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Mojave River Valley Museum
Mojave River Valley Museum
Death Valley in '49
The second year of sickness and I was affected with the rest, though it was not generally so bad as the first year. I suffered a great deal and felt so miserable that I began to think I had rather live on the top of the Rocky Mountains and catch chipmuncks for a living than to live here and be sick, and I began to have very serious thoughts of trying some other country. In the winter of 1839 and 1840 I went to a neighboring school for three months, where I studied reading, writing and spelling, getting as far as Rule of Three in Daboll's arithmetic. When school was out I chopped and split rails for Wm. Hanna till I had paid my winter's board. After this, myself and a young man named Orrin Henry, with whom I had become acquainted, worked awhile scoring timber to be used in building the Michigan Central Railroad which had just then begun to be built. They laid down the ties first (sometimes a mudsill under them) and then put down four by eight wooden rails with a strips of band iron half an inch thick spiked on top. I scored the timber and Henry used the broad axe after me. It was pretty hard work and the hours as long as we could see, our wages being $13 per month, half cash.
In thinking over our prospect it seemed more and more as if I had better look out for my own fortune in some other place. The farm was pretty small for all of us. There were three brothers younger than I, and only 200 acres in the whole, and as they were growing up to be men it seemed as if it would be best for me, the oldest, to start out first and see what could be done to make my own living. I talked to father and mother about my plans, and they did not seriously object, but gave me some good advice, which I remember to this day--"Weigh well every thing you do; shun bad company; be honest and deal fair; be truthful and never fear when you know you are right." But, said he, "Our little peach trees will bear this year, and if you go away you must come back and help us eat them; they will be the first we ever raised or ever saw." I could not promise.
Henry and I drew our pay for our work. I had five dollars in cash and the rest in pay from the company's store. We purchased three nice whitewood boards, eighteen inches wide, from which we made us a boat and a good sized chest which we filled with provisions and some clothing and quilts. This, with our guns and ammunition, composed the cargo of our boat. When all was ready, we put the boat on a wagon and were to haul it to the river some eight miles away for embarkation. After getting the wagon loaded, father said to me;--"Now my son, you are starting out in life alone, no one to watch or look after you. You will have to depend upon yourself in all things. You have a wide, wide world to operate in--you will meet all kinds of people and you must not expect to find them all honest or true friends. You are limited in money, and all I can do for you in that way is to let you have what ready money I have." He handed me three dollars as he spoke, which added to my own gave me seven dollars as my money capital with which to start out into the world among perfect strangers, and no acquaintances in prospect on our Western course.
When ready to start, mother and sister Poll came out to see us off and to give us their best wishes, hoping we would have good health, and find pleasant paths to follow. Mother said to me:--"You must be a good boy, honest and law-abiding. Remember our advice, and honor us for we have striven to make you a good and honest man, and you must follow our teachings, and your conscience will be clear. Do nothing to be ashamed of; be industrious, and you have no fear of punishment." We were given a great many "Good byes" and "God bless you's" as with hands, hats and handkerchiefs they waved us off as far as we could see them. In the course of an hour or so we were at the water's edge, and on a beautiful morning in early spring of 1840 we found ourselves floating down the Grand River below Jackson.
The stream ran west, that we knew, and it was west we thought we wanted to go, so all things suited us. The stream was small with tall timber on both sides, and so many trees had fallen into the river that our navigation was at times seriously obstructed. When night came we hauled our boat on shore, turned it partly over, so as to shelter us, built a fire in front, and made a bed on a loose board which we carried in the bottom of the boat. We talked till pretty late and then lay down to sleep, but for my part my eyes would not stay shut, and I lay till break of day and the little birds began to sing faintly.
I thought of many things that night which seemed so long. I had left a good dear home, where I had good warm meals and a soft and comfortable bed. Here I had reposed on a board with a very hard pillow and none too many blankets, and I turned from side to side on my hard bed, to which I had gone with all my clothes on. It seemed the beginning of another chapter in my pioneer life and a rather tough experience. I arose, kindled a big fire and sat looking at the glowing coals in still further meditation.
Neither of us felt very gleeful as we got our breakfast and made an early start down the river again. Neither of us talked very much, and no doubt my companion had similar thoughts to mine, and wondered what was before us. But I think that as a pair we were at that moment pretty lonesome. Henry had rested better than I but probably felt no less keenly the separation from our homes and friends. We saw plenty of squirrels and pigeons on the trees which overhung the river, and we shot and picked up as many as we thought we could use for food. When we fired our guns the echoes rolled up and down the river for miles making the feeling of loneliness still more keen, as the sound died faintly away. We floated along generally very quietly. We could see the fish dart under our boat from their feeding places along the bank, and now and then some tall crane would spread his broad wings to get out of our way.
We saw no houses for several days, and seldom went on shore. The forest was all hard wood, such as oak, ash, walnut, maple, elm and beech. Farther down we occasionally passed the house of some pioneer hunter or trapper, with a small patch cleared. At one of these a big green boy came down to the bank to see who we were. We said "How d'you do," to him, and, getting no response, Henry asked him how far is was to Michigan, at which a look of supreme disgust came over his features as he replied--"'Taint no far at all."
The stream grew wider as we advanced along its downward course, for smaller streams came pouring in to swell its tide. The banks were still covered with heavy timber, and in some places with quite thick undergrowth. One day we saw a black bear in the river washing himself, but he went ashore before we were near enough to get a sure shot at him. Many deer tracks were seen along the shore, but as we saw very few of the animals themselves, they were probably night visitors.
One day we overtook some canoes containing Indians, men, women and children. They were poling their craft around in all directions spearing fish. They caught many large mullet and then went on shore and made camp, and the red ladies began scaling the fish. As soon as their lords and masters had unloaded the canoes, a party started out with four of the boats, two men in a boat, to try their luck again. They ranged all abreast, and moved slowly down the stream in the still deep water, continually beating the surface with their spear handles, till they came to a place so shallow that they could see the bottom easily, when they suddenly turned the canoes head up stream, and while one held the craft steady by sticking his spear handle down on the bottom, the other stood erect, with a foot on either gunwale so he could see whatever came down on either side. Soon the big fish would try to pass, but Mr. Indian had too sharp an eye to let him escape unobserved, and when he came within his reach he would turn his spear and throw it like a dart, seldom missing his aim. The poor fish would struggle desperately, but soon came to the surface, when he would be drawn in and knocked in the head with a tomahawk to quiet him, when the spear was cut out and the process repeated. We watched them about an hour, and during that time some one of the boats was continually hauling in a fish. They were sturgeon and very large. This was the first time we had ever seen the Indian's way of catching fish and it was a new way of getting grub for us. When the canoes had full loads they paddled up toward their camp, and we drifted on again.
When we came to Grand Rapids we had to go on shore and tow our boat carefully along over the many rocks to prevent accident. Here was a small cheap looking town. On the west bank of the river a water wheel was driving a drill boring for salt water, it seemed through solid rock. Up to this time the current was slow, and its course through a dense forest. We occasionally saw an Indian gliding around in his canoe, but no houses or clearings. Occasionally we saw some pine logs which had been floated down some of the streams of the north. One of these small rivers they called the "Looking-glass," and seemed to be the largest of them.
Passing on we began to see some pine timber, and realized that we were near the mouth of the river where it emptied into Lake Michigan. There were some steam saw mills here, not then in operation, and some houses for the mill hands to live in when they were at work. This prospective city was called Grand Haven. There was one schooner in the river loaded with lumber, ready to sail for the west side of the lake as soon as the wind should change and become favorable, and we engaged passage for a dollar and a half each. While waiting for the wind we visited the woods in search of game, but found none. All the surface of the soil was clear lake sand, and some quite large pine and hemlock trees were half buried in it. We were not pleased with this place for it looked as if folks must get their grub from somewhere else or live on fish.
Next morning we were off early, as the wind had changed, but the lake was very rough and a heavy choppy sea was running. Before we were half way across the lake nearly all were sea-sick, passengers and sailors. The poor fellow at the helm stuck to his post casting up his accounts at the same time, putting on an air of terrible misery.
This, I thought was pretty hard usage for a land-lubber like myself who had never been on such rough water before. The effect of this sea-sickness was to cure me of a slight fever and ague, and in fact the cure was so thorough that I have never had it since. As we neared the western shore a few houses could be seen, and the captain said it was Southport. As there was no wharf our schooner put out into the lake again for an hour or so and then ran back again, lying off and on in this manner all night. In the morning it was quite calm and we went on shore in the schooner's yawl, landing on a sandy beach. We left our chest of clothes and other things in a warehouse and shouldered our packs and guns for a march across what seemed an endless prairie stretching to the west. We had spent all our lives thus far in a country where all the clearing had to be made with an axe, and such a broad field was to us an entirely new feature. We laid our course westward and tramped on. The houses were very far apart, and we tried at every one of them for a chance to work, but could get none, not even if we would work for our board. The people all seemed to be new settlers, and very poor, compelled to do their own work until a better day could be reached. The coarse meals we got were very reasonable, generally only ten cents, but sometimes a little more.
As we travelled westward the prairies seemed smaller with now and then some oak openings between. Some of the farms seemed to be three or four years old, and what had been laid out as towns consisted of from three to six houses, small and cheap, with plenty of vacant lots. The soil looked rich, as though it might be very productive. We passed several small lakes that had nice fish in them, and plenty of ducks on the surface.
Walking began to get pretty tiresome. Great blisters would come on our feet, and, tender as they were, it was a great relief to take off our boots and go barefoot for a while when the ground was favorable. We crossed a wide prairie and came down to the Rock river where there were a few houses on the east side but no signs of habitation on the west bank. We crossed the river in a canoe and then walked seven miles before we came to a house where we staid all night and inquired for work. None was to be had and so we tramped on again. The next day we met a real live Yankee with a one-horse wagon, peddling tin ware in regular Eastern style, We inquired of him about the road and prospects, and he gave us an encouraging idea--said all was good. He told us where to stop the next night at a small town called Sugar Creek. It had but a few houses and was being built up as a mining town, for some lead ore had been found there. There were as many Irish as English miners here, a rough class of people. We put up at the house where we had been directed, a low log cabin, rough and dirty, kept by Bridget & Co. Supper was had after dark and the light on the table was just the right one for the place, a saucer of grease, with a rag in it lighted and burning at the edge of the saucer. It at least served to made the darkness apparent and to prevent the dirt being visible. We had potatoes, beans and tea, and probably dirt too, if we could have seen it. When the meal was nearly done Bridget brought in and deposited on each plate a good thick pancake as a dessert. It smelled pretty good, but when I drew my knife across it to cut it in two, all the center was uncooked batter, which ran out upon my plate, and spoiled my supper.
We went to bed and soon found it had other occupants beside ourselves, which, if they were small were lively and spoiled our sleeping. We left before breakfast, and a few miles out on the prairie we came to a house occupied by a woman and one child, and we were told we could have breakfast if we could wait to have it cooked. Everything looked cheap but cheery, and after waiting a little while outside we were called in to eat. The meal consisted of corn bread, bacon, potatoes and coffee. It was well cooked and looked better than things did at Bridget's. I enjoyed all but the coffee, which had a rich brown color, but when I sipped it there was such a bitter taste I surely thought there must be quinine in it, and it made me shiver. I tried two or three times to drink but it was too much for me and I left it. We shouldered our loads and went on again. I asked Henry what kind of a drink it was. "Coffee," said he, but I had never seen any that tasted like that and never knew my father to buy any such coffee as that.
We labored along and in time came to another small place called Hamilton's Diggings where some lead mines were being worked. We stopped at a long, low log house with a porch the entire length, and called for bread and milk, which was soon set before us. The lady was washing and the man was playing with a child on the porch. The little thing was trying to walk, the man would swear terribly at it--not in an angry way, but in a sort of careless, blasphemous style that was terribly shocking. I thought of the child being reared in the midst of such bad language and reflected on the kind of people we were meeting in this far away place. They seemed more wicked and profane the farther west we walked. I had always lived in a more moral and temperate atmosphere, and I was learning more of some things in the world than I had ever known before. I had little to say and much to see and listen to and my early precepts were not forgotten. No work was to be had here and we set out across the prairie toward Mineral Point, twenty miles away. When within four miles of that place we stopped at the house of Daniel Parkinson, a fine looking two-story building, and after the meal was over Mr. Henry hired out to him for $16 per month, and went to work that day. I heard of a job of cutting cordwood six miles away and went after it, for our money was getting very scarce, but when I reached the place I found a man had been there half an hour before and secured the job. The proprietor, Mr. Crow, gave me my dinner which I accepted with many thanks, for it saved my coin to pay for the next meal. I now went to Mineral Point, and searched the town over for work. My purse contained thirty-five cents only and I slept in an unoccupied out house without supper. I bought crackers and dried beef for ten cents in the morning and made my first meal since the day before, felt pretty low-spirited. I then went to Vivian's smelting furnace where they bought lead ore, smelted it, and run it into pigs of about 70 pounds each. He said he had a job for me if I could do it. The furnace was propelled by water and they had a small buzz saw for cutting four-foot wood into blocks about a foot long. These blocks they wanted split up in pieces about an inch square to mix in with charcoal in smelting ore. He said he would board me with the other men, and give me a dollar and a quarter a cord for splitting the wood. I felt awfully poor, and a stranger, and this was a beginning for me at any rate, so I went to work with a will and never lost a minute of daylight till I had split up all the wood and filled his woodhouse completely up. The board was very coarse--bacon, potatoes, and bread--a man cook, and bread mixed up with salt and water. The old log house where we lodged was well infested with troublesome insects which worked nights at any rate, whether they rested days or not, and the beds had a mild odor of pole cat. The house was long, low and without windows. In one end was a fireplace, and there were two tiers of bunks on each side, supplied with straw only. In the space between the bunks was a stationary table, with stools for seats. I was the only American who boarded there and I could not well become very familiar with the boarders.
The country was rolling, and there were many beautiful brooks and clear springs of water, with fertile soil. The Cornish miners were in the majority and governed the locality politically. My health was excellent, and so long as I had my gun and ammunition I could kill game enough to live on, for prairie chickens and deer could be easily killed, and meat alone would sustain life, so I had no special fears of starvation. I was now paid off, and went back to see my companion, Mr. Henry. I did not hear of any more work, so I concluded I would start back toward my old home in Michigan, and shouldered my bundle and gun, turning my face eastward for a long tramp across the prairie. I knew I had a long tramp before me, but I thought best to head that way, for my capital was only ten dollars, and I might be compelled to walk the whole distance. I walked till about noon and then sat down in the shade of a tree to rest for this was June and pretty warm. I was now alone in a big territory, thinly settled, and thought of my father's home, the well set table, all happy and well fed at any rate, and here was my venture, a sort of forlorn hope. Prospects were surely very gloomy for me here away out west in Wisconsin Territory, without a relative, friend or acquaintance to call upon, and very small means to travel two hundred and fifty miles of lonely road--perhaps all the way on foot. There were no laborers required, hardly any money in sight, and no chance for business. I knew it would be a safe course to proceed toward home, for I had no fear of starving, the weather was warm and I could easily walk home long before winter should come again. Still the outlook was not very pleasing to one in my circumstances.
I chose a route which led me some distance north of the one we travelled when we came west, but it was about the same. Every house was a new settler, and hardly one who had yet produced anything to live upon. In due time I came to the Rock River, and the only house in sight was upon the east bank. I could see a boat over there and so I called for it, and a young girl came over with a canoe for me. I took a paddle and helped her hold the boat against the current, and we made the landing safely. I paid her ten cents for ferriage and went on again. The country was now level, with burr-oak openings. Near sundown I came to a small prairie of about 500 acres surrounded by scattering burr-oak timber, with not a hill in sight, and it seemed to me to be the most beautiful spot on earth. This I found to belong to a man named Meachem, who had an octagon concrete house built on one side of the opening. The house had a hollow column in the center, and the roof was so constructed that all the rain water went down this central column into a cistern below for house use. The stairs wound around this central column, and the whole affair was quite different from the most of settlers' houses. I staid here all night, had supper and breakfast, and paid my bill of thirty-five cents. He had no work for me so I went on again. I crossed Heart Prairie, passed through a strip of woods, and out at Round Prairie. It was level as a floor with a slight rise in one corner, and on it were five or six settlers. Here fortune favored me, for here I found a man whom I knew, who once lived in Michigan, and was one of our neighbors there for some time. His name was Nelson Cornish. I rested here a few days, and made a bargain to work for him two or three days every week for my board as long as I wished to stay. As I got acquainted I found some work to do and many of my leisure hours I spent in the woods with my gun, killing some deer, some of the meat of which I sold. In haying and harvest I got some work at fifty cents to one dollar per day, and as I had no clothes to buy, I spent no money, saving up about fifty dollars by fall. I then got a letter from Henry saying that I could get work with him for the winter and I thought I would go back there again. Before thinking of going west again I had to go to Southport on the lake and get our clothes we had left in our box when we passed in the spring. So I started one morning at break of day, with a long cane in each hand to help me along, for I had nothing to carry, not even wearing a coat. This was a new road, thinly settled, and a few log houses building. I got a bowl of bread and milk at noon and then hurried on again. The last twenty miles was clear prairie, and houses were very far apart, but little more thickly settled as I neared Lake Michigan. I arrived at the town just after dark, and went to a tavern and inquired about the things. I was told that the warehouse had been broken into and robbed, and the proprietor had fled for parts unknown. This robbed me of all my good clothes, and I could now go back as lightly loaded as when I came. I found I had walked sixty miles in that one day, and also found myself very stiff and sore so that I did not start back next day, and I took three days for the return trip--a very unprofitable journey.
I was now ready to go west, and coming across a pet deer which I had tamed, I knew if I left it it would wander away with the first wild ones that came along, and so I killed it and made my friends a present of some venison. I chose still a new route this time, that I could see all that was possible of this big territory when I could do it so easily. I was always a great admirer of Nature and things which remained as they were created, and to the extent of my observation, I thought this the most beautiful and perfect country I had seen between Vermont and the Mississippi River. The country was nearly level, the land rich, the prairies small with oak openings surrounding them, very little marsh land and streams of clear water. Rock River was the largest of these, running south. Next west was Sugar River, then the Picatonica. Through the mining region the country was rolling and abundantly watered with babbling brooks and health-giving springs.
In point of health it seemed to me to be far better than Michigan. In Mr. Henry's letter to me he had said that he had taken a timber claim in "Kentuck Grove," and had all the four-foot wood engaged to cut at thirty-seven cents a cord. He said we could board ourselves and save a little money and that in the spring he would go back to Michigan with me. This had decided me to go back to Mineral Point. I stopped a week or two with a man named Webb, hunting with him, and sold game enough to bring me in some six or seven dollars, and then resumed my journey.
On my way I found a log house ten miles from a neighbor just before I got to the Picatonica River. It belonged to a Mr. Shook who, with his wife and three children, lived on the edge of a small prairie, and had a good crop of corn. He invited me to stay with him a few days, and as I was tired I accepted his offer and we went out together and brought in a deer. We had plenty of corn bread, venison and coffee, and lived well. After a few days he wanted to kill a steer and he led it to a proper place while I shot it in the head. We had no way to hang it up so he rolled the intestines out, and I sat down with my side against the steer and helped him to pull the tallow off.
It was now getting nearly dark and while he was splitting the back bone with an axe, it slipped in his greasy hands and glancing, cut a gash in my leg six inches above the knee. I was now laid up for two or three weeks, but was well cared for at his house. Before I could resume my journey snow had fallen to the depth of about six inches, which made it rather unpleasant walking, but in a few days I reached Mr. Henry's camp in "Kentuck Grove," when after comparing notes, we both began swinging our axes and piling up cordwood, cooking potatoes, bread, bacon, coffee and flapjacks ourselves, which we enjoyed with a relish.
I now went to work for Peter Parkinson, who paid me thirteen dollars per month, and I remained with him till spring. While with him a very sad affliction came to him in the loss of his wife. He was presented by her with his first heir, and during her illness she was cared for by her mother, Mrs. Cullany, who had come to live with them during the winter. When the little babe was two or three weeks old the mother was feeling in such good spirits that she was left alone a little while, as Mrs. Cullany was attending to some duties which called her elsewhere. When she returned she was surprised to see that both Mrs. Parkinson and the babe were gone. Everyone turned out to search for her. I ran to the smokehouse, the barn, the stable in quick order, and not finding her a search was made for tracks, and we soon discovered that she had passed over a few steps leading over a fence and down an incline toward the spring house, and there fallen, face downward, on the floor of the house which was covered only a few inches deep with water lay the unfortunate woman and her child, both dead. This was doubly distressing to Mr. Parkinson and saddened the whole community. Both were buried in one grave, not far from the house, and a more impressive funeral I never beheld.
I now worked awhile again with Mr. Henry and we sold our wood to Bill Park, a collier, who made and sold charcoal to the smelters of lead ore. When the ice was gone in the streams, Henry and I shouldered our guns and bundles, and made our way to Milwaukee, where we arrived in the course of a few days. The town was small and cheaply built, and had no wharf, so that when the steamboat came we had to go out to it in a small boat. The stream which came in here was too shallow for the steamer to enter. When near the lower end of the lake we stopped at an island to take on food and several cords of white birch wood. The next stopping place was at Michilamackanac, afterward called Mackinaw. Here was a short wharf, and a little way back a hill, which seemed to me to be a thousand feet high, on which a fort had been built. On the wharf was a mixed lot of people--Americans, Canadians, Irish, Indians, squaws and papooses. I saw there some of the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. They would weigh twenty pounds or more, and had bright red and yellow spots all over them. They called them trout, and they were beauties, really. At the shore near by the Indians were loading a large white birch bark canoe, putting their luggage along the middle lengthways, and the papooses on top. One man took a stern seat to steer, and four or five more had seats along the gunwale as paddlers and, as they moved away, their strokes were as even and regular as the motions of an engine, and their crafts danced as lightly on the water as an egg shell. They were starting for the Michigan shore some eight or ten miles away. This was the first birch bark canoe I had ever seen and was a great curiosity in my eyes.
We crossed Lake Huron during the night, and through its outlet, so shallow that the wheels stirred up the mud from the bottom; then through Lake St. Clair and landed safety at Detroit next day. Here we took the cars on the Michigan Central Railroad, and on our way westward stopped at the very place where we had worked, helping to build the road, a year or more before. After getting off the train a walk of two and one half miles brought me to my father's house, where I had a right royal welcome, and the questions they asked me about the wild country I had traveled over, how it looked, and how I got along--were numbered by the thousand.
I remained at home until fall, getting some work to do by which I saved some money, but in August was attacked with bilious fever, which held me down for several weeks, but nursed by a tender and loving mother with untiring care, I recovered, quite slowly, but surely. I felt that I had been close to death, and that this country was not to be compared to Wisconsin with its clear and bubbling springs of health-giving water. Feeling thus, I determined to go back there again.
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