From Niagara we went by the Canada Great Western Railway to Detroit, the big city of Michigan. It is an American institution that the States should have a commercial capital — or what I call their big city — as well as a political capital, which may, as a rule, be called the State’s central city. The object in choosing the political capital is average nearness of approach from the various confines of the State but commerce submits to no such Procrustean laws in selecting her capitals and consequently she has placed Detroit on the borders of Michigan, on the shore of the neck of water which joins Lake Huron to Lake Erie, through which all the trade must flow which comes down from Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron on its way to the Eastern States and to Europe. We had thought of going from Buffalo across Lake Erie to Detroit; but we found that the better class of steamers had been taken off the waters for the winter. And we also found that navigation among these lakes is a mistake whenever the necessary journey can be taken by railway. Their waters are by no means smooth, and then there is nothing to be seen. I do not know whether others may have a feeling, almost instinctive, that lake navigation must be pleasant — that lakes must of necessity be beautiful. I have such a feeling, but not now so strongly as formerly. Such an idea should be kept for use in Europe, and never brought over to America with other traveling gear. The lakes in America are cold, cumbrous, uncouth, and uninteresting — intended by nature for the conveyance of cereal produce, but not for the comfort of traveling men and women. So we gave up our plan of traversing the lake, and, passing back into Canada by the suspension bridge at Niagara, we reached the Detroit River at Windsor by the Great Western line, and passed thence by the ferry into the City of Detroit.
In making this journey at night we introduced ourselves to the thoroughly American institution of sleeping-cars — that is, of cars in which beds are made up for travelers. The traveler may have a whole bed, or half a bed, or no bed at all, as he pleases, paying a dollar or half a dollar extra should he choose the partial or full fruition of a couch. I confess I have always taken a delight in seeing these beds made up, and consider that the operations of the change are generally as well executed as the manoeuvres of any pantomime at Drury Lane. The work is usually done by negroes or colored men, and the domestic negroes of America are always light-handed and adroit. The nature of an American car is no doubt known to all men. It looks as far removed from all bed-room accommodation as the baker’s barrow does from the steam engine into which it is to be converted by Harlequin’s wand. But the negro goes to work much more quietly than the Harlequin; and for every four seats in the railway car he builds up four beds almost as quickly as the hero of the pantomime goes through his performance. The great glory of the Americans is in their wondrous contrivances — in their patent remedies for the usually troublous operations of life. In their huge hotels all the bell ropes of each house ring on one bell only; but a patent indicator discloses a number, and the whereabouts of the ringer is shown. One fire heats every room, passage, hall, and cupboard, and does it so effectually that the inhabitants are all but stifled. Soda-water bottles open themselves without any trouble of wire or strings. Men and women go up and down stairs without motive power of their own. Hot and cold water are laid on to all the chambers; though it sometimes happens that the water from both taps is boiling, and that, when once turned on, it cannot be turned off again by any human energy. Everything is done by a new and wonderful patent contrivance; and of all their wonderful contrivances, that of their railroad beds is by no means the least. For every four seats the negro builds up four beds — that is, four half beds, or accommodation for four persons. Two are supposed to be below, on the level of the ordinary four seats, and two up above on shelves which are let down from the roof. Mattresses slip out from one nook and pillows from another. Blankets are added, and the bed is ready. Any over-particular individual — an islander, for instance, who hugs his chains — will generally prefer to pay the dollar for the double accommodation. Looking at the bed in the light of a bed — taking, as it were, an abstract view of it — or comparing it with some other bed or beds with which the occupant may have acquaintance, I cannot say that it is in all respects perfect. But distances are long in America; and he who declines to travel by night will lose very much time. He who does so travel will find the railway bed a great relief. I must confess that the feeling of dirt, on the following morning, is rather oppressive.
From Windsor, on the Canada side, we passed over to Detroit, in the State of Michigan, by a steam ferry. But ferries in England and ferries in America are very different. Here, on this Detroit ferry, some hundred of passengers, who were going forward from the other side without delay, at once sat down to breakfast. I may as well explain the way in which disposition is made of one’s luggage as one takes these long journeys. The traveler, when he starts, has his baggage checked. He abandons his trunk — generally a box, studded with nails, as long as a coffin and as high as a linen chest — and, in return for this, he receives an iron ticket with a number on it. As he approaches the end of his first installment of travel and while the engine is still working its hardest, a man comes up to him, bearing with him, suspended on a circular bar, an infinite variety of other checks. The traveler confides to this man his wishes, and, if he be going farther without delay, surrenders his check and receives a counter-check in return. Then, while the train is still in motion, the new destiny of the trunk is imparted to it. But another man, with another set of checks, also comes the way, walking leisurely through the train as he performs his work. This is the minister of the hotel-omnibus institution. His business is with those who do not travel beyond the next terminus. To him, if such be your intention, you make your confidence, giving up your tallies, and taking other tallies by way of receipt; and your luggage is afterward found by you in the hall of your hotel. There is undoubtedly very much of comfort in this; and the mind of the traveler is lost in amazement as he thinks of the futile efforts with which he would struggle to regain his luggage were there no such arrangement. Enormous piles of boxes are disclosed on the platform at all the larger stations, the numbers of which are roared forth with quick voice by some two or three railway denizens at once. A modest English voyager, with six or seven small packages, would stand no chance of getting anything if he were left to his own devices. As it is, I am bound to say that the thing is well done. I have had my desk with all my money in it lost for a day, and my black leather bag was on one occasion sent back over the line. They, however, were recovered; and, on the whole, I feel grateful to the check system of the American railways. And then, too, one never hears of extra luggage. Of weight they are quite regardless. On two or three occasions an overwrought official has muttered between his teeth that ten packages were a great many, and that some of those “light fixings” might have been made up into one. And when I came to understand that the number of every check was entered in a book, and re-entered at every change, I did whisper to my wife that she ought to do without a bonnet box. The ten, however, went on, and were always duly protected. I must add, however, that articles requiring tender treatment will sometimes reappear a little the worse from the hardships of their journey.
I have not much to say of Detroit — not much, that is, beyond what I have to say of all the North. It is a large, well-built, half-finished city lying on a convenient waterway, and spreading itself out with promises of a wide and still wider prosperity. It has about it perhaps as little of intrinsic interest as any of those large Western towns which I visited. It is not so pleasant as Milwaukee, nor so picturesque as St. Paul, nor so grand as Chicago, nor so civilized as Cleveland, nor so busy as Buffalo. Indeed, Detroit is neither pleasant nor picturesque at all. I will not say that it is uncivilized; but it has a harsh, crude, unprepossessing appearance. It has some 70,000 inhabitants, and good accommodation for shipping. It was doing an enormous business before the war began, and, when these troublous times are over, will no doubt again go ahead. I do not, however, think it well to recommend any Englishman to make a special visit to Detroit who may be wholly uncommercial in his views, and travel in search of that which is either beautiful or interesting.
From Detroit we continued our course westward across the State of Michigan, through a country that was absolutely wild till the railway pierced it, Very much of it is still absolutely wild. For miles upon miles the road passes the untouched forest, showing that even in Michigan the great work of civilization has hardly more than been commenced. One thinks of the all but countless population which is, before long, to be fed from these regions — of the cities which will grow here, and of the amount of government which in due time will be required — one can hardly fail to feel that the division of the United States into separate nationalities is merely a part of the ordained work of creation as arranged for the well-being of mankind. The States already boast of thirty millions of inhabitants — not of unnoticed and unnoticeable beings requiring little, knowing little, and doing little, such as are the Eastern hordes, which may be counted by tens of millions, but of men and women who talk loudly and are ambitious, who eat beef, who read and write, and understand the dignity of manhood. But these thirty millions are as nothing to the crowds which will grow sleek, and talk loudly, and become aggressive on these wheat and meat producing levels. The country is as yet but touched by the pioneering hand of population. In the old countries, agriculture, following on the heels of pastoral, patriarchal life, preceded the birth of cities. But in this young world the cities have come first. The new Jasons, blessed with the experience of the Old-World adventurers, have gone forth in search of their golden fleeces, armed with all that the science and skill of the East had as yet produced, and, in settling up their new Colchis, have begun by the erection of first class hotels and the fabrication of railroads. Let the Old World bid them God speed in their work. Only it would be well if they could be brought to acknowledge from whence they have learned all that they know.
Our route lay right across the State to a place called Grand Haven, on Lake Michigan, from whence we were to take boat for Milwaukee, a town in Wisconsin, on the opposite or western shore of the lake. Michigan is sometimes called the Peninsular State, from the fact that the main part of its territory is surrounded by Lakes Michigan and Huron, by the little Lake St. Clair and by Lake Erie. It juts out to the northward from the main land of Indiana and Ohio, and is circumnavigable on the east, north, and west. These particulars, however, refer to a part of the State only; for a portion of it lies on the other side of Lake Michigan, between that and Lake Superior. I doubt whether any large inland territory in the world is blessed with such facilities of water carriage.
On arriving at Grand Haven we found that there had been a storm on the lake, and that the passengers from the trains of the preceding day were still remaining there, waiting to be carried over to Milwaukee. The water however — or the sea, as they all call it — was still very high, and the captain declared his intention of remaining there that night; whereupon all our fellow-travelers huddled themselves into the great lake steamboat, and proceeded to carry on life there as though they were quite at home. The men took themselves to the bar-room, and smoked cigars and talked about the war with their feet upon the counter; and the women got themselves into rocking-chairs in the saloon, and sat there listless and silent, but not more listless and silent than they usually are in the big drawing-rooms of the big hotels. There was supper there precisely at six o’clock — beef-steaks, and tea, and apple jam, and hot cakes, and light fixings, to all which luxuries an American deems himself entitled, let him have to seek his meal where he may. And I was soon informed, with considerable energy, that let the boat be kept there as long as it might by stress of weather, the beef-steaks and apple jam, light fixings and heavy fixings, must be supplied at the cost of the owners of the ship. “Your first supper you pay for,” my informant told me, “because you eat that on your own account. What you consume after that comes of their doing, because they don’t start; and if it’s three meals a day for a week, it’s their look out.” It occurred to me that, under such circumstances, a captain would be very apt to sail either in foul weather or in fair.
It was a bright moonlight night — moonlight such as we rarely have in England — and I started off by myself for a walk, that I might see of what nature were the environs of Grand Haven. A more melancholy place I never beheld. The town of Grand Haven itself is placed on the opposite side of a creek, and was to be reached by a ferry. On our side, to which the railway came and from which the boat was to sail, there was nothing to be seen but sand hills, which stretched away for miles along the shore of the lake. There were great sand mountains and sand valleys, on the surface of which were scattered the debris of dead trees, scattered logs white with age, and boughs half buried beneath the sand. Grand Haven itself is but a poor place, not having succeeded in catching much of the commerce which comes across the lake from Wisconsin, and which takes itself on Eastward by the railway. Altogether, it is a dreary place, such as might break a man’s heart should he find that inexorable fate required him there to pitch his tent.
On my return I went down into the bar-room of the steamer, put my feet upon the counter, lit my cigar, and struck into the debate then proceeding on the subject of the war. I was getting West, and General Fremont was the hero of the hour. “He’s a frontier man, and that’s what we want. I guess he’ll about go through. Yes, sir.” “As for relieving General Fre-mont,” (with the accent always strongly on the “mont,”) “I guess you may as well talk of relieving the whole West. They won’t meddle with Fre-mont. They are beginning to know in Washington what stuff he’s made of.” “Why, sir, there are 50,000 men in these States who will follow Fre-mont, who would not stir a foot after any other man.” From which, and the like of it in many other places, I began to understand how difficult was the task which the statesmen in Washington had in hand.
I received no pecuniary advantage whatever from that law as to the steamboat meals which my new friend had revealed to me. For my one supper of course I paid, looking forward to any amount of subsequent gratuitous provisions. But in the course of the night the ship sailed, and we found ourselves at Milwaukee in time for breakfast on the following morning.
Milwaukee is a pleasant town, a very pleasant town, containing 45,000 inhabitants. How many of my readers can boast that they know anything of Milwaukee, or even have heard of it? To me its name was unknown until I saw it on huge railway placards stuck up in the smoking-rooms and lounging halls of all American hotels. It is the big town of Wisconsin, whereas Madison is the capital. It stands immediately on the western shore of Lake Michigan, and is very pleasant. Why it should be so, and why Detroit should be the contrary, I can hardly tell; only I think that the same verdict would be given by any English tourist. It must be always borne in mind that 10,000 or 40,000 inhabitants in an American town, and especially in any new Western town, is a number which means much more than would be implied by any similar number as to an old town in Europe. Such a population in America consumes double the amount of beef which it would in England, wears double the amount of clothes, and demands double as much of the comforts of life. If a census could be taken of the watches, it would be found, I take it, that the American population possessed among them nearly double as many as would the English; and I fear also that it would be found that many more of the Americans were readers and writers by habit. In any large town in England it is probable that a higher excellence of education would be found than in Milwaukee, and also a style of life into which more of refinement and more of luxury had found its way. But the general level of these things, of material and intellectual well-being — of beef, that is, and book learning — is no doubt infinitely higher in a new American than in an old European town. Such an animal as a beggar is as much unknown as a mastodon. Men out of work and in want are almost unknown. I do not say that there are none of the hardships of life — and to them I will come by-and-by — but want is not known as a hardship in these towns, nor is that dense ignorance in which so large a proportion of our town populations is still steeped. And then the town of 40,000 inhabitants is spread over a surface which would suffice in England for a city of four times the size. Our towns in England — and the towns, indeed, of Europe generally — have been built as they have been wanted. No aspiring ambition as to hundreds of thousands of people warmed the bosoms of their first founders. Two or three dozen men required habitations in the same locality, and clustered them together closely. Many such have failed and died out of the world’s notice. Others have thriven, and houses have been packed on to houses, till London and Manchester, Dublin and Glasgow have been produced. Poor men have built, or have had built for them, wretched lanes, and rich men have erected grand palaces. From the nature of their beginnings such has, of necessity, been the manner of their creation. But in America, and especially in Western America, there has been no such necessity and there is no such result. The founders of cities have had the experience of the world before them. They have known of sanitary laws as they began. That sewerage, and water, and gas, and good air would be needed for a thriving community has been to them as much a matter of fact as are the well-understood combinations between timber and nails, and bricks and mortar. They have known that water carriage is almost a necessity for commercial success, and have chosen their sites accordingly. Broad streets cost as little, while land by the foot is not as yet of value to be regarded, as those which are narrow; and therefore the sites of towns have been prepared with noble avenues and imposing streets. A city at its commencement is laid out with an intention that it shall be populous. The houses are not all built at once, but there are the places allocated for them. The streets are not made, but there are the spaces. Many an abortive attempt at municipal greatness has so been made and then all but abandoned. There are wretched villages, with huge, straggling parallel ways, which will never grow into towns. They are the failures — failures in which the pioneers of civilization, frontier men as they call themselves, have lost their tens of thousands of dollars. But when the success comes, when the happy hit has been made, and the ways of commerce have been truly foreseen with a cunning eye, then a great and prosperous city springs up, ready made as it were, from the earth. Such a town is Milwaukee, now containing 45,000 inhabitants, but with room apparently for double that number; with room for four times that number, were men packed as closely there as they are with us.
In the principal business streets of all these towns one sees vast buildings. They are usually called blocks, and are often so denominated in large letters on their front, as Portland Block, Devereux Block, Buel’s Block. Such a block may face to two, three, or even four streets, and, as I presume, has generally been a matter of one special speculation. It may be divided into separate houses, or kept for a single purpose, such as that of a hotel, or grouped into shops below, and into various sets of chambers above. I have had occasion in various towns to mount the stairs within these blocks, and have generally found some portion of them vacant — have sometimes found the greater portion of them vacant. Men build on an enormous scale, three times, ten times as much as is wanted. The only measure of size is an increase on what men have built before. Monroe P. Jones, the speculator, is very probably ruined, and then begins the world again nothing daunted. But Jones’s block remains, and gives to the city in its aggregate a certain amount of wealth. Or the block becomes at once of service and finds tenants. In which case Jones probably sells it, and immediately builds two others twice as big. That Monroe P. Jones will encounter ruin is almost a matter of course; but then he is none the worse for being ruined. It hardly makes him unhappy. He is greedy of dollars with a terrible covetousness; but he is greedy in order that he may speculate more widely. He would sooner have built Jones’s tenth block, with a prospect of completing a twentieth, than settle himself down at rest for life as the owner of a Chatsworth or a Woburn. As for his children, he has no desire of leaving them money. Let the girls marry. And for the boys — for them it will be good to begin as he begun. If they cannot build blocks for themselves, let them earn their bread in the blocks of other men. So Monroe P. Jones, with his million of dollars accomplished, advances on to a new frontier, goes to work again on a new city, and loses it all. As an individual I differ very much from Monroe P. Jones. The first block accomplished, with an adequate rent accruing to me as the builder, I fancy that I should never try a second. But Jones is undoubtedly the man for the West. It is that love of money to come, joined to a strong disregard for money made, which constitutes the vigorous frontier mind, the true pioneering organization. Monroe P. Jones would be a great man to all posterity if only he had a poet to sing of his valor.
It may be imagined how large in proportion to its inhabitants will be a town which spreads itself in this way. There are great houses left untenanted, and great gaps left unfilled. But if the place be successful, if it promise success, it will be seen at once that there is life all through it. Omnibuses, or street cars working on rails, run hither and thither. The shops that have been opened are well filled. The great hotels are thronged. The quays are crowded with vessels, and a general feeling of progress pervades the place. It is easy to perceive whether or no an American town is going ahead. The days of my visit to Milwaukee were days of civil war and national trouble, but in spite of civil war and national trouble Milwaukee looked healthy.
I have said that there was but little poverty — little to be seen of real want in these thriving towns — but that they who labored in them had nevertheless their own hardships. This is so. I would not have any man believe that he can take himself to the Western States of America — to those States of which I am now speaking — Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, or Illinois, and there by industry escape the ills to which flesh is heir. The laboring Irish in these towns eat meat seven days a week, but I have met many a laboring Irishman among them who has wished himself back in his old cabin. Industry is a good thing, and there is no bread so sweet as that which is eaten in the sweat of a man’s brow; but labor carried to excess wearies the mind as well as body, and the sweat that is ever running makes the bread bitter. There is, I think, no task-master over free labor so exacting as an American. He knows nothing of hours, and seems to have that idea of a man which a lady always has of a horse. He thinks that he will go forever. I wish those masons in London who strike for nine hours’ work with ten hours’ pay could be driven to the labor market of Western America for a spell. And moreover, which astonished me, I have seen men driven and hurried, as it were forced forward at their work, in a manner which, to an English workman, would be intolerable. This surprised me much, as it was at variance with our — or perhaps I should say with my — preconceived ideas as to American freedom. I had fancied that an American citizen would not submit to be driven; that the spirit of the country, if not the spirit of the individual, would have made it impossible. I thought that the shoe would have pinched quite on the other foot. But I found that such driving did exist, and American masters in the West with whom I had an opportunity of discussing the subject all admitted it. “Those men’ll never half move unless they’re driven,” a foreman said to me once as we stood together over some twenty men who were at their work. “They kinder look for it, and don’t well know how to get along when they miss it.” It was not his business at this moment to drive — nor was he driving. He was standing at some little distance from the scene with me, and speculating on the sight before him. I thought the men were working at their best; but their movements did not satisfy his practiced eye, and he saw at a glance that there was no one immediately over them.
But there is worse even than this. Wages in these regions are what we should call high. An agricultural laborer will earn perhaps fifteen dollars a month and his board, and a town laborer will earn a dollar a day. A dollar may be taken as representing four shillings, though it is in fact more. Food in these parts is much cheaper than in England, and therefore the wages must be considered as very good. In making, however, a just calculation it must be borne in mind that clothing is dearer than in England, and that much more of it is necessary. The wages nevertheless are high, and will enable the laborer to save money, if only he can get them paid. The complaint that wages are held back, and not even ultimately paid, is very common. There is no fixed rule for satisfying all such claims once a week, and thus debts to laborers are contracted, and when contracted are ignored. With us there is a feeling that it is pitiful, mean almost beyond expression, to wrong a laborer of his hire. We have men who go in debt to tradesmen perhaps without a thought of paying them; but when we speak of such a one who has descended into the lowest mire of insolvency, we say that he has not paid his washerwoman. Out there in the West the washerwoman is as fair game as the tailor, the domestic servant as the wine merchant. If a man be honest he will not willingly take either goods or labor without payment; and it may be hard to prove that he who takes the latter is more dishonest than he who takes the former; but with us there is a prejudice in favor of one’s washerwoman by which the Western mind is not weakened. “They certainly have to be smart to get it,” a gentleman said to me whom I had taxed on the subject. “You see, on the frontier a man is bound to be smart. If he aint smart, he’d better go back East, perhaps as far as Europe; he’ll do there.” I had got my answer, and my friend had turned the question; but the fact was admitted by him, as it had been by many others.
Why this should be so is a question to answer which thoroughly would require a volume in itself. As to the driving, why should men submit to it, seeing that labor is abundant, and that in all newly-settled countries the laborer is the true hero of the age? In answer to this is to be alleged the fact that hired labor is chiefly done by fresh comers, by Irish and Germans, who have not as yet among them any combination sufficient to protect them from such usage. The men over them are new as masters, masters who are rough themselves, who themselves have been roughly driven, and who have not learned to be gracious to those below them. It is a part of their contract that very hard work shall be exacted, and the driving resolves itself into this: that the master, looking after his own interest, is constantly accusing his laborer of a breach of his part of the contract. The men no doubt do become used to it, and slacken probably in their endeavors when the tongue of the master or foreman is not heard. But as to that matter of non-payment of wages, the men must live; and here, as elsewhere, the master who omits to pay once will hardly find laborers in future. The matter would remedy itself elsewhere, and does it not do so here? This of course is so, and it is not to be understood that labor as a rule is defrauded of its hire. But the relation of the master and the man admit of such fraud here much more frequently than in England. In England the laborer who did not get his wages on the Saturday, could not go on for the next week. To him, under such circumstances, the world would be coming to an end. But in the Western States the laborer does not live so completely from hand to mouth. He is rarely paid by the week, is accustomed to give some credit, and, till hard pressed by bad circumstances, generally has something by him. They do save money, and are thus fattened up to a state which admits of victimization. I cannot owe money to the little village cobbler who mends my shoes, because he demands and receives his payment when his job is done. But to my friend in Regent Street I extend my custom on a different system; and when I make my start for continental life I have with him a matter of unsettled business to a considerable extent. The American laborer is in the condition of the Regent Street bootmaker, excepting in this respect, that he gives his credit under compulsion. “But does not the law set him right? Is there no law against debtors?” The laws against debtors are plain enough as they are written down, but seem to be anything but plain when called into action. They are perfectly understood, and operations are carried on with the express purpose of evading them. If you proceed against a man, you find that his property is in the hands of some one else. You work in fact for Jones, who lives in the street next to you; but when you quarrel with Jones about your wages, you find that according to law you have been working for Smith, in another State. In all countries such dodges are probably practicable. But men will or will not have recourse to such dodges according to the light in which they are regarded by the community. In the Western States such dodges do not appear to be regarded as disgraceful. “It behoves a frontier man to be smart, sir.”
Honesty is the best policy. That is a doctrine which has been widely preached, and which has recommended itself to many minds as being one of absolute truth. It is not very ennobling in its sentiment, seeing that it advocates a special virtue, not on the ground that that virtue is in itself a thing beautiful, but on account of the immediate reward which will be its consequence. Smith is enjoined not to cheat Jones, because he will, in the long run, make more money by dealing with Jones on the square. This is not teaching of the highest order; but it is teaching well adapted to human circumstances, and has obtained for itself a wide credit. One is driven, however, to doubt whether even this teaching is not too high for the frontier man. Is it possible that a frontier man should be scrupulous and at the same time successful? Hitherto those who have allowed scruples to stand in their way have not succeeded; and they who have succeeded and made for themselves great names, who have been the pioneers of civilization, have not allowed ideas of exact honesty to stand in their way. From General Jason down to General Fremont there have been men of great aspirations but of slight scruples. They have been ambitious of power and desirous of progress, but somewhat regardless how power and progress shall be attained. Clive and Warren Hastings were great frontier men, but we cannot imagine that they had ever realized the doctrine that honesty is the best policy. Cortez, and even Columbus, the prince of frontier men, are in the same category. The names of such heroes is legion; but with none of them has absolute honesty been a favorite virtue. “It behoves a frontier man to be smart, sir.” Such, in that or other language, has been the prevailing idea. Such is the prevailing idea. And one feels driven to ask one’s self whether such must not be the prevailing idea with those who leave the world and its rules behind them, and go forth with the resolve that the world and its rules shall follow them.
Of filibustering, annexation, and polishing savages off the face of creation there has been a great deal, and who can deny that humanity has been the gainer? It seems to those who look widely back over history, that all such works have been carried on in obedience to God’s laws. When Jacob by Rebecca’s aid cheated his elder brother, he was very smart; but we cannot but suppose that a better race was by this smartness put in possession of the patriarchal scepter. Esau was polished off, and readers of Scripture wonder why heaven, with its thunder, did not open over the heads of Rebecca and her son. But Jacob, with all his fraud, was the chosen one. Perhaps the day may come when scrupulous honesty may be the best policy, even on the frontier. I can only say that hitherto that day seems to be as distant as ever. I do not pretend to solve the problem, but simply record my opinion that under circumstances as they still exist I should not willingly select a frontier life for my children.
I have said that all great frontier men have been unscrupulous. There is, however, an exception in history which may perhaps serve to prove the rule. The Puritans who colonized New England were frontier men, and were, I think, in general scrupulously honest. They had their faults. They were stern, austere men, tyrannical at the backbone when power came in their way, as are all pioneers, hard upon vices for which they who made the laws had themselves no minds; but they were not dishonest.
At Milwaukee I went up to see the Wisconsin volunteers, who were then encamped on open ground in the close vicinity of the town. Of Wisconsin I had heard before — and have heard the same opinion repeated since — that it was more backward in its volunteering than its neighbor States in the West. Wisconsin has 760,000 inhabitants, and its tenth thousand of volunteers was not then made up; whereas Indiana, with less than double its number, had already sent out thirty-six thousand. Iowa, with a hundred thousand less of inhabitants, had then made up fifteen thousand. But neverthless to me it seemed that Wisconsin was quite alive to its presumed duty in that respect. Wisconsin, with its three-quarters of a million of people, is as large as England. Every acre of it may be made productive, but as yet it is not half cleared. Of such a country its young men are its heart’s blood. Ten thousand men, fit to bear arms, carried away from such a land to the horrors of civil war, is a sight as full of sadness as any on which the eye can rest. Ah me, when will they return, and with what altered hopes! It is, I fear, easier to turn the sickle into the sword than to recast the sword back again into the sickle!
We found a completed regiment at Wisconsin consisting entirely of Germans. A thousand Germans had been collected in that State and brought together in one regiment, and I was informed by an officer on the ground that there are many Germans in sundry other of the Wisconsin regiments. It may be well to mention here that the number of Germans through all these Western States is very great. Their number and well-being were to me astonishing. That they form a great portion of the population of New York, making the German quarter of that city the third largest German town in the world, I have long known; but I had no previous idea of their expansion westward. In Detroit nearly every third shop bore a German name, and the same remark was to be made at Milwaukee; and on all hands I heard praises of their morals, of their thrift, and of their new patriotism. I was continually told how far they exceeded the Irish settlers. To me in all parts of the world an Irishman is dear. When handled tenderly he becomes a creature most lovable. But with all my judgment in the Irishman’s favor, and with my prejudices leaning the same way, I feel myself bound to state what I heard and what I saw as to the Germans.
But this regiment of Germans, and another not completed regiment, called from the State generally, were as yet without arms, accouterments, or clothing. There was the raw material of the regiment, but there was nothing else. Winter was coming on — winter in which the mercury is commonly twenty degrees below zero — and the men were in tents with no provision against the cold. These tents held each two men, and were just large enough for two to lie. The canvas of which they were made seemed to me to be thin, but was, I think, always double. At this camp there was a house in which the men took their meals, but I visited other camps in which there was no such accommodation. I saw the German regiment called to its supper by tuck of drum, and the men marched in gallantly, armed each with a knife and spoon. I managed to make my way in at the door after them, and can testify to the excellence of the provisions of which their supper consisted. A poor diet never enters into any combination of circumstances contemplated by an American. Let him be where he will, animal food is with him the first necessary of life, and he is always provided accordingly. As to those Wisconsin men whom I saw, it was probable that they might be marched off, down South to Washington, or to the doubtful glories of the Western campaign under Fremont, before the winter commenced. The same might have been said of any special regiment. But taking the whole mass of men who were collected under canvas at the end of the autumn of 1861, and who were so collected without arms or military clothing, and without protection from the weather, it did seem that the task taken in hand by the Commissariat of the Northern army was one not devoid of difficulty.
The view from Milwaukee over Lake Michigan is very pleasing. One looks upon a vast expanse of water to which the eye finds no bounds, and therefore there are none of the common attributes of lake beauty; but the color of the lake is bright, and within a walk of the city the traveler comes to the bluffs or low round-topped hills, from which we can look down upon the shores. These bluffs form the beauty of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and relieve the eye after the flat level of Michigan. Round Detroit there is no rising ground, and therefore, perhaps, it is that Detroit is uninteresting.
I have said that those who are called on to labor in these States have their own hardships, and I have endeavored to explain what are the sufferings to which the town laborer is subject. To escape from this is the laborer’s great ambition, and his mode of doing so consists almost universally in the purchase of land. He saves up money in order that he may buy a section of an allotment, and thus become his own master. All his savings are made with a view to this independence. Seated on his own land he will have to work probably harder than ever, but he will work for himself. No task-master can then stand over him and wound his pride with harsh words. He will be his own master; will eat the food which he himself has grown, and live in the cabin which his own hands have built. This is the object of his life; and to secure this position he is content to work late and early and to undergo the indignities of previous servitude. The government price for land is about five shillings an acre — one dollar and a quarter — and the settler may get it for this price if he be contented to take it not only untouched as regards clearing, but also far removed from any completed road. The traffic in these lands has been the great speculating business of Western men. Five or six years ago, when the rage for such purchases was at its height, land was becoming a scarce article in the market. Individuals or companies bought it up with the object of reselling it at a profit; and many, no doubt, did make money. Railway companies were, in fact, companies combined for the purchase of land. They purchased land, looking to increase the value of it fivefold by the opening of a railroad. It may easily be understood that a railway, which could not be in itself remunerative, might in this way become a lucrative speculation. No settler could dare to place himself absolutely at a distance from any thoroughfare. At first the margins of nature’s highways, the navigable rivers and lakes, were cleared. But as the railway system grew and expanded itself, it became manifest that lands might be rendered quickly available which were not so circumstanced by nature. A company which had purchased an enormous territory from the United States government at five shillings an acre might well repay itself all the cost of a railway through that territory, even though the receipts of the railway should do no more than maintain the current expenses. It is in this way that the thousands of miles of American railroads have been opened; and here again must be seen the immense advantages which the States as a new country have enjoyed. With us the purchase of valuable land for railways, together with the legal expenses which those compulsory purchases entailed, have been so great that with all our traffic railways are not remunerative. But in the States the railways have created the value of the land. The States have been able to begin at the right end, and to arrange that the districts which are benefited shall themselves pay for the benefit they receive.
The government price of land is 125 cents, or about five shillings an acre; and even this need not be paid at once if the settler purchase directly from the government. He must begin by making certain improvements on the selected land — clearing and cultivating some small portion, building a hut, and probably sinking a well. When this has been done — when he has thus given a pledge of his intentions by depositing on the land the value of a certain amount of labor, he cannot be removed. He cannot be removed for a term of years, and then if he pays the price of the land it becomes his own with an indefeasible title. Many such settlements are made on the purchase of warrants for land. Soldiers returning from the Mexican wars were donated with warrants for land — the amount being 160 acres, or the quarter of a section. The localities of such lands were not specified, but the privilege granted was that of occupying any quarter-section not hitherto tenanted. It will, of course, be understood that lands favorably situated would be tenanted. Those contiguous to railways were of course so occupied, seeing that the lines were not made till the lands were in the hands of the companies. It may therefore be understood of what nature would be the traffic in these warrants. The owner of a single warrant might find it of no value to him. To go back utterly into the woods, away from river or road, and there to commence with 160 acres of forest, or even of prairie, would be a hopeless task even to an American settler. Some mode of transport for his produce must be found before his produce would be of value — before, indeed, he could find the means of living. But a company buying up a large aggregate of such warrants would possess the means of making such allotments valuable and of reselling them at greatly increased prices.
The primary settler, therefore — who, however, will not usually have been the primary owner — goes to work upon his land amid all the wildness of nature. He levels and burns the first trees, and raises his first crop of corn amid stumps still standing four or five feet above the soil; but he does not do so till some mode of conveyance has been found for him. So much I have said hoping to explain the mode in which the frontier speculator paves the way for the frontier agriculturist. But the permanent farmer very generally comes on the land as the third owner. The first settler is a rough fellow, and seems to be so wedded to his rough life that he leaves his land after his first wild work is done, and goes again farther off to some untouched allotment. He finds that he can sell his improvements at a profitable rate and takes the price. He is a preparer of farms rather than a farmer. He has no love for the soil which his hand has first turned. He regards it merely as an investment; and when things about him are beginning to wear an aspect of comfort, when his property has become valuable, he sells it, packs up his wife and little ones, and goes again into the woods. The Western American has no love for his own soil or his own house. The matter with him is simply one of dollars. To keep a farm which he could sell at an advantage from any feeling of affection — from what we should call an association of ideas — would be to him as ridiculous as the keeping of a family pig would be in an English farmer’s establishment. The pig is a part of the farmer’s stock in trade, and must go the way of all pigs. And so is it with house and land in the life of the frontier man in the Western States.
But yet this man has his romance, his high poetic feeling, and above all his manly dignity. Visit him, and you will find him without coat or waistcoat, unshorn, in ragged blue trowsers and old flannel shirt, too often bearing on his lantern jaws the signs of ague and sickness; but he will stand upright before you and speak to you with all the ease of a lettered gentleman in his own library. All the odious incivility of the republican servant has been banished. He is his own master, standing on his own threshold, and finds no need to assert his equality by rudeness. He is delighted to see you, and bids you sit down on his battered bench without dreaming of any such apology as an English cottier offers to a Lady Bountiful when she calls. He has worked out his independence, and shows it in every easy movement of his body. He tells you of it unconsciously in every tone of his voice. You will always find in his cabin some newspaper, some book, some token of advance in education. When he questions you about the old country he astonishes you by the extent of his knowledge. I defy you not to feel that he is superior to the race from whence he has sprung in England or in Ireland. To me I confess that the manliness of such a man is very charming. He is dirty, and, perhaps, squalid. His children are sick and he is without comforts. His wife is pale, and you think you see shortness of life written in the faces of all the family. But over and above it all there is an independence which sits gracefully on their shoulders, and teaches you at the first glance that the man has a right to assume himself to be your equal. It is for this position that the laborer works, bearing hard words and the indignity of tyranny; suffering also too often the dishonest ill usage which his superior power enables the master to inflict.
“I have lived very rough,” I heard a poor woman say, whose husband had ill used and deserted her. “I have known what it is to be hungry and cold, and to work hard till my bones have ached. I only wish that I might have the same chance again. If I could have ten acres cleared two miles away from any living being, I could be happy with my children. I find a kind of comfort when I am at work from daybreak to sundown, and know that it is all my own.” I believe that life in the backwoods has an allurement to those who have been used to it that dwellers in cities can hardly comprehend.
From Milwaukee we went across Wisconsin, and reached the Mississippi at La Crosse. From hence, according to agreement, we were to start by steamer at once up the river. But we were delayed again, as had happened to us before on Lake Michigan at Grand Haven.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01