William Nowlin.

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The Bark Covered House;
Or, Back in the Woods Again


tBl)t ILakt^iht Clasfsfics;

The Bark Covered

or, Back in the
Woods Again


MiLo Milton Quaife



R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co.
Christmas, 1937

^ublissfjersi' preface

IN these days when every man's hand
seems turned against the business man;
when the government of which he is the
main taxable support uses his own money to
try to wreck his business; when the govern-
ment which is sworn to uphold the Consti-
tution and enforce the law tries to wTeck the
Constitution and encourages and supports
those who defiantly violate the law of the
land; in these days when history is in the
making (perhaps sad history for this great
republic), even then we find the habit and
traditions of thirty-five Christmases turning
our minds, as we choose the subject for the
next volume, to narratives of those pioneer
days when freedom was a treasured posses-
sion and self-reliance a common practice.

With unintentional irony, our choice this
year is The Bark Covered House, a narrative
of pioneer life in Michigan in 1834, the scene
of which is laid almost on the present site
of Dearborn, Michigan. The clearing of the
woods, the fishing and the hunting in an
attempt to keep body and soul together, and
the early agricultural endeavor of typical

^ublfejers;' Preface

pioneers— hearty, industrious, self-sufficient,
and finally prosperous — are all portrayed
practically on the site of what is today the
great Ford Motor Company.

The Publishers

Christmas, 1937.




Historical Introduction xiii

Reproduction of Original Title Page . . . xxix

Prefatory Note xxxi

Key xxxiii

Preface xxxv

1. Talking of Michigan 3

2. Disagreeable Music 23

3. How We Got Our Sweet, and the
History of My First Pig 39

4. Our Second House and First Apple
Trees S3

5. The Jug of Whisky and Temperance
Meeting 61

6. How We Found Our Cattle 68

7. Trouble Came on the Wing 74

8. Hard Times for Vs in Michigan, 1836-7 76

9. A Summer Hunt 80

10. How We Got Into Trouble One Night

and I Scared 88

11. The Indians Visit Us — Their Strange

and Peculiar Ways 94

12. The Inside of Our House — A Picture
from Memory 108

13. Metheglin; or, the Detected Drink . . 121

14. Our Road — How I Was Wounded . . 132

15. Prospect of War— A. D. 1835 H^

16. Fishing and Boating 154




17. How I Got in Trouble Riding in a
Canoe 161

18. Our Clearing and the First Railroad
Cars in 1838 166

19. Trees 178

20. Drawing Cord-wood — How the Rail-
road Was Built — The Steam Whistle . 187

21. How I Hunted and We Paid the Mort-
gage 197

22. Bear Hunt of 1842 212

23. Grandfather's Powder Horn — War with
Pirates 224

24. Light Begins to Dawn 237

25. Making a Bargain 246

26. How I Commenced for Myself — Fa-
ther's Old Farm in 1843 ^5^

27. Thoughts in Connection with Father
and Early Pioneer Life 258

28. Father's New House and Its Situa-
tion — His Children \'isit Him .... 268

29. My Watch Lost and Visit to Canada . 281

30. Mother's Visit to the East — 1861 . . . 296

31. Leaving New York City for Home . .314

Index 327

List of Lakeside Classics 343


Historical Introduction

ilistorical Sntrobuction

THE adventurers who first undertook
the task of colonizing North America
found before them a forest, apparent-
ly limitless in extent. At its eastern edge
they settled down, and alike in Nova Scotia,
in Massachusetts, and in Virginia proceeded
to die of want and starvation. Later comers,
profiting by the lessons which experience and
the red men combined to teach, eventually
adjusted themselves to the New World
environment and mastered the problem of
survival in the American forest.

For two hundred years the American pio-
neer was a forest dweller, engaged in the
task of subduing to civilization the eastern
half of the continent; the rifle and the axe
were his indispensable tools, and he was an
artist in the use of both. About the middle
of the nineteenth century he emerged from
the forest upon the treeless area of the Great
Plains. Here his forest economy proved
useless; a new environment must be con-
quered and for a generation his westward
advance was stayed. His first conception of
the treeless plains found grim expression in


W^tovital Sntrobuction

the words, "Great American Desert," which

as recently as the last decade of the nine-
teenth century still adorned the map of the
United States in the school geographies. On
the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, as
earlier beside the shore of Chesapeake Bay,
the newcomers either starved or beat a for-
lorn and despairing retreat.

Gradually, however, a new economy was
learned. The axe gave place to barbed wire,
the log cabin to the sod hut. Subsoil plowing
was practiced and the art of dry farming was
mastered. Instead of regarding trees as ob-
stacles to be destroyed, the settler came to
view them as treasures to be cherished, and
the formal birth of Arbor Day symbolized a
revolution in the realm of ideas as sweeping
as any America has ever witnessed. The
Great American Desert vanished from the
school books, and almost from living mem-
ory. For a generation it was fondly believed
that the treeless area had been conquered
and a successful way of life on the Great
Plains had been learned.

More recently, grave doubt has arisen
about the success of the Plains economy.
The "Dust Bowl" is but another name for
the Great American Desert and the economic
difficulties of those who dwell within its limits
present a problem of grave national concern.


?^is;torical Sntrobuction

Whatever its issue may finally prove to be,
the conquest of the forested portion of Amer-
ica constitutes until now our greatest national
achievement. Its story has engaged the ener-
gies of a generation of scholars, and almost
unanimously historians regard it as the most
significant theme in the nation's history.

The narrative of The Bark Covered House
is a single document underlying this tremen-
dous story. It relates the experiences of one
family among the uncounted number of pio-
neers who for two hundred years slashed
their way through the American forest.
Humble men live humble lives, and their
commonplace experiences are known only to
themselves, and to their immediate asso-
ciates. The scholar who seeks to reconstruct
the story of such a life is commonly baffled
because no one has bothered to preserve its
ordinary incidents and experiences. Thus
the things which are commonplace to one
generation become matters wholly unknown
to its successor. Occasionally, however,
someone is moved to record the story of his
life, and if the recorder be competent a pre-
cious picture is preserved for the enlighten-
ment of future generations. Such a picture
of the life of an English family in pioneer
Illinois is Rebecca Burlend's narrative,
A True Picture of Emigration^ which was


^n^tovital Sntrobuction

reprinted in The Lakeside Classics a year ago.
The Nowlin family migrated from the older
East to the Michigan frontier and like the
Burlends its story has been preserved.

For reasons which will presently appear,
however, the complete family saga has been
seen by but few persons outside the imme-
diate vicinity of its origin. One of the few
exceptions to this statement is Mr. J.
Christian Bay of Chicago, eminent librarian
and bibliophile. In his charming essay,
A Handful of Western Books (Cedar Rapids,
1935), he discourses thus of the fascinations
of book collecting in general, and of The
Bark Covered House in particular: "Each
man has some luck, and deserves it, provided
he is game when pure luck ceases. In all the
many auction sales of Americana which we
have had since the Great War, there has
figured but one copy, which I luckily ob-
tained, of a Michigan pioneer narrative
entitled The Bark Covered House^ written by
William Nowlin and published in Detroit in
1876. To secure this was indeed luck. A splen-
did narrative, full of fine accounts of pioneer
life and belief, hard struggles and quaint joys.
There are one or two copies in Michigan, but
I never traced a copy anywhere else."

The reasons for the rarity of the volume
become apparent from the circumstances of


W^totital Sntrobuction

its authorship. William Nowlin was a farmer
whose formal schooling was exceedingly
meager. Until his twelfth year he enjoyed
such educational opportunities as were af-
forded by the country school of a century
ago, but the westward migration terminated
his school days forever. His literary asso-
ciations in mature life must have been
extremely slight, although he enjoyed the
good fortune of having as a family friend the
Detroit lawyer and litterateur^ Levi Bishop.
Among the many services of the latter to the
cause of education, the encouragement he
gave toward printing the Nowlin narrative
is not the least. The book was written as a
tribute of appreciation to his parents, and
was printed primarily for distribution to the
friends and relatives of the Nowlin family.
Probably the edition was a small one, al-
though one relative thinks he remembers
seeing a considerable pile of the books in
William Nowlin's home. The same inform-
ant states that he does not think the author
ever expected or desired to sell any copies.
Instead (like Mrs. Tillson's narrative, which
was reproduced in The Lakeside Classics in
1 91 9) it was printed for distribution to
members and friends of the family.

The circumstances attending the produc-
tion of a book are always of interest both to


lOis^torical Sntrobuction

scholars and collectors, and the authorship
of The Bark Covered House is deserving of
some attention. William Nowlin was an
elderly farmer, whose busy life had been
spent in fields far removed from that of
literature, when suddenly in the winter of
1875, ^^ ^^^^ aside his farming tools, en-
trusted his livestock to the care of others,
and for several months devoted himself to
the pen. Almost every paragraph of his
simple narrative breathes his devotion to the
memory of his parents, and this appreciation
was undoubtedly the prime influence which
induced him to enter upon the task of
authorship. The immediate occasion for the
work was the near approach of the centen-
nial of national independence. Everywhere
men's thoughts were turned to the past, and
to the achievements which a century of
national life had witnessed. The universal
interest in the country's history naturally
induced a wide-spread desire to have it
recorded, and in March, 1876, Congress by
formal resolution appealed to the people "to
assemble in their several counties or towns,
there to listen to an historical sketch of said
county or town from its foundation," and
afterward to file a copy of "said sketch" with
their county clerks and with the Library of
Congress. William Nowlin did not wait for


©fetorical Sntrobuction

this appeal, nor did he attempt to write a
history of his county; but with affectionate
zeal he undertook to record his parents'
story, including therein to considerable ex-
tent the story of the adjoining rural neigh-
borhood. When it had been written, the
manuscript was read and discussed by nu-
merous friends who united in the verdict
that it "should see the light and live for the
information of others."

Despite occasional crudities, the literary
style of The Bark Covered House is good,
harmonizing admirably with the character
of the narrative. Is it solely William Now-
lin's style, or did he profit from the coopera-
tion of another in the work of producing it .^
The answer to this question introduces us to
an interesting member of the Nowlin family,
William's younger sister, Betsey. In the
book she is mentioned but twice, and each
time the notice accorded her is brief. Such
effacement seems to have been characteristic
of her, for the inscription on her gravestone
contains neither her name nor her age, being
confined to the Spartan record "B.B.N, d.
Dec. 3, 1915."^ Yet "Aunt Betsey," as she

^ Living informants agree that her name was
Betsey, although she preferred to be called Bessie, and
one relative who was named for her (and whom she
chiefly reared) bore the latter name.


^i^toxital 3fntrobuction

was known in later years, was no shrinking
violet; on the contrary, she was a vigorous,
strong-minded woman, possessed of consid-
erable education and equipped with a re-
markable memory. She lived and died a
spinster, and never dreamed of lamenting her
single estate. On the contrary, several in-
formants who knew her well unite in stating
that she never married "because she never
found any man she thought good enough for
her." Having no family of her own, she
cared for her widowed mother and aided
effectively in looking after the numerous
progeny of her married relatives. One in-
formant, now an old man, still recalls with
mingled feelings the herbal dosing to which
in his childhood "Aunt Betsey" subjected

Aunt Betsey Nowlin undoubtedly shared
with William the authorship of the book.
The statements of living relatives and neigh-
bors who were in close touch with the Now-
lins all unite in supporting this conclusion.
One informant states that it was common
neighborhood belief at the time that x^unt
Betsey was largely responsible for the vol-
ume. Another states that William would
visit Betsey (then living at Nowlin Castle)
and talk over his recollections with her, and
that she would reduce them to writing.


^i^toxital Sntrobuction

Several agree that in certain portions of the
book the language used and thoughts ex-
pressed are such as they would expect from
Aunt Betsey, but are not in keeping with
William's habits of thought and expression.
The trend of all the testimony the writer has
gathered supports the conclusion that the
writing of the book was William's idea and
that most of its contents are attributable to
him; but that it was chiefly Aunt Betsey who
reduced the material to narrative form, and
that in addition she supplied an appreciable
portion of the contents. In short, she was
William's co-laborer in the production of
the narrative.

There is, of course, no hint of impropriety
in this, and one can only speculate on the
reasons which led the brother and sister to
refrain from acknowledging her share in the
work of authorship. The strong-willed
woman outlived her brother a quarter of a
century, and for several years before her
death was in a state of semi-blindness. Her
home in her later years was on Cass x'\ venue in
Detroit, close to the old Central High School.
This is today the seat of Wayne University,
where thousands of students daily enjoy
educational opportunities such as William
and Betsey Nowlin in youth could scarcely
have imagined. Yet they made good use of


^i^tovital Sntrobuction

their limited literary talents; their more
fortunate successors can do no more.

However tantalizing the gaps in our knowl-
edge of Aunt Betsey's literary activity may
be, there is no lack of information concerning
the life and character of William Nowlin.
He was a prominent farmer of his community
who died less than fifty years ago, and there
are still many relatives and neighbors who
knew him well. All informants agree that he
was a fine man and an excellent citizen. Like
his father, he was a powerful man physically,
over six feet tall and weighing well over two
hundred pounds. An incident recalled by one
informant illustrates his physical vigor in his
later years. A mechanical hayloader had
been brought to the farm, and William
Nowlin was skeptical of its superiority over
the older combination of pitchfork and
muscle. He offered to pitch a load of hay on
the wagon in less time than the machine
could perform the task, and in the race w^hich
ensued he made good his challenge.

His personality was in keeping with his
physical stature. He bore himself with dig-
nity and was slow to discuss his personal
affairs. He was a kindly man, absolutely
honest, a hard worker, and fair in his rela-
tions with his fellows. Although slow to an-
ger, he was not incapable of it. Another


5ifetorical Sntrobuction

story told by the same informant illustrates
certain of his traits. One of William's step-
sons was driving the cows home, and un-
known to the boy, William was observing
him. The boy had been eating a slice of
watermelon, and was amusing himself by
offering the rind to a young heifer and when
the animal sought to seize it in her mouth,
suddenly withdrawing it. The father rushed
upon him, and conducted him to a tree near-
by, where he cut a switch and gave the boy
a thorough thrashing. In his presence one
did not abuse a dumb animal with impunity.
The economic aspect of William Nowlin's
career presents a well-nigh perfect picture of
American farm life at its best. For years he
labored loyally beside his father to wrest the
parental acres from the virgin wilderness and
transform them into a civilized home. Upon
marrying, he began life humbly enough upon
the forty-two acres at the south end of his
father's farm which his parent assigned to
him. Presently he exchanged this holding
(plus $150) for a tract lying half a mile to the
westward in Section ^^. Here he made his
home for almost half a century, and here his
remains lie buried. As the years passed, he
gradually added to his original holding until
he owned the greater part of Section ^;^y com-
prising over 400 acres of excellent land.


JMfi^torical Sntrobuction

Through it runs the north branch of the
Ecorse, which, as the narrative relates, is a
surface stream subject to violent overflow.
That portion of the farm which was thus
overflowed was periodically automatically
renewed, rendering artificial fertilization un-
necessary. So rich was the soil that one
credits with difficulty the stories that are
told concerning it. One man recalls fields of
rye seven feet high and crops of corn so tall
that in shocking it the farm hands would cut
the stalks 2>< or 3 feet above the ground in
order to enable them to reach the proper
place to gather them together for tying. In
truth it was a "goodly land" to which John
Nowlin had led his family in the spring of

In later years \\ illiam Nowlin devoted
much of his energy to cattle raising, conduct-
ing this operation, like all others, with a high
degree of efficiency. Each season he would
have a herd of fat steers ready for market,
and his reputation for quality was such that
Detroit buyers would come to his farm to
compete for them, the successful bidder ship-
ping them East to supply the New York
demand for meat of fancy quality.

Successful in business, William Nowlin was
no less fortunate in his choice of a wife. She
was his boyhood neighbor and friend, Adelia


J^i^toxml Sntrobuction

Travis. Ralph Lord, her nephew, for whom
she played the role of foster-mother from
1877 until her death five years later, speaks
of her with affection and respect. Another
relative characterizes her as "a lovely
woman." After her death, William Nowlin
contracted a second marriage, this time with
Anna Crandell, a much younger woman than
himself. They had one child, a daughter,
who died while still a baby. Several children
of the first marriage had died years before,
but three sons, all mature men, survived
him. They did not long remain on the farm,
however, which soon passed into alien hands.
The longest life is but brief, and the
achievements of the most successful man are
soon but a memory. Little more than a cen-
tury has passed since John Nowlin and his
son, with guns on shoulders, trudged west-
ward from Detroit along the Chicago Road
in search of their new home in the West, and
less than half a century since William re-
signed the cares of life. Yet how changed the
scene of their labors. The rural village of
Dearborn has become a busy industrial city,
the home of perhaps the greatest factory in
the world. The primitive Chicago and Tele-
graph roads have become superhighways 200
feet wide, along which night and day roll
almost unbroken streams of traffic. Nowlin


©is^torical Sntrobuction

Castle, the old-age home of the pioneer, still
stands, although shorn of its earlier glory.
This and the family cemetery afford the only
visible reminders of the activities of the
Nowlin family. The hand of the subdivider
is upon all the region; the pioneer homes of
Joseph Pardee and Henry Travis, like those
of John and William Nowlin have vanished,
along with the red man, the timber, and the
black ash swamps. The bed of the Ecorse
still remains, dry throughout most of the
year, but no pickerel come up from the De-
troit to deposit their spawn and fall victims
of the pioneer hunter. In the little cemetery
on the sand ridge near-by sleeps the original
pioneer, together with his author-son and
daughter and several of his other children.
His living descendants are scattered far and
wide; the ancestral acres have passed into
the hands of strangers, busy in their turn
with the labors and problems which everyday
living presents.

The story of the writing of The Bark Cov-
ered House has been sufficiently recited above.
The book was printed at Detroit in 1876,
evidently as a piece of job-work, with nu-
merous inconsistencies of spelling and punc-
tuation. A few years later an incomplete
reprinting was included in Volume IV of The
Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections.


Jlfetorical Sntrobuction

This volume, of course, is found in many
libraries; but many passages, including nu-
merous pages and half a dozen entire chap-
ters of the original edition are missing from
the reprint. Until the present time, no other
edition has been undertaken; the present
edition reproduces the original verbatim,
save for the correction of a few misspellings
and one or two erroneous dates; and for the
elimination of a very few obvious crudities
of composition which a competent publisher
would have eliminated in the first edition.


Detroit, November i, 1937.












^refatorp Mott

I LITTLE thought when I left my farm
yards, horses and cattle in the care of
other men, and began to write, that I
should spend nearly all the winter of 1875 ^^
writing; much less, that I should offer the
product of such labor to the public, in the
Centennial Year. But I have been urged to
do so by many friends, both learned and un-
learned, who have read the manuscript, or
listened to parts of it. They think the work,
although written by a farmer, should see the
light and live for the information of others.
One of these is Levi Bishop,^ of Detroit, who

^ Levi Bishop came to Detroit from Massachusetts in
1835 ^° follow his trade of shoemaker. On July 4, 1839,
fate intervened in his career in the guise of an exploding
cannon, which blew off his right hand. He thereupon
deserted the last for the law, and eventually became a
leading member of the Detroit bar. He devoted much
time to public education, and the Bishop Union School
was named in recognition of this service. As regent of
the University of Michigan he was influential in pro-
curing the dismissal of President Tappan, one of the
ablest presidents in the history of the University.
Bishop manifested much interest in historical subjects,
and in poetical composition. In 1870 he published
Teuchsa Grondie, a 10,000-line composition which he


was long a personal triend of my father and
his family, and has recently read the manu-
script. He is now President of the "Wayne
County Pioneer Society," and is widely
known as a literary man, poet and author.

\V. N.

himself believed to be "the longest and most elaborate
epic poem ever yet produced by an American author."
A few years later he published another poem of 800
verses dealing with the recent Civil War. He was an
able lawyer, a useful and successful citizen, and a less
than mediocre poet.


SKETCH of the lives of John and Me-
linda Nowlin; of their journeying and

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryWilliam NowlinThe bark covered house; or, Back in the woods again; → online text (page 1 of 18)