The Restless and Ambitious Montgomery Ward


According to the census records, in 1860 Aaron Montgomery Ward was living with his family in Niles, Michigan with a listed occupation of shoemaker, his father’s trade.  Just 12 years later he was founding his company.  That was a spectacular journey.

Ward was a young man with ambition who looked to do better in life than be a shoemaker.   His father’s trade had hardly bettered his family’s straitened circumstances.   Soon after 1860 Ward moved to St. Joseph, Michigan and worked first in a shoe store and then in a general country store, working his way up to general manager, continually earning better money.

Later in life Ward described himself as “self-educated, self-made” and his succeeding jobs certainly bear witness to that.  After the Civil War he went to Chicago and first sold corn salve (under what circumstances remains to be investigated).  1865, however, saw him employed as a traveling salesman for the Case & Soben Lamp Co., probably to stores in the Midwest.  Next he spent two years in Chicago with the dry goods firm of Field, Palmer & Leiter (forerunner of Marshall Field & Company).  He then switched employers and worked for Willis, Greg, Brown & Co. until they folded.  He had a cousin Thomas Budd in St. Louis and worked as a traveling salesman for him for the Walter M. Smith Co., this time traveling to country stores in the South.  He returned to Chicago and was employed by C.W. & E. Pardridge & Co., for whom he worked while he was organizing his own venture.

Why he changed jobs so often—more money, more challenge and experience or all three—I would not venture to speculate now.  But certainly he was restless and striving and obviously learned a lot about salesmanship.  Indeed he was to become one of the greatest salespeople of all times.

What’s in a Name?

Sources on the life of Aaron Montgomery Ward, including a privately printed genealogy prepared for Ward’s daughter by the American History Society, state that his name derived from that of a Revolutionary War General, to whom he was related or at least was named after.  I had no reason to question so abundant “evidence,” but I wanted to determine just why this general had special meaning for Ward’s family.

To my shock, I found out that nobody had checked out this story all these years.  There is no General Aaron Montgomery Ward!  So where did the name come from and why is it connected in family lore with the Revolutionary War?  The first name Aaron is not such a puzzle as it is a Biblical and common enough first name.  It is the “Montgomery” which puzzled me as I could find no evidence of its appearance as part of a Ward family name until the Revolutionary War period.

The first of our Aaron Montgomery Ward’s ancestors to bear the name was his grandfather, who was born in 1776.  This Aaron Montgomery Ward was the son of Captain Israel Ward, a captain in the Eastern Battalion (also known as the New Jersey Brigade) during the Revolutionary War and an ardent supporter of independence.  On December 31, 1775 General Richard Montgomery was killed leading an attempt during a blizzard to take Quebec.  Given the fact that Israel’s son was born soon after, the best explanation of his including Montgomery in his son’s name was to commemorate this fallen hero.  Our Montgomery Ward then would have been named after his grandfather.

As I have discussed in my blog on A Soldier Called Henry Smith, family stories often are wrong but have a grain of truth in them.  I think in the case of Ward family history there was a confusion of a story about the name being associated with a general and the fact that there was a famous Ward general, Artemis Ward, who among other achievements oversaw the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Artemis Ward was, however, no relation of Aaron Montgomery Ward .

Chronicles tend to feed on and repeat each other.  Done enough times, statements get taken for facts.  It requires going back to original sources to set the record straight.  It looks like I have a lot more digging behind stories ahead of me.