Chester Loomis’ “Journey on Horseback through the Great West in 1825”
Transcribed and introduced by Paul Stroble
Here is the third of six chapters of A Journey on Horseback through the Great West in 1825 by Chester A. Loomis, (1789-1873). The 27-page book was printed by Plaindealer Press of Bath, NY and 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 from Rushville, NY 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, eventually publishing his account in this now-scarce little volume.
In chapter three, Loomis visits Columbus and smaller Ohio towns and admires the prairies of Indiana and Illinois. (It’s fun for me to think that some of my ancestors lived near Columbus at the time of Loomis’ travels.) He is more graphic than previously about the perils and discomforts of the West. For instance, he gives us some of the hazards of travel: the flies and smell of swampy area, the necessity to sleep outdoors when accommodations are scarce, and the difficulties of riding along through a violent rain. Loomis complains at length about a group of Miami Indians from whom he sought hospitality, but they treated him rudely, their food was terrible, and in general he found this tribe “ill-favored, nasty, greasy, idle, dissolute, and intemperate.” He comments on wild game, describes squatters (and their fleas and bedbugs), the uninteresting food of white settlers, and leaky cabins. In the next chapter, Loomis describes the Vermilion River area, gets a new horse, meets an Irish settler and his family, visits several Illinois communities including Vandalia and Kaskaskia, and arrives at the Mississippi River.
On the 16th of June I arrived at Columbus, the seat of Government of the state of Ohio. This place, which is of recent growth, is beautifully situated upon an elevated prairie of several hundred acres, on the east bank of the Sciota river. Its public buildings are of brick, and appear to good advantage. The number of houses is said to be 400,–some of them are elegant. On the east side of the town two large springs issue and discharge themselves into the river; one on the south and the other on the north side. The river here I should judge to be 12 or 16 rods in width, and is navigable for boats of 10 or 15 tons at all seasons. A ferry is established at this place.
Franklinton, on the west bank of the Sciota, is one of the oldest settlements in the state. It is a small village, and seems not to be increasing. The alluvial flats on the western border of the Sciota are rich, fertile and extensive. Here are extensive corn plantations. In traveling westward from Columbus on the 17th and 18th, of June, nothing worthy of particular observation was noticed. Charleston is in Clark county, to which place I traveled via. London. These are both small villages in a fertile, but unhealthy part of country. At Charleston I observed a saw mill constructed with an inclined wheel and carried by the weight of six oxen. In this quarter are several large prairies.
The population of this part of Ohio seems to be principally collected in little villages, and as the fertility of the soil is such as to yield great crops with little labor, but little labor appears to be done. June 19th, I passed through Springfield to Troy, in Miami county. Springfield is a handsome and flourishing village, situated near the junction of Mad river and Buck creek. I know not why this stream is denominated “Mad river,“ unless it is on account of its running with a brisk perceptible current, a circumstance so singular among the rivers of this country that the inhabitants infer from it the “madness of its waters.“
On the 20th, of June I reached Greenville, near the western line of Ohio. Greenville is celebrated at the encampment of the American army for a considerable period during the war with the western Indians in 1793-4, and by the treaty of peace which was her concluded with them by General Wayne. It is not a village, but has the name of one. Its situation of pleasant and beautiful on the eastern bank of Greenville creek. Some fine springs of water issue from the earth nearly on a level with the plain. During the afternoon of the 20th., I crossed the state line, and entered the state of Indiana.
The road by which I entered this state is that which leads from Greenville to Indianapolis, the seat of State Government. The state line is ten miles west of Greenville. Here for the first time since I have been on this journey I found some difficulty in obtaining shelter and entertainment for the night. The country is new, has few inhabitants and those few generally poor and without accommodations for travelers.
June 21st, passed through Winchester, 20 miles west of Greenville. It is the capital of Randolph county. This village consists of three log cabins and a log hovel. Near this place is a field, without cover or enclosure I saw a grist mill constructed with a large horizontal wheel, with perpendicular shaft—a strap or rope passing from the wheel around the spindle of the mill stone. The mill stone was place in a hollow birch tub, and was 19 inches in diameter. The strength of one horse put the mill in operation and it appeared to grind corn and rye well.
During the greater part of this day I have traveled on the banks of White river. The country continues level. Prairies of some extent are found on the extensive bottoms of this stream. They are covered with a vegetation which from its surprising growth indicates a strength, richness and fertility of soil, unexampled and unknown in New York. The great body of lands in this quarter yet belong to the Government. Its price of course is 41.25 per acre. A few scattered habitations only are seen, and it is generally from six to ten miles between settlements and from the dead and stagnant waters and the immense growth of vegetation, and unwholesome atmosphere must exist during the heats of summer and autumn.
On the 23rd, of June I continued to follow the course of the White river until I reached Strawtown. The waters of this stream are clear, notwithstanding its sluggish current, and in passing along its banks immense numbers of large fish are seen swimming in its waters. At Strawtown is an Indian settlement. Here too are the last white inhabitants this side of Crawfordsville, more than 60 miles distant from this place.
In the afternoon I passed Strawtown, and entered the forest by an indistinct trace or path running nearly a westerly course, and at evening encamped on the banks of a small stream called Hinkle’s creek, about ten or twelve miles from Strawton. Here for the first time on this journey we made the earth our bed, and the heavens our covering. In the course of the night a thunder shower passed over, but fortunately for us, it rained but little. Vivid and frequent flashes of lightening and loud and appalling peals of thunder, added to the impressions of gloom, with which we contemplated the surrounding forest. The morning of the 23rd of June was lowering and hazy. A drizzling rain rendered traveling extremely disagreeable. The weather was excessively war. Astonishing numbers of flies assailed our horses in addition to which the constant succession of marshes and swamps through the deep mire of which they were compelled to go, rendered our progress tedious and embarrassing.
In the afternoon of the twenty-third of June, a most tremendous thunder storm arose. The day had been cloudy, with occasional slight showers of rain, and the close and oppressive heat of the atmosphere, indicated that it was highly charged with the electric fluid. About noon the distant, but continual roll of thunder was heard low in the western horizon, and for two hours the clouds seemed to remain stationary except in extending around to the south and north. Not a breach of air seemed in motion. A fearful stillness pervaded the wilderness, and as the cloud arose the gloom and darkness of evening twilight spread around and gave rise to the most appalling apprehensions. The clouds at length suddenly closed around the horizon, and in a few moments the fury of the storm burst upon us. The wind blew with great force. Hail and rain descended with remarkable violence. Frequent and extremely vivid streams of lightening flashed around us; but the loud roll of thunder was no longer heard, as the din of wind, rain and hail was overwhelming.
The violence of the wind was of short duration and the hail ceased after a few minutes; but the rain fell in torrents for an hour. It was impossible to find the least shelter. We had made up our minds to meet the horrors of the storm with as much calmness and fortitude as we could command. We made no halt nor did we dismount during its utmost violence, and while trees and limbs of trees were falling around we rode slowly forward. A large oak tree was shattered by the electric fluid, a few rods from us. But we escaped uninjured, except being thoroughly drenched with rain.
We continued to press forward through mud and mire, without a dry thread of clothes upon us for the remainder of the day; near the close of which we reached Shorntown, an Indian settlement, twenty miles distant from Crawfordsville. As it was impossible to reach any habitation of civilized men, we were compelled to submit to such accommodations as could be obtained from these miserable savages. After going from hut to hut, endeavoring to obtain shelter and refreshment among them, without being able to make them comprehend our wants, or if they did understand, without their regarding them for some time, we at length found a Frenchman, half savage, half civilized, who was dressed in the Indian costume, and lived among them–to which we addressed ourselves. He replied to us at first in a language, not one word of which was understood, at the same time using significant gestures, and pointing to different and opposite points of the compass at the same time. Crowds of Indians, of all ages and sexes, gathered around. The scene was certainly a fine one for the pencil of a Hogarth, to pourtray [sic]. The unintelligible jargon, the strange and unaccountable gesticulations of the Indians, the merriment and laughter created among them by our embarrassment tended to produce vexation and disgust in our minds. We cursed them heartily as an inhospitable race, and was about to leave their lodge to seek a shelter again in the wilderness when the Frenchman before alluded to rose and beckoned us to follow him. We now found he could speak broken English. He conducted us to a wigwam, 80 or a 100 rods distant from the mail village, built a fire, fed our horses, and prepared supper for ourselves. Our supper was cooked in Indian style but hunger and fatigue gave an appetite which was by no mean scrupulous.
We were permitted to lodge upon the floor in front of the fire. Several Indians lodged in the same wigwam; but they behaved civilly. In the morning we attempted to partake of a breakfast prepared, but the offensive quality of their victuals, together with the nauseous cookery, prevented more than tasting. These Indians are of the Miami tribe. They are said to be extremely dissipated. Scarce a month passes in which they do not have a general drunken powow [sic]. On such occasions murders are very common. A few months since, while the men and women of this lodge were in a state of general intoxication, an Indian of the tribe who had drank sufficiently to render him mischievous, with his knife cut off the noses of seventeen of their principal warriors. We here noticed several of the number thus singularly mutilated. The appearance of the Indians of this tribe is not inviting. They appear to be, almost without exception, an ill-favored, nasty, greasy race,–idle, dissolute, and intemperate. Their situation is upon a prairie of several thousand acres. The land is rich, fertile and beautiful–and they have a few enclosed fields of corn,–and large numbers of their horses feed in droves upon the prairie. I believe they do not raise cattle, or indeed any kind of stock except horses. The Indians of this tribe are in the habit of selling their young women, like the Creole mothers of New Orleans. The price of one of them, when a permanent connection is intended, is a horse, no difference of terms ever being made on account of personal beauty.
June 24th, we reached the habitations of white inhabitants, after traveling most of the day through an open prairie country, and directing our course nearly west from Shorntown. We no longer find highways or roads distinctly marked and opened. The only roads at the ancient paths or traces of the Indians. These are in many places so indistinct and obscure, that we find it difficult to pursue them. Wild game is plentiful in this country. We, this day, saw an elk and several deer, besides immense numbers of wild turkies [sic] and prairie hens.
In this section of county few inhabitants are found, and those few are generally “squatters,” who locate themselves upon the borders of the prairies–live in miserable cabins, frequently without floors or windows, and exhibiting the most conclusive evidence of the habitual indolence and negligence of the occupants, whose personal appearance is but little better than that of the savage tribes, who are their neighbors. We have lodged one or two nights among these people, and find ourselves exceedingly annoyed by myriads of fleas, bedbugs, &c.
June 25th, 1825, we last night put up at the cabin of a Southern emigrant. Our supper consisted of—a plate of fried smoked pork, a cup of sour curdled milk, several small Indian cakes, something like a tea-cup in size and form–and which are here called “dodgers,” and a plate of honey. The table furniture consisted of a Spanish dirk, for a knife, a form, one or two brown earthen plates, and one or two tin pint cups. I find that this is the usual fare fore breakfast, dinner and supper, with few exceptions, throughout this section of country.
During the night of the 24th, a heavy thunder-shower passed over; –the rain descended in torrents within the cabin where we lodged, as well as without. Finding ourselves much annoyed by this rain, which poured upon our bed in large streams, I sprang up, and attempted to remove our bed, by drawing the bedstead to a part of the room which seemed better sheltered by the roof, but the effort was in vain–I found it immovable; I found that the bedstead was formed by driving two crotched posts into the earth at such distances from the walls of the house that by placing poles horizontally from the posts, between the logs of the walls, a platform was made on which a coarse bed stick, filled with prairie grass, was thrown, one or two linen sheets, and a buffalo robe, completed the lodging accommodations, with which we were furnished; and with similar accommodations every traveler who wants in this part of the country must frequently be content.
June 25th, we this day crossed the Wabash river, at a ferry opposite the mouth of Pine creek. We handed below the entrance of that stream, and were directed by the ferry-man to pursue a path which he pointed out to us, about a mile, and then cross the creek, by fording. He assured us the water was nowhere three feet deep;–and then pursue a western course for thirty miles through the Grand prairie. Accordingly we took the course directed, and arrived at the fording place described. The creek was high, and its waters ran with great force. We attempted to ford it, but soon found that our only way to cross was by swimming our horses. The force of the current was such that it was attended with great danger; and after encountering the hazard of an attempt, we relinquished the project. We now pursued and obscure trace on the southern side of Pine creek, without knowing when or where, we should find inhabitants.
After traveling about four miles through timbered plains, we reached the eastern border of the Grand Prairie. Time was about five o’clock, PM. We had ate nothing since morning, nor had we any provision with us. The “Grand Prairie” appeared to the north and west boundless as the ocean. With every probability that if we went on, we might travel a day or two, perhaps more, without finding inhabitants; we hesitated. If we retraced our steps it was extremely doubtful whether we could recross the Wabash, as the ferry-man lived at a distance from the river, on its eastern side. In addition to all, my horse began to fail, and it was difficult to spur him forward faster than a walk.
Resolving at length to go on, we pursued a south western course along the southern border of the prairie. After traveling two or three miles, we observed at our left hand some girdled trees. In the anxious hope of finding shelter and refreshment for the night, we bent our course for them, and within a mile arrived at the house of a North Carolinian. We here had good accommodations. It was most fortunate, as we learned that this was the only habitation within 20 miles; and had we missed this cabin, it was extremely doubtful whether we should have found inhabitants in traveling two or three more days.
June 26th, at an early hour, we again entered the “Grand Prairie,’ and taking a westerly direction, were soon many miles from any timbered lands, and upon a tract of country apparently as level as the surface of a lake, without a single shrub or bush to intercept the view, either to the east, north or west, as far as the eye could reach. On the south a distant view is had of the forest, which is in that direction, is the boundary of this immense plain. Occasionally a rock of some magnitude is seen, but no small stone whatever is found. The soil is deep and rich, covered with grass and lowers, which grow up, blossom and decay without affording even to the industrious Bee their sweets:
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
“The dark unfathomed caves of Ocean hear.
“Full many a flower is born, to blush unseen,
“And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
As the sun arose toward its meridian its rays were felt with the same power as from the smooth surface of a lake. Our horses were here assailed by a species of fly, different from any in the eastern or middle states. They are a size less than the common ox-fly in New York; have brilliant green heads, and a quick and rapid motion. They rise from the grass before a horse as he travels along, dart upon his head, neck or breast and suck their fill of blood, almost instantly.
In the afternoon we made a few miles through a tract of the finest timbered land I have ever seen. Here are some small but durable streams of water. The land slopes gently to the south, sufficiently to produce a rapid current to its streams, which are clear and pure. Its timer is black walnut, black and white oak, maple, blue ash, buckeye, and pawpaw. The richness, strength, and fertility of soil, exceeds any I have ever seen. Here is a large body of land of the same description, entirely unsettled, and now in market, at the Government Land Offices for 41.25 per acre. After passing this beautiful tract of timbered land, we again entered a prairie of some extent, and crossing the Vermilion river, at the forks.
June 26th, arrived at township Nineteen, in Edgar County, Illinois. This is on the borders of the “Grand Prairie,” and here is a most delightful country. This township is well watered by the Vermilion River and its tributary streams, and is rolling and uneven for this country. Fine springs of durable water are common, even in the prairie. These open plains or prairies are to extensive for good settlements; yet that portion of the country which is wooded is valuable for the kind and quality of its timber as well as the surprising fertility of soil. The prairie lands however are generally deemed superior in richness and fertility to any other, and probably are so.
There are few inhabitants in this section. Occasionally a cabin is found upon the borders of the plains, generally of some Southern emigrant, whose only society is his own family, his dogs and his gun. We have frequently seen fine fields of wheat and corn in open prairie, without any kind of fence or enclosure. It seems that the inhabitants often prefer sowing their grain and planting their corn at the distance of two or three miles from the timbered land, where domestic animals never range and where of course fences or walls are entirely unnecessary.