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Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
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The Prairie and the Mississippi.

IN company with the friend at whose house I was stopping in Racine, I went out into the prairie to visit the town of Lanark, situated on the extreme north-western frontier of Illinois. It is no good referring to any map of the United States to ascertain the locality of this city. It had not then completed the first year of its existence, and was inscribed on no chart or map as yet designed. Probably, beyond the circle of twenty miles round Lanark, there were not a score of people who knew that there was such a place in the world, still less that it was a rising locality. In the far West, cities start into existence like Aladdin's Palace. You read of this mushroom growth in books of travel, but it is hard to realize it without seeing it on the spot. You pass through the vast city of Chicago, along its splendid streets and quays and avenues, and are told that thirty years ago no buildings stood there except an old mud fort, raised to keep off the Indians, and that the first child ever born in the city was only married the other day. You are told so, but you hardly believe it,

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or, at any rate, you form no idea of how the solitary fort grew into the mighty city. To understand the process of development, you must take a baby-town just beginning to stand alone, and not the full-grown giant of a metropolis. It is for this reason, and because, in French phrase, I have "assisted" at the birth of Lanark City, that I have taken it as the specimen of a Western settlement. I was not, indeed, the first representative of the English Press who had been at Lanark. Six months before I was there, Mr. Russell had visited the place with the same friend who brought me thither; but at that time the town was an idea only, and Mr. Russell passed the day shooting over the ground on which the town now stands. I may fairly claim therefore, in a literary point of view, to have discovered Lanark, and, discoverer-like, wish to lay before the world the result of my discoveries.

Between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River lies the prairie-land of Illinois. From the river to the lakes there run a host of railroads, and amongst them there is one, now in process of construction, called the Racine and Mississippi Railroad. If you take any map of the West, and draw a straight, or what the Americans call an "air-line," from Racine to the nearest point of the Mississippi, you will have before you the exact course of the railroad in question; and twenty miles are so from the river lay the then terminus of the line, Lanark City. It was in company with Mr. George

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Thomson, the English projector of the railroad and the founder of the city, that Lanark and I made acquaintance with each other. The course of emigration, naturally enough, caused the borders of the great river and lake highways to be first occupied by settlers; and it is only slowly, as population increases, that the inland districts of the Western States become settled. Thus the interior of Northern Illinois is still a great prairie country, dotted here and there with new cities. Railroads are not constructed there to connect existing towns, as much as to open out new ranges of country; and if the Racine and Mississippi had to depend upon the custom of the inhabitants settled along its route before the line was made, its chance of profit would be a small one. For miles and miles our road lay along the silent, almost deserted, prairie — every now and then a low cutting through a hillock, sometimes a short embankment over a hollow, and then a flat bridge carried on piles across a marshy stream; but as a rule, a long level track, scarcely raised above the ground, and stretching without curve or bend for miles before and miles behind you. Right in the middle of the prairie, the rail came to an end at Lanark.

Alongside the depôt there stood a sort of railway caravan, which had been the first house of Lanark. When the rail was finished, there was not a hut or covered dwelling of any kind on the spot, and so this caravan was sent down there as a shelter for the railroad

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servants. By this time it had served its purpose, and I heard the order given for its transmission back to Racine, in order to be used elsewhere for a like object. Close to the station there was an hotel built already, not a pot-house or a roadside tavern, but a genuine, well-ordered inn. Of course, being in America, it had a bar-room, a public room with long tables, and public meals at fixed hours. It was clean too, and neatly furnished, as hotels in the Free States mostly are. The only national institution in which it was deficient was a gong. The first landlord — there had been three already — had levanted, taking that inevitable deafening instrument of torture with him on his departure, and happily it had not yet been replaced. There was a piano in the house, belonging to the wife of a gentleman employed on the line, and in his room I found copies of Macaulay's History, and of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall." The hotel was the property of the Company, and had been built by them to induce settlers to come to the place, and it seemed to be doing a good business. Meanwhile, the town was fast growing up around it.

Lanark, like all Western cities, is built on the simplest of plans. The owners or projectors of the settlement buy a certain number of acres, draw out a plan of the town, dividing it into the streets and lots, and allow any purchaser to build any sort of dwelling on his lot he likes. The houses may be as irregular and unlike as possible; but, as the spaces alloted for the streets are not

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allowed to be encroached upon, the general plan of the town must correspond with the chart. The map of the city had been drawn out by a Scotch clerk in the service of the railroad, who had undertaken the task of naming the streets. To display his nationality, he had given Scotch names — Bute, Argyle, Forth, Moray, and Macs innumerable — and had only condescended to American prejudices so far as to permit of there being a Main and a Chesnut Street. Most of these streets, however, were still streets of the future, and the influx of population had as yet only called Main and Bute Streets into existence. The first of these is the commercial thoroughfare of Lanark, and in it there were some twenty shops already established. I noticed two competing ironmongers and tinmen, whose stores seemed plentifully stocked, two or three rival groceries, two saddle and harness makers, and a couple of beer and oyster saloons — a tailor's, a shoemaker's, and a lawyer's office. Besides these, there were two large stores building, one of which was to be a furniture warehouse, and the other, I think, a dry-goods shop. Bute-street consisted of private cottages. A number of shanties, too, were scattered round the place, but not close enough yet to one another to form streets. Every house in the place was of wood, many of them two, or even three, storeys high. The majority of the houses had curtains and green veranda shutters, and even the poorest I looked into were far superior in

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comfort to an ordinary English labourer's cottage, not to mention their being clean and airy. The streets were mere tracks of prairie-land, hardened by the wheels of teams, of which the town was full; but there were planked footpaths raised along Main-street.

The object, indeed, for which Lanark has been founded is to form a depôt for agricultural produce. The fertile plains of the vast prairie will produce boundless supplies of wheat and corn. There is no clearing to be done before these plains can be cultivated. For some cause or other, which nobody appears to me to have explained as yet satisfactorily, trees do not grow spontaneously upon the prairie, fertile as it is; and for miles on every side of Lanark there was scarcely a tree to be seen. A New England farmer, who had lately removed there, told me he should never feel at home until he had brought some rocks from the Pilgrim State, and planted trees between their crevices, so as to form a miniature Massachusetts of his own. The richness of the soil is something marvellous. You have but to turn it up some three inches deep, and the land will yield crops year after year without rest or manure. An acre will bear from thirty to forty bushels, and wheat fetches from half-a-crown to three shillings a bushel. Indian corn or "corn" as it is called there, is so plentiful that in many winters it is burnt for fuel. With such prices the only thing which stops the cultivation of wheat is the difficulty and expense of bringing

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it to market; and as fast as the railroad removes this difficulty, the cultivation extends rapidly. On one day, within a few weeks of the railroad being opened, three hundred team-loads of wheat were brought to the single station of Lanark. The population therefore of the city consists of farmers, and of dealers who have come to provide for their wants. There is, of course, a great deal of luck about Western towns, as about all other speculations in a new country; and it is impossible as yet to say whether Lanark will succeed in becoming the depôt of its district; but its prospects are flourishing. Its population, as far I could gather, numbered already about 300 persons. There was no church yet built, but every week there came some minister or other, who preached in a room at the hotel. The people were already making arrangements for establishing schools. One of the chief settlers, with whom I had some conversation, talked of raising 1,000 dollars in the town for this purpose, and said that he hoped to get as much more from the Education Fund of Springfield, the county town of Lanark district. The first public meeting in the town was to be held the week following my visit, to consider the school question, as the railway company had offered to give land for the school buildings at unusually low prices. The site of a church was, I understood, fixed upon, and I had pointed out to me a long square of prairie-land, which is to be hereafter the park of Lanark. If, a dozen years hence, the park were

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to be surrounded by stone mansions, the growth of Lanark would not be more surprising than that of other Western cities.

The railroad was pushing on fast toward the Mississippi. It was strange to any one who, like myself, had seen a good deal of European railroad-making, to watch the rough-and-ready way in which this line was carried forward. The low mound of earth, on which the single line of rails was placed, was heaped up hastily from a trench cut on either side. You would have fancied that the weight of the engine would crush down the embankment, and break through the flat bridges supported on the slender wooden piles. But, somehow or other, American railroads work well and serve their purpose. The cost of construction was low enough to make the mouth of an English shareholder water, being under two thousand pounds a mile. This, however, is unusually cheap even for America; and I believe the cost of the Illinois Central, over as easy a country, was about eight thousand pounds per mile. What makes this cheapness of construction the more remarkable is, that wages were high. The rate of pay for common unskilled labourers varied from four to six shillings a day; and the teams, gangs of which were brought in to the work by farmers settled in the neighbourhood, were paid for at the rate of ten shillings daily. It is probable, moreover, that the farmers worked at a low rate, as the funds for the line were chiefly provided by

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promissory notes given by them, and secured by the mortgage of their farms. A very large proportion of the workmen were Irish; and the meadows along the line were covered with shanties and gipsy-tents, where Irish women and children huddled together, in as close a proximity to their state of native dirt as the fresh air of the prairie would permit of. The sale of whiskey or intoxicating liquors was prohibited, by a sort of extempore lynch-law; and I was struck by hearing the American overseer go round to the different shanties and tell their inmates, that if he heard of their having liquor on the premises he would pull down the huts over their heads. From what I saw of my friend Mr. Smith, I have not the slightest doubt that, though the most good natured man in the world, he would have kept his word to the letter.

In this out-of-the-way spot, as everywhere in the West, the war was the one subject of talk. It was too far North for Secessionism, and the people to a man were staunch Unionists. A report came while I was at Lanark, that Richmond was taken. There was a flag staff in the main street, and at once the stars and stripes were hoisted in honour of the supposed victory. It was striking, too, to observe how thoroughly all these farmers and settlers were "posted," in American parlance, on the events and politics of the war. To most of them, as Illinois men, Lincoln and McClellan (from his connexion with the Illinois Central) were known

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personally, and their merits, as well as those of other American statesmen, were discussed freely and often ably. Mr. Stanton seemed the most popular of the public men of the day, chiefly on account of his anti-slavery views. Indeed, in these Northern States of the West, popular feeling appeared to me to be more genuinely Abolitionist than in any part of the Union. There was little sentiment expressed about the negro's wrongs; but there was a strong feeling that slavery is a bad system, and a disgrace to the country; and, still more, there was a bitter hostility — almost a personal antipathy — to the slaveholding aristocracy of the South. Half-measures, or patched-up compromises, found little favour with those plain matter-of-fact Western men: "The slaveowners have made the rebellion, and they ought to pay for it. The North has been half-ruined by the South, and the South is rightly punished if she is ruined altogether. Compensation to rebels is absurd, and loyal men ought not to be called upon to pay for the property of rebels. If the South chooses to burn its cotton, and produce a famine in its own territory, so much the better. The more slaveowners are ruined, the better for the Union." Such was the purport of the sentiments I heard expressed; the form of expression was, in general, a great deal too emphatic to be repeated literally. McClellan, with his supposed pro-slavery views, was looked on with open distrust, and spoken of, even at that period, with undisguised

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contempt. Lincoln, with his compensation scheme, was thought not to be up to the mark; and the policy which seemed to please this village public best was that of General Hunter, which gave a knock-down blow, for once and for all, to slavery and slaveowners.

Still, in this western world of the North, it was only the rumour of war, not the war itself, that the traveller came across. The great tide of the civil war had not spread so far northwards. Illinois and Wisconsin regiments there were in the fight, and plenty, but the States themselves had been but little affected directly. According to the popular English view, the whole country is in a state of revolution, trade is bankrupt, and the entire progress of the nation stopped for years to come; yet here, in the West, in the very heat of the war, there was a great country growing into existence by rapid strides. The great march of civilization was still, as ever, tending westwards, building railroads, clearing forests, reclaiming wild lands, raising cities, and making the wilderness into a fertile country. This progress westwards across the prairie is the great fact of American history; and those who want to understand the real character of the present civil war, must remember that this progress is still going on without ceasing. The growth of Lanark is one little incident in the history of the West, and it is as such I have dwelt upon it.

It was near Lanark that I first caught a real glimpse

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of the Prairie. We have all laughed, or by this time ceased laughing, at the story of the Irishman who brought a brick from the Pyramids, to show his friends what the Pyramids were like. Yet I know not that the Prairie could be described better, to those who have never seen it, than by bringing home a spadeful of prairie-sod, and telling the spectators to multiply that sod in their minds by any multiple of millions they choose to fix upon. In truth, there is nothing to describe about the prairie except its vastness, and that is indescribable. I suppose most of us in our lifetime have dreamt a dream that we were wandering on a vast boundless moor, seeking for something aimlessly, and that in this dreary search after we knew not what, we wandered from slope to slope, and still the moor stretched before us, endless and unbounded. Such a dream I, for my part, remember dreaming years ago; and as I drove for a mile-long drive across the prairies of Northern Illinois, it seemed to me that the dream had come true at last.

East, west, north, and south — on the right hand and on the left — in front and behind, stretched the broken woodless upland. Underneath the foot a springy turf, covered with scentless violets and wild prairie roses; overhead a bright cloudless sky, whence the sun shot down beams that would have scorched up the soil long ago but for the fresh soft prairie-breeze blowing from across the Rocky Mountains; low grassy slopes on every side, looking

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like waves of turf rising and falling gently. Not a tree to be seen in the far distance; not a house in sight far or near; not a drove of sheep or a herd of cattle; no sign of life except the dun-coloured prairie chickens whirring through the heather as we drove along — nothing but the broken woodless upland. So we passed on, coming from time to time upon some break in the monotony of the vast dreamlike solitude. Sometimes it was a prairie stream, running clear as crystal between its low sedgy banks, through which our horses forded knee-deep, and then again the broken woodless upland; sometimes it was a lone Irish shanty, knocked up roughly with planks and logs, and wearing a look as though it had been built by shipwrecked settlers, stranded on the shore of the prairie sea. Farther on we came upon a herd of half-wild horses, who, as we approached, dashed away in a wild stampede; then upon a knot of trees, whose seeds had been wafted from the distant forests, and taken root kindly on the rich prairie soil; now upon an emigrant's team, with the women and children under the canvas awning, and the red-shirted and brigand-looking miners at its side, travelling across the prairie in search of the land of gold; and then again the silent solitude and the broken woodless upland.

These scanty breaks, however, in the monontony of the scene, were signs of the approach of civilization — warnings, as it were, that the days of the Lanark

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Prairie are well-nigh numbered. The railroad in which my companions were interested went right through the heart of the district. To my English ideas, the line looked like the realization of the famous railroad which went from nowhere in general to nowhere in particular. But American experience has amply proved that a railroad in the Far West creates its own constituency. In three or four years time the prairie over which I travelled will be enclosed; the rich soil will be turned up, and bring forth endless crops of wheat till, as a settler told me, the wide expanse looks at harvest-time like a golden carpet; and large towns may very likely be raised on the spot where the Irish shanties stood when I passed. Every year the traveller in search of the prairie has to go further and further west; but its extent is still so vast, that generations, perhaps centuries, must pass away before it becomes a matter of tradition. Settlers in the country tell one that it is necessary to live for some time upon the prairie-land in order to feel its charm, and that, when its charm is once felt, all other scenery grows tame. It may be so. I believe, without understanding it, that there are people who grow to love the sea, and feel a delight in seeing nothing but the wide expanse of the ocean round them for days, and weeks, and months together: so, for some minds, the endless sameness of the prairie may possess a strange attraction. For my own part, the sense of boundless vastness hanging over the scene was rather

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overpowering than impressive, and I plead guilty to a feeling of relief when we got out of the open land into the tilled fields and green woods, and cheerful villages which spread along the banks of the Mississippi river.

Of many pleasant river sails it has been my lot to make in different parts of the world, my two days' sail up the great Western river is, I think, the pleasantest. I came upon it some sixteen hundred miles from its mouth, source, and nearly the same distance from its mouth, far away in the north-west, where it forms the frontier line between the States of Wisconsin and Iowa. The spring freshets had been unusually high, and the floods were only beginning to subside, so that the expanse of water was grander even than it is in ordinary times; the flat shifting mud-banks, which the river forms year by year from the deposits of its rich alluvial soil, were covered with the flood, and in many places the water spread from bank to bank for a distance of three miles and upwards. How the steamer found its way amidst the countless channels and between the thousand islands, all covered with the rich rank forests, and all the counter-parts of each other, is a mystery to me still. If ever there was a river worthy of the name of the "silent highway," it is the Mississippi. The great saloon steamers, with the single wheel placed at their stern, glide along so noiselessly, that to me, used to the straining and creaking of an English steamboat, it seemed difficult to believe that the vessel was in

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motion. The vast shallow flood rolls along without a swell, almost without a ripple. The silence of the great forests along the banks is unbroken by the sound of birds or of any living thing. For miles and miles together not a village or house is to be seen, and the river flows on as silent and as solitary as it must have flowed when De Soto first struck upon its course two centuries ago, and hailed it proudly as the "Father of many waters."

On either side the river rise high cliffs or "bluffs" as they are called there, of reddish sandstone. At a distance the great masses of rock, twisted into all sorts of fantastic shapes by the action of the water, ages and ages ago, look like the ruins of some old Norman castle. Sometimes the Mississippi rolls at the very foot of the overhanging cliffs; at others, a low swamp land, covered with close-set forest trees, lies between the river and the cliff. But to me the great beauty of the scene lay in the richness of the colouring. The wood-lands of England are tame and colourless compared with the green forests of the Mississippi in the first burst of summer, and the towering masses of rock, the patches of bare sandstone, and the hill-sides of the steep gullies that run down to the river, shone out with a depth and gorgeousness of colour that I had fancied was not to be found under a northern sun. As for sunsets, you should see them on the Mississippi, when the river, in one of its hundred twists

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and turnings, bends for a space westwards. Then you seem to be floating down the current towards a vast canopy of fire and flame and golden glory. There, indeed, you behold a sunset such as the fancy of Turner alone might have pictured, and sought in vain to realize.

Trade was dull on the Mississippi. At this early summer season the boats would have been crowded only two years ago by hundreds of Southern families flying from the deadly heats of New Orleans, but now we had scarce a score of passengers on board. There was but little life upon the river; two or three times a-day we passed steamers bound to St. Louis; and sometimes we came upon a string of huge lumber-rafts punted cautiously along by gangs of wild-looking red-shirted boatmen. But this was all. Every couple of hours or so, we touched at some small town on the river-side, to take up passengers, of whom there were few forthcoming. These towns are all alike, differing only in size. A long street of low houses, stores, and wharves fronting the river, a large stone building, generally an hotel which has failed, a few back streets running towards the bluff, perhaps a row of villas on the hill-side, and very often a railway depôt these are the common characteristics of a Mississippi town. The one beautiful thing about them is their position, nestling as they do at the foot of the cliffs, and this is a beauty which even the ugliness of the towns themselves cannot destroy.

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There are still many traces in this part of the Mississippi of the early French settlements. Prairie du Port, Prairie du Chien, and Dubuque are names which bespeak their own origin. Along the river there are several French villages, or rather parts of villages. The inhabitants are a queer race, "jumbos," as the American settlers call them — half French, half negro, and half Indian. In this admixture of half-breeds the French element has kept the mastery, and they still speak a broken French and are all devout Catholics. They also retain the passion of the French peasant for his land. No price will induce a half-breed to part willingly with his land, but he is content to possess it without seeking to improve it. Indeed, the development, physically as well as morally, of this mixed breed has not been such as to strengthen the cause of the advocates of amalgamation between the white and the coloured population. They are a wild, handsome, gipsy-looking race, though not of sturdy growth. As a rule, they are an inoffensive people, but are dirty, ignorant, and indolent. They live chiefly by fishing and hunting, and die away gradually in the villages where they are born. As far as I could learn, there is no particular prejudice against them amongst the Anglo-Saxon settlers any more than there is against the Indians. Both races, half-breeds as well as Indians, are so obviously dying out that the feeling of the Americans towards them is one rather of pity than of jealousy. At Prairie

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du Chien, or "Prare doo Shane," according to the popular Western pronunciation, stand the ruins of large barracks. It seems strange in this land of railroads and steamboats and great cities to learn that these barracks were erected only thirty years ago, in order to protect the soldiers of the United States against the Indians in the famous Black Hawk war. The barracks are useless already, for the Indian has retreated hundreds of miles away. By these ruins I came upon the first party of genuine Indians I had seen. There were four of them, two men, father and son, with their squaws. They were very dirty, very ragged, and painted with all kinds of colours. They had bows and arrows with them, of the rudest kind, but their chief livelihood, I suspect, was derived from begging. They told us, in broken English, that they were very miserable, which I have no doubt was true; and the only trace of dignity I could see about them was that they took the small alms our party gave, with absolute apparent unconcern. The one piece of luggage belonging to the tribe was carried by the younger squaw, and that — alas! for Mohican romance! — was a teapot of Britannia metal.

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Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
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