Escape From The Robber Band
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Monday, Nov. 8, 1819.–The disappointment experienced from the unmanly conduct of Dr. Hill had a happy effect on our little company. It bound us more firmly and nearer together, and, I may add with truth, almost fitted us for the field of battle. The hour of 9 o’clock had now arrived, the night uncommonly dark and cloudy. On our going into the house one of the strangers went into the yard and gave the Indian warwhoop three times very loud. About 10 o’clock they took their six rifles, went into the yard with a candle and shot them off one by one, snuffing the candle at forty yards every shot. They then loaded afresh, primed and picked their flints. A large horn was then taken from the loft and blown distinctly three times very loud. All those signals (which we had been told of) brought no more of the company. They then dispatched two of their own party, who were gone until 12 o’clock. They stated to their comrades “they could not be had.” It may be readily imagined, after what we had overhead, seeing such preparations and observing many of their private signals, being warned of our danger previous to stopping at the house, together with the recent and cruel murders which had been committed, in a strange country, where every man made and executed his own law to suit himself–I say it cannot be a matter of wonder that our situation began to put on a character of the most unpleasant kind. However, we were well armed, having pistols, dirks, knives and a gun, and were determined, if necessity should require, to be murdered in the house, and not to be dragged into the woods, there to have our throats cut. It being a little after 12 o’clock the bravos proposed to take a drink and lie down on the floor to rest, which they did, and upon their arms. The house being very small they almost covered the floor of one room. The small back room was intended for us. There was no door to the partition, and the logs were about six inches apart. We were under some apprehension that in case of an attack they would be able to fire on us through the logs. After they were all still, myself and companions lay down in reach of each other, our clothes on, our dirks unsheathed, the guards off our pistols and three extra bullets in our gun, and agreed if a signal was given to fight the good fight. I had like to have forgotten Dr. Hill. He had placed himself on the far side of the bed upon which I lay and had got out of the wall a small log, but not of sufficient size in case of accident to allow him to make his escape. Although the evening was cool the drops of sweat stood upon his forehead as large as peas. He complained of great pain about the kidneys and that his head hung loose upon his shoulders. Knowing those fellows were expert at cutting throats, from their conversation on that subject, I determined to put them to as much trouble as possible. Took off my cravat and twisted my silk handkerchief and tied it round my neck. In this situation we spent the night. We lay on our arms ready for the word. But little sleep. When they would move we did the same. If they coughed we followed the example. In this dreadful way the night was spent. I have no hesitation of declaring that if we had not been well armed or kept a strict watch we should have been robbed and murdered, and nothing but the fear of our killing a part of them kept their hands off. Could they have added to their numbers by their signals, our fate would have been certain. It is probable the balance of their party was engaged in some other enterprise. About the break of day the signal of rising was given by our visitors. We were on our feet in a minute, and our hands upon our arms. Three of them examined their rifles, and, after having some conversation with their comrades, proceeded up the road we had to travel. I presumed to place themselves behind trees and fire upon us without the risk of being killed. We lost no time in placing our baggage in our carriage and getting ready to leave this robbers’ den. After paying our bill and being ready for a start, one of the brotherhood begged I would take my saddlebags into the house again; that he wanted a dose of medicine for one who was very sick. This I declined doing, suspecting his object, and advised him to call on some person with whom he was better acquainted. We then bid adieu to Mr. Rutherford, his family, the banditti and the edge of the twelve-mile prairie. We had not traveled more than half a mile when we fell in with four travelers going to St. Louis, which increased our number to eight persons, and placed us out of danger. In making a memorandum of this unpleasant transaction, many important circumstances and some facts have been omitted. To have given a full detail would have taken more time than is in my power to devote at this time.
Tuesday, Nov. 9.–Traveled forty-two miles from Rutherford’s to McCart’s, a tolerably respectable house, which is a rare thing in this part of the country. Large prairies, one twenty-two miles wide. Rich land, but of little value, the proportion of timber being too small, water being scare and its situation remote. Crossed the Okaw or Kaskaskia river and two branches of Silver creek on the 10th and 11th days of the month; distance, fifty-four miles. Arrived at the town of Illinois, on the Mississippi, a little village opposite St. Louis. We crossed part of the American bottom, which has the appearance of once having been the bed of some lake or river. It abounds in marine substances. It is bounded by high and rocky cliffs from 100 to 300 feet in height. The marks washed in these cliffs centuries ago at high and low water mark are plain to be seen. The American bottom is about 120 miles long and from two to seven miles in breadth; contains some creeks and lakes; is perfectly level, without a stump or root. Soil, ten feet deep, black as ink, very light, and I think I may add without the fear of contradiction that it is the richest land in the world. The town of Illinois is on part of the American bottom, which is low, flat and unhealthy. Bilious fevers in all their various shapes are to found in almost every family for forty miles around. More pale and deathly-looking faces seen in the last two days than I have even seen in Philadelphia in two months. Crossed over the bold river Illinois to St. Louis and bid adieu for the present to Illinois. So far much disappointed in the inhabitants, but not in the land. Illinois is the hiding place for villains from every part of the United States, and, indeed, from every quarter of the globe. A majority of the settlers have been discharged from penitentiaries and gaols or have been the victims of misfortune or imprudence. Many of those will reform, but many, very many, are made fit for robbery and murder. High as our country stands above others for its perfection, yet it has curses which at times threaten to sink it on a level with the most disgraced. Slavery and penitentiaries have done more mischief than war or disease. I hope to see the day when there will be universal emancipation, when the penitentiaries of the United States will be changed from schools of vice to schools of virtue. Then will the United States be the admiration of all the nations of the world, and he that is born within their bounds will be proud of the land that gave him birth.
Friday, Nov. 12.–Remained this day in St. Louis. The town is not very handsome or large. The streets are narrow and irregular, and the houses, with a few exceptions, meanly built. It appears the attention of the inhabitants has been turned solely toward making money. Taste and art as yet have been much neglected. Visited the Roman chapel. Although unfinished it is a spacious, handsome building. The new bank is of modern shape, in appearance, a very neat little building. Visited the Indian museum or grand council or war chamber, which contains many specimens of curious workmanship, and a number of curiosities presented to the government by the chiefs of different nations. Visited the theater. This is only a temporary building. It is placed in the middle of a duck puddle, is finished in the coarsest manner and of the meanest materials. The decorations inside are few. The gallery will contain about ten persons and the house 200. No danger of fire. The water rises in the pit and in case of emergency a tolerably brisk fellow might run head foremost through any part of it. In ridiculously ugly and slight appearance it surpasses all ever seen or heard of. It is not half so large or half so good as the common horse-stables in Philadelphia.
Saturday, Nov. 13.–Left St. Louis at 6 o’clock a. m. Crossed the Mississippi to Illinois on my way to Kaskaskia. Passed a small village called Cahokia, a miserable, dirty little hole. But very few good houses. Inhabitants half French, half Indian, retaining part of the manners of both. The French language is generally spoken, but not in its purity. For eight or ten miles we traveled on the American bottom, which, in all probabilities, never was surpassed in fertility. After leaving the bottom the country is rather hilly and barren. Traveled twenty-two miles and lodged at Waterloo, a town without houses. Only two families in the place. Every land speculator produces one or more of these dirt-cabin villages. Indeed, two-thirds of the travelers met with are land speculators. The inhabitants of this part of the country appear to be a wretched set of beings. Their great-coats are made out of a blanket, with a cap or hood out of the same piece. Then moccasins and leggins complete the suit. Uncover a Frenchman’s head and his friends are immediately alarmed for his health. The pig pens in Pennsylvania are generally as clean and much better built than the miserable huts occupied by these lazy people. In a state of almost starvation they hold their Gumbo balls twice a week. For nimbleness of foot and lightness of heart the French have never been surpassed.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, always to be, blest.”
Excellent wages in this country for hired people, either black or white, men or women. It is very common for a log cabin tavern without a door or window (perhaps a log out to answer both purposes) to sup and lodge twenty persons, men women and children. A living is so easily obtained in this rich country that the most industrious of the inhabitants soon grow indolent. Perhaps the ague and fever unfits them for exertion or labor, but those things or something not accounted for produces laziness.
Sunday, Nov. 14.–Left Waterloo and traveled twenty miles to breakfast at Mrs. LaCount’s in the little ancient French village called Prairie De Rouche or Rocky Meadows. In traveling this distance I saw only three houses. Just before I arrived at the village Prairie De Rouche we descended a hill half a mile in height and entered again on the American bottom. The lands are hilly, barren and full of limestone. Game of all descriptions in great abundance. Mme. LaCount entertained us politely. She is considered the queen of this little village, which is the sum and substance of everything that is poor and miserable. Mme. LaCount’s daughter being ill, I was deprived of a great deal of valuable information. She speaks good English, and is a very sensible, intelligent young lady for such a village. The houses here have the most antique and mean appearance, built of the barks of trees and puncheons, slabs, etc., often without doors. Their windows are without sashes, but small pieces of broken glasses of all shapes pasted ingeniously together with paper serve to admit the light upon a motley family, between white, red and black. Many of those wretched hovels are ready to tumble down on the heads of starving Indians, French and negroes, all mixed together. Negro-French is the common language of this town. Indeed, unless you can speak some French it is with much difficulty you can find any person who can understand you. Left Mme. LaCount’s, traveled twelve miles over an extremely fertile country and arrived at Kaskaskia a little before sunset.
Monday, Nov. 15.–Remained in this inconsiderable village this day. Much disappointed in the appearance of the long-talked-of Kaskaskia. It is situated on the Okaw or Kaskaskia river, three miles from the Mississippi. It never can be a place of much business. The land office is kept at this place. There are some neat buildings, but they are generally old, ugly and inconvenient. Their streets are irregular and of bad widths. The inhabitants are all generals, colonels, majors, land speculators or adventurers, with now and then a robber and a cutthroat. I have to keep my long knife sharp and my eyes open. Went to church at night. A fellow tried to pick my pocket. Had my hand upon my long knife.
Tuesday, Nov. 16.–Dr. Hill having business at the lead mine, I consented to wait until his return. Wanting amusement, I engaged in hunting. Among other game I wounded a parrot, an uncommonly handsome bird, with rich plumage. It appeared to possess all the sagacity of the tame parrot. When it was first wounded it made every effort to defend itself, but after remaining a captive for a short time it appeared pleased with every kind attention, as do the domesticated parrots of the West Indies. In hunting, passed over a field that contains 5,000 acres of land, principally under cultivation. This field is part of the American bottom and is the common property of all the French of Kaskaskia. This land produces from sixty to 120 bushels of corn to the acre. More fertile land I never beheld. The inhabitants are subject to intermittent fevers. At this time there are thousands of acres of this excellent land for sale at from $4 to $8 an acre, and a good proportion woodland. Dr. Hill not having returned on the 17th, I took a ride, the day being pleasant in consequence of a refreshing shower. Visited the governor’s house, a miserable-looking old building, such as is found in the suburbs of towns. Crossed the great Okaw or Kaskaskia river. The water not knee-deep and about 100 yards wide. Visited the lieutenant-governor’s house, which is situated across this stream, opposite and in sight of Kaskaskia. This is the best-looking house in the place. It is painted white, but stands alone, without garden, yard or ornament of any kind. A worm fence is run around the house to keep the pigs out of the first story. Col. Menard, the lieutenant-governor, is a coarse-looking Frenchman, with all the habits, manners and dress of the common … of Philadelphia. Visited the Indian king of the Kaskia Indians and his people, who reside about three miles from the village. This nation is now reduced to about thirty in number. Many years ago all the different tribes of Indians combined, fell upon the Kaskians when they were unprepared for battle, and cut to pieces all their warriors, except about fifteen, and most of their women and children. The king of this little nation is a fine, majestic-looking man, six feet high. He spoke French. Was polite and more gentlemanly in his deportment than some of those great men of the place. He was very much indisposed. I had the honor of prescribing for him. The names, manners and customs of these people are such as are common among Indians, with this exception, that they are rather more comfortable as to living, etc. I was very much struck with the appearance of one of the young men. He is tall, straight, elegant and unassuming in his manners, has fine, regular features, and possesses as mild and intelligent a countenance as is to be found in more civilized life. His eyes are dark, expressive and beaming with goodness, instead of ferocity.
Thursday, Nov. 18.–Dr. Hill not having returned, time passed heavily on. Hunted occasionally and visited the king again. I found his state of health much improved. He was very polite. Conversed sensibly and invited me to hunt with him. I took the rounds amongst his people. Found them generally in bark huts, sitting flat on the floor, making moccasins, etc. As none but the chief could speak English, I was deprived of the pleasure of conversation. In one of these bark huts without a door (and placed at a considerable distance from the other lodges) sat a female who was recently confined. This female had retired to this cold and open hut during her indisposition. She was alone from choice, and held down her head at my approach and showed signs of disapprobation. How commendable the modesty, even in a savage! She was placed in the middle of the floor near a handful of coals, seated on a buffalo robe and thinly dressed. The day was cold and she was without any appearance of what we call comfort. A small mug of herb tea was her drink, and there was no food to be seen. This female had twin children, which is a remarkable occurrence amongst savages. These little strangers were bandaged tight from head to foot and lashed upon a board with one end sharpened for the convenience of the mother. Whenever she grows weary one end of the board is stuck into the ground and the children often are left for a considerable time. The appearance is singular, and would astonish those that had never seen the Indians’ manner of treating their children. Indian children are white when born, their eyes very black. Their hair long, straight and black. Their features full and well-shaped with large, Roman noses. They look healthy and appear to live on one-half the nourishment which would be necessary for other children. During this visit I had an opportunity of seeing the king’s daughter. She has adopted the civil dress and is polite and affable for a savage. She speaks but little English but speaks French fluently. Her father and self profess the Roman Catholic religion. This Indian is more comely than the rest of the females, but I have never been able to trace any lines of beauty about those children of the forest. This Indian king owns 2,000 acres of the American bottom. Part he rents out to advantage, and part he cultivates. He lives well and might live elegantly. I omitted to mention that Kaskaskia is the seat of government, which gave me an opportunity of seeing all the heads of departments, governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary of state, sheriffs, magistrates, etc. They are well suited to a new country and an infant state.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 19-21.–Spent those days in Kaskia and its neighborhood in hunting, and rambling through this garden of a country, every day affording new amusement and presenting very interesting subjects for the mind to dwell upon. On this day, the 21st, Dr. Hill returned from the lead mine, a distance of forty-seven miles. He traveled over a poor and barren country and was not much pleased with his journey. He saw twenty deer in one herd, and was informed there were some buffalo, wildcats, wolves, etc., in the neighborhood.