The Settlers, and Whence They Came.
There were five of them, all told; three boys and two men. I have mentioned the boys first because there were more of them, and we shall hear most from them before we have got through with this truthful tale. They lived in the town of Dixon, on the Rock River, in Lee County, Illinois. Look on the map, and you will find this place at a point where the Illinois Central Railroad crosses the Rock; for this is a real town with real people. Nearly sixty years ago, when there were Indians all over that region of the country, and the red men were numerous where the flourishing States of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin are now, John Dixon kept a little ferry at the point of which I am now speaking, and it was known as Dixon’s Ferry. Even when he was not an old man, Dixon was noted for his long and flowing white hair, and the Indians called him Na-chu-sa, “the White-haired.” In 1832 the Sac 2tribe of Indians, with their chief Black Hawk, rose in rebellion against the Government, and then there happened what is now called the Black Hawk war.
In that war many men who afterwards became famous in the history of the United States were engaged in behalf of the government. One of these was Zachary Taylor, afterwards better known as “Rough and Ready,” who fought bravely in the Mexican war and subsequently became President of the United States. Another was Robert Anderson, who, at the beginning of the war of the Rebellion, in 1861, commanded the Union forces in Fort Sumter when it was first fired upon. Another was Jefferson Davis, who, in the course of human events, became President of the Southern Confederacy. A fourth man, destined to be more famous than any of the others, was Abraham Lincoln. The first three of these were officers in the army of the United States. Lincoln was at first a private soldier, but was afterwards elected captain of his company, with whom he had come to the rescue of the white settlers from the lower part of the State.
The war did not last long, and there was not much glory gained by anybody in it. Black Hawk was beaten, and that country had peace ever after. For many years, and even unto this day, I make no doubt, the early settlers of the Rock River country loved to tell stories of the Black Hawk war, of their own sufferings, exploits, hardships, and adventures. 3Father Dixon, as he was called, did not choose to talk much about himself, for he was a modest old gentleman, and was not given, as they used to say, to “blowing his own horn,” but his memory was a treasure-house of delightful anecdotes and reminiscences of those old times; and young and old would sit around the comfortable stove of a country store, during a dull winter evening, drinking in tales of Indian warfare and of the “old settlers” that had been handed down from generation to generation.
It is easy to see how boys brought up in an atmosphere like this, rich in traditions of the long-past in which the early settlement of the country figured, should become imbued with the same spirit of adventure that had brought their fathers from the older States to this new region of the West. Boys played at Indian warfare over the very ground on which they had learned to believe the Sacs and Foxes had skirmished years and years before. They loved to hear of Black Hawk and his brother, the Prophet, as he was called; and I cannot tell you with what reverence they regarded Father Dixon, the white-haired old man who had actually talked and traded with the famous Indians, and whose name had been given him as a title of respect by the great Black Hawk himself.
Among the boys who drank in this sort of lore were Charlie and Alexander Howell and their cousin Oscar Bryant. Charlie, when he had arrived 4at his eighteenth birthday, esteemed himself a man, ready to put away childish things; and yet, in his heart, he dearly loved the traditions of the Indian occupation of the country, and wished that he had been born earlier, so that he might have had a share in the settlement of the Rock River region, its reclamation from the wilderness, and the chase of the wild Indian. As for Alexander, commonly known as “Sandy,” he had worn out a thick volume of Cooper’s novels before he was fifteen years old, at which interesting point in his career I propose to introduce him to you. Oscar was almost exactly as many years and days old as his cousin. But two boys more unlike in appearance could not be found anywhere in a long summer day. Sandy was short, stubbed, and stocky in build. His face was florid and freckled, and his hair and complexion, like his name, were sandy. Oscar was tall, slim, wiry, with a long, oval face, black hair, and so lithe in his motions that he was invariably cast for the part of the leading Indian in all games that required an aboriginal character.
Mr. Howell carried on a transportation business, until the railroads came into the country and his occupation was gone. Then he began to consider seriously the notion of going further west with his boys to get for them the same chances of early forestalling the settlement of the country that he had had in Illinois. In the West, at least in those 5days, nearly everybody was continually looking for a yet further West to which they might emigrate. Charlie Howell was now a big and willing, good-natured boy; he ought to be striking out for himself and getting ready to earn his own living. At least, so his father thought.
Mr. Bryant was engaged in a profitable business, and he had no idea of going out into another West for himself or his boy. Oscar was likely to be a scholar, a lawyer, or a minister, perhaps. Even at the age of fifteen, he had written “a piece” which the editor of the Dixon Telegraph had thought worthy of the immortality of print in his columns.
But about this time, the Northern States were deeply stirred by the struggle in the new Territory of Kansas to decide whether freedom or slavery should be established therein. This was in 1854 and thereabout. The Territory had been left open and unoccupied for a long time. Now settlers were pouring into it from adjacent States, and the question whether freedom should be the rule, or whether slave-holding was to be tolerated, became a very important one. Missouri and Arkansas, being the States nearest to Kansas, and holding slavery to be a necessity, furnished the largest number of emigrants who went to vote in favor of bringing slavery into the new Territory; but others of the same way of thinking came from more distant States, even as far off as South Carolina, 6all bent on voting for slavery in the laws that were to be made. For the most part, these people from the slave States did not go prepared to make their homes in Kansas or Nebraska; for some went to the adjoining Territory of Nebraska, which was also ready to have slavery voted up or down. The newcomers intended to stay just long enough to vote and then return to their own homes.
The people of the free States of the North heard of all this with much indignation. They had always supposed that the new Territories were to be free from slavery. They saw that if slavery should be allowed there, by and by, when the two Territories would become States, they would be slave States, and then there would be more slave States than free States in the Union. So they held meetings, made speeches, and passed resolutions, denouncing this sort of immigration as wrong and wicked. Then immigrants from Iowa, Illinois, and other Northern States, even as far off as Massachusetts, sold their homes and household goods and started for the Promised Land, as many of them thought it to be. For the men in Kansas who were opposed to slavery wrote and sent far and wide papers and pamphlets, setting forth in glowing colors the advantages of the new and beautiful country beyond the Missouri River, open to the industry and enterprise of everybody. Soon the roads and highways of Iowa were dotted with white-topped wagons of immigrants journeying to 7Kansas, and long lines of caravans, with families and with small knots of men, stretched their way across the country nearest to the Territory.
Some of these passed through Dixon, and the boys gazed with wonder at the queer inscriptions that were painted on the canvas covers of the wagons; they longed to go with the immigrants, and taste the sweets of a land which was represented to be full of wild flowers, game in great abundance, and fine streams, and well-wooded hills not far away from the water. They had heard their elders talk of the beauties of Kansas, and of the great outrage that was to be committed on that fair land by carrying slavery into it; and although they did not know much about the politics of the case, they had a vague notion that they would like to have a hand in the exciting business that was going on in Kansas.
Both parties to this contest thought they were right. Men who had been brought up in the slave States believed that slavery was a good thing––good for the country, good for the slave-owner, and even good for the slave. They could not understand how anybody should think differently from them. But, on the other hand, those who had never owned slaves, and who had been born and brought up in the free States, could not be brought to look upon slavery as anything but a very wicked thing. For their part, they were willing (at least, some of them were) to fight rather 8than consent that the right of one man to own another man should be recognized in the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Some of these started at once for the debatable land; others helped their neighbors to go, and many others stayed at home and talked about it.
Mrs. Bryant, Oscar’s mother, said: “Dear me, I am tired and sick of hearing about ‘bleeding Kansas.’ I do wish, husband, you would find something else to talk about before Oscar. You have got him so worked up that I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he were to start off with some of those tired-looking immigrants that go traipsing through the town day by day.” Mrs. Bryant was growing anxious, now that her husband was so much excited about the Kansas-Nebraska struggle, as it was called, he could think of nothing else.
Categories: English Literature