William Cullen Bryant.

Letters of a Traveller Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America online

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the settlers of the region, for they do not shoot often except at a deer
or a wild turkey, or a noxious animal; but the prairie-hawk, the
bald-eagle, the mink, and the prairie-wolf, which make merciless havoc
among them and their brood.

About fifteen miles we came to Dad Joe's Grove, in the shadow of which,
thirteen years ago, a settler named Joe Smith, who had fought in the
battle of the Thames, one of the first white inhabitants of this region,
seated himself, and planted his corn, and gathered his crops quietly,
through the whole Indian war, without being molested by the savages,
though he was careful to lead his wife and family to a place of security.
As Smith was a settler of such long standing, he was looked to as a kind
of patriarch in the county, and to distinguish him from other Joe Smiths,
he received the venerable appellation of Dad. He has since removed to
another part of the state, but his well-known, hospitable cabin, inhabited
by another inmate, is still there, and his grove of tall trees, standing
on a ridge amidst the immense savannahs, yet retains his name. As we
descended into the prairie we were struck with the novelty and beauty of
the prospect which lay before us. The ground sank gradually and gently
into a low but immense basin, in the midst of which lies the marshy tract
called the Winnebago Swamp. To the northeast the sight was intercepted by
a forest in the midst of the basin, but to the northwest the prairies were
seen swelling up again in the smoothest slopes to their usual height, and
stretching away to a distance so vast that it seemed boldness in the eye
to follow them.

The Winnebagoes and other Indian tribes which formerly possessed this
country have left few memorials of their existence, except the names of
places. Now and then, as at Indiantown, near Princeton, you are shown the
holes in the ground where they stored their maize, and sometimes on the
borders of the rivers you see the trunks of trees which they felled,
evidently hacked by their tomahawks, but perhaps the most remarkable of
their remains are the paths across the prairies or beside the large
streams, called Indian trails - narrow and well-beaten ways, sometimes a
foot in depth, and many of them doubtless trodden for hundreds of years.

As we went down the ridge upon which stands Dad Joe's Grove, we saw many
boulders of rock lying on the surface of the soil of the prairies. The
western people, naturally puzzled to tell how they came there, give them
the expressive name of "lost rocks." We entered a forest of scattered
oaks, and after travelling for half an hour reached the Winnebago Swamp, a
tract covered with tall and luxuriant water-grass, which we crossed on a
causey built by a settler who keeps a toll-gate, and at the end of the
causey we forded a small stream called Winnebago Inlet. Crossing another
vast prairie we reached the neighborhood of Dixon, the approach to which
was denoted by groves, farm-houses, herds of cattle, and inclosed corn
fields, checkering the broad green prairie.

Dixon, named after an ancient settler of the place still living, is a
country town situated on a high bank of Rock River. Five years ago two
log-cabins only stood on the solitary shore, and now it is a considerable
village, with many neat dwellings, a commodious court-house, several
places of worship for the good people, and a jail for the rogues, built
with a triple wall of massive logs, but I was glad to see that it had no

Rock River flows through high prairies, and not, like most streams of the
West, through an alluvial country. The current is rapid, and the pellucid
waters glide over a bottom of sand and pebbles. Its admirers declare that
its shores unite the beauties of the Hudson and of the Connecticut. The
banks on either side are high and bold; sometimes they are perpendicular
precipices, the base of which stands in the running water; sometimes they
are steep grassy or rocky bluffs, with a space of dry alluvial land
between them and the stream; sometimes they rise by a gradual and easy
ascent to the general level of the region, and sometimes this ascent is
interrupted by a broad natural terrace. Majestic trees grow solitary or in
clumps on the grassy acclivities, or scattered in natural parks along the
lower lands upon the river, or in thick groves along the edge of the high
country. Back of the bluffs, extends a fine agricultural region, rich
prairies with an undulating surface, interspersed with groves. At the foot
of the bluffs break forth copious springs of clear water, which hasten in
little brooks to the river. In a drive which I took up the left bank of
the river, I saw three of these in the space of as many miles. One of
these is the spring which supplies the town of Dixon with water; the next
is a beautiful fountain rushing out from the rocks in the midst of a
clump of trees, as merrily and in as great a hurry as a boy let out of
school; the third is so remarkable as to have received a name. It is a
little rivulet issuing from a cavern six or seven feet high, and about
twenty from the entrance to the further end, at the foot of a
perpendicular precipice covered with forest-trees and fringed with bushes.

In the neighborhood of Dixon, a class of emigrants have established
themselves, more opulent and more luxurious in their tastes than most of
the settlers of the western country. Some of these have built elegant
mansions on the left bank of the river, amidst the noble trees which seem
to have grown up for that very purpose. Indeed, when I looked at them, I
could hardly persuade myself that they had not been planted to overshadow
older habitations. From the door of one of these dwellings I surveyed a
prospect of exceeding beauty. The windings of the river allowed us a sight
of its waters and its beautifully diversified banks to a great distance
each way, and in one direction a high prairie region was seen above the
woods that fringed the course of this river, of a lighter green than they,
and touched with the golden light of the setting sun.

I am told that the character of Rock River is, throughout its course, much
as I have described it in the neighborhood of Dixon, that its banks are
high and free from marshes, and its waters rapid and clear, from its
source in Wisconsin to where it enters the Mississippi amidst rocky
islands. What should make its shores unhealthy I can not see, yet they
who inhabit them are much subject to intermittent fevers. They tell you
very quietly that every body who comes to live there must take a
seasoning. I suppose that when this country becomes settled this will no
longer be the case. Rock River is not much subject to inundations, nor do
its waters become very low in summer. A project is on foot, I am told, to
navigate it with steam-vessels of a light draught.

When I arrived at Dixon I was told that the day before a man named
Bridge, living at Washington Grove, in Ogle county, came into town and
complained that he had received notice from a certain association that he
must leave the county before the seventeenth of the month, or that he
would be looked upon as a proper subject for Lynch law. He asked for
assistance to defend his person and dwelling against the lawless violence
of these men. The people of Dixon county came together and passed a
resolution to the effect, that they approved fully of what the inhabitants
of Ogle county had done, and that they allowed Mr. Bridge the term of four
hours to depart from the town of Dixon. He went away immediately, and in
great trepidation. This Bridge is a notorious confederate and harborer of
horse-thieves and counterfeiters. The thinly-settled portions of Illinois
are much exposed to the depredations of horse-thieves, who have a kind of
centre of operations in Ogle county, where it is said that they have a
justice of the peace and a constable among their own associates, and
where they contrive to secure a friend on the jury whenever any one of
their number is tried. Trial after trial has taken place, and it has been
found impossible to obtain a conviction on the clearest evidence, until
last April, when two horse-thieves being on trial eleven of the jury
threatened the twelfth with a taste of the cowskin unless he would bring
in a verdict of guilty. He did so, and the men were condemned. Before they
were removed to the state-prison, the court-house was burnt down and the
jail was in flames, but luckily they were extinguished without the
liberation of the prisoners. Such at length became the general feeling of
insecurity, that three hundred citizens of Ogle county, as I understand,
have formed themselves into a company of volunteers for the purpose of
clearing the county of these men. Two horse-thieves have been seized and
flogged, and Bridge, their patron, has been ordered to remove or abide the

As we were returning from Dixon on the morning of the 19th, we heard a
kind of humming noise in the grass, which one of the company said
proceeded from a rattlesnake. We dismounted and found in fact it was made
by a prairie-rattlesnake, which lay coiled around a tuft of herbage, and
which we soon dispatched. The Indians call this small variety of the
rattlesnake, the Massasauger. Horses are frequently bitten by it and come
to the doors of their owners with their heads horribly swelled but they
are recovered by the application of hartshorn. A little further on, one
of the party raised the cry of wolf, and looking we saw a prairie-wolf in
the path before us, a prick-eared animal of a reddish-gray color, standing
and gazing at us with great composure. As we approached, he trotted off
into the grass, with his nose near the ground, not deigning to hasten his
pace for our shouts, and shortly afterward we saw two others running in a
different direction.

The prairie-wolf is not so formidable an animal as the name of wolf would
seem to denote; he is quite as great a coward as robber, but he is
exceedingly mischievous. He never takes full-grown sheep unless he goes
with a strong troop of his friends, but seizes young lambs, carries off
sucking-pigs, robs the henroost, devours sweet corn in the gardens, and
plunders the water-melon patch. A herd of prairie-wolves will enter a
field of melons and quarrel about the division of the spoils as fiercely
and noisily as so many politicians. It is their way to gnaw a hole
immediately into the first melon they lay hold of. If it happens to be
ripe, the inside is devoured at once, if not, it is dropped and another is
sought out, and a quarrel is picked with the discoverer of a ripe one, and
loud and shrill is the barking, and fierce the growling and snapping which
is heard on these occasions. It is surprising, I am told, with what
dexterity a wolf will make the most of a melon; absorbing every remnant of
the pulp, and hollowing it out as clean as it could be scraped by a spoon.
This is when the allowance of melons is scarce, but when they are
abundant he is as careless and wasteful as a government agent.

Enough of natural history. I will finish my letter another day.

_June 26th_.

Let me caution all emigrants to Illinois not to handle too familiarly the
"wild parsnip," as it is commonly called, an umbelliferous plant growing
in the moist prairies of this region. I have handled it and have paid
dearly for it, having such a swelled face that I could scarcely see for
several days.

The regulators of Ogle county removed Bridge's family on Monday last and
demolished his house. He made preparations to defend himself, and kept
twenty armed men about him for two days, but thinking, at last, that the
regulators did not mean to carry their threats into effect, he dismissed
them. He has taken refuge with his friends, the Aikin family, who live, I
believe, in Jefferson Grove, in the same county, and who, it is said, have
also received notice to quit.

Letter VIII.

Examples of Lynch Law.

Princeton, Illinois, _July 2, 1841._

In my last letter I mentioned that the regulators in Ogle county, on Rock
River, in this state, had pulled down the house of one Bridge, living at
Washington Grove, a well-known confederate of the horse-thieves and
coiners with which this region is infested.

Horse-thieves are numerous in this part of the country. A great number of
horses are bred here; you see large herds of them feeding in the open
prairies, and at this season of the year every full-grown mare has a colt
running by her side. Most of the thefts are committed early in the spring,
when the grass begins to shoot, and the horses are turned out on the
prairie, and the thieves, having had little or no employment during the
winter, are needy; or else in the autumn, when the animals are kept near
the dwellings of their owners to be fed with Indian corn and are in
excellent order. The thieves select the best from the drove, and these are
passed from one station to another till they arrive at some distant market
where they are sold. It is said that they have their regular lines of
communication from Wisconsin to St. Louis, and from the Wabash to the
Mississippi. In Ogle county they seem to have been bolder than elsewhere,
and more successful, notwithstanding the notoriety of their crimes, in
avoiding punishment. The impossibility of punishing them by process of
law, the burning of the court-house at Oregon City last April, and the
threats of deadly vengeance thrown out by them against such as should
attempt to bring them to justice, led to the formation of a company of
citizens, "regulators" they call themselves, who resolved to take the law
into their own hands and drive the felons from the neighborhood. This is
not the first instance of the kind which has happened in Illinois. Some
twenty years since the southern counties contained a gang of
horse-thieves, so numerous and well-organized as to defy punishment by
legal means, and they were expelled by the same method which is now
adopted in Ogle county.

I have just learned, since I wrote the last sentence, that the society of
regulators includes, not only the county of Ogle, but those of De Kalb and
Winnebago, where the depredations of the horse-thieves and the perfect
impunity with which they manage to exercise their calling, have exhausted
the patience of the inhabitants. In those counties, as well as in Ogle,
their patrons live at some of the finest groves, where they own large
farms. Ten or twenty stolen horses will be brought to one of these places
of a night, and before sunrise the desperadoes employed to take them are
again mounted and on their way to some other station. In breaking up
these haunts, the regulators, I understand, have proceeded with some of
the formalities commonly used in administering justice. The accused party
has been allowed to make his defense, and witnesses have been examined,
both for and against him.

These proceedings, however, have lately suffered a most tragical
interruption. Not long after Bridge's house was pulled down, two men,
mounted and carrying rifles, called at the dwelling of a Mr Campbell,
living at Whiterock Grove, in Ogle county, who belonged to the company of
regulators, and who had acted as the messenger to convey to Bridge the
order to leave the county. Meeting Mrs. Campbell without the house, they
told her that they wished to speak to her husband. Campbell made his
appearance at the door and immediately both the men fired. He fell
mortally wounded and lived but a few minutes. "You have killed my
husband," said Mrs. Campbell to one of the murderers whose name was
Driscoll. Upon this they rode off at full speed.

As soon as the event was known the whole country was roused, and every man
who was not an associate of the horse-thieves, shouldered his rifle to go
in pursuit of the murderers. They apprehended the father of Driscoll, a
man nearly seventy years of age, and one of his sons, William Driscoll,
the former a reputed horse-thief, and the latter, a man who had hitherto
borne a tolerably fair character, and subjected them to a separate
examination. The father was wary in his answers, and put on the appearance
of perfect innocence, but William Driscoll was greatly agitated, and
confessed that he, with his father and others, had planned the murder of
Campbell, and that David Driscoll, his brother, together with another
associate, was employed to execute it. The father and son were then
sentenced to death; they were bound and made to kneel; about fifty men
took aim at each, and, in three hours from the time they were taken, they
were dead men. A pit was dug on the spot where they fell, in the midst of
a prairie near their dwelling; their corpses, pierced with bullet-holes in
every part, were thrown in, and the earth was heaped over them.

The pursuit of David Driscoll and the fellow who was with him when
Campbell was killed, is still going on with great activity. More than a
hundred men are traversing the country in different directions, determined
that no lurking-place shall hide them. In the mean time various persons
who have the reputation of being confederates of horse-thieves, not only
in Ogle county, but in the adjoining ones, even in this, have received
notice from the regulators that they cannot be allowed to remain in this
part of the state. Several suspicious-looking men, supposed to be
fugitives from Ogle county, have been seen, within a few days past,
lurking in the woods not far from this place. One of them who was seen the
day before yesterday evidently thought himself pursued and slunk from
sight; he was followed, but escaped in the thickets leaving a bundle of
clothing behind him.

Samonok, Kane County, Illinois, _July 5th._

I have just heard that another of the Driscolls has been shot by the
regulators. Whether it was David, who fired at Campbell, or one of his
brothers, I can not learn.

Letter IX.

Richmond in Virginia.

Richmond, Virginia, _March 2, 1843._

I arrived at this place last night from Washington, where I had observed
little worth describing. The statue of our first President, by Greenough,
was, of course, one of the things which I took an early opportunity of
looking at, and although the bad light in which it is placed prevents the
spectator from properly appreciating the features, I could not help seeing
with satisfaction, that no position, however unfavorable, could impair the
majesty of that noble work, or, at all events, destroy its grand general

The House of Representatives I had not seen since 1832, and I perceived
that the proceedings were conducted with less apparent decorum than
formerly, and that the members no longer sat with their hats on. Whether
they had come to the conclusion that it was well to sit uncovered, in
order to make up, by this token of mutual respect, for the too frequent
want of decorum in their proceedings, or whether the change has been made
because it so often happens that all the members are talking together, the
rule being that the person speaking must be bareheaded, or whether,
finally, it was found, during the late long summer sessions, that a hat
made the wearer really uncomfortable, are questions which I asked on the
spot, but to which I got no satisfactory answer. I visited the Senate
Chamber, and saw a member of that dignified body, as somebody calls it, in
preparing to make a speech, blow his nose with his thumb and finger
without the intervention of a pocket-handkerchief. The speech, after this
graceful preliminary, did not, I confess, disappoint me.

Whoever goes to Washington should by all means see the Museum at the
Patent Office, enriched by the collections lately brought back by the
expedition sent out to explore the Pacific. I was surprised at the extent
and variety of these collections. Dresses, weapons, and domestic
implements of savage nations, in such abundance as to leave, one would
almost think, their little tribes disfurnished; birds of strange shape and
plumage; fishes of remote waters; whole groves of different kinds of
coral; sea-shells of rare form and singular beauty from the most distant
shores; mummies from the caves of Peru; curious minerals and plants:
whoever is interested by such objects as these should give the museum a
more leisurely examination than I had time to do. The persons engaged in
arranging and putting up these collections were still at their task when I
was at Washington, and I learned that what I saw was by no means the

The night before we set out, snow fell to the depth of three inches, and
as the steamboat passed down the Potomac, we saw, at sunrise, the grounds
of Mount Vernon lying in a covering of the purest white, the snow,
scattered in patches on the thick foliage of cedars that skirt the river,
looking like clusters of blossoms. About twelve, the steamboat came to
land, and the railway took us through a gorge of the woody hills that
skirt the Potomac. In about an hour, we were at Fredericksburg, on the
Rappahannock. The day was bright and cold, and the wind keen and cutting.
A crowd of negroes came about the cars, with cakes, fruit, and other
refreshments. The poor fellows seemed collapsed with the unusual cold;
their faces and lips were of the color which drapers call blue-black.

As we proceeded southward in Virginia, the snow gradually became thinner
and finally disappeared altogether. It was impossible to mistake the
region in which we were. Broad inclosures were around us, with signs of
extensive and superficial cultivation; large dwellings were seen at a
distance from each other, and each with its group of smaller buildings,
looking as solitary and chilly as French chateaus; and, now and then, we
saw a gang of negroes at work in the fields, though oftener we passed
miles without the sight of a living creature. At six in the afternoon, we
arrived at Richmond.

A beautiful city is Richmond, seated on the hills that overlook the James
River. The dwellings have a pleasant appearance, often standing by
themselves in the midst of gardens. In front of several, I saw large
magnolias, their dark, glazed leaves glittering in the March sunshine. The
river, as yellow as the Tiber, its waters now stained with the earth of
the upper country, runs by the upper part of the town in noisy rapids,
embracing several islands, shaded with the plane-tree, the hackberry, and
the elm, and prolific, in spring and summer, of wild-flowers. I went upon
one of these islands, by means of a foot-bridge, and was pointed to
another, the resort of a quoit-club comprising some of the most
distinguished men of Richmond, among whom in his lifetime was Judge
Marshall, who sometimes joined in this athletic sport. We descended one of
the hills on which the town is built, and went up another to the east,
where stands an ancient house of religious worship, the oldest Episcopal
church in the state. It is in the midst of a burying-ground, where sleep
some of the founders of the colony, whose old graves are greenly overgrown
with the trailing and matted periwinkle. In this church, Patrick Henry, at
the commencement of the American Revolution, made that celebrated speech,
which so vehemently moved all who heard him, ending with the sentence:
"Give me liberty or give me death." We looked in at one of the windows; it
is a low, plain room, with small, square pews, and a sounding board over
the little pulpit. From the hill on which this church stands, you have a
beautiful view of the surrounding country, a gently undulating surface,
closed in by hills on the west; and the James River is seen wandering
through it, by distant plantations, and between borders of trees. A place
was pointed out to us, a little way down the river, which bears the name
of Powhatan; and here, I was told, a flat rock is still shown as the one
on which Captain Smith was placed by his captors, in order to be put to
death, when the intercession of Pocahontas saved his life.

I went with an acquaintance to see the inspection and sale of tobacco.
Huge, upright columns of dried leaves, firmly packed and of a greenish
hue, stood in rows, under the roof of a broad, low building, open on all
sides - these were the hogsheads of tobacco, stripped of the staves. The
inspector, a portly man, with a Bourbon face, his white hair gathered in a
tie behind, went very quietly and expeditiously through his task of
determining the quality, after which the vast bulks were disposed of, in a
very short time, with surprisingly little noise, to the tobacco merchants.
Tobacco, to the value of three millions of dollars annually, is sent by
the planters to Richmond, and thence distributed to different nations,

Online LibraryWilliam Cullen BryantLetters of a Traveller Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America → online text (page 4 of 25)