|Muscatine County, Iowa|
This series of articles were found through the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts. They hold the Barnstable Patriot Newspapers from 1830-1930 in their Digital Archives.
Submitted by Barbara MacLeish, assisted by transcriber Jackie Terry, June 27, 2016
FROM CAPE COD TO THE FAR WEST FIFTY YEARS AGO.
By Edwin Coombs
1837 Edwin and his family left Barnstable, MA and came to the Iowa Territory. His father was Elnathan Coombs who died in Bloomington (now Muscatine) in 1838 as well as two other children. There is a marriage record, on file at the Muscatine County Recorders’ Office, which notes that his mother, Abigail Coombs, married Dr. Lyman Carpenter on March 14, 1844. Dr. Carpenter was a physician and a minister of the Baptist church. By the time of the 1850 Federal Census this family was living in Scott County, Iowa. Sometime in the early 1860’s the family emigrated to California. Edwin went on to become a famous newspaperman. He died at the age of eighty-eight on November 3, 1913.
Beechwood Cemetery, Centerville, Barnstable County, MA stands a memorial to the Coombs family.
Listed on it is:
Franklin Coombs born 31 Jul 1819 – died 9 Aug 1836 Centerville, MA
Caroline born 21 Sep 1827 - died 27 Jan 1837 Centerville, MA
Mary Coombs born 11 May 1821 in Fairfax, ME – died 30 Sep 1838 Muscatine, Iowa
Nelson Coombs born 9 Aug 1832 Centerville, MA - died 9 Oct 1838 Muscatine, Iowa
Elnathan Coombs Sen. born 17 Oct 1790 - died 20 Oct 1838 Muscatine, Iowa
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, November 15, 1887 page 2
Reader, in the brief chapters of which this forms the initial, I purpose to give some account of the journeys, experiences, and befalments of a Cape Cod family which emigrated some fifty years ago to what was then known only as the "Far West. " So far as practicable I mean to make each chapter complete its own story. I aim to make true and faithful record of what came within my knowledge and observation, first and last, as the sole surviving member of that family—at least of all occurrences which are likely to be of general interest to the readers of the Patriot, occasionally indulging in such reflections as the shifting experiences related in my narrative may suggest. Fifty years ago!—it seems a long way off, and yet some of the scenes and events of that time are so vividly impressed on my memory that they seem but of yesterday. Well do I remember the long talks by the winter fireside over the proposed emigration—sometimes in stride family conference and sometimes with neighbors and friends. We at first had Illinois in view. The great city of Chicago was not then worthy of mention.
At that early day going West commonly signified going no farther than the State of New York; while Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa were designated the "Far West.” I was a lad of eleven, year's then. To be exact in time, it was in the year 1836, rather late in the autumn, when we set out on our long, and, to my mind, eventful journey. My father had already been West himself to find out and prepare a home for us—the location fixed upon being not far from Bloomington, Iowa, which afterwards changed its name to Muscatine, from the county in which it is situated. It could scarcely deserve the name of a town then, having scarcely half a dozen houses in it, besides its post-office; though now a fine and prosperous city of no mean dimensions.
During my father's absence West, my eldest brother had sickened and died, which he did not or could not learn until he reached New York, on his return home. This was a heavy affliction to him—to us all; but plans and purposes were settled to go West, and could not then be altered. Our home at C___ had been sold, and money had been invested in our new one in the great west. So on a 'bright and pleasant' morning in October 1836, our family of nine members all told, after many a sad adieu to parting friends, whom few of us were ever to meet again, embarked on board the good schooner Norwich, Capt. Alvan Crosby, for New York City. Here we were, just entering upon new and untried experiences—to be strangers in a strange land—to encounter entirely altered conditions and modes of living; and for a time, privations and sorrows, which must to in any minds seem almost incredible.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, November 22, 1887, page 2
Soon that memorable morning, under a clear October sky, we set sail from C. harbor—some with hearts elate with hope (for so is it ever with the young and inexperienced,) and some with pulse-throbs of sorrow fear, and perhaps sad forebodings of troubles indefinable dimly shadowing themselves in the silent chambers of the soul—"full of hope, and yet of heart-break,"—who can tell? As long as the old landmarks could be seen, we stood there upon the deck of the "Norwich'' looking toward the old homestead—most of us with tearful eyes, and none of us, I imagine, without feelings of sadness more or less pronounced, that we were parting with a dear home, and with friends whom we never on earth, might meet again. But once fairly on our way, new scenes began to open our view, and our thoughts were on the future. On our right stretched out afar the sandy shell-strown beach of dear old Cape Cod; and on our left the deep wide ocean flecked everywhere with the "white lilies of commerce"—some going and some returning; some near, and some far away. Sometimes we met a sail so near to that the captains exchanged greetings with each other. The voyage to New York was, on the whole, void of incidents well worth recording. There was seasickness, accompanied by the usual tribute which Neptune commonly exacts from new comers on his domain; but this was after we entered the Sound. The wind grew high in the night, and there was besides a "chopped sea." So boisterous were the elements that the captain was induced to make harbor and cast anchor, until the fury of the storm was abated. It was pleasant again the morning following, and we were soon under weigh once more sweeping gallantly forward between Rhode Island and "old Long Island 's sea-girt shore," celebrated by Halleck' s muse.
Near the entrance to New York harbor I remember our passing a ford and noted its cannon-mounted battlements. A sentinel hailed us from its heights: "What schooner's that?" to which our captain answered back, "Schooner Norwich." Sentinel. ""Where from?" Captain. "Boston." S. " Where bound?" C. "New York." S. "How many tons burthen!" The answer to this " last question I have forgotten; but I remember that the cannons did not open their mouths upon us: we moved on unmolested, even to "Hell-Gate" yea, verily, we passed through the Gate into the city—the now mighty and renowned city of New York,—which, as I think, well deserves that its main entrance should be thus named! "Dii Vertate Omen!”
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, November 29, 1887, page 2
Here we were in New York. Most of us had never before seen a city. All chat was in any way memorable and impressive about it we had taken hi between "Hell Gate" and the wharf at which we landed; which of course gave us but a very inadequate idea of the magnitude of the leading city of America—and yet how insignificant then compared with the New York of to-day! Like our celebrated "Yankee-Doodle," we "couldn't see the town, there were so many houses." But the passage up the harbor was full of interest to young eyes and I think I did my part of the sight-seeing; Ships of every rig were going and coming; steamers were puffing in the high-pressure style of that day all about the harbor, and looked grandly Titanic indeed, yet little to be compared with the magnificent ocean-palaces which greet our eyes in these faster-going times; while skiffs, yawls long rowboats, and small sailing-craft without number were meandering in all directions —the whole exhibiting such a picturesque panorama of life and activity as will never fade from my memory.
On the wharf we saw only black stevedores rolling barrels, and tumbling boxes to and from the ships or steamers that lay in waiting, each one of whom (the stevedores, I mean) was attended by a large black dog; scarcely blacker however, than his ebony master, to whom he gave loud encore of barking as the noise and rattle of business increased. But here our stay was short, the day was pleasant, and we were soon on board a passenger steamer yclept the " Swan," which took us a two or three hours ride to some point which my then limited knowledge of names and places did not comprehend.
I only remember that after a very enjoyable steamboat excursion, we landed somewhere on the Jersey shore, and there took railway cars to some other point, where was another steamer—the "Philadelphia"—in waiting to carry us to the city in honor of whom she was named. But I must not omit to make mention of our ride on the cars just mentioned. Could anything appear more odd to the eye of a modern American traveler than those same cars on which we took our first railroad experience?—and yet how natural, withal, that it should have been just so! The cars were constructed on the model of the old time-honored stagecoach—lifted high in air—seats running cross wise from side to side—curtains all round, but no windows—the conductor receiving our fare from either side, on which a narrow walk was arranged, like some of our summer-going street-cars.
Thus is it ever in every expression of human progress,—the new kindly overlaps and continues its existence from the old: like father like child. The speed too of railway locomotion—how slow then as compared with now! One could easily count the lengths of a post-and-rail-fence then; now he can with difficulty count the telegraph posts; and must watch sharply to catch even the mile-stones. But this was fifty years ago!
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, December 06, 1887, page 2
Philadelphia!—My recollections of this city—our very short stay there, and our view limited to what little might be seen in transit from the steamboat landing to the Pennsylvania Railroad station —are vague and hazy indeed.
The change that had come over it when I saw it seventeen years afterward, on my return from the West, would have far exceeded the wildest dream of imagination; but I had no memorials from which to draw a comparison. The use of coal-gas for lighting our cities a half century ago was a thought unborn, and their denizens made their way by night through streets whose sole illumination was the "dim religious light" of whale-oil lamps. The street-car slept in potentiality of being only, cradled in the thought that gave birth to the chariots of fire and steam. No one had dreamed of answering the question propounded in the book of Job, "Canst thou send lightings that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" and he who should have suggested the possibility of the telegraph, telephone, and Edson-light, would have been considered a fit subject for the lunatic asylum. But the world moves by the inspiration of the Almighty, and who shall now say that even greater things than those above recounted shall not come to pass .in the next fifty years: Under the divine impulsion of Faith, Use, and Beauty, nothing, under God, is impossible to its apostles.
The Beautiful is master of the star
Thou mak’st it so; but art thyself deceiving
If otherwise thy faith
“Thou seeist Beauty in the violet’s cup?
I’ll teach these miracles: Walk by this heath
And say to this neglected flower, Look up,
And thou be beautiful! – If thou has faith,
It will obey thy word.”
But we have reached the railway station--it was little more than a station in these slow-going days—no sumptuous waiting saloons for ladies and gentlemen, such as we see now in every populous town and city: the best passenger cars were open to the winds, cold and cheerless into which we entered after much preparation and delay, and at last were on our way westward again. On the line of this railway I remember only three notable stopping—places-Harrisburgh, Hollidaysburgh, Johnstown; the last-named being then the terminus of the railroad-as far west as any railroad then extended; and this line (bear it in mind) was built and owned by the state of Pennsylvania; for States could then own railroads; though now it is considered quite competent for railroads to own the states!
What a wilderness was Pennsylvania then! Long tracts of forest and mountain scenery, with here and there a straggling settlement, dignified by the name of town; few frame houses, fewer still of brick; hued log structures of the better sort, with one or two windows in front, taking the lead. The farm-houses such as we saw, were also generally of the class last named. What grand possibilities were slumpering in that long reach of mountain and forest wilderness unknown could not then been dreamed. That is has not been made better account of for the use and welfare of all classes, must fill every right-thinking mind with patriotic grief, as well as with fear for its final outcome. “Ill fares the State, to gathering storms the prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay”.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, December 13, 1887, page 2
The passage from Philadelphia to Johnstown, Pa., which latter place was in 1836, the western terminus of the Pennsylvania Railroad, as stated in my last chapter, seemed the longer and more tedious on account of our cramped and cheerless quarters on the cars, besides the fact that we had to encounter some inclement weather; still it was not altogether void of interest and pleasure.
The slow speed we made gave good opportunities for observation; and when the weather was fine, we saw much that was pleasant to remember. As we neared the Alleghany Mountains, for a long distance our roadway lay along the Susquehanna River, which I can only now recall as a stream of considerable width having many shallow passes, or rapids, where its waters coursed noisily over beds of stones, large and small, well rounded by rolling, and by the wash and attrition of ages. Then there was the Juniata of which every school-boy has-probably heard the song:
"Wild roved an Indian girl,
Where roll the waters of
The blue Juniata!"
Not a large stream was the Juniata, as I remember, but long and serpentine; now winding near our roadway, sometimes crossing it, and then afar off straying, only to return again with ripple, and music, and laughter in its flow. Fair and beautiful, too, was the valley which bears its name; but time and the ax of civilization are great levelers, and 'tis scarcely credible that one who saw it then would fall into poetic rhapsodies in describing it now. At last we reached Johnstown. How strange and foreign to us was its population!—chiefly Irish, a large infusion of Germans, and a " smart sprinkling" of Americans "to the manor born." It seemed a town made up mainly of such as follow the great highways of the nation—the construction army of railroad and canal operatives.
The place could have had few, if any, enchantments or attractions for us at that day; for drunkenness seemed a prevalent vice among its people, and profanity was the common coin of all conversation: or, at least, so it seemed then to our young and unaccustomed ears. But here our stay was of short duration—some twenty-four hours or more.
The railway train had brought us as far West as any railroad then extended. Our journey hence was by canal to Pittsburgh. It occupied several days; but the weather was delightful. The glory of Indian Summer smiled upon us all the way. Our course lay through some of the finest farming country in the State. What fields of corn still ungathered! what meadows! what orchards! There was no end of apples, trees hanging full of them often drooping over the canal within reach of hands eager to pluck them. Persimmon trees loaded with their frosty yellow fruit were " too numerous to mention; and on one of our walks from one "lock" to another, my elder brother, having himself had a first taste of experience, induced me to take a taste also. I shall never forget the pucker into which it drew my mouth. I ate no more of them until I was sure the frost had subdued their harshness, and made them mild mannered and obedient to the laws of good taste.
With one amusing incident of our canal-boat experience I will close this chapter. There was with us on this passage a middle-aged man who, while under the inspiration of some spirit, was sometimes very cross and violent in his language and manners. On one of these occasions he had threatened to throw some of his fellow-passengers overboard. One day while sitting with another person on the hatch-board, which projected over the guard of the boat, where he sat, his companion suddenly withdrew from his place. The hatch-board capsized, and overboard with it, headlong, went our crusty weight, even to the very bottom of the canal; for he brought up proofs thereof on his mud-plastered pate. He was rescued; but this hydropathic treatment completely sobered him at least for the remainder of the voyage to Pittsburgh.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, December 27, 1887, page 2
Pittsburgh—the "Iron City"—city of furnaces, forges, and trip-hammers, city of Vulcan and Thor! For miles away, before we reached it by the easygoing canal-boat, we could mark the location of this great Smithy of smithies by the heavy cloud of smoke which hangs over it, and gives a livid and dusky hue to all that abides under its shadow. Once in it, we could see that all the houses looked dirty and dun with the accumulations of dust and soot that are forever falling upon them. Its untiring activity and industry, however, will save it from the fate of Pompeii and Herculaneum; but all the waters of the Ohio would hardly suffice to make and keep it a clean city. This is not spoken disparagingly; for Pittsburgh is the mighty blacksmith and collier of the busy West; and who expects such to bear a clean face and unsoiled hands? Toll on, and labor, and sweat; And sweat, and labor and moll; There's work for the hammer yet. And honor for men of toll. Our tarry here was not long—perhaps twenty-four hours. Here my father bought a cook stove of curious pattern, a device of some antiquity, but having points which gave it precedence in the West almost down to the present day.
It was so unique that it would be impossible to describe it except by pictorial representation; so I will not attempt the task. Some other household furniture was also purchased; and with these we soon found ourselves embarked on board a comfortable looking steamer called the Juniata, bound for Cincinnati and St. Louis.
On board this steamer we formed some very pleasant acquaintances. Among these was a Dr. Edwin James, who, with his wife and one son, was on his way to a new home he had just bought at Hock Spring, near Burlington, Iowa. He had been a Surgeon in the army during the war of 1812, and was still wearing his uniform. They proved themselves most genial companions, and their kind words and ways, as well as the kindness for which we became indebted to them some months afterwards —to be referred to in a future chapter, will dwell forever in my memory.
Our trip from Pittsburgh to St. Louis must have occupied several days; but the weather continued fine; and the forest-lined river banks, varied ever and anon by towns built of log-cabins, had not yet entirely cast off their fading splendors. Our stops were frequent, sometimes to take on a supply of wood, sometimes to receive or discharge a little freight and sometimes to land or receive a passenger. When arrived at St. Louis we met with some delay. The weather had turned cold, and most of the steamers upward bound had gone. Dr. James and family, having little travelling equipment to encumber them, found passage on an earlier steamer than ours, and so parted company with us at this point.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, January 10, 1888, page 2
St. Louis a half-century ago made but a small figure even in the West. 1 remember well the range of low wooden buildings fronting the river, better deserving the name of shanties than stores. It had made but little advance at that time upon its earlier state as a French trading post. Only a few years before, the town of Alton IL., was so much larger and better known that letters, for fear they should not reach their destination, were directed to "St. Louis, near Alton." It was merely a "right smart settlement," as Hoosiers would say, with nearly all its business houses lying along the riverfront. Still in 1836 it was the largest business town of fair promise west of the Mississippi.
There may have been two or three steamers at the landing when we arrived; but the coast was clear when we left, ours being, according to my memory, the last steamer that parted from its wharf, if wharf it had, of which I am not sure. Presto! How marvellous the change which greeted my eyes when I went to sojourn in that city fourteen years later, when steamers three or four deep lined its levee for half a mile or more!
Tis now twenty-eight years since I was there, and what, is St. Louis now? But here we are on another steamer paddling up the Mississippi against much slush, and against the protest of darkly scowling skies. This time it is the Heroine that bears us on. A heroine she might have been in her better days; but now the crazy old craft was all around and everywhere open to assailing storms. But it was the last chance with my father —this, or to be tied up all winter, perhaps, two or three hundred miles from our place of destination. Days pass one, two, three. We move at snail's gait. The slush has formed itself into cakes of ice through which the laggard steamer cuts and crashes with labored breath. And now we begin to meet some of the steamers which started up the Mississippi a day or two before us, on their return voyage, and they report the river full of ice above us.
On this information the captain orders the boat about, and we are landed at Hannibal, Mo.,—the nearest town below; us on the river. The return distance was considerable, but I have not the figures. Here my father engaged a man with a large emigrant wagon to convey us to Palmyra, Mo.,—thirty-five miles. Thence again another man was employed to take us to St. Francisville, Mo. ten miles from the mouth of the Des Moines River. This point reached, winter had fairly set in. The river too was impassable, being full of floating ice, rendering it impossible for us to proceed further. On the banks of this river, close by the picketed enclosure of Fort Pike, stood a rude log-cabin, in dimensions about eighteen feet square; and this we were obliged to make available as our winter quarters.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, January 17, 1888, page 2
My last chapter terminated with our arrival under the picketed walls of Fort Pike on the banks of the Des Moines, St. Francisville, Mo., where we were to take up our winter quarters. Let us briefly explore the situation. The square picketed enclosure of Fort Pike embraced about one acre of land—the north side facing the river. Two block-houses, built of logs, one occupying its northeast, and the other its south-west corner, guarded all sides of the works against the invasions of the Indians during the Black-Hawk war, which was then an event fresh and new in the minds of the settlers. Our log-cabin stood at the northwest corner of the environment. A level plain, about one-fourth of a mile wide, skirts the river at this point, which may be fifteen or twenty feet higher than the general level of the Des Moines, the town proper lying back of this, on higher ground, perhaps half a mile from the river. This location was said to be due to a great inundation which occurred some years before, and which swept away most of the houses occupying the lower belt. Here, in a log-cabin not exceeding eighteen feet square, all available space comprehended in a single room, a large family was to be bestowed and cared for from December till near the last of April.
"By one same tire to boil their pottage,
Two poor old dames, as I have known,
Will often live la one small cottage."
But here were nine of us, used to the comforts and conveniences of New England life, such as were known to people in moderate circumstances in those days —all to be crowded into one room! How could the thing be done? But it was done, nevertheless—had to be done.
To particularize: Only one door had the house, and one—window shall I call it? It was an aperture cut between two logs of the cabin, scarcely a foot wide b3r two and a half long—the light being admitted through a strip of white paper, oiled so as to make it translucent. This was close to the chimney corner, or fire-place, probably in order to unite the conveniences of both light and warmth during the winter season. The cupboard, pantry, closet (all in one), was made by boring holes in the log wall, and inserting long wooden pins therein, on which shelves were mounted. A friendly screen or curtain of calico hid from the gaze of the curious not only the mysteries of the larder, but nearly all the sundry and closetable appurtenances of house-keeping—"things that had never been neighbors before!"
In like manner the auger and ax were the only tools used in the construction of the bedsteads—the frame work being inserted in auger-holes made in the log-built walls, and the outer ends of the rails secured to rude props or posts in a similar manner. Across these rived clapboards were laid, and the bedstead was complete.
To secure seclusion from eyes profane, each bed was protected by calico, curtains in the same manner as the cupboard above described. The fire-place and chimney of the cabin was a cobbled-up structure of wood and clay— the latter softened to the consistency of mortar, and abundantly laid on the wood-work, especially in its ample throat. Our floor was of puncheons; for saw-mills in this part of the country were then unknown, and sawed lumber was brought from afar. No article of civilized furniture could be made to stand or sit upright on such a floor. Our table was a large chest and we had some Windsor chairs. There was no room for better furniture in such a place had we been ever so well provided. We were even obliged to sell our new cook-stove, partly for lack of room in which to set it up. We had experienced some hardships hitherto on our journey, and had expected it; but for such an ill-shaped juncture of affairs as this, we were totally unprepared.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, January 31, 1888, page 2
I have introduced my readers to our winter quarters. It is now in order to say something of how we fared during the four or five months of our sojourn therein. Fortunately for us, the winter proved to be one of unusual mildness, and bore many "smiles of comfort in his frosty face."
Fuel also was abundant and conveniently near, and cost us nothing but the labor of getting and preparing. Our neighborhood was excellent. Indeed we never met kinder people anywhere, but none of them lived within less than a quarter of a mile of us, while most of them dwelt still farther away. Nearly all of them owned a few slaves; but these bore their chains lightly, seemed to be cared for, contented, and happy. It was here that we first became acquainted with the manufacture and use of "corn dodgers," "corn pones," and "johnnycake." In the whole town there might have been now and then a family who knew what wheatbread is; but generally it was not in demand—corn-bread or "hog and hominy," being the mainspring and "staff of life."
We were in many important things so completely "out of correspondence with our environment," as the evolutionist would say, that it was a serious question whether all of us would be able to adapt ourselves to such a sudden and violent change of life. Certain it is, we all felt the change keenly—not its discomforts merely; it told upon our health; though some of us endured this harsh, new discipline better than others.
About midwinter my youngest sister, nine years of age, was taken down with typhoid fever. It had a short run. In a few days our fair, frail, blue-eyed Caroline yielded up her beautiful and gentle spirit to the all-loving Father. Her image, just as she appeared in health, dwells in my memory as vividly now as if she had left my side but an hour ago. The night she passed away was dark and gloomy. It was perhaps about twelve o'clock when she died, and my eldest brother and I were called to go for one of our neighbors, a Mrs. Heron, living across the river, not far from the ferry landing. There were some woods to go through before reaching the house, which cast a still deeper gloom over the scene; but not more gloomy than the sorrow which brooded over our thoughts and feelings. No sympathizing friends of our own kith arid kin could tie with us in this sad hour. Only stranger-hands could assist us in performing the last fad offices to the dead; and though all around us were as kind and sympathizing as neighbors could be, still they were strangers. The funeral day was also dark, cold and cheerless—the winds sighing their lament through the forest we passed through on our way to the grave. A semicircular line of bluffs—steep, high, and rugged with overhanging rocks, crowned with red-cedar trees—left an amphitheater of level ground on the banks of the river, comprising, perhaps, about two acres; and this was used for a cemetery,—just such a place as the Indians might have once used as a camping place. Mrs. Sigourney has a verse which well coincides both with the incident and the locality:
"One in the forests of the West,
By a dark stream is laid;
The Indian knows her place of rest,
Deep in the cedar-shade!"
Thus among strangers, in a strange land, we left the mortal remains of our loved one. What matters it, since Heaven is all around us, and the mysterious change called death can take nothing from us that has in reality once been ours?
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, February 7, 1888 page 2
I sometimes look back upon that winter spent in St. Francisville and its pictured memories come up before me so vividly that I seem to be living them over again. I can see a dear patient mother sitting by the little oil-papered window plying busy fingers to the needle-work that must be done in every large family, tears sometimes springing to her eyes, the sad but mute interpreters of thoughts and feelings which only they who knew something of the life-trials she had passed through, might guess or understand. I can see a devoted father, worried, anxious, and perplexed with doubts and cares, and now reduced to straitened circumstances by plans miscarried and hopes disappointed.
But what do young heads know about such things? They see the external manifestations of sorrow; they witness the lines of it in faded cheek and furrowed brow; they read it in tear-bedimmed eye, and hear it in the deep-breathed sigh; but never until they themselves come to have a touch of the same sorrows can they rightly understand and interpret what their parents have passed through! for their sakes. Then they can turn their eyes backward "through the dim pastern of time long elapsed," and what they remember they can interpret. As observed in the last chapter, the winter spent at Fort Pike was mild and pleasant.
The out-door work kept my father and elder brother variously employed, and I lent my hand to what little I could do to help them. At that day, in the Western States, and as far East as Pennsylvania, corn was often left standing in the field unharvested until December; so there was corn to harvest, wood to cut and get home for the winter fire, and many odd jobs to be done for neighbors in a newly settled country like this. Some part of the winter my father turned to good account in making black- walnut shingles for a Mr. Wayland, who was preparing to build in the following spring.
Thus the winter wore away, and early in March the season of sugar-making began; for within half or three-quarters of a mile from us was as large and fine a forest of sugar-maples, mixed in with many other kinds of trees, as one would wish to see. Those who have ever indulged in the labor and pastime of such an occasion need not be told that labor and enjoyment ever go hand-in-hand in a sugar-camp. How glad we were when the ice in the river broke up, though there was the usual gorge which raised the waters nearly level with the banks, and threatening an inundation.
The warm weather soon set in bringing an early spring, and clothing forest and field in their livery of green set and variegated with floral decorations. Steamers of light draught soon came puffing up the river, and as much of the river commerce of that early day was conducted in barges, similar to canal-boats, and propelled by hand-labor ever and anon in the early morning one might hear from afar off the "mellow, mellow horn."
It was here that we saw Keokuk and his band. They crossed the ferry from the Iowa side, and passed by our house on horseback. Keokuk appeared to be a very tall, fine-looking Indian, and sat upright in his saddle as if he were commander of the world. Not long after, I saw Black-hawk. He was working his way up the river in a canoe, solitary and alone. He had been supplanted as chief of his tribe by Keokuk, at the instigation of the military arm of our government, if I am correctly informed. He appeared in costume which was in no way distinguishable from that of an ordinary Indian. He was short in stature and rather heavy set. My impression of him is that he appeared broken in spirit and dejected. He passed within a few feet of me, propelling his canoe by means of a pole.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, March 13, 1888, page 2
Roving bands of Indians, sometimes in parties of from eight or ten to thirty and sometimes a whole tribe, were a common sight in those days--for most of the country west of the Mississippi was then almost a complete wilderness. The forests were well stocked with the choicest game. Buffalo, had for the most part abandoned the prairies, it is true; but elk still held their own. As for deer, wild turkeys, and the smaller game, "the woods were full of them;'' and, than the Indians, none knew better how to hunt them—a few scattering backwoodsmen being their only rivals.
Pigeons!—one would have thought there was no end of them. One fine morning in April, a long, unbroken flight of them passed up the Des Moines in front of our house. It was nearly three hours before we saw the end of it,—forming a continuous dark cloud, of perhaps five or six yards in width, from beginning to end. This part of the country was, at that day, the Red Man's Paradise. It fulfilled his brightest dreams of "the happy hunting-grounds" where every good Indian expects to go when he is at last called to "face the dreadful eyes of Pauguk." Speaking still of Indians, I must not omit to mention that the largest body of them we ever saw, passed down the Des Moines a short time before our removal from St. Francisville.
It was in the afternoon of a pleasant day in the latter part of April that several hundred of them suddenly announced their appearance at some distance above the town by a loud beating of drums, broken in upon by frequent whoops and yells, such as Indians only can make. As they drew nearer, the river seemed darkened by canoes, large and small, laden with redskins of all ages, sexes and conditions, with all the paraphernalia of an Indian encampment. They landed on the Iowa side of the river, just opposite our house in the belt of a dense forest.
Their tents were soon stretched. One was long and large enough to accommodate a hundred or more. It was the council wigwam of the tribe. The outlying ones were small though varying somewhat in size. At first we were in some fear at this sudden advent of a people who had so lately been the terror of the Black Hawk Purchase. But some of the older residents of the place, were soon on the ground; and to allay our fears, a little later in the evening a deputation of them crossed the river and spent an hour or two at the encampment. They soon learned that they were Indians o£ the Sac and Fox Nation, on their way to St. Louis to receive their annuities from the Government Agency in that city. They had "much whiskey" with them, and the men of the tribe were just beginning to have "a high old time;" for it is a custom among them that the men first indulge in potations of scooti-eppo [fire-water], their squaws taking care of them meanwhile, sobering them up as soon as they think they have had a wise sufficiency; after which, they themselves take their turn, and are cared for and sobered off by the men.
As the Indians remained for a day or two, some of our people had opportunity to witness a sobering-off frolic as conducted by the women. Their treatment was hydropathic. Two stout squaws would lay hold on a struggling Indian, and dragging him to the river, would souse him in again and again, until well sobered, and thoroughly docile. This ceremony clearly afforded them infinite fun and enjoyment, and was attended with much shouting and laughter on the part of all who joined in the sport, as well as from the bystanders on the banks of the river.
When they broke up encampment, they paddled off down the river, beating their drums, and whooping and yelling, as when they came. Smaller detachments of Indians were frequently passing up and down the river from the time it was fairly clear of ice until we left the place; and they generally made a short stop at Fort Pike-We picked up enough of their language to make ourselves understood in the common things of life. They were not troublesome in any way, even as beggars; but would sometimes make their wants known when hungry or thirsty, asking for tomenok pocoshakon [cornbread], kishkel-cosh [bread and maat], or eppo [water], etc., which of course, we never refused to give them. They always declined to sit in chairs when offered them, invariably squatting down on the floor or ground—their natural and customary position when taking a temporary rest.
Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday, April 10, 1888, page 3
April had passed, the blooming month of May was upon us and still we were at St. Francisville. This delay was enforced. How, I will now explain. As early in the spring as It was possible to travel afoot or on horseback, and before the roads were passable for wagons—It must have been late in March—my father felt It Important to precede us in a visit to our future home near Muscatlne; because too long abandonment of a land-claim after the first improvement would imperil the title; and this was a case that would admit of no further delay without danger.
So, taking with him my elder brother he went on foot to his place, about a hundred miles north of us. to "make such further improvements as would answer the ends of the law. On his way thither he must needs pass near the house of Dr. Edwin James, mentioned in a former chapter where he stopped overnight. Here he learned from the Doctor that he had been offered the position of Indian Agent at Council Bluffs; and he preposed that my father should take charge of his place, already well stocked and under good improvement, and run It that year for all he could make or raise from It,—the Doctor also agreeing to stay on the place till he had planted the principal crops, as corn, & etc.
Under the circumstances, such an offer was not to be despised; and after giving some thought to the subject and believing that he could in the meantime make such Improvements on his own place as would be necessary to keep good his title thereto till he could move upon it the next following spring, he decided to close with the Doctor's proposal.
It must have been wearing on towards me middle of May before my father's return to St. Francisville. Without further delay our household stuff was at once packed and loaded into a large Pennsylvania wagon like those which brought us from Hannibal and from Palmyra, and once more we were on the move—not however, without regretful remembrances of what we had left behind! We mere nearly two days in making the journey from St. Francisville to Rock Spring—a distance of something less than forty miles —the home of Dr. James. There were two rivers to cross—the Des Moines and the Skunk—both of respectable size. From what circumstances the latter derives its name I have never learned. Even the great city of the West borrows its name from a little river that runs through It, and which signifies the same thing; for Chicago is said to be a corruption of the Indian wood chicaqua, which is by interpretation a skunk!
The first night of our journey was made memorable by facts and experiences which one would hardly be able to forget. Our driver baited us at a stream of water which he said was named "Devil's Run." Here we camped for the night. It was in the midst of a dense forest which possibly had never echoed the sound of an ax. We made a fire by the side of a large fallen tree, which served as a back-log, whereby our supper was prepared. Before disposing ourselves for noctur-repose, we heard distant mutterlngs of an approaching thunder-storm; whereupon we hastily prepared to bestow ourselves for the night.
My mother and two sisters made a sort of bed in the forward end of the canvas-covered wagon. Room was also made for my two younger brothers somewhere under the shelter of Its canvas. All available space was now occupied; and the remainder of us, four in number, had to take an outside berth. At length the tempest burst upon us in all its fury. The rain poured down in torrents, and the thunder and lightning were grand, terrific, beyond anything I had ever heard. At every clap it seemed as If heaven and earth had fallen together. To escape the pitiless rain, I crept in under the canvas, on the top of some chairs whose legs turned upwards, and waited in painful uneasiness for the storm to pass over. The others took shelter under the wagon. All were glad when the storm passed away. It lasted long enough to raise '"Devil's Run" a foot or more above its usual depth, giving It a dangerous look; but by the time we were ready to go on in the morning, we crossed It In safety.
About four o’clock in the afternoon of the following day we reached the residence of Dr. James, at Rock Spring. They were looking for us, and received us very cordially. They had made all due preparation for their departure to Council Bluffs as soon as we should arrive. I think they left us on the day following our arrival.
~ * ~ *~ * ~ *~ Barnstable Patriot, Tuesday February 19, 1878, page 3
Excerpt from a private letter from Edwin Coombs, Esq., which tells more about their arrival in Iowa Territory. “The history of my father’s family, beginning from the year of our removal to Iowa, in the year 1837, is I think, one of the saddest and more remarkable I have ever known.
Out of the original ten members which constituted it, I am now the sole survivor. Our home in Centreville had been sold; and while my father was in Iowa preparing a new one, my brother Franklin, the elder of us all, sickened and died. When my father returned, it was to find a broken household. The cold November winds began to low before we were well on our way.
Stopping for a few months at St. Francisville, MO., where we were detained by an ice-gorged in the Des Moines river, my youngest sister sickened and died. We buried her in a lonely spot by the river side, embraced by a semicircular line of bluffs, craggy and covered with moss, and overhung with the dark drapery of the mournfull cedar. Mrs. Hemans describes the place exactly in one of her poems:
“One in the forests of the west,
By a dark stream s laid:
The Indian knows her place of rest,
Deep in the cedar-shade.”
We left her there to rest, without a sign to mark her grave. The weeks lengthened into months, and the months into more than a year, before we found ourselves at our journey’s end, - the spring of 1839.
A fearful drought visited Northern and Central Iowa that year, and a more dreadful famine. For want of the necessities and comforts of life, many of our neighbors perished around us, and we were not exempted. My father, and eldest sister (one of the twins) and my youngest brother, were stricken down and died within three weeks of each other.
~ * ~ Barnstable Patriot, Monday, December 14, 1914, page 4
The man whose name heads this article died Nov. 5th, 1913. A brief notice of this event was published at that time but the passing of so unique a character may well receive a more extended mention.
He was born in 1825 and his early life was spent in Centerville. At the age of ten he could read, but the schools taught him nothing further. At this time his father decided to move with his wife and family, to Iowa, which in those days seemed a far distant land. They made the long, wearisome journey in a "prairie schooner" as tall cloth-covered emigrant wagons were called. Before they reached their destination sickness overtook them and one of their number, a beloved sister.
At last they arrived at Bluegrass, Iowa, but at a most unfortunate season. A great drouth possessed the land, the waters of the Mighty River shrank so that the people spoke of those days as the time when the “Mississippi dried up.” Provisions were scarce and high, almost unattainable as the streams were too low to be navigated by vessels of any size. Crops were cut off - fever and ague stalked through the land hand in hand with famine. The Coombs family were great sufferers. They were obliged to dig up for food the potatoes they had planted not long before, and to chew the inner bark of the elm tree to keep from actual starvation. Nearly or quite all of them were sick, as were their neighbors. The father died and the mother rose from a sick bed to wash his shroud, others of the family passed on and, had it not been for the timely aid of a friend, who chanced to hear of their condition, they must all have perished. Mr. Coombs said that never after this did he feel like complaining of the quality of his food. This lesson of his boyhood taught him a life-long thankfulness for “daily bread.”
From ten years of age to sixteen he received just six months of schooling. His teacher had no special fitness for the work except that he knew, perhaps a little more than most of his neighbors. At sixteen he found employment as “printer’s devil,” and began to realize the necessity of further education. He could not write at this time, but he took a few lessons in penmanship with such good results that his handwriting, even as an Oldman over eighty, was beautiful and as legible as print. He also attended evening school and studied Latin and Algebra. He was fond of reading and read and reread the few books he owned besides borrowing of all the neighbors. Fortunately some of Sir Walter Scott’s novels fell into his hands at this time. These captivated his imagination, and he pored over them with the greatest of interest. Later in life he became an ardent student of Shakespeare. This love of standard literature, coupled with an unusually retentive memory, accounts for the classical style so evident in his speech and writings.
While still a young man he came east and worked at the printers’ trade. At one time he met a man who knew French, but did not know Latin, so he induced this man to teach him French while he in turn taught the man what he knew of Latin. And this was his habit to exchange knowledge for knowledge, thus, without further aid from the schools, he became fairly well educated.
Just before the Civil war he started a newspaper, call “The Atlantic Messenger.” Which was published in Hyannis. This paper so strongly espoused the anti-slavery cause that it drew forth much bitter comment from the pro-slavery party. So rank an Abolitionist was cordially hated by those of the opposite belief and long, heated discussions were carried on through the columns of “The Messenger,” and a rival paper. Such a fearless, outspoken editor could not long remain popular even with those of his own belief, and, after a few years, “The Atlantic Messenger” became a thing of the past.
Several years before Cleveland’s first administration Mr. Coombs secured a position in the P. O. department in Washington, which he held for a period of seventeen or eighteen years, proving himself a most efficient clerk. During Cleveland’s second administration he resigned because he felt that his place was wanted for a member of the party then in power.
He was employed for a time in the office of “the Natick Citizen,” writing under the name of “Anville Sparks.” He also contributed to other papers.
He was much interested in archaeology and gathered a mass of interesting and valuable material, a small portion, only, of which he was ever able to use. The writer remembers reading with pleasure the different traditions of the creation which he had collected and re-printed.
The end of his “checkered career,” as he was wont to call his earthly life, came at the age of eight-eight years, but he never lost his interest in books and writing. The last few years of his life were spent with relatives in California, but he did not forget his eastern friends.
He had a kindly, optimistic disposition. Among his last words were these: “I have dear love for every one and not an evil thought for any one.”
Thus lived and died another true son of old Cape Cod and a lineal descendant of Governor Thomas Hinckley of colonial fame.
A Friend. ~ * ~ *~ * ~ *~ Back to Muscatine Co. IAGenWeb, Index Page
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