From Kelso to Kalamazoo: The Life and Times of George Taylor

In the title of her 2004 book, Marjory Harper neatly encapsulated the historical trend of the migratory Scot as being one of Adventurers and Exiles. Those from Scotland have, over the years, been only too willing to move within and outwith its bounds. Whilst often told as a story of escape or fleeing, there were those whose motivation to leave Scotland came from a desire to find a new world in the New World. One such individual was George Taylor.

Cover of From Kelso to Kalamazoo

In his newly published memoir From Kelso to Kalamazoo, he provides us with a first-hand account of the experience of migration from Scotland to the USA in the second half of the nineteenth century. This memoir provides a rare insight into the life of a Lowland emigrant who left a successful career as a market gardener in Kelso at 52 years of age to set up anew in Michigan. Once established in Kalamazoo, Taylor returned on two occasions to Scotland. These transatlantic journeys provide us with detailed accounts of travel and allow us a glimpse of the views of a new American citizen when back in the country of his birth. Commemorated in Kalamazoo as being one of those responsible for introducing the cultivation of celery to Michigan - Kalamazoo being known as ‘Celery City’ for a time - this little known Scot tells us, in his own words, of his life and feelings. In doing this he touches upon, amongst other things, temperance, the Disruption, transatlantic journey, politics, working life, family life, religion, slavery and the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871.

The amount of information that is revealed to the reader in the account of a single life is surprising. For example, although the subject of the memoir is George Taylor and his friends and family, he also discusses how newspapers such as the recently launched Scotsman, were seen as potentially seditious. So much so that a farm worker was told by his employer, in no uncertain terms, that if he did not give up reading the Scotsman, he would not be hired again at the next term day.

George Taylor also gives us an insight into the thinking of one who was animated by the evangelical zeal of temperance - a cause célèbre for much of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Taylor conveys the extent to which, for him, temperance was a matter of urgent necessity to save the life and soul of the one who took drink. To him, temperance was not merely a way in which to cast opinion on the behaviour of the others - although at times he does let us know how much he deprecated the behaviour of drunken Ministers of the cloth!
In the course of his life George Taylor met many interesting people such as the noted Nonconformist, Rev. Christopher Newman Hall and the widow of a man who, she claimed, was the real Tam O’Shanter.

As one who had four wives, George Taylor conveys to the reader the, on occasion, business-like relationship that marriage was to some during this period. At the same time his telling of the course of events of his marriages well conveys the dangers of childbirth and the sadness wrought by cumulative grief. The loss of George Taylor’s fourth wife led him to remark forlornly that he ‘was thus left for the fourth time a widower, and I now felt that I had lost one of my best friends.’

This memoir forms part of a series that highlights individual experience. In studies of the past, the individual is often overlooked so as to provide an account of great changes in society and to provide reasons for such changes. In ethnology it is considered that another way of telling of the past is to look at the individual in everyday life to determine how they lived, what they did and how they felt. By doing this across time and place we hope to build-up a fuller impression of life at all levels of society. This is a way of countering the, at times over-represented, voice of the powerful in our accounts of the past.

This addition to the Flashbacks series makes a valuable contribution to this programme as it stands as an all-too-rare account of the experiences of an ordinary Scottish Borderer in the nineteenth century. It could be said that, to date, the Scottish Borders have been insufficiently studied. This memoir makes a contribution to filling this gap and for doing so we owe the active and admirable George Taylor a debt of gratitude.