David L. Bristow
To Nebraska in 1857: A Diary of E. F. Beadle
Part 1 of 4
Contents of Part 1:
Introduction by David L. Bristow
1- Leaving Home. To the Ohio River—March 9-12, 1857.
2 - Sons of Dixie. To St. Louis—March 13-20.
3- Big Muddy. On the Missouri River—March 21-27.
4 - Stagecoach. To Council Bluffs, Iowa—March 28-30.
By David L. Bristow
A man with the unlikely name Erastus Flavel Beadle does not immediately inspire confidence. Who was this man--now dead for more than a century--and why should anyone care what he had to say?
I discovered Beadle's diary a few years ago, while researching my book A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha. I say "discovered" because it was for me a discovery--and a valuable one too, for Mr. Beadle appears frequently in the early chapters of my book. But in truth, the diary had been discovered and published long ago. What I found was a copy of the 1923 printing of To Nebraska in '57, published by the New York City Public Library.
The diary is an obscure book, to say the least. But if you wish to understand life on the frontier--the real frontier, not the frontier of myth--then Beadle is worth your time. He is also a good read. In A Dirty, Wicked Town, I sometimes refer to "our friend Erastus Beadle," and I mean it. He seems to have been a warm, likeable man, and to read his diary is feel a strange sort of friendship with him--as though he were still alive and talking to you.
And so I decided to make the diary available to the online community. For the reader's sake, I have divided the text into chapters, added paragraph breaks, corrected Beadle's spelling, and given each day's entry a uniform heading. Other than that, I have taken no liberties with Beadle's words. What is presented here is an accurate and unabridged text, taken directly from the 1923 edition.
Nebraska in the 1850s
Erastus Beadle was part of a vast tide of emigration that began pouring into the territories of Nebraska and Kansas in 1854. That year, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened both territories to white settlement, creating a national sensation. Part of the excitement had to do with the "popular sovereignty" provision of the bill, which allowed each territory to decide for itself whether or not slavery would be legal. This soon led to virtual civil war in Kansas, and was part of the great Northern-Southern conflict that led to the Civil War of 1861-65.
Though Nebraska did not outlaw slavery till 1860, it saw little of the violence of "Bloody Kansas." In Nebraska, the excitement centered on that age-old attraction of the frontier: new opportunity. The frontier meant cheap land, new towns, and new businesses. For landless laborers, it meant the opportunity to acquire a farm of one's own. For a businessman or would-be politician, it meant the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a town that might become the next St. Louis or Chicago. For everyone, it meant the chance to start over, to create America all over again--and just maybe, to make a lot of money in the process.
Omaha City was founded in the summer of 1854 by a group of enterprising citizens from Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was part of a plan to make Council Bluffs the greatest city in the West. Everyone knew of the plan to build a transcontinental railroad, and by 1854, everyone knew that it would cross the Northern states. That had been part of the deal behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act. So the railroad would have to cross the Missouri River somewhere, and Council Bluffs wanted to make sure that it would be the city to receive this great economic prize. Having a prosperous city across the river--preferably a territorial capital--was calculated to increase their odds of being located along the railroad's main route.
As it turned out, the scheme backfired. Eventually, the transcontinental railroad did indeed cross the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, but it was Omaha that benefited most and which came to overshadow the Iowa town.
All that was still in the future when Beadle arrived in Omaha in 1857. At that time, it was still unclear which of the new Nebraska settlements would prosper and which would not. Omaha had become Nebraska's capital city (an honor it would lose to Lincoln in 1867, the year of statehood), but competitors abounded. Beadle himself was working on behalf of a rival town. Saratoga, Nebraska, located just a mile north of Omaha, hoped to attract settlers, businesses, and steamboat traffic away from Omaha and from Florence (another river town to the north).
As an officer of the Saratoga Town Company, Beadle's job was to entice settlers to build in Saratoga, and to give away town lots to anyone who would build on them. Giving away land doesn't sound like a way to make money, but it had its own logic: If enough people settled in your town, your own real estate holdings would increase dramatically in value. If not, the town would wither and die, and so would the value of your property.
Town lots weren't the only properties available. As farmland, Nebraska soil promised to be highly productive. Getting your hands on a chunk of Nebraska prairie was an investment too good to pass up, even for a citified man like Erastus Beadle. The Indians having been dispossessed of their lands, the federal government became the area's primary real estate dealer. According to the "pre-emption" laws of the time, a settler could claim 160 acres of farmland (Nebraska illegally stretched this to 320) and buy it from the government at a low price, usually about $1.25 an acre. To prove that he was a genuine settler, a claimant was supposed to build a cabin on the land and live there for a given number of days.
Pre-emption law was prone to abuse, and "claim clubs" soon formed to protect settlers' rights. In practice, claim clubs often abused the law as much as they defended it. Beadle's comments on the activities of the Omaha Claim Club are corroborated by numerous other reports.
In sum, the Nebraska frontier of 1857 was a hotbed of ambition and financial speculation. And it all came crashing down that autumn. The later entries of Beadle's diary hint at the financial turmoil that engulfed the nation that year. Known as the Panic of 1857, it was one of the worst financial crises in U.S. history. The resulting depression killed off Saratoga and very nearly did in Omaha. Within a few years Omaha re-emerged, first as an outfitting center for the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859, then as the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. By then, however, Beadle was long gone. His diary gives a look at the last days of Omaha's infancy, the boom years that saw "Omaha City" grow from an idea to a viable settlement.
About Erastus Beadle
Erastus Beadle was born in 1821 in Cooperstown, New York. As an adult, he moved to Buffalo and went into the publishing business. By 1856, his company was publishing two magazines, The Home and Youth's Casket. The Home was a women's magazine, "a companion and guide for the wife, the sister, the mother and the daughter." The Youth's Casket, despite the name, did not sound morbid to its original audience: at that time, "casket" referred to a small chest or case, not to a coffin.
Despite the apparent success of his publishing ventures, Beadle was dissatisfied. In the fall of 1856, he traveled to Omaha to explore the business opportunities there. No detailed record of this journey exists, but apparently Beadle was impressed. Returning home for the winter, he set out again in early March, 1857. His plan was to establish himself with the Saratoga Town Company, then send for his wife (whom he calls "Mate") and two children (Irwin and Sophia) as quickly as possible. Even if things went perfectly, Beadle knew when he departed that he was facing a separation of several months.
In the end, it was Beadle's loneliness that sent him home that fall. When he departed, he still believed in the future of Saratoga, but could neither afford to send for his family nor bear the thought of spending the winter apart from them.
Eventually, the West made Beadle a wealthy man, but not in the way he had imagined. In 1860, Beadle--now living in New York City--began publishing a series of cheap, sensationalistic novels by various authors. They were known as "Beadle's Dime Novels," and became, in their day, an American institution. Most of the stories were Westerns, and featured a romantic, melodramatic view of the West--so different from the realism of Beadle's diary. (A few Beadle's Dime Novels, such as Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Boyhood to Manhood or California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman, are available online.)
When Erastus Beadle is remembered at all, it is generally as the publisher of books like California Joe. But as a writer, Beadle has left us a written legacy that shows us a bit of the real Old West, and for that he deserves our thanks.
1 - Leaving Home
To the Ohio River-March 9-12, 1857.
I asked him if he was not going to bid me goodbye? "Oh yes!" he says, and the words he would have uttered in addition choked in his throat. He kissed me, and when I had got a few feet from the sleigh he said "Good-bye Pa!" with a force to it I could but notice as coming from a full heart.
Monday, March 9, 1857
Left home with the intention of being absent longer than any previous trip I had ever taken from my own fireside. Still, I had none of those feelings which usually possess me at parting with my nearest and dearest of friends and relatives. I had no realizing sense of any protracted absence more than I would feel on going to my daily business.
Days previous to my departure, however, were days of deep thought and reflection. The simplest acts of my children were unusually interesting to me and remarks that at any other time I would barely notice would make my heart swell and tears start unbidden in my eyes. But when the day for my departure arrived, I was suffering with bodily ills of a more serious nature than I was willing to own, and my mind was wholly occupied with those ills, which were at the time painful in the extreme.
With as little ceremony as possible, I bid goodbye to my family and rode down to the depot chatting by the way with Irwin who "wanted to ride down with father." He was so taken up with his ride [that] he was not inclined to get out of the sleigh, and when I had bought my ticket and looked around to bid him goodbye, he was not to be found. He had remained in the sleigh, where I found him bundled up, playing the owner of the sleigh, as large as any one. I asked him if he was not going to bid me goodbye? "Oh yes!" he says, and the words he would have uttered in addition choked in his throat. He kissed me, and when I had got a few feet from the sleigh he said "Good-bye Pa!" with a force to it I could but notice as coming from a full heart.
Only a short time was occupied in reaching and crossing the ferry at Black Rock and getting under way on the Canada Side. The excitement of changing at Black Rock from cars to boat and boat to cars, had the effect to exhaust me considerable. For me at least, we were fortunate in having but few passengers. I monopolized two whole seats near the stove and slept some before we reached Paris. At Paris we made the connection with the Great Western Cars. By the time we had reached London I began to regret my having left home in the condition I did. Continued to get sicker until about four o'clock p. m., when my feelings changed as if by magic, and I felt like a new being, ate a hearty supper on the boat crossing from Windsor to Detroit, and except from weakness and lassitude felt as well as I ever did in my life.
At Detroit called on Mr. Frazer who gave me a pass to Michigan City. Got a seat in the cars near the stove. Left at 9:20 and slept some of the way to Marshal.
Tuesday, March 10
Walked from the Depot up to the Marshal House and went to bed a three o'clock a. m. Slept but little, at seven breakfasted and soon after got a buggy from the livery to take me up four miles on the plank. Had a pleasant but cold ride, found cousin's family all well.
Cousin Joel Mack has a fine farm of 160 acres, a good large frame house, and is very comfortably situated. [He] has a family of six children, the two oldest boys who are married and living away by themselves, the two next daughters-one 20 the other 16 years of age-a boy 13, and the baby, a girl of five years completes his list of children. His daughter of 16 is the largest of the children is a perfect picture of My Sister Sybil when I last saw her, and the baby is just another such a person as was Sister Emily at her age. The more I saw them the more I saw a resemblance both in looks and actions, but I do not believe Abigail (the one resembling Sybil) will live long; she has a hard cough which I believe will prove fatal.
My stay at Cousin Joel's was a pleasant one. Cousin is a great speller and grammarian; [he] is a boy with his children and joins in their studies. His Wife is just such a farmer's wife as others I have seen.
The most interesting member of the family, however, was Aunt Abigail. In most respects she bears her eighty-five winters remarkably well. In walking she uses a cane and stands in a stooping position exactly as does Mrs. Hedge. She will weigh about 175 lbs., her weight in health was 200. She some resembles Uncle Chauncy in feature, but she has the eyes and nose of my father.
I spent the day wholly with her, most agreeably and instructive. She would ask me many questions about my Uncles and Aunts, and in a few hours ask much the same questions. Then she would remember she had asked before and received the same answer. When I informed her that all her Mother's and first stepmother's children were dead, she would remark with tears and a trembling voice "Yes they are all gone not one of my old acquaintance is living. All are in their graves and why am I left? Yes, and I have buried two husbands and eight of my ten children."
She could not speak of the past without tears, not even of the days when she was a little girl and went to the village school of Colchester, Connecticut, which was about a half mile from her father's house and shop. When she spoke of the death of her first stepmother she wept like a child. She was the only Mother she ever knew and was one of the best of Mothers to her.
"A few days before she died," says Aunt, "She nursed Flavel (then but ten months old), kissed him and handed him to me and said she should never nurse him again-gave him to me as my child and said I must have him sleep with me and be kind and good to him, for he never would know what it was to have a Mother to care for him-and I always felt he was my child." When Aunt told this she would manifest as much grief as she could have done the day her Mother died. Her grief was monitory as that of a child.
Her bodily health and appetite is as good as it ever was and she can eat as wholesome food. She is but very little care, occupies her own corner with her own chair and table she used when young, eats by herself and lives within herself, reads but little except her Bible-that is her all. She read over the old family record of uncle James a number of times and expressed no little surprise she should have remembered her own age. She was pleased to have me ask her for her daguerreotype, but said she had no money to get it taken with but would go up and sit for it-had never had one taken.
Wednesday, March 11
Slept comfortably last night, and for the first time in years between woolen sheets in the regular old-fashioned style. After a late breakfast Cousin harnessed to a cutter. We helped Aunt in and started for Marshal. Cousin was the first settler where he now lives; his team made the first wagon track where now the plank road runs. The vicinity is thickly settled with wealthy farmers and fine farm buildings.
Aunt bore her ride well walked up and down stairs without assistance. The artist who took her picture does not understand his business and made a picture I did not fancy. If Mr. Evans had had such a subject he would have done it justice, but a poor operator, a poor subject, poor tools, poor stock altogether-what more could be expected?
When all was ready to start, Aunt comfortably seated in the sleigh, she took hold of me to bid me goodbye and thank me for having her picture taken. She said, "When you write to your mother and your wife and children, remember me with love to them, remember me to my brothers and sisters living-and Erastus, remember your Creator!" Aunt has been a very intelligent woman for her time or for the times in which she has lived. I wish I could be where she was a month.
Leaving the daguerrean room, I went to the depot, learned that the cars had run off the track and were three hours behind time. Did not get away until 6:00 p. m. and reached Michigan City at a little past 11:00 the same night-but 20 minutes too late, for the cars [were gone]. The next train was to leave the next day at 10:00 a. m. I accordingly went to the Jewell house and to bed.
On leaving Marshall, a novelty presented itself, in the form of a little boy about Irwin's age and height, but more chubby. He followed the business of making speeches on the cars and then passing around his hat. He understood the business to perfection. When he first commenced his hat off and his hair brussled up, I thought him crazy-but soon discovered my mistake. He had a powerful voice and could control it like an orator. Everyone could hear him in the car-and the speed was 30 miles an hour. A new way to raise the wind.
Thursday, March 12
A clear and stinging cold morning. Time hanging heavily, I walked out to see the town as soon as the sun was up sufficiently to warm the atmosphere. Michigan City is in Indiana, on the shore of Lake Michigan. [It] is the Junction of the new Albany and Salem R. R.-is a fine place for a town, but can never amount to much as a city.
It is somewhat protected from the winds of the lake by very high bluffs rising near two or three hundred feet. These bluffs have some shrubbery and scattering oaks, and [are] covered with sand from the lake, which is thrown up in drifts by the high and almost constant blowing wind. The present covering of the bluffs is composed of about equal parts of snow and sand, and this morning was froze as hard as ice. Still I succeeded in reaching the top of the highest bluff by pulling myself up by the shrubs and crawling on my hands and knees in real Mount Blanc style. From the top of the bluff I could see for one hundred miles in all directions and could easily imagine myself one of the daring adventurers of Mt. Blanc itself, on a small scale.
The time passed as easily as I could expect and at 10:10 a. m. I left on the cars in a direct South course. For the first ninety miles the country was mostly prairie-and wet at that-and the most untractable country I ever saw. It is a "Hoosier" state in earnest. The buildings were nothing but the poorest kind of log huts, and unless you saw some human animals you would not think they were inhabited. All they raise is corn and pork. This also constitutes their sole diet, spiced with the "shakes" without which they think they could not live. They make as much calculations about having the shakes fall and spring as they do to have the seasons themselves come and go. In fact they could not live if they did not have the shakes half the time. Whole fields of corn were only cut up and stood out all winter, on account of the shakes taking them too soon in many places [while] they were drawing in their corn.
Near many of the log huts, some of which were deserted, I noticed small enclosures formed by driving short stakes in the ground a few inches apart, and but two or three feet high. These varied in size from ten to one hundred feet square. Internally they presented no different appearance from the immediate vicinity, which convinced me they were not gardens. On inquiry, I was told they were graveyards-many of which contained whole families. These yards were usually [with]in a few rods of the house, and in many locations were the only show of improvement or civilization.
Every hour's progress we made, we could see we was fast leaving the vicinity of snow, and when we reached Lafayette at 3:30 p. m., there was but very little snow to be seen. About 2:00 o'clock we saw blackbirds and meadowlarks, and soon after leaving Lafayette large flocks of prairie hens.
At 7:00 p. m. we reached Indianapolis, where we were obliged to wait until 11:00 p. m. before starting for Cincinnati. This evening was a delightful one-not cold enough to require winter overcoats-and seemed like an April night at home.
2 - Sons of Dixie
To St. Louis-March 13-20.
They think no more of shooting at each other than the people North do of taking a round with the fist.
Friday, March 13
Reached Cincinnati [at] five o'clock this morning and put up at the "Burett House." Had an early breakfast, made a schedule of my business for the day, and at nine o'clock had all my business that called me to Cincinnati done. Got my boots by express from Buffalo; found them too large by two or three sizes, so I am almost bootless.
[At] nine o'clock, commenced searching for James Pennington. Searched all day, but without success. A marked change in the atmosphere between this place and where I was yesterday morning. There was good sleighing and the thermometer near zero; here they were watering broadway to keep down dust.
Cincinnati at this season of the year is remarkably brisk. The principal exports I saw was whiskey, pork, and ready made buildings-which is a great business here. The levee is literally crowded with boxes, barrels, carts, drays, &c, and every steamer crowding on freight. Altogether it is the busiest place I ever saw.
At five o'clock p. m., took passage on board the steam packet Memphis, bound for Memphis and Hickman, Tennessee. The officers of the boat protested against the large amount of freight the proprietors put on, as there was but a little over five feet water on the bars and the boat was loaded down to a draught of near seven feet. In this state we left at ten o'clock at night, soon after I had retired.
Saturday, March 14
Had made good headway during the night, but about ten o'clock a. m., when within 20 miles of Louisville, we grounded and remained there until ten at night. Could only get off by getting two flat boats and taking out some one hundred ton to lighten her. These flat boats are kept along the river for this purpose and are called lighters. The bed of the Ohio is hard gravel and a boat can not work off as on the sandbars of the Missouri.
We have a variety of passengers, some fifty in all, mostly Southerners. They all take me for a Southerner. We have a "Nigger" trader on board.
Sunday, March 15
A delightful day. More like the middle of May in Buffalo than the 15th of March. It has been a day of anxious watching for Captain, crew, and passengers, as the barge from Cincinnati has been hourly expected but has failed to reach us. I have walked over the principal parts of the city in company with a young man from Philadelphia. Louisville, like Cincinnati, presents a very dingy appearance owing to burning so much coal. The streets are wide and well supplied with shade trees-which are much needed in the summer[s], which are very warm here. Towards evening we walked up in the vicinity of the best residence, which was quite a treat to me. Doors and windows were thrown open, and ladies were out on the steps and balconies with nothing on their heads, and dressed in late spring dresses. It was in great contrast with the previous Sunday in Buffalo, which was like mild winter.
We saw during the day a number of funerals. The hearses in use here are glazed on both sides and ends, rendering the coffin wholly visible. The hearse is painted black and trimmed with silver on the sides. The top is ornamented with four clusters of Prince of Wales plumes on each side. It is altogether quite a showy vehicle and is used for the poor classes as well as the rich.
Louisville has a large number of colored people, about 3000 of which are slaves. They are probably cared better for than any city in the Union.
Monday, March 16
Last evening was very pleasantly spent in the cabin. We have a large number of passengers, mostly Southerners, a fair proportion of Ladies-all of which could sing and play on the piano. We had a sociable time. Those of us that were married showed the daguerreotypes of our wives and children. I took the premium. They said they look like Northerners, supposing I was a Southerner. They said they were "right fine" looking and a "heap prettier" than I was. I knew they only wanted to flatter me and took it for what it was worth.
An affray took place in the forward cabin on Saturday night that came near resulting in the loss of life. The parties were from Mississippi, were engage[d] in card playing until a late hour and drinking freely-used their revolvers and bowie knives. They think no more of shooting at each other than the people North do of taking a round with the fist.
I got acquainted with a number of gentlemen from the South, some merchants, others professional men. They were extremely warm hearted. They consider the use of the revolver as honorable a way of settling a dispute or punishing an insult as any plan that can be adopted. The strong man has not there the advantage. It is their education and they succeed in making out quite a case in their favor.
On going to bed last evening we were in hopes to be on our way again before morning, as the barge was still expected. Morning came, however, and we were still at the levee in Louisville. My patience was exhausted. This was the day we was to have been in Memphis, and now the Captain told us it would take three to four days after the barge came to get to Memphis. I went up town after breakfast and found I could take the cars to St. Louis one dollar less than at Cincinnati. I returned to the boat and the Captain refunded all of my passage money except $2.50, so that it cost me only $1.50 extra to go by Louisville. Many of the passengers left the boat as I did, while others remained. I should have remained if I could have spared the time, as I never was on a steamer where they lived as well as they did on the Memphis. The boat is noted for the table it sets.
At Noon there was no news from the barge. The R. R. omnibus called at the boat for me, took me to the ferry, thence to the depot of the New Albany and Salem R. R., and at 1:50 p. m. we left. Reached Greencastle behind time, but the cars waited five minutes enabling us to get aboard. Changed cars again at Terre Haute and Vincennes.
Tuesday, March 17
From Vincennes reached Sandoval about eight o'clock a. m. Found no cars to Centralia until one in the afternoon. I accordingly checked my baggage to Centralia and started on foot, the distance six miles. I found it a very pleasant walk indeed. Most of the way was prairie. One grove, however, of about one mile was a pleasant variety. It was filled with birds, which made me halt a number of times to listen to the variety of noises they made. Among the number was a mockingbird and the cardinal grosbeak or redbird-neither of them get as far north as New York. I have seen no robins yet.
I came in sight of Centralia when about two miles distant from the town. My imagination located Harriet's residence and all of the particulars. I had it in the southeast part of the village on the open prairie, without a yard fence or any thing of the kind. When near enough to distinguish the buildings, I selected one, a story-and-a-half white house with two conspicuous side windows visible one-and-a-half miles off. "That is the place," I remarked aloud and laughed heartily all to myself. I plodded on into the heart of the town, at the depot I inquired where Hugh Baily lived. Was informed that it was in the "Company's Row," a little east. Next, inquired at a store and was pointed out the very house I had selected on first coming in sight of the town. I shall have to believe in Spiritualism, I think, after this.
Entered Harriet's house as familiar as though I belonged there, and without knocking. I believe she jumped some and seemed pleased to see me. They are living as comfortable as can be, considering the house is not finished. Baily soon came in to dinner and was heartily glad to see me. I left with him at two o'clock and rode on his engine down to Cairo, got there at 8 p. m. Tried to get passage to Memphis, but found the fare $10. I backed out sudden-supposed it but $8. Got into the mud up to my knees. Went with Mr. Baily to bed.
Wednesday, March 18
Left Cairo on my return with Mr. Baily at 6 a. m.; reached Centralia at noon. Set by the fire, visited and played with the baby during the balance of the day.
Thursday, March 19
A warm and pleasant day. Baily drawed fence lumber and had his garden ploughed. I walked about the town. Wrote and slept some and got well rested. Centralia is more of a town than I expected to find, has some 1500 population.
Harriet has a fine baby as any one has. Its hair is red and I believe always will be. It has a bad cold and I fear threatened with the croup. Mr. Baily and Hat. would not hear to my leaving under a week at least, and seemed dissatisfied when I decided to leave the next day. I fared sumptuously. Had a pressing invitation to have my family come out and stop a month-or even three of three of them-before going West.
Friday, March 20
Left Centralia half past twelve at night. Hat. set up and had a breakfast ready for me and Mr. Baily, as he had to go out to Cairo again at two o'clock. Left the baby very poorly.
Harriet keeps a girl, a big dog, and hens. I think if any one takes comfort it is them. They are loving as two kittens.
We reached St. Louis between five and six in the morning. At the Barnum House I found a letter from Frank and Robert Adams, but very much to my surprise not a line from wife or children. After breakfast went down to the boats. No boats were going further up than St. Joseph. Ice reported 30 inches thick at Omaha and teams crossing.
This presented a dubious aspect. I had hurried to get away, and hurried all the way, and here I am two weeks too early. This gave me the blues a little, and I knew not what course to pursue. In this dilemma I went in search of my cousin. Found two brothers of Cousin Benjamin. They were Alfred and James H. The former has a wife and nine children. James has a wife but has lost all his children. He is two years younger than I am. Took dinner and went up to supper and spent a short time in the evening.
Returning to my hotel, I had decided to go back to Harriet's and stop a week or ten days, until the ice was out of the river and I could get a passage to Omaha. With this determination I went to bed.
3 - Big Muddy
On the Missouri River-March 21-27.
Then came a general strife to see who should have a bed. About one half were accommodated. Some had a mattress, some a pillow, others a blanket. Covering about two thirds of cabin floor, one would laugh, another sing, a third curse. Those that could get no chance to sleep done all they could to prevent others from sleeping, and kicked up a general uproar . . . I have often heard people tell of a crowd, but this beat all.
Saturday, March 21
Arose early, examined the register of arrivals and found the name of G. W. Brown of Lawrence. He had come in the afternoon previous from Chicago, but was not yet up. I took breakfast and then went to his room. And our meeting was decidedly a joyous [occasion] to both. He insisted on my going to Lawrence with him, and make his house my home until I could take passage up the river. His wife would be in from Alton in time to go out with us. I accordingly abandoned going back to Harriet's, and set about making preparations to accompany Mr. Brown into Kansas. At 2 p. m., we left in the cars for Jefferson City, where we were to meet the R. R. Company's daily line of steamers for Weston and intermediate points-our tickets taking us through.
Our party from St. Louis consisted of Mr. Brown and his wife, a Mrs. Leavett and her two daughters ten and six years of age. We had a very pleasant time on the cars. Mr. Brown fathered one of Mrs. L.'s children and I took Mrs. Brown under my care.
Mrs. Leavett and family were among the number that were driven out of Leavenworth last summer, and lost all they had. They are now located in Wyandot, where Mr. Leavett now is. Mrs. L. is going out to join him. Mrs. Leavett is one of the firebrands of the free-states party. Her tongue is constantly busy. She has been east making speeches and getting subscribers for Mr. Brown's paper. She had become desperate, and if necessity requires it, she will take up the musket and revolver before she will be again driven from her home. She is ready for an argument with anyone, even on spiritualism.
Mrs. Brown is more [a] quiet woman and looks like a person that has been tried, as she has been.
We were informed at St. Louis that the two boats were usually crowded, so that when the whistle blew at Jefferson City, every person had their carpet sack in hand to make a spring for the boat when the cars should stop. And when they did stop, down they went in a mass like a flock of sheep, tumbling over each other in the dark (it was eight o'clock at night). But lo and behold, not a berth, stool, or plank was unoccupied. The daily boats due were aground up the river, and the one in-the New Lucy-had been damaged and could not leave until the next day in the afternoon when her damages would probably be repaired. No boat had been in for three days that belonged to the line, and two trains of cars per day, loaded as thick as they could stand, had poured into the city, and as soon as the New Lucy reached her landing, she was swarmed and every room taken. Our chances were to hang up on a hook.
Finding the Captain, he proved to be no less a person than the Pilot of the Wm. Campbell, the boat I came down on last fall. He recognized me at once and fixed out two rooms, which were given up to the ladies and Mr. Brown. Next in order, Mr. Brown and myself went up town to get supper. Not having dinner we felt the want of supper. We set down to a table, that was about all. Got a cup of cold coffee, a small biscuit, one cracker, and that was all. Charges only 50 cents each.
Returning to the boat, Mr. Brown made a misstep and tumbled into a gulf about five feet deep with a mud bottom Tore his clothes some and hurt him a little-but not sufficient to prevent us from laughing heartily. We scraped mud for some time, then he ventured on the boat. I walked in front to screen him from too conspicuous a view. When reaching the ladies' cabin we quickened our pace again. Mr. Brown met with a casualty. Run his head against one of the branches of the chandelier; knocked off the globe, smashing it in a thousand pieces. Every eye was turned in the direction. There he stood, watching the fragments and covered with mud. A more ludicrous scene I have seldom beheld, and if he had killed himself, I could not help but laugh. He got into his room and there remained for the night.
About this time, the porters commenced turning down the chairs along the stateroom doors, completely blocking up the entrance or exits through the door. This being done, they brought in a lot of mattresses, arranging them along one end, on the chair backs, to serve as a pillow. I took the hint and made fast to one.
Then came a general strife to see who should have a bed. About one half were accommodated. Some had a mattress, some a pillow, others a blanket. Covering about two thirds of cabin floor, one would laugh, another sing, a third curse. Those that could get no chance to sleep done all they could to prevent others from sleeping, and kicked up a general uproar until they got exhausted and we at last got to sleep. I was sore from laughing at the vanity of disposition; one was for fun, another kept up a constant growl. Those, however, who said least, fared best. I have often heard people tell of a crowd, but this beat all.
Sunday, March 22
This morning another amusing scene was enacted which will probably be repeated three times per day during the trip. There are three hundred passengers on board and only table room for some seventy-five. Who was to be first at table was the all-engrossing subject as soon as preparations were commenced for breakfast. It was with difficulty that the waiters could get around to put the dishes on the tables.
I saw at once that those without ladies must of necessity fare slim. I accordingly secured Mrs. Leavett for meal times, which was very fortunate. The table had to be cleared and set again four times before all the passengers were served. The fare is of the poorest kind I ever saw on a steamboat, even at the first tables. Females were in great demand at meal times, even little girls that went free were engaged for the trip in order to secure a seat at the first table. We have two large and very amusing men by the name of Martin-from Flint, Michigan-who are brothers. They take girls of 11 and 9 years to the table as their ladies.
We are all becoming acquainted and are anticipating a pleasant time. On showing my daguerreotypes, Mr. Martin recollected seeing Mate somewhere. It was at Flint. This is how I became acquainted with him. He knows Lib. and Cook. He says Mrs. Cook is one of the finest women in Flint, and has the most friends of anyone in the city, and that I ought to be proud of her sister for a wife.
Mr. Brown and myself have had a stroll about the city. The town does not amount to much except as the capital of Missouri. Our boat was repaired about Noon, but we were obliged to wait until the three o'clock cars came in, as one of the pilots had gone down to St. Louis. Our steam was up, ready to start as soon as the pilot should come on board, so as to prevent the rush of passengers from the train. They came, however, like an avalanche-covering our forecastle as thick as they could stand. They were ordered off on another boat of the same line going out the next day. Among the crowd of newcomers I saw and spoke with three Buffalo men: Lawyer Grey, Mr. Metz, and a young man whom I cannot call by name-was once a clerk at Calendar's.
During the day I have made the acquaintance of a Mr. Smith, who together with his wife is going to Omaha to establish themselves in business. He is a small man, about the size of Mr. Cook and of the same business. His wife is a very tall woman-reminds me of Mrs. Newman. She is a graduate of some of our eastern seminaries, and has herself been for a term of years a principal. She hopes to be enabled to establish an institution of learning at Omaha. I think she would be just the woman for such an enterprise. I shall use my influence. I should be ready then to take my family to Omaha.
On the arrival of the cars which brought up our pilot, this Mr. Smith went up to look after some baggage which came on the train. He succeeded in getting the baggage nearly to the boat when it put out and would not return. You may imagine the feelings of his wife, who was obliged to remain on this boat while her husband must stop over a day and come on the next boat. There are a number on this boat going to Omaha, some of which will stop with her at Weston until her husband arrives.
Some seven miles above Jefferson City is the worst sand-bar on the route, and as we expected or feared, we got fast on it in company with other boats. Some had been there 48 hours-this was not a very pleasant prospect for us. We made the best of it, however, and concluded to sleep on it.
This night I succeeded in getting a state room in company with Mr. Carver of Buffalo. (He is the man with whom Desdimona boarded.) He had a room for himself and his two sons. His two sons slept together, giving me a berth to myself, which I appreciate. I could not retire until I had seen the sport in the main cabin of staking or marking out claims and securing a place to straighten out in for the night.
This evening we had a fine thundershower.
Monday, March 23
Early this morning one of the steamers on the bar, the Star of the West, got off and passed up. Soon after this the Col. Crossman, which left St. Louis the day before we did- and which we passed on the cars-came up and crossed the bar without difficulty, cheering loudly as they passed us. The Crossman stopped a while up to wood. In the meantime, we came up alongside of them to wood also. In swinging around, we came in collision with the Crossman and smashed in our wheelhouse on the same side the previous injury was sustained. Again we were disabled, and when the Crossman left, we lashed to the shore for repairs, where we remained in an uneasy state of anxiety until after eight o'clock at night.
The early part of the day was rainy. The afternoon was dry and pleasant, the scenery on the shore grand. Mr. Brown and myself invited some ladies to attempt to gain the top of a rock which we had been admiring all the day. It is by far the loftiest rock I have yet seen. It towered far above the loftiest trees. On the side next river it was perpendicular over 200 feet high, and scalloped out like a chimney, and for want of a better name we called it "Chimney Rock." We ascended by climbing up the bank, which in the rear of the rock extended to within 50 feet of the top. We then got up one at a time to a secure foothold and pulled the others after us.
Reaching the top we gave three cheers for free Kansas. Fifty persons could stand upon the top of the rock; our company consisted of eight or ten. I did not venture to look off at the brink as others did-at first I was too timid to stand erect. We gathered some moss as relics and carved our names in the rock and on the limbs of trees along the side of the path by which we ascended. We all agreed that our visit to the top of "Chimney Rock" had well paid us for the delay we were subjected to by the accident to our boat.
When I took the cars at Sandoval on Friday morning at one o'clock, every seat was occupied. Noticing a gentleman whose countenance pleased me, I asked and received a share of his seat. We conversed most of the way to St Louis. His manner of speaking was exceedingly pleasant and he bore a striking resemblance to Uncle Chauncy, except he was not corpulent. His height is six feet six inches, and he is one of the noblest looking men I ever saw. He was an old resident of Missouri. I was exceedingly loath to part with him as I did at the ferry opposite St. Louis, and equally pleased to meet him again at "The Barnum House."
In the afternoon of the same day I again met him on the levee as he was about to take the cars for Jefferson City en route home. We parted here as old friends, neither knowing the other's name. On Sunday morning at Jefferson City we again met. He had been waiting for the boat to be repaired. We stoping in the city with his daughter, was going up on the same boat, had with him a niece and a little slave he was taking up to a friend and neighbor of his.
I think I have never met with a man that pleased me as well. I also think I have learned much that will be of service to me in the way of business in the West. My friend's name is Samuel C. Major-is one of the wealthy and most prominent men of Missouri.
This evening Mr. Major and myself were called upon by the ladies, who had held a meeting and voted to invite the Captain and Clerk to visit them in the ladies' cabin, with a deposition from said ladies to transmit the vote to the Captain-which we did, feeling flattered by the compliment, and reported favorable. This involved the necessity of an introduction, which could only be done in general terms as we were not acquainted with but few of the ladies on board, by name. The evening passed pleasantly, with another thunder shower to close the day.
At nine o'clock a dive was made for the mattress, claims taken, and in the general melee, in which some got kick and scratches, we went to bed. Our friend was obliged to stretch his six feet six on the cabin floor. Something he was not used to.
Tuesday, March 24
But little progress made during the night. My friend Major pointed out the burial place of Daniel Boone and told me that his niece on the boat was a great-granddaughter of Daniel Boone. As yet I had not spoken with her. I asked an introduction, which was given with an apology that it had not been done before. I considered it a great treat to be in conversation with a direct descendent of the "old Hunter of Kentucky." Miss Boone is a woman of intelligence and education of a high order, born and brought up in Missouri.
She seems to inherit a large share of that love for the wildness of nature that characterized her Grandsire. She had learned from her Uncle that I was from the state of New York. She asked me many questions about the scenery of N. Y., particularly that of Niagara, St Lawrence, Lake George, the Hudson, and the scenery described by Cooper. She had only visited the part of Kentucky where her Great-Grandfather lived, and a small portion of Tennessee. She could talk of wild scenery different from any one I ever conversed with. And I regret I did not make her acquaintance earlier. She and her Uncle left the boat this morning at eleven. On leaving the boat they bade me a friendly goodbye, wishing me a pleasant journey and asking to be remembered to my wife and children, whose likeness they saw.
The water in the river has been rising slowly to day and our progress is rapid for Missouri traveling. Wild geese are in great abundance, the shores and sandbars are covered by the thousands. The air is becoming more chilly.
Wednesday, March 25
The water continues to rise in the river. We passed the Col. Crossman about one o'clock this morning and are fast making up for our delay in repairing the boat. About eight o'clock we came upon a deer that was on a sandbar. He made quick steps in the direction of the nearest timberland, taking to the water part of the way.
After dinner we passed the Star of the West that passed us while on the bar Monday morning. She left St. Louis three days in advance of us. We are the fastest craft on the river and pass everything afloat. About this time the porter came around ordering those stopping at Kansas City to select their baggage. This was the first intimation we had of our coming to the vicinity of our separation. We had been jammed into our cabin like stagecoach passengers and most of us had become acquainted, and I presume our separation was much as it is on shipboard after a long and perilous voyage.
Our passengers were from all parts of the Union, but mostly from Western New York. Among our passengers was an officer of the steam ship Baltic who had been on her every trip since she was built. He is so taken up with our Western country he has almost determined to locate here. He had no idea such people went to Kansas.
Mr. Brown hired two printers and one young lady to go and work for him at Lawrence. He made me liberal offers. I told him I must first try Omaha. He would pay me my price if I would go with him. He is coining money-has 7000 subscribers.
The greater part of our passengers were bound for Kansas and mostly for Lawrence and vicinity. All of the Kansas emigrants they charged extra on their baggage, weighing every piece. The Nebraska passengers were allowed to go on with all they had a mind to. I must say I think the best persons on the boat were among the Nebraska passengers.
We reached Kansas City, Mo. about eleven at night when we parted with some 40 or 50 of our passengers. A few miles further on is Wyandot where Mrs. Leavett's family and others got off. By this time the favored ones got rooms for the balance of the night.
A blackleg traveling on the boat was a nuisance. He swindled some two hundred dollars out of different persons that played with him. One young man lost thirty dollars-all he had-and then offered to pawn his watch. This was told to me, I did not see it-feeling more at home in the ladies' cabin, I spent most of the time there. During the evening, this blackleg insulted a man who was about getting off. He called him to an account and challenged him to shoot with him on the hurricane deck. Arrangements were being made and I had made up my mind to see the thing done. I could have seen the blackleg shot down with as good grace as I would shoot a chicken if I was hungry. It would have been doing a blessed service for the country. The friends of the rascal settled the difficulty.
I have become acquainted with J. Johnson of the Johnson House, N. Y. City. He is going to Omaha with a view of erecting a fine hotel, if everything suits him. He is a fine man-none of your swelling braggadocio, but a true gentleman. He will be a worthy and useful acqui[sition] to Omaha should he take up his residence there.
Thursday, March 26
The water still rising-is three feet higher than when we left Jefferson City Sunday Night. Wild turkeys were seen running along the banks on the Missouri side this morning.
A short time after breakfast, we reached Leavenworth City. The levee was completely swarmed with people before we landed-so much so that the two hundred passengers we landed did not seem to enlarge the crowd in the least. Here I met my friend Kellum from Auburn who went west when I was last at Auburn. His company here [is] waiting for a through boat to continue on as far as Omaha. I learned there were no accommodations at Leavenworth or Lawrence, so I decided to work my way along and get to Omaha the best way possible.
The clerk of our boat says that since the river has opened there has 12,000 people passed up in boats for Kansas and Nebraska, and as many more by land. Every ferry we came to was crowded from morning to night. Such a tide of emigration was never before known. They are pouring in one continual stream to every town and ferry on the east bank of the river and stand in large groups of men, women, children, wagons, horses and oxen awaiting their turn to cross into the promised land. They tell us they are only pioneers and have but to write home favorable to bring parties of from ten to twenty for every individual now entering the Territories. They are covering the territories like a swarm of locusts. The border-ruffian population of Missouri shake their heads and heap curses upon the Yankees. "Their curses like little chickens will come to roost." Missouri must and will ere long become a free state.
Our stop at Leavenworth was but a few moments. We reached Weston, the terminus of the "Lightning Line" at ten o'clock. Stopped at the "St. George Hotel." The stage to St. Joseph had gone; three extras were hired and filled while some twenty-five- myself among the number-agreed to wait for a boat. The day spent in writing and prospecting about the town.
It is a mystery to me why a town was ever built on the site of Weston. There is not a dozen houses in the place on a level with each other. So uneven is the ground that houses on the same street 300 feet apart of equal size will vary fifty feet in height. During rainstorms, the ground washes very bad so that the ravines can not be bridged and deep gulfs are cut out by the rain to the level of the river. No water runs in these gullies except during the rainstorm-still they are impassable. The city reminds me of pictures I have seen of towns in Switzerland.
Among the guests at the St. George was a gentleman and his wife from [New] York state. Their respective ages were about 35 and 45 years. They belong to the better classes. They left their friends in the east with buoyant hopes and light hearts for a "Home in West." Their only child was a sprightly little girl, 22 months old-a perfect little fairy. In this little being was centered the affection and soul of its parents. She was their idol. No one but a parent can tell how she was loved! On the boat she took sick, had a cold on her lungs, got no relief. Took her from the boat to the hotel where the little innocence lingered a few days and died. The day previous to her death she put her arms around her mothers neck, clasping with her whole strength her "dear mama," then smoothing her cheek with her little feverish hand, kissed her mother a number of times and bade her goodbye! Two days after this, they buried her among strangers in a strange land. Oh! was not that heartrending? I took the case home, I could but mingle my sympathizing tears with theirs. Had it been one or both of my children, what would have been my feelings? May I ever be spared such afflictions, but if come they must, I pray for strength and fortitude for such a trial.
Previous to the burial, the corpse was dressed and placed in a natural position as though alive in the father's arms, and an ambrotype taken. It is the finest thing I ever saw. One not knowing the facts would think the child was pretending to be asleep and could with difficulty keep from laughing.
Friday, March 27
Got up this morning as soon as it was light. Went up on the highest bluff. Could see a steamer coming up nine miles down the river. The boat proved to be the Star of the West which we had passed two days previous. By the time we had breakfast she had reach the landing. We took passage for St. Joseph, the boat going no farther up than that point. The family who buried their child is on board. The Mother seems almost heartbroken. She says her greatest trial came when she left the hotel without her child.
On board the Star of the West we have much better fare than on the Railroad line, and I would advise all persons coming West to avoid said line. It is a humbug. The independent boats set a first rate table, have enough, and are accommodating and gentlemanly.
Among the places we touched at was Atchison, the stronghold of proslavery in Kansas. This is the residence of Stringfellow and is one of the places we stopped at last fall during the Kansas excitement. I bought a copy of the Squatter Sovereign, edited and published by Stringfellow. The number I bought contained the valedictory of Stringfellow, in which he stated that he had published-at his own expense-the Squatter Sovereign for two years "for the purpose of arousing the South to the importance of Kansas as a territory peculiarly adapted to slave labor." . . . "did not embark in the enterprise with a view of profit, but solely to prevent Kansas from being Abolitionized." He resigns his labors to other hands who will make the paper purely Democratic, sustaining the law and order party and advocating the doctrines of the National Democracy. The same paper contains an invitation to settlers from all parts of the Union, North as well as South to come and make homes among them. The entire tone of the paper is changed. The only hope the proslavery party now have is to force through a convention without submitting it to the people. This they do not believe they can do.
The river is almost out of its banks and the current very rapid, which makes our progress very slow. The scenery increases in beauty as we ascend nearer to the Nebraska line. Many persons who are on their first trip up the "Big Muddy" are in ecstasy about the Country.
We reached St. Joseph about nine o'clock in the evening; found the hotels filled and accommodations poor. The persons that came up on the extras the day previous were in time to take the steamer Admiral, bound for Omaha, which left this morning at ten o'clock. We felt disappointed and very much regretted we had not followed their example in taking an extra. Our only chance now is to take the stage. We hurried to the office, three of us, but only two could get seats. These were taken by a man from the Bluff and myself. Our Cleveland friend decided to run his chances. Paid our fare and [went] to bed dreading our stage ride the next day. Time by stage, we were told, was 36 hours.
4 - Stagecoach
To Council Bluffs, Iowa-March 28-30.
The prairie was on fire in all directions . . . Sometimes a gust of wind would strike a section of the line of fire, increasing the flame and hasting it along ahead of the main line, then continue along the line in wavy motions like the undulations of the sea.
Saturday, March 28
During last night, the steamer Col. Crossman arrived, bringing another supply of passengers for the Upper Missouri. There was at least 100 passengers for the Bluffs and Omaha and only a nine passenger coach to take them, running every other day. The stage would take no baggage except a satchel a valise to each passenger. We were obliged to leave our trunks in the storehouse to be sent up on the first boat.
A little after eight we started at a snail pace up one bluff and down another, tipping and pitching in all directions. One of our passengers was a Mr. Jackson of the firm Foote & Jackson of the Bluffs and Omaha. He did not reach St. Joseph until this morning when all seats were taken. He bought off one of the passengers, giving him ten dollars for his seat. The fare was ten dollars, so that Mr. Jackson paid twenty dollars.
We found the roads much better than we anticipated, being dry except in the hollows between bluffs. The day was as pleasant as could be. Nothing of special interest transpired until about two o'clock p. m. when the stage got set in a mud hole and the horses down. We all had business now unfastening the horses while the driver held them on his coach, and one man at each horse's head until they were separately detatched and got out of the mud. Next we took down the fence, got a chain and attached it to the tongue of the coach, [and] hitched the horses to the chain-the horses in the lot where they had good foothold. With rails [we] pried up the coach so that horses drew it out safe on dry land. After an hour's delay we were on the move.
At four o'clock we stopped to change horses at a place called Oregon, where we ordered dinner. At this place I saw for the first time handbills posted up advertising a sale of negroes. They were the property of heirs and must be sold to settle up an estate. There are but few slaves in this part of Missouri, and a better country I never saw. It cannot be beat in the world. They raise fruit in great abundance; we have all the apples we want, two for a penny.
Ham, eggs, and corn cake constituted our bill of fare. This being disposed of, we started on, footing down and up hills, which were very steep. In one of these pedestrian excursions we came to a large cornfield where the old stalks were standing. It was about sundown. The cornfield was alive with wild geese and ducks that were coming in to feed on young wheat that was just starting up, and to roost. The ground was covered with them, and the air filled with the others hovering over. The noise made by their wings and their constant squawking was almost deafening and shook the ground like distant thunder. Their number could not be estimated. With suitable firearms or snares we could have filled the coach. They did not seem at all timid. What a place for sporting.
Soon after dark, our driver stopped to water his horses. When he started again, by some carelessness he brought the leaders around so sudden as to break the tongue of the coach. Here was a "pretty kettle of fish." We were fortunate in being opposite a farm house, where a lumber wagon was procured with a view toward continuing our journey. This proved to be small and we were obliged to allow the driver to return with the two forward wheels to Oregon and have a new tongue made. This, the driver assured us, would be done so he could return by two o'clock next morning.
We accordingly took possession of the farm house, which was built in regular Missouri style, of hewed logs and double. Two houses about fifteen feet square and twelve to fifteen feet apart, with a roof extending from one to the other. One part was used for cooking and eating, the chamber for the boys (negroes) to sleep in. The other apartment was the family room containing two beds. The room had a large fireplace and was the only sitting room. I could not stand up in this room with my hat on. The chamber will still lower. Into this living room we all huddle, eleven in number.
Our host is a clever bullet-headed Kentuckian-said he would make us as comfortable as he could under the circumstances. Preliminaries being arranged we all went upstairs, where four beds were arranged along the side of the house on the floor lengthwise. This gave us room enough for the six footers to lay their bodies on the bed while their feet extended out on the floor. When all were ensconced, we were covered with all sorts of bedding. We packed in soldier- or prison-style, forming a hollow square, and in twenty minutes most of the number were sound asleep, snoring in so many different keys as to resemble the squawking of the wild geese.
Sunday, March 29
Slept soundly all last night. Got an early breakfast of bacon, eggs, and corn cake served up by a couple of ebony gentlemen. Our driver did not return until 9 o'clock, when we again started-being delayed twelve hours.
At twelve noon, stopped at Jackson's Point, named after our passenger Jackson who once lived here. Here we got a first-rate dinner of roast turkey. Our next station was 27 miles distance and great fears were entertained of how we should cross the Big Tarkio River some 16 miles distant. The snow in northern Iowa was melting and the river was out of its banks, covering the entire bottoms.
Reaching the regular crossing our driver swam it with one of the horses and learned by the agent-who was on the opposite side and came over with the driver-that we must go back two miles and take another route and cross lower down. We accordingly did so, crossing the main stream on a bridge. Then came four miles of river bottoms where the water was from three feet to six inches in depth all the way. Some of the time the horses could with difficulty draw the coach. It was long after dark when we reached the bridge where we should have crossed but for the water. Our route to cross the river had taken us fifteen miles out of our way. I shall always remember crossing the Big Tarkio.
It was now four miles to our station, being 36 our team had to go. One of the horses will probably never go it again as we believe he is used up. These last four miles was hilly and we walked much of the way, which was delightful. The prairie was on fire in all directions, and presented a most magnificent sight. The grass was dry and tall, and a gentle wind [was] blowing which kept the fire steadily marching on like an army of soldiers. Sometimes a gust of wind would strike a section of the line of fire, increasing the flame and hasting it along ahead of the main line, then continue along the line in wavy motions like the undulations of the sea.
In many places our road crossed the fire, when we could see to read in the coach. We could see fires in all directions and as far as the eye could extend. I took a match and set a fresh fire where the grass was long and dry. Before we were out of sight it covered acres. It is a splendid sight in a cloudy night to stand on a high bluff and see the prairie on fire in all directions, reddening the clouds and rendering every limb, tree, and moving thing plainly visible. I ran on ahead of the coach near half a mile to a high bluff, where I counted twenty different fires. The one nearest to me was where the coach and horses were moving at a very slow pace up the bluff. The passengers were on foot and moved along behind and ahead of the coach in a direct line of fire. The glare from the burning prairie gave them an unearthly look which was wild and romantic in the extreme. I enjoyed it as but few can.
Monday, March 30
Daylight found us at a station awaiting breakfast. Passed as pleasant a night as I ever did in a coach, diversified with walks up and down the steepest hills. The wind changed this morning and seemed to threaten snow. I could easily discover we were getting farther north, as the wind came down cold and raw from the north, where within three hundred miles the snow lies three feet deep.
About eight o'clock we crossed the Nishnabotna River in a scow. The river had risen one foot during the night and was just ready to go out of its banks, which will be worse than the Tarkio and stop travel. Here commenced a slow, drizzling, cold rain which continued all day. The rain had the effect to hasten on our drivers so that our prospects were favorable of reaching Council Bluffs as early as eight o'clock.
At Sidney, 45 miles from Council Bluffs, we were relieved of six of our passengers, leaving but five in the coach, making the balance of our ride more comfortable. The first station we stopped at after leaving Sidney was at a farmhouse on the open prairie. Mr. Jackson, a Cincinnati man, and myself went in to warm. The lady of the house, a woman about fifty years of age, questioned us closely about affairs in Kansas. She knew something was going to be done as some of them abolitionists had been to the neighborhood and taken away the guns they left there last fall. I told her there would be no more trouble, all was quiet. She could not believe it, eyed me very suspiciously, then asked how that hole came in my hat. My traveling companions took the hint at once and told the lady I was one of the Kansas prisoners who had escaped. I found it was useless for me to try to make a fair statement of affairs, and was obliged to own up and tell all about how we had been treated. I made every thing fair, implicating no one. When we left, our hostess seemed to be satisfied, as she had seen the elephant.
(The hole in the hat was on the brim. While on the upper deck of the steamer, a spark dropped on my hat and had burned a hole as round and about the size of a rifle ball. This was what attracted the attention of the inquisitive lady.)
At St. Mary's, our last change of horses, and twelve miles from Council Bluffs, we learned the Steamer Admiral, which had left St. Joseph the day before we did, had not yet passed up. We were 24 hours behind time-still ahead of the boat. At six o'clock, we left St. Mary's, expecting to be at the Bluffs as early as half past eight.
The road ran along the bottoms and was in a bad state owing to the continued rain of the last twelve hours. Night had set in by the time we had made six miles. At this point was a sluice some twenty feet wide and about as deep. The water was out of the banks and overflowed a large space of the bottoms both sides of the bridge. In the midst of the water, before reaching the bridge, the horses got set and could not move the coach. We were all obliged to get out and into the water-three feet deep-and wade to dry land. The water was cold as ice. Our boots were full and more was pattering down on our heads, while a cold north wind sent its chilling blasts almost through us.
We stood a few minutes in this condition while the driver tried to make his horses draw out the empty coach-but without success. What was to be done! No house was near, and to stand still was not deemed safe, in our wet and chilling condition. The driver wished us to wade in and unfasten his horses, while he remained on the coach, thus enabling him to get on one of the horses and get away without his getting in the water. We declined, however, as we think he might have went around another road and thus prevented this catastrophe. Each man waded back to the coach and got his carpet sack and flounced along through the water to the bridge. Here we rested a few minutes and plunged in on the other side, and for near one hundred rods we waded knee deep-and some of the way up to the seat of our pants. It was a trying time, but the only alternative. The excitement kept the water from chilling us though.
Reaching the dry ground-a ground as dry as could be during a rain-we paddled on the best we could with our heavy carpet sacks, boots filled with water, clothes wet and stiff, and at every step our feet sticking like tar to the muddy prairie soil. We looked in vain for a farmhouse by the way. After a short walk, we discovered a light across the prairie, glimmering faintly through the darkness of the night and the falling rain. One of our party said he thought it was at Council Bluffs, and if so it must be four miles. This information was rather discouraging. We consoled ourselves, however, with the belief that the light could not be over one and a half miles at the extent.
We dragged ourselves along for one whole hour until it seemed we could go no farther. Still, that deceptive light receded from us as fast as we traveled, and we could not discover that it was any nearer than when we started. I could easily imagine how one benight[ed] on the prairie in a snowstorm would become disheartened and lay down and take his last sleep while the winter wind covered him with [a] pure white sheet of snow.
Another half hour, and instead of one light we could discover some dozen or more. This animated us afresh; at the same time we had another hundred yards to wade in mud and water above our knees. Our last half mile we paid no attention to the best part of the road, so we made headway. At ten o'clock we reach[ed] the Pacific House, Council Bluffs. My head was dizzy and I could barely see, while my arms seemed pulled down to the ground by my heavy satchel. We had walked six miles.
Two of our number, on reaching Council Bluffs, were by their own firesides, surrounded by their own families. What a blessing their homes must have been that night. Three of us stopped at the hotel, ordered a room with a fire and two buckets of water. By assisting each other, we succeeded in getting off our boots, which was a difficult job with what strength we had left. As soon as I could arrange my clothes around the stove and wash the mud from my feet and legs, I tumbled into bed, not "caring whether school kept or not."
New material © 2000 by David L. Bristow
“Left home with the intention of being absent longer than any previous trip I had ever taken from my own fireside…”