Travels in North America, From Modern Writers
Their cabin, which may serve as a specimen of these rudiments of houses, was formed of round logs, with apertures of three or four inches: there was no chimney, but large intervals were left between the "clapboards," for the escape of the smoke. The roof, however, was a more effectual covering, than Mr. Birkbeck had generally experienced, as it protected him and his party very tolerably from a drenching night. Two bedsteads, formed of unhewn logs, and cleft boards laid across; two chairs, (one of them without a bottom,) and a low stool, were all the furniture possessed by this numerous family. A string of buffalo-hide, stretched across the hovel, was a wardrobe for their rags; and their utensils, consisting of a large iron-pot, some baskets, one good rifle, and two that were useless, stood about in corners; and a fiddle, which was seldom silent, except when the inhabitants were asleep, hung by them.
These hunters, in the back-settlements of America, are as persevering as savages, and as indolent. They cultivate indolence as a privilege: "You English (they say) are industrious, but we have freedom." And thus they exist, in yawning indifference, surrounded by nuisances and petty wants; the former of which might be removed, and the latter supplied, by the application of one tenth part of the time that is loitered away in their innumerable idle days.
The Little Wabash, which Mr. Birkbeck crossed in search of some Prairies, that had been described to him in glowing colours, was, at this season, a sluggish and scanty stream; but, for three months of the latter part of winter and the beginning of spring, it covers a great space of ground, by the overflow of waters collected in its long course. The Skillet Fork is a river of similar character; and the country that lies between them must labour under the inconvenience of absolute seclusion, for many months every year, until bridges and ferries are established. Having made his way through this wildest of wildernesses to the Skillet Fork, Mr. Birkbeck crossed that river at a shoal. The country, on each side of it, is flat and swampy; so that the water, in many places, even at this season, rendered travelling disagreeable; yet here and there, at ten miles' distance, perhaps, the very solitude tempts persons to pitch their tents for a season.
At one of these lone dwellings Mr. Birkbeck found a neat, respectable looking female, spinning under the little piazza at one side of the cabin, which shaded her from the sun. Her husband was absent on business, which would detain him some weeks: she had no family, and no companion except her husband's dog, which usually attended him during his bear-hunting, in the winter. She said she was quite overcome with "lone," and hoped the party would tie their horses in the wood, and sit awhile with her, during the heat of the day. They did so, and she rewarded them with a basin of coffee. She said her husband was kind and good, and never left her without necessity. He was a true lover of bear-hunting; and, in the preceding winter, had killed a great number of bears.
On the second of August the party lodged at another cabin, where similar neatness prevailed, both within and without. The woman was neat, and the children were clean in skin, and whole in their clothes. The man possessed good sense and sound notions, and was ingenious and industrious. He lived on the edge of the Seven Miles' Prairie, a spot charming to the eye, but deficient in water.
Mr. Birkbeck considers Shawnee Town as a phænomenon, evincing the pertinacious adherence of man to the spot where he has once established himself. Once a year, for many successive springs, the Ohio, in its annual overflowings, has carried away the fences from the cleared lands of the inhabitants, till at length they have given them up, and ceased to cultivate them. Once a year the inhabitants of Shawnee Town either make their escape to higher lands, or take refuge in the upper stories of their houses, until the waters subside, when they recover their position on this desolate sand-bank.
At Shawnee Town there is an office for the south-east district of Illinois. Here Mr. Birkbeck constituted himself a land-owner, by paying seven hundred and twenty dollars, as one-fourth part of the purchase-money of fourteen hundred and forty acres. This land, with a similar purchase made by a Mr. Flower, constituted part of a beautiful and rich Prairie, about six miles distant from the Big Wabash, and the same distance from the Little Wabash.
The land was rich, natural meadow, bounded by timbered ground: it was within reach of two navigable rivers; and, at a small expence, was capable of being rendered immediately productive.
The geographical position of this portion of territory appeared to be extremely favourable. The Big Wabash, a noble stream, which forms its eastern boundary, runs four hundred miles, through one of the most fertile portions of this most fertile region. By means of a portage of eight miles to the Miami of the lakes, it has a communication, well known to the Indian traders, with Lake Huron, and with all the navigation of the north.
Mr. Birkbeck left Shawnee town on the third of August. He had found here something of river-barbarism, the genuine Ohio character; but he had met with a greater number, than he had expected, of agreeable individuals: and the kind and hospitable treatment he experienced at the tavern, formed a good contrast to the rude society and wretched fare he had left at the Skillet Fork.
On his return to Harmony, the day being Sunday, he had an opportunity of seeing, grouped and in their best attire, a large part of the members of this wonderful community. It was evening when he arrived, and he observed no human creature about the streets: soon the entire body of the people, about seven hundred in number, poured out of the church, and exhibited the appearance of health, neatness, and peace.
This colony is useful to the neighbourhood. It furnishes, from its store, many articles of great value, not so well supplied elsewhere; and it is a market for all spare produce. Many kinds of culinary plants, and many fruit-trees are cultivated here; and the Harmonites set a good example of neatness and industry. When we contrast their neatness and order, with the slovenly habits of their neighbours, we see (says Mr. Birkbeck) the good that arises from association, which advances these poor people a century, at least, on the social scale, beyond the solitary beings who build their huts in the wilderness.
At Harmony Mr. Birkbeck and his family lived at the tavern, and their board there cost two dollars per week, each person: for these they received twenty-one meals. Excellent coffee and tea, with broiled chickens, bacon, &c. for breakfast and supper, and a variety of good, but simple fare at dinner. Except coffee, tea, or milk, no liquor but water is thought of at meals in this country.
Mr. Birkbeck observes that, when the back country of America is mentioned in England, musquitoes by night, and rattlesnakes by day, never fail to alarm the imagination: to say nothing of wolves and bears, and panthers, and Indians still more ferocious than these. His course of travelling, from the mouth of James River, and over the mountains, up to Pittsburg, about five hundred miles; then three hundred miles through the woods of the state of Ohio, down to Cincinnati; next, across the entire wilderness of Indiana, and to the extreme south of the Illinois: – this long and deliberate journey, (he says,) one would suppose, might have introduced his party to an intimate acquaintance with some of these pests of America. It is true that they killed several of the serpent tribe; black snakes, garter-snakes, &c. and that they saw one rattlesnake of extraordinary size. They experienced inconvenience from musquitoes in a few damp spots, just as they would have done from gnats in England. In their late expeditions in the Illinois, where they led the lives of thorough backwoods-men, if they were so unfortunate as to pitch their tent on the edge of a creek, or near a swamp, and mismanaged their fire, they were teased with musquitoes, as they would have been in the fens of Cambridgeshire: but this was the sum total of their experience of these reported plagues.
Wolves and bears are extremely numerous, and commit much injury in the newly-settled districts. Hogs, which are a main dependance for food as well as profit, are the constant prey of the bears; and the holds of these animals are so strong, that the hunters are unable to keep down their numbers.
[In the autumn of the year 1817, Mr. Birkbeck removed, with his family, to the property he had purchased, between the Great and Little Wabash, and to which he has given the name of "English Prairie." In his "Notes on America," and in his "Letters from the Illinois," he has described, in an interesting manner, the face of the country, its soil, productions, mode of culture, and capacities of improvement; and has pointed out the great advantages which it offers to settlers, especially to labourers and to farmers with small capital. The confidence that is reposed in his judgment and agricultural skill, has already induced several persons to emigrate into the same neighbourhood, both from England and the United States; but the singularity of his religious opinions, and his objection to the admission of religious instructors of any description into his settlement, had prevented many conscientious persons from joining him, who might have proved useful members of his little community.]
From this place we must return to Philadelphia, for the purpose of accompanying Mr. Weld on a journey to Washington, the federal city or metropolis of the United States.
Seventh Day's Instruction.
UNITED STATES CONTINUED
Narrative of Mr. Weld's Excursion from Philadelphia to Washington
On the 16th of November, 1795, Mr. Weld left Philadelphia in one of the public stage-waggons. The country around this city was well cultivated, and abounded with neat villas and farm-houses; but it had a naked appearance, for all the trees had been cut down, either for fuel or to make way for the plough.
The road to Baltimore passed over the lowest of three floating bridges, which had been thrown across the river Schuylkill. The view, on crossing this river, which is about two hundred and fifty yards wide, is peculiarly beautiful. The banks on each side are high, and, for many miles, afford extremely delightful situations for villas.
The country, after passing the Schuylkill, is pleasingly diversified with rising grounds and woods; and appears to be in a good state of cultivation. The first town of any note at which Mr. Weld arrived, was Chester; which at this time contained about sixty dwellings, and was remarkable for being the place where the first colonial assembly sat. From the vicinity of Chester, there is a grand view of the river Delaware.
About half a mile from Wilmington is Brandywine River, remarkable for its mills: no fewer than thirteen having been built, almost close to each other, upon it.
Wilmington is the capital of the state of Delaware, and contained, at this time, about six hundred houses, which were chiefly of brick. The streets are laid out in a manner somewhat similar to those of Philadelphia. There is, however, nothing very interesting in this town, and the country around it is flat and unpleasant. Elkton, twenty-one miles from Wilmington, and the first town in Maryland, is a dirty and disagreeable place; which contains about ninety indifferent houses, that are built without any regularity.
Every ten or twelve miles upon this road there are taverns. These are all built of wood, and much in the same style; with a porch in front, which extends the entire length of the house. Few of them have any signs, and they are only to be distinguished from other houses, by a number of handbills pasted upon the walls near the door. Each of them is named, not from the sign, but from the person who keeps it; as Jones's, Brown's, &c. and all are kept nearly in the same manner. At each house there are regular hours for breakfast, dinner, and supper: and, if a traveller arrive somewhat before the time appointed for any one of these meals, it is in vain to desire a separate repast for himself: he must patiently wait till the regulated hour; and must then sit down with such other guests as happen to be in the house.
The Susquehannah river is crossed, on the way to Baltimore, at a ferry five miles above its entrance into the Chesapeak. The river is here about a mile and a quarter wide, and deep enough for vessels of any burden. The banks are high and thickly wooded, and the scenery is grand and picturesque. A small town, called Havre de Grace, which contains about forty houses, stands on this river at the ferry. From Havre to Baltimore the country is extremely poor; the soil is of a yellow gravel mixed with clay, and the road is execrable.
Baltimore is supposed to have, at this time, contained about sixteen thousand inhabitants. Though not the capital of the state, it is the largest town in Maryland; and, after Philadelphia and New York, is the most considerable place of trade in North America. [It is built round the head of a bay or inlet of the river Patuxent, and about eight miles above its junction with the Chesapeak.] The plan of the town is somewhat similar to that of Philadelphia. Most of the streets cross each other at right angles. The main street, which runs nearly east and west, is about eighty feet wide, and the others measure from forty to sixty feet. The streets are not all paved, so that, in wet weather, they are almost impassable; the soil being a stiff yellow clay, which retains the water a long time. On the south of the town is the harbour, which affords about nine feet water, and is large enough to contain two thousand sail of merchant-vessels.
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