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Bill Thayer

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This booklet was published by
Chas. B. Dorr, Book and Job Printer,
Dubuque, Iowa

The text is in the public domain.

The text has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Boyhood Life in Iowa
Forty Years Ago,
as found in the
Memoirs of Rufus Rittenhouse

 p2  Preface

Kind friends have frequently requested the author to place in book form a narrative of his early experience in pioneer life. In compliance with these desires he gives them in the following pages a short sketch of his boyhood life in Iowa forty years ago, hoping that such recital will prove not only interesting but profitable. Not wishing to weary, much which might have been said has been omitted lest the reading thereof prove dull and incipid.º To those who have thus shown their kind appreciation of the work many thanks.

Rufus Rittenhouse.

 p3  Life of Rufus Rittenhouse

I was born in Hunderton, County, New Jersey, in 1825. My earliest recollection is the hanging of a negro in Flemington, N. J. In my second year I entered school, and finished my education at ten years. I was taught to read and write a little, that the world was round, and that there were other continents beside America, but could never learn grammar. My education thus finished, my father emigrated to Iowa with his family and hopeful son me.

In the year '36, after a few careful days travel in canal-boats, we reached Pittsburg, then a city of some five thousand, and waited there two days for a boat. Cincinnati was the next place of importance, with about fifty thousand population: Louisville was on the map, Cairo supposed to be. We reached St. Louis, a place of about twelve thousand, with Alton on the river a few miles above. There were other villages as far up as Prairie du Chien.

We arrived in Dubuque about May 10th. My father and myself in company with other travelers climbed to the top of the bluffs which over-looked the village. The town had been laid out for a city, and here and there were a few scattering log huts as far up as Sixth Street. Two families moved into the only vacant house — a log hut corner Sixth and Main — nine souls in all, for which my father paid $15 a month. A few days after, he was taken sick with fever, and as our means were limited, to us it was a time of sore distress. When he recovered he obtained employment as superintendent in the erection of a saw-mill, ten miles west of the village of Dubuque.

The Fourth of July was duly celebrated by the few citizens of the place in a grand style. Small pigs were cut in halves and roasted, and with green peas and beans every one fared sumptuously who had the nimble fifty cents. As  p4 for myself I got my dinner gratis, but not until I had done errands and work enough before, and promised that I wo'd do more afterwards.

Before this my father having dealt in patent rights, and swamp lands below Philadelphia, and bought Indian claims in Wisconsin of Jonathan Carver's heirs, now moved to the country, and as he was engaged in building a mill for others he conceived the idea of erecting one for himself. He purchased a claim with a "promise to pay;" also a horse and cow. I shall never forget the place he moved on. It was in July, '36; the claim was on the middle fork of the Little Maquoketa, on the south branch near the bluff which comes down to the creek, and about one-third of a mile west of where the north fork comes in, at the foot of Golaspie Hill. It was quite a stream, large enough for me to fish chubs out of, with which we had a good many frys. Will try to describe the place — log hut plastered outside and in between the logs with clay; might have been fifteen feet square; a large chimney at one end; floor made of puncheons, that is small poplar trees halved with the flat side up; doors were made out of same material, hung on wooden hinges to suit;  p5 once build a fire and you were never out, particularly in winter time. I have seen better houses than ours was, one end all chimney, with doors opposite each other large enough to drive a yoke of oxen through with a log. Several logs would be drawn into the house in this way when the doors would be closed, and a good fire would be built; if any logs were left, sit down upon them in the absence of chairs. — The roof of our house was covered with clapboards, with ridge poles three feet apart. I recollect mother saying, "And is this the Northwest Territory?" for it was so laid down on the map — "Is this where you have brought me to live?"

[image ALT: An engraved drawing of a recently cleared area in a wood, with many low stumps but here and there what appear to be fruit trees; along the right side of the picture, receding into the background, a small placid stream, pretty much straight, with a man fishing from the bank; a cow grazes in the right foreground. It is a scene of rural Iowa in 1836.]

View of my father's house in 1836.

We had a neighbor who lived about a mile below us, by the name of Captain Dement. About a mile above us there was a village of some twenty families. Durango was the name of the place; it was a mining camp, and its history since has only been desolation; but few except myself know where it was. There were two men living in a cabin around the Hill by the name of Captain George and Captain Dubois: they had no occupation in particular.

Rattlesnakes were numerous in that section of country, and it was a frequent occurrence to find one in the house, and sometimes even in your bed. Captain Dement, who had been bitten two or three times, told my father he did not consider them dangerous, as he had always cured himself with nothing but an application of salt. My cautious mother now made me carry a bag of salt for all that summer, but I was not bitten.

In those days captains were numerous; every man of fifty was a captain; he had either whipped a negro to death or shot an Indian, or shot at one. I had a kind of distaste, fear and respect for those captains — all at the same time. One day Captain Dubois came from round the hill to see us, and as he had once been across the State of Jersey, my father and he soon became fast friends, and as he gave my mother a quarter of venison she was disposed to think well of him. He frequently borrowed my fathers flint-lock rifle, and we were seldom without venison. After a time I became used to those captains. My father frequently sent me round the hill on errands, say three hundred yards. — Captain George had an old fusee that had lost everything except flint, cock and trigger, which he gave me as a present.  p6 I snapped it around considerable, much to the displeasure of my mother, who thought I was learning the use of fire-arms too soon in life, and I was compelled to return to Captain George, much against my will, his valuable present, and content myself for a longer time with bow and arrow, and as I came near putting out my sister's eye with the arrow, it having struck one inch below the eyeball and lodged fast my enraged mother gave me a good licking and burned up my bow leaving me nothing to amuse myself with.

It was late in the fall; I was in their cabin watching Captain George fry venison on the coals, which he drew out. I was expecting an invitation to dine when another captain arrived whom I had never seen; he had a jug of whiskey with him. I did not like his looks; I trembled from head to foot, and would have run, but he was between me and the door. He looked at me once or twice, and then said: "Do you know who I am? I am Captain Ducellers: go and tell your father Captain Ducellers is here. I obeyed with alacrity: I was only too glad to get away. I never went back fearing Captain Ducellers was on a visit; till the morning of the 14th of January, the day of my father's death. He was thirty-six years of age.

I was sent for help. My mother had but just risen from a sick bed, having had an attack of pleurisy. About a month before my father's death, the youngest of the family, an infant, died. My father and sister were buried near Old Durango; the spot is now covered with timber, and but few know of that resting-place of the dead, but I shall always tenderly cherish the memory of a father who was ever kind to his children. Captain Dubois officiated at the funeral, a dozen or more being present.

A few days later my mother moved to Dubuque, where a year after she married a man whom I shall call Squire Kile. Ten years later in the same place, while hunting, I found Captain Dubois cutting cordwood for Captain Parker. It was the meeting of an old friend; inquired about Captain George; he was not much interested in the subject, but told me he thought he had gone to Wisconsin or Michigan; thus ended the interview. Captain Ducellers, who had lost a small bit off of his nose in some engagement,  p7 and had many a battle with his whiskey jug, had left for parts unknown, and was no more a terror to myself, tho' he might be living a dread to other youth equally as timid.

At that time many captains were arriving; some had a little gold, and a few Jean Lafayette's​a armament to guard it, viz.: a cutlass, bowie-knife or pistol, whose very presence would awe you into respect; not the neat little revolver with which one might be pierced a number of times, with even then good chances of recovery, but a solid argument, which would cause one to die easy. While it was refreshing to see the gold piled up, yet at the same time to see such a weapon as just described on one side and a huge bowie or cutlass on the other, took all the pleasure away, and with such surrounding I never remained long enough to see anyone hurt tho' that did sometimes occur.

About the year 1838, a dispute arose between the people of the Northwest and the State of Missouri as to the boundary line;​b excitement ran high; two or three companies were raised to fight Missouri: Squire Kile talked of enlisting, but he didn't; it was amicably settled without loss of life.

At this time settlers from other places began to flock in: some crossed the river at Dubuque, others below: a few brought horses, while more brought oxen. In Jackson County, some twenty miles south of Dubuque, is a woodland territory, where are a large number of maple trees, seeming to invite the settler to the pleasant task of sugar making: game was also in abundance for the sportsman; a good place to make one a home, and numbers did settle there. Others did better by settling on the edge of the timber and making large farms. In a short time these woods became a rendesvousº for horse-thieves. The settlers formed a vigilance committee. Any stranger found with a horse, was suspicioned, and if he could give no good account of himself his hour had come. Fancy yourself in a new country, looking for a place to reside; you are on the only road for twenty miles (perhaps fifty) and come upon a man hanging so high his heels could'nt kick dirt, with the buzzards flying around him; a few miles farther on you see another, and then others; you would wonder where that road lead to. It had the desired effect; the Jubusites were  p8 soon driven from the county or left of their own accord and the Happy Land o' Canaan was once more open to the settlers, who soon arrived.

At this time occurred the most important period of my life. Squire Kile concluded to put me to service; I had to cut wood, and as the chimney was not as large as some I had the more wood to cut, and was often told to keep plenty on hand; I had also to feed three yoke of oxen and a span of ponies not larger than a good-sized dog. In winter we traveled three miles to the timber to make rails, and in summer I drove the oxen to brake prairie. The house we lived in was very similar to the one my father died in, but not so large, being about twelve feet square: the second year a similar addition was made; it was covered with clapboards and ridge poles; when it rained one might as well be out doors as inside, the clapboards being so much thicker on one side that it caused an additional overflow of water. It seemed as though I was a god-send to Squire Kile: if hunting up the oxen in the morning, I got wet to the skin with the dew, it was nothing to him. I soon however, learned to despise him though I stayed with him five years. I soon learned to mow, hay, rake and bind after a cradle. I don't think I had more than a dollar during my stay; had one Spanish quarter which I buried, and kept out of circulation for a time of need. It was buried in a root house where I could put my finger on it at any time and I watched with suspicion any one enter there: as for Squire Kile, had he known that I had coin, he would have obtained it by force rather than lost it. I afterwards had two pieces more — we called them "tipennybits" — Squire Kile found but never returned them — he was not Squire at this time nor for ten years after. I thought of all the money the future would bring me, and such contemplation was pleasant. As the Squire had taught me work, I soon became very industrious; I had a little garden, and raised some onion seed, but thought before I found a purchaser it would be a year or two old; but I did find one purchaser, who promised to pay; he did not sow it then, he was only contemplating; he was a tradesman, working in Potosi Wisconsin; he came back in the fall; I followed him all  p9 around supposing he had a large amount of money with him, and that he would leave some with me but he did not as he had nothing to divide; he excused himself about the money he owed for onion seed, but agreed to pay surely next time and he did, two "fipeny-bits" — the very identical money Squire Kile never gave me any account of. William Lewis was the man bought the seed, whom I shall say more about hereafter. We then lived some seven miles west of the village of Dubuque. About this time George Shannon settled in the neighbor-hood: George was no farmer; he had been in a store a year or two, and wound up with nothing. This was the fall of 1839. I had worked faithfully for the Squire all summer, and I conceived the idea of making a stake for myself; there was a small strip of grass at the upper end of a long ravine, which we neglected to cut; it was wild grass perhaps one-third flag; the frost had browned it some. Thither I went with my scythe, and soon made quite a showing; it did not need any curing; age and frost had cured it for me; I pitched it together and the next thing was to find a purchaser; after hunting around considerable I thought of Shannon; told him what a fine lot of hay I had and as he had none I prevailed upon him to look at it. There were perhaps two tons; I want a dollar as I had worked two or three days; and thought George was full of money, he having been a merchant; he profered me fifty cents, but just then did not have the money; rather than miss a trade I let him have it; it was a bad road to George's house; after a few upsets and not being very persevering George concluded he had hay enough; leaving a part of his purchase behind; in a week or so I got uneasy about the money and made a square demand, but he did not have it; it anybody owed me any thing in those days I was careful about it, but no one ever owed me any more while I stayed with the Squire. It soon became rumored that George was bad pay: I called on him weekly, still no money; he always promised faithfully he would pay; I began to call on him twice a week, and waited on him faithfully three months; I watched the house on Sunday: and in the middle of the week when my chores were done I would visit him by night; George found out that whatever he could do with others, he had better settle with me, so he offered to give me fifty cents worth of  p10 coffee; — some four pounds; coffee was worth eight pounds to the dollar, and sugar twenty at that time; I consulted my mother on the matter, and she advised me to take the coffee, which I did, and thus George cancelled the debt. My mother was a fine stalwart woman; she could often be seen riding across the prairies on horse-back with a basket of butter on one horn of the saddle and a basket of eggs on the other, which she readily exchanged for groceries. In due time Shannon's coffee was used up, and with the Squire's advice I got nothing. About this time William Lewis the Union Seed-man came to be more permanently with us. The Squire abandoned the place where we were living and built a new log house with hewn logs and plastered with lime mortar, and a good lot of clapboards on the roof, and as he had forty acres under plow began to be comfortable; he also built a large log barn. Lewis was a great help to the Squire in building; he took up a claim a mile or so north-east; when he worked a day for the Squire I was to work another for him; Lewis also helped in haying and harvest as the Squire had been raising wheat; Lewis also cut a rick of hay with my help. The season closed and it turned cold: Lewis concluded to market his hay; I was sent along as help-meet; we loaded up and started, making two upsets within a mile which finished the first day; but Lewis was not like George Shannon, easily discouraged; the next day we did better for we went three miles farther with two more upsets; this ended the second day; but we were yet three miles from town. Lewis on the third day made a new rack; he found out that what might do to haul hay on the Squire's farm would not do to go to Dubuque; the new rack was built so wide, that when she undertook to upset, it was no go, for our sled was not more than a foot high, and with a good pry, we could keep her afloat, which we did; after some debate we concluded, to go down the Langworthy Hollow, which showed that our judgment was good, for we arrived safe in town by one o'clock: Lewis found a purchaser for his hay, who gave him a dollar and a half; I followed him around with the expectation that he might divide, but he did not; he never had much more money those times than myself, but this time he had a dollar and fifty cents more. This was in the year '40; I was then fifteen years  p11 old; Lewis was over twenty, while the squire was not over twenty-four; Lewis was not larger than myself, while the Squire was over six feet three inches, straight as an arrow, but could have crawled through a large auger hole — that is, two of them with a mortise between; he could cradle five acres of grain one day, and cut ever so much grass the day following. When he got his new house and barn up he became very independent, and though he was three days raising them, he never went to help his neighbors raise while I stayed with him, though he might have done better afterwards; if anybody came to help him I was sent to pay it back as a compliment. Lewis had some tools of his own, and could hew logs good and do lots of other work, but could get nothing from the Squire except myself. In return Lewis began to use me to the best advantage he could; so we went to the woods and cut wagon hubs, some two or three feet long; I do not know how many, but many more than he ever made up. We felled much other timber, such as oak, maple, elm, and some hickory, which we sunk in the creek in divers plates — so many that some of the timber is under water, and seasoning yet; I think I could find some that he forgot and lost. Some of his wagons are running yet; I will not attempt to describe them, for they are all right unless you lose a linch-pin; should anyone meet one of them on the road, he wo'd much prefer giving them good lea-way rather than to run risk of locking hubs. When in New Jersey, three years ago, I saw some of the same wagons not more than five miles from where Lewis learned his trade, so I knew he was a skilled workman.

I now began to think seriously of leaving the Squire; Lewis was my only councilor; to him I confided all my secrets, and many sorrows, and he never betrayed me, and his advice was always consoling — that I better leave the Squire to drive his own oxen and hunt them up. I had never been allowed the use of fire-arms; the Squire had repeatedly refused me, saying that a hunter never made a good farmer; perhaps he was right, but his ideas were not to my taste; my mother also thought I better not have the use of a gun, and so while game was plenty, my ambition was hampered. The road to pleasure and wealth was to  p12 leave the Squire, and a year later, the spring of '42, I did so.

A rather ludicrous incident occurred the year before I left home. The Squire and I had been plowing prairie all day; I had broken so much ground for the Squire and others for whom he contracted that I had become miserable; one yoke of oxen traveled very slow, and all the whipping I could do proved of no avail in hurrying them; I determined on revenge; having gone to the house the Squire left me to unyoke as usual; I then tied their tails together, thinking it would make no difference in feeding for cattle that had been so slow, but it did, for each one took a start in earnest; one lost about six inches of his tail; they went out of my sight so quick I stood amazed; next morning I found them, the tail of one hanging on to the fastest traveler; I got back to the house before the Squire was up, and taking a butcher knife I cut it off. When the Squire started to plow, he wondered what was the matter with his ox, he bled so profusely; I told him I had seen some wolves that morning, and thought they had bit it off, but that story would not take; although he had lost some calves and pigs by wolves, he could not believe his ox would be lost in the same manner. I kept serious about the matter as I was afraid those long arms of his would give me a castigation, as I had had some experience of that kind when I first came into his hands.

At this time I plowed a few furrows 'round a small part of the Charley Haines farm, which I said should be mine, but I soon after left the Squire, and my claim fell into other hands a valuable possession. But the time of my delivery arrived. The Squire concluded to build a large double stone chimney; I made mortar and Lewis carried rock; as I watched the mason put stone together I longed to be a mason; my mother seemed favorable to the project, and finally prevailed on the Squire to let me go, although he thought I better stay; she told him my brother Judson, although eight years younger, would soon be able to take my place. The mason was willing to take me, and having seen the Squire comfortable in a new log house, a large barn, and other improvements in which I had given a helping hand, I took my departure. Lewis left soon after and worked on his claim where I found him a year or two later.

 p13  The reader will please go back with me two years to our home in '38. My grandfather had come from New Jersey bringing some money with him to start us in a western country; he left us three children five hundred dollars and loaned the Squire five hundred more to enter his land with, and that was re-paid; ours being partially returned minus the interest when we became of age. My grandfather stayed with us two or three weeks; he had been very good to us, and after father's death if writing to mother, he sent her a ten or twenty dollar bill. Mother did all she could to make his visit pleasant; she and my uncle went with him to my father's grave, and to the old house where we had lived when father died. In looking through the house a rattlesnake's head was found sticking through the puncheon floor; my uncle set up a sign, "Beware of rattlesnakes." — Soon after my grandfather left us. My sister's death made mother very lonely as her only help was gone.

At this time Illinois discovered that sinners had left and crossed the river. She determined on the rescue. Peter Cartwright​c and a goodly number of others held a conference and sent one of their number across to us; I shall never forget him; he was a long, lank, lean, hungry looking fellow, carried saddle-bags, and his horse was lank like himself; he brought his testament and hymn-book, crying "A voice in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." In a sparsely settled county in five or six miles there may have been a dozen or more families, all godly people. Among the number were, Brothers William Morrison, Sidney Blackwell (my uncle), Wm. Stratten, Harden Nowlen, Father Simeon Clark, Father Brady, Bro. John Paul and Mother Casteele, also a family by the name of Jordan. Other settlers lived in the neighborhood, of whom I knew nothing. The good brother preached a sermon every other week either at the house of Bro. John Paul or Father Brady, and sometimes at Father Simeon Clarks, who also was a preacher at times, of whom I shall say more hereafter. We had many pleasant gatherings of perhaps thirty or forty persons; occasionally a big man "Bun. Jordan," came dressed entirely in buckskin, which I envied him.

When father died he left two or three suits of good  p14 clothes, and as I grew fast mother altered them to suit me. My coat was ornamented with brass buttons which was the fashion then, and as I became a regular attendant at the meetings I looked upon myself with glowing pride, that I was better than other boys of the settlement; some old women thought of me as a favorite suitor who might sometime marry one of their girls, while the preacher thought I might someday be a preacher like himself as I was dressed in a suit as good, if not better, than his own. We often had refreshing revival times, principally in the winter, our quarterly meetings were largely attended by people from other settlements. I was a regular attendant and sometimes during protracted spells of prayer, while some brother would be directing the Lord I fell asleep; with the general uprising, I awoke long enough to sleep the sounder when we knelt again. Sometimes we sang "Come thou Fount of every blessing;" at other times "How tedious and tasteless the hours when Jesus no longer I see;" I oft times hum those tunes with pleasure yet in the absence of songs such as "Yankey Duran" or "Side of the Hill." In the summer of 1838 or '39, we had a camp meeting in a grove near Peter L. Sharp's place; it was largely attended, many coming from Dubuque and the adjacent settlements; the rain came down in torrents but notwithstanding a great out-pouring of the spirt was manifest. I was soon converted; though I was young I knew I was a sinner; the power of the Lord was so greatly kindled for miles around, that a Dutchman and an Irishman were converted — Peter Bony and Felix O'Flaherty, Peter has remained among the faithful, but alas poor Felix soon sank below his first estate, and is not. All in the neighborhood were converted except two or three families which were looked upon as bad by their neighbors. It was our custom in those days to watch the old year out and the new one in, and while we were fully determined to do better the coming year I am fearful that we did worse. I watched one year out at Bro. John Paul's and the next at Father Simeon Clark's; I do not know which year I did the best, but I did nothing very bad.

Father Simeon Clark in those days never wore anything but a red handkerchief on his head — I never saw him with  p15 anything else and believe no one ever did. He was an excellent rifle-shot and a good bee-hunter; his residence some ten miles west of Dubuque, was built near the head of a deep vale, in a sort of horse-shoe; good springs on either side of the house went trickling down the valley some three-fourths of a mile to the south fork of the Little Maquoketa, whose general course was north-east, a stream so crooked that were you to follow its windings five miles you would have traveled twenty-five. The hills on either side were so high that no ordinary gun would reach to the top — if there was one it was one that afterwards came into my hands, of which I shall speak hereafter, but I never tried it at that range. The house was situated at an altitude of some six hundred feet above the level of the great Mississippi valley. It was a heavy woodland section of country for miles; a small strip of table-land had been cleared a hundred feet or more above the house, and some two or three yards south near the dividing ridge. Deer were plenty, and black wolves were seen now and then; other species of game were very numerous, especially the catamount, and now and then the distant cry of the panther could be heard; occasionally a bald eagle could be seen flying over or perched on some high tree in search of prey, and the dismal hoot of the owl could be heard in the twilight. Father Clark's house may have been fifteen feet by twenty-five, one end nearly all chimney, at the opposite end stood two beds, puncheon floors, doors the same, roof covered with clapboards and ridge poles, small cock-loft over head. It was in the spring of '40, I was at the house to hear him preach; puncheon benches had been brought in as was the custom, to seat all who might come; there may have been twenty persons present — four or five men, some long gaunt women, and the balance principally children; around the fire-place hung a dozen or more great venison hams swinging to and fro, drying for a time of need. Here Father Clark delivered his discourse, a masterly one.

[image ALT: An engraved drawing of the interior of a one-room log cabin, in which an assembly of about fifteen people, standing or sitting, are listening to a man standing by the fireplace on the left, who is preaching. From the mantle of the fireplace and from the ceiling above it, hang ten hams; from the ceiling also hang, elsewhere in the room, a rifle, a powder horn, and several bags and other objects. To the right, a sheet slung from a beam provides a makeshift partition; it is partly open: behind it a woman sits on a bed and nurses a child. It is a scene of pioneer preaching in Iowa in 1840, further discussed in the text on this page.]

Father Simeon Clark preaching.

I have many times since listened to more eloquent discourses but never to any so impressive. The reader will pause for a moment and turn to the twelfth chapter and twenty-fifth verse, where he will find in Paul's advice to the Hebrews, "See that ye refuse not him that speaketh." Father Clark  p16 dwelt on the depravity of mankind, that all men were sinners, and finally wound up by saying that perhaps not more than two or three in that little assembly would be saved; Father Clark and Bro. John Paul made two that I was sure would be saved, but as he said two or three might be saved, I thought Brother Morrison might make up the three; I looked upon the balance as lost; as for myself I had done nothing to merit salvation; true I had given the Spanish quarter that I had hid in the root house, which my grandfather had given me, for the conversion of the heathen, and though I had taken the preacher for my mother to cook dinner for, I gave myself up for lost. I went away firmly resolved to tell no more lies about my grandfather in New Jersey, to whose princely fortune I would soon be sole heir. Sometime after this I again attended service at Father Clark's; he was not the preacher this time, but during class he told the brethren that he had a remarkable vision that he would die somewhere about the 14th of August that year; as the time was set so exact, we all watched, and though he was like good old Simeon, ready and willing to die, for his eyes had seen the salvation of the Lord, yet his time had not come,  p17 and though he had the vision of his death thirty-nine years ago, I found him last summer hale and hearty, minus the handkerchief, the postmaster of the enterprising village of Farley, twenty miles west of Dubuque.

Many of those good men of that day have since passed away, while but few remain whose lives and example would be well worthy of our imitation particularly Father Simeon Clark.

Nothing else worthy of notice occurred while I stayed with the Squire. The reader will follow me to my city home with Father Rogers, the mason; I fared much better in my new home; as he frequently went hunting himself, he most always took me along. In winter time I sometimes earned a little money by sawing wood; which I put in my pocket. Some days when he made boots, he would arm me with his gun and send me out to hunt grouse, of which I generally brought in a good showing. There was not much building done in Dubuque then, two or three buildings a season, but by the time the first season was over, I fancied no such mechanic as myself was any where round. About this time George Shannon came to me, and said his mother was tired of the country and was coming to town to live; that he wanted me to go and mend the back of a chimney down on First street near the Cathedral; so I went down two or three different evenings to work by candle light; I was so pleased with my work when it was done that I felt thankful to George he had applied to me, and I never thought of charging him anything for it. — Sometime after meeting George one day he said, "Don't I owe you something?" I told him I thought not but he insisted and offered me fifty cents, which I took.

The second year found me with a new boss, Franklin Anson, who allowed me pretty much the same privilege — to hunt some and when I was not at work for him, I sawed wood for others to get money, with which I generally bought powder and shot. I sawed up a lot of wood for one Gen. Gehon's wife (Gen. Gehon was Marshal of the Territory)​d and carried it into her shed; the good woman came of her own accord and gave me a five-franc, worth a dollar at the time. I never had such a set-up as that before and I thought her the best person that ever lived.  p18 'Twas the spring of '43 in March, the coldest winter that had been known for a great many seasons before, and none have been so cold since; teams crossed the river at Dubuque as late as 6th day of April;​e old Father Miller​f ransacked his Bible from Daniel to Revelations, and said the days of the world were about numbered; the tail of a great comet already sat upon the far side of the earth which we all could see, and stood up over the western horizon so high and lofty that it looked as though it might fall on us any time and burn us up; many godly people had their robes of ascension ready to start off as soon as the alarm of fire was given; it was I who gave the alarm in Dubuque; I had been casting shot in considerable quantities and had made a wooden ladle, and by putting some coals on top I could melt a pound or so of lead, and with an assistant shaking a sieve over a bucket of water would pour the lead on the sieve; I had all sizes and kinds of shot — some were flat on one side and some on both, and others flat on all sides — such as I did not like I re-cast, but in the absence of money I could use my own shot. Some one made me a present of a gun, one which Gen. Washington had taken from Lord Cornwallis. It had already crossed the frontier and killed Tecumseh, and the Mississippi in search of Blackhawk; the gun was good yet, but some 'smith, thinking to make an improvement upon the flintlock, on the side of the barrel where the pan of the flintlock was, made a sort of a little touch-hole, and the hammer, a kind of prod, fell into this hole; you would raise your hammer for ready, drop in a little pill, and fire; she would sometimes miss the first time, but would generally go off after two or three trials, but if you put in many little pills you would stand a chance to get burned a little over the eyes. I found one store that had some pills, put up in goose quills, perhaps fifty in a quill, each pill about the size of a pinhead; I took all that was on hand, and with the opening of navigation sent to St. Louis for more. During my residence with Squire Kile, Dubuque had added a few houses as far up as Tenth street, but none above Eleventh, except James and Edward Langworthy's; a small two-story frame house stood on Iowa street above Ninth, side of Ex-mayor Stout's residence — it was occupied by  p19 one Marshall, a Millerite; Samuel Dixon lived on the corner of Main and Tenth; Dixon had enclosed three lots with a tight board fence of oak lumber, five feet high, boarded up endways. Above Tenth street on the corner lived Joseph Ogilby, and my first boss, Robert Rogers, lived next, while Gen. Lewis​g lived contented by himself in a log house the last in town, below Fred Moser's store. My new boss, Franklin Anson, lived on Locust street, west side, one lot below Tenth street. There were one or two houses above Tenth street, and one above and one below on Bluff street, the balance being open common. I concluded to test my new gun, and having put in a handful of powder I put in a handful of shot, all sizes, part slugs; I wished to give her a good trial, and thought if she could cross Locust street, she would kill birds, but if she would cross the first lot one hundred feet, and an alley, thirty feet more, to Dixon's fence, she would kill big game, so I set up a mark on Dixon's fence, and rested my gun on my boss' fence, raised the prod and fired. It seemed as though with the discharge of that ordnance, all creation round there woke up. Gen. Lewis was just then taking an evening walk down Main street for his health; part of the charge stopped with Dixon's fence, but the greater part went on crossing Main street every side of the General, next lot and alley and part of next, fetching up against Marshall's house, breaking some panes of glass in the top story window. The cries of Gen. Lewis soon brought help, for he hollered lustily; he really thought he was hurt. As soon as assistance arrived, round Dixon's fence some five or six men went trying to find the miscreant who had fired the shot. The gun upset me toward Bluff street, and though I was the most hurt, I picked up the gun and run around the bluff and hid among the rocks behind where the Lorimier House now stands; a young juvenile told the men who fired the gun, so they gave no further chase, but entered complaint to my boss that if he did not look after me, they would. They had scarcely gone when Marshall came round; he told my boss he was on his knees in devotion when he heard the shot break the windows over his head, that I ought to be looked after, as he did not wish to be disturbed again, and he left. I soon got cold staying among the rock, and hunting  p20 up the boy who was with me when the shot was fired, learned that Gen. Lewis was not hurt, and then ventured into the house. My boss told me what threats had been made, but seemed pleased that I had given them all such a scare, and particularly Marshall on Millerite day. For a long time I dreaded to meet Gen. Lewis, and though I met him in church every Sabbath I always managed to sit as far away as possible; when I went hunting I would go up Bluff street till I got out of town. When I fired the shot I supposed I was out of town, but as I had now learned better I never tried ranging on Dixon's fence after Millerite day. I ventured round and over the hills in quest of some beast that I expected to find and slay, that it might be said that I was a hero.

My boss boarded me a week or two before we were ready to go to work, for I had but just commenced to live with him when I fired the big shot, and as the spring came slowly I concluded to go and see how the Squire and mother were, to get board but not to work. The snow was yet on the ground in April, '43. I knew where Wm. Lewis' claim lay, and as he lived on my road going to the Squires I concluded to call on him. After hunting around I struck a trail which led down into a ravine, and presently came upon his cabin among a little clump of Burr oak trees; he appeared to heave settled down there to keep out of the cold more than anything else; he had not as yet done anything permanent. I found him sick but not very bad; he was waiting for somebody to die in New Jersey. After my arrival he soon became cheerful, and as I had a grouse or two we soon had a good supper of corn bread, baked potatoes, fried birds and pork mixed up. Being in no hurry I remained with him over night; I pitied him, he was alone and lonely, hardly knowing why he was there, only that he was. I found his axe, but the head of it was broken off, leaving about two pounds firmly clinched around the handle and this he managed to cut wood with. He has since done well, entered a large lot of land, and is comfortable. The next day I went over to the Squires, but I went shooting all around the place before going to the house, so as to let him know that I was a hunter and out of his jurisdiction. I stayed a week or two, but was very careful about doing  p21 any work, as was my custom when I went to see him; he soon found out my notion, that a tradesman was something better than a farmer. I did not stay long, but went to work with my new boss, and things went along well that year. I always carried my gun with me, when I got a chance to go hunting, for as no one had one like her in town, I had the greater pride to be the owner of so valuable a weapon, but sometime after in an unguarded moment I traded her off for something that was not so good. That was the last I saw of her till I saw her at the U. S. government building at Philadelphia in '76, but to follow her history to find how she got there would be quite a task; some government agent must have been hunting up relics, and this he found a valuable one.

I worked one year with one boss, the second year with another, and the third year was sent home to die of consumption, but I did not die, for I'm with you yet; the Squire's mother had come west to live, and she made me up a compound of liverwort and tar, and so I got well notwithstanding my boss's wife said I ought to die for going to sleep in church.

I now went to work for my first boss, Robert Rogers, for a dollar a day, which was plenty, tho' I did not think so and the next year I turned out contractor, of which I will not weary the reader, giving only an instance or two. There was one Matthew Hayes who had worked hard and saved his dollars well; he boarded at the Squire's when I first made his acquaintance, and when I went out to see my mother and how the Squire was doing, Matthew would follow me around and tell me he was going to build a house and that I should build it for him. He bothered me so much that I had hard work to slide away from him. However, in time he collected a lot of nigger-head rock,​h all sizes and all shapes — he had dug his cellar — and true to his word he came to me to build his house. He offered me 50 cents a perch, which was the price then, and as I had not seen the rock I bargained with Matthew, who was to make mortar for me. I took another mason along with me. I had not done much till Matthew began to find fault, take up the stone and turn it the other way. I soon had a deal of bother with Matthew; for the more I turned the rock  p22 the more trouble I had with him, thus: "I like the Dutchman's work very well, but I don't like yours; and what will the people be saying when my house will be falling over my head." I listened to him until night, when I asked for a settlement, which was forthcoming, and thus ended my contract with Matthew. A week or two later I went down out of curiosity, to see how he was getting along with his house. He had got in with a mason who understood his business; if there was a frame to set, he set it in without asking any questions. If Matthew came around, he was told to make up mortar and carry brick, and to hurry up, I went again a week or so later. Matthew was carrying brick; the bricklayers gave him plenty of directions without allowing him anything to say about the house, only bring on the mortar and brick. And so I was hungry for Matthew's dollars, but didn't know how to handle him to get them.

There was one Michael McGovern concluded to build a house; he had collected a fine lot of dirty sand and some brick that nobody else would have. His lot was on Bluff street little above the First Ward school house. Michael offered me thirteen sovereigns, which was thirteen sovereigns too little, but as I wished to establish myself as contractor I took the job. I had got near up with the first story, when Jim Reddin came riding along, in from the country. He stopped and said: "Mr. McGovern, who is this you have building your house? Shure he is no good; I know him very well; it is only last year he was working with Rogers, the mason; don't depend on him; turn him off;" and away went Jim in as much hurry as he came. I had got too far along to be choked off of Michael's job, which was finished and is standing yet. A few more such contracts as McGovern's left me in a shape to dispose of a few lots on Fourteenth street, where I had invested with the money my grandfather had left me, and though I did better as a contractor later, I was strapped about the first year I came of age. In 1845 or 1846, the land sales took place, when there was a general grabbing up. I was about of age, but as I had nothing to grab with, I still cared nothing for grabbing; but there were many that did. Some claims that had been abandoned a  p23 year or two before were taken possession of by some new comer, and though the old claimant brought in his claim he seldom made it stick. Each claimant, old and new, picked his arbitrator, and the claimant who was the best talker generally succeeded in getting the claim. This was more particularly the case with mineral lots around the city.

Dubuque after this began to grow more permanently and soon formed a nucleus around a center where a great city has since been built. Still a great many good people refused to settle on account of the Old Dubuque heirs claim which was settled a year or two later, when many came to reside more permanently, and many more will come as it is not yet too late.

In the year '46 Florida and Iowa were admitted into the Union; while Florida has done well Iowa has done better, and has since become the garden of the world, but notwithstanding her rapid growth to a teeming population of a million and a half, the era of her great future is but just commenced.

And now, lest I weary the reader I will bring this little narrative to a close. Should I seem to have been too personal, those mentioned will pardon what was really meant for a compliment. Others may seem to have been slighted but no slight is meant. Our common lot was "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Let me, in conclusion, remind the reader that "Truth is stranger than fiction," and that this story of my boyhood's experience may commend itself by its truth at least is the author's belief.

Fond memories cling around my early boyhood day,

When many a pleasure I found, in many a way.

Frail youth who careless grew to mankind's first estate,

Nor cared as yet to know his future fate.

The autumn came with many a bee and some gathered naught but pride;

While some that were better than me laid down and died.

Spring will surely come again with lots of birds and flowers,

And great big showers of rain fall on this world of ours;

The world goes round and round and so must you and I,

I'll not again be found, so I bid you all good bye.

Thayer's Notes:

a Sic: an interesting error in the printed text, or rather a conflation of the Marquis de Lafayette with the pirate Jean Lafitte who is the man meant.

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b The Missouri border dispute was an important part of Iowa's early history, and was only settled decades later by the United States Supreme Court, sixteen years in fact after Rittenhouse published this narrative. Full details are given in MVHR 3:77‑84.

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c Peter Cartwright was a colorful Methodist minister, particularly successful in Iowa: see Richman, Ioway to Iowa, pp290‑292, 306‑307.

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d A summary biographical sketch of Francis Gehon is given at Encyclopedia Dubuque. A man of consequence in Iowa, he had been elected her delegate to the United States Congress in 1839, but though the results were valid, the election itself was declared to have been extra-legal, and he was never seated (Iowa J. of Hist. and Politics, 5:534‑543).

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e I.e., teams drove over the frozen Mississippi. There was no bridge yet.

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f William Miller, the founder of Adventism. The dire predictions of the end of the world referred to here were not his first, but they were certainly the most notorious, which on the appointed day he had calculated, Oct. 22, 1844, had thousands of his followers, having sold all their possessions, camping on a hill and watching a perfectly ordinary sunset. The date has become known as "The Great Disappointment".

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g Warner Lewis, who had come to the lead mines of the future Iowa in 1827. A summary biographical sketch and a photograph of him are given in Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa, Vol. IV, pp168‑169.

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h Large smooth rounded stones.

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Page updated: 16 Apr 17