Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

When we lived in Akron, OH, we lived along a small lake. I love our present location and yard, but our yard in Akron was so peaceful, and during the nine years we lived there, the changing seasons were so pleasant! Canada geese, which were year-round residents, flew over the trees and land upon the lake with a soft, gliding splash. Blue herons, gulls, and ducks were common on the lake, too, and once I spotted a bald eagle in a tree above the water. We saw deer occasionally, and our daughter, looking at the window, saw a coyote stroll through the yard near the lake. I had a feeling the coyote would rather not live in the suburbs.

In the warm seasons when frogs began to croak along the lake. We also noticed killdeer, those pretty birds that make their nests in inappropriate, vulnerable places. At a country church I once served, a killdeer laid its eggs in the gravel parking lot—then, of course, it fussed and ran each time a car pulled into the lot. A thoughtful church member made a sign and put it beside the next so people would take care not to drive into the nest. Killdeers always remind me of that.

Between our back yard and the lake, an area of brush and wild flowers grew. My daughter once identified some of those flowers for a school project: yellow wood sorrel, spotted touch-me-not, elecampane, sweet goldenrod, and others. We left that vegetation alone, except for a path that I kept mowed so that we could walk to the lake. Beside the path, I planted a small U.S. 66 sign. An oak, cottonwood, and willow tree stood at the edge of the yard. In the autumn a few good windy days carried the leaves into the brush so I didn’t have to spend much time raking.

The wild flowers and bushes disappeared in winter; I saw neighbor kids tramping through there in the snow or crossing on their skis. But in springtime the flowers and rushes returned, and by early summer that section of our property became impenetrable except for my little mowed path. The vegetation grew so thick that it was difficult to cast a fishing line properly; my daughter, her friend, and I tried but couldn’t avoid tangling our lines. During our many backyard play times, Emily and I also lost many a golf ball in the brush. We also kicked beach balls around the yard and put up the badminton net several times.

All of us look back on our lives and think how fast time goes. We tend to picture time as linear, one day or month or year after another, in sequence until we come to end of our personal time, whenever it may be. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Ps. 90:12). Of course, the Bible contains many images of warning–the prophesied Day of the Lord, the commands of Jesus that we be watchful and ready, the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament. These teach of time as a line along which we move.

The Bible also presents a cyclical idea of time, though not as strong as the linear view. Think of the well known passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (which I first learned via the Pete Seeger song): there is a time for everything, a season for planting and harvesting—but the word “season” implies that certain times go away and then return. We experience seasons, both the four seasons and the metaphoric seasons of life. We experience cycles and in small things and large: we return to a place we left, we rediscover music (or other interests) that we once loved, we realize that certain difficult experiences made us stronger for later challenges; we’re given second chances we never expected. We’ve also all have had the never-pleasant experience of old wounds reopened.

The Bible also speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, God is always faithful. With its recurrences of sin, punishment, redemption, and return, the book of Judges is as much a spiral as a line of history. I freely admit that my Bible study over the years has been closely connected to my own spiritual ups and downs, and sometimes (though not always) the “downs” were occasions when I sought its promises more conscientiously.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! God cares for us and guides us across our short years; God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on our relationship with him. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite lost. But even the “lost” times may simply be seasons across which God provides…..

…..But I don’t want to continue to write so wistfully. Today is a pretty spring day. I’m leafing through my old Bible in search of spring-y texts.

The Garden of Eden is an obvious text, not of spring per se but of newness and of nature’s purity. If I gardened more, I’d probably think I was, in a very small way, recreating a sample of lost, natural paradise. 

Of course, the Passover stories of Exodus are spring stories: at this time of year, observant Jews clean their homes for all traces of hametz, leavened bread, in preparation for the Pesach remembrance of God’s salvation of the Israelites from Egypt.

Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year (Ex. 13:3-10).

Here’s a springtime verse from “sexy” Song of Songs.

The flowers appear on the earth;
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
   is heard in our land

Here  are Jesus’ words, which make me think of spring because we like to see birds on outside like robins, sparrows, cardinals, doves, finches, and titmice.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Fear not; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

The teaching would lose something if it mentioned starlings or blue jays, species that many people find annoying. Sparrows, in their smallness, seem more illustrative of God’s tender care. Blue jays seem like practical atheists, able to fussily take care of themselves.

The ability to go outside barefoot is a wonderful gift of spring.  Here’s a prophet’s warning:

Keep your feet from going unshod
   and your throat from thirst
(Jer. 2:25a)

In context, the verse means, sarcastically, don’t wear out your shoes and parch your throat in your effort to pursue false idols. But (I lightheartedly think) aren’t Bible people usually depicted as barefoot? It must be okay as long as we’re not pursuing idols!

It’s been a rainy spring. Rain makes me think of this passage, which is tragic and concerned but also with a comic edge. 

Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).

“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”

The death and resurrection stories are beautiful springtime stories: the new life of the season and the spiritual new life offered by Jesus.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened (Luke 24:1-12).

I can never read those stories without also feeling some of the happiness of the warmth and renewal of nature, and of springtime during little-kid days, both my own and my daughter’s. Stories of Jesus, rendered in bright colors in children’s Sunday school materials, coincided uncritically with chocolate Easter treats and the Easter egg hunts. When I was little, each spring a most excellent egg hunt occurred up the street from our house, at the shady and pleasant Rogier Park. Back at my childhood home (amid the scattered bricks in the backyard left over from the house’s construction, and near the television antenna) daffodils appeared reliably around Easter time.

Daffodils—and flowering plants generally—invite speculation in springtime. Will they survive the cold snaps that inevitably follow pretty days in March? Locally, people have been regretting that the March days in the 70s and lower 80s encouraged flowers to bloom, but then we had freezing days and a five-inch snow! How can flowers survive such capricious weather? Daffodils seem a parable for Jesus. When he died, people speculated pessimistically about him, too; how would his teachings and legacy survive his death, wondered his followers? Jesus in springtime still had some surprises.

Read Full Post »

Chester Loomis’ “Journey on Horseback through the Great West in 1825”
Transcribed by Paul Stroble

Here are the fifth and sixth of the 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 5, Loomis continues his descriptions of the countryside. We should remember that in 1825, Missouri had been a state for only four years, Illinois for less than seven years, and Indiana nine years. Loomis first describes Ste. Genevieve, MO and then begins his return trip. He describes the southern-born settlers, comments on their meager diet, and is astonished by a meteor which he finds near the Vermillion saline. He visits the site of the battle of Tippecanoe, as well as other Indiana locations. Once he lost his way, then calls the Indians “stupid” when he needs them for food, water, and directions. He is awakened in the forest when his horse becomes frightened, but he does not know what is approaching. Later in his trip, Loomis visits Delaware County, Ohio (unknown to him, future president Rutherford B. Hayes was a three-year-old boy there) and he describes the planning and sad demise of the village of Clarendon, Ohio. Finally he passes through several important communities, including Cleveland, and at last he arrives at his home on August 24th, “after having traversed an immense extent of country and endured many hardships and privations within a period of about three months.” From his account, we obtain a interesting picture of the lives and hardships of American people 185 years ago.

In the short final chapter, Loomis speculates on the geological background of the countryside he visited.


Chapter V


Its Inhabitants–Grape Vines –1200 Miles from Home–The Start Back–A Fallen Metor [sic]

St. Genevive [sic], upon the western bank of the Mississippi, is an old settlement very similar in appearance to Kaskaskia. Its population is less than that village, but very similar in character. Black, white, and all the intermediate grades promiscuously connected.

July 9th, I spent this way in viewing the country and ranged several miles from the river towards the lead mines, but without observing any thing unusual except the immense growth of grave vines, which among some parts of the timbered lands load every tree and connect whole forests. The principal part of the inhabitants here are a miserable race. Every man of property owns slaves, and nearly all the labor done is by them. Nothing like enterprise or industry is observable here. The same inexhaustible fertility of soil as in Illinois prevails, and the same unhealthy atmosphere produces sickness and disease, which now exists throughout this country.

July 10th. My course is no longer westerly. I this day commence my return, and recross the river. At a distance of more than 1200 miles from home, in a sickly country, among strangers, and in the most sultry season of the year, the apprehensions of sickness or disaster force upon the mind the most unpleasant sensations. But with good health and good resolution I trust I shall be able to meet the hardships and inconveniences which are unavoidable.

From the 10th to the 15th, I pursued a north-westerly [north-easterly?] course, through a rich open country, in which is a few scattered habitations. Here are no beaten roads. The only paths are the ancient traces of the Indians. In traversing this tract of country I have been exceedingly annoyed by prairie flies; have suffered much from heat, and the want of water. The few inhabitants generally use what is called “Branch Water” in the language of the country; that is water obtained from the brooks and creeks. This might be tolerable if the brooks contained running water; but such is rarely the case at this season; most of them have ceased to run, and water is obtained from the deepest holes, where it stands stagnant, and filled with every thing noxious and offensive.

In the section of country which I have traversed within the last five days the few inhabitants residing are almost without exception Southern emigrants. Many peculiarities are observable among them. Their plantations are generally located on the edge of the prairies. They commonly enclose a field of corn of from ten to thirty acres and which is the only enclosure they have. Their cabins are miserable log buildings, placed in open commons, generally from 50 to 100 rods distant from their cornfields. Every man owns an excellent rifle, and has from three to five dogs. Appurtenant to every house is a log smoke house, in which all their meat is smoked,–a hovel or stable to shelter their horses from the flies, and two or three corn cribs which will hold from 500 to 1000 bushels each. Their bread is made of corn meal in a manner very similar to the New England “Jonny cake.” The small loaves thus baked, they denominate “dodgers.” These they eat with butter and honey; usually a tin pint cup filled with sour, curdled, milk, is placed before each one at table, and dodgers, fried smoke pork, sour milk, butter and honey, commonly constitutes their meal at morning, noon, and night. The emigrants from different states have each their local designation. Thus the Virginians are called “Tuckehoes,” the North Carolinians, “Buckskins,” the South Carolinians, “Brown Backs,” and the New Englanders, “New Yorkers,” Jerseymen and Pennsylvanians are all “Yankees.”

On the 16th, I reached the Vermillion Saline,” in the vicinity of which I remained until the 22nd, inst. While making an excursion eastwardly from the Saline on the 18th, at the distance of two or three miles from the works, and in an extensive plain, I discovered a more singular and remarkable curiosity. Upon the surface of the ground is a body of stone, clay, iron pyrites, and melted sand, or glass, with some other substances–equal in bulk to a common cock of hay,–and weighing probably more than 1500 pounds. The whole mass has evidently been subjected to the action of fire. It is not solid, but is loose, spongy, and porous, and exhibit’s the appearance of various substances having been exposed to an intense heat, and when in a state of partial fusion, promiscuously thrown together, half-melted—and in that state having hardened by cooking, so firmly as to have adhered in one mass when it fell or was thrown to this place; for it is perfectly evident that it must have been thrown or have fallen here;–and yet there are no hills or elevated land within many miles from which it can have fallen or have been thrown by the force or volcanic fires; nor is there any evidence of any extraordinary fire every having existed here. Notwithstanding its weight and bulk, it was but slightly embedded in the earth, and I succeeded in rolling it from its bed. Grass, leaves, and decayed vegetables were under it. There is not probably within two miles any coal, iron ore, clay, or even a pebble stone of the smallest size. How then came this body here? After the most careful examination which I have been able to make, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of those meteoric stones, which sometimes fall to the earth, and that this must have fallen within two or three years past.

On the 22nd of July, I traveled a north eastwardly course, and near night reached the Wabash river, and on the 23rd and 24th, continued to ascend in left bank, until I arrived at Tippecanoe, famous for the bloody battle fought here in 1811, between the American Army, commanded by General Harrison, and the combined Indian tribes who then inhabited this quarter. The country here is mostly open; prairies of great extent spread from the Wabash–glades of beautiful timber are occasionally interspersed,–and it was upon one of the most pleasant and delightful spots which I have ever seen, that this sanguinary conflict took place. Between the Wabash and Tippecanoe, about a mile from the entrance of the latter stream into the former the strife of battle raged, and the exulting war-hoop of the savage warrior resounded. But it is now the silent and peaceful; the savage has disappeared, and civilized man has not yet established himself in his place.

On the night of the 23rd, I rested in an extensive prairie, without fire or any kind of shelter. The country is uninhabited except occasionally a squatter upon the banks of the Wabash.

On the 24th, I entered the state of Indiana. I find it necessary to bear to the south for the purpose of finding inhabitants, and I have determined to direct my course for Crawfordsville Prairies are no longer seen—a dense forest overspreads the country.

July 26th, I this day reached Crawfordsville about noon. It is a small village of log houses,–and the inhabitants seem to be industrious. The place is quite new,–and probably not more than 50 acres is yet cleared of timber.

In the afternoon of July 26th, I went on toward Thorntown, and at night struck up a fire and lodged in the wilderness, and near the banks of Sugar Creek. In the night I saw a brilliant light, resembling a flambeau. It seemed to approach slowly by following the winding course of the creek. For a few moments I was much startled, but I soon perceived that it was in reality a flambeau carried by an Indian, who was wading down the creek on a night hunt. I had previously been informed that at this season of the year the hunters follow the creeks of float down them in canoes–and shoot the deer which are in the habit of standing in the waters at night. The Indian passed on and was soon out of view. At an early hour on the 27th, I went on and arrived at Thorntown in the forenoon. Here I lost the trace, and for some hours was in great perplexity. The Indians of this settlement were all absent, and from the squaws, who remained, it was impossible to obtain the least information. They furnished me however, with some corn for my horse and some victuals for myself, and upon my offering them money and making signs of wanting refreshment. After an ineffectual search of more than three hours for the trace or path which leads form this place to the head of White river, I gave up the attempt, and returned to the lodge–and endeavored once more to make the stupid wretches understand my wishes. I succeeded at length in hiring them to point out the place where the path enters the forest–and pressing forward with diligence until evening I encamped probably 18 or 20 miles east of Thorntown. Having built a fire, I tied my horse to a sapling near, wrapped myself in my coat, and lay down. About midnight I was aroused by the jumping and snorting of my horse. He seemed to have his eye upon something in a northern direction, and was extremely frightened. The night was very dark; upon listening I could distinctly hear the foot steps of something as well as the rustling of bushes in that direction, apparently fifteen or twenty rods distant,–and I was soon convinced that it was approaching. I had ever cherished a confidence in my own personal courage, and that I could meet any necessary danger with fortitude and resolution; but now they were put to the test; and I must admit that I was here excessively disconcerted and alarmed. My first impressions were that I had been followed by Indians, and plunder was their object. I hastily primed my pistols anew, and advanced a few paces into the shade of the thicket and listened. The occasional crackling of brush was still heard, and was still approaching; its approach was slow, but it was now evidently within ten rods of my fire, which was burning brightly, giving light nearly that distance into the forest on all sides. At this moment I hallooed loudly, at the same time discharging one of my pistols; a wild animal of some kind gave a sniff or snort, and bounded off in an eastern direction, and I presume was heard distinctly for more than forty rods, and my horse in his fright broke his halter, but was caught without difficulty, and the remainder of the night was spent without sleep.

July 28th. At daylight I went onward, and near night found inhabitants on the banks of the White river. During the last two days I have suffered extremely from thirst–not having seen a drop of water in traveling fifty miles, excepting in two places where trees were turned out by the roots in clay, grounds and rain water had settled in. Had I anticipated so much trouble as I have encountered for the last seventy miles in the wilderness, I should have preferred a circuit of 200 miles to avoid it.

August 1st. From the 28th of July to the first of August nothing important occurred. On the 30th of July I entered Ohio–passed through Piqua, and on the 31st, Urbana. These are flourishing villages,–superior to any I have seen in this state except Zanesville and Columbus. A heavy rain set in and continued through the day. The roads were rendered miry, and the swamps filled with water–and as the country is new and principally unsettled, the traveling is tedious and fatiguing. From Urbana my route was easterly through Milford and Delaware,–thence north through Norton, Clarendon, Bucyrus, New Haven, Monroeville to Portland or Sandusky City, on the lake.

Aug. 2nd. Delaware is a beautiful and flourishing village, and is the capital of the county of the same name. Clarendon is situated on Whetstone Creek, and is near the summit level, or dividing ridge which separates the waters which flow into the lake from those which fall into the Ohio in this state. The history of this village is a melancholy evidence of the instability and unhealthiness of this country.

Aug. 4th. About four years since a village was projected on Whetstone Creek, and called Clarendon. Its site was pleasant and beautiful, on the borders of the immense plains which extend form east to west nearly through the state of Ohio. On one side a heavy forest of fine timber; on another, open plains level as far as the eye can reach–with occasional groves of timber interspersed–and upon another, a small but clear and durable stream of water—this village was located. Great expectations were had and great efforts were made by the proprietors, and during one or two seasons much labor was done and money expended. About 30 or 40 families had settled here in high hope and expectation of wealth, but the hand of Providence has fallen heavily upon them. Sickness assailed them; disease in its more fatal forms, swept off its population. The houses were depopulated and those who survived disease, fled from the fatal spot. At this time the melancholy spectacle is exhibited of a village beautifully situated; laid out with taste–and embellished with art, but no longer the abode of man; a solitary family remain, and from their pale and haggard countenances, I should judge that the hand of death was already raised to strike its last victim here. The site of this village will soon be lost in the rising growth of the forest; and such I am afraid is the history of many of the projected villages in this section of country.

Aug. 6th. From Clarendon my course was northerly across the plains to Bucyrus. The soil of these plains is clay. Glades country is level–”Sag Holes” abound, in which the waters settle and gradually dry away in the heats of summer, rending the atmosphere impure with the mot anxious and unwholesome exhalations.

From the 6th, to the 15th, of August, I progressed on my journey, generally traveling the ridge road. Portland on the lake is a flourishing place. Monroeville, Norwalk, Illyria [Elyria], &c., are new but thriving villages. On the morning of August 10th, a tremendous thunder shower hung over the lake for several hours The streams of lightening were frequent and uncommonly vivid–and the peals of thunder were unusually heavy and appalling. The sound of thunder is undoubtedly greater over large bodies of water than when passing over land; and at this time the view was grand and sublime. A vessel under sail was on the lake, distant a few miles from shore. It seemed to pass under the black masses of clouds which hung over the western part of the horizon and suddenly was lost to the view. Cleveland is a fine village–is rapidly growing into importance, as is also Erie, in Pennsylvania. The enterprise and industry of the inhabitants is apparent in this quarter.

On the 15th, of August I again entered the State of New York, and on the 18th, reached Buffalo; remaining at this place two days, I again pursued my journey via Lockport and Batavia, and arrived home on the 24th, of August, 1825, after having traversed and immense extent of country and endured many hardships and privations within a period of about three months.



Some conclusions formed from the observations on the trip.

In taking a retrospective view of the country which I have traversed during the trip just completed, the conviction cannot be resisted that it is distinguished by features of a striking and peculiar character. The inquisitive mind will involuntarily be led to indulge in speculations and conjectures, with respect to the causes which have produced those features and from which those peculiar characteristics may in the lapse of ages have arise.

Without pretending to go into a critical inquiry or examination of the subject, for which I am fully sensible that I am altogether incompetent and unequal, I nevertheless propose to give my impressions as formed from the most deliberate consideration which I have been enabled to bestow upon it; and in doing this I shall state the theory which I have embraced and the reasons which have led me to its adoption. The leading views only can be give. A volume would not be sufficient to contain a full and detailed view of every consideration attached to the subject proposed briefly for examination, I have adopted the following views, viz:

1st. That at some remote period, the whole tract of country extending in length from the Gulf of Mexico to the Icy Sea, and in width form the Allegany to the Rocky Mountains, was the bed of the ocean;

2nd. That the ocean when it receded, receded suddenly to its present boundaries;

3rd. That the waters of that immense chain of lakes, west of the Niagara River, once flowed through the valleys of the Illinois, and the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico;

4th. That by some tremendous convulsion of nature, the mountain ride separating Lakes Erie and Ontario, became broken and the current of the waters of the upper lakes was thereby reversed.

With regard to the first position, viz: That at some remote period the whole tract of country, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Icy Sea, and in width from the Allegany to the Rock Mountains, was the bed of this ocean: It may be observed:

That the whole face of country within these bounds is nearly level. Occasionally a small inequality of surface if found, and every elevation of ground or ride of fifty or a hundred feet in height, is composed of coarse gravel, smooth pebble stones, or marine shells, I think evidently deposited by long continued currents of water–while the intermediate country–between these elevations is entirely alluvial,–resembling precisely that kind of land found on the flats of rivers which annually overflow and deposit the sediment of their waters. Alternate layers of fine and course sand may be seen from the surface to the depth of several feet. The plains are entirely destitute of small stone. Sandstone, lime stone, and slate are sometimes found in the ridges and–the banks of rivers–and upon the prairies in the northern parts of Illinois and Missouri, scattered here and there an isolated rock of a peculiar kind is seen. It is said that a similar kind of stone is not found nearer than Iceland, Greenland, or the shores of the Icy Sea. Did these rocks come from those regions? It is known that immense ice bergs break off from the shores of those countries and frequently with large rocks imbedded in them–are floated by the currents of the ocean at the present period, to the latitude of 40 or 45 degrees on the Atlantic. The glaciers of the Norwegian Alps and the immense masses of ice which annually accumulate upon the summits of the mountains of Iceland and Greenland descend in frightful avalanches into the deep abyss of waters with which they are surrounded and carried by the currents which are known to exist into lower latitudes are gradually dissolved in a warmer atmosphere, scattering over the bed of the ocean, where the masses dissolve; and the rocks and stones thus borne from the mountains where they are formed. Such we know to be fact at the present period; and who will undertake to say that similar operations of the laws of nature did not take place in the earlier ages of the world.

With respect to the 2nd, position, viz., “That the ocean when it receded, receded suddenly to its present boundaries;” It is only necessary to observe that almost all the ridges and elevations of land between the Allegany and Rock Mountains run in a direction from North to South. These were formed I apprehend by the prevailing currents of the ocean. If the waters had gradually receded and at long intervals of time ridges and embankments running in a direction from East to West would undoubtedly have been formed by the action of the waves. Such not being found, the inference to my mind is conclusive that if the ocean ever overspread this part of the western continent, its waters suddenly receded to their present boundaries.

3rdly. “The waters of that immense chain of lakes west of the Niagara River, once flowed southerly through the valley of the Illinois and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.” Is this possible? The subject offers an interesting field of inquiry.

4thly, It has been an acknowledged observation of Geographers that rivers and streams which empty themselves into lakes, generally point in the direction they run toward the out-let of the lakes into which they respectively fall.


Read Full Post »

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.


Chapter IV

“Vermillion Saline.”

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.

Read Full Post »

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.


Chapter III


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.

Read Full Post »

Chester Loomis’ “Journey on Horseback through the Great West in 1825”
Transcribed and introduced by Paul Stroble

Here is chapter two 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.

Chapter two concerns Loomis’ first week in Ohio, where he finds assortments of timber, generally good soil quality, towns of varying industry, “low morals,” Indian relics, an under-construction Catholic church, and the wreckage left by a tornado. In the next chapter, Loomis visits Columbus, crosses Indiana, gets caught in a storm, meets Indians and white settlers, and reaches Edgar County, Illinois and the Vermillion River.


Chapter II

Ohio – Antient [sic] Mounds – Price of land – Zanesville – An Old Fort – An Aborignal [sic] Empire – A Cyclone.

On the 8th, of June I continued my journey from Franklin through the village of Mercer, in the county of Mercer, Pa., to Newcastle, on the Chenango river, and on the next day entered the state of Ohio, directing my course for the Big Beaver, which falls into the Ohio river below Pittsburgh. The country is moderately hilly, and is well watered; the timber principally oak, and a soil of light color, somewhat inclining to clay. Fine fields of grain are seen in this section, and more industry and enterprise is observable than I had seen after leaving the state of New York.

Near New Castle I observed several mounds, evidently artificial, but of very ancient formation. They are of a round, oval form–from two to three rods in diameter, and perhaps ten feet high.

These mounds are found near the center of extensive plains. They are composed of sand and a white colored kind of marble, bearing some resemblance to the organic remains of animals, particularly of bones in a state of decomposition.

The lands in the county of Columbina [sic], Ohio, are hilly and rolling. New Lisbon, its capital, has a population equal to that of Geneva, and is a place of some business. The hills in the neighborhood of the village are filled with stone, coal and iron ore is abundant. A furnace here makes good castings.

On the 10th inst. I reached Sandyhille, in Tuscarawas county. This place is situated on the Big Sandy River. Fifteen miles west of New Lisbon I left the hilly rolling country. Elevated plains extending many miles on a perfect level then succeed–and the face of the country generally is very different from any I had hitherto seen. The soil here is sandy, but certainly rich and productive. Price of unimproved land from $1.25, to $2.00, per acre.

Oak is the prevailing timber, but black walnut, maple and ash, are occasionally interspersed. This section of country has a scattered population. Little industry is observable. Some fine fields of corn are seen, and in many places the women are engaged in hoeing them.

New Philadelphia is the capital of Tuscarawas county, and has perhaps, 100 houses few of them elegant. It stands on a beautiful plan, near Tuscarawa river. Coal, limestone, iron ore, and freestone, are found near this place. This village, and indeed most of the villages in this state, exhibit but little enterprize [sic] or business. I have been particularly surprised in finding most of the adjacent lands unenclosed and remaining open commons. Here scarcely an enclosed field, or even garden is to be seen.

On the banks of the Big Sandy river I noticed several peech [sic] trees of most astonishing size nearly equal in magnitude to the largest oaks in Ontario county, New York.

On the 11th, I followed the course of the Big Sandy, repeatedly crossing it by fording as the water was low.

The general aspect of the country is pleasant. Its soil is rich and fertile. For the last 50 miles which I have traveled the country is level, and both the open plains and heavy timbered bottom lands, seem to be alluvial. The price of produce here is low; wheat 34 cents, corn 20 cents, and rye 20 cents per bushel. Immense quantities of unthreshed grain in stacks, are seen, and cash seems to be extremely scarce throughout this section of country.

From the 12th, to the 16th, of June I continued my journey through a fine country. The afternoon of the 12th, was spent at Zanesville, a large, rich and populous village on the east bank of the Muskingum river and directly opposite to the junction formed at the place of the Licking and Muskingum rivers.

Zanesville is a place of some business. It is a manufacturing town of considerable wealth. Some elegant and costly buildings, and a population of 6000 inhabitants.

About 70 or 80 run of mill stones are in operation here, and great quantities of flour are annually manufactured. Situated in the heart of one of the finest grain countries in the world, Zanesville has peculiar local advantages, and there is evidently more enterprise and industry among the inhabitants than at any other place nearer than Pittsburgh. Some coal and iron ore abound in the vicinity.

The state of morals is rather low. On Sunday numerous parties of gentlemen and ladies of the higher class of population were making excursions in the neighborhood, while the lower orders were collected in considerable numbers at the groceries and grog shops near the river.

A portion of the population of this place is Roman Catholic. At this time a large and splendid brick building is erecting for a chapel. Toward the expense of this “His Holiness, the Pope of Rome,” has contributed the sum of $20,000, thus showing that he is not unmindful of the interests of the “Holy Mother Church” even in the new, but growing countries of the west.

On the 13th, of June I passed through the villages of “Falls of Licking,” Irville, Neward and Granville, to Johnstown, in Licking county, Ohio The Licking river, up which I traveled most of the day, is a stream of clear water when compared with the other rivers of this country. It has most extensive black walnut bottoms, beautiful as to soil and situation.

Near Newark are the remains of numerous ancient works and fortifications. That of most remarkable form and mathematical regularity, which I saw is a mile from the village. Its form is that of a regular Octagon, all the sides being by actual measurement, exactly equal. The walls are more than three feet high. At one of the angles, was evidently the gate or opening, opposite in which, within, is the ruins of a raised work on each side and extending some rods within the form of a parallelogram–its walls higher and terminating within in two mounds which now have an elevation of ten feet and overlook the surrounding walls. These were once ports for sentinels, out of the reach of arrows from the outer walls. From the out angle or opening two parallel walls, ten rods apart, extend in a due north direction, about twenty or thirty rods to another ancient work of true circular form, with walls form three to five feet high. In the center of this circle is another mound of equal elevation with those already spoken of. Upon digging into one of these mounds I found first, great quantities of calcined bones, arrow heads of flint, a stone axe, pieces of broken earthen, resembling stoneware, coals, and ashes. I traced the walls of this circle and found but one gate or opening, and from the height at the embankments, this was evidently once a covered way for a considerable distance. It led to a fine spring of water. At regular distances along this covered way on which side were large and high platforms,–say six rods apart–unquestionably designed for defensive ports. Both the Octagon and circle contain, as I should judge, about an equal area–perhaps 20 acres each–now covered, even the walls with the greatest growth of forest trees,—black walnut, blue ash, maple and oak, which have evidently succeeded several former generations of timber, if the expression may be allowed, of equal magnitude and age. The Lucking river once flow ed near these works–its present channel is more than a mile distant.

Near Granville, in the center of an extensive plain or prairie, I saw a mound of true circular form of an elevation exceeding 20 feet. It is composed of a light colored marble, very different in color and appearance from the soil of the adjacent lands, which seem to be composed of a dark colored alluvial soil. This mound is undoubtedly an artificial work, but it cannot have been scooped up from the surrounding earth, as the contiguous land is entirely level to its base. Indeed through a great extent of country here, every mile exhibits evident traces of an immense ancient population. Who can say that this has not been the seat of some mighty empire? Who after seeing these wonderful memorials of former ages, will affirm that some mighty Greece or Rome of the Western world, has not flourished here? Who will declare that here the human mind did not, many thousands since burst the bands of barbarism and ignorance, and exert itself in the noblest efforts of genius or of patriotism?–in taming the ferocity of barbarism, in organizing society, and inventing and sustaining many valuable arts of civilized life–and probably many to which even the present generation of civilized men are strangers?

In the town of Hartford, I noticed a Beaver dam of greater size and strength than I have hitherto seen. It runs from bank to bank, across a small but I presume, durable stream, circular in its form, six rods in length, ten feet in width and three feet high, so constructed as to flow 50 or 60 acres. It is an ancient work, but the marsh or pond favored by it is said still to be the residence of beaver.

On the 14th of June, about six miles north of Johnstown I crossed the track or course of a tornado, which swept across this state in an easterly direction on the 18th ult. It seems to have passed with a more irrestible [sic] force than any wind I ever witnessed.

The vein or current at this place was probably more than w mile in width, prostrating in its course every thing with which it came in contact. Trees, houses, barns and fences we equally swept away. The thickest forests of this country appear to have formed an obstacle to its force. All was leveled, and I remarked, that the edges or outside lines of this tornado are well-defined and distinctly marked; every tree in the southern part of the course was prostrated to the north; every tree on its northern side was prostrated to the south, and in the center they seem to have been whirled in all directions but mostly to the east. Scarce a vestage [sic] of the village of Burlington, near this, can now be found—a village composed of about 40 hewed log buildings, all of which were razed to their foundations and their timbers promiscuously mingle with the prostrated trees of the surrounding forests. Several of the inhabitants were killed, and a general and total destruction of every species of prosperity within the course of the wind was experienced. This hurricane is said to have commended in the state of Indiana–to have swept across the state of Ohio, and to have spent itself among the mountains on the eastern side of the Allegany river, in the state of Pennsylvania–an extent of more than 400 miles.

On the 15th, of June I reached Bloomfield in the county of Knox. This is a new, and mostly an unsettled country here, but in point of fertility, is not surpassed by any part of this state of equal extent. The general face of the country is level. It is here, however, sufficiently rolling or undulating to give a brisk current to the streams. I[t i]s extremely well watered with durable springs of water. It has a deep rich and productive soil, slightly mixed with black sand, although it seems to be composed of vegetable decomposition, principally to the depth of two or three feet. A great proportion of the timber for many miles is black walnut, ash, maple, and oak. The woods are entangled with an immense growth of wild grape wine. The underbrush is principally paw-paw. Price of land here is from $1.25 to $2.00 per acre. This tract is about 20 or 30 miles distant from the route of the Ohio canal.

Read Full Post »

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

Chapter 1

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.

Read Full Post »

Whenever a relative writes me with a family history question [a more common occurrence during the early 1990s, when I wrote this essay, than now], I’ll go through my genealogical collection to find information or locate an item to copy or a photograph to reproduce. Today I’m looking at the material out of nostalgia.

Whenever I look through my family history material, my mind fills with peaceful images of “place”:  Four Mile Prairie, Route 185 as it crosses the prairie and curves into a grove of timber, the hills around Ramsey, IL (associated with the Carson and Washburn branches of the family), Vandalia, and Brownstown.  All these are locations in Fayette County, Illinois.  Genealogy, memory, and landscape sentimentally mix in my mind. 

My material—today strewn over the kitchen table—consists handwritten or typed manuscripts in folders, charts, photographs in albums, and an antique oatmeal container.  I really did a lot of genealogical research when I was just a teenager!   And I gained such a wonderful sense of family and local heritage.  A little later, when I worked at my local library during my college years, I always wanted to run from the genealogists who verbally depicted their family trees to anyone standing nearby. But I was the same. I could top their depictions. I could recount how my first ancestors settled Fayette County in November 1829. They were the Pilchers and the Gatewoods. Next came the Carsons about 1830, the Mahons in 1835, the Washburns and Browns separately in 1836, the Williamses about 1840, the Crawfords in the early 1850s, and finally the Strobels in the 1880s. I never meant to bore anyone; I aimed to show them how deeply go my ties to home. I wished nothing less for them.


I preserve my Pilcher keepsakes in a scrapbook with a copy of the family history. Most of Grandma’s Pilcher artifacts were lost in the fire, but I did have her handwritten copy of the family tree and a few pictures. The “tree” is the record of the descendents of Winslow and Averilla Pilcher. Grandma’s great-grandparents who came to the Four Mile area in 1829 along with Averilla’s parents, Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, and Averilla’s brother Thomas A. and his family. Blanche Harstad, Grandma’s first cousin, worked on the history during the 1930s and distributed carbon copies of the history in 1940. She begins: With all due apologies to anyone who might take offense to anything that 1 have compiled in these records. I started out to compile this Pilcher Family Tree for my own pleasure and interest. However it has turned out to be a good deal of work and most of my spare time was spent in making these copies this winter as I did want the secretary and one in each family of the first eighteen children to have a copy.

Blanche began with Winslow’s parents, about whom she knew little. Lewis Pilcher was born in England. He moved to Fairfax, Va., then to Frankfort, KY. Mary was from Wales. Lewis and Mary had eighteen children, twelve girls, six boys. One adopted boy, Robert Sage, fought in the Battle of Germantown. Mary Rogers Pilcher was the one who supposedly was George Rogers Clark’s aunt. General Clark would have been my first cousin seven times removed. It’s still a good story.

Blanche continues. Winslow came from Frankfort, KY. Their religion was called the Hardshelled Baptist. They were honest and respectable people. They had to endure many hardships. They settled on what is now known as Four Mile Prairie. They had to go with team and wagon to St. Louis nearly 90 miles. It would take nearly one week to go. Sometimes it would rain and water would come up so high they would have to wait until it ran down before they could get home. One time Great-grandmother (Averilla) took her seed beans down and was going to cook them for the hungry children when Great-grandfather came.

Averilla was a large woman. She was quick-tempered. She would often take her slipper off to spank her young offsprings.

One day two old buck Indians came to her home while Winslow was away, took down the shotgun which hung over the door. They grunted in their Indian fashion, hung the gun back, and walked away.

Averilla was a hard worker.

Among the several genealogical projects that I undertook during teenage, summer days, I set about finding all I could about the Pilchers. In my imagination they seemed a kind of Lincolnesque example of stalwart pioneers who “broke the prairie,” the kind of everyday people who helped found Vandalia. According to family lore the Pilchers hoped to travel farther north but the Vincennes Road was so muddy they resolved to stay where their wagons were mired. Four Mile is not mentioned among the named prairies in Fred Gerhart’s Illinois As It Is (1857) nor in local sources until later. Instead local sources call it “Wakefield Prairie,” after the first white settler who’d settled there in 1824, and also “Cumberland Township,” a reference to the nearest post office three miles north on the National, or Cumberland Road. The entire township was finally given the name Otego, after the New York location from which some settlers came. Several pioneer families began moving to the vicinity during the later 1820s and the 1830s; the county history names the several men who came to the township at that time, including other maternal ancestors of mine. Wives and children aren’t listed. As for the Pilchers, their “Hardshell Baptist” convictions apparently were fervent, for by 1830, according to the county history, the first church of the township was organized—in the Pilchers new home.

The family was an extended one. The adult children and their own offspring lived around the Four Mile area. According to the census records Thomas and Margaret Gatewood also lived nearby. Thomas sometimes ran for county offices and happened to be Fayette County coroner during the years when Lincoln served in the state legislature. Some of Winslow’s brothers apparently lived nearby, too, for in Winslow’s estate papers I located a transaction between two of them—a tragic transaction. Know all men by these presents that I Lewis Pitcher [the son of the first Lewis] have this day sold to Alexander S. Pilcher four slaves to wit Aaron about the age of ten years, Moses about eight years of age, and Ann and her child named Mary Jane, for and in consideration of the sum of one thousand and five hundred dollars to me in hand paid the reciept whereof I do herby acknoledge and do warrent them slaves for life, the title whereof I do bind myself forever to defend against any and all claims what ever given under my hand this 7th day of Oct. r 1839 Lewis his x mark Pilcher.

It is difficult to picture how Fayette County looked in those days, days of virgin prairie and the oldest stands of timber in Southern Illinois. I’m sure it would be entirely unrecognizable to me. Fayette County farms were just beginning to be productive by the late 1820s. Vandalia was eight miles east on the Vincennes Road and the new National Road; Winslow surely purchased many of his family supplies in Vandalia or at smaller settlements southeast of Four Mile.

Winslow set about farming but he did not limit himself to that. Like most men of the time, he hunted. The 1878 county history notes that Winslow purchased the first Durham bull in the township, so he must have raised some livestock also. Strangely no one in our family remembered that he made a hefty sum of money when Vandalia’s statehouse was constructed in 1836. Several downtown Vandalia businessmen and county residents pitched in on the building project that summer and fall, and records of state appropriations show that Winslow hauled timber to the public square during the summer of 1836. During the following winter he swept plaster from the senate chamber. For these duties he was paid $47, a very large sum considering that, forty years later, his widow received only $8 a month for a pension. Besides economic need I don’t know what might have compelled him to travel to Vandalia to help in the building project. For the sake of family history, I’m glad he did.

Winslow and Averilla died after the Civil War. Their two-story log house stood until the 1910s when, according to Grandma, it was torn down. It was located at a spot which is now a small fenced-in pasture adjacent to the family burial ground which had comprised the original property. According to family lore the little graveyard began when the eighth child, Octavia, contracted tetanus from a stepped-on nail and asked to be buried beneath a favorite bush. Winslow and Averilla were buried there too but their graves are unmarked, as (presumably) are the graves of those among their children who did not survive to adulthood. A marker honoring Winslow was later placed upon a simple grave there. Four other children—William Lewis Pilcher, Louisiana Smith, Charlie Pilcher, and Jonathan K. Pilcher my great-great-grandfather—are buried within the shady, peaceful space of their own childhoods. (Jonathan and his family comprise the stern group, circa 1891, at the beginning of this essay.)

I leaf through the history of the people and their descendents. Blanche’s text has a wonderful quaintness that enthralled me as I read the pages while sitting in Grandma’s house. The stories of the eighteen children are wonderful evocations of the Four Mile area from over a hundred years ago.

Hannah Pilcher was born in Catskilll, N.Y. At one time they [she and her husband William Lewis Pilcher] lived east and north of Jonathan K. Pilcher’s out through the woods. On their way to see them they often stopped to pick papaws. Mother can remember how they caught fireflies from the field of wheat across the road….

Cordelia was so small they could turn a teacup over her head and it rested on her shoulders. They carried her on a pillow for weeks…

Louisiana was a very large woman, plain spoken. They had one son who left home and was killed; the body sent home, buried as their son.

Uncle Charlie’s wife died leaving him to bring up the children to the best of his ability, and that proved to be extremely good. He would take them to church and parties and enjoyed the fun along with them. He was a Hardshell Baptist and believed what is to be will be, and in May there was one special Sunday that was always a big day at Four Mile. People would come for miles and if anyone got a new hat, it was always for that day. Uncle Ben Mahon would preach. They had a foot washing and Uncle Charlie was the one that always had his foot washed…. He was found dead in a chair outside his house. Aunt Cordie and family came to see them that particular 4th of July morning and found him dead..

My mother was hardly sixteen when her mother died in 1893. Her father, Jonathan K., was hard of hearing thus making it hard to carry on unnecessary conversation; therefore much of the family history was lost. Jonathan did quite a bit of carpentering, laying brick for brick houses, built wagons, buggies, and bobsleds. He owned 57 A. of land, also farmed, kept stock of all kinds. He sold the farm after Rhoda Ann died, and bought the farm on Route 185 owned by Steve Sidwell at that time, sold it later, and bought on the Brownstown Road… A kitchen lean-to was built on the house that extended to the smokehouse. It had a 10-ft. table with a bench next to the wall. Uncle Henry ate his first dish of oatmeal at this long table. The flue caught fire and caused the house to burn down. And again much of the family history was lost. Rhoda Ann loved to sing. Horseback riding was a delight to her. Aunt Martha says that I had as fine a grandmother that ever lived. She raised chickens, did some milking, made butter, baked eight or nine loaves of bread in an outside bake oven, and no doubt had many more responsibilities. She was born in Morgan Co., Ohio.

The stories of the third generation are similar.

Lottie, Lavina Litchenwalter, and Mother were together one Sunday. Loytie and Lavina were to go to church that evening. Lottie wanted her dress fresh and cream-colored, so she washed, starched and dyed it with strong coffee, ironed it, and was ready for church…

Clara was a large woman. She had well-behaved children. She dressed Ida like a doll. One dress that my mother remembers was embroidered with a long waist, wide ribbon sash, short puffed sleeves. Mother thinks they lived in Denver, Co.

John was a very small man; most Pitchers were rather large. Very nice sort of fellow.

Robert went with a Catholic girl at one time. During Lent she wouldn’t see him. He made the remark, “And by gosh, I respected her for it.”

Kate took care of the twins. She had a bed fixed in front of the buggy. There was where she put them while she drove around through the country.

Most of these people were Fayette Countians. Yet Pilcher is no longer a common area name. As in the case of Grandma the name was “married” into other local names.

Blanche wrote, I do not feel this book is complete until we have eliminated all the blank spaces that are possible to fill out. I do feel that you who have a book or see one can help make this a success by sending me the information that I have failed to get. Any remuneration will be guilefully appreciated. As I pursued genealogy I modestly added other branches of the family to sections which Blanche had found no leads. I do not know when Blanche died–she lived most of her life in the Dakotas–but I would like to think she’d appreciate my efforts to bring her chronicle to a greater fullness.


Here is my Pilcher Cemetery manuscript. In 1973 and 1974, when I was 16 and 17, I spent hours at the cemetery copying all the inscriptions. I tried to copy each inscription exactly, although I didn’t take time to double check my work.

Those were summertime trips.  A dermatologist had advised me to get a lot of sun for my acne, and I definitely wanted to get tanned.  So I wore a tank top or no shirt at all.  Usually I didn’t wear shoes, either. I reasoned that shoes were unnecessary for a morning spent outdoors in the grass and sticky but soft evergreen needles. The thought of going to work barefooted still sounds appealing to me. I remember startling a visitor to the cemetery who didn’t expect to see a long-haired, barefoot young man walking around the graves with a clipboard.

Back home, I typed my notes and made several pages of lists of inscriptions—just over 250 inscriptions in all. I also painstakingly created a chart that showed how many of the people in the graveyard were interrelated and intermarried. About this project, I was particularly proud of my identification and indication of unmarked graves. My grandmother and other older relatives knew where certain people were buried who, for whatever reason, never had a tombstone. For instance, one of Grandma’s cousins told me that six of her young siblings were buried beneath a tree in the smaller family cemetery.

As I wrote in the previous essay, the Pilcher Cemetery is actually two graveyards. The Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery is a small area near the site of Pilcher’s homestead. Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, Winslow and Averilla Pilcher, several of that couple’s children and grandchildren, and also Averilla’s brother Thomas A. Gatewood, are buried here. A few people not related to the Pilchers are buried here, too: my distant uncle Ben Mahon and his wife, children, and mother in law. The last burial here was 1928.

The graveyard is a pleasant small place, distinguished from the surrounding fields with a farm fence. Tall evergreens lay a carpet of shade upon the area. Sometimes cows had peaked at me over the fence. When I visit the place I like to see monuments for Louisiana Pilcher Smith, with its rounded plain top and its fading, soft-looking inscription; the old broad stone for William L. and Hannah Pilcher (on which Hannah’s death date was never carved); the small tablet for Charlie Pilcher; and my great-great-grandparents, Jonathan K. and Rhoda Pilcher, who died in 1908 and 1893 respectively. I remember how thrilled I felt to discover that these people are my ancestors; their gray obelisk stands at the west side of the graveyard at the edge of the evergreens’ shade.

Beside that obelisk is a row of small tombstones for the couple’s young children: children who would’ve been my grandma’s uncles and aunts. As a childless teenager I didn’t quite grasp the tragedy of this smaller cemetery: how many our children and infants are buried here. A few epitaphs reflect the terrible grief:

Jesus said suffer little children and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven Mat. 19

Our darling one hath gone before
To greet us on the blissful shore.

The larger Pilcher Cemetery is just up the narrow road from the family cemetery. Until the mid or late 1970s, a beautiful large oak tree dominated the cemetery, which is a pretty clearing a grove of timber. The name is a bit of a misnomer, because fewer Pilcher descendents are buried here. But seemingly the place began as a community graveyard, separate from Winslow Pilcher’s family but associated with the pioneer. The cemetery was called “Mr. Pilcher’s Graveyard” in an 1840s family letter. A cluster of plain stones crudely inscribed with initials and 1830s dates mark the oldest known graves. The place was also called the Washburn Cemetery in turn of the century obituaries–and several Washburns are buried here. My great-great-grandparents Josiah and Margaret Williams actually deeded the land in 1893 to cemetery trustees.

In this larger cemetery are buried my grandparents, great-grandparents (Crawford and Pilcher), some great-great-grandparents (Crawford and Williams) and great-great-great-grandparents (Williams and Washburn), as well as distant uncles and aunts and cousins. All but one of the original eight Crawford children are buried here.  Altogether, twenty of my ancestors are buried in the two cemeteries, along with many other relatives. Over the years, more of my great-uncles, great-aunts, and cousins have been interred here, as well as my mother’s brother and his wife.

Whenever I visit the cemetery I read the inscriptions of relatives: Crawford, Fink, Williams, Washburn, Rush, and others. As I indicated in the previous essay, as a little boy I loved the archaic names on older stones. Gravestone symbolism isn’t plentiful but interesting: a finger pointed toward Heaven, hands clasped in greeting, a dead dove, a bare-bottomed cherub. A double stone for the babies Elvina and Lemuel Parks stands in the far corner of the graveyard because, according to Grandma, the babies died of smallpox. Nearby are a pair of tiny stones of Williams infants who died in 1861. They weren’t even named. Not far away is a young man who, according to the inscription, died at Vicksburg, and nearby is another Civil War veteran with a military marker but, hidden in the grass, is a flat circular stone that indicates he died in 1862. And not far away is an epitaph:

Farewell my wife and children all
From you a father Christ doth call
Mourn not for me it is in vain
To call me to your sight again

The epitaph is a fragment of a tombstone but I never could find the rest of it

As I look through my painstaking recorded and poorly typed manuscript, I remember that, when I was young, I tried to imagine what these people looked like based on their stones—like David Copperfield who thought of his infant brothers as having been born with their hands in their pockets. If I saw photographs of the people, of course they never looked like my preconceptions.


I sort through other pictures and items, letting memories intermingle. Here is a photograph of Andy Stroble, my long-dead grandfather. During the era when it didn’t matter Andy changed the spelling of the name according to the whim of the moment and happened to spell it “Stroble” on Dad’s birth certificate. Thus my name is different from my cousins. Here is the beginning of a Strobel family tree that I never completed before I left for college. John and Emma Strobel, my great-grandparents, lived north of Vandalia on U.S. 51 and had ten children. John was born in Bavaria in 1840 and emigrated with his parents a few years later. I never discovered much about my Strobel and Hotz ancestors, settling for a few family facts from the trivial to the bitter, concerning the immediate family. John was a farmer for 75 years until 1929 . . . John and Emma both died of myocarditis and senility . . . George Strobel worked in the coal mines . . . Lillie Strobel was the daughter of Ellen Watkins and her second husband; Ellen was the maternal grandmother of Grace Crawford, mother of Mildred Stroble, by Ellen’s third marriage to George Washburn . . . Gustav Strobel died when he drank some lye while his mother washed the kitchen floor; he was two days shy of his first birthday . . . Ed Strobel raised and sold horses, and served in World War I . . . . Andy died of a stroke walking to the harness shop in downtown Vandalia . . .

Here is Dad’s picture of John and Emma. Wearing work clothes and standing before a rose bush, they look like a German American Gothic. Dad remembers they grew rhubarb and cabbage and once “put up” 55 gallons of wonderful sauerkraut. He remembers sitting on their front porch with his cousin Delmer, practicing their slingshots, and Dad’s shot hit Delmer’s brother Fred in the head, momentarily knocking him senseless. “Damn! Paul! Damn! You killed the son of a bitch!” Delmer had yelled, laughing, and I hear his laughter in my father’s. Dad still has the gun which, according to family lore, John carried into the Civil War. The gun was found, loaded, after John’s death in 1932. In order to fire it but also to protect people if the old gun exploded, someone tied it to a stump, tied a long rope to the trigger, hid behind a tree, and pulled the rope… The gun fired, one last time.

I’d love to be able to add that a duck fell from the sky, and all the cousins feasted on duck and “roastineers” in memory of Grandpa Strobel, the old German farmer. But that would be adding to the truth.

Here is a Polaroid photograph of my dad’s mother and her siblings-Ross, Roy, Peg, Pauline, Lonnie. Grandma’s brothers and sisters were people who still elicit grateful memories from their kin. I remember how Aunt Peg loved to tease me about the time when I was a toddler and, during a family visit to her house in Decatur, I tried to fold a live cat in half and place it into a toy dump truck. I heard about that until I was in my twenties. Janie died when she was 101–the third of fourteen children, she survived them all–and her body finally outlived her mind. Before she went into the nursing home she’d tell me she and her mother (who was, at that time, dead for over 25 years) had taken a buggy ride that day. While visiting her I realized that sometimes, when the ties break between our minds and reality, our family ties remain strong.

Here is a photo of Mac Carson, my great-grandfather on Dad’s side, who lived in the northern part of Fayette County. James S. Carson, a Revolutionary War veteran and Mac’s great-grandfather, had settled the country in the 1830s. Mac has his gloved hands on a saw with which he is cutting a log, a cigar is in his mouth beneath an ample moustache, and he looks up at the photographer. His broad rimmed hat shades his face. But another picture shows him wearing a suit and looking slightly bemused. His wife Alice holds a squirming infant, Uncle Lonnie.

Here is a photo of Alice’s father, my great-great-grandfather, who also pauses from sawing a log. His beard extends to the middle of his chest. The photograph is an old postcard on which he affixed his own name and address: John T. Colburn, Loami, Lock Box 94, Illinois. That branch of the family settled in Sangamon County and helped found the town of Loami. Grandma Janie also gave me a picture of John wherein he sits beside animals and toys that he whittled from wood. He has an almost childlike look in his eyes.

Here are photocopies of Carson and Colburn family information that Uncle Roy Carson had obtained for me. The two-column page from the History of Sangamon County, Illinois (1881) states that John’s father Paul Colburn and his family traveled through rain, mud and unabridged streams for about five weeks, which brought them to the south side of Lick creek on what is now Loami township, where they found an empty cabin. From sheer weariness they decided to stop…. Having succeeded in bringing so many of his descendents to the new country, and witnessed their struggles to gain a foothold and provide themselves with homes, Paul died Feb. 27, 1825. near the present town of Loami… Elsewhere in the same history my great-great-great-grandfather John Carson–a Fayette County resident who left many descendents in Sangamon County–is mentioned as a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War. One day Mom, Dad, the family dauchshund, and I found John’s grave in a Fayette County cemetery high above the Kaskaskia River. Beside the grave was that of his son, James Carson, Mac’s father, who was killed while hunting wild turkeys in Fayette County In 1859, aged only 39.

“What a way to go!” my mom remarked.

Here are several sheets on the Mahon family, related to me through the Crawfords. An old gentleman in suburban St. Louis gave me information about the descendents of John Mahon, an Irishman who had emigrated in the 1760s and was killed by British soldiers as they ransacked his home. We know nothing about John’s wife but their sons were named Doctor, Barren. Dennizen, Pliant, Thomas and James. Doctor Mahon was my great-great-great-great-grandfather who, along with Thomas, settled Fayette County in the mid-1830s. Doctor’s son John was my ancestor who wanted a gravestone no more ostentatious than Jesus’ stone, but Doctor had less than Jesus did, his grave is unknown.

John had a brother named Benjamin who was a “Hardshell Baptist” minister in Fayette County for many years. My own ancestor emerges relatively colorless compared to his younger brother “Old Ben Mahon,” one of the very few clergymen in my family. He was a circuit rider of great local note in the nineteenth century. The county history calls him “a rough diamond, loving his joke,” and states that he took 150 preaching engagements each year, but he accepted no money for his evangelistic work. Grandma told me there was some uproar when he was disinterred in 1902 to be buried beside his wife, who had already been buried in the old family graveyard. The men opened the casket before reburial. Apparently Ben had rolled over.

Here are photographs of the separate graves of my great-great-grandparents, George and Ellen Washburn, and also the grave of their younger daughter Susan England. The graves are in a small cemetery in the hilly, northern townships of Fayette County. Grandma Grace liked to tell me the story of how George walked away from the Civil War, missing an arm, and came home to Fayette County only to discover his wife had recently died. He lodged with a family that included the recently widowed Ellen Watkins, and they eventually married. In her endearingly hard-headed manner Grandma always stressed that George and Ellen both had several children from previous marriages but that their own marriage produced only two children. Grandma’s mother Abby Pilcher and “Aunt Suze” England. It was essential that we know that Aunt Suze was not a half-sister but a “real” sister. It wasn’t that we’d have hurt Suze’s feelings if we got it wrong, though; she had died in 1931. Grandma just wanted us to know. The cemetery is pretty, nestled in a grove of trees beside a gravel road, far from the two-lane; to get there we pass “my” Miller High Life silo on a high hill along U.S. 51. A few years before I discovered genealogy Mom and Dad took me to the cemetery along with some cousins. I remember catching some good butterflies for my third-grade science project. I couldn’t have cared less about my ancestors.

Here is a sheet of paper on which I wrote that my ancestor, David Washburn, was a Cape Cod whale fisherman. His wife Esther Griffith was the daughter of a wholesale dealer in New York. I do not recall who gave me the information; perhaps Grandma’s distant cousin who ran the Four Mile store. The sheet of paper is stationary from “Hasler Oil Co., 501 S. Fifth, Vandalia” –Dad’s old employer. I always like to look at the beautiful cursive script upon David and Esther’s tombstones in the family cemetery. They came to Four Mile in 1836. I was able to trace a few of their descendents in Fayette County, including George’s and those of David and Leroy who married Crawford sisters, but eventually I gave up. I find the reason why: Leroy’s 1908 obituary states that David and Esther had seventeen children. Some of them were small children buried in the family cemetery; but I found insurmountable the task of locating even the names of all the original seventeen.

Here is a photocopy of a page from the 1878 History of Fayette County. The pioneers of [Otego] township were Henry Scroggins, Thomas Crickman, Wm. Crickman, Mr. Riall, Mr. Clements, and Mr. Stanfield, who came in 1828. In 1829 came Jacob Tinker, Thoams Osbrook, Winslow Pilcher, Thomas R. Gatewood, Edward Healey, Hardy Heafy, Thos. A. Gatewood, Cole Norris, Mr. Robeson, and Wm. D. Brown. In 1830, came Ezra Griffith, Rutherford Shelton, Wm. H. Mabury, James Beal, Sr. … In 1832, Mr. Roe and Henry Brown In 1833, Hezekiah Brown, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Taylor …In 1835, ’36 and ’37, Harvey Lee, Asa Lee … and David Washburn … There, in one paragraph, I found several ancestors, as if they had gathered in Otego Township like pilgrims. I always thought of this paragraph as somehow fundamental to my very identity. 

Here is a wonderful picture of my ancestors Josiah and Margaret Williams. Margaret’s family, Henry and Hezekiah Brown, had settled Four Mile several years before the Williamses. Bearded and dressed in an old suit Josiah looks clear-eyed out at the camera; she stands as tall as he seated. She was twenty years younger than he was. But they died within months of each other, in 1893.

Here is the Williams family history along with a print of a daguerreotype purported to be my ancestor Comfort Williams, whose tombstone fascinated me as a child. Her husband, the first Josiah, died in 1826 at the age of 40, leaving Comfort a widow at the young age of 32, and she never remarried. One wonders how she supported herself and their five children, but we know that she lived near Columbus, Ohio several more years. Her parents also lived there, as did other family members who are all buried in a small churchyard in Obetz, Ohio. Comfort did not join them there, however; some desire within her compelled her to travel the National Road to Illinois, and she and her five children settled in the Four Mile area around 1840. She lived there seven years. The author of the Williams family tree gave me a typed copy of a letter that one of Comfort’s daughters wrote when Comfort died. April 2n AD 1847 Dear sister I embrace the painful opportunity of writing a few lines to you know that we have had to endure great trouble we have lost our dear mother she died last Tuesday morning between eight and nine o clock. . . she had the Pleurisy or what is here termed the winter fever I do not think that she thought much about getting well after she was taken sick she was not able to be up any she was helpless as a child. . . Josiah write home every month we got a letter from him the Friday before she died and he told her if nothing happened he should be home before harvest and she calmly says poor boy I shall never see you she told us to not let him know anything about her death till he came home he had been verry well ever since he crossed the gulf he was in Tampico when he last wrote but I expect he is now at verry cruz . . . she looked as pleasant and natural in her coffin as though she had been sleeping with a smile on her countenance I trust she is better off than the rest of us I trust she is happy she is buried about a mile from home in Mr. Pilchers graveyard I can have the consolation of visiting her grave…

Reading through the Williams history I remember its author fondly. She was a dear woman named Helen Dickes. Helen was in her seventies when I knew her: she was blue-haired, short and broad and had a very clear intelligence. I don’t remember exactly how we came upon each other but some Brownstown Williamses must have given me her name, and Grandma and I were happy to obtain her family tree. Helen was descended from the first of Josiah and Comfort’s five children and I from the third, and I remember how interesting—exciting! —it was to learn about the history of Comfort Williams, and how grateful I was to Helen for the photocopy of her history. Her history provided another good windfall for my various genealogy projects because one of the five Williams siblings had married one of “my” Crawford pioneers and another had married one of the first generation of Fayette County Pilchers. Thus Helen’s book gave me two entire branches which neither Blanche nor I had been able to find. We had a lively correspondence during the early 1970s, and I’ve saved all her letters. Then we dropped out of touch and I never heard when she died.

Before we stopped writing, though, I visited the cemetery in Obetz. Bronze markers had replaced the tombstones of my ancestors. An unmarked grave lay between the graves of family members, and I’ve always assumed that the grave is that of the first Josiah Williams. But his tombstone was not replaced by a bronze one. He lies forgotten, while many miles west his wife’s grave has fresh flowers each year—for a very large number of Williams relatives live in the Vandalia area.

Genealogy is a mixture of historical, heritage, personal identity, and family pride. Sometimes I think I confuse these people’s real lives with the few materials before me, their real faces with old photographs, and I confuse their lives with the place. My family keepsakes comprise a hodgepodge of information — less a local “saga” than fragments and images about the first generations of Scot-English-Irish-German forebearers in a small Midwestern community. Yet I’ve counted the material a precious store of knowledge which takes my love of place to a different level. If one counts genealogy as a kind of self-knowledge, a way of knowing “who you are,” the hobby has helped me know who I am and where I am. Fayette County was home to generations of my family. I could by no means decorate all their graves.


Along with various photographs, keepsakes, notes, charts, and typical genealogical paraphernalia on other branches of my family, I keep my Crawford material. I leaf through my own family tree, embarrassed by my adolescent phrasings and my poor typing. Thanks to my Utah cousin I could begin the history with additional information about Paul Crawford (to whose name I affixed “1809-1849”) and his wife Susanna (whose dates remained “1809- ? ” until I learned that she died in 1875). So many “shirttail” cousins around Fayette County provided information about their own branches. Still, my little history emphasizes the descendents of my great-great-grandparents Andrew and Caroline (Mahon) Crawford. Like Blanche and Helen, when it came to writing the family history I had the most information about my own branch.

The photograph of Andrew is striking, for one of his eyes seems tired and weak and the other is wide open and penetrating. The effect must come from the Vandalia photographer’s light, for half of his goatee is washed out by the light and half is dark. Andrew was killed the year their last child was born. I have a photograph of Caroline and her five children in 1899. It is a wonderful picture; the Crawfords all look fairly fierce—Andrew’s penetrating look must have dominated the family genes. They also look fuzzy; only the tree beyond them is in sharp focus. John sports a moustache that droops to his chin; his brother Will, who lived in the same house all his life, stands near him. Paul, Alice, and Andy Jr. complete the picture; one infant daughter had died many years before.

Coming to Vandalia I sometimes see cousins who are descended from John, Will, Paul, or Alice (Rush), but the younger Andy Crawford lived a mysterious life and had no children. This 1899 photograph may have been taken around the time he ran away from home. Apparently he resented Caroline’s 1890s remarriage, left one day, and never came home again. My great-aunt Nell told me he would cruelly write or wire information about his whereabouts; the whole family would come to meet him, but he’d not be there. This happened several times every five years almost to the day. Caroline died in 1921, never having seen him again, although some of the brothers apparently met him sometime, somewhere. When Andy died in 1959 he was living in a shack near Caseyville, Illinois, with two women, who reported his death and weren’t seen again. The family buried Andy in the Pilcher cemetery.

Here is another photograph of John from 1899 He and his wife Susan sit together with their young children; there is Josiah my grandfather, who is thirteen years old in this picture, Marvin (who, like my grandfather, I never knew), Charlie, Jean, Ruby (holding a doll), and the infant Mary. Nell and Ruth were not yet born. They’re nearly all gone now — those dear older relatives who figured so importantly in my childhood. How wonderful it would be to have just one more day to speak with them, to embrace them, now that I’ve become an adult and see how deeply they became a part of my life!

John Crawford kept his personal papers in a “Farmer’s Pride Quick Cooking Rolled Oats” box.  I reach for the box, open the cardboard lid, and empty it out the contents.  Among my ancestors I knew the most about him because of his white-haired daughters’ fond remembrance (Jean, Ruby, and Nell, especially) — and the contents of his box. I assume my grandfather acquired the box after John died. Most of the material therein dates from the years 1925, 1926, and 1927, the last three years of his life.

What records would any of us want to leave at the time of our deaths? John’s papers reflect local history. Brownstown and Vandalia during their busy, railroad eras when my parents were small children. John lived just south of Brownstown on the Brownstown Road; thus he kept a number of receipts from Brownstown businesses like Bingham Brothers and Brownstown Lumber and a few from Vandalia businessmen like George A. A. Dieckmann and Polk Atkinson. A receipt from Pevely Dairy Co. in St. Louis may have been from the company’s Brownstown station. (There are, however, some St. Louis trains schedules in the box; John has written home 10 o clock on one.) Brownstown during the early 1900s had a wide assortment of stores, physicians, churches and schools, a lumberyard, a blacksmith, a hotel, a mill, an I.O.O.F. hall, farm machinery and feed stores. Like Vandalia, its economic mainstays were the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Railroad and the county’s agriculture. “Crawford” is an old Brownstown name, as are Washburn, Williams, and Mahon, and I imagine John was a local fixture as he walked the village streets.

There is nothing in the box concerning the purchase or repair of automobiles. I wonder if John owned one. Grandma and Grandpa owned a car at that time. But in 1920s Four Mile, considering reliable horses and buggies and the handy train depots at Brownstown and Vandalia, a family could have gotten along without one.

When Susan was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she had to spend time in the Mark Greer Hospital in Vandalia, and died there in 1926. Several of John’s checks from his account in First National Brownstown were written to the Mark Greer Hospital, and endorsed by “Dr. Mark” himself (Dr. Mark, with his downtown waiting room filled with animal heads, was just winding down his local medical practice when I was a boy.) One hospital receipt has Board & Room 8 days at 3.50, 28.00, Operating Room 10.00, Special Nurse’s, 7.00. Today, those decimal points have moved to the right! John kept several get-well cards that Four Mile people had sent to Susan, posted with 2-cent stamps. A receipt from the Brownstown undertaker totals the funeral expense for Susan at $277.50, most of which was for the casket.

John was a farmer. There are mortgage papers in the box for his farm, which in 1899 was 80 acres. That is insufficient acreage today for a profitable farm; it was quite sufficient then. John’s neighbor up the road, Jonathan K. Pilcher, had only 57 acres. A statement of John’s 1925 Fayette County taxes indicates he paid $38.29 that year. John had livestock; in those days one took stock to Brownstown for shipment by train to Indianapolis or East St. Louis. One item from the box, which I’ve since had framed, is sad, for it announces the sale of John’s and Susan’s property. Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: four head of horses consisting of 3 good work horses and I good 2-year-old colt, 2 good dairy cows and 1 spring calf, 13 good head of hogs weighting from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder, 1 McCormack Mower, 1 McCormack Sweet Rake, 1 Wheat Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture . . . John Crawford. According to my great-aunts, their brother Marvin had contracted tuberculosis by 1908 and the sale was necessitated by his illness and subsequent move to Texas for his health. He and his wife had needed money badly, especially after the birth of their child. Grandma had a heartbreaking letter from Marvin to John and Susan when Marvin’s little boy died. The poor little Kenneth is at peace with the Angels now and I Pray we will all Meet him there when we leave this world of Sorrow. Marvin himself didn’t live long after that and was brought back to Four Mile for burial. The older aunts–Jean and Ruby especially–remembered with abiding sadness the early death of their second brother.

John and Susan must have rebuilt their holdings in the years ahead. There is little evidence in the box that they remained in deep debt. The only mortgage papers in the box are from 1899. They both died just before the Great Depression which, Mom says, struck the area very hard. Although oil exploration around the St. James Field took place throughout this period, the major discoveries did not come until the late 1930s, at which time the area began to recover economically. Widespread mechanization of farms didn’t come until later, too.

John kept several credit vouchers from Sears, Roebuck & Co.—2 cents, 3 cents. I’ve thought of taking them to the nearest shopping mall where I live and jokingly try to redeem them with interest.

John tore a First National Bank Brownstown check in half and wrote on the back: Andrew Crawford 218 South 4th Street St. Louis Mo c/o Erie House. I wonder if John was, at some point, able to meet his prodigal brother there, or if this is an artifact from one of Andy’s cruel wires home. I’ll never know. But John did keep the address.

One interesting thing to me in all these papers is John’s religious work. He was a very active lay person in the Methodist Episcopal Church. John left several Sunday school and denominational materials in his box. In the 1910s and 1920s he was a delegate to the Fayette County Sunday School Convention and the township president of the Otego Township Sunday School Convention. A statement from the Brownstown Methodist Episcopal Church states that he paid $19.50 to date for the 1924-25 year. The Nashville, Illinois Methodist minister wrote John a sympathy letter when Susan died. I rejoice in the fact that Sister Crawford had such resolute faith in her Lord and Master that no powers of life or death could separate her from His love. An older letter, from 1906, is a note of thanks from the Casey, Illinois Methodist pastor for John’s 50-cent contribution to the parsonage fund. Susan was apparently active in the church, too; two note pads from the M.E. Women’s Home Missionary Society gives the upcoming programs as “The Way of Christ in Race Relations” for 1924-25 and “The Slavs in the United States” for 1925-26. Susan was hostess for the May 1926 program; but I wonder if she was sick with cancer at that time.

There is a page from “Our Senior Lesson Quarterly” from 1906. This old book will survive the century, correctly states an editorial on one side. Brethren, let us study the Bible; let us love it; let us obey it; and if we do, we shall share in its immortality. “All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man is the flower of grass. .. but the word of the Lord endureth forever.” On the back is a hymn: Jesus is my Savior, is he yours? is his yours? John must have found the words especially moving. So he kept the sheet.

John Crawford went to Vandalia during the time when the old business blocks which I love were new and the trains made Vandalia a popular, exciting place; he knew Four Mile, the old Vincennes Road, the family graveyard, the route which became U.S. 40 about the time of his death, the schedules of the local trains. Like many of his relatives—and unlike many people of his generation who fled the farms for the cities— he didn’t budge from Fayette County. How did it move him within?


I know better than to think that these keepsakes will last forever. But I’m grateful for them. I wish we had more from my wife’s side. I’d like to think that, if Emily becomes interested in such things, she’ll treasure her relatives too.  Hopefully she’ll treasure, too, the place.



Sketching my family background in an essay form, I was inspired by a wonderful book, Ancestors by William Maxwell (New York, 1972).

Nearly forty years ago, my relatives Grace Crawford, Janie Stroble Plinke, Harold and Tillie Crawford, Charles and Fanny Crawford, Jean Boughers Parker, Ruby Wiseman, Mary Philboork, Nell Storm, Ruth Kistler, Ella Braun, Erma Hachet, Ann Link, Roy Carson, Helen Dickes, Bessie Marquis, my parents Paul and Mildred Stroble, and others gave me family stories and keepsakes, inculcating in me a love of things historical–and a deeper love of Vandalia and Fayette County.  All are gone except my mother, but I’m grateful for their gifts and love.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »