On this first day of a new year I thought the account by a self-titled “Western Emigrant” of his early days on the northern Indiana prairie might be interesting.
The story was written by a prolific letter writer named Solon Robinson and published in the January, 1841 issue of The Cultivator, an agricultural monthly that was published in Albany, N.Y.
Robinson was born Oct. 21, 1803, in Connecticut, and grew up on his father’s farm. He seems to have been stricken with wanderlust, as were so many young men of that era, and was in Cincinnati in 1828 where he was married.
In 1834 he loaded a couple of wagons with his belongings and with his wife, Mariah, their two small children, and two young brothers named Curtis, traveled to an area some 20 miles south of Lake Michigan that later became Crown Point, Indiana.
The Robinsons were among the area’s very first settlers and Solon Robinson was later the town’s first postmaster and justice of the peace, and Lake County’s first clerk, mapmaker and claims agent.
The first night
“It was the last day of October, 1834, when I first encountered this ‘arm of the Grand Prairie.’ It was about noon of a clear delightful day when we emerged from the wood and for miles around stretched one broad expanse of clear, open land.
Oh what a rich mine of wealth lay outstretched before me. Some ten miles away to the southwest the tops of a grove were visible — toward that rolled the wagons with nothing to impede them — the road was broad — the grass only a few inches long, except in creeks and wet places.
Just before sundown we reached the grove and pitched our tent by the side of a spring. What could exceed the beauty of this spot? Why should we seek farther?
“After enjoying a night of rest, the morning helped to confirm that here should be our resting place. In a few hours the grove resounded with the blows of the axe and in four days we moved into our ‘new house.’
‘Dear me,’ I hear some parlor-loving wife of an expectant emigrant say, ‘where did you get your boards to build it with?’
My good lady, we were 40 miles from a saw-mill and of course the house was built and finished off without a sawed board about it and but very few nails, nor a brick or stone.
The sides were round rough logs with the bark on, laid up by notching the corners together, the cracks well filled with clay, and the chimney all clay and sticks; the roof, floors and door all made of split boards, along with the tables, bedsteads and cupboards.
‘Oh Dear! I never will go west if I have to live in a house like that. Why it ain’t as good as our hog pen — and only one room!’
No mam, only one room — and we were very glad to get that just as winter was setting in, 15 miles from neighbors, 40 miles from mill, store, or post office.
One room 16 square feet, in which have lodged 16 persons, other emigrants like ourselves, night overtaken in winter without other shelter, and in which my family spent a happier winter than I ever expect to see again.
And although not as expensive as your aristocratic hog pen, I assure you that even you could live comfortable in such a house, and if you do come west you will likely live in a similar one — and be comfortable too.
‘No neighbors — so lonely,’ you say. No, we were not lonely — never less so than that first winter. There were a dozen “honey-trees” to be cut and taken care of, and as there is no fruit nor vegetables, the deficiency is made up with cranberries.
Then there is the venison, geese, ducks, grouse, quail and squirrels, etc., to dress and eat; and once in five or six weeks we had ‘the news’ from the post office.
There was no lack of employment indoors or out — no time for loneliness — no repining. We all came here with a full knowledge of what we had to do and expect and so there was no disappointment.
So my dear reader, when you come to the west don’t expect too much; humble yourself to new and strange things that your new circumstances will induce, and if you can’t do that you had better stay where you are until some better pioneer has made a beginning for you.
Don’t come here to be miserable, for generally we are a happy group, ‘full, fat and saucy,’ and some of us, after we have got a good beginning get a little lazy. Corn and hogs will grow without much work, and ham and hominy will support life: And who would work when he was able to live without it?
So if you think that you and your family can make a beginning in a log cabin, you may start for the west.”
Did you ever wonder how you or I would fare if we found ourselves in a grove of trees on the prairie with an axe, some oxen and a few hand tools and were required to build a house to shelter our families during the impending winter?
The nearest place to buy supplies is 40 miles away and no transportation save a wagon and a yoke of oxen (and horrors! No cell phone!)? I’m afraid most of us wouldn’t last long. Those pioneers were a tough and resourceful bunch!
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