The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 8.

The hickory stick — Chawing up ruins — A forest scene — A curious questioner — Hard and soft shells — Dangers of a ferry — The western prairies — Nocturnal detention — The Wild West and the Father of Rivers — Breakfast in a shed — What is an alligator? — Physiognomy, and its uses — The ladies’ parlour — A Chicago hotel, its inmates and its horrors — A water-drinking people — The Prairie City — Progress of the West.

A bright September sun glittered upon the spires of Cincinnati as I reluctantly bade it adieu, and set out in the early morning by the cars to join my travelling companions, meaning to make as long a détour as possible, or, as a “down-east” lady might say, to “make a pretty considerable circumlocution.” Fortunately I had met with some friends, well acquainted with the country, who offered to take me round a much larger circle than I had contemplated; and with a feeling of excitement such as I had not before experienced, we started for the Mississippi and the western prairies en route to Detroit.

Bishop M’Ilvaine, anxious that a very valued friend of his in England should possess something from Ohio, had cut down a small sapling, which, when divested of its branches and otherwise trimmed, made a very formidable-looking bludgeon or cudgel, nearly four feet long. This being too lengthy for my trunks was tied to my umbrella, and on this day in the cars excited no little curiosity, several persons eyeing it, then me, as if wondering in what relation we stood to each other. Finally they took it up, minutely examining it, and tapping it as if to see whether anything were therein concealed. It caused me much amusement, and, from its size, some annoyance, till at length, wishing to leave it in my room at a Toronto hotel while I went for a visit of a few days, the waiter brought it down to the door, asking me “if I wished to take the cudgel?” After this I had it shortened, and it travelled in my trunk to New York, where it was given to a carver to be fashioned into a walking-stick; and, unless the tradesman played a Yankee trick, and substituted another, it is now, after surviving many dangers by sea and land, in the possession of the gentleman for whom it was intended.

Some amusing remarks were made upon England by some of the “Buckeyes,” as the inhabitants of Ohio are called. On trying to persuade a lady to go with me to St. Louis, I observed that it was only five hundred miles. “Five hundred miles!” she replied; “why, you’d tumble off your paltry island into the sea before you got so far!” Another lady, who got into the cars at some distance from Cincinnati, could not understand the value which we set upon ruins. “We should chaw them up,” she said, “make roads or bridges of them, unless Barnum transported them to his museum: we would never keep them on our own hook as you do.” “You value them yourselves,” I answered; “any one would be ‘lynched’ who removed a stone of Ticonderoga.” It was an unfortunate speech, for she archly replied, “Our only ruins are British fortifications, and we go to see them because they remind us that we whipped the nation which whips all the world.” The Americans, however, though they may talk so, would give anything if they could appropriate a Kenilworth Castle, or a Melrose or a Tintern Abbey, with its covering of ivy, and make it sustain some episode of their history. But though they can make railways, ivy is beyond them, and the purple heather disdains the soil of the New World. A very amusing ticket was given me on the Mad River line. It bore the command, “Stick this check in your —— ” the blank being filled up with a little engraving of a hat; consequently I saw all the gentlemen with small pink embellishments to the covering of their heads.

We passed through a large and very beautiful portion of the State of Ohio; the soil, wherever cultivated, teeming with crops, and elsewhere with a vegetation no less beautiful than luxuriant; a mixture of small weed prairies, and forests of splendid timber. Extensive districts of Ohio are still without inhabitants, yet its energetic people have constructed within a period of five years half as many miles of railroad as the whole of Great Britain contains; they are a “great people” they do “go a-head,” these Yankees. The newly cleared soil is too rich for wheat for many years; it grows Indian corn for thirty in succession, without any manure. Its present population is under three millions, and it is estimated that it would support a population of ten millions, almost entirely in agricultural pursuits. We were going a-head, and in a few hours arrived at Forest, the junction of the Clyde, Mad River, and Indiana lines.

Away with all English ideas which may be conjured up by the word junction — the labyrinth of iron rails, the smart policeman at the points, the handsome station, and elegant refreshment-rooms. Here was a dense forest, with merely a clearing round the rails, a small shanty for the man who cuts wood for the engine, and two sidings for the trains coming in different directions. There was not even a platform for passengers, who, to the number of two or three hundred, were standing on the clearing, resting against the stumps of trees. And yet for a few minutes every day the bustle of life pervades this lonely spot, for here meet travellers from east, west, and south; the careworn merchant from the Atlantic cities, and the hardy trapper from the western prairies. We here changed cars for those of the Indianapolis line, and, nearly at the same time with three other trains, plunged into the depths of the forest.

“You’re from down east, I guess?” said a sharp nasal voice behind me. — This was a supposition first made in the Portland cars, when I was at a loss to know what distinguishing and palpable peculiarity marked me as a “down-easter.” Better informed now, I replied, “I am.” “Going west?” — “Yes.” “Travelling alone?” — “No.” “Was you raised down east?” — “No, in the Old Country.” “In the little old island? well, you are kinder glad to leave it, I guess? Are you a widow?” — “No.” “Are you travelling on business?” — “No.” “What business do you follow?” — “None.” “Well, now, what are you travelling for?” — “Health and pleasure.” “Well, now, I guess you’re pretty considerable rich. Coming to settle out west, I suppose?” — “No, I’m going back at the end of the fall.” “Well, now, if that’s not a pretty tough hickory-nut! I guess you Britishers are the queerest critturs as ever was raised!” I considered myself quite fortunate to have fallen in with such a querist, for the Americans are usually too much taken up with their own business to trouble themselves about yours, beyond such questions as, “Are you bound west, stranger?” or, “You’re from down east, I guess.” “Why do you take me for a down-easier?” I asked once. “Because you speak like one,” was the reply; the frequent supposition that I was a New Englander being nearly as bad as being told that I “had not the English accent at all.” I was glad to be taken for an American, as it gave me a better opportunity of seeing things as they really are. An English person going about staring and questioning, with a note-book in his hand, is considered “fair game,” and consequently is “crammed” on all subjects; stories of petticoated table-legs, and fabulous horrors of the bowie-knife, being among the smallest of the absurdities swallowed.

Our party consisted of five persons besides myself, two elderly gentlemen, the niece of one of them, and a young married couple. They knew the governor of Indiana, and a candidate for the proud position of Senator, also our fellow travellers; and the conversation assumed a political character; in fact, they held a long parliament, for I think the discussion lasted for three hours. Extraordinary, and to me unintelligible names, were bandied backwards and forwards; I heard of “Silver Grays,” but my companions were not discussing a breed of fowls; and of “Hard Shells,” and “Soft Shells,” but the merits of eggs were not the topic. “Whigs and Democrats” seemed to be analogous to our Radicals, and “Know–Nothings” to be a respectable and constitutional party. Whatever minor differences my companions had, they all seemed agreed in hating the “Nebraska men” (the advocates of an extension of slavery), who one would have thought, from the epithets applied to them, were a set of thieves and cut-throats. A gentleman whose whole life had been spent in opposition to the principles which they are bringing forward was very violent, and the pretty young lady, Mrs. Wood, equally so.

After stopping for two hours at a wayside shed, we set out again at dark for La Fayette, which we reached at nine. These Western cars are crammed to overflowing, and, having to cross a wide stream in a ferryboat, the crush was so terrible, that I was nearly knocked down; but as American gentlemen freely use their canes where a lady is in the case, I fared better than some of my fellow-passengers, who had their coat-tails torn and their toes barbarously crushed in the crowd. The steam ferry-boat had no parapet, and the weakest were pushed to the side; the centre was filled up with baggage, carts, and horses; and vessels were moored along the river, with the warps crossing each other, to which we had to bow continually to avoid decapitation. When we reached the wharf, quantities of people were waiting to go to the other side; and directly the gangway-board was laid, there was a simultaneous rush of two opposing currents, and, the insecure board slipping, they were all precipitated into the water. Fortunately it was not deep, so they merely underwent its cooling influences, which they bore with admirable equanimity, only one making a bitter complaint, that he had spoiled his “go-to-meetins.” The farther west we went, the more dangerous the neighbourhood became. At all the American stations there are placards warning people to beware of pickpockets; but from Indiana westward they bore the caution, “Beware of pickpockets, swindlers, and luggage-thieves.” At many of the depots there is a general rush for the last car, for the same reason that there is a scramble for the stern cabins in a steamer, — viz. the explosive qualities of the boilers.

* [From the frequent recurrence of the same names, the great distance travelled over, the short halt we made at any place, and the absence of a railway guide, I have been unable to give, our route from Cincinnati to Chicago with more than an approximation to correctness.]

We travelled the whole of that night, our fellow-passengers becoming more extravagant in appearance at every station, and morning found us on the prairies. Cooper influences our youthful imaginations by telling us of the prairies — Mayne Reid makes us long to cross them; botanists tell us of their flowers, sportsmen of their buffaloes* — but without seeing them few people can form a correct idea of what they are really like.

* [At the present time no wild animals are to be found east of the Mississippi; so effectually has civilization changed the character of the ancient hunting-grounds of the Indians.]

The sun rose over a monotonous plain covered with grass, rank, high, and silky-looking, blown before the breeze into long, shiny waves. The sky was blue above, and the grass a brownish green beneath; wild pigeons and turkeys flew over our heads; the horizontal line had not a single inequality; all was hot, unsuggestive, silent, and monotonous. This was the grass prairie.

A belt of low timber would bound the expanse, and on the other side of it a green sea would open before us, stretching as far as the eye could reach — stationary billows of earth, covered with short green grass, which, waving beneath the wind, completed the oceanic illusion. This was the rolling prairie.

Again a belt of timber, and a flat surface covered with flowers, brilliant even at this season of the year; though, of the most gorgeous, nothing remained but the withered stalks. The ground was enamelled with lilies, the helianthus and cineraria flourished, and the deep-green leaves and blue blossom of the lupin contrasted with the prickly stem and scarlet flower of the euphorbia. For what purpose was “the wilderness made so gay where for years no eye sees it,” but to show forth his goodness who does what he will with his own? This was the weed prairie, more fitly termed “the Garden of God.”

These three kinds of prairie were continually alternating with belts of timber and small lakes; but few signs of population were apparent during that long day’s journey. We occasionally stopped for water at shanties on the prairies, and took in two or three men; but this vast expanse of fertile soil still must remain for many years a field for the enterprise of the European races.

Towards evening we changed cars again, and took in stores of refreshment for our night’s journey, as little could be procured along the route. What strange people now crammed the cars! Traders, merchants, hunters, diggers, trappers, and adventurers from every land, most of them armed to the teeth, and not without good reason; for within the last few months, Indians, enraged at the aggressions of the white men, have taken a terrible revenge upon western travellers. Some of their rifles were of most costly workmanship, and were nursed with paternal care by their possessors. On the seat in front of me were two “prairie-men,” such as are described in the ‘Scalp–Hunters,’ though of an inferior grade to St. Vrain. Fine specimens of men they were; tall, handsome, broad-chested, and athletic, with aquiline noses, piercing grey eyes, and brown curling hair and beards. They wore leathern jackets, slashed and embroidered, leather smallclothes, large boots with embroidered tops, silver spurs, and caps of scarlet cloth, worked with somewhat tarnished gold thread, doubtless the gifts of some fair ones enamoured of the handsome physiognomies and reckless bearing of the hunters. Dulness fled from their presence; they could tell stories, whistle melodies, and sing comic songs without weariness or cessation: fortunate were those near enough to be enlivened by their drolleries during the tedium of a night detention. Each of them wore a leathern belt — with two pistols stuck into it — gold earrings, and costly rings. Blithe, cheerful souls they were, telling racy stories of Western life, chivalrous in their manners, and free as the winds.

There were Californians dressed for the diggings, with leather pouches for the gold-dust; Mormons on their way to Utah; and restless spirits seeking for that excitement and variety which they had sought for in vain in civilized life! And conveying this motley assortment of human beings, the cars dashed along, none of their inmates heeding each other, or perhaps Him

“ —— who heeds and holds them all

In his large love and boundless thought.”

At eleven we came to an abrupt pause upon the prairie. After waiting quietly for some time without seeing any vestiges of a station, my friends got out to inquire the cause of the detention, when we found that a freight-train had broken down in front, and that we might be detenus for some time, a mark for Indian bullets! Refreshments were produced and clubbed together; the “prairie-men” told stories; the hunters looked to their rifles, and polished their already resplendent chasing; some Mexicans sang Spanish songs, a New Englander ‘Yankee Doodle;’ some guessed, others calculated, till at last all grew sleepy: the trappers exhausted their stories, the singers their songs, and a Mormon, who had been setting forth the peculiar advantages of his creed, the patience of his auditors — till at length sonorous sounds, emitted by numerous nasal organs, proving infectious, I fell asleep to dream confusedly of ‘Yankee Doodle,’ pistols, and pickpockets.

In due time I awoke; we were stopping still, and there was a light on our right. “We’re at Rock Island, I suppose?” I asked sleepily. A laugh from my friends and the hunters followed the question; after which they informed me in the most polite tones that we were where we had been for the last five hours, namely stationary on the prairie. The intense cold and heavy dew which accompany an American dawn made me yet more amazed at the characteristic patience with which the Americans submit to an unavoidable necessity, however disagreeable. It is true that there were complaints of cold, and heavy sighs, but no blame was imputed to any one, and the quiescence of my companions made me quite ashamed of my English impatience. In England we should have had a perfect chorus of complaints, varied by “rowing” the conductor, abuse of the company, and resolutions to write to the Times, or bring up the subject of railway mismanagement in the House of Commons. These people sat quietly, ate, slept, and smoked, and were thankful when the cars at last moved off to their destination.

On we flew to the West, the land of Wild Indians and buffaloes, on the narrow rims of metal with which this “great people” is girdling the earth. Evening succeeded noon, and twilight to the blaze of a summer day; the yellow sun sank cloudless behind the waves of the rolling prairie, yet still we hurried on, only stopping our headlong course to take in wood and water at some nameless stations. When the sun set, it set behind the prairie waves. I was oblivious of any changes during the night, and at rosy dawn an ocean of long green grass encircled us round. Still on — belts of timber diversify the prospect — we rush into a thick wood, and, emerging from it, arrive at Rock Island, an unfinished-looking settlement, which might bear the name of the Desert City, situated at the confluence of the Rock River and Mississippi. We stop at a little wharf, where waits a little steamer of uncouth construction; we step in, a steam-whistle breaks the silence of that dewy dawn, and at a very rapid rate we run between high wooded bluff’s, down a turbid stream, whirling in rapid eddies. We steam for three miles, and land at a clearing containing the small settlement of Davenport. We had come down the Mississippi, mightiest of rivers! half a mile wide seventeen hundred miles from its mouth, and were in the far West. Waggons with white tilts, thick-hided oxen with heavy yokes, mettlesome steeds with high peaked saddles, picketed to stumps of trees, lashing away the flies with their tails; emigrants on blue boxes, wondering if this were the El Dorado of their dreams; arms, accoutrements, and baggage surrounded the house or shed where we were to breakfast. Most of our companions were bound for Nebraska, Oregon, and Utah, the most distant districts of which they would scarcely reach with their slow-paced animals for four months: exposed in the mean time to the attacks of the Sioux, Comanches, and Blackfeet.

There, in a long wooden shed with blackened rafters and an earthen floor, we breakfasted, at seven o’clock, on johnny-cake, squirrels, buffalo-hump, dampers, and buckwheat, tea and corn spirit, with a crowd of emigrants, hunters, and adventurers; and soon after re-embarked for Rock Island, our little steamer with difficulty stemming the mighty tide of the Father of Rivers. The machinery, such as it was, was very visible, the boiler patched in several places, and steam escaped in different directions. I asked the captain if he were not in the habit of “sitting upon the safety-valve,” but he stoutly denied the charge. The vernacular of this neighbourhood was rather startling to an English ear. “Who’s the alligator to hum?” asked a broad-shouldered Kentuckian of his neighbour, pointing to a frame shanty on the shore, which did not look to me like the abode of that amphibious and carnivorous creature. “Well, old alligator, what’s the time o’ day?” asked another man, bringing down a brawny paw, with a resounding thump, upon the Herculean shoulders of the first querist, thereby giving me the information that in the West alligator is a designation of the genus homo; in fact, that it is customary for a man to address his fellow-man as “old alligator,” instead of “old fellow.” At eight we left Rock Island, and, turning my unwilling steps eastward from the land of adventure and romance, we entered the cars for Chicago.

They were extremely crowded, and my friends, securing me the only comfortable seat in one of them, were obliged to go into the next, much to their indignation; but protestations were of no use. The engine-bell rang, a fearful rush followed, which resulted in the passage down the centre being filled with standing men; the conductor shouted “Go a-head,” and we were off for Lake Michigan in the “Lightning Express,” warranted to go sixty-seven miles an hour! I had found it necessary to study physiognomy since leaving England, and was horrified by the appearance of my next neighbour. His forehead was low, his deep-set and restless eyes significant of cunning, and I at once set him down as a swindler or pickpocket. My convictions of the truth of my inferences were so strong, that I removed my purse, in which, however, acting by advice, I never carried more than five dollars, from my pocket, leaving in it only my handkerchief and the checks for my baggage, knowing that I could not possibly keep awake the whole morning. In spite of my endeavours to the contrary, I soon sank into an oblivious state, from which I awoke to the consciousness that my companion was withdrawing his hand from my pocket. My first impulse was to make an exclamation, my second, which I carried into execution, to ascertain my loss; which I found to be the very alarming one of my baggage-checks; my whole property being thereby placed at this vagabond’s disposal, for I knew perfectly well, that if I claimed my trunks without my checks, the acute baggage-master would have set me down as a bold swindler. The keen-eyed conductor was not in the car, and, had he been there, the necessity for habitual suspicion, incidental to his position, would so far have removed his original sentiments of generosity as to make him turn a deaf ear to my request, and there was not one of my fellow-travellers whose physiognomy would have warranted me in appealing to him. So, recollecting that my checks were marked Chicago, and seeing that the thief’s ticket bore the same name, I resolved to wait the chapter of accidents, or the re-appearance of my friends. I was scarcely able to decide whether this proof of the reliance to be placed upon physiognomy was not an adequate compensation for the annoyance I was experiencing, at the probability of my hoarded treasures falling into the hands of an adventurer.

During the morning we crossed some prairie-country, and stopped at several stations, patches of successful cultivation showing that there must be cultivators, though I rarely saw their habitations. The cars still continued so full that my friends could not join me, and I began to be seriously anxious about the fate of my luggage. At mid-day, spires and trees, and lofty blocks of building, rising from a grass-prairie on one side, and from the blue waters of Lake Michigan on the other, showed that we were approaching Chicago. Along beaten tracks through the grass, waggons with white tilts drawn by oxen were proceeding west, sometimes accompanied by armed horsemen.

With a whoop like an Indian war-whoop the cars ran into a shed — they stopped — the pickpocket got up — I got up too — the baggage-master came to the door: “This gentleman has the checks for my baggage,” said I, pointing to the thief. Bewildered, he took them from his waistcoat-pocket, gave them to the baggage-master, and went hastily away. I had no inclination to cry “Stop thief!” and had barely time to congratulate myself on the fortunate impulse which had led me to say what I did, when my friends appeared from the next car. They were too highly amused with my recital to sympathise at all with my feelings of annoyance, and one of them, a gentleman filling a high situation in the East, laughed heartily, saying, in a thoroughly American tone, “The English ladies must be ‘cute customers, if they can outwit Yankee pickpockets.”

Meaning to stay all night at Chicago, we drove to the two best hotels, but, finding them full, were induced to betake ourselves to an advertising house, the name of which it is unnecessary to give, though it will never be effaced from my memory. The charge advertised was a dollar a day, and for this every comfort and advantage were promised.

The inn was a large brick building at the corner of a street, with nothing very unprepossessing in its external appearance. The wooden stairs were dirty enough, and, on ascending them to the so-called “ladies’ parlour,” I found a large, meanly-furnished apartment, garnished with six spittoons, which, however, to my disgust, did not prevent the floor from receiving a large quantity of tobacco-juice.

There were two rifles, a pistol, and a powder-flask on the table; two Irish emigrant women were seated on the floor (which swarmed with black beetles and ants), undressing a screaming child; a woman evidently in a fever was tossing restlessly on the sofa; two females in tarnished Bloomer habiliments were looking out of the window; and other extraordinary-looking human beings filled the room. I asked for accommodation for the night, hoping that I should find a room where I could sit quietly. A dirty chambermaid took me to a room or dormitory containing four beds. In one part of it three women were affectionately and assiduously nursing a sick child; in another, two were combing tangled black hair; upon which I declared that I must have a room to myself.

The chambermaid then took me down a long, darkish passage, and showed me a small room without a fireplace, and only lighted by a pane of glass in the door; consequently, it was nearly dark. There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up, and swarms of living creatures fell out of it, and the floor was literally alive with them. The sight of such a room made me feel quite ill, and it was with the greatest reluctance that I deposited my bonnet and shawl in it.

Outside the door were some medicine-bottles and other suspicious signs of illness, and, after making some cautious inquiries, we found that there was a case of typhus fever in the house, also one of Asiatic cholera, and three of ague! My friends were extremely shocked with the aspect of affairs. I believe that they were annoyed that I should see such a specimen of an hotel in their country, and they decided, that, as I could not possibly remain there for the night, I should go on to Detroit alone, as they were detained at Chicago on business. Though I certainly felt rather out of my element in this place, I was not at all sorry for the opportunity, thus accidentally given me, of seeing something of American society in its lowest grade.

We went down to dinner, and only the fact of not having tasted food for many hours could have made me touch it in such a room. We were in a long apartment, with one table down the middle, with plates laid for one hundred people. Every seat was occupied, these seats being benches of somewhat uncouth workmanship. The floor had recently been washed, and emitted a damp fetid odour. At one side was a large fireplace, where, in spite of the heat of the day, sundry manipulations were going on, coming under the general name of cookery. At the end of the room was a long leaden trough or sink, where three greasy scullery-boys without shoes, were perpetually engaged in washing plates, which they wiped upon their aprons. The plates, however, were not washed, only superficially rinsed. There were four brigand-looking waiters with prodigious beards and moustachios.

There was no great variety at table. There were eight boiled legs of mutton, nearly raw; six antiquated fowls, whose legs were of the consistence of guitar-strings; baked pork with “onion fixings,” the meat swimming in grease; and for vegetables, yams, corn-cobs, and squash. A cup of stewed tea, sweetened with molasses, stood by each plate, and no fermented liquor of any description was consumed by the company. There were no carving-knives, so each person hacked the joints with his own, and some of those present carved them dexterously with bowie-knives taken out of their belts. Neither were there salt-spoons, so everybody dipped his greasy knife into the little pewter pot containing salt. Dinner began, and after satisfying my own hunger with the least objectionable dish, namely “pork with onion fixings,” I had leisure to look round me.

Every quarter of the globe had contributed to swell that motley array, even China. Motives of interest or adventure had drawn them all together to this extraordinary outpost of civilisation, and soon would disperse them among lands where civilisation is unknown.

As far as I could judge, we were the only representatives of England. There were Scots, for Scots are always to be found where there is any hope of honest gain — there were Irish emigrants, speaking with a rich brogue — French traders from St. Louis — Mexicans from Santa Fe — Californians fitting out, and Californians coming home with fortunes made — keen-eyed speculators from New England — packmen from Canada — “Prairie-men,” trappers, hunters, and adventurers of all descriptions. Many of these wore bowie-knives or pistols in their belts. The costumes were very varied and picturesque. Two Bloomers in very poor green habiliments sat opposite to me, and did not appear to attract any attention, though Bloomerism is happily defunct in the States.

There had been three duels at Chicago in the morning, and one of the duellists, a swarthy, dark-browed villain, sat next but one to me. The quarrel originated in a gambling-house, and this Mexican’s opponent was mortally wounded, and there he sat, with the guilt of human blood upon his hands, describing to his vis-à-vis the way in which he had taken aim at his adversary, and no one seemed to think anything about it. From what I heard, I fear duelling must have become very common in the West, and no wonder, from the number of lawless spirits who congregate where they can be comparatively unfettered.

The second course consisted exclusively of pumpkin-pies; but when the waiters changed the plates, their way of cleaning the knives and forks was so peculiarly disgusting, that I did not attempt to eat anything. But I must remark that in this motley assembly there was nothing of coarseness, and not a word of bad language — indeed, nothing which could offend the most fastidious ears. I must in this respect bear very favourable testimony to the Americans; for, in the course of my somewhat extensive travels in the United States, and mixing as I did very frequently with the lower classes, I never heard any of that language which so frequently offends the ear in England.*

[I must not be misunderstood here. Profane language is only too notoriously common in the States, but custom, which in America is frequently stronger than law, totally prohibits its use before ladies.]

I suppose that there is no country in the world where the presence of a lady is such a restraint upon manners and conversation. A female, whatever her age or rank may be, is invariably treated with deferential respect; and if this deference may occasionally trespass upon the limits of absurdity, or if the extinct chivalry of the past ages of Europe meets with a partial revival upon the shores of America, this extreme is vastly preferable to the brusquerie, if not incivility, which ladies, as I have heard, too often meet with in England.

The apparently temperate habits in the United States form another very pleasing feature to dwell upon. It is to be feared that there is a considerable amount of drunkenness among the English, Irish, and Germans, who form a large portion of the American population; but the temperate, tea-drinking, water-drinking habits of the native Americans are most remarkable. In fact, I only saw one intoxicated person in the States, and he was a Scotch fiddler. At the hotels, even when sitting down to dinner in a room with four hundred persons, I never on any occasion saw more than two bottles of wine on the table, and I know from experience that in many private dwelling-houses there is no fermented liquor at all. In the West, more especially at the rude hotels where I stopped, I never saw wine, beer, or spirits upon the table; and the spectacle gratified me exceedingly, of seeing fierce-looking, armed, and bearded men, drinking frequently in the day of that cup “which cheers, but not inebriates.” Water is a beverage which I never enjoyed in purity and perfection before I visited America. It is provided in abundance in the cars, the hotels, the waiting-rooms, the steamers, and even the stores, in crystal jugs or stone filters, and it is always iced. This may be either the result or the cause of the temperance of the people.

Ancient history tells us of a people who used to intoxicate their slaves, and, while they were in that condition, display them to their sons, to disgust them early with the degrading vice of drunkenness.

The emigrants who have left our shores, more particularly the Irish, have voluntarily enacted the part formerly assigned to the slaves of the Spartans. Certain it is that their intemperance, with the evils of which the Americans are only too well acquainted, has produced a beneficial result, by causing a strong re-action in favour of temperance principles.

The national oath of the English, which has earned for them abroad a horrible sobriquet, and the execrations which belong to the French, Italian, and Spanish nations, are unfortunately but too well known, because they are too often heard. Indeed, I have scarcely ever travelled in England by coach or railway — I have seldom driven through a crowded street, or ridden on horseback through quiet agricultural villages — without hearing language in direct defiance of the third commandment. Profanity and drunkenness are among the crying sins of the English lower orders. Much has been said upon the subject of swearing in the United States. I can only say that, travelling in them as I have travelled in England, and mixing with people of a much lower class than I ever was thrown among in England — mixing with these people too on terms of perfect equality — I never heard an oath till after I crossed the Canadian frontier. With regard to both these things, of course I only speak of what fell under my own observation.

After dinner, being only too glad to escape from a house where pestilence was rife, we went out into Chicago. It is a wonderful place, and tells more forcibly of the astonishing energy and progress of the Americans than anything I saw. Forty years ago the whole ground on which the town stands could have been bought for six hundred dollars; now, a person would give ten thousand for the site of a single store. It is built on a level prairie, only slightly elevated above the lake surface. It lies on both sides of the Chicago river, about a mile above its entrance into Lake Michigan. By the construction of piers, a large artificial harbour has been made at the mouth of this river.

The city has sprung up rapidly, and is supplied with all the accessories of a high state of civilisation. Chicago, in everything that contributes to real use and comfort, will compare favourably with any city in the world. In 1830 it was a mere trading-post, situated in the theatre of the Black Hawk war. In 1850 its population was only 28,000 people; it has now not less than 60,000.* It had not a mile of railway in 1850; now fourteen lines radiate from it, bringing to it the trade of an area of country equalling 150,000 square miles. One hundred heavy trains arrive and depart from it daily. It has a commerce commensurate with its magnitude. It employs about 70,000 tons of shipping, nearly one-half being steamers and propellers. The lumber-trade, which is chiefly carried on with Buffalo, is becoming very profitable. The exports of Chicago, to the East, of bread-stuffs for the past year, exceeded 13,000,000 bushels; and a city which, in 1840, numbered only 4000 inhabitants, is now one of the largest exporting grain-markets in the world.

* [By the last census, taken in June, 1855, the population of Chicago was given at 87,000 souls, thus showing the extraordinary increase of 27,000 within a year.]

Chicago is connected with the western rivers by a sloop canal — one of the most magnificent works ever undertaken. It is also connected with the Mississippi at several points by railroad. It is regularly laid out with wide airy streets, much more cleanly than those of Cincinnati. The wooden houses are fast giving place to lofty substantial structures of brick, or a stone similar in appearance to white marble, and are often six stories high. These houses, as in all business streets in the American cities, are disfigured, up to the third story, by large glaring sign-boards containing the names and occupations of their residents. The side walks are of wood, and, wherever they are made of this unsubstantial material, one frequently finds oneself stepping into a hole, or upon the end of a board which tilts up under one’s feet. The houses are always let in flats, so that there are generally three stores one above another. These stores are very handsome, those of the outfitters particularly so, though the quantity of goods displayed in the streets gives them rather a barbaric appearance. The side walks are literally encumbered with bales of scarlet flannel, and every other article of an emigrant’s outfit. At the outfitters’ stores you can buy anything, from a cart-nail to a revolver; from a suit of oilskin to a paper of needles. The streets present an extraordinary spectacle. Everything reminds that one is standing on the very verge of western civilisation.

The roads are crowded to an inconvenient extent with carriages of curious construction, waggons, carts, and men on horseback, and the side-walks with eager foot-passengers. By the side of a carriage drawn by two or three handsome horses, a creaking waggon with a white tilt, drawn by four heavy oxen, may be seen — Mexicans and hunters dash down the crowded streets at full gallop on mettlesome steeds, with bits so powerful as to throw their horses on their haunches when they meet with any obstacle. They ride animals that look too proud to touch the earth, on high-peaked saddles, with pistols in the holsters, short stirrups, and long, cruel-looking Spanish spurs. They wear scarlet caps or palmetto hats, and high jack-boots. Knives are stuck into their belts, and light rifles are slung behind them. These picturesque beings — the bullock-waggons setting out for the Far West — the medley of different nations and costumes in the streets — make the city a spectacle of great interest.

The deep hollow roar of the locomotive, and the shrill scream from the steamboat, are heard here all day; a continuous stream of life ever bustles through the city, and, standing as it does on the very verge of western civilisation, Chicago is a vast emporium of the trade of the districts east and west of the Mississippi.

At an office in one of the streets Mr. C—— took my ticket for Toronto by railway, steamer, railway, and steamer, only paying eight dollars and a half, or about thirty-four shillings, for a journey of seven hundred miles!

We returned to tea at the hotel, and found our viands and companions just the same as at dinner. It is impossible to give an idea of the “western men” to any one who has not seen one at least as a specimen. They are the men before whom the Indians melt away as grass before the scythe. They shoot them down on the smallest provocation, and speak of “head of Indian,” as we do in England of head of game. Their bearing is bold, reckless, and independent in the extreme; they are as ready to fight a foe as to wait upon women and children with tender assiduity; their very appearance says to you, “Stranger, I belong to the greatest, most enlightened, and most progressive nation on earth; I may be the President or a millionaire next year; I don’t care a straw for you or any one else.”

Illinois is a State which has sprung up, as if by magic, to be one of the most fruitful in the West. It was settled by men from the New England States — men who carried with them those characteristics which have made the New Englander’s career one of active enterprise, and successful progress, wherever he has been. Not many years ago the name of Illinois was nearly unknown, and on her soil the hardy settler battled with the forest-trees for space in which to sow his first crops. Her roads were merely rude and often impassable tracks through forest or prairie; now she has in operation and course of construction two thousand and seventy miles of those iron sinews of commercial progress — railroads, running like a network over the State.

At seven o’clock, with a feeling of great relief, mingled with thankfulness at having escaped untouched by the terrible pestilence which had ravaged Chicago, I left the hotel, more appropriately termed a “caravanserai” and my friends placed me in the “Lightning Express,” warranted to go sixty-seven miles an hour. Unless it may be St. Louis, I fancy that Chicago is more worth a visit than any other of the western cities. Even one day at it was worth a voyage across the Atlantic, and a land-journey of eighteen hundred miles.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/english/chapter8.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31