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Encounters on the Road

Sangamo Journal / Illinois State Journal, 4 July 1835


From Hall's Western Monthly Magazine.

We have already suggested that although every part of the Western country is good, and some is surpassingly excellent, a large portion of our people are continually looking abroad for better land. A person of sanguine temperament is ever feasting in imagination upon some anticipated pleasure which is superior to all the joys that we are in possession of, so we still have some Eden in prospect, which is more desirable than the prolific fields around us. The whole land is on the qui vive— wide awake, and watching for intelligence from some newly discovered El Dorado, which would be a good place to move to. Sometimes one place cried up, and sometimes another—and then a rush for it. One year it is Alabama; another, Jackson's purchase, and then, it is the Sangamon Country; and no sooner does rumor thus invest a famed region with imaginary charms, than hundreds of farmers mount their horses and ride off to explore it, and hundreds of others, who are too impatient to look before they leap, rear up their tents, and move away to the land of promise.

The delightful season at which we are writing, brings these seasons forcibly to our recollection. The weather is dry, the sky serene, and the atmosphere mild; the roads are excellent, the corn is ripe, the cattle and hogs fat, and the land teeming with abundance. It is the season in which the emigrant may travel with the greatest facility and cheapness. We have seen them at this time of the year strung along the roads of Illinois, in such numbers, that there seemed to be no end to the long cavalcade.

Here is a little train of wagons, loaded with furniture and farming tools, the owner, a stout sunburnt man, walks before —the wife and children are stowed among the baggage; the tall girls, and the great muscular boys, each of the latter with a rifle on his shoulder, are strolling in the rear.— They are from Tennessee.— At night they halt by a spring or on the bank of a stream, a great fire is kindled, the beds and pallets are spread on the ground, and after a hearty supper, the whole party repose comfortably in the open air.

There is another party, the men ride on horseback, the females are in carriages or on horses, and there is a train of negroes—they are going to Missouri.— Here is a family from Kentucky—they are very much like those that have just passed, except that they are better "fixed"—they carry more household goods, and are a grade further advanced in their notions of comfort, all these we have described are reputable farmers who will enrich themselves and do credit to the State.

There is a band of different character. Several families are together—not because misery loves company—for, wretched as they seem, they are as happy as others. They are all on foot, except a decrepit matron, who is mounted on a lean pony, with a child in her lap, and a half naked, wicked boy behind. Their plunder is carried in an ox cart. They carry axes, guns, and knives, and are a half clad, hungry, ferocious looking set, who in Europe if not taken up for robbers or Gypsies would be arrested for the crime of poverty. Yet, except their poverty, and the indolence which produced it, there is no harm in them. Among them is a widow and nine children, all barefooted and bareheaded—she "lost her man" lately, and finding it hard to get along in this world, is going to a new country. These are from North Carolina.

A little covered wagon is seen, a creaking, crazy affair, almost worn out, drawn by one horse, whose last debt to nature seems to be nearly due. Within are seated a young man and woman; they are man and wife, and are as like each other as two peas—they have had the ague regularly every year, and are sallow as a dried corn-stalk. They have no property along, nor any baggage—nothing but the horse, the wagon, and their two selves; and they seemed to have reached to that part of the journey of life which the Justice of the peace who married them alluded to when he said "for better, for worse." They meet a gentleman who happens to be a lawyer in his circuit—the man hails him, and stops his lean pony, who straightway pokes down his head, and falls to cropping the tall grass.

"Stranger, can you tell me of a good place to settle?"

"Oh yes, it is all good here you can't go amiss."

"I want to find a good piece of land that belongs to Congress."

"Then you have come to the right place, for the government owns nearly all the land you see unimproved."

"Well, I reckon, stranger, it would be no harm to settle down a'most any where, and build a cabin !"

"None in the world—where did you come from ?"

"From North Carolina."

"How long have you been coming?"

"Three weeks."

"Where did you intend to go when you started ?"

"No where in pertic'lar. Me and my wife thought we'd hunt a place to settle. We've no money, nor no plunder—nothen but jist ourselves and this nag—and we thought we'd try our luck in a new country."

"You are right," said the lawyer, "go ahead; you are just the man for a new country. Take possession of the first good tract you find vacant, and fall to work."

Sometimes a dozen or twenty of these companies collect in the evening at the same camping ground. They kindle their separate fires, and circle around them. Whole acres are covered with beds, tents, wagons, horses and cattle. The men mix together, the women interchange civilities, and the whole scene is one lively and picturesque interest. While the weather is open, there are few hardships to encounter in such journeys but occasionally it rains. The sun sets behind a cloud, the wind changes, and cold driving showers pelt the defenceless travellers. They cannot travel in such a storm. some crawl in their carriages and wagons— some make shelters by suspending sheets and coverlids upon poles, and some fare no better than the domestic animals who turn backs to the wind, droop their heads, and stand in patient submission while the rain is drooping from their shivering sides.

In the meanwhile, all the taverns and houses of entertainment are crowded with strangers of another class—gentleman travelling on horseback; families who are not accustomed to "camping out;" merchants, lawyers and wealthy famers—all floating along in the great stream of emigration. They are mostly from the south and west.

But where is Jonathan all this while ? He is on the way—no mistake about him; wherever there is money to be made by hard labor, Jonathan will find out the place. But he has no notion of "camping out," and travelling by land is expensive to these who stop at taverns. He counted the cost before he came forth to this warfare, He traced the various routes upon the map, read all the books touching the subject that he could borrow, and wrote to divers Postmasters in the West, with whom he could correspond without the expense of postage. He even strained a point and paid the postage on a few letters of inquiry. We could show some very fine specimens of Jonathan's inquisitive nature and prudent foresight: one in particular, which contained, if we remember right, seventy six distinct queries, the answers of which would have filled a volume as large as a dictionary. Jonathan therefore, not only knows where he is a going, but has ascertained the cheapest route and the most eligible conveyance. He is floating quietly along the lake, or patiently meandering the Ohio. To look at him you will not suppose him worth a cent—nor does he care what you think about the matter—he has Nicholas Biddle's passport in his pocket, [money, as in a bank draft; Biddle was president of the Second Bank of the United States, Ed.] and knows that no man can stop him. He has sold all that he had, and put the whole concern into his purse. He might ride in a coach and four if he choose, but has taken a deck passage in a steamboat. He is a small, active, grave man, and most probable has been a deacon.

That decent, neat old lady in spectacles is his wife, and a worthy lady she is. But she is terribly scared. With what earnestness she begs the captain no to go too fast, not to let the boiler explode—and with what interest she inquires about snags, alligators, fevers, wolves, and Indians ! Poor lady, she will never become morally acclimated. She is too old to degenerate, and too good to get better. There is more hope of those rosy girls, with plain close bonnets and large travelling baskets in their laps. They have come to the west to do good, and they will succeed, they will teach school for six months, which is a very good thing, and then they will get married, which is better—for them. Those slim young men, so melancholy and gentlemanlike, are going to be lawyers and doctors. They are graduates. They are going to supply some of the waste places. The difference between them and the worthy deacon aforesaid, is, that he is diligently trying to learn, while they are zealously trying to teach. The contrast that is between youth and age, between the young scholar and the old farmer.

Thus they are filling up the West from abroad, and thus they are moving, and circulating, and changing places within the West. But our broad valley is not wide enough for the operation of this enterprising spirit, and there are Alexanders among us, who, having overrun every known field of Ambition, are sighing for new worlds to conquer. The thousands of square miles that lay unbroken by the plough, and the league after league of forest which remain unviolated by the axe of the backwoodsman, are insufficient. Our steamboats have ascended the Mississippi to the falls of St. Anthony; they have traced the meanders of the Missouri to a far more distant region; our traders pass annually over the vast deserts to Santa Fe: and the adventurous trapper has sought the haunts of the beaver beyond the Rocky mountains; and yet the love for newer lands and novel scenes of commercial enterprise is undiminished. The limits of the United States have been found too narrow to afford scope for the genius of her sons, and a hardy few have penetrated into the territory of our Southern neighbors.

Source: "Illinois State Journal", Springfield; retrieved from the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection
Page created: 29-VII-2016
Last updated: 29-VII-2016