Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

Subduers of the Wilderness

I. The Pioneers

How very slowly everything moved in those days! From the time the first settlement was made at Marietta, more than half a century elapsed before the wilderness was entirely subdued and the whole land had become a land of homes.

Pioneers in Wagontrains


There were no railroads, no telegraphs, no means of rapid travel. Post offices were few and far between; the mails were carried on horseback or in slow-going boats; the rates of postage were very high. A newspaper was rarely seen. It required a month for news to pass from Indiana to the Atlantic states. To the people living in Massachusetts, or Virginia, or the Carolinas, the "Ohio Country," as it was still called, was a far-distant region—farther than the Philippine Islands seem to us now, and much more difficult to reach. All that they knew about the great Northwest they had learned from hearsay, or from letters written by friends or neighbors who had gone there in the hope of bettering their fortunes. Sometimes, but very rarely, a traveler would return from "the Ohio "or "the Indiana," bringing wonderful accounts of that region. He became the admired hero of a dozen neighborhoods; men would ride miles to see and talk with him; and his stories with many additions and variations would be carried from mouth to mouth and repeated in a hundred humble homes. Thereupon the "western fever "would begin to rage, and first one household and then another would be seized with an intense desire to emigrate to the new settlements. But thousands who would have been glad to go were kept back on account of the difficulties and dangers that lay in the way.

Emigrants from New England and New York found that the easiest way of reaching the Northwest was by going up the Mohawk valley and along the shores of the lakes; and, therefore, all the northern portions of Ohio and Indiana, and much the greater part of Michigan, were settled by pioneers from the Eastern and Middle states. These people were not wealthy; not all were blessed with even the common necessaries of life. But they had come from a land of schools, and they brought into the wilderness a sincere love of knowledge and a little of that air of refinement which they had been accustomed to in their earlier homes. They came expecting to meet with many hardships, and yet resolved to subdue the wilderness and lay the foundations of prosperity for those who should follow them. They were not the sort of people that fail.

Emigrants from the South—from Kentucky and Virginia and the Carolinas—found plenty of vacant land in the rolling country adjoining the river, and in the densely wooded plains of southern Ohio and Indiana. Some of them ventured as far as to the prairie lands of Illinois; but instead of opening farms where the ground was cleared and ready for cultivation, they made their homes in the woodlands, where they cleared little patches of ground and were content with raising enough corn and fruit to keep their families from starving.

Nearly all of these Southern pioneers were very, very poor. They had come from a land where slavery had made labor disgraceful. They had been attracted to the Northwest because of the cheapness of the land and the abundance of game. The men would rather hunt in the wild woods than cut down trees and make themselves farms and comfortable homes. They were ready to subdue the wilderness, but with guns instead of axes. They were satisfied with the barest comforts were indolent, easy-going, and much given to putting things off till to-morrow. They were uncouth in dress, rough in manners, and inclined to be boastful. And yet they were honest in their dealings, kind-hearted, and generous. The latchstrings of their cabins were always out for the entertainment of neighbors and strangers alike. They were for the most part uneducated. Many could neither read nor write; and they distrusted book learning as something that made its possessor unfit for the duties of life. They needed only to be awakened and brought into contact with the currents of modern enterprise. The time was coming when they, too; would have a hand in the building of commonwealths and the founding of worthy institutions.

But not all of those who came from the South were of this class of unenterprising squatters. Many men of intelligence and high respectability left their old homes in Carolina, or Virginia, or Kentucky, and made trial of new fortunes in various parts of the Northwest. Some came to assist in founding religious communities where all their neighbors would be of the same faith. Some came because their consciences were opposed to slavery, and they could not bear the thought of bringing up their children in the midst of it. Many came because no other place offered so many advantages to poor men who wished to make homes for their families.

Nor, on the other hand, were all those who came from the East men of enterprise and moral uprightness. Some were vagabonds hiding from justice. Some were speculators and schemers, intent upon making quick and easy fortunes whether by chance or fraud. Some were as indolent, as rude, as uncouth, as the most shiftless pioneers from the pine barrens of the South.

How very diverse, then, in character and manners, in enterprise and expectations, were the pioneers who subdued the wilderness of the Old Northwest! But when all had united in one common cause, when the weak were uplifted by the strong, when the bad were improved by contact with the good, when intelligence triumphed over ignorance what a race of giants were they!

II. A True Hero

John Stirling was a typical pioneer of the class who may be called the Makers of the Northwest. He was one of those who came from the South for conscience' sake: he could not bear to see human beings in bondage; he wanted to bring up his children in a land dedicated to freedom. He could trace his ancestry for four centuries through a long line of English gentry, and every one of his forefathers had been a champion of liberty. The story of his life in the Northwest is but the story of a thousand others as brave, as self-sacrificing, as ingenious, as industrious as he.

In a single small wagon drawn by two horses, John Stirling brought his family and his household goods across the mountains by way of Cumberland Gap and through the half-settled districts of Kentucky. He crossed the Ohio near the mouth of the Great Miami, and then made his way northwestwardly into the almost unbroken wilderness, looking for a suitable place to make his home. The roads for hundreds of miles were little better than wood paths; over a part of the course he was obliged to cut his own way among fallen trees and through thick under-woods. The journey from beginning to end occupied nearly six weeks, and yet John Stirling and his family were thankful that it had been so short.

Having selected the spot for his farm, the pioneer's next care was to become its possessor. He bought it from the government at a dollar and a quarter an acre, and when this was paid he had scarcely a cent left. But of what use would money be in a place where there was nothing to buy?

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


With the help of his two boys he felled trees and cleared a small space for the homestead. He cut the logs into proper lengths and with them built the walls of a rude cabin. He hewed rough puncheons for the floor, rived long boards for the roof, made a great fireplace of flat stones, built a chimney of sticks and clay, and within five days had finished a habitation that was to be the shelter and home of the family for twice that many years. Not a nail nor a brick was used in the construction of that house, nails and bricks were luxuries which the onward march of civilization would by and by bring into that region, but the time for such luxuries was not yet.

For weeks, during that first spring in the forest, the doorway of the cabin was closed simply by hanging a bed-quilt loosely from the top, like a kind of curtain. The wolves howled around the cabin at night; the pioneer was not disturbed by such sounds the hunger wolf was more to be dreaded than the gray beast that skulked in the thickets. Until his first small crop of corn had ripened, he was by no means sure of food for the winter. He carried his grain fifteen miles to mill and waited for it to be ground in order not to disappoint the expectant family, hungry for bread and eagerly waiting for the grist of meal.

The first twelve months were months of sore trial; but the end of the year found John Stirling firmly established in his new home, and beyond the reach of want. Even in the very darkest moments, he saw in imagination the wilderness giving place to fields of yellow grain and orchards of over-laden trees; and these thoughts gave him fresh courage and strength for further conquests.

Little by little the great trees and the thick under-woods gave way before the three sharp axes of the Stirlings. Every year new deadenings were made in the woods, and broader patches of corn and wheat and flax were planted in the openings. Herds and flocks increased and flourished in the woodland pastures, without expense and without special care. And sooner than he had dared hope, the pioneer began to see the realization of his dreams.

The comforts of civilized life, however, were long wanting. For several years all the clothing of the family was homespun: tow-cloth and linen from flax raised on the farm; jeans and linsey-woolsey, of flax threads interwoven with wool from the farmer's own sheep. Nobody was idle. Wife and daughters were busy from daylight till dark, caring for the cows and the poultry, digging in the garden, carding the wool, turning the spinning wheel, mending garments, knitting, sewing, churning; and, if need be, they were neither afraid nor ashamed to do a day's work in the field—it was all a part of the family economy.

The farmer himself was a jack-at-all-trades, and good at more than one. He manufactured his own chairs and tables; he tanned the hides of his beeves into fairly good leather; he made his children's shoes and hats; he wove jeans and tow-cloth for his own clothing and that of the boys; he knew something about coopering and harness making; he could make a spinning wheel or a turning lathe; he repaired the clocks as well as the wagons of his less skillful neighbors, and even built barns and houses for them; and in the long winter evenings, by the light of the fire in the broad chimney, he tied brooms, and taught his boys and girls how to read and write.

When, in time, the farm produced more grain than the family and the livestock needed for food, Mr. Stirling began to think how he might dispose of the surplus. During the first few years the nearest market was on the Ohio, more than fifty miles distant; but that was only a trifle of three days' journey, and the entire trip, going and coming, could be made in a week. Over roads of the worst sort, a few bushels of wheat, and perhaps some vegetables or a pail of butter, were hauled to that distant market. It was rather a holiday than anything more serious; for the farmers of the neighborhood usually went together in caravan style, camping by the roadside at night, and withal making a right merry time of it. The produce was bartered for salt and such other necessary things as could not be made at home. Now and then a few yards of calico or some ribbons or some bits of queensware were carried home to rejoice the good wife and the grown-up daughters. There was no hardship in all this. The long journey once or twice a year relieved the monotony of pioneer life—the markets would certainly be nearer some time.

And little by little the markets did come nearer; and there were not only larger crops, but the price of grain was higher, and the farmer began to know, by actually seeing it, the color and shape of money. One comfort after another came to lighten the labors of the household. The buzz of the steam sawmill, and after a while the whistle of the locomotive, became familiar sounds. The boys and girls gradually laid aside their homespun and put on, especially on Sundays, clothing made of "boughten goods "; and the farmer himself indulged now and then in some inexpensive luxury which he had hitherto denied himself. One after another he put aside his weaving and tanning and shoemaking and carpentering; and finally he had nothing to do but give his whole attention to his farm and stock. A neat "frame house "was built nearer the roadside, and the old log cabin, the scene of many joys as well as sorrows, was deserted. Comfort and plenty abounded. The blessings of civilization, following in the wake of honest labor, had come at last.

But after his life of privation and toil, John Stirling was not the man that he might have been had another lot been his. His health had been enfeebled by exposure in the woods and fever-breeding marshes; his face had been bronzed by the scorching heat of many summers, and wrinkled by the cold of as many winters; his head had been whitened by sad experiences, and his hand had lost its former strength and cunning. Besides all this, the habits of the backwoodsman clung to him; he was a stranger to the refinements of life; his language was as full of inaccuracies as his manners were uncouth; he could ill adapt himself to the changed order of things which the schools, the railroads, and the development of the natural wealth of the country had brought about.

Yet as a compensation for all his labors and losses, the rugged pioneer of the Old Northwest had this thought to console him: he was one of ten thousand veterans who had made conquest of a mighty empire, developed its resources, and bequeathed it as a rich heritage to coming generations. He was one of the subduers of the wilderness. No hero of history, no warrior patriot, ever served his country better, or earned laurels more nobly. The world may forget what he suffered and what he accomplished, but his monument shall remain as long as our country endures. What is his monument? It is the Old Northwest itself, now the center of the republic, and the crowning factor of our country's greatness.