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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 42

This webpage reproduces part of
Fortescue Cuming's
Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country

published in
Thwaites, Early Western Travels, Vol. IV.

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 44
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Tour to the Western Country

[254] Vol. IV
Chapter XLIII
River Mississippi — Iron banks — Chalk bank — Remarkable melody of birds — Bayou St. Jean — New Madrid — Delightful morning — Little Prairie — An Indian camp — Mansfield's island.

We had thought the water of the Ohio very turbid, but it was clear in comparison of the Mississippi, the two rivers being distinctly marked three or four miles after their junction. The Ohio carried us out almost into the middle of the Mississippi, so that I was almost deceived into thinking that the latter river ran to the westward instead of to the  p280 eastward; by the time however that we were near midchannel the Mississippi had gained the ascendancy, and we were forced to eastward with encreased velocity, its current being more rapid than that of the Ohio. We soon lost sight of the labyrinth of waters formed by the conflux of the two rivers, and quickly got into a single channel, assuming gradually its usual southerly direction. We now began to look for Fort Jefferson, marked in Mr. Cramer's Navigator as just above Mayfield creek on the left, but not seeing either we supposed they were concealed by island No. 1 acting as a screen to them.184

At fifteen miles from the Ohio, we observed a fine new settlement on the right, with the boat moored [255]at the landing which had brought the family down the river.

Five miles lower we passed the Iron banks on the left. These are very remarkable, being a red cliff near the top of a high ridge of hills about a mile long, where the river is narrowed to little more than a quarter of a mile wide.

From the Iron banks a fine bay of a mile in breadth is terminated by the Chalk bank, which is a whitish brown bluff cliff, rising from the water's edge, surmounted by a forest of lofty trees. Having passed some other islands, we made a harbour for the night on Wolf island just opposite Chalk bank, about three miles below the Iron banks.

May 23rd. A steady rain did not prevent our proceeding this morning. We found the river generally from half to three quarters of a mile wide, and the navigation rather intricate on account of the number of islands and sand-bars,  p281 which gave us some trouble to keep clear of. The rain ceased about three o'clock, when it cleared up calm and hot. At 4 o'clock we passed Island No. 10, on the right. The singing of the birds on this island exceeded every thing of the kind I had ever before heard in America. Notes resembling the wild clear whistle of the European black birds, and others like the call of the quail, or American partridge, were particularly distinguishable among a wonderful variety of feathered songsters. The island probably bears some vegetable production peculiar to itself, which attracts such uncommon numbers of small birds.

At seven, P.M. we rowed into Bayou St. Jean, on the right, at the upper end of New Madrid, to which settlement it serves for a harbour, — having only advanced about fifty miles this whole day. We found here several boats bound down the river.

New Madrid contains about a hundred houses, much scattered, on a fine plain of two miles square, [256]on which however the river has so encroached during the twenty-two years since it was first settled, that the bank is now half a mile behind its old bounds, and the inhabitants have had to remove repeatedly farther back. They are a mixture of French creoles from Illinois, United States Americans, and Germans. They have plenty of cattle, but seem in other respects to be very poor. There is some trade with the Indian hunters for furs and peltry, but of little consequence. Dry goods and groceries are enormously high, and the inhabitants charge travellers immensely for any common necessaries, such as milk, butter, fowls, eggs, &c. There is a militia, the officers of which wear cockades in common as a mark of education, although the rest of their dress should be only a dirty ragged hunting shirt and trowsers. — There is a church going to decay and no preacher, and there are courts of common pleas and quarter sessions,  p282 from which an appeal lies to the supreme court of St. Louis, the capital of the territory of Upper Louisiana, which is two hundred and forty miles to the northward, by a wagon road which passes through St. Genevieve at 180 miles distance. — On account of its distance from the capital, New Madrid has obtained a right to have all trials for felony held and adjudged here without appeal.

The inhabitants regret much the change of government from Spanish to American, but this I am not surprised at, as it is the nature of mankind never to be satisfied.185

We had observed no settlements between the Ohio and New Madrid except one new one before mentioned.

May 24th. — At eight, A.M. we left New Madrid, and after toiling until three, P.M. against a fresh southerly wind, when we had advanced only eleven miles, we were forced to shore on the left, and hauling through some willows which broke off [257]the sea, moored and remained there until four A.M.

May 25th — when we were awoke to the enjoyment of a delightful morning, by the enchanting melody of the birds saluting the day, while the horn of a boat floating down the far side of the river, was echoed and re-echoed from both shores, to all which we added, with fine effect, some airs on the clarionet and the octave flute. When we hauled out of the willows, several boats were in sight, which added much to the cheerfulness of the morning.

 p283  Having passed several islands, we saw on the right the settlement of one Biddle, being the first on the river since four miles below New Madrid.

Four miles lower we landed in the skiff at the town of Little Prairie on the right, containing twenty-four low houses and cabins, scattered on a fine and pleasant plain inhabited chiefly by French creoles from Canada and Illinois. We were informed that there were several Anglo-American farmers all round in a circle of ten miles. We stopped at a tavern and store kept by a European Frenchman, where we got some necessaries.

Every thing is excessively dear here, as in New Madrid — butter a quarter of a dollar per pound, milk half a dollar per gallon, eggs a quarter of a dollar a dozen, and fowls half to three quarters of a dollar each.

We found here five lumber loaded boats owned by Mr. Holmes of Meadville, which had left Pittsburgh about the 20th of March. Three of them had been stove, and they were going to unload and repair them.

Continuing to coast along in the skiff, while our ark fell down the river with the current, we landed about a mile below Little Prairie, at an Indian camp formed by the crews of three canoes, all Delawares except one Choctaw. They had sold their peltry [258]and were now enjoying their whiskey, of which they had made such liberal use as to be most of them quite drunk. They did not seem to like our intrusion, but on our demanding whiskey from them, and drinking with them, they became more social.

Two miles below the Indian camp we again overtook our boat from which we had been absent the last fourteen miles, and seven miles lower, met a canoe with two Indians, who wanted to sell us skins. — After passing several islands as far as No. 21, of Mr. Cramer's Navigator, in twelve miles farther, we came to one not mentioned in the Navigator,  p284 which we named Mansfield's island, from one of our passengers who was the first to land on it. It was a beautiful little island, and the evening being far advanced, we were tempted to moor at its west point, to some willows on a fine hard sand, but we had nothing to boast of our choice of situation, as myriads of mosquitoes effectually prevented our sleeping all night.

The Editor's Notes:

184 Fort Jefferson was built by George Rogers Clark in the spring of 1780, in order to protect the Illinois settlements, and maintain the Virginian claim to this part of the territory. Clark planned a town here to receive his own name (Clarksville); but few settlers went out, as the post was distant and much exposed. In 1781, Fort Jefferson was besieged by the Chickasaws under the lead of a half-breed, Alexander Colburn. Timely assistance arriving, the siege was raised, but the fort was abandoned in June of the same year. — Ed.

[decorative delimiter]

185 New Madrid was originally the site of a Delaware Indian town, at which two Canadians, named LeSueur, established a trading-house in 1780. Eight years later Colonel George Morgan attempted to obtain a large concession from the Spanish government to establish an American colony at this point, with rights of local self-government. Morgan brought out the first installment of colonists, but the arrangements at New Orleans which were to confirm his title to the grant failed of completion. The Spanish authorities sent Lieutenant Pierre Foucher, with a garrison of ninety men, to command here in 1789. A settlement of a heterogeneous character, as Cuming indicates, gradually grew up around the fort. The later history of New Madrid is chiefly concerned with the disastrous earthquakes of 1811‑12, and the congressional grant of relief for the settlers. — Ed.

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