from A New Home–Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839) — Chapter I

from A New Home–Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839)

by Caroline Kirkland (AKA Mary Clavers)


Here are seen No traces of man’s pomp and pride; no silks Rustle, nor jowels shine, nor envious eyes Encounter. * * * * *

Oh, there is not lost One of earth’s charms; upon her bosom yet After the flight of untold centuries The freshness of her far beginning lies. Bryant.


Our friends in the ‘settlements’ have expressed so much interest in such of our letters to them as happened to convey any account of the peculiar features of western life, and have asked so many questions, touching particulars which we had not thought worthy of mention, that I have been for some time past contemplating the possibility of something like a detailed account of our experiences. And I have determined to give them to the world, in a form not very different from that in which they were originally recorded for our private delectation; nothing doubting, that a veracious history of actual occurrences, an unvarnished transcript of real characters, and an impartial record of every-day forms of speech (taken down in many cases from the lips of the speaker) will be pronounced ‘graphic’ by at least a fair proportion of the journalists of the day.

It is true there are but moagre materials for anything that might be called a story. I have never seen a cougar—nor been bitten by a rattlesnake. The reader who has patience to go with me to the close of my desultory sketches, must expect nothing beyond a meandering recital of common-place occurrences—mere gossip about everyday people, little enhanced in value by any fancy or ingenuity of the writer; in short, a very ordinary pen-drawing; which, deriving no interest from coloring, can be valuable only for its truth.

A home on the outskirts of civilization—habits of society which allow the maid and her mistress to do the honors in complete equality, and to make the social tea visit in loving conjunction—such a distribution of the duties of life as compels all, without distinction, to rise with the sun or before him—to breakfast with the chickens—then,

“Count the slow clock, and dine exact at soon”— to be ready for tea at four, and for bed at eight—may certainly be expected to furnish some curious particulars for the consideration of those whose daily course almost reverses this primitive arrangement—who ‘call night day and day night, and who are apt occasionally to forget, when speaking of a particular class, that the ‘those creatures’ are partakers with themselves of a common nature.

I can only wish, like other modest chroniclers, my respected prototypes, that so fertile a theme had fallen into worthier hands. If Miss Mitford, who has given us such charming glimpses of Aberleigh, Hilton Cross, and the Loddon, had, by some happy chance, been translated to Michigan, what would she not have made of such materials as Tinkerville, Montacute, and the Turnip?

When my husband purchased two hundred acres of wild land on the banks of this to-be celebrated stream, and drew with a piece of chalk on the bar-room table at Danforth’s the plan of a village, I little thought I was destined to make myself famous by handing down to posterity a faithful record of the advancing fortunes of that favored spot.

‘The madness of the people’ in those days of golden dreams took more commonly the form of city-building; but there were a few who contended themselves with planning villages, on the banks of streams which certainly never could be expected to bear navies, but which might yet be turned to accout in the more homely way of grinding or sawing— operations which must necessarily be performed somewhere, for the well-being of those very cities. It is of one of these humble attempts that it is my lot to speak, and I make my confession at the outset, warming any fashionable render, who may have taken up my book, that I intend to be ‘decidedly low.’

Whether the purchaser of our village would have been as moderate under all possible circumstances, I am not prepared to say, since, ever having enjoyed a situation under government, his resources have not been unlimited; and for this reason any remark which may be hazarded in the course of these my lucubrations touching the more magnificent plans of wealthier aspirants, must be received with some grains of allowance. ‘Il est plus nicé d’êire pour les autres, que de l’être pour sol-même.’

When I made my first visit to these remote and lonely regions, the scattered woods through which we rode for many miles were gay in their gosling-green suit of half-opened leaves, and the forest odors which exhaled with the dews of morning and evening, were beyond measure delicious to one ‘long in populous cities pent.’ I desired much to be a little sentimental at the time, and feel tempted to indulge to some small extent even here— but I forbear; and shall adhere closely to matters more in keeping with my subject.

I think, to be precise, the time was the last, the very last of April, and I recollect well that even at that early season, by availing myself with sedulous application, of those times when I was fain to quit the vehicle through fear of the perilous mud-holes, or still more perilous half-bridged marshes, I picked upwards of twenty varieties of wild-flowers,—some of them of rare and delicate beauty;—and sure I am, that if I had succeeded in inspiring my companion with one spark of my own floral enthusiasm, our hundred miles of travel would have occupied a week’s time.

The wild-flowers of Michigan deserve a poet of their own. Shelley who sang so quaintly of ‘the pied wind-flowers and the tulip tall,’ would have found many a fanciful comparison and deep-drawn meaning for the thousand gems of the road-side. Charles Lamb could have written charming volumes about the humblest among them. Bulwer would find means to associate the common three-leaved white lily so closely with the Past, the Present, and the Future—the Wind, the Star, and the Tripod of Delphos, that all future botanists, and eke all future philosophers, might fail to unravel the ‘linked sweetness.’ We must have a poet of our own.

Since I have casually alluded to a Michigan mud-hole, I may as well enter into a detailed memoir on the subject, for the benefit of future travellers, who, flying over the soil on railroads, may look slightingly back upon the achievements of their predecessors. In the ‘settlements,’ a mud-hole is considered as apt to occasion an unpleasant jolt—a breaking of the thread of one’s reverie—or in extreme cases, a temporary stand-still, or even an overturn of the rash and unwary. Here, on approaching one of these characteristic features of the ‘West’—(how much does that expression mean to include? I have never been able to discover its limits)—the driver stops—alights—walk up to the dark gulf—and around it, if he can get around it. He then seeks a long pole and sounds it, measures it across to ascertain how its width compares with the length of his wagon—tries whether its sides are perpendicular, as is usually the case if the road is much used. If he find it not more than three feet deep, he remounts cheerily, encourages his team, and in they go, with a plunge and a shock, rather apt to damp the courage of the inexperienced. If the hole he narrow, the hinder wheels will be quite lifted off the ground by the depression of their precedents, and so remain until by unwearied chiruping and some judicious touches of ‘the string’ the homes are induced to struggle as for their lives; and if the Fates are propitious they generally emerge on the opposite side, dragging the vehicle, or, at least, the fore-wheels, after them. When I first ‘penetrated the interior,’ (to use an indigenous phrase,) all I knew of the wilds was from Hoffman’s Tour, or Captain Hall’s ‘graphic’ delineations. I had some floating idea of ‘driving a barouche-and-four any where through the oak-openings’—and seeing ‘the murdered Banquos of the forest’ hunting the scenes of their departed strength and beauty. But I confess these pictures, touched by the glowing pencil of fancy, gave me but incorrect notions of a real journey through Michigan.

Our vehicle was not perhaps very judiciously chosen—at least we have since thought so. It was a light, high-hung carriage—of the description commonly known as a buggy or shandrydan—names, of which I would be glad to learn the etymology. I seriously advise any of my friends, who are about flitting to Wisconsin or Oregon, to prefer a heavy lumber wagon, even for the use of the ladies of the family; very little aid or consolation being derived from making a ‘genteel’ appearance in such cases.

At the first encounter of such a mud-hole as I have attempted to describe, we stopped in utter despair. My companion indeed would fain have persuaded me that the many wheel tracks which passed through the formidable gulf were proof positive that it might be forded. I insisted with all a woman’s obstinacy that I could not and would not make the attempt, and alighted accordingly, and tried to find a path on one side of the other. But in vain, even putting out of the question my paper-soled shoes—sensible things for the woods. The ditch on each side was filled with water and quite too wide to jump over; and we were actually contemplating a return, when a man in an immense bear-skin cap and a suit of deer’s hide, sprang from behind a stump just within the edge of the forest. He ‘poled’ himself over the ditch in a moment, and stood beside us, rifle in hand, as wild and rough a specimen of humanity as one would wish to encounter in a strange and lonely road, just at the shadowy dusk of the evening. I din not scream, though I own I was prodigiously frightened. But our stranger said immediately, in a gentle tone and with a French accent, ‘Me watch deer—you want to cross?’ On receiving an answer in the affirmative, he ran in search of a rail, which he threw over the terrific mud-hole—aided me to walk across by the help of his pole—showed my husband where to plunge—waited till he had gone through, and ‘slow circles dimpled o’er the quaking mud’ —then took kimself off by the way he came, declining any compensation with a most polite ‘rien! rien!’ This instance of true and genuine and generous politeness I record for the benefit of all bearskin caps, leathern jerkins, and cowhide boots, which ladies from the eastward world may hereafter encounter in Michigan.

Our journey was marked by no incident more alarming than the one I have related, though one night passed in a wretched inn, deep in the ‘timbered land’—as all woods are called in Michigan—was not without its terrors, owing to the horrible drunkenness of the master of the house, whose wife and children were in constant fear of their lives from his insane fury. I can never forget the countenance of that desolate woman, sitting trembling, and with white compressed lips, in the midst of her children. The father raving all night, and coming through our sleeping apartment with the earliest ray of morning in search of more of the poison already boiling in his veins. The poor wife could not forbear telling me her story—her change of lot—from a well-stored and comfortable home in Connecticut to this wretched den in the wilderness—herself and children worn almost to shadows with the ague, and her husband such as I have described him. I may mention here, that not very long after, I heard of this man in prison in Detroit, for stabbing a neighbor in a drunken brawl, and ere the year was out, he died of delirium tremens, leaving his family destitute. So much for turning our fields of golden grain into ‘fire water’—a branch of business in which Michigan is fast improving.

Our ride being a deliberate one, I felt, after the third day, a little wearied, and began to complain of the sameness of the oak openings, and to wish we were fairly at our journey’s end. We were crossing a broad expanse of what seemed, at a little distance, a smooth shaven lawn of the most brilliant green, but which proved on trial little better than a quaking bog—embracing within its ridgy circumference all possible varieties of ‘Muirs and mosses, slaps and styles’— I had just indulged in something like a yawn, and wished that I could see our hotel. At the word, my companion’s face assumed rather a comical expression, and I was preparing to inquire somewhat testily what there was so laughable—I was getting tired and cross, reader—when down came our good horse to the very chin in a bog-hole, green as Erin on the top, but giving way on the touch, and seeming deep enough to have engulfed us entirely, if its width had been proportionate. Down came the horse— and this was not all—down came the driver; and I could not do less than follow, though at a little distance—our good steed kicking and floundering— covering us with hieroglyphics, which would be readily deciphered by any Wolverine we should meet, though perchance strange to the eyes of our friends at home. This mishap was soon amended. Tufts of long marsh grass served to assoilzie our habiliments a little, and a clear stream which rippled through the marsh aided in removing the eclipse from our faces. We journeyed on cheerily, watching the splendid changes in the west, but keeping a bright look out for bog-holes.


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