after he was married. Someone showed him a "piece of calico." It "put the spirit of pride" in the farmers, and those who could afford it were "stuck up." Imagine the degeneracy!

Gipson tells us he took very little medicine in his life, and attributes his good health to that fact, plus his diet. Medicine in 18th and 19th century American has gotten some bad press. The picture links to a history of alternative medicine in early America. Maybe Gipson was right.

Uncle Bobby lived much of his adult life in the southern portion of Macon County, Missouri. He moved there from North Carolina, by way of Kentucky. The image links to the Macon County genealogy site, which features Uncle Bobby's memoir, and his entry in the Macon County History.

In his childhood he and his neighbors lived in one-room log cabins. There were no stoves. Uncle Bobby saw his first stove at age fifty (probably around 1835). The fireplace had a wooden chimney. The furniture was a couple of beds, some trundle beds, a table, a few chairs and a shelf. Nothing there to stimulate pride.

We get one anecdote of his courtship days, involving a group of young people, a rising creek, and the necessity for each boy to carry his girl across to safety. The incident made a great impression on Uncle Bobby, and takes up several long paragraphs. More column inches than wagons, harness, hay, and plows combined.

Around age twenty, Gipson joined a team of drovers, and helped get a herd to New Orleans. It was his first time away from home. He made five dollars, and was swindled out of it almost at once. He gives us a long dissertation on entertainments of his youth, much of which involved butchering hogs, shooting matches, and wrestling. The wrestling sounds pretty violent, and occupied him well into his old age. We hear a little about his family. His first wife died when he was seventy, and he describes the marriage as loving and happy. He then married a widow but she later decided to move out and live with her children. He says this second marriage was not for love, but convenience. Maybe it was more convenient for him than her.

Beyond wrestling, Gipson's passion seems to have been horse racing. He gave up the practice after a near-death experience involving a runaway horse and a staked fence. He recounts several other narrow escapes from the reaper, all involving horses, or wagons.

One question anyone of great years will be asked is the secret of longevity. Gipson attributes his to having learned early in life how to eat, not too much at a time, and to be mindful of what upset him. He also learned early on how to keep his feet dry. We get the picture of a man who listened to his body, and learned to avoid overtaxing it with cold, and damp, and fatigue. He'd "used" coffee since it had become available, around 1812. He avoided tobacco until the preacher explained to him how to chew properly, and he became quickly addicted. He tells us to avoid this mistake, but is sure of the benefits of alcohol.

There is quite a lot more to learn from Uncle Bobby. He gives us one of those brilliant American, backwoods tales, this one involving cross-dressing, fighting women, a desperate flight from danger, infidelity, and a finger-biting, eye-gouging battle. He gives us a feeling for the westward migration, from North Carolina, to Kentucky, to Missouri. We see homesteading, hunting techniques, the prices of livestock, and the pleasures of life.

What concerned Uncle Bobby in his old age? You'll never guess, or maybe you will. The nations youth, you say? Right! The youngsters of his later years were failing to meet his expectations. The generation we look back to as the purveyors of the right stuff, was itself the despair of the oldest man in the United States.

At some point along the way, Gipson got religion and joined the Baptist church. He "put off the old man and all his deeds, and put on the new man." He became a lay preacher, and gives us a last chapter on faith, and fidelity to God. He leaves us with a prayer, which is not a bad closing for the last man to vote for George Washington.

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