Chester Loomis’ “Journey on Horseback through the Great West in 1825”
Transcribed and introduced by Paul Stroble
Here is the fourth 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.
Recently I drove across Ohio on I-70 and smiled as I recognized landmarks that Loomis discussed in chapter three, especially the Mad River and the Sciota River. In chapter four, Loomis provides us observations of central and southern Illinois. He describes the Vermillion river area, including the salt works. He obtains another horse. He comments on the heat, flies, and unhealthiness of certain areas and observes that during unhealthy seasons people are sickly and gaunt: “The blooming, buxom, animated, and animating appearance of the ladies, so common in the eastern states, is not seen here.” He lodges with a destitute Irishman and his family. He also praises the fertility and beauty of the countryside. He does not think much of my hometown, Vandalia, at that time the state capital; he doesn’t like the buildings and location and is pessimistic about its importance. Nor does he have a favorable impression of the previous capital, Kaskaskia. He is, however, impressed with the Mississippi River and its seasons of flooding.
In the next post, I’ll conclude this transcription with Loomis’ short chapters five and six, wherein he visits Missouri, describes the lives of southern-born settlers, meets more Indians, returns home to New York state, and reflects upon his three month odyssey.
Coal and salt–Game and snakes–Why the Indians Abandoned the Wabash–His Horse Gives Out
On the 27th, of June I visited the salt manufactory of the Vermillion river. These works are situated about twelve miles west of the Wabash, and eighteen miles from the mouth of the Vermilion. The manufactory is yet conducted on a small scale; perhaps yielding 100 bushes per week. There is but one arch, of 20 kettles,–and the water is obtained from wells of 15 or 20 feet dept. Its saltness, I should judge from taste, to be about the same as sea water. This water is found immediately below a layer of copperas stone and stone coal, and is said to be obtained by digging for 20 miles along the banks of the river. An enterprising individual by the name of Whitcomb, formerly of Phelps, in Ontario county, N. Y., has for some time been engaged in boring for water of greater strength than is now obtained from the wells. He informed me that he had penetrated about 400 feet in rock; that he has found that the water at that depth is much stronger than near the surface. He is still engaged in boring, and has great confidence that he shall soon find water in great quantity and value. Several large wells and reservoirs have recently been sunk at a hundred rods distance from the present works. In digging them, they found the same strata of coal about ten feet below the surface, as at the old works. In fact coal abounds in this region. It is found in the banks of rivers, and even in the immense prairies, I have noticed it. This will furnish the country with fuel when the small portion of timber which grows in this state, shall fail.
The Vermillion river is a beautiful stream of clear water. It takes its rise in the “Grand Prairie,” and running a south-easterly course for 40 or 50 miles, falls into the Wabash. This stream is boatable to the salt works. Above the Saline it divides in three parts, and has some fine mill seats. Fish in great numbers are every where swimming in its waters. Some of them of 15 or 20 pounds weight. Along the banks of the Vermillion in many places, I saw ledges of excellent stone for building and other purposes, and banks of copperas stone, inexhaustible in quantity.
There are few inhabitants in this quarter. Many townships have not as yet a single family. The country for a great extent, seems to be new. Game is abundant. The forests are filled with deer, and the prairies with turkeys and prairie-hens; prairie wolves and opossums are numerous. Of reptiles, they have rattle-snakes, of two kinds, large and small; black snakes, copper heads, and the glass snake. The latter is a curiosity. Upon striking a slight blow with a small stick it will generally break into pieces.
The timbered lands here border the streams and water courses. Every creek is lined with valuable timber from half a mile to two miles in width, and generally extending from its mouth to its source. An astonishing growth of vegetation is also every where prevalent, except in the dry prairies, where the wild grass holds the ascendancy. This wild grass in the dry prairie grows thick at the bottom, but not more than two feet high; but in the wet prairies the grass and weeds grow to the height of seven or eight feet, and so thick and close as to impede the progress of a horse, and thus rendering traveling slow and disagreeable. I have observed that on the western edges or borders of all the large prairies a thick growth of young timber is springing up, whereas on the eastern borders no underbrush is found within many rods of the open lands. This is undoubtedly caused by fire divisions by those westerly winds which prevail in October and November, when these immense plains are annually burnt over. The heat and fury of the flames driven by a westerly wind far into the timbered lands on the opposite sides destroying the under-growth of timber, and every year increasing the extent of prairie in that direction, has no doubt, for many centuries added to the quantity of open land found throughout this part of America.
June 28th, I spent this day in exploring and examining the country near the Vermillion. Prairies of unknown extent spread to the west. The plains, with or without timber, are alike in the surprising richness and fertility of their soils. The few inhabitants in this quarter who have fields of wheat are now harvesting. Their crops are as good in quantity and quality as crops in New York. Flax and oats grow here equal to any produced in any eastern state; corn is almost spontaneous, and cotton indigo, and sweet potatoes, are cultivated. The extensive prairies here, covered with blossoms a great part of the year are peculiarly favorable for bees, and as might be expected, the timbered lands are filled with them. Wild honey is of course abundant, and every inhabitant easily obtains a supply.
The Indians were numerous on the Wabash, until recently,–but it seems they have abandoned their country on the approach of the whites. It is said that a singular circumstance hastened them away. A trader employed a steamboat to ascend the Wabash with merchandize. Several hundred Indians, having heard that a huge vessel which emitted fire and smoke, was ascending the river, and stemming its strong current without either oars or sails, collected at their lower towns to witness the phenomenon. Upon its approach these sons of the forest watched its motion with fearful admiration. The boat was about to anchor, and accordingly, the steam was let off. The loud hissing noise thus produced, alarmed the natives. They instantly took to their heels, and fled in consternation and dismay; hundreds of them pressing tremulously up the river to escape from the horrible steam engine; and it is affirmed that they never recovered from the panic thus created, until they abandoned the country.
June 29th, My horse having failed, I was obligated to leave him at the Vermillion, at which place I hired another to perform the remaining part of my journey west. During this day I rode southwardly in the Grand Prairie upwards of thirty miles. The heat was excessive, and prairie flies assailed my horse as if they would destroy him. These flies are not found in timbered lands, and I found it necessary to avoid the open country as much as possible. In the course of the day one or two cabins were seen and I passed a few cultivated fields of corn and wheat without any kind of fence or enclosure. Near the borders of the timbered lands, immense numbers of wild turkeys, deer, &c. were feeding.
June 30th. I continued a southerly course, and passed through Paris and Darwin to York, on the Wabash. These are here called villages. They are county seats, and contain from five to ten log cabins, each. In the afternoon I reached Allison’s prairie,–a tract 10 or 12 miles long and three wide. It is well settled–the corn fields are fenced. The soil is a deep black sand, of inexhaustible fertility, and there is a greater growth of corn than I have ever seen hitherto. I measured many stalks more than 16 feet in height. The face of the country is delightful; but the inhabitants generally agree that all the sand prairies are unhealthy. These prairies are too level. No undulations or swells, but a perfect level for an immense extent, like the smooth surface of the ocean. No rapid streams or currents of clear water, but a few dead muddy brooks or creeks. The finest fields of corn, wheat, cotton, sweet potatoes, &c, are found here. Wheat is generally harvested, here for this season.
July 1st, I rode to Union Prairie. At this place are some grist mills constructed with inclined wheels and carried by the weight of oxen An object of curiosity which attracted my notice is found here. It is a plough used in ditching the flat lands in this quarter, and from an accurate measurement which I have taken I found its dimensions as follows,
Length of beam . . . . . . . . . . . 12 feet
do “ chip . . . . . . . . . . . 4 “ 8 in
do “ handles . . . . . . . . . . . 10 “
Size of the beam . . . . . . . . . . . 8 by 6
do “ chip . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 by 8
do “ handles . . . . . . . . . . . 4 by 4
Height f’m bottom chip to top beam 2 feet 8
Plow has 2 turf cutters 22 inches apart w’g 60 lbs.
Plowshare (say) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110 “
Bolt and other irons . . . . . . . . . . . . 80 “
Pounds of iron 250
Its usual furrow is 22 inches wide and 18 inches deep. Twelve yoke of oxen usually draw this plow and two men hold it. This is truly a mammoth plow.
July 2nd, I continued a southerly course–passed through Palestine, and towards evening, reached the Embarrass river, at the Shaker Mills (here called the Ambraw river.) This stream was too deep to ford with safety, and with much difficulty I hired a man to lash two canoes together and ferry me across. After passing the river, I again entered a flat and open country, and followed obscure traces in a south-western direction until dark without finding a house. At this time I was attempting to cross a low marshy plain, which for ten miles in length and two in width was covered with water from six inches to two feet deep, and grass six feet in height. I soon last the trace or path, in which I entered this marsh, but continued to urge my horse forward for two or three hours without the least appearance of finding dry land, and apprehending that I had lost the true course, as the evening was clouded. I at length gave up the hope of extricating myself from my unpleasant situation before morning. I halted, but it was impossible to dismount without sinking knee-deep in water, and drawing my great-coat around me, I endeavored to protect myself from the cold and damp chills of night and the noxious exhalations of the morass, with which I was surrounded. After having remained an hour in this situation attentively listening to every sound, the distant barking of a dog was heard. No music which I have ever heard was so delightful or enlivening as the hoarse howl which resounded through these plains and which now sainted my ears. Instantly directing my course to the sound, I had the gratification to reach dry land within a mile and soon found the cabin of an Irish emigrant.
Upon approaching the cabin, several large dogs came furiously toward me, and one of them, in particular, was so daring, that I found it necessary to halt. The owner of the mansion was aroused, and after having silenced his dogs, very hospitably offered me such accommodations as he was able to give, and which I certainly felt grateful in receiving, under the circumstances in which I was then placed. On reaching his cabin, I found it to be the very abode of poverty itself. The cabin was built of small poles–about 12 feet square—so low that I was unable to stand erect; without any other floor than the earth–was covered with bark, instead of shingles, and entirely without a chimney or a widow of any kind. The door or entrance was closed by setting split plank on end on the inside. This establishment has sheltered a family during the last three years, consisting of the man, his wife and seven children. Within the house there is neither bed-stead, chair or table, a long bench serving for the latter.
The man of the house was a small, ill-shapen, withered Irishman; the woman a perfect gipsey [sic], tall, lank, and lantern jawed, with long-flowing black hair, and with a skin which seemed to have been smoked, until she had the hue of a tartar or a Creole. One of their children was sick at this time, and all of them were almost entirely destitute of clothes, altho’ some of them were girls of 10, 12 or 14 years of age. Having been without refreshment from morning, and feeling much exhausted and hungry, I inquired for something to eat–but their poverty in this particular, corresponded with their situation in other respects. They had neither bread, flour, meal, meat, butter, nor cheese,—and were only able to furnish me a cup of sour milk, of which I partook, and lay down upon an old mat spread upon the ground in front of the fire, but it was impossible to sleep–fleas innumerable, kept me in torment until daylight, when I again mounted my horse and pursued my journey after paying “mine host” a half dollar for his accommodation.
July 3rd, during the day of the 3rd, I rode about 40 miles towards Vandalia, sometimes pursuing the obscure paths made by Indian travel, and sometimes, directing my course without regarding any former tract, through an open and perfectly level country. A few habitations only seen excepting on the banks of the Little Wabash, which I this day passed.
On the 4th day of July I pursued my journey at a very early hour, and before 8 o’clock a.m., was compelled to stop and shelter my horse from the prairie flies, with which he was assailed in such numbers that two hours longer of exposure, would inevitably have destroyed him. It was near the center of an immense prairie at the habitation of a Yankee, who four years since, accompanied by his wife, also from the land of “steady habits,” selected this spot where an “island” of beautiful timber containing a few acres, was the only obstruction to a view of at least 12 miles of open country on all sides. His nearest neighbors are 12 miles distant–and from the nature of the surrounding lands it will be long before any person will locate their habitations nearer. This circumstance, determined him as he informed me, to select this spot as his residence. He is now in possession of the whole range, undisturbed by friends or foes. He has accumulated a stock of 50 horses, 200 head of cattle, 100 hogs and 100 sheep, and has about 300 hives of bees. He has one inconvenience however to meet, of a serious nature, and that is the want of good water. Water is found at all times in some sink holes near by, but it is unfit for use. This man is now engaged in digging a well. At six feet he struck a soft sandstone, and has penetrated 47 feet in it without the slightest indications of finding water.
At this place I spent the anniversary of our independence, dependent on myself for shelter and shade, from the intense rays of the sun during the day. At sunset I again pursued a westerly direction until a late hour at night I reached the border of this immense prairie, and found inhabitants, where I halted, having rode in the night about 15 miles. At an early hour I pursued my way on the 5th, and arrived at Vandalia before noon. The road for three miles east of Vandalia is at this time impassable with wagons, and nearly so on horseback. It is a perfect marsh or swamp, of soft clay, extremely tenacious, into which a horse will sink at every step to his knees, and for the whole distance covered with water to the depth of six or eight inches.
July 5th, Vandalia is the present seat of government of the state of Illinois. It is situated in Fayette county, upon the western bank of the Kaskaskia river, and in population and elegance of its buildings is inheritor to the villages of Bethel or Rushville, in New York. The surrounding country is much of it hard and sterile, covered with stunted oaks and apparently unproductive. In my opinion its location was injudicious and consequently, I think that it can never be a place of much importance.
July 6th, I directed my course southerly, and during the day was excessively annoyed by the prairie flies. The country through which I passed is principally prairie, but many inhabitants are settled upon the borders. I have within a few days noticed several instances of a most singular method invented for the purpose of protecting horses and oxen while at work upon the plains, from the swarms of flies which assail them. A tin kettle which may hold 16 or 18 quarters, is suspended form the neck of the beast, and a smoke constantly kept up by burning cobs in the kettle. Here also I saw a bull harnessed with the common Dutch collar–bits in his mouth, and a single line to guide him. Thus harnessed, his owner was plowing out his corn regardless of heat or flies.
July 7th, The last 150 miles of my journey has been through a tract of country which is certainly unhealthy, and the sickly season has already commenced. A pale, sallow, cadaverous countenance is almost universal, among the inhabitants. The blooming, buxom, animated, and animating appearance of the ladies, so common in the eastern states, is not seen here. A ghastly yellow complexion and enervated frame indicate the insalubrity of the climate. The rivers here are at this time without any perceptible current. Their waters of a muddy color, and the noxious exhalations which arise during the heats of summer, from them, overspread the country, rendering the atmosphere poisonous and impure.
On approaching within a few miles of Kaskaskia, I find the country becoming more broken and sterile. Some limestone ledges are here observable and many sink holes are scatted over the plains. Into one of these I descended. It was probably of more than 100 feet dept. About ten feet from its lowest point a small stream of clear cold water rushes in, but disappears among the crevices of the limestone rock at bottom. This sink hole is exactly circular and at its top may be six rods in diameter, terminated in a point at bottom. I this day reached Kaskaskia, crossing the river at a ferry directly east of town. This is an ancient French settlement. It is situated on the western margin of the Kaskaskia river, five miles above its mouth–and two and a half miles east of the Mississippi. Its site is level and low. At this time the waters of the river are nearly of the same elevation. The buildings here are with few exceptions, old and decaying. In population I should think that it might equal Geneva, in New York state. It seems to have little business, enterprise or industry. Here is to be seen every color known among the human species, and I am assured that black, white, and all the intermediate grades inter-marry. The lower classes exhibit the most conclusive evidences of wretchedness. Even in the village there are inhabited dwellings constructed by driving four posts into the earth–boarding up the sides, and making a roof of boards and slabs; the inmates are half-clad and filthy:
Black spirits and white
Blue spirits and gray,
Mingle, mingle, mingle,
They that mingle, may.
There is however a class of the population who will hold a respectable rank in community. The established inhabitants, whose property is such as to enable them to acquire a good education, and to live in good style, are generally such.
July 8th, I this day crossed the mystic “Mother of Waters,” and entered the state of Missouri. The river Mississippi is a stream of wonderful magnitude. At this time it runs with a powerful current for a mile or more in width, filling its banks, and in many places overspreading the bottoms, and inundating immense tracts of country. Many of the corn plantations, in this vicinity are now under water and the river is still rising. The rise at this time is caused by the “Missouri Fresh,” which it seems has just reached this latitude. There is one circumstance relative to the Mississippi, which I do not remember to have seen noticed, by any writer, and which shows the astonishing magnitude of this stream, and the prodigious extent of country from which its waters flow. Below the mouth of the Ohio, there are three distant annual floods. First the Ohio Fresh pours down its waters in the month of May, and it principally subsides about the first of June. Soon after the first of June the floods of the Mississippi proper, swell the current of the stream, which again falls–before the “Missouri Fresh” from the Rocky Mountains reaches this latitude, which is usually in July. The Missouri flood pours down with much greater volume and velocity than those of the Ohio, or the Mississippi. At this time the plantations below Kaskaskia, and upon the banks of the river are inundated; and it is perfectly apparent that with the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri floods united at the same time, the river would be swelled to a magnitude which would overflow the surrounding country from hill to hill, and sweep the beautiful plantations on its banks to ruin.