Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 3

Company on board the Steam Boat — Scenery of the Mississippi — Crocodiles — Arrival at Memphis — Nashoba

The weather was warm and bright, and we found the guard of the boat, as they call the gallery that runs round the cabins, a very agreeable station; here we all sat as long as light lasted, and sometimes wrapped in our shawls, we enjoyed the clear bright beauty of American moonlight long after every passenger but ourselves had retired. We had a full complement of passengers on board. The deck, as is usual, was occupied by the Kentucky flat-boat men, returning from New Orleans, after having disposed of the boat and cargo which they had conveyed thither, with no other labour than that of steering her, the current bringing her down at the rate of four miles an hour. We had about two hundred of these men on board, but the part of the vessel occupied by them is so distinct from the cabins, that we never saw them, except when we stopped to take in wood; and then they ran, or rather sprung and vaulted over each other’s heads to the shore, whence they all assisted in carrying wood to supply the steam engine; the performance of this duty being a stipulated part of the payment of their passage.

From the account given by a man servant we had on board, who shared their quarters, they are a most disorderly set of persons, constantly gambling and wrangling, very seldom sober, and never suffering a night to pass without giving practical proof of the respect in which they hold the doctrines of equality, and community of property. The clerk of the vessel was kind enough to take our man under his protection, and assigned him a berth in his own little nook; but as this was not inaccessible, he told him by no means to detach his watch or money from his person during the night. Whatever their moral characteristics may be, these Kentuckians are a very noble-looking race of men; their average height considerably exceeds that of Europeans, and their countenances, excepting when disfigured by red hair, which is not unfrequent, extremely handsome.

The gentlemen in the cabin (we had no ladies) would certainly neither, from their language, manners, nor appearance, have received that designation in Europe; but we soon found their claim to it rested on more substantial ground, for we heard them nearly all addressed by the titles of general, colonel, and major. On mentioning these military dignities to an English friend some time afterwards, he told me that he too had made the voyage with the same description of company, but remarking that there was not a single captain among them; he made the observation to a fellow-passenger, and asked how he accounted for it. “Oh, sir, the captains are all on deck,” was the reply.

Our honours, however, were not all military, for we had a judge among us. I know it is equally easy and invidious to ridicule the peculiarities of appearance and manner in people of a different nation from ourselves; we may, too, at the same moment, be undergoing the same ordeal in their estimation; and, moreover, I am by no means disposed to consider whatever is new to me as therefore objectionable; but, nevertheless, it was impossible not to feel repugnance to many of the novelties that now surrounded me.

The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife, soon forced us to feel that we were not surrounded by the generals, colonels, and majors of the old world; and that the dinner hour was to be any thing rather than an hour of enjoyment.

The little conversation that went forward while we remained in the room, was entirely political, and the respective claims of Adams and Jackson to the presidency were argued with more oaths and more vehemence than it had ever been my lot to hear. Once a colonel appeared on the verge of assaulting a major, when a huge seven-foot Kentuckian gentleman horse-dealer, asked of the heavens to confound them both, and bade them sit still and be d — d. We too thought we should share this sentence; at least sitting still in the cabin seemed very nearly to include the rest of it, and we never tarried there a moment longer than was absolutely necessary to eat.

The unbroken flatness of the banks of the Mississippi continued unvaried for many miles above New Orleans; but the graceful and luxuriant palmetto, the dark and noble ilex, and the bright orange, were every where to be seen, and it was many days before we were weary of looking at them. We occasionally used the opportunity of the boat’s stopping to take in wood for a ten minutes’ visit to the shore; we in this manner explored a field of sugar canes, and loaded ourselves with as much of the sweet spoil as we could carry. Many of the passengers seemed fond of the luscious juice that is easily expressed from the canes, but it was too sweet for my palate. We also visited, in the same rapid manner, a cotton plantation. A handsome spacious building was pointed out to us as a convent, where a considerable number of young ladies were educated by the nuns.

At one or two points the wearisome level line of forest is relieved by bluffs, as they call the short intervals of high ground. The town of Natches is beautifully situated on one of these high spots; the climate here, in the warm season, is as fatal as that of New Orleans; were it not for this, Natches would have great attractions to new settlers. The beautiful contrast that its bright green hill forms with the dismal line of black forest that stretches on every side, the abundant growth of pawpaw, palmetto and orange, the copious variety of sweet-scented flowers that flourish there, all make it appear like an oasis in the desert. Natches is the furthest point to the north at which oranges ripen in the open air, or endure the winter without shelter. With the exception of this sweet spot, I thought all the little towns and villages we passed, wretched looking, in the extreme. As the distance from New Orleans increased, the air of wealth and comfort exhibited in its immediate neighbourhood disappeared, and but for one or two clusters of wooden houses, calling themselves towns, and borrowing some pompous name, generally from Greece or Rome, we might have thought ourselves the first of the human race who had ever penetrated into this territory of bears and alligators. But still from time to time appeared the hut of the wood-cutter, who supplies the steam-boats with fuel, at the risk, or rather with the assurance of early death, in exchange for dollars and whiskey. These sad dwellings are nearly all of them inundated during the winter, and the best of them are constructed on piles, which permit the water to reach its highest level without drowning the wretched inhabitants. These unhappy beings are invariably the victims of ague, which they meet recklessly, sustained by the incessant use of ardent spirits. The squalid look of the miserable wives and children of these men was dreadful, and often as the spectacle was renewed I could never look at it with indifference. Their complexion is of a blueish white, that suggests the idea of dropsy; this is invariable, and the poor little ones wear exactly the same ghastly hue. A miserable cow and a few pigs standing knee-deep in water, distinguish the more prosperous of these dwellings, and on the whole I should say that I never witnessed human nature reduced so low, as it appeared in the wood-cutters’ huts on the unwholesome banks of the Mississippi.

It is said that at some points of this dismal river, crocodiles are so abundant as to add the terror of their attacks to the other sufferings of a dwelling there. We were told a story of a squatter, who having “located” himself close to the river’s edge, proceeded to build his cabin. This operation is soon performed, for social feeling and the love of whiskey bring all the scanty neighbourhood round a new corner, to aid him in cutting down trees, and in rolling up the logs, till the mansion is complete. This was done; the wife and five young children were put in possession of their new home, and slept soundly after a long march. Towards daybreak the husband and father was awakened by a faint cry, and looking up, beheld relics of three of his children scattered over the floor, and an enormous crocodile, with several young ones around her, occupied in devouring the remnants of their horrid meal. He looked round for a weapon, but finding none, and aware that unarmed he could do nothing, he raised himself gently on his bed, and contrived to crawl from thence through a window, hoping that his wife, whom he left sleeping, might with the remaining children rest undiscovered till his return. He flew to his nearest neighbour and besought his aid; in less than half an hour two men returned with him, all three well armed; but alas! they were too late! the wife and her two babes lay mangled on their bloody bed. The gorged reptiles fell an easy prey to their assailants, who, upon examining the place, found the hut had been constructed close to the mouth of a large hole, almost a cavern, where the monster had hatched her hateful brood.

Among other sights of desolation which mark this region, condemned of nature, the lurid glare of a burning forest was almost constantly visible after sunset, and when the wind so willed, the smoke arising from it floated in heavy vapour over our heads. Not all the novelty of the scene, not all its vastness, could prevent its heavy horror wearying the spirits. Perhaps the dinners and suppers I have described may help to account for this; but certain it is, that when we had wondered for a week at the ceaseless continuity of forest; had first admired, and then wearied of the festooned drapery of Spanish moss; when we had learned to distinguish the different masses of timber that passed us, or that we passed, as a “snag,” a “log” or a “sawyer;” when we had finally made up our minds that the gentlemen of the Kentucky and Ohio military establishments, were not of the same genus as those of the Tuilleries and St. James’s, we began to wish that we could sleep more hours away. As we advanced to the northward we were no longer cheered by the beautiful border of palmettos; and even the amusement of occasionally spying out a sleeping crocodile was over.

Just in this state, when we would have fain believed that every mile we went, carried us two towards Memphis, a sudden and violent shock startled us frightfully.

“It is a sawyer!” said one.

“It is a snag!” cried another.

“We are aground!” exclaimed the captain.

“Aground? Good heavens! and how long shall we stay here?”

“The Lord in his providence can only tell, but long enough to tire my patience, I expect.”

And the poor English ladies, how fared they the while?

Two breakfasts, two dinners, and a supper did they eat, with the Ohio and Kentucky gentlemen, before they moved an inch. Several steam-boats passed while we were thus enthralled; but some were not strong enough to attempt drawing us off, and some attempted it, but were not strong enough to succeed; at length a vast and mighty “thing of life” approached, threw out grappling irons; and in three minutes the business was done; again we saw the trees and mud slide swiftly past us; and a hearty shout from every passenger on deck declared their joy.

At length we had the pleasure of being told that we had arrived at Memphis; but this pleasure was considerably abated by the hour of our arrival, which was midnight, and by the rain, which was falling in torrents.

Memphis stands on a high bluff, and at the time of our arrival was nearly inaccessible. The heavy rain which had been falling for many hours would have made any steep ascent difficult, but unfortunately a new road had been recently marked out, which beguiled us into its almost bottomless mud, from the firmer footing of the unbroken cliff. Shoes and gloves were lost in the mire, for we were glad to avail ourselves of all our limbs, and we reached the grand hotel in a most deplorable state.

Miss Wright was well known there, and as soon as her arrival was announced, every one seemed on the alert to receive her, and we soon found ourselves in possession of the best rooms in the hotel. The house was new, and in what appeared to me a very comfortless condition, but I was then new to Western America, and unaccustomed to their mode of “getting along,” as they term it. This phrase is eternally in use among them, and seems to mean existing with as few of the comforts of life as possible.

We slept soundly however, and rose in the hope of soon changing our mortar-smelling-quarters for Miss Wright’s Nashoba.

But we presently found that the rain which had fallen during the night would make it hazardous to venture through the forests of Tennessee in any sort of carriage; we therefore had to pass the day at our queer comfortless hotel. The steam-boat had wearied me of social meals, and I should have been thankful to have eaten our dinner of hard venison and peach-sauce in a private room; but this, Miss Wright said was impossible; the lady of the house would consider the proposal as a personal affront, and, moreover, it would be assuredly refused. This latter argument carried weight with it, and when the great bell was sounded from an upper window of the house, we proceeded to the dining-room. The table was laid for fifty persons, and was already nearly full. Our party had the honour of sitting near “the lady,” but to check the proud feelings to which such distinction might give birth, my servant, William, sat very nearly opposite to me. The company consisted of all the shop-keepers (store-keepers as they are called throughout the United States) of the little town. The mayor also, who was a friend of Miss Wright’s, was of the party; he is a pleasing gentlemanlike man, and seems strangely misplaced in a little town on the Mississippi. We were told that since the erection of this hotel, it has been the custom for all the male inhabitants of the town to dine and breakfast there. They ate in perfect silence, and with such astonishing rapidity that their dinner was over literally before our’s was began; the instant they ceased to eat, they darted from the table in the same moody silence which they had preserved since they entered the room, and a second set took their places, who performed their silent parts in the same manner. The only sounds heard were those produced by the knives and forks, with the unceasing chorus of coughing, &c. No women were present except ourselves and the hostess; the good women of Memphis being well content to let their lords partake of Mrs. Anderson’s turkeys and venison, (without their having the trouble of cooking for them), whilst they regale themselves on mash and milk at home.

The remainder of the day passed pleasantly enough in rambling round the little town, which is situated at the most beautiful point of the Mississippi; the river is here so wide as to give it the appearance of a noble lake; an island, covered with lofty forest trees divides it, and relieves by its broad mass of shadow the uniformity of its waters. The town stretches in a rambling irregular manner along the cliff, from the Wolf River, one of the innumerable tributaries to the Mississippi, to about a mile below it. Half a mile more of the cliff beyond the town is cleared of trees, and produces good pasture for horses, cows, and pigs; sheep they had none. At either end of this space the forest again rears its dark wall, and seems to say to man, “so far shalt thou come, and no farther!” Courage and industry, however, have braved the warning. Behind this long street the town straggles back into the forest, and the rude path that leads to the more distant log dwellings becomes wilder at every step. The ground is broken by frequent water-courses, and the bridges that lead across them are formed by trunks of trees thrown over the stream, which support others of smaller growth, that are laid across them. These bridges are not very pleasant to pass, for they totter under the tread of a man, and tremble most frightfully beneath a horse or a waggon; they are, however, very picturesque. The great height of the trees, the quantity of pendant vine branches that hang amongst them; and the variety of gay plumaged birds, particularly the small green parrot, made us feel we were in a new world; and a repetition of our walk the next morning would have pleased us well, but Miss Wright was anxious to get home, and we were scarcely less so to see her Nashoba. A clumsy sort of caravan drawn by two horses was prepared for us; and we set off in high spirits for an expedition of fifteen miles through the forest. To avoid passing one of the bridges above described, which was thought insecure, our negro driver took us through a piece of water, which he assured us was not deep “to matter” however we soon lost sight of our pole, and as we were evidently descending, we gently remonstrated with him on the danger of proceeding, but he only grinned, and flogged in reply; we soon saw the front wheels disappear, and horses began to plunge and kick most alarmingly, but still without his looking at all disturbed. At length the splinter-bar gave way, upon which the black philosopher said very composedly, “I expect you’ll best be riding out upon the horses, as we’ve got into an unhandsome fix here.” Miss Wright, who sat composedly smiling at the scene, said, “Yes, Jacob, that is what we must do;” and with some difficulty we, in this manner, reached the shore, and soon found ourselves again assembled round Mrs. Anderson’s fire.

It was soon settled that we must delay our departure till the waters had subsided, but Miss Wright was too anxious to reach home to endure this delay and she set off again on horseback, accompanied by our man servant, who told me afterwards that they rode through places that might have daunted the boldest hunter, but that “Miss Wright took it quite easy.”

The next day we started again, and the clear air, the bright sun, the novel wildness of the dark forest, and our keenly awakened curiosity, made the excursion delightful, and enabled us to bear without shrinking the bumps and bruises we encountered. We soon lost all trace of a road, at least so it appeared to us, for the stumps of the trees, which had been cut away to open a passage, were left standing three feet high. Over these, the high-hung Deerborn, as our carriage was called, passed safely; but it required some miles of experience to convince us that every stump would not be our last; it was amusing to watch the cool and easy skill with which the driver wound his horses and wheels among these stumps. I thought he might have been imported to Bond street with great advantage. The forest became thicker and more dreary-looking every mile we advanced, but our ever-grinning negro declared it was a right good road, and that we should be sure to get to Nashoba.

And so we did. . . . and one glance sufficed to convince me that every idea I had formed of the place was as far as possible from the truth. Desolation was the only feeling — the only word that presented itself; but it was not spoken. I think, however, that Miss Wright was aware of the painful impression the sight of her forest home produced on me, and I doubt not that the conviction reached us both at the same moment, that we had erred in thinking that a few months passed together at this spot could be productive of pleasure to either. But to do her justice, I believe her mind was so exclusively occupied by the object she had then in view, that all things else were worthless, or indifferent to her. I never heard or read of any enthusiasm approaching her’s, except in some few instances, in ages past, of religious fanaticism.

It must have been some feeling equally powerful which enabled Miss Wright, accustomed to all the comfort and refinement of Europe, to imagine not only that she herself could exist in this wilderness, but that her European friends could enter there, and not feel dismayed at the savage aspect of the scene. The annexed plate gives a faithful view of the cleared space and buildings which form the settlement. Each building consisted of two large rooms furnished in the most simple manner; nor had they as yet collected round them any of those minor comforts which ordinary minds class among the necessaries of life. But in this our philosophical friend seemed to see no evil; nor was there any mixture of affectation in this indifference; it was a circumstance really and truly beneath her notice. Her whole heart and soul were occupied by the hope of raising the African to the level of European intellect; and even now, that I have seen this favourite fabric of her imagination fall to pieces beneath her feet, I cannot recall the self-devotion with which she gave herself to it, without admiration.

The only white persons we found at Nashoba were my amiable friend, Mrs. W— the sister of Miss Wright, and her husband. I think they had between thirty and forty slaves, including children, but when I was there no school had been established. Books and other materials for the great experiment had been collected, and one or two professors engaged, but nothing was yet organized. I found my friend Mrs. W— in very bad health, which she confessed she attributed to the climate. This naturally so much alarmed me for my children, that I decided upon leaving the place with as little delay as possible, and did so at the end of ten days.

I do not exactly know what was the immediate cause which induced Miss Wright to abandon a scheme which had taken such possession of her imagination, and on which she had expended so much money; but many months had not elapsed before I learnt, with much pleasure, that she and her sister had also left it. I think it probable that she became aware upon returning to Nashoba, that the climate was too hostile to their health. All I know farther of Nashoba is, that Miss Wright having found (from some cause or other) that it was impossible to pursue her object, herself accompanied her slaves to Hayti, and left them there, free, and under the protection of the President.

I found no beauty in the scenery round Nashoba, nor can I conceive that it would possess any even in summer. The trees were so close to each other as not to permit the growth of underwood, the great ornament of the forest at New Orleans, and still less of our seeing any openings, where the varying effects of light and shade might atone for the absence of other objects. The clearing round the settlement appeared to me inconsiderable and imperfect; but I was told that they had grown good crops of cotton and Indian corn. The weather was dry and agreeable, and the aspects of the heavens by night surprisingly beautiful. I never saw moonlight so clear, so pure, so powerful.

We returned to Memphis on the 26th January, 1828, and found ourselves obliged to pass five days there, awaiting a steam-boat for Cincinnati, to which metropolis of the west, I was now determined to proceed with my family to await the arrival of Mr. Trollope. We were told by everyone we spoke to at Memphis, that it was in all respects the finest situation west of the Alleghanies. We found many lovely walks among the broken forest glades around Memphis, which, together with a morning and evening enjoyment of the effects of a glowing horizon on the river, enabled us to wait patiently for the boat that was to bear us away.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50