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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)



Atchison, Kansas, May 15, 1859.

I left New York by Erie Railroad on Monday evening, 9th inst., just as our fortnight of bright, hot, planting weather was closing. Two hours later, the gathered clouds burst upon us in a rain which continued through the night, though the city was not refreshed by it till some hours later. We had glimpses of sunshine as we skirted the southern shore of Lake Erie on Wednesday, and some more after a heavy shower at Chicago on Thursday; beside these, cloudy skies, easterly winds, and occasional rain, have been my portion since I bade adieu to the hot, dusty streets of New York. But it is breaking away as I write, and I hope to see Kansas, for the first time, under skies which image her sunny future rather than her stormy past.

Coming up the Erie Road, I tried a “sleeping-car” for the third time, and not very successfully. We all “retired” at ten o’clock, with a fair allowance of open windows and virtuous resolutions; but the rain poured, the night was chill and damp; and soon every orifice for the admission of external air, save the two or three humbug ventilators overhead, was shut, and a mephitic atmosphere produced, in which the soul of John G. Saxe might have disported and fancied it elysium. After gasping a while, like a netted fish on a hot sandbank, I rose to enter my solemn protest against all sleeping-cars not provided with abundant and indefeasible means of ventilation. I tried one, two nights later, on the Michigan Southern Road, which served much better, though. still far from perfect. It is very true that no arrangement can secure a healthy circulation of air by night in any passenger-car, while the popular ignorance is so dense that the great majority imagine any atmosphere healthful which is neither too cold nor too hot, and rather laugh at the wit than pity the blindness of Saxe in holding up to ridicule a woman who knows (and does) better than to sit all night in a close car, with thirty or forty other human beings, all breathing an atmosphere which they, in twenty minutes, render absolutely poisonous; but the builders of cars have no right to be ignorant of the laws of life with which they tamper; and two or three presentments by Grand Juries of the makers of unventilated cars, especially sleeping-cars, as guilty of manslaughter, would exert a most salutary influence. I commend this public duty to the immediate consideration of jurors and prosecutors.

Stopping at Hornellsville, at seven next morning, I took the train for Buffalo thence at noon, and halted at Castile, to fulfill an engagement to speak at Pike, formerly in Alleghany, now in Wyoming County.

I left Pike for Castile at five on Wednesday morning; took the cars to Buffalo at half-past seven; was in ample season for the Lake Shore train at ten; ran into Cleveland a little after five; left at six for Toledo, where we changed cars between ten and eleven, and were in Chicago at seven next morning as aforesaid. Along the south shore of Lake Erie, as in our own state, it was plain that the area plowed on or before the 11th of May was greater this year than ever before. And well it might be; for the country was hardly ever so bare of food for man and beast as in this same May of 1859. Flour is higher and wheat and corn scarcely lower in Chicago than in New York or Liverpool; oats nearly the same. Thousands of cattle, throughout the Prairie States, have died of starvation this spring, though prairie hay might almost anywhere have been put up last fall at a cost of less than two dollars per ton; Minnesota, with, perhaps, the best soil for winter wheat in America, is buying flour in Chicago by the thousand barrels; and I hear from different sections of this great granary of nations—from Illinois, from Iowa, from Missouri—of whole neighborhoods destitute alike of bread and of the wherewithal to buy it. Unpropitious as last season was, it does not fully explain this scarcity, especially of fodder. I trust the like will never occur to need explanation again.

Coming down through Illinois from Chicago southwestwardly to Quincy (268 miles) it was gratifying to see how general are the effort and obvious resolve to look starvation out of countenance this year. Though the breadth of winter wheat was but moderate, owing to the incessant rains of last autumn, it is plain that the farmers began to plow and sow as early as possible this spring; putting in, first, spring wheat, then oats, latterly corn; and they mean to keep putting in corn and oats for a month yet. If Illinois and Iowa do not grow far more grain this year than ever before, it will hardly be the fault of the cultivators, for they are bent on doing their utmost. Considering their bad fortune last year, this resolute industry does them credit; but they are generally in debt, out of money and almost out of credit, and are making a final stand against the sheriff.

I heartily wish them a good deliverance. And, despite the hard times, Illinois is growing. There are new blocks in her cities, new dwellings in her every village, new breakings on this or that edge of almost every prairie. The short, young grass is being cropped by large herds of cattle, whose improved appearance within the last fortnight is said by those who have observed them from day to day to be beyond credence on any testimony but that of eye-sight. Here, every horse or ox that can pull is hitched to a plow or harrow whenever darkness or rain does not forbid; and, by plowing the dryest ridges first and seeding them; then taking the next dryest and serving them just so, nearly every cultivator can keep putting in seed at least four days per week from March till June. Many will plant corn this year till the middle of June, and even later, unless compelled sooner to desist in order to commence cultivating that first planted. Then cultivating will require every hour till harvesting begins; and this (including haying) will last till it is full time to plow for winter wheat. No busier season was ever seen than this is to be; from the Hudson to the Mississippi, you see four horses or oxen at work to one in pasture; and there are thousands of farmers who would plant or sow a quarter more, if they had grain to feed their teams, than they will now be able to do. There are few traveling in the cars, few idling about stores or taverns, but many in the fields. May a bounteous Heaven smile on their labors!

Illinois is just beginning to be cultivated. I presume she has no railroad along which half the land within a mile has ever been touched by a plow. Back from the roads, there is of course still less cultivation; probably less than a tenth of her soil has ever yet been broken. Possibly one-fourth of her spontaneous product of grass may now be eaten by animals that contribute to the sustenance or comfort of man, though I think one-sixth would be nearer the mark. She has far more coal than Great Britain—I believe more than any other state—but has hardly yet begun to mine it. Her timber is not so excellent; she lacks pine and all the evergreens, but she is bountifully and cheaply supplied with these from Michigan and Wisconsin. Boards are sent through her canal from Chicago to the Illinois, and thence around by St. Louis and up the Missouri to build houses in Kansas and Nebraska. Her timber, such as it is, palpably increases from year to year, and will increase still more rapidly as roads and plowing check the sweep of prairie-fires. If her prairies were more rolling, they would be dryer and could be worked earlier; but then they would wash more, and probably have less depth and richness of soil. Doubtless, the child is born who will see her a state of ten millions of people, one million of them inhabiting her commercial emporium.

I stopped over night at Quincy, and took the steamboat Pike at half past seven next morning for Hannibal, twenty miles below. I had repeatedly crossed the Mississippi, but this was my first passage on it. The river is very high, so that its banks are submerged, and the water flows under the trees which line either shore. Islets covered with trees and shrubbery abound; the bluffs recede some miles on either hand, and are softened to the view by the deep green of the young foliage; hardly a clearing breaks the uniformity of the almost tropical prospect; though here and there a miserable little hut in the last stages of decay tells where a chopper of steamboat-wood held on until whisky or the ague took him off. In flood, as it is, the river is turbid, not muddy, and pursues its course with a deliberation and gravity befitting the majestic Father of Waters, to whom, with head bare and reverent spirit, I wave a respectful adieu.

For our good boat has reached Hannibal, the first point below Quincy at which the Missouri bluff approaches the river, and whence the valley of a streamlet makes up through the hills to the broad, level prairie. Hannibal is pleasantly situated on the intervale of the creek and up the side of the bluff, so as to be entirely commanded by a steamboat passing up the river. It is a bustling, growing village of some four thousand inhabitants, which the new “Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad” has suddenly raised from local to general importance. Like most villages on the great western rivers it has no wharf, and the river is now threatening to eat away a part of the bank on which railroad and steamboat freight is heaped in wild disorder. Its new consequence must soon work a change. I look for a wharf and a great storehouse when I next land or embark here.

The Pike rounded to, and sent us ashore; the train backed down to within forty feet of her; the passengers got aboard the cars and were followed by their baggage, and in half an hour we were steaming up through the woody ravine to emerge on one of the largest prairies on northern Missouri. Across this—or, rather, along it—we took our course westward, almost as the crow flies, to St. Joseph on the Missouri, two hundred and six miles distant, which we reached in a little more than twelve hours, or at half-past ten last evening. The road was completed in hot haste last winter, in order to profit by the “Pike’s Peak” migration this spring; no gravel is found on its line, unless in the immediate vicinity of the Mississippi; and it was raining pitilessly for the second day nearly throughout, so that the roadbed was a causeway of mortar or ooze, into which the passing trains pressed the ties, first on One side; then on the other, making the track as bad as track could well be. A year hence, it must be better, even with the frost just coming out of the ground; after a dry week, it will probably be quite fair; but yesterday it afforded more exercise to the mile than any other railroad I ever traveled. About one-third of the way from Hannibal, it is intersected by the “North Missouri Railroad” from St. Louis, which city is about one hundred miles further from St. Joseph than Hannibal is; the train from St. Louis starting at five a. m. to connect with ours which ought to have left Hannibal at half past nine. Each road is completed, so that St. Louis as well as Hannibal is within a day’s ride by rail of St. Joseph, which faces Kansas almost up to the Nebraska line.

Though the day was dreary, I noted with deep interest the country through which we passed, which disappointed me in these respects: 1. The land is better than I had supposed; 2. It is of more uniform grade—hardly anything worth calling a hill being seen after rising the bluff from the Mississippi till we come in sight of the bluffs which enclose the Missouri; 3. There is more prairie and less timber than I had expected; and 4. There are infinitely less population and improvement. Of course, this road was run so as to avoid the more settled districts, and thus to secure a larger allotment of the public lands whereof the alternate sections for a width of five or six miles were granted to the state in aid of its construction; but I had not believed it possible to run a railroad through northern Missouri so as to strike so few settlements. Palmyra, near the Mississippi, and Chillicothe, a hundred miles further west, are county seats and villages of perhaps two hundred dwellings each; beside these, there is no village of any size, unless it be one of those we passed in rain and darkness as we neared the Missouri. For some fifty miles after passing Palmyra, we traversed a level prairie, admirably grassed, but scarcely broken, save where the needs of the railroad had called up two to half a dozen petty buildings. Yet, for most of the way, timber was in sight on one side or on both, often within a mile; and the soil, though but a thin, black mold resting on a heavy clay, therefore not so well adapted to grain as prairie soils are apt to be, is admirably fitted for stock-growing. It seems incredible that such land, in a state forty years old, could have remained unsettled till now. We traversed other prairies, five to twenty miles long, separated by the richest intervales skirting Grand River and sundry smaller streams, well timbered with elm, hickory, etc. Interposed between the prairies are miles on miles of gently rolling ridges, thinly covered with white oak, and forming “oak openings” or “timbered openings,” while a thick growth of young wood, now that the annual fire are somewhat checked by roads and cultivation, is coming forward under the full-grown oaks, the whole forming one of the most beautiful and inviting regions I ever passed over. They tell me that the rolling prairies near St. Joseph, to which we passed after dark, are richer and finer than those I saw; but they surely need not be. With such soil and timber, the Mississippi on one side, the Missouri on the other, and a railroad connecting them, it must be that northern Missouri is destined to increase its population speedily and rapidly. I am sure beef can be made there at less cost per pound than in any other locality I ever visited.

St. Joseph is a busy, growing town of some ten thousand inhabitants. It is beautifully situated on a bend of the Missouri, partly on its intervale (which the river is gouging out and carrying away), and partly on the southward slope of the bluff, which rises directly from the river bank, at the north end of the town. Other towns on the Missouri may have a grander future; I doubt that any has a finer location. The river bank must be piled or docked, or in some way fortified against the boiling current which sets against the town-site with fearful power and effect.

I believe this is further west than any other point reached by a railroad connecting eastward with the Atlantic ports. At all events, the travel and part of the trade of the vast wilderness watered by the Upper Missouri and its tributaries, seem to center here. At the City Hotel, where I stopped, some of the guests were of, and from Salt Lake; one, an Indian trader from the head waters of the Columbia, who came down the Yellow Stone from the Rocky Mountains last fall in a canoe, and is now returning. Army officers and sutlers for the forts far up the Missouri and its tributaries, are constantly arriving and departing. I may never see St. Joseph again, but she will long be to me a pleasant recollection. Elwood, in Kansas, opposite, is a small place, which must grow with the country behind her. The mighty, boiling flood, which is tearing away the soil of St. Joseph, is piling up new bars and banks in front of, and just below Elwood, rendering approach to her wharf (if wharf she has or should have) difficult for river steamboats, and thus shutting her out from the up-river trade.

I took passage from St. Joseph for this place at eight this morning on the good steamer Platte Valley, Captain Coursey, and defied the chill east wind, and damp, cold atmosphere, to take my first lesson in Missouri navigation. The distance by water is some forty miles; by land considerably less; the river being here, as everywhere, crooked and capricious. I regretted to note that it tends, if unchecked, to grow worse and worse; the swift current rapidly forming a bank below every projecting point, and thus setting the stream with ever-increasing force against the yielding, crumbling mold or silt of the intervale which forms the opposite shore, which is thus rapidly undermined and falls in, to be mingled with and borne away by the resistless flood. The banks are almost always nearly perpendicular, and are seldom more than two or three feet above the surface of the water at its present high stage, so that the work of devastation is constantly going on. The river is at once deep, swift, and generally narrow—hardly so wide in the average as the Hudson below Albany, though carrying the water of thirty Hudsons. It cannot be half a mile wide opposite this city. Its muddiness is beyond all description; its color and consistency are those of thick milk porridge; you could not discern an egg in a glass of it. A fly floating in a teacup of this dubious fluid an eighth of an inch below the surface would be quite invisible. With its usually bold bluffs, two or three hundred feet high, now opposing a rocky barrier to its sweep, now receding to a distance of two or three miles, giving place to an intervale, many feet deep, of the richest mold, usually covered by a thrifty growth of elm, cotton-wood, etc., its deep, rapid, boiling, eddying current, its drifting logs and trees, often torn from its banks by its floods, and sometimes planted afresh in its bed, so that the tops rise angularly to a point just below or just above the surface of the water, forming the sawyer or snag so justly dreaded by steamboats, the Missouri stands alone among the rivers of the earth, unless China can show its fellow.

I have not yet learned to like it.

Atchison gives me my first foothold on Kansas. It was long a Border-Ruffian nest, but has shared the fortunes of many such in being mainly bought out by free. state men, who now rule, and for the most part own it. For the last year, its growth has been quite rapid; of its four or five hundred dwellings, I think, two-thirds have been built within that period. The Missouri at this point runs further to the west than elsewhere in Kansas; its citizens tell me that the great roads westward to Utah, &c., from St. Joseph on the north and from Leavenworth on the south, pass within a few miles of Atchison when thrice as far from their respective starting-points. Hence the Salt Lake mail, though made up at St. Joseph, is brought hither by steamboat and starts overland from this place; hence many trains are made up here for Laramie, Green River, Fort Hall, Utah, and I hear even for Santa Fé. I have seen several twelve-ox teams, drawing heavily-loaded wagons, start for Salt Lake, etc., to-day; there are others camped just outside the corporate limits, which have just come in; while a large number of wagons form a corral (yard, inclosure or encampment) some two miles westward. A little further away, the tents and wagons of parties of gold-seekers, with faces set for Pike’s Peak, dot the prairie; one of them in charge of a grey-head who is surely old enough to know better. Teamsters from Salt Lake and teamsters about to start, lounge on every corner; I went out three or four miles on the high prairie this afternoon, and the furthest thing I could see was the white canvas of a moving train. I have long been looking for the West, and here it is at last.—But I must break off somewhere to prepare for an early start for Leavenworth and Lawrence to-morrow, in order to reach Osawatamie next day in season to attend the Republican Convention which is to assemble at that place on Wednesday, the eighteenth.

Next: Notes on KansasContentsPrevious: Preface

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