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Iowa Historical Record Quarterly

Published Quarterly by the State Historical Society, Iowa City, Iowa


VOL. XII. April, 1896. No. 2


     It was not an infrequent thing for men during the early years of settlement in Iowa, to be frozen to death by exposure at night on the bleak, open prairies. One reason for these casualties was, that so many came west from sheltered, timbered regions, where most people had good houses, and were not exposed to severe and protracted storms, and, therefore, were not schooled in the vigilance necessary to contend with western blizzards. They wore lighter clothing, and carelessly ventured out long distances with very few wraps to keep out the cold. Many of our winter days were so pleasant and mild that we took these chances with little expectation that the weather would change. But it often occurred that when the forenoons would be so mild that a flake of snow would melt as it struck the ground, the same afternoon, and perhaps three or four days in succession, would see a wild, tumultuous storm from the northwest howling and careering over the prairies, leaving deep snow drifts and low temperature throughout its course. In such cases woe to the unfortunate wayfarer who found himself a few miles from home when darkness fell upon him, or the storm became so thick as to hide his path and obscure his vision! I had one experience of this kind—though fortunately not in a storm—which opened my eyes so wide that I never afterwards took any chances in venturing out upon the prairies. If necessary to travel some distance in the winter, I always went prepared to "camp out"—with abundant food and blankets for myself and the horses—wherever night should overtake me, with no fear of freezing.

     I was publishing The Freeman in Webster City in the autumn of 1859. There was no paper north of me to the State line, nor anywhere else northwest of our town. I used to visit the county seats where no newspaper men had yet ventured to settle, for the purpose of soliciting the official printing of the counties. Among other trips I started on the third of December, to visit the counties of Cerro Gordo, Worth, Winnebago and Hancock. The outfit, when I tell what it was, will be seen to have been a very poor one for such a trip. I had for a traveling companion, Sam. H. Lunt, soon after Deputy Register of the State Land Office, who later on died in the military service. We had a single buggy, with a poor old "Rosinante" of a horse, and only one worn buffalo robe and a blanket. I wore an overcoat of medium weight and had a heavy shawl, but Sam had only a single coat. The weather had been surpassingly mild and beautiful, and that is what deceived us. We had many of those winter days so poetically described by William Cullen Bryant, which "tempt the squirrel and the bee from out their winter home." The morning we started there was hardly even a suggestion of frost. The snow was scarcely an inch deep anywhere, and in most places was disappearing in the warm sunshine. Our trail, for there was not much in the line of roads, led in a northeasterly course across Wright county. There was still open water in some portions of Wall Lake, so mild had been the weather. By the time night overtook us we had reached Belmond, which was, or had been, one of the oscillating county seats of Wright county. We stayed all night at a very primitive hotel, kept by an eccentric gentleman by the name of Kent. He was sometimes called "Chancellor Kent," from the claim he made that he had been Chancellor of New Jersey or some other eastern State. He was a great story teller, and it needed more credulity than I possessed to believe some of his yarns. He claimed acquaintance with almost every distinguished living man in the nation, and was in the habit of calling them by "nicknames." When speaking of President Buchanan, he called him "Jim." Mentioning Stephen A. Douglas, "the Little Giant" of Illinois, the great ideal Democratic statesman of the West, he called him "Steve." Said he, "I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue one morning with Jim."
     I inquired, "Jim who?"
     "Why," said he, "Jim Buchanan, of course. Pretty soon we met Steve! "
     "Steve who? " I asked.
     "Why Steve Douglas," he said. And he spoke of General Samuel Houston, of Texas, as "Sam," General Benton, of Missouri, as "Tom," and so on through a long list of American statesmen. He also professed great familiarity with European capitals, as St. Petersburgh, Berlin, Rome, and I suppose, if the conversation had been protracted enough, he would have swung around the circle of the whole world in a similar way.
     The next morning was quite as pleasant as the first, with the exception that the snow was now two or three inches deep. Our trail lay up the Iowa river, to the county seat of Hancock county. This consisted simply of the residence of Mr. Rosecrans, a cousin, or nephew, I believe, of General W. S. Rosecrans, who became distinguished during the civil war. This was in the old county Judge days, when many of those officers in northwestern Iowa stole their counties absolutely poor by letting contracts to build bridges and court houses, in some instances pensioning their needy relatives upon the county treasury. In each county the Judge was a local autocrat, and wielded irresponsible and almost absolute power. Judge Rosecrans, however, was an exception to this class of judges, and was an honorable, straightforward manager of the county's finances. He was probably conservative enough in this direction. He was "the county," and he could tell you without mincing matters, what "the county" could afford. No scandal ever attached to his official career. Our course lay thence nearly due east across the prairie to Clear Lake. The third morning we started for Bristol, the county seat of Worth county, our route being along up Lime creek, a tributary of Clear Lake. At noon we stopped for dinner at a farm house, the uppermost one at that time on the creek. The snow by that time was much deeper, but laid very lightly on the ground and offered little obstruction to the buggy. Mr. Williams, the farmer, told us it was twelve miles across to Bristol, but that if we were unable to reach that town, we would pass near the house of a man named Caswell—how well I remember the name after the lapse of thirty-six years! —with whom we could stay over night. He said it was but eight miles to Caswell's. It was probably two o'clock in the afternoon when we started. Now, the fact of the business was, that it was from sixteen to nineteen miles to Caswell's, and some distance further on to Bristol, with no intervening houses or settlements! With the expectation, however, of not being compelled to travel more than eight miles, we went along quite slowly. In those short days it was but little time until nightfall, when we began to strain our eyes to discover the light in the window. We did not see it, but we traveled on and on. The snow increased very rapidly, and when darkness set in, it was nearly a foot in depth. Our ancient horse came to the conclusion that traveling under such circumstances was a very nonsensical piece of business, and finally refused to budge an inch, unless one of us waded in the snow and led him. At last he refused to go on any terms whatever. Sam remarked that "we would have to stay there all night." The prospect for lodging was about as forlorn and forbidding as can well be imagined. We unhitched the horse from the buggy and tied him to one of the hind wheels, buckling the buffalo robe round him, in order to retain as much of his vitality as possible—for there was no food for him, except as he pawed away the snow and munched the dead and bleached grass. We sat down close together, on the bottom of the buggy, putting our feet under the seat, and placing our backs against the dashboard. We then drew the blanket and my shawl over our heads, and by sitting close together kept from freezing. Possibly we slept a little, but many times during the night we were compelled to get up and walk or run to warm our feet, otherwise I think they would have frozen: In the morning a path led out from the buggy some ten or twelve rods, which was smooth and icy from our constant walking. We saw the full moon rise and make its circuit over the heavens and go down. Our "camp" was on the top of a large hill or ridge, elevated high above the surrounding country. Morning came at last, when we expected to be able to see the smoke rising from a log cabin off to the northwest. We waited until after the sun rose, straining our eyes in vain to get a glimpse of any human habitation. It was only a wide waste of snow. Several miles in the distance a line of timber lay blue and cold along the horizon, but there was no sign of life. We had no means of determining how cold the night and morning had been, but just where we were camping, the ground was covered with weeds three or four feet high. These were decorated with millions of frost-diamonds which sparkled in the sun. We should have said they were very beautiful, indeed, if we had been looking at them from our comfortable parlor window, but under the circumstances they only suggested extreme cold. We held a "council of war" soon after sun-rise, and came to the unanimous conclusion that there was only one course for us, and that was, to take ``the back track" and get a better start. We, therefore, hitched our poor old horse to the buggy and started southward. Being troubled with some affection of the throat I had carried a bottle of medicine, the effect of which, taken to excess, was very nauseating. That morning I tasted it two or three times very moderately, for the purpose of clearing my throat. Sam, however, thought I had something in the way of whisky or brandy, and asked me for a drink. Handing him the bottle, I told him that he must be cautious or it would make him very sick. He disregarded my advice, and took what I should say was rather a large "swig." In a few minutes he became very sick, begging me to go forward and get "help." I said everything I could to brace him up and induce him to keep moving, and I would go on foot and lead the horse; but he would listen to nothing of the kind. He was evidently very much alarmed at his condition. and I was as much concerned at leaving him there At last, I unhitched and mounted the horse, and started off at a brisk gallop. In less than an hour I was at the Williams' house in quest of help, but there were no horse teams in that immediate vicinity. A neighboring farmer had an ox team, and I employed him to go out with his sled and oxen to bring in Sam and the buggy. Mrs. Williams gave me an excellent breakfast, after which I had a most refreshing sleep.
     It was between three and four o'clock when I woke up. No tidings had been heard from Sam or the man who had gone in search of him. I therefore mounted the old horse, who, as well as myself, was greatly refreshed by this time, and started to learn what had become of my comrade. About a mile up the country I met the cavalcade. They had taken the wheels off the buggy, putting it all on the sled, and were coming along as fast as the moping oxen could make their way through the snow. Sam had entirely recovered from his sickness, and, as he had had a hearty lunch, expressed himself as being in very excellent condition. We did not venture out again that night, but the next morning I went down the creek a mile or two and hired a settler who had a good team and a fine sleigh, to carry me to Bristol and Forest City, sending Sam to Clear Lake, where he remained until my return. I made a very successful trip for a pioneer printer who was clear out upon the frontier, and the third day was back to Clear Lake. More snow had fallen, and Sam, had meantime improvised a sort of sled with which he hoped we would be able to reach home. The runners were made of green oak planks and very heavy. His sled was about a foot wider than it ought to be for an ordinary track. But expecting that we could get through with it he had loaded the buggy upon it, and we started. The first twenty rods convinced me that that sort of vehicle was impracticable. Returning to the village I employed Mr. H. G. Parker to take his horses and sleigh and carry us to Webster City, leaving Sam's big sled by the wayside. Parker was then a new-comer—as poor a young man as any of us. Since then he has not only thriven so far as earthly possessions are concerned, but had the well-deserved honor of a seat in our State Senate.
     It was a very reckless piece of business to venture out so far from home at that season of the year, with the liability that any pleasant morning might be followed immediately by a terrible blizzard. But we new-comers could only gain experience by learning it. This taught me a lesson which I never forgot during all the time that I had occasion to go into those upper counties in the winter time; and, as I have remarked above, I always so prepared myself for these storms, that neither I, nor my horse, would have run any risk of freezing, had we been compelled to sleep out of doors in the fiercest blizzard.
     About six weeks after this preliminary trip I returned nearly over the same route for the purpose of delivering to the county officers the blanks I had printed. Did I take another such risk as on the first journey? By no means. This is how I was equipped for the expedition, which seemed much like starting for the North Pole. I had a stout span of horses and a farm sleigh. The sleigh-box was nearly filled with prairie hay, and I took two bags of corn. My traveling comrade this time was Daniel D. Chase, afterwards District Judge and State Senator. He was then a "briefless barrister," who had a few months before settled in Webster City, fresh from the State of New York. We were each clad warmly, with heavy overcoats and shawls. We had two large buffalo robes, two heavy bed-quilts, two blankets, with heavy blankets for the horses. Then our good wives had provided about a bushel of "bread and dinner," consisting of meat, bread, cakes and many other comestibles. We had a quart bottle of Binninger's best Holland gin, doubtless for "snake-bites." Two large blocks of green hickory wood, which we roasted each night in a stove oven, and which would hold the heat many hours, some small ropes for possible repairs, an axe, hammer and nails, and doubtless other items not now remembered, completed the outfit. We started out with confidence that if we were assailed by blizzards, or lost upon the prairies, neither ourselves nor our faithful animals need suffer very much—certainly, that we were undertaking no dangerous risks. We were lost a couple of times and had to take our "back track" to the cabin of a settler in order to learn "where we were at," and whither we should go to get along on the journey. We traveled over long reaches of country which, under the deep covering of snow, were tedious and monotonous. We were out in heavy snow storms; our cheeks were badly frozen, for we could not wholly cover our faces; but aside from feeling quite tired at night, our week's journey was without especial discomfort. I received my pay in county warrants, upon which I soon realized the cash, for there was no organized ring of sharks in that region, as in some of the counties, to keep them below par for the purpose of robbing the original owners by buying them on speculation. Mr. Chase secured his first considerable retainers, in fact, he dated from this journey his entry upon a long and successful law practice.
     This narration may seem dull and common-place to many readers, but it records real experiences of our pioneer days, showing what travel was when the whole of northwestern Iowa was one wide prairie, without the snug residences and beautiful groves which are now found upon every section of land.
     From some of the higher points we could look out over wastes of deep snow as far as the eye could reach. Trees there were none, save the natural groves and belts of timber along the streams. In the distance, these were deep dark blue in color. They always carried a suggestion of shelter, and possible comfort; even in the stormiest weather, for it was there that the lone traveler would find snug nooks and thickets which broke the force of the fierce winter blasts. The log cabin of the ever- hospitable and kind-hearted settler; where the wayfarer was always welcome was certain to be nestled about them. The changes which have come over all that region have been such that a traveler of pioneer days would recognize few if any of the localities with which he was then familiar. The prairie is dotted with handsome frame houses, the rude shed made of aspen poles and prairie hay has given place to commodious barns now "bursting with plenty"-- and long lines of trees, or thick groves, have broken 'up the vast spaces which were then, so white and dreary in winter. And even the blizzards and snows, strangely enough, are things of the past.


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