It had been promised to us that we should start from La Crosse by the river steamer immediately on our arrival there; but, on reaching La Crosse, we found that the vessel destined to take us up the river had not yet come down. She was bringing a regiment from Minnesota, and, under such circumstances, some pardon might be extended to irregularities. This plea was made by one of the boat clerks in a very humble tone, and was fully accepted by us. The wonder was that, at such a period, all means of public conveyance were not put absolutely out of gear. One might surmise that when regiments were constantly being moved for the purposes of civil war — when the whole North had but the one object of collecting together a sufficient number of men to crush the South — ordinary traveling for ordinary purposes would be difficult, slow, and subject to sudden stoppages. Such, however, was not the case either in the Northern or Western States. The trains ran much as usual, and those connected with the boats and railways were just as anxious as ever to secure passengers. The boat clerk at La Crosse apologized amply for the delay; and we sat ourselves down with patience to await the arrival of the second Minnesota Regiment on its way to Washington.
During the four hours that we were kept waiting we were harbored on board a small steamer; and at about eleven the terribly harsh whistle that is made by the Mississippi boats informed us that the regiment was arriving. It came up to the quay in two steamers — 750 being brought in that which was to take us back, and 250 in a smaller one. The moon was very bright, and great flaming torches were lit on the vessel’s side, so that all the operations of the men were visible. The two steamers had run close up, thrusting us away from the quay in their passage, but doing it so gently that we did not even feel the motion. These large boats — and their size may be understood from the fact that one of them had just brought down 750 men — are moved so easily and so gently that they come gliding in among each other without hesitation and without pause. On English waters we do not willingly run ships against each other; and when we do so unwillingly, they bump and crush and crash upon each other, and timbers fly while men are swearing. But here there was neither crashing nor swearing; and the boats noiselessly pressed against each other as though they were cased in muslin and crinoline.
I got out upon the quay and stood close by the plank, watching each man as he left the vessel and walked across toward the railway. Those whom I had previously seen in tents were not equipped; but these men were in uniform, and each bore his musket. Taking them altogether, they were as fine a set of men as I ever saw collected. No man could doubt, on seeing them, that they bore on their countenances the signs of higher breeding and better education than would be seen in a thousand men enlisted in England. I do not mean to argue from this that Americans are better than English. I do not mean to argue here that they are even better educated. My assertion goes to show that the men generally were taken from a higher level in the community than that which fills our own ranks. It was a matter of regret to me, here and on many subsequent occasions, to see men bound for three years to serve as common soldiers who were so manifestly fitted for a better and more useful life. To me it is always a source of sorrow to see a man enlisted. I feel that the individual recruit is doing badly with himself — carrying himself, and the strength and intelligence which belong to him, to a bad market. I know that there must be soldiers; but as to every separate soldier I regret that he should be one of them. And the higher is the class from which such soldiers are drawn, the greater the intelligence of the men so to be employed, the deeper with me is that feeling of regret. But this strikes one much less in an old country than in a country that is new. In the old countries population is thick and food sometimes scarce. Men can be spared; and any employment may be serviceable, even though that employment be in itself so unproductive as that of fighting battles or preparing for them. But in the Western States of America every arm that can guide a plow is of incalculable value. Minnesota was admitted as a State about three years before this time, and its whole population is not much above 150,000. Of this number perhaps 40,000 may be working men. And now this infant State, with its huge territory and scanty population, is called upon to send its heart’s blood out to the war.
And it has sent its heart’s best blood. Forth they came — fine, stalwart, well-grown fellows — looking, to my eye, as though they had as yet but faintly recognized the necessary severity of military discipline. To them hitherto the war had seemed to be an arena on which each might do something for his country which that country would recognize. To themselves as yet — and to me also — they were a band of heroes, to be reduced by the compressing power of military discipline to the lower level, but more necessary position, of a regiment of soldiers. Ah, me! how terrible to them has been the breaking up of that delusion! When a poor yokel in England is enlisted with a shilling and a promise of unlimited beer and glory, one pities, and, if possible, would save him. But with him the mode of life to which he goes may not be much inferior to that he leaves. It may be that for him soldiering is the best trade possible in his circumstances. It may keep him from the hen-roosts, and perhaps from his neighbors’ pantries; and discipline may be good for him. Population is thick with us; and there are many whom it may be well to collect and make available under the strictest surveillance. But of these men whom I saw entering on their career upon the banks of the Mississippi, many were fathers of families, many were owners of lands, many were educated men capable of high aspirations — all were serviceable members of their State. There were probably there not three or four of whom it would be well that the State should be rid. As soldiers, fit or capable of being made fit for the duties they had undertaken, I could find but one fault with them. Their average age was too high. There were men among them with grizzled beards, and many who had counted thirty, thirty-five, and forty years. They had, I believe, devoted themselves with a true spirit of patriotism. No doubt each had some ulterior hope as to himself, as has every mortal patriot. Regulus, when he returned hopeless to Carthage, trusted that some Horace would tell his story. Each of these men from Minnesota looked probably forward to his reward; but the reward desired was of a high class.
The first great misery to be endured by these regiments will be the military lesson of obedience which they must learn before they can be of any service. It always seemed to me, when I came near them, that they had not as yet recognized the necessary austerity of an officer’s duty. Their idea of a captain was the stage idea of a leader of dramatic banditti — a man to be followed and obeyed as a leader, but to be obeyed with that free and easy obedience which is accorded to the reigning chief of the forty thieves. “Waal, captain,” I have heard a private say to his officer, as he sat on one seat in a railway car, with his feet upon the back of another. And the captain has looked as though he did not like it. The captain did not like it; but the poor private was being fast carried to that destiny which he would like still less. From the first I have had faith in the Northern army; but from the first I have felt that the suffering to be endured by these free and independent volunteers would be very great. A man, to be available as a private soldier, must be compressed and belted in till he be a machine.
As soon as the men had left the vessel we walked over the side of it and took possession. “I am afraid your cabin won’t be ready for a quarter of an hour,” said the clerk. “Such a body of men as that will leave some dirt after them.” I assured him, of course, that our expectations under such circumstances were very limited, and that I was fully aware that the boat and the boat’s company were taken up with matters of greater moment than the carriage of ordinary passengers. But to this he demurred altogether. “The regiments were very little to them, but occasioned much trouble. Everything, however, should be square in fifteen minutes.” At the expiration of the time named the key of our state-room was given to us, and we found the appurtenances as clean as though no soldier had ever put his foot upon the vessel.
From La Crosse to St. Paul the distance up the river is something over 200 miles; and from St. Paul down to Dubuque in Iowa, to which we went on our return, the distance is 450 miles. We were, therefore, for a considerable time on board these boats — more so than such a journey may generally make necessary, as we were delayed at first by the soldiers, and afterward by accidents, such as the breaking of a paddle-wheel, and other causes, to which navigation on the Upper Mississippi seems to be liable. On the whole, we slept on board four nights, and lived on board as many days. I cannot say that the life was comfortable, though I do not know that it could be made more so by any care on the part of the boat owners. My first complaint would be against the great heat of the cabins. The Americans, as a rule, live in an atmosphere which is almost unbearable by an Englishman. To this cause, I am convinced, is to be attributed their thin faces, their pale skins, their unenergetic temperament — unenergetic as regards physical motion — and their early old age. The winters are long and cold in America, and mechanical ingenuity is far extended. These two facts together have created a system of stoves, hot-air pipes, steam chambers, and heating apparatus so extensive that, from autumn till the end of spring, all inhabited rooms are filled with the atmosphere of a hot oven. An Englishman fancies that he is to be baked, and for awhile finds it almost impossible to exist in the air prepared for him. How the heat is engendered on board the river steamers I do not know, but it is engendered to so great a degree that the sitting-cabins are unendurable. The patient is therefore driven out at all hours into the outside balconies of the boat, or on to the top roof — for it is a roof rather than a deck — and there, as he passes through the air at the rate of twenty miles an hour, finds himself chilled to the very bones. That is my first complaint. But as the boats are made for Americans, and as Americans like hot air, I do not put it forward with any idea that a change ought to be effected. My second complaint is equally unreasonable, and is quite as incapable of a remedy as the first. Nine-tenths of the travelers carry children with them. They are not tourists engaged on pleasure excursions, but men and women intent on the business of life. They are moving up and down looking for fortune and in search of new homes. Of course they carry with them all their household goods. Do not let any critic say that I grudge these young travelers their right to locomotion. Neither their right to locomotion is grudged by me, nor any of those privileges which are accorded in America to the rising generation. The habits of their country and the choice of their parents give to them full dominion over all hours and over all places, and it would ill become a foreigner to make such habits and such choice a ground of serious complaint. But, nevertheless, the uncontrolled energies of twenty children round one’s legs do not convey comfort or happiness, when the passing events are producing noise and storm rather than peace and sunshine. I must protest that American babies are an unhappy race. They eat and drink just as they please; they are never punished; they are never banished, snubbed, and kept in the background as children are kept with us, and yet they are wretched and uncomfortable. My heart has bled for them as I have heard them squalling by the hour together in agonies of discontent and dyspepsia. Can it be, I wonder, that children are happier when they are made to obey orders, and are sent to bed at six o’clock, than when allowed to regulate their own conduct; that bread and milk are more favorable to laughter and soft, childish ways than beef-steaks and pickles three times a day; that an occasional whipping, even, will conduce to rosy cheeks? It is an idea which I should never dare to broach to an American mother; but I must confess that, after my travels on the Western Continent, my opinions have a tendency in that direction. Beef-steaks and pickles certainly produce smart little men and women. Let that be taken for granted. But rosy laughter and winning, childish ways are, I fancy, the produce of bread and milk. But there was a third reason why traveling on these boats was not so pleasant as I had expected. I could not get my fellow-travelers to talk to me. It must be understood that our fellow-travelers were not generally of that class which we Englishmen, in our pride, designate as gentlemen and ladies. They were people, as I have said, in search of new homes and new fortunes. But I protest that as such they would have been, in those parts, much more agreeable as companions to me than any gentlemen or any ladies, if only they would have talked to me. I do not accuse them of any incivility. If addressed, they answered me. If application was made by me for any special information, trouble was taken to give it me. But I found no aptitude, no wish for conversation — nay, even a disinclination to converse. In the Western States I do not think that I was ever addressed first by an American sitting next to me at table. Indeed, I never held any conversation at a public table in the West. I have sat in the same room with men for hours, and have not had a word spoken to me. I have done my very best to break through this ice, and have always failed. A Western American man is not a talking man. He will sit for hours over a stove, with a cigar in his mouth and his hat over his eyes, chewing the cud of reflection. A dozen will sit together in the same way, and there shall not be a dozen words spoken between them in an hour. With the women one’s chance of conversation is still worse. It seemed as though the cares of the world had been too much for them, and that all talking excepting as to business — demands, for instance, on the servants for pickles for their children — had gone by the board. They were generally hard, dry, and melancholy. I am speaking, of course, of aged females — from five and twenty, perhaps, to thirty — who had long since given up the amusements and levities of life. I very soon abandoned any attempt at drawing a word from these ancient mothers of families; but not the less did I ponder in my mind over the circumstances of their lives. Had things gone with them so sadly — was the struggle for independence so hard — that all the softness of existence had been trodden out of them? In the cities, too, it was much the same. It seemed to me that a future mother of a family, in those parts, had left all laughter behind her when she put out her finger for the wedding ring.
For these reasons I must say that life on board these steamboats was not as pleasant as I had hoped to find it; but for our discomfort in this respect we found great atonement in the scenery through which we passed. I protest that of all the river scenery that I know that of the Upper Mississippi is by far the finest and the most continued. One thinks, of course, of the Rhine; but, according to my idea of beauty, the Rhine is nothing to the Upper Mississippi. For miles upon miles — for hundreds of miles — the course of the river runs through low hills, which are there called bluffs. These bluffs rise in every imaginable form, looking sometimes like large, straggling, unwieldy castles, and then throwing themselves into sloping lawns which stretch back away from the river till the eye is lost in their twists and turnings. Landscape beauty, as I take it, consists mainly in four attributes — in water; in broken land; in scattered timber, timber scattered as opposed to continuous forest timber; and in the accident of color. In all these particulars the banks of the Upper Mississippi can hardly be beaten. There are no high mountains; but high mountains themselves are grand rather than beautiful. There are no high mountains; but there is a succession of hills, which group themselves forever without monotony. It is, perhaps, the ever-variegated forms of these bluffs which chiefly constitute the wonderful loveliness of this river. The idea constantly occurs that some point on every hillside would form the most charming site ever yet chosen for a noble residence. I have passed up and down rivers clothed to the edge with continuous forest. This at first is grand enough, but the eye and feeling soon become weary. Here the trees are scattered so that the eye passes through them, and ever and again a long lawn sweeps back into the country and up the steep side of a hill, making the traveler long to stay there and linger through the oaks, and climb the bluffs, and lay about on the bold but easy summits. The boat, however, steams quickly up against the current, and the happy valleys are left behind one quickly after another. The river is very various in its breadth, and is constantly divided by islands. It is never so broad that the beauty of the banks is lost in the distance or injured by it. It is rapid, but has not the beautifully bright color of some European rivers — of the Rhine, for instance, and the Rhone. But what is wanting in the color of the water is more than compensated by the wonderful hues and luster of the shores. We visited the river in October, and I must presume that they who seek it solely for the sake of scenery should go there in that month. It was not only that the foliage of the trees was bright with every imaginable color, but that the grass was bronzed and that the rocks were golden. And this beauty did not last only for awhile, and then cease. On the Rhine there are lovely spots and special morsels of scenery with which the traveler becomes duly enraptured. But on the Upper Mississippi there are no special morsels. The position of the sun in the heavens will, as it always does, make much difference in the degree of beauty. The hour before and the half hour after sunset are always the loveliest for such scenes. But of the shores themselves one may declare that they are lovely throughout those four hundred miles which run immediately south from St. Paul.
About half way between La Crosse and St. Paul we came upon Lake Pepin, and continued our course up the lake for perhaps fifty or sixty miles. This expanse of water is narrow for a lake, and, by those who know the lower courses of great rivers, would hardly be dignified by that name. But, nevertheless, the breadth here lessens the beauty. There are the same bluffs, the same scattered woodlands, and the same colors. But they are either at a distance, or else they are to be seen on one side only. The more that I see of the beauty of scenery, and the more I consider its elements, the stronger becomes my conviction that size has but little to do with it, and rather detracts from it than adds to it. Distance gives one of its greatest charms, but it does so by concealing rather than displaying an expanse of surface. The beauty of distance arises from the romance, the feeling of mystery which it creates. It is like the beauty of woman, which allures the more the more that it is vailed. But open, uncovered land and water, mountains which simply rise to great heights, with long, unbroken slopes, wide expanses of lake, and forests which are monotonous in their continued thickness, are never lovely to me. A landscape should always be partly vailed, and display only half its charms.
To my taste the finest stretch of the river was that immediately above Lake Pepin; but then, at this point, we had all the glory of the setting sun. It was like fairy-land, so bright were the golden hues, so fantastic were the shapes of the hills, so broken and twisted the course of the waters! But the noisy steamer went groaning up the narrow passages with almost unabated speed, and left the fairy land behind all too quickly. Then the bell would ring for tea, and the children with the beef-steaks, the pickled onions, and the light fixings would all come over again. The care-laden mothers would tuck the bibs under the chins of their tyrant children, and some embryo senator of four years old would listen with concentrated attention while the negro servant recapitulated to him the delicacies of the supper-table, in order that he might make his choice with due consideration. “Beef-steak,” the embryo four-year old senator would lisp, “and stewed potato, and buttered toast, and corn-cake, and coffee — and — and — and — mother, mind you get me the pickles.”
St. Paul enjoys the double privilege of being the commercial and political capital of Minnesota. The same is the case with Boston, in Massachusetts, but I do not remember another instance in which it is so. It is built on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, though the bulk of the State lies to the west of the river. It is noticeable as the spot up to which the river is navigable. Immediately above St. Paul there are narrow rapids up which no boat can pass. North of this continuous navigation does not go; but from St. Paul down to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico it is uninterrupted. The distance to St. Louis in Missouri, a town built below the confluence of the three rivers, Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois, is 900 miles and then the navigable waters down to the Gulf wash a southern country of still greater extent. No river on the face of the globe forms a highway for the produce of so wide an extent of agricultural land. The Mississippi, with its tributaries, carried to market, before the war, the produce of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This country is larger than England, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, and Spain together, and is undoubtedly composed of much more fertile land. The States named comprise the great center valley of the continent, and are the farming lands and garden grounds of the Western World. He who has not seen corn on the ground in Illinois or Minnesota, does not know to what extent the fertility of land may go, or how great may be the weight of cereal crops. And for all this the Mississippi was the high-road to market. When the crop of 1861 was garnered, this high-road was stopped by the war. What suffering this entailed on the South I will not here stop to say, but on the West the effect was terrible. Corn was in such plenty — Indian-corn, that is, or maize — that it was not worth the farmer’s while to prepare it for market. When I was in Illinois, the second quality of Indian-corn, when shelled, was not worth more than from eight to ten cents a bushel. But the shelling and preparation is laborious, and in some instances it was found better to burn it for fuel than to sell it. Respecting the export of corn from the West, I must say a further word or two in the next chapter; but it seemed to be indispensable that I should point out here how great to the United States is the need of the Mississippi. Nor is it for corn and wheat only that its waters are needed. Timber, lead, iron, coal, pork — all find, or should find, their exit to the world at large by this road. There are towns on it, and on its tributaries, already holding more than one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants. The number of Cincinnati exceeds that, as also does the number of St. Louis. Under these circumstances it is not wonderful that the States should wish to keep in their own hands the navigation of this river.
It is not wonderful. But it will not, I think, be admitted by the politicians of the world that the navigation of the Mississippi need be closed against the West, even though the Southern States should succeed in raising themselves to the power and dignity of a separate nationality. If the waters of the Danube be not open to Austria, it is through the fault of Austria. That the subject will be one of trouble, no man can doubt; and of course it would be well for the North to avoid that, or any other trouble. In the mean time the importance of this right of way must be admitted; and it must be admitted, also, that whatever may be the ultimate resolve of the North, it will be very difficult to reconcile the West to a divided dominion of the Mississippi.
St. Paul contains about 14,000 inhabitants, and, like all other American towns, is spread over a surface of ground adapted to the accommodation of a very extended population. As it is belted on one side by the river, and on the other by the bluffs which accompany the course of the river, the site is pretty, and almost romantic. Here also we found a great hotel, a huge, square building, such as we in England might perhaps place near to a railway terminus in such a city as Glasgow or Manchester, but on which no living Englishman would expend his money in a town even five times as big again as St. Paul. Everything was sufficiently good, and much more than sufficiently plentiful. The whole thing went on exactly as hotels do down in Massachusetts or the State of New York. Look at the map and see where St. Paul is. Its distance from all known civilization — all civilization that has succeeded in obtaining acquaintance with the world at large — is very great. Even American travelers do not go up there in great numbers, excepting those who intend to settle there. A stray sportsman or two, American or English, as the case may be, makes his way into Minnesota for the sake of shooting, and pushes on up through St. Paul to the Red River. Some few adventurous spirits visit the Indian settlements, and pass over into the unsettled regions of Dacotah and Washington Territory. But there is no throng of traveling. Nevertheless, a hotel has been built there capable of holding three hundred guests, and other hotels exist in the neighborhood, one of which is even larger than that at St. Paul. Who can come to them, and create even a hope that such an enterprise may be remunerative? In America it is seldom more than hope, for one always hears that such enterprises fail.
When I was there the war was in hand, and it was hardly to be expected that any hotel should succeed. The landlord told me that he held it at the present time for a very low rent, and that he could just manage to keep it open without loss. The war which hindered people from traveling, and in that way injured the innkeepers, also hindered people from housekeeping, and reduced them to the necessity of boarding out, by which the innkeepers were of course benefited. At St. Paul I found that the majority of the guests were inhabitants of the town, boarding at the hotel, and thus dispensing with the cares of a separate establishment. I do not know what was charged for such accommodation at St. Paul, but I have come across large houses at which a single man could get all that he required for a dollar a day. Now Americans are great consumers, especially at hotels, and all that a man requires includes three hot meals, with a choice from about two dozen dishes at each.
From St. Paul there are two waterfalls to be seen, which we, of course, visited. We crossed the river at Fort Snelling, a rickety, ill-conditioned building standing at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, built there to repress the Indians. It is, I take it, very necessary, especially at the present moment, as the Indians seem to require repressing. They have learned that the attention of the Federal government has been called to the war, and have become bold in consequence. When I was at St. Paul I heard of a party of Englishmen who had been robbed of everything they possessed, and was informed that the farmers in the distant parts of the State were by no means secure. The Indians are more to be pitied than the farmers. They are turning against enemies who will neither forgive nor forget any injuries done. When the war is over they will be improved, and polished, and annexed, till no Indian will hold an acre of land in Minnesota. At present Fort Snelling is the nucleus of a recruiting camp. On the point between the bluffs of the two rivers there is a plain, immediately in front of the fort, and there we saw the newly-joined Minnesota recruits going through their first military exercises. They were in detachments of twenties, and were rude enough at their goose step. The matter which struck me most in looking at them was the difference of condition which I observed in the men. There were the country lads, fresh from the farms, such as we see following the recruiting sergeant through English towns; but there were also men in black coats and black trowsers, with thin boots, and trimmed beards — beards which had been trimmed till very lately; and some of them with beards which showed that they were no longer young. It was inexpressibly melancholy to see such men as these twisting and turning about at the corporal’s word, each handling some stick in his hand in lieu of weapon. Of course, they were more awkward than the boys, even though they were twice more assiduous in their efforts. Of course, they were sad and wretched. I saw men there that were very wretched — all but heart-broken, if one might judge from their faces. They should not have been there handling sticks, and moving their unaccustomed legs in cramped paces. They were as razors, for which no better purpose could be found than the cutting of blocks. When such attempts are made the block is not cut, but the razor is spoiled. Most unfit for the commencement of a soldier’s life were some that I saw there, but I do not doubt that they had been attracted to the work by the one idea of doing something for their country in its trouble.
From Fort Snelling we went on to the Falls of Minnehaha. Minnehaha, laughing water. Such, I believe, is the interpretation. The name in this case is more imposing than the fall. It is a pretty little cascade, and might do for a picnic in fine weather, but it is not a waterfall of which a man can make much when found so far away from home. Going on from Minnehaha we came to Minneapolis, at which place there is a fine suspension bridge across the river, just above the falls of St. Anthony and leading to the town of that name. Till I got there I could hardly believe that in these days there should be a living village called Minneapolis by living men. I presume I should describe it as a town, for it has a municipality, and a post-office, and, of course, a large hotel. The interest of the place, however, is in the saw-mills. On the opposite side of the water, at St. Anthony, is another very large hotel — and also a smaller one. The smaller one may be about the size of the first-class hotels at Cheltenham or Leamington. They were both closed, and there seemed to be but little prospect that either would be opened till the war should be over. The saw-mills, however, were at full work, and to my eyes were extremely picturesque. I had been told that the beauty of the falls had been destroyed by the mills. Indeed, all who had spoken to me about St. Anthony had said so. But I did not agree with them. Here, as at Ottawa, the charm in fact consists, not in an uninterrupted shoot of water, but in a succession of rapids over a bed of broken rocks. Among these rocks logs of loose timber are caught, which have escaped from their proper courses, and here they lie, heaped up in some places, and constructing themselves into bridges in others, till the freshets of the spring carry them off. The timber is generally brought down in logs to St. Anthony, is sawn there, and then sent down the Mississippi in large rafts. These rafts on other rivers are, I think, generally made of unsawn timber. Such logs as have escaped in the manner above described are recognized on their passage down the river by their marks, and are made up separately, the original owners receiving the value — or not receiving it as the case may be. “There is quite a trade going on with the loose lumber,” my informant told me. And from his tone I was led to suppose that he regarded the trade as sufficiently lucrative, if not peculiarly honest.
There is very much in the mode of life adopted by the settlers in these regions which creates admiration. The people are all intelligent. They are energetic and speculative, conceiving grand ideas, and carrying them out almost with the rapidity of magic. A suspension bridge half a mile long is erected, while in England we should be fastening together a few planks for a foot passage. Progress, mental as well as material, is the demand of the people generally. Everybody understands everything, and everybody intends sooner or later to do everything. All this is very grand; but then there is a terrible drawback. One hears on every side of intelligence, but one hears also on every side of dishonesty. Talk to whom you will, of whom you will, and you will hear some tale of successful or unsuccessful swindling. It seems to be the recognized rule of commerce in the far West that men shall go into the world’s markets prepared to cheat and to be cheated. It may be said that as long as this is acknowledged and understood on all sides, no harm will be done. It is equally fair for all. When I was a child there used to be certain games at which it was agreed in beginning either that there should be cheating or that there should not. It may be said that out there in the Western States, men agree to play the cheating game; and that the cheating game has more of interest in it than the other. Unfortunately, however, they who agree to play this game on a large scale do not keep outsiders altogether out of the playground. Indeed, outsiders become very welcome to them; and then it is not pleasant to hear the tone in which such outsiders speak of the peculiarities of the sport to which they have been introduced. When a beginner in trade finds himself furnished with a barrel of wooden nutmegs, the joke is not so good to him as to the experienced merchant who supplies him. This dealing in wooden nutmegs, this selling of things which do not exist, and buying of goods for which no price is ever to be given, is an institution which is much honored in the West. We call it swindling — and so do they. But it seemed to me that in the Western States the word hardly seemed to leave the same impress on the mind that it does elsewhere.
On our return down the river we passed La Crosse, at which we had embarked, and went down as far as Dubuque in Iowa. On our way down we came to grief and broke one of our paddle-wheels to pieces. We had no special accident. We struck against nothing above or below water. But the wheel went to pieces, and we laid to on the river side for the greater part of a day while the necessary repairs were being made. Delay in traveling is usually an annoyance, because it causes the unsettlement of a settled purpose. But the loss of the day did us no harm, and our accident had happened at a very pretty spot. I climbed up to the top of the nearest bluff, and walked back till I came to the open country, and also went up and down the river banks, visiting the cabins of two settlers who live there by supplying wood to the river steamers. One of these was close to the spot at which we were lying; and yet though most of our passengers came on shore, I was the only one who spoke to the inmates of the cabin. These people must live there almost in desolation from one year’s end to another. Once in a fortnight or so they go up to a market town in their small boats, but beyond that they can have little intercourse with their fellow-creatures. Nevertheless none of these dwellers by the river side came out to speak to the men and women who were lounging about from eleven in the morning till four in the afternoon; nor did one of the passengers, except myself, knock at the door or enter the cabin, or exchange a word with those who lived there.
I spoke to the master of the house, whom I met outside, and he at once asked me to come in and sit down. I found his father there and his mother, his wife, his brother, and two young children. The wife, who was cooking, was a very pretty, pale young woman, who, however, could have circulated round her stove more conveniently had her crinoline been of less dimensions. She bade me welcome very prettily, and went on with her cooking, talking the while, as though she were in the habit of entertaining guests in that way daily. The old woman sat in a corner knitting — as old women always do. The old man lounged with a grandchild on his knee, and the master of the house threw himself on the floor while the other child crawled over him. There was no stiffness or uneasiness in their manners, nor was there anything approaching to that republican roughness which so often operates upon a poor, well-intending Englishman like a slap on the cheek. I sat there for about an hour, and when I had discussed with them English politics and the bearing of English politics upon the American war, they told me of their own affairs. Food was very plenty, but life was very hard. Take the year through, each man could not earn above half a dollar a day by cutting wood. This, however, they owned, did not take up all their time. Working on favorable wood on favorable days they could each earn two dollars a day; but these favorable circumstances did not come together very often. They did not deal with the boats themselves, and the profits were eaten up by the middleman. He, the middleman, had a good thing of it, because he could cheat the captains of the boats in the measurement of the wood. The chopper was obliged to supply a genuine cord of logs — true measure. But the man who took it off in the barge to the steamer could so pack it that fifteen true cords would make twenty-two false cords. “It cuts up into a fine trade, you see, sir,” said the young man, as he stroked back the little girl’s hair from her forehead. “But the captains of course must find it out,” said I. This he acknowledged, but argued that the captains on this account insisted on buying the wood so much cheaper, and that the loss all came upon the chopper. I tried to teach him that the remedy lay in his own hands, and the three men listened to me quite patiently while I explained to them how they should carry on their own trade. But the young father had the last word. “I guess we don’t get above the fifty cents a day any way.” He knew at least where the shoe pinched him. He was a handsome, manly, noble-looking fellow, tall and thin, with black hair and bright eyes. But he had the hollow look about his jaws, and so had his wife, and so had his brother. They all owned to fever and ague. They had a touch of it most years, and sometimes pretty sharply. “It was a coarse place to live in,” the old woman said, “but there was no one to meddle with them, and she guessed that it suited.” They had books and newspapers, tidy delf, and clean glass upon their shelves, and undoubtedly provisions in plenty. Whether fever and ague yearly, and cords of wood stretched from fifteen to twenty-two are more than a set-off for these good things, I will leave every one to decide according to his own taste.
In another cabin I found women and children only, and one of the children was in the last stage of illness. But nevertheless the woman of the house seemed glad to see me, and talked cheerfully as long as I would remain. She inquired what had happened to the vessel, but it had never occurred to her to go out and see. Her cabin was neat and well furnished, and there also I saw newspapers and Harper’s everlasting magazine. She said it was a coarse, desolate place for living, but that she could raise almost anything in her garden.
I could not then understand, nor can I now understand, why none of the numerous passengers out of the boat should have entered those cabins except myself, and why the inmates of the cabins should not have come out to speak to any one. Had they been surly, morose people, made silent by the specialties of their life, it would have been explicable; but they were delighted to talk and to listen. The fact, I take it, is that the people are all harsh to each other. They do not care to go out of their way to speak to any one unless something is to be gained. They say that two Englishmen meeting in the desert would not speak unless they were introduced. The farther I travel the less true do I find this of Englishmen, and the more true of other people.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55