I’m always interested in the themes of “the journey,” the open road, and travel. Here is a very different take on those themes: a Jacksonian-era diary!
This is A Journey on Horseback through the Great West in 1825 by Chester A. Loomis, (1789-1873). The book is subtitled “Visiting Allegany Towns, Olean, Warren, Franklin, Pittsburg, New Lisbon, Elyria, Norfolk, Columbus, Zanesville, Vermillion, Kaskaskia, Vandalia, Sandusky, and many other places.” Loomis had business in Illinois so on June 1, 1825 he set out and recorded his observations as he rode through “the “great west,” that is, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. He returned home on August 24. The book is not dated but was apparently printed soon after Loomis’ trip, by Plaindealer Press of Bath, NY.
I first learned of this work from Joseph Burtschi’s 1954 Documentary History of Vandalia, Illinois, 1819-1839. Burtschi preserved important documents concerning Vandalia when the town was state capital, including excerpts from travel books of the 1820s and 1830s. Loomis’ disparaging comments are among the negative assessments of the frontier capital. I collect books related to Vandalia, my hometown, and a few years ago I saw Loomis’ book for sale online by Noushin Books & Co. of New Haven, CT. After debating the cost, I ordered it. The book–a pamphlet, really–is just 27 pages long, with double columns of text, and was published without a cover, only a title page on the same paper as the text. My copy has a later, hard cover. The pages are “poor wood pulp paper” according to Noushin Books and are brown and very brittle. I carefully scanned the 180-year-old pages before transcribing them.
A bookseller friend tells me that 34 libraries have copies of Loomis’ book and that it was reprinted in 1890. In ten years of intermittent browsing on abebooks.com, I’ve only seen one original copy for sale and none at all of the reprint, although now there are “print on demand” copies that you can order at that site. So until recently, the book has been available only if you travel to a facility like the Newberry Library in Chicago.
But Loomis’ descriptions of 1820s life are interesting and as keenly observed as other writers of the period. To me, the portrayals of settlers—especially their isolation and abject poverty—are quite haunting, as are Loomis’ own experiences of hunger, thirst, isolation, and lack of shelter. I thought the pages of Springhouse magazine, to which I’ve contributed for many years, would be an excellent place for Loomis’ observations finally to appear for modern readers! These introductions and transcriptions first appeared in that magazine in 2010.
The Notes of a Journey to the Great West in 1825
By Chester Loomis, of Rushville, Ontario CO., N. Y.
The Start – Allegany County – Olean – The Indian Reservation – Warren – Oil Creek – Franklin, PA – Militia Drill
A spirit of emigration to the western states and territories which has for many years extensively prevailed in most of the eastern states, and in some degree in the immediate vicinity where I have resided, together with the various and contradictory accounts published or written, relative to the western country, and excited an ardent desire to ascertain from personal observation, the general character, and prospects of that extensive section falconry, embraced within the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
In the summer of 1825 an opportunity was presented of engaging in the transaction of some business in the state of Illinois, and I determined to avail myself of it, in exploring such portions of the country as circumstances might enable me to visit. Accordingly, on the first day of June, I commenced my journey from Rushville, N.Y., and reached Olean, on the Allegany, on the third, without meeting with anything particularly worthy of observation. A general appearance of improvement is apparent in most of the towns through which I passed. And although the soil of the land is cold and moist, it seems to be productive, Olean, Almond, Alfred, Angelica and Friendship are gradually becoming settled with industrious emigrants. In Friendship, particularly, is seen a spirit of enterprise and improvement which must render that place the seat of business and commerce for a considerable district of country. Olean, on the Allegany river, is apparently on the decay. This village appears desolate and lonely. Its numerous empty tenements are falling to ruin, and unless the current of emigration from the eastern states should again take this course to the western country, the anticipation of many well informed persons, relative to the future importance of this place will never be realized.
The road from Olean down the Allegany river is impassable with wagons as far as Big Valley Creek; it being most of the way a mere Indian path, blocked up with fallen trees, and is entirely uninhabited except by Indians. The whole distance is a continued forest of valuable pin timber, generally of large size. The undergrowth of timber is hemlock, and left to the course of nature undisturbed by the hand of man, a forest of hemlock will succeed that of pine, which now covers the country. I have found it difficult to assign any satisfactory cause for this change. The present growth is exclusively pine–the next will be exclusively hemlock. Does this prove any change in the seasons from their former state? Or is the change of timber produced by other causes?
Big Valley Creek is a small stream barely sufficient for mills, and is at this time very loc. A man named Howe, formerly of Phelps, Ontario county, now resides here. Several drunken Indians were at his house, in which they appeared to be as familiar as in their own wigwams. Howe has a handsome and interesting daughter, about 16 or 17 years of age, who was talking, joking, laughing and dallying with some of the young Indians in the true and genuine spirit and style of coquetry.
The Indians are settled along side sides of the Allegany river to the distance of fifty miles below Olean. They own a reservation of forty miles in length and one mile in width, the river being the center. Many of them now devote their attention to agricultural pursuits, and the squaws are seen in industriously engaged at labor, while the Indians spend their time in idleness and dissipation. Their houses or cabins exhibit in a considerable degree of appearance of civilized life. They are mostly constructed of hewed pine logs, have well-built stone chimneys, glass windows, have good floors, and roofs covered with pine shingles
About thirty miles below Olean I observed several thousand acres of land in one body, perfectly flat and level, smooth upon its surface, without a hillock or stone, and covered with a thick growth of shrubby, knotty, crotched low pines, all of about equal size–say two feet in diameter. The land appears to be allured, but is of such elevation that the river cannot have formed it by depositing the sediment of its floods. I can conceive of but one rational method of accounting for its appearance and singular growth of timber, so different from all the surrounding country, and that is by supposing that at some former period this land must have been cleared and cultivated and that from some unknown cause its cultivation was discontinued, and the forms of shrubby pines which now cover this tract spontaneously commenced its growth.
On the 5th, I crossed the state line into Pennsylvania, 40 miles below Olean. In the course of the same day I ascended a high, barren, and rocky mountain on the summit of which I found ripe strawberries of a large size of a large size. Upon the highest and most elevated point is a huge flat rock from which under which a fine spring of clear cold water issues. On this rock is inscribed the names of some hundred travels who have at different times been refreshed by the waters which flow from beneath it.
This whole mountain seems to be composed or rock, excepting in spots, a rich, but shallow layer of soil. And its rocks and stones, with few exceptions, are composed of small pebble stones of every kind of color, cemented together by the hand of nature, resembling those pebbles which may be found at the shores of most of the large lakes of this country, where they have been washed and worn by the waves of a thousand year. Can it be possible at that some distance point this entire mountain as a mass of small pebble stones, loose, unconnected, promiscuously mixed, of all sorts, and subjected to the continued action of water for centuries?
On the western side of this mountain flows the Connewango river. It is here several rods in width and so deep as to be forded with difficulty.
The village of Warren, Pa., is situation on its western bank. Warren is the capital of a county of the same name, and contains 50 or 60 ordinary houses.
June 6th, I cross the Brokenstraw river. This stream is smaller than the Connewango. About 30 miles from the Brokenstraw is Oil Creek, so named on account of certain springs upon its margin, from which arises the genuine Seneca Oil. This oil is collected by the inhabitants in considerable quantities. Much of the country in this quarter is broken and mountainous. The hills are rocky and barren, with shrubby oaks and laurel, thinly scattered over their sides. Innumerable springs of fine water flow from the hills, and in the valleys which separate the highlands are some flourishing settlements.
The village of Franklin at the junction of French Creek with the Allegany, is handsomely situated, and is the capital of Nernango [i.e., Venango] county, Pa,. It is an ancient settlement; has a stone Court House and jail, 60 or 70 houses, four taverns and as many stores. It is apparently however, that very little industry prevails here. Extensive fields of fine land are open continuous, and there are few indications of enterprise or active business in the place. A toll bridge is erected here over French Creek.
On the day of my arrival at Franklin, four companies of militia had assembled at that place for exercise, commanded by Col. Mags, who is an active officer and a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature. He was, in fact, the only officer uniformed, or who had a good military appearance, on the ground. The soldiers were awkward and undisciplined, ragged and dirty. About one fifth part were armed with rifles; the remainder carried sticks, canes, umbrellas, or cornstalks. In the afternoon soon after whiskey had been circulated freely, and the men were dismissed from parade, a battle royal was commenced in the street among these redoubtable heroes and for near a quarter of an hour twenty or thirty men were boxing and as many more were clinched, choking, biting; gouging, and tearing off each other’s clothes. At length the spirit of the fight subsided, the storm ceased, order was restored, and the mob dispersed.