Travelers from old Europe are surprised to find in Chicago such an institution as an Historical Society. What can a city of yesterday, they ask, find to place in its archives, beyond the names of the first settlers, and the erection of the first elevator? They forget that the newest settlement of civilized men inherits and possesses the whole past of our race, and that no community has so much need to be instructed by History as one which has little of its own. Nor is it amiss for a new commonwealth to record its history as it makes it, and store away the records of its vigorous infancy for the entertainment of its mature age.
The first volume issued by the Chicago Historical Society contains an account of what is still called the „English Settlement,” in Edwards County, Illinois, founded in 1817 by two wealthy English farmers, Morris Birkbeck and George Flower. These gentlemen sold out all their possessions in England, and set out in search of the prairies of the Great West, of which they had heard in the old country. They were not quite sure there were any prairies, for all the settled parts of the United States, they knew, had been covered with the dense primeval forest. The existence of the prairies rested upon the tales of travelers. So George Flower, in the spring of 1816, set out in advance to verify the story, bearing valuable letters of introduction, one from General La Fayette to ex-President Jefferson.
With plenty of money in his pocket and enjoying every other advantage, he was nearly two years in merely finding the prairies. First, he was fifty days in crossing the ocean, and he spent six weeks in Philadelphia, enjoying the hospitality of friends. The fourth month of his journey had nearly elapsed before he had fairly mounted his horse and started on his westward way.
It is a pity there is not another new continent to be explored and settled, because the experience gained in America would so much facilitate the work. Upon looking over such records as that of George Flower’s History we frequently meet with devices and expedients of great value in their time and place, but which are destined soon to be numbered among the Lost Arts. For example, take the mode of saddling and loading a horse for a ride of fifteen hundred miles, say, from the Atlantic to the Far West, or back again. It was a matter of infinite importance to the rider, for every part of the load was subjected to desperate pulls and wrenches, and the breaking of a strap, at a critical moment in crossing a river or climbing a steep, might precipitate both horse and rider to destruction.
On the back of the horse was laid, first of all, a soft and thin blanket, which protected the animal in some degree against the venomous insects that abounded on the prairies, the attacks of which could sometimes madden the gentlest horse. Upon this was placed the saddle, which was large, and provided in front with a high pommel, and behind with a pad to receive part of the lading. The saddle was a matter of great importance, as well as its girths and crupper strap, all of which an experienced traveler subjected to most careful examination. Every stitch was looked at, and the strength of all the parts repeatedly tested.
Over the saddle – folded twice, if not three times – was a large, thick, and fine blanket, as good a one as the rider could afford, which was kept in its place by a broad surcingle. On the pad behind the saddle were securely fastened a cloak and umbrella, rolled together as tight as possible and bound with two straps. Next we have to consider the saddle bags, stuffed as full as they could hold, each bag being exactly of the same weight and size as the other. As the horseman put into them the few articles of necessity which they would hold he would balance them frequently, to see that one did not outweigh the other even by half a pound. If this were neglected, the bags would slip from one side to the other, graze the horse’s leg, and start him off in a „furious kicking gallop.” The saddle-bags were slung across the saddle under the blanket, and kept in their place by two loops through which the stirrup leathers passed.
So much for the horse. The next thing was for the rider to put on his leggings, which were pieces of cloth about a yard square, folded round the leg from the knee to the ankle, and fastened with pins and bands of tape. These leggings received the mud and water splashed up by the horse, and kept the trousers dry. Thus prepared, the rider proceeded to mount, which was by no means an easy matter, considering what was already upon the horse’s back. The horse was placed as near as possible to a stump, from which, with a „pretty wide stride and fling of the leg,” the rider would spring into his seat. It was so difficult to mount and dismount, that experienced travelers would seldom get off until the party halted for noon, and not again until it was time to camp.
Women often made the journey on horseback, and bore the fatigue of it about as well as men. Instead of a riding-habit, they wore over their ordinary dress a long skirt of dark-colored material, and tied their bonnets on with a large handkerchief over the top, which served to protect the face and ears from the weather.
The packing of the saddle made the seat more comfortable, and even safer, for both men and women. The rider, in fact, was seldom thrown unless the whole load came off at once. Thus mounted, a party of experienced horsemen and horsewomen would average their thirty miles a day for a month at a time, providing no accident befel them. They were, nevertheless, liable to many accidents and vexatious delays. A horse falling lame would delay the party. Occasionally there would be a stampede of all the horses, and days lost in finding them.
The greatest difficulty of all was the overflowing waters. No reader can have forgotten the floods in the western country in the spring of 1884, when every brook was a torrent and every river a deluge. Imagine a party of travelers making their westward way on horseback at such a time, before there was even a raft ferry on any river west of the Alleghanies, and when all the valleys would be covered with water. It was by no means unusual for a party to be detained a month waiting for the waters of a large river to subside, and it was a thing at some seasons of daily occurrence for all of them to be soused up to their necks in water.
Many of the important fords, too, could only be crossed by people who knew their secret. I received once myself directions for crossing a ford in South Carolina something like this: I was told to go straight in four lengths of the horse; then „turn square to the right” and go two lengths; and finally „strike for the shore, slanting a little down the stream.” Luckily, I had some one with me more expert in fords than I was, and through his friendly guidance managed to flounder through.
Between New York and Baltimore, in 1775, there were more than twenty streams to be forded, and six wide rivers or inlets to be ferried over. We little think, as we glide over these streams now, that the smallest of them, in some seasons, presented difficulties to our grandfathers going southward on horseback.
The art of camping out was wonderfully well understood by the early pioneers. Women were a great help in making the camp comfortable. As the Pilgrim Fathers may be said to have discovered the true method of settling the sea-shore, so the Western pioneer found the best way of traversing and subduing the interior wilderness. The secret in both cases was to get the aid of women and children! They supplied men with motive, did a full half of the labor, and made it next to impossible to turn back. Mr. Flower makes a remark in connection with this subject, the truth of which will be attested by many.
„It is astonishing,” he says, „how soon we are restored from fatigue caused by exercise in the open air. Debility is of much longer duration from labor in factories, stores, and in rooms warmed by stoves. Hail, snow, thunder storms, and drenching rains are all restoratives to health and spirits.”
Often, when the company would be all but tired out by a long day’s ride in hot weather, and the line stretched out three or four miles, a good soaking rain would restore their spirits at once. Nor did a plunge into the stream, which would wet every fibre of their clothing, do them any harm. They would ride on in the sun, and let their clothes dry in the natural way.
It must be owned, however, that some of the winter experiences of travelers in the prairie country were most severe. In the forest a fire can be made and some shelter can be found. But imagine a party on the prairie in the midst of a driving snowstorm, overtaken by night, the temperature at zero. Even in these circumstances knowledge was safety. Each man would place his saddle on the ground and sit upon it, covering his shoulders and head with his blanket, and holding his horse by the bridle. In this way the human travelers usually derived warmth and shelter enough from the horses to keep them from freezing to death. Another method was to tie their horses, spread a blanket on the ground, and sit upon it as close together as they could.
Sometimes, indeed, a whole party would freeze together in a mass; but commonly all escaped without serious injury, and in some instances invalids were restored to health by exposure which we should imagine would kill a healthy man.
When George Flower rode westward in 1816, Lancaster, Pa., was the largest inland town of the United States, and Dr. Priestley’s beautiful abode at Sunbury on the Susquehanna was still on the outside of the „Far West.” He had more trouble in getting to Pittsburg than he would now have in going round the world. In the Alleghany Mountains he lost his way, and was rescued by the chance of finding a stray horse which he caught and mounted, and was carried by it to the only cabin in the region. The owner of this cabin was „a poor Irishman with a coat so darned, patched, and tattered as to be quite a curiosity.”
„How I cherished him!” says the traveler. „No angel’s visit could have pleased me so well. He pointed out to me the course and showed me into a path.”
Pittsburg was already a smoky town. Leaving it soon, he rode on westward to Cincinnati, then a place of five or six thousand inhabitants, but growing rapidly. Even so far west as Cincinnati he could still learn nothing of the prairies.
„Not a person that I saw,” he declares, „knew anything about them. I shrank from the idea of settling in the midst of a wood of heavy timber, to hack and to hew my way to a little farm, ever bounded by a wall of gloomy forest.”
Then he rode across Kentucky, where he was struck, as every one was and is, by the luxuriant beauty of the blue-grass farms. He dwells upon the difficulty and horror of fording the rivers at that season of the year. Some of his narrow escapes made such a deep impression upon his mind that he used to dream of them fifty years after. He paid a visit to old Governor Shelby of warlike renown, one of the heroes of the frontier, and there at last he got some news of the prairies! He says:
„It was at Governor Shelby’s house (in Lincoln County, Ky.) that I met the first person who confirmed me in the existence of the prairies.”
This informant was the Governor’s brother, who had just come from the Mississippi River across the glorious prairies of Illinois to the Ohio. The information was a great relief. He was sure now that he had left his native land on no fool’s errand, the victim of a traveler’s lying tale. Being thus satisfied that there were prairies which could be found whenever they were wanted, he suspended the pursuit.
He had been then seven months from home, and November being at hand, too late to explore an unknown country, he changed his course, and went off to visit Mr. Jefferson at his estate of Poplar Forest in Virginia, upon which the Natural Bridge is situated. Passing through Nashville on his way, he saw General Andrew Jackson at a horse race. He describes the hero of New Orleans as an elderly man, „lean and lank, bronzed in complexion, deep marked countenance, grisly-gray hair, and a restless, fiery eye.” He adds: –
„Jackson had a horse on the course which was beaten that day. The recklessness of his bets, his violent gesticulations and imprecations, outdid all competition. If I had been told that he was to be a future President of the United States, I should have thought it a very strange thing.”
There are still a few old men, I believe, at Nashville who remember General Jackson’s demeanor on the race ground, and they confirm the record of Mr. Flower. After a ride of a thousand miles or so, he presented his letter of introduction to Mr. Jefferson at Poplar Forest, and had a cordial reception. The traveler describes the house as resembling a French château, with octagon rooms, doors of polished oak, lofty ceilings, and large mirrors. The ex-President’s form, he says, was of somewhat majestic proportions, more than six feet in height; his manners simple, kind, and polite; his dress a dark pepper-and-salt coat, cut in the old Quaker fashion, with one row of large metal buttons, knee-breeches, gray worsted stockings, and shoes fastened by large metal buckles, all quite in the old style. His two grand-daughters, Misses Randolph, were living with him then. Mr. Jefferson soon after returned to his usual abode, Monticello, and there Mr. Flower spent the greater part of the winter, enjoying most keenly the evening conversations of the ex-President, who delighted to talk of the historic scenes in which he was for fifty years a conspicuous actor.
George Flower and his party would have settled near Monticello, perhaps, but for the system of slavery, which perpetuated a wasteful mode of farming, and disfigured the beautiful land with dilapidation.
He had, meanwhile, sent home word that prairies existed in America, and in the spring of 1817 his partner in the enterprise, Morris Birkbeck, and his family of nine, came out from England, and they all started westward in search of the prairies. They went by stage to Pittsburg, where they bought horses, mounted them and continued their journey, men, ladies, and boys, a dozen people in all. The journey was not unpleasant, most of them being persons of education and refinement, with three agreeable young ladies among them, two of them being daughters of Mr. Birkbeck, and Miss Andrews, their friend and companion.
All went well and happily during the journey until Mr. Birkbeck, a widower of fifty-four with grown daughters, made an offer of marriage to Miss Andrews, aged twenty-five. It was an embarrassing situation. She was constrained to decline the offer, and as they were traveling in such close relations, the freedom and enjoyment of the journey were seriously impaired. Then Mr. Flower, who was a widower also, but in the prime of life, proposed to the young lady. She accepted him, and they were soon after married at Vincennes, the rejected Birkbeck officiating as father of the bride.
But this was not finding the prairies. At length, toward the close of the second summer, they began to meet with people who had seen prairies, and finally their own eyes were greeted with the sight. One day, after a ride of seven hours in extreme heat, bruised and torn by the brushwood, exhausted and almost in despair, suddenly a beautiful prairie was disclosed to their view. It was an immense expanse stretching away in profound repose beneath the light of an afternoon summer sun, surrounded by forest and adorned with clumps of mighty oaks, „the whole presenting a magnificence of park scenery complete from the hand of nature.” The writer adds: „For once, the reality came up to the picture of the imagination.”
If the reader supposes that their task was now substantially accomplished, he is very much mistaken. After a good deal of laborious search, they chose a site for their settlement in Edwards County, Illinois, and bought a considerable tract; after which Mr. Flower went to England to close up the affairs of the two families, and raise the money to pay for their land and build their houses. They named their town Albion. It has enjoyed a safe and steady prosperity ever since, and has been in some respects a model town to that part of Illinois.
The art of founding a town must of course soon cease to be practiced. It is curious to note how all the institutions of civilized life were established in their order. First was built a large log-cabin that would answer as a tavern and blacksmith’s shop, the first requisites being to get the horses shod, and the riders supplied with whiskey. Then came other log-cabins, as they were needed, which pioneers would undertake to build for arriving emigrants for twenty-five dollars apiece. Very soon one of the people would try, for the first time in his life, to preach a sermon on Sundays, and as soon as there were children enough in the neighborhood, one of the settlers, unable to cope with the labors of agriculture, would undertake to teach them, and a log-cabin would be built or appropriated for the purpose.
Mr. Flower reports that, as soon as the school was established, civilization was safe. Some boys and some parents would hold out against it for a while, but all of them at last either join the movement or remove further into the wilderness.
„Occasionally,” he says, „will be seen a boy, ten or twelve years old, leaning against a door-post intently gazing in upon the scholars at their lessons; after a time he slowly and moodily goes away. He feels his exclusion. He can no longer say: ‚I am as good as you.’ He must go to school or dive deeper into the forest.”
All this is passing. Already it begins to read like ancient history.
George Flower survived until March, 1862, when he died at a good old age. Certainly the Historical Society of Chicago has done well to publish the record he left behind him.