ROBERT FERGUS, the historic
printer of Chicago, and practically the pioneer of publishing, arrived in
this city on Monday July 1, 1839, by the old-time side-wheel steamer
“Anthony Wayne,” of the Buffalo & Chicago Line, commanded by Capt.
Amos Pratt. He was born
August 4, 1815, in the Gallowgate of Glasgow, Scotland, the fifth and
youngest son of John and Margaret Patterson (Aitken) Fergus.
Four miles northwest of Glasgow Cross, at the village of Maryhill,
William Leckie presided over a small school.
To his charge Robert was committed.
After being grounded in the rudiments, he was sent, at the age of
fourteen, to William Lindsay’s Commercial School, Brunswick Street,
Glasgow, and a year later was apprenticed to Robert Hutchinson and George
Brookman, proprietors of the University Printing Office, Villafield.
The firm also contained Alexander Fullerton, John Blackie and
William Lang, the former two of whom were well known Scotch publishers,
while Mr. Lang earned a very excellent reputation as a printer.
Three years after Robert began his apprenticeship the firm was
dissolved, and he then was transferred to George Brookman, with whose son
he worked at the case, and finished his apprenticeship.
It is with no little pride in recalling those days that Mr. Fergus
remembers how he worked on Sir Walter Scott’s “Marmion,” “Lady of
the Lake” and “Lay of the Last Ministrel,” about the time when the
“Wizard of the North” was beginning to excite the wonder of the world.
He also helped to set up Sturm’s “Reflections” and Prof. F.
Meadow’s French, Italian and Spanish dictionaries.
A regular apprenticeship to the printing business means, in
Scotland, a thorough grounding in the craft of Caxton; and when Mr. Fergus
set forth as a journeyman he possessed
a knowledge of his business such as qualified him to earn a good
livelihood in any part of the civilized world.
In 1839, Mr. Fergus’ career
in this country was decided by an accidental meeting with a young
Englishman named Francis Metcalf, for whom he had formerly done certain
favors. Metcalf had just
returned from Milwaukee, and he gave the young journeyman such a glowing
account of the capabilities of the West, that on the 4th of
May, 1839, Robert set sail from Glasgow on the paddle-wheel steamer
“Commodore,” and passed the first iron steamer ever built on the
Clyde, the “Royal Sovereign,” which was then on the stocks.
Four days later he set out across the Atlantic from Liverpool in
the packet-ship “Orpheus” of the old Black Ball Line, arriving in New
York June 1. After calling on
Rev. Orville Dewey, of the Unitarian Church of the Messiah, and presenting
a letter of introduction, he started west.
Taking the steamer “New London” to Albany, he there transferred
himself to the Erie Canal packet “William Hildreth,” which landed him
in Buffalo seven days later.
In due course he arrived in
Milwaukee on the side-wheel steamer “Illinois,” Capt. Charley Blake.
He vividly remembers how a scow came out of the river and took off
passengers and freight. The
business arrangements proposed by Mr. Metcalf did not suit him, so he
concluded to try something for himself.
He met Harrison Reed, editor and proprietor of the Milwaukee Sentinel,
who offered him a half-interest in the paper for $800.
He did not buy, however, as friends advised him that the amount
asked was more than the whole office was worth; and then Mr. Reed offered
him the charge of the establishment at an annual salary of $520.
Mr. Fergus thought he could do still better in Chicago, and, in
spite of the warnings he received of what he quaintly called “sure-death
diseases,” he proceeded to this city, with which his name has ever since
In February, 1836, he married
Margaret Whitehead Scott, in the Independent Relief Chapel (southeast
corner of John and Cochrane Streets, Glasgow), of which Rev. William
Anderson was then chaplain. Margaret
was eldest daughter of James Scott, a merchant weaver, and a burgess and
freeman of the city of Glasgow, a position held in very great esteem by
the “Glasgow bodies.” Mr. Fergus’ children are: George Harris, John
Bowman, Walter Scott, Benjamin Franklin and Jessie Margaret, and it is
worth observing how both his nationality and his love for his craft appear
in the names of his sons.
It is difficult to say whether
Mr. Fergus is a printer first and a Scotchman last, or a Scotchman first
and printer last, for he appears to be just as devoted to his profession
as he is to the literature and recollections of his native country.
Nothing delights him more than to meet a congenial friend, who can
talk to him about Allan Ramsay’s “Gentle Shepherd,” and discuss the
beauties of “Habbies Howe,” or the character of Patsy and Meg, the
lovers whose presence has made that glen famous in Caledonian literature.
The poems of Robert Burns he has at his tongue’s end, the works
of Walter Scott are as familiar to him as household words, and there are
few of the older Scotch authors about whom he does not know something.
His library is very full and curious, and what of old-time local
affairs can not be found on his book-shelves may be looked for in his
vigorous and well-stored mind. Excepting
for a slight deafness, Mr. Fergus enjoys a stout and hearty health in
spite of his weight of years, of which fifty-six (1895) have been spent in
on February 29, 2000 by Sherri Hessick ( [email protected]