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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 10: Time warp for Jack and Wilbur April 12, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Festival Hall, St. Louis Exposition, 1904

Dear Readers: I have done some simple computations and arrived at the conclusion that it would take me over a year on this blog to complete the story of Jack Brown of St. Louis, his experiences of the Boer War, and his return to the U.S. I have greatly enjoyed producing the series to this point. It has been a lot of fun taking the historical information and making up a story to fit the events. There is a chance that I will tackle this as a regular novel, but I am unwilling to start such a project until I find out whether my novel Murder at the Jumpoff will be published. Someone is at least nibbling at that now.

Below you will find a synopsis of the rest of the story. All the names mentioned other than Jack and Wilbur are actual historical individuals. Obviously, this will be a spoiler if you want to take the chance that I will eventually actually produce the novel. So, you must decide for yourself whether to read the material below.

Stereoscopic view entitled "Explosion of an ammunition wagon" from the reenactment of the Battle of Paardeberg at the St. Louis Exposition

Jack and Wilbur stay on with De Wet’s commando, experiencing such dramatic successes as the ambush at Sanna’s Post. However, despite the ingenuity of De Wet and the doggedness of the Boers, the overwhelming numerical superiority of the British army leads to the occupation of the two Boer capitals: Bloemfontein in March 1900 and Pretoria in June.

The British expect that the Boers will surrender at this point. But much to the contrary, the Boers determine on a course of guerilla warfare. The British will eventually win the war by June 1902, but only after they have resorted to burning down the Boer farmhouses, putting women and children in concentration camps, and reducing the Boer fighters to starvation, forced to wear rags or old grain bags for clothing.

Jack and Wilbur are with De Wet in August 1900 when his commando is nearly trapped on the north side of the Magaliesberg range near Pretoria. It is 2,800 burghers against about 40,000 English, in the first of what would come to be called the “De Wet Hunts.” Wilbur is killed here as he makes a heroic attempt to oppose the British at the rear while the commando makes a seemingly impossible escape up over the rocky crags. Jack sees his friend die. He is seriously wounded in the leg himself and becomes separated from the commando by the advance of one of the converging enemy columns.

He manages to stagger to a nearby farm, where he finds a family that cares for him. But since this region is one of the first affected by Kitchener’s “scorched earth” policy, the family realizes that their farm will be burned down and they arrange for Jack’s removal to a house in Pretoria, where he recovers over a period of several months.

In November 1900, he is well enough to go back to fighting. He joins up with the commando of General Ben Viljoen and soon enjoys a tremendous symbolic success at Helvetia. He becomes good friends with a burgher named Roland Schikkerling, who has a great resourcefulness and a wonderful sense of humor. They soon discover that they share an interest in the Ruritanian novels of Anthony Hope.

General Ben Viljoen

Viljoen’s commando engages in constant fighting in the eastern and northern Transvaal. They are able to cause the British many headaches, but once again the unequal numbers mean that the Boers can do little more than nip at the heels of the enemy, then dash back for cover. They do what they can, mainly in the way of blowing up British trains. By September 1901, they have been pushed back to the little town of Pilgrims Rest, where the mountainous terrain makes it possible for them to evade their foes. They emerge every now and then to attack a garrison or lay dynamite on the tracks (there was a special technique involved), but in reality they have mainly gone into hiding.

An odd sort of social life emerges in this town. Jack and Roland get to know some of the local civilians, with whom they hold dances and “smoking concerts” out in the middle of nowhere—a nearly surrealistic phase of the war. Jack falls in love with an attractive young lady who lives in the area. In January 1902, Ben Viljoen is captured and sent to St. Helena.

In May 1902, Jack and Roland hear that peace negotiations have started. On May 31,the treaty of Vereeniging is signed. The Boers are now British citizens. Any who do not agree to pledge loyalty to King Edward must leave the country. Roland reluctantly takes the pledge, wanting to return to his family, and Jack decides to return to the U.S. He asks his new lady friend if she will marry him and go with him to St. Louis, but she turns him down, much to his disappointment.

He makes his way back to St. Louis by the end of 1902 and resumes his job with the town newspaper. He soon learns of plans for a massive “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” often referred to as the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be held in his own town. Even more surprising, he learns that part of the sprawling spectacle will be a reenactment of scenes from the Boer War—with actual Boer fighters.

Before the end of 1903, a contingent of Boers arrives—including both Piet Cronje and Ben Viljoen. It is, in fact, one of the few good employment opportunities for war-weary burghers. When the fair opens in April 1904, Jack goes regularly to watch the performances of the bombardment of Paardeberg and a dazzling escape by De Wet that includes a horse jumping rather hazardously down a waterfall. Although the real Cronje is present, the real De Wet is not—he has long since returned to his home in the Free State. Jack enjoys socializing with the Boers, but in the end he finds the performance depressing.

Program for Anglo-Boer War performances at the St. Louis fair. Roberts at lower left, Cronje at lower right.

From the time he’d arrived in New York in December 1902, Ben Viljoen’s plan had been to buy land in Texas or New Mexico. The St. Louis fair is only a money-making diversion. Over these immediate postwar years, there is a general movement of Boers to the Southwest: Wilhelm Snyman starts a colony of Boers in Chihuahua State, Mexico, and former Free State president Francis Reitz tours Texas in 1902 and 1903 with the idea of starting a colony there. Reitz becomes homesick, however, and resigns himself to swallowing the bitter pill of British citizenship and returning home. Boers settle in the Americas in places as remote as Patagonia rather than become members of the Empire.

Jack decides to join Viljoen in the Mesilla valley of New Mexico, northwest of El Paso. Viljoen is a complex and intelligent individual, one who’d been much admired by Schikkerling and others in the commando, and Jack is fond of him. He settles in New Mexico nearby Viljoen’s newly adopted home, marries and starts a family. Some years go by, and in 1911 Viljoen decides to get involved with the Mexican Revolution in support of Francisco Madero, rebelling against the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship.

Jack considers joining in this effort, but finally realizes that his days of fighting are over. However, his wife and two daughters have died from a flu epidemic. Jack decides to go to Yosemite, a place he has long heard about, and seek work as a park ranger. A Yosemite National Park had been created in 1890, and Yosemite Valley was added to the park in 1906. He has decided, over years of losses and hardships, that the wilderness can provide the consolation he seeks.

Yosemite Valley



1. Trevor - June 28, 2015

General viljoen is my great grandpa, great writing I hope you do publish the book I know my family would all love a copy.

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