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Brief reminiscences of scenes from 1809 to 1817

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Brief reminiscences of scenes from 1809 to 1817--Events preliminary to a knowledge of western life--Embarkation on the source of the Alleghany River--Descent to Pittsburgh--Valley of the Monongahela; its coal and iron--Descent of the Ohio in an ark--Scenes and incidents by the way--Cincinnati--Some personal incidents which happened there.

Late in the autumn of 1809, being then in my seventeenth year, I quitted the village of Hamilton, Albany County (a county in which my family had lived from an early part of the reign of George II.), and, after a pleasant drive of half a day through the PINE PLAINS, accompanied by some friends, reached the city of Schenectady, and from thence took the western stage line, up the Valley of the Mohawk, to the village of Utica, where we arrived, I think, on the third day, the roads being heavy. The next day I proceeded to Vernon, the site of a busy and thriving village, where my father had recently engaged in the superintendency of extensive manufacturing operations. I was here within a few miles of Oneida Castle, then the residence of the ancient Oneida tribe of Iroquois. There was, also, in this town, a remnant of the old Mohigans, who, under the name of Stockbridges, had, soon after the Revolutionary War, removed from the Valley of the Housatonic, in Massachusetts, to Oneida. Throngs of both tribes were daily in the village, and I was thus first brought to notice their manners and customs; not dreaming, however, that it was to be my lot to pass so many of the subsequent years of my life as an observer of the Indian race.

Early in the spring of 1810, I accompanied Mr. Alexander Bryan Johnson, of Utica, a gentleman of wealth, intelligence, and enterprise, to the area of the Genesee country, for the purpose of superintending a manufactory for a company incorporated by the State Legislature. After visiting Sodus Bay, on Lake Ontario, it was finally resolved to locate this company's works near Geneva, on the banks of Seneca Lake.

During my residence here, the War of 1812 broke out; the events of which fell with severity on this frontier, particularly on the lines included between the Niagara and Lake Champlain, where contending armies and navies operated. While these scenes of alarm and turmoil were enacting, and our trade with Great Britain was cut off, an intense interest arose for manufactures of first necessity, needed by the country, particularly for that indispensable article of new settlements, window glass. In directing the foreign artisans employed in the making of this product of skill, my father, Col. Lawrence Schoolcraft, had, from an early period after the American Revolution, acquired celebrity, by the general superintendency of the noted works of this kind near Albany, and afterwards in Oneida County.

Under his auspices, I directed the erection of similar works in Western New York and in the States of Vermont and New Hampshire.

While in Vermont, I received a salary of eighteen hundred dollars per annum, which enabled me to pursue my studies, ex academia, at Middlebury College. In conversation with President Davis, I learned that this was the highest salary paid in the State, he himself receiving eleven hundred, and the Governor of the State but eight hundred.

The extensive and interesting journeys connected with the manufacturing impulse of these engagements, reaching over a varied surface of several hundred miles, opened up scenes of life and adventure which gave me a foretaste of, and preparedness for, the deeper experiences of the western wilderness; and the war with England was no sooner closed than I made ready to share in the exploration of the FAR WEST. The wonderful accounts brought from the Mississippi valley--its fertility, extent, and resources--inspired a wish to see it for myself, and to this end I made some preliminary explorations in Western New York, in 1816 and 1817. I reached Olean, on the source of the Alleghany River, early in 1818, while the snow was yet upon the ground, and had to wait several weeks for the opening of that stream. I was surprised to see the crowd of persons, from various quarters, who had pressed to this point, waiting the opening of the navigation.

It was a period of general migration from the East to the West. Commerce had been checked for several years by the war with Great Britain. Agriculture had been hindered by the raising of armies, and a harassing warfare both on the seaboard and the frontiers; and manufactures had been stimulated to an unnatural growth, only to be crushed by the peace. Speculation had also been rife in some places, and hurried many gentlemen of property into ruin. Banks exploded, and paper money flooded the country.

The fiscal crisis was indeed very striking. The very elements seemed leagued against the interests of agriculture in the Atlantic States, where a series of early and late frosts, in 1816 and 1817, had created quite a panic, which helped to settle the West.

I mingled in this crowd, and, while listening to the anticipations indulged in, it seemed to me that the war had not, in reality, been fought for "free trade and sailors' rights" where it commenced, but to gain a knowledge of the world beyond the Alleghanies.

Many came with their household stuff, which was to be embarked in arks and flat boats. The children of Israel could scarcely have presented a more motley array of men and women, with their "kneading troughs" on their backs, and their "little ones," than were there assembled, on their way to the new land of promise.

To judge by the tone of general conversation, they meant, in their generation, to plough the Mississippi Valley from its head to its foot. There was not an idea short of it. What a world of golden dreams was there!

I took passage in the first ark that attempted the descent for the season. This ark was built of stout planks, with the lower seams caulked, forming a perfectly flat basis on the water. It was about thirty feet wide and sixty long, with gunwales of some eighteen inches. Upon this was raised a structure of posts and boards about eight feet high, divided into rooms for cooking and sleeping, leaving a few feet space in front and rear, to row and steer. The whole was covered by a flat roof, which formed a promenade, and near the front part of this deck were two long "sweeps," a species of gigantic oars, which were occasionally resorted to in order to keep the unwieldy vessel from running against islands or dangerous shores.

We went on swimmingly, passing through the Seneca reservation, where the picturesque costume of the Indians seen on shore served to give additional interest to scenes of the deepest and wildest character. Every night we tied our ark to a tree, and built a fire on shore. Sometimes we narrowly escaped going over falls, and once encountered a world of labor and trouble by getting into a wrong channel. I made myself as useful and agreeable as possible to all. I had learned to row a skiff with dexterity during my residence on Lake Dunmore, and turned this art to account by taking the ladies ashore, as we floated on with our ark, and picked up specimens while they culled shrubs and flowers. In this way, and by lending a ready hand at the "sweeps" and at the oars whenever there was a pinch, I made myself agreeable. The worst thing we encountered was rain, against which our rude carpentry was but a poor defence. We landed at everything like a town, and bought milk, and eggs, and butter. Sometimes the Seneca Indians were passed, coming up stream in their immensely long pine canoes. There was perpetual novelty and freshness in this mode of wayfaring. The scenery was most enchanting. The river ran high, with a strong spring current, and the hills frequently rose in most picturesque cliffs.

1818. I do not recollect the time consumed in this descent. We had gone about three hundred miles, when we reached Pittsburgh. It was the 28th of March when we landed at this place, which I remember because it was my birthday. And I here bid adieu to the kind and excellent proprietor of the ark, L. Pettiborne, Esq., who refused to receive any compensation for my passage, saying, prettily, that he did not know how they could have got along without me.

I stopped at one of the best hotels, kept by a Mrs. McCullough, and, after visiting the manufactories and coal mines, hired a horse, and went up the Monongahela Valley, to explore its geology as high as Williamsport. The rich coal and iron beds of this part of the country interested me greatly; I was impressed with their extent, and value, and the importance which they must eventually give to Pittsburgh. After returning from this trip, I completed my visits to the various workshops and foundries, and to the large glassworks of Bakewell and of O'Hara.

I was now at the head of the Ohio River, which is formed by the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela. My next step was to descend this stream; and, while in search of an ark on the borders of the Monongahela, I fell in with a Mr. Brigham, a worthy person from Massachusetts, who had sallied out with the same view. We took passage together on one of these floating houses, with the arrangements of which I had now become familiar. I was charmed with the Ohio; with its scenery, which was every moment shifting to the eye; and with the incidents of such a novel voyage. Off Wheeling we made fast to another ark, from the Monongahela, in charge of Capt. Hutchinson, an intelligent man. There were a number of passengers, who, together with this commander, added to our social circle, and made it more agreeable: among these, the chief person was Dr. Selman, of Cincinnati, who had been a surgeon in Wayne's army, and who had a fund of information of this era. My acquaintance with subjects of chemistry and mineralogy enabled me to make my conversation agreeable, which was afterwards of some advantage to me.

We came to at Grave Creek Fleets, and all went up to see the Great Mound, the apex of which had a depression, with a large tree growing in it having the names and dates of visit of several persons carved on its trunk. One of the dates was, I think, as early as 1730. We also stopped at Gallipolis--the site of a French colony of some notoriety. The river was constantly enlarging; the spring was rapidly advancing, and making its borders more beautiful; and the scenery could scarcely have been more interesting. There was often, it is true, a state of newness and rudeness in the towns, and villages, and farms, but it was ever accompanied with the most pleasing anticipations of improvement and progress. We had seldom to look at old things, save the Indian antiquities. The most striking works of this kind were at Marietta, at the junction of the Muskingum. This was, I believe, the earliest point of settlement of the State of Ohio. But to us, it had a far more interesting point of attraction in the very striking antique works named, for which it is known. We visited the elevated square and the mound. We gazed and wondered as others have done, and without fancying that we were wiser than our predecessors had been.

At Marietta, a third ark from the waters of the Muskingum was added to our number, and making quite a flotilla. This turned out to be the property of Hon. J.B. Thomas, of Illinois, a Senator in Congress, a gentleman of great urbanity of manners and intelligence. By this addition of deck, our promenade was now ample. And it would be difficult to imagine a journey embracing a greater number of pleasing incidents and prospects.

When a little below Parkersburgh, we passed Blennerhasset's Island, which recalled for a moment the name of Aaron Burr, and the eloquent language of Mr. Wirt on the treasonable schemes of that bold, talented, but unchastened politician. All was now ruin and devastation on the site of forsaken gardens, into the shaded recesses of which a basilisk had once entered. Some stacks of chimneys were all that was left to tell the tale. It seemed remarkable that twelve short years should have worked so complete a desolation. It would appear as if half a century had intervened, so thorough had been the physical revolution of the island.

One night we had lain with our flotilla on the Virginia coast. It was perceived, at early daylight, that the inner ark, which was Mr. Thomas's, and which was loaded with valuable machinery, was partly sunk, being pressed against the bank by the other arks, and the water was found to be flowing in above the caulked seams. A short time must have carried the whole down. After a good deal of exertion to save the boat, it was cut loose and abandoned. It occurred to me that two men, rapidly bailing, would be able to throw out a larger quantity of water than flowed through the seams. Willing to make myself useful, I told my friend Brigham that I thought we could save the boat, if he would join in the attempt. My theory proved correct. We succeeded, by a relief of hands, in the effort, and saved the whole machinery unwetted. This little affair proved gratifying to me from the share I had in it. Mr. Thomas was so pleased that he ordered a sumptuous breakfast at a neighboring house for all. We had an abundance of hot coffee, chickens, and toast, which to voyagers in an ark was quite a treat; but it was still less gratifying than the opportunity we had felt of doing a good act. This little incident had a pleasing effect on the rest of the voyage, and made Thomas my friend.

But the voyage itself was now drawing to a close. When we reached Cincinnati, the flotilla broke up. We were now five hundred miles below Pittsburgh, and the Valley of the Ohio was, if possible, every day becoming an object of more striking physical interest. By the advice of Dr. Sellman, who invited me to dine with a large company of gentlemen, I got a good boarding-house, and I spent several weeks very pleasantly in this city and its immediate environs. Among the boarders were Dr. Moorhead (Dr. S.'s partner), and John C.S. Harrison (the eldest son of Gen. Harrison), with several other young gentlemen, whose names are pleasingly associated in my memory. It was customary, after dinner, to sit on a wooden settle, or long bench, in front of the house, facing the open esplanade on the high banks of the river, at the foot of which boats and arks were momentarily arriving. One afternoon, while engaged in earnest conversation with Harrison, I observed a tall, gawky youth, with white hair, and a few stray patches just appearing on his chin, as precursors of a beard, approach furtively, and assume a listening attitude. He had evidently just landed, and had put on his best clothes, to go up and see the town. The moment he stopped to listen, I assumed a tone of earnest badinage. Harrison, instantly seeing our intrusive and raw guest, and humoring the joke, responded in a like style. In effect we had a high controversy, which could only be settled by a duel, in which our raw friend must act as second. He was strongly appealed to, and told that his position as a gentleman required it. So far all was well. We adjourned to an upper room; the pistols were charged with powder, and shots were exchanged between Harrison and myself, while the eyeballs of young Jonathan seemed ready to start from their sockets. But no sooner were the shots fired than an undue advantage was instantly alleged, which involved the responsibility of my antagonist's friend; and thus the poor fellow, who had himself been inveigled in a scrape, was peppered with powder, in a second exchange of shots, while all but himself were ready to die with smothered laughter; and he was at last glad to escape from the house with his life, and made the best of his way back to his ark.

This settle, in front of the door, was a capital point to perpetrate tricks on the constantly arriving throngs from the East, who, with characteristic enterprise, often stopped to inquire for employment. A few days after the sham duel, Harrison determined to play a trick on another emigrant, a shrewd, tolerably well-informed young man, who had evinced a great deal of self-complacency and immodest pertinacity. He told the pertinacious emigrant, who inquired for a place, that he had not, himself, anything that could engage his attention, but that he had a friend (alluding to me) who was now in town, who was extensively engaged in milling and merchandizing on the Little Miami, and was in want of a competent, responsible clerk. He added that, if he would call in the evening, his friend would be in, and he would introduce him. Meantime, I was informed of the character I was to play in rebuking assumption. The man came, punctual to his appointment, in the evening, and was formally introduced. I stated the duties and the peculiar requisites and responsibilities of the trust. These he found but little difficulty in meeting. Other difficulties were stated. These, with a little thought, he also met. He had evidently scarcely any other quality than presumption. I told him at last that, from the inhabitants in the vicinity, it was necessary that he should speak Dutch. This seemed a poser, but, after some hesitancy and hemming, and the re-mustering of his cardinal presumption, he thought he could shortly render himself qualified to speak. I admired the very presumption of the theory, and finally told him to call the next day on my agent, Mr. Schenck, at such a number (Martin Baum's) in Maine Street, to whom, in the mean time, I transferred the hoax, and duly informing Schenck of the affair; and I do not recollect, at this time, how he shuffled him off.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians


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