John Richard Digby Beste.

A traveler's impression of Indiana in 1851 online

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Prepared by the Staff of the

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Over a century ago J. Richard Beste, accompanied by
his wife and eleven of their twelve children, sailed from
England to the United States and traveled in the western coun-
try. After returning to England, he wrote an account of his
experiences in the backwoods; in 1855 he published THE WA-
BASH as a two-volume work in London. Selections describ-
ing the author's experiences and impressions of the land,
the people, and the climate of Indiana have been excerpted
from the book. Several passages by his children describing
the Hoosier state have also been excerpted.

The Boards and the Staff of the Public Library of Fort
Wayne and Allen County present this publication in the hope
that these impressions of a mid-nineteenth century English-
man in Indiana will prove interesting. Grammar, spelling,
and punctuation have been changed to conform to current

We enjoyed a pleasant voyage down the Ohio River in a
St. Louis steam packet. We passed the pretty scenery on
each side at the rate of about fourteen miles an hour. We
stopped often for official or commercial purposes and to de-
liver letters or to take on goods. No wharves or quays were
prepared at the different points of landing; but old, worn-out
steamboats, from which the machinery had been removed,
were moored to the banks. Rising and falling with the wa-
ters, they formed excellent floating piers.

We passed the village of Vevay in Switzerland County
through the center of its pretty vineyards planted on terraces
sloping from the summit of the cliffs to the edge of the wa-
ter. This place had been settled about forty years before by
thirty Swiss families. The United States had sold land to
them at a bargain so that they might introduce the cultivation
of the vine into the country. They did so and have since been
joined by many of their countrymen from Europe. The Ken-
tucky River flows into the Ohio River nearly opposite Vevay.
It seems to be a beautiful stream, with a very rapid current,
flowing between high precipitous banks of rock. It is navi-
gable to small boats for about one hundred and fifty miles,
and at a place called Frankfort a network of railways to the
interior begins.

We had dined on board our steamer and were now ap-
proaching the end of our pleasant voyage. I would gladly
have gone down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River and
would have ascended the latter stream to St. Louis. How-
ever, cholera still prevailed on the shore and in the boats of
the Mississippi River, and ship fever, brought up from New
Orleans at this time of year, was said to linger about many
of them. Therefore, we had resolved to land on the right
bank of the river and to find our way as best we might across
the states of Indiana and Illinois. About six o'clock in the
afternoon, our steamer drew up to the landing at Madison,
an important place in Indiana, ninety-two miles from Cincin-
nati. We had passed over this distance in seven hours at a
cost of $1.50 for each adult. This price included dinner.

Madison is said to be a very thriving place; it seenned


to be declining or stationary to me. Indeed, referring to the
census of the United States, I find that the population of the
county is entered in the year of 1840 as having been 9,025,
while in 1850 it was only 10, 031. An increase of ten per cent
in ten years is tantamount to a decrease in this country. I
did not like Madison. I heard that cholera was in the town,
and the Madison House was uncomfortable and exorbitant in
its charges. We slept here one night. The following morn-
ing at seven o'clock we took our seats in the railway cars
for Indianapolis.

After leaving Madison, we soon came to a hill ascend-
ing the banks of the Ohio River to the tableland above. It was
a very steep inclined plane - steeper than any I have seen in
England or Wales - but a magnificent engine, made in Eng-
land, drew us slowly to the top. We then passed through a
country that was very pleasing. Forests of oak and beech
trees covered the land. Here and there, the trees had been
removed for a small clearing, a farmhouse, a village, or a
rising town. The cars rattled through many of these towns.
In their streets, stumps of the recent forest yet stood two or
three feet above the ground and obliged all wayfarers to turn
aside. Hence, we have the origin of the American expres-
sion "to be stumped. " The busy community had not yet had
time to dig them up; this would be done when its citizens
were more settled.

Through the shady woods, beautiful cool ravines opened
into the boundless forest. Down them leaped and sparkled
bright rivulets that ought to have harbored delicious trout.
I was told that they contained no fish, because the waters
disappear during the sumnaer months. This scenery was
much more pleasing than that through which we had passed
heretofore. Beech, oak, and other trees had replaced the
monotonous Scotch firs of New York and northern Ohio. When
the woods occasionally opened and showed us small prairies
and parklike grounds, I fancied how pleasant a backwoods-
man's life would be in such a scenery and in such a sunny
climate. We were determined to be pleased with Indiana and
had already discovered that the manners of the "Hoosiers,"

as its inhabitants are familiarly called, were much more
gentle and considerate than those of the go-ahead "Buckeyes"
of Ohio.

At two o'clock we arrived at Indianapolis, the capital
of Indiana. We had come a distance of eighty-six miles in
seven hours - slow work, but the inclined plane had delayed
us. We had paid $2. 50 per adult for our places, which was
rather dear. However, the cars were comfortable, the man-
agers and passengers had been attentive and obliging, and,
in short, we had a pleasant ride. I found my situation at In-
dianapolis to be discouraging. I had come by steamboat and
railway as far as they reached in this direction. There were
no more waterways, and the railways were completed no
farther. It was true that several railroads were planned
which would go to St. Louis and the Pacific states, but we
had no wish to stay in Indianapolis until they might be com-
pleted. I had been told that the stagecoach from Cincinnati
passed through the town on its way to the Mississippi River
over the National Road, and I had trusted to this transporta-

The stagecoach came rolling up the street. The body
of the vehicle held spaces for three with their backs to the
horses, spaces for three with their faces to the horses, and
a bench across the middle from door to door with spaces for
three more. The only support for the shoulders of those who
satin the middle seat was a leather strap drawn across from
end to end. Even if all nine places could be secured, they
would not be sufficient for my party. Moreover, the coach
started in the evening, and we should have to travel all that
night and the following night. Stagecoach travel would not
meet our needs. We asked what could be done. Mr. Turtle,
the proprietor of our hotel, said, "Do as we all do. Buy a
wagon and a pair of horses and drive across the prairie. "
The spirit of adventure was upon us, and the idea was rather

The main street of the town of Indianapolis is hand-
somely wide. It has broad walks on each side and crosses
two or three other streets at right angles. As far as they

went, these streets also gave promise of being handsome.
Vacancies soon appeared between the rows of houses, but
they will be filled later. This seems to be the method fol-
lowed in all these American towns. The plan of the village
is first laid out, and the boundaries of the townships are de-
fined. Buildings diverge from the core; here and there they
dot the line of the future streets until they lose themselves
in the forest, the prairie, or the cultivated land. As the va-
cancies on each side of a street are filled up, sidewalks are
made, trees are planted to overshadow them, the center of
the street is paved, and gas and water pipes are laid down.
Thus, this city of Indianapolis was as yet one continuous
street, with stems of other streets shooting off from it. The
plan of the rising town was definitely settled. Although the
boundaries of the township enclosed both cultivated ground
and wasteland, the scattered buildings already contained a
population of ten thousand inhabitants. There were three
very good hotels in Indianapolis, and the arrivals of their
guests were regularly published in the newspapers! What
more could be done in the most fashionable watering place?

The capitol at Indianapolis is a remarkably handsonne
building of surprisingly good classical architecture. It is
supposed to be modeled somewhat after the Parthenon at
Athens. The pillars and the rest of the building are made of
brick but are stuccoed and painted so well that close exam-
ination alone can detect the real material. The churches in
the town are also large and well built. Domes, spires, and
towers that would not discredit any European capital have
arisen; they give diversity to the wide plain on which the city
stands. In truth, the situation of the town is excellent, not
for a commercial center since it has no water transporta-
tion, but for a city of residences and the central seat of gov-
ernment. It stands on a high tableland of good soil; it is dry
and healthful. As they diverge from the center, the streets
lead to pleasant paths amid farms and forests. My children
admired the scene very much.

Unless we wished to take up our abode pernrianently at
Indianapolis, it was necessary that I procure horses and a

wagon with which to move on. At length, I was told of a job-
ber who had a stable full of horses, which he would either
sell or rent to convey me to my destination. My wife and I,
accompanied by a guide, walked in the direction of the job-
ber's premises. We were about to turn into his property,
when our guide led us into a temperance hotel barroom where
tea and sherbet were sold; he requested that my wife wait
there till our return. "Why so?" I asked. "It is not right
for a lady to go to a stable-yard- -people would be shocked, "
he replied. My wife insisted thai it was more decorous to
accompany her husband to a stable than to remain alone in a

The owner of the stable seemed to be doing business
on alarge scale. He had twenty or thirty horses inhis well-
kept sheds. My wife's perverse indelicacy in accompanying
me proved to the stablekeeper that we must be quite "Johnny
Raws" and newcomers into the civilized world. Therefore,
he asked what I knew to be three times the value of his horses.

We walked away wondering wnat to do next. Suddenly,
my guide approached a man driving a cream-colored horse
that was drawing a cartload of stones.

He asked, "Will you sell that horse, Mr. James?"

The driver replied, "I guess I will, if you make it
worth my while. "

My guide inquired, "Where about is the figure?"

The owner of the horse answered: "Well now, I don't
want to sell himbecause I must have one to do my work, and
I shall have to buy another. But there's no denying that this
one is a deal too well-bred to haul these stones. I reckon
you won't have him under a hundred and fifty dollars. "

My guide whispered to me that he knew the horse and
that the animal was all right. His paces seemed excellent,
and he was only five years old. "If he is all right, " I said,
"I will give one hundred dollars for him," and I walked away.

In the course of two hours, I was told that the horse
was in the hotel stable and that the gentleman was waiting for
the money. In much the sanne manner on the following day,
I picked up a dark bay horse with black legs. He was six

years old, about one inch higher than the buff, and had a
somewhat larger and shorter body. He was full of fire and
speed. For this horse I paid ninety dollars.

I hadnnuch difficulty in getting a wagon to suitnny taste.
I had understood that I was to have a spring wagon, but now
I was assured that no springs could stand the roughness of
the roads over which I must travel. To prove this, I was
taken to see the stagecoaches. It was true that no iron en-
tered into their composition, but the body of the carriage
swung from side to side on the thickest possible doubled and
quadrupled leather thongs. Therefore, we had to resign our-
selves to a wagon without springs.

During my stay here, many tracts of land had been
recommended to me for purchase. I will copy some of the
descriptions I received. They fanniliarize one with the coun-
try and help to bring its ways before the nnind. There were
offers such as:

One hundred eighty acres, of which sixty-five are cleared,

in Switzerland County, including a good house- -price , seven

thousand dollars;

Two hundred forty acres of wooded land in Carroll County -

one thousand dollars;

Five hundred acres of land in Clay and Owen counties, in the

valley of Eel River, one or two miles from the canal between

Terre Haute and Evansville.

Then I had letters fromi Illinois. One included the fol-
lowing recommendation:

A tract of land of thirteen hundred acres with seventy
or eighty of them improved; anda commodious dwelling forty-
six feet by fifty feet in size, two and one-half stories high,
of frame construction with good cellars. The first two sto-
ries have four fine rooms each and a hall in each story. The
third story has a deck roof and at least a dozen small rooms.
There is an orchard adjoining and a tolerable barn. A quar-
ter of a mile distant in another part of the farm, there is one
of the best barns in this county. The barn is seventy-four
feet by fifty-four feet and has a cellar. A comfortable dwell-
ing is hard by. This property, I think, can be purchased

ff/^ ^tdde wfiispcrrd to me.

for about four thousand dollars.

Such letters as the above proved to me that it would be
unwise to determine hastily upon any purchase. I had much
to see in Illinois, and I determined to make Vandalia nny
headquarters for a week or two.

Some readers may like to know how a newspaper is
conducted in the backwoods. For these readers, I will de-
scribe a copy of the INDIANA STATE SENTINEL which I
brought away with me. It is printed on good paper. Its pub-
lisher says that it is published every evening at five dollars
per year in advance. The rates of its advertisements are:

Fifty cents for eight lines or less for one insertion,
and twenty-five cents for each additional insertion. An an-
nouncennent of candidates for office is one dollar for each
line. All advertisements for charitable institutions, fire
companies, and ward, township, and other public meetings
will be printed at half price. Reports of marriages and
deaths will be inserted without charge. Obituary notices and
funeral invitations will be printed at half price.

After a report of the convention of the California Dem-
ocratic Party, the first page is filled with advertisements,
which are intended to be as attractive as possible. The rail-
roads preface their notices by little prints of smoking en-
gines, which show the driver standing under a shade to pro-
tect him from the sun and the rain. The Odd Fellows and
the Freemasons issue their notices amid eyes, hands, hearts,
suns, triangles, and compasses- -signs which they alone un-
derstand. There are convenient tables which tell the hours
at which all mails arrive at and leave Indianapolis; there are
statements telling when the different courts will hold their
respective sessions; there is a bank report of the current
value of notes and moneys; and there is the yearly almanac.
My eye is caught by the pretty little prints of gentlemen mak-
ing their best bows and little boys walking hand in hand- -all
sprucely dressed and calling attention to the many clothing
emporiums. I also see prints announcing, "Something new
which carmoL oe beat - Jenny Lind's cooking stove," On
wheels there is a great boot smoking like the funnel of a


steam engine; this is followed by four shoes of different sizes
racing after it on wheels , while "Fairbanks" exclaims , "Clear
the track!" and bids you "call and examine for yourself" his
supply of boots and shoes.

However, leaving the pictorial advertisements, I own
that I like the matter-of-fact, business style of other adver-
tisennents which go straight to the point without circumlocu-
tion. What can be more curt and intelligible than the follow-

Ladies! I have this day received a new assortment of
fine ribbons, silks, lawns, bareges , and delaines. Please
call and exannine them at the bargain store of H. Parrish.

Cheese. A good supply constantly on hand at V. Hanna
and Connpany's.

Wanted: 50, 000 pounds of bacon, for which the market
price in cash will be paid by Blythe and Holland.

It is not such a barbarous country, after all! A refer
ence to funeral processions reminds me of the style of Amer-
ican newspaper obituary notices. Much trouble and inquiry
at a time of family distress is avoided by an additional note
which tells where and at what hour the funeral will take place
and that "the relatives and friends are respectfully invited to
attend without further invitation. " Then, if the deceased is
connected with any other part of the country, Wisconsin for
example, a notice usually follows: "Wisconsin papers please
copy. "

But my INDIANA STATE SENTINEL is not entirely
given up to advertisements. There are leading articles and
paragraphs on matters of general political interest written
in much the same style as we should find in English provincial
papers. If any difference is visible in them, it is that they
are more courteous to their contemporaries. I read a para-
graph in a New York newspaper that announced the publica-
tion of an opposition newspaper which would take quite a dif-
ferent line in politics from its own. It said that the editor of
the new organ was a man of so great ability that the publish-
ers of the old established newspaper could not hesitate to
wish him success. This is not the greeting which our estab-

lished newspapers give to new adventurers.

In the INDIANA STATE SENTINEL there is the follow-
ing notice, which is characteristic of the country and shows
the scarcity of servants:

Our carrier has been sick for the past few days, and
we have been unable to procure a competent one to fill his
place. We hope that our subscribers will be patient if any
errors are made in delivering the papers. We will rectify
any mistake which is reported to the office. Our carrier
will probably be able to resume his duties tomorrow.

Those who study educational statistics may be inter-
ested in drawing comparisons with the following statement.
According to the report of the visiting committee, the num-
ber of children attending the various Sunday schools in Indi-
anapolis during the past month was 1,818; the number of chil-
dren whose parents promised to send them but did not was
seventy; the number of children whose parents refused to
send them was thirty-two. The total number of children in
the city is 1,920. When shall we see all the children ex-
cept 102 attend the Sunday schools attached to the different
churches in an English city of about eight thousand inhabit-
ants ?

Thus, although we were in the backwoods, it must not
be supposed that we had no evidence of refinement in Indian-
apolis. The men, it is true, dressed sensibly in gray hol-
land coats and vests- -I myself bought a suit which is still my
comfort in hot weather - but the ladies were as refined and
elegant as those in New York. The druggists and storekeep-
ers had every sort of Parisian perfumery and female luxuries
on sale - French gloves, eau de cologne, everything that a
European e legante could require. We rejoiced in this evi-
dence of prosperity and leisure as we replenished the bottles
and drawers of our family medicine chest, little anticipating
how soon we should be obliged to have recourse to the drugs.
Then, light of heart and full of hope, we clambered up into
our new wagon, and on this very day three years ago (I am
writing on June 27, 1854) our beautiful horses started forth.
They pressed forward with a will on the journey across the


prairies of Illinois to the banks of the mighty Mississippi

I had hired Morrison, the man who had helped me pur-
chase my horses and wagon, to convey our luggage with his
own two horses and wagon from Indianapolis to Vandalia. It
was a heavy load, and as he started with it, I doubted that he
would be able to accomplish the undertaking. However, he
was going to hire additional horses if necessary. We threw
carpetbags and other light articles into the bottom of our own
wagon, because we thought that they would make convenient
seats for the children. The body of the vehicle was then filled
halfway up its sides with hay and straw that they might feel
less shaking and jolting.

Agnes writes:

We had all looked forward with impatience to the day
of starting afresh on our journey and to the pleasures of the
wagon. At last, our equipment came to the door; and, with
a little squeezing, the whole number found room to sit. Some
sat on the hay on the floor, and some sat on carpetbags. In
the town our spirits rose even higher, and we enjoyed the
jolting on the street. Nevertheless, we found it did not abate,
and we soon began to tire of it. Those who for the sake of
novelty had wished to sit on hay were glad to change places
with those who were on bags. Since not even that position
brought the pleasure which had been expected, an unpleasant
conviction very soon forced itself into our minds. We be-
came convinced that traveling in a wagon on American roads
was not so agreeable a way of progressing as we had thought
it would be. But to our surprise, a short distance from In-
dianapolis, just as we were beginning to resign ourselves to
the jolting, we found that it suddenly ceased. In order to
discover the cause of this unexpected change, we looked out
from under the awning and found that we were traveling on a
plank road. To our great joy, this road extended for some
miles during which our anticipations of the pleasures of trav-
eling in a wagon were partly fulfilled. However, as the heat
of the day increased, we could not help wishing that the wag-
on had been made a little wider.



We trotted lightly on this plank road, and a plank road
is very pleasant to travel upon. It nnay be slippery in wet
weather, but now it saved us from the dust that would have
arisen from gravel. Boards or planks about three inches
thick were nailed to sleepers at the two sides of the road.
They spanned it fronn side to side and rose and sank under
us with the elasticity of a ballroom floor. On each side of
the plank road, between it and the worm fences that bounded
it, there were holes and stumps and ditches and natural wa-
tercourses through whichno wheels could venture. The road
was constructed in a nearly straight line through a pleasant
country, but cultivated spots amid the woods and prairies
grew more and more rare. There was a good deal of traffic
on the road, quite as much as would be seen on a turnpike
road in England, but it was confined entirely to rough-and-
ready carriages or agricultural teams. All these vehicles
moved rapidly. We also passed several wagons loaded with
emigrants; sonne were carrying their bedding andarticles of

At about one o'clock, I came to a stop at a little inn in
a small village named Springfield. I cautioned my family
not to complain of the jolting of the wagon, lest it should ap-
pear that they had never ridden in one before, and I warned
them to answer the usual string of interrogations as if we
were emigrants going from Cincinnati to Illinois. We were

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Online LibraryJohn Richard Digby BesteA traveler's impression of Indiana in 1851 → online text (page 1 of 3)