William Edwards
On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba

On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba
William Edwards

William Seymour Edwards

On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba

FOREWORD

These pages contain the impressions of a casual traveller – a few letters written to my friends.

Upon the temperate Highlands of Mexico, a mile and more above the sea, I was astonished and delighted at the salubrity of climate, the fertility of soil, the luxuriance of tree and plant, the splendor and beauty of the cities, the intelligence and progressiveness of the people, the orderliness and beneficence of the governmental rule.

In Cuba I caught the newborn sentiment for liberty and order, and at the same time came curiously into touch with restive leaders, who even then boldly announced the intention to plot and wreck that liberty and order by sinister revolution, if their wild spirits should find no other way to seize and hold command.

If there shall be aught among these letters to interest the reader, I shall welcome another to the little circle for whose perusal they were originally penned.

    William Seymour Edwards.

Charleston-Kanawha, West Virginia,

November 1, 1906.

I

Flying Impressions Between Charleston-Kanawha and New Orleans

    New Orleans, Louisiana,
    November 15th.

When the New York and Cincinnati Flyer (the “F. F. V. Limited”) came into Charleston yesterday, it was an hour late and quite a crowd was waiting to get aboard. Going with me as far as Kenova were D, H, and eight or ten of “the boys.” They all carried Winchesters and were bound on a trip to the mountains of Mingo and McDowell, on the Kentucky line, to capture a moonshine still which was reported to be doing a fine business selling to the mines. D wanted me to go along, and offered me a rifle or a shotgun, as I chose. They are big men, all of them, and love a scrap, which means the give and take of death, and have no fear except of ambush. I still carry in my pocket the flat-nosed bullet D took from the rifle of Johnse Hatfield two years ago, when he caught him lying-in-wait behind a rock watching for Doc. Ellis to come forth from his front door. Johnse was afterward hanged in Pikeville for other crimes. Then, a few months later, his brother “Lias,” just to get even, picked off Doc. Ellis as he was getting out of a Pullman car. Now “Lias” is said to be looking for D, also, but D says he’s as handy with his gun as “Lias” is, if only he can get a fair show. D is captain of this raid and promises to bring me tokens of a successful haul, but I am apprehensive that, one of these days, he or some other of “the boys” will not come back to Charleston.

At Ashland my Louisville car was attached to the Lexington train, and we turned to the left up the long grade and soon plunged into the hill country of eastern Kentucky. Here is a rough, harsh land, a poor, yellow soil, underlying miles of forest from which the big timber has long since been felled. Here and there small clearings contain log cabins, shack barns, and soil which must always produce crops as mean as the men who till it. We were traversing the land of the vendettas. At the little stations, long, lank, angular men were gathered, quite frequently with a rifle or a Winchester shotgun in their bony hands. It was only two or three years ago that one of these passenger trains was “held up,” by a rifle-armed gang, who found the man they were looking for crouching in the end of the smoker, and shot him to death right then and there – but not before he had killed two or three of the assassins.

I had gone forward into the smoking car, for it is in the day coaches where one meets the people of the countryside when traveling. I had seated myself beside a tall, white-haired old man who was silently smoking a stogie, such as is made by the local tobacco growers of this hill country. He had about him the air of a man of importance. He was dressed in homespun jeans and wore the usual slouch felt hat. He had a strong, commanding face, with broad, square chin and a blue eye which bespoke friendliness, and yet hinted of inexorable sternness. I gave him my name and told him where I lived, and whither I was going, introducing myself as one always must when talking to these mountain people. He was a republican, like myself, he said, and had several times been sheriff of his county; but that was many years ago and he declared himself to be now “a man of peace.” We talked of the vendettas and he told me of a number of these tragedies. When I made bold to ask him whether he had ever had any “trouble” himself, he replied, “No, not for right smart o’ yearn;” and then he slowly drew from his trousers pocket, a little buckskin bag, and unwound the leathern thong with which it was fast tied. Having opened it he took out three misshapen pieces of lead and handed them to me, remarking, “‘T was many yearn ago I cut them thar pieces of lead, and four more of the same kind, from this h’yar leg of mine,” slapping his hand upon his right thigh. “But where are the other four?” I queried. For an instant the blue eyes dilated and glittered as he replied, “I melted ’em up into bullets agen, and sent ’em back whar they cum from.” “Did you kill him?” I asked. The square jaws broadened grimly, and he said, “Wall, I don’t say I killed him, but he ain’t been seen aboot thar sence.” I offered him one of my best cigars, and turned to the subject of the horses of Kentucky. He was going to Lexington, he said, to attend the horse sales the coming week and he begged me to “light off with him,” for he was sure I would there “find a beast” I would delight to own. I promised to visit him some day when I should return, and he has vouched to receive me with all the hospitality for which Kentucky mountaineers, as well as blue grass gentlemen, are famed.

When we had come quite through the hill region, we rolled out into a country with better soil, and land more generally cleared, and much in grass. It was the renowned blue grass section of Kentucky, and at dark we were in Lexington. Twinkling lights were all that I could see of the noted town. The people who were about the station platform were well dressed and looked well fed, and a number of big men climbed aboard.

We arrived at Louisville half an hour late. This was fortunate, for we had to wait only an hour for the train to Memphis, via Paducah. Two ladies, who sat behind me when I entered the car at Charleston, stood beside me when I secured my ticket in the Memphis sleeper and took the section next to mine. It had been my intention to change trains at Memphis, take the Yazoo Valley Railway and go via Vicksburg, thinking that I might see something of the Mississippi River; but in the morning I met a young engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, who told me that this route had a very bad track, the cars were poor, the trains slow, while the line itself lay ten or twelve miles back from the river so that I should never see it; therefore, I decided to stick to the through fast train on which I had started, and go on to New Orleans by the direct route down through central Mississippi.

When I awoke we were speeding southward through the wide, flat country of western Tennessee. We passed through acres of cornstalks from which the roughness (the leaves of the corn) and ears had been plucked, through broad reaches of tobacco stumps, and here and there rolled by a field white with cotton.

In the toilet room of the sleeper I found myself alone with a huge, black-bearded, curly-headed planter, who was alternately taking nips from a gigantic silver flask and ferociously denouncing the Governor of Indiana for refusing to surrender Ex-governor Taylor to the myrmidons of Kentucky law, to be there tried by a packed jury for the assassination of Governor Goebel. I finally felt unable to keep silent longer, and told him that I did not see the justice of his position, and reminded him that the Governors of the neighboring States of West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois had publicly expressed their approval of the Governor of Indiana, and their disapproval of the political methods then prevailing in Kentucky. He looked steadily at me with an air of some surprise, then stretching out his flask begged me to take a drink with him. He thereafter said no more on politics, but talked for half an hour of the tobacco and cotton crops of western Tennessee.

We arrived in Memphis at about ten o’clock of the morning and stopped there some time. In the big and dirty railway station I felt myself already in a country other than West Virginia.

Memphis, the little I saw of it, appeared to be a straggling, shabby town, with wide, dusty streets, and many rambling dilapidated buildings. The people had lost the rosy, hearty look of the blue grass country, and were pale and sallow, while increasingly numerous everywhere were the ebony-hued negroes. We were passing from the latitude of the mulattoes to that of the jet-blacks, the pure blooded Africans.

Leaving Memphis, we turned southeastward and then due south, through the central portions of the state of Mississippi. Here spreads a flat country, with thin, yellow soil in corn and cotton. Everywhere were multitudes of negroes, all black as night. Negro women and children were picking cotton in the fields. There were wide stretches of apparently abandoned land, once under cultivation, much of it now growing up in underbrush and much of it white with ripened seedling cotton. In many places the blacks were gathering this cotton, apparently for themselves. There were a few small towns, at long intervals. Everywhere bales of cotton were piled on the railway station platforms; generally the big, old-fashioned bales, occasionally the small bale made by the modern compress. This is the shipping season, and we frequently passed teams of four and six mules, hauling large wagons piled high with cotton bales coming toward the railway stations. We passed through great forests of the long-leaved yellow pine, interspersed with much cottonwood and magnolia, while the leaves of the sumach marked with vivid red the divisions of the clearings and the fields. The day was dull and cloudy and a chill lingered in the air. The two lady travelers sat all day long with their curtains down and never left their books. The scenery and life of Mississippi held no interest for them.

In the late afternoon we passed through Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, and could see in the distance the rising walls of the new statehouse, to be a white stone building of some pretentions. Here a number of Italians and Jews, well dressed and evidently well-to-do, entered our sleeper en route to New Orleans. The country trade of Mississippi is said to be now almost altogether in the hands of Jews and of Italians. The latter coming up from New Orleans, are acquiring many of the plantations in both Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as, in many cases, pushing out the blacks from the work on the plantations by reason of their superior intelligence, industry and thrift. A lull in Italian immigration followed the New Orleans massacre of the Mafia plotters some years ago, but that tragedy is now quite forgotten, and a steady influx of Italians of a better type has set in.

In the dining car, I sat at midday lunch with a round-faced, pleasant mannered man some forty years of age, with whom I fell into table chat. He was a writer on the staff of a western monthly magazine and was well acquainted with the country we were traversing. He pointed out places of local interest as we hurried southward, while many incidents of history were awakened in my own mind. All of this land of swamp and bayou and cotton field had been marched and fought over by the contending armies during the Civil War. Here Grant skirmished with Johnston and won his first great triumphs of strategy in the capture of Vicksburg. Here the cotton planters in “ye olden time” lived like lords and applauded their senators in Congress for declaring in public speech that “Mississippi and Louisiana wanted no public roads.” Here Spain and France contended for supremacy and finally yielded to the irresistible advance of the English-speaking American pioneer, pressing southwestward from Georgia, Carolina and Tennessee.

It was still the same flat country when, near dusk, we entered Louisiana. At the first station where we stopped an old man was offering for sale jugs of “new molasses” and sticks of sugar cane – the first hint that we were surely below the latitude of the frosts.

It was a murky night, no stars were out, only a flash of distant electric lights told us that we were approaching New Orleans. We were in the city before I was aware. Quickly passing many unlighted streets, we were suddenly among dimly lighted houses, and then drew into an old-time depot, a wooden building yet more dilapidated than that of Memphis. We were instantly surrounded by a swarm of negroes. There were acres of them with scarcely a white face to be seen. I made out one of the swarthy blacks to be the porter of the new St. Charles Hotel. Giving him my bags, I was piloted to an old-fashioned ’bus and was soon driving over well asphalted streets amidst electric lights, and found myself in the thoroughfares of a really great city. From broad Canal Street we turned down a narrow alley and drew up in front of a fine modern hotel. This is an edifice of iron, stone and tile, with seemingly no wood in its structure, large, spacious and filled with guests, the chief hostelry of New Orleans, and worthy of the modern conditions now prevailing in this Spanish-French-American metropolis of the Gulf States.

II

The Life and Color of New Orleans

    New Orleans, Louisiana,
    November 16th.

After a well-served dinner in the spacious dining-room of the hotel, where palms and orange trees yellow with ripened fruit and exhaling the fragrance of living growth were set about in great pots, I lighted my cigar and strolled out upon narrow St. Charles street. Following the tide of travel I soon found myself upon that chief artery of the city’s life, – boulevard, avenue and business thoroughfare all in one – stately Canal street. It was crowded with a slowly moving multitude, which flowed and ebbed and eddied, enjoying the soft warm air beneath the electric lights and stars. I quickly became a part of it, taking pleasure in its leisurely sauntering company.

The typical countenance about me was of the dark, swarthy Latin south, and tall men were rarely met. Among the gossiping, good natured promenaders of Canal street there is none of the haste which marks New York’s lively “Rialto;” none of the scurry and jam which jostles you in brusque Chicago. In New Orleans there is an air of contented ease in the movement of the most poorly clad. Even the beggars lack the energy to be importunate.

At a later hour, crossing the wide thoroughfare, I was at once among narrow streets, the rues of the Vieux Carré, the Quartier Francais, – the Quartier now, but once all that there was of New Orleans. The transition was sharp. The buildings hinted of Quebec and Montreal, and of Old France. Balconies clung to second stories, high adoby and stucco walls were entered by narrow, close-barred doorways, latticed windows looked down upon the passer-by, and now and then, I fancied behind their jalousies the flash of dark eyes. My ear, too, caught softly sonorous accents which are foreign to the harsher palatals and sibilants of English. Beneath a glaring electric arc two swarthy pickaninnies were pitching coppers and eagerly ejaculating in curious, soft French. A man and a woman were chaffering at a corner meat shop, seller and buyer both vociferating in an unfamiliar tongue. I was hearing, for the first time, the Creole patois of old New Orleans.

Along one narrow rue– all streets are rues and all rues are narrow here – were many brilliant lights. It was the rue – where cafés and wine shops and quiet restaurants abound. When last in New York M B, had posted me and said, “If ever you shall be in New Orleans, go to the Café – . Go there and if you care to taste a pompano before you die, a pompano cooked as only one mortal on this earth can do the job, go there and whisper to the chef that ‘I’m your friend.’” So I went and found the chef and ever since have dreamed about that fish. The room was large; its floor was sanded and scrupulously clean. Many little tables were set along the walls. Pangs of hunger griped me the instant I peered within that door. I grew hungrier as I sat and watched the zest and relish with which those about me stowed away each dainty fragment. I was ready for that pompano when at last it came. I have eaten this fish in New York, in Baltimore, in Washington and in Richmond, and ever as I came further south did the delicacy of its flesh and flavor grow. Now, the long leap to New Orleans has given me this gourmet’s joy fresh taken from the waters of the Gulf. I ate with slow and leisurely delight, letting my enamored palate revel in the symphony of flavor, sipping my claret, and watching the strange company which filled the room. The men were mostly in evening dress – lawyers, bankers and business men. They had come in from the theatre or, perhaps, had spent the evening over cards. At some of the tables were only men, at others ladies were present, young, comely and, many of them, elegantly gowned. Black eyes were dominant among these belles, and here and there I fancied that I caught the echo, in some of their complexions, of that warmer splendor of the tropics which just a dash of African blood when mixed with white, so often gives, and which has made the octoroon demoiselles of New Orleans famous for brilliant beauty the world around. It was a gay company, full of chat and laughter and gracious manner – the graciousness of well-bred Latin blood.

When, at last, my pompano was vanished, and the claret gone, and I regretfully quitted the shelter of La – it was long past the stroke of twelve, yet the café was still crowded and the Vieux Carré was alight and astir as though it were early in the night. Again crossing Canal street, I found the American city dark and silent. I hurriedly went my way to the hotel, my footsteps echoing with that strange, reverberating hollowness which marks the tread upon the deserted, midnight city street.

In the morning I was up betimes, taking a cup of coffee and a roll, and then making my way down St. Charles street and crossing Canal to the rue Royale, passing the open gates of the old convent garden of the Ursulines, now the Archbishop’s palace, and turning into the rue St. Petre, then into Jackson Square. The air was cool. The world had not quite waked up. The gardeners with their water carts were giving the morning bath to the lawns and flowers of the park. A friendly mannered policeman had just disturbed two tramps from their nightly slumber, bidding them move on. I sat down upon a stone bench near where they had slept and looked across at the old Spanish-French Cathedral of St. Louis and the municipal buildings of the courts, the Cabildo and Hotel de Ville – architectural monuments of an already shadowy past. The chimes were ringing to matins and the devout were entering to the early mass.

I watched the hurrying groups, musing the while upon the picture before me. Here, the Canadian de Bienville, and Cadillac and Aubry and their French compeers, as well as the Spanish Captains General, from Don Juan de Ulloa to Don Manuel Salcedo had offered up their thanks for safe arrival from dangerous voyages across uncharted seas. Here, Don Antonio O’Rielly, Havana’s murderous Irish Governor, had ordered his Spanish musketeers to shoot to death the Creole patriots, Lafreniere, Milhet, Noyant, Marquis, Caresse, that devoted band who refused to believe that Monsieur le Duc de Choiseul and his Majesty, Louis XV, le bien aimé– had secretly made cold-blooded sale of the fair Province of Louisiana to Spain. Here, Citizen Laussat, by order of Napoleon, had surrendered the great Louisiana Province to General Wilkinson and Governor Claiborne, the Commissioners of Thomas Jefferson, who thereby added an empire to the dominion of the young government of the United States. Here, also, had been celebrated with so much pomp and trumpet fanfare the victory of Andrew Jackson’s border riflemen over Pakenham’s Peninsular veterans. The historic Place d’Armes has been rechristened Jackson Square, and “Old Hickory” now rides his big horse in the midst of a lovely municipal garden. In later years, here also had Confederate Mayor and Federal General posted their decrees and proclamations, among the latter that famous “General Order No. 28,” wherein the doughty General presumed to teach good manners to the dames and demoiselles of New Orleans, and gained thereby the sobriquet “Beast Butler.”

The worshipers were returning from the mass. My reverie was at an end. I arose and, crossing the square, strolled over to Decatur Place toward the old French market by the river side. There I found much that reminded me of the greater Marché Central which I had visited one early morning in Paris. There were the same daintiness and care in arranging and displaying the vegetables, the same taste and skill in showing the flowers, which are everywhere the glory of New Orleans. There were bushels of roses – the Marechal Neil, the gorgeous Cloth of Gold among the more splendid. Here also the butchers were carrying the meats upon their heads, just as they did in France, and the fish and game were as temptingly displayed. But the people of the market, though speaking the French tongue, were widely different. The swarthy tints of the tropics were here in evidence. Negresses black as night made me bonjour! The venders and porters were ebony or mulatto, and even the buyers were largely tinctured with African blood, while the French they talked was a speech I could with difficulty comprehend. The sharp nasal twang of Paris was greatly softened, and their “u” had lost that certain difficult liquidity which English and American mouths find it almost impossible to attain. Curious two-wheeled carts loaded with brass milk cans were starting on their morning rounds, and lesser two-wheeled wagons were being loaded with vegetables, meats and fish for the day’s peddling throughout the city. Burdens were not so generally borne upon the backs and shoulders as in France, although some of the women and a few men were carrying their wares and goods upon the head with easy balance.

The Vieux Carré has in it to me a certain note of sadness. As you wander along its rues and ways you feel that, somehow or other, the days of its importance and its power are forever gone. Mansions, once the imposing homes of the affluent, are now cracked and marred, and there seem to be none to put them into good repair. Dilapidation broods over the Vieux Carré. You feel that the good old Creole days are surely fled. You realize that as the language of La Belle France is disappearing, so the leisurely customs and easy habits of French New Orleans, before many years, will be submerged by the direct speech and commercial brusqueness of modern America.

In the afternoon I rode many miles upon the trolley cars through and about the city, and particularly along by the levees and through the fine avenue St. Charles, and the upper modern section. Low, very low, lies New Orleans, the greater part of it only a few feet above the water, really below the level of the Mississippi in times of flood. Many streets are now asphalted and kept comparatively clean, but the greater portion of the city is yet unpaved, or, when there is pavement at all, is still laid with the huge French blocks of granite (a foot or eighteen inches square) put down two centuries ago. The city lies too close to perpetual dead water to permit of modern drainage and there are few or no underground sewers. The houses drain into deep, open gutters along the streets between the sidewalks and the thoroughfares over which you must step; fresh water is pumped into these gutters and, combining with the inflowing sewerage, is pumped out again into the Mississippi. It is in this crude and unsanitary manner that New Orleans strives to keep measurably clean.

The residence section, in the American city, contains many handsome mansions with wide lawns and a profusion of semitropical trees, and everywhere are gardens – flower gardens that are riotous masses of roses and jasmines and splendid blooms. Just as the glory of England is her flowers, where no home is too humble for a window box, so, too, is it in New Orleans. However dirty she may be, however slovenly and slipshod, you must yet love the city for her flowers. Even the laborer’s most humble cottage glows with its mass of color.

New Orleans has no parks to boast of – Audubon Park is a mere ribbon of green – but the cemeteries on her borders are really her parks. The live oaks in them hang with masses of drooping moss, and blossoming magnolias and shrubs are everywhere. So near is the water to the surface, however, that there can be no burials within the earth, and the cemeteries are therefore filled with tombs built above the ground. Many of these are costly works of art.

The city clings to the river where the Mississippi makes a great bend, like a half moon, to the southwest, whence its name, the “Crescent City.” Only the big embankments, fourteen to fifteen feet in height, prevent the homes and gardens, as well as the entire business portion of the city, from being sometimes submerged by the angry waters of the great river. I found it strange, from a steamer’s deck, lying at the levee, to be looking down into the city, ten or twenty feet below. It reminded me of Holland and of Rotterdam, except that there the waters are the dead and quiet pools of Dutch canals, while here they are the swelling restless tide of the more than mile-wide Mississippi.

Along the levees were many ocean liners loading with molasses, sugar and cotton, chiefly cotton, in which there is an enormous and constantly increasing trade. The biggest ships now come up right alongside the wooden wharves of the levees, and for several miles lie there bow to stern.

The theatres and business blocks, the customhouse, and city hall and other public buildings of New Orleans are none of them modern, but appear to have been built long years ago, yet, notwithstanding their marks of antiquity, the business part of the city is animate with stir and action. There is hope in men’s faces in New Orleans, and the younger men are finding in the city’s waxing commerce opportunity for achievement which their forefathers never knew. With the completion of the Panama Canal, New Orleans will become one of the greatest of commercial ports.

From New Orleans I shall go via the Southern Pacific Railway, crossing the Mississippi and traveling westward through Louisiana and Texas to San Antonio, Texas, and then I shall go south into Mexico.

III

Southwestward to the Border