DEPARTURE FROM FORT WINNEBAGO.
HAVING taken a tender leave of our friends, the morning of the 8th of March saw us mounted and equipped for our journey. The weather was fine -- the streams, already fringed with green, were sparkling in the sun -- everything gave promise of an early and genial season. In vain, when we reached the ferry at the foot of the hill on which the fort stood, did Major Twiggs repeat his endeavors to dissuade us from commencing a journey which he assured me would be perilous beyond what I could anticipate. I was resolute.
Our party was augmented by an escort of all the young officers, who politely insisted on accompanying us as far as Duck Creek, four miles distant. Indeed, there were some who would gladly have prosecuted the whole journey with us, and escaped the monotony of their solitary, uneventful life. In our rear followed an ox-cart, on which was perched a canoe, destined to transport us over the creek, and also an extensive marsh beyond it, which was invariably, at this season, overflowed with water to a considerable depth. We had much amusement in watching the progress of this vehicle as it bumped and thumped over the road, unconscious hitherto of the dignity of a wheeled carriage.
Our little shock-headed, sun-burnt, thick-lipped Canadian (who happened most miraculously to be the husband of my pretty servant, Mrs. Pillon), shouted vociferously as the animals lagged in their pace, or jolted against a stump, "Marches, don-g," "regardez," "prenez-garde," to our infinite diversion. I was in high spirits, foreseeing no hardships or dangers, but rather imagining myself embarked on a pleasure excursion across the prairies. It had not even suggested itself to me that a straw bonnet and kid gloves were no suitable equipment for such an expedition. Never having travelled at so inclement a season, I was heedlessly ignorant of the mode of preparing against it, and had resisted or laughed at my husband's suggestions to provide myself with blanket socks, and a woollen capuchon for my head and shoulders. And now, although the wind occasionally lifted my headgear with a rude puff, and my hands ere long became swollen and stiffened with the cold, I persuaded myself that these were trifling evils, to which I should soon get accustomed. I was too well pleased with the novelty of my outfit, with my hunting-knife in a gay scabbard hanging from my neck, and my tin cup at my saddle-bow, to regard minor inconveniences.
On reaching Duck Creek, we took leave of our young friends, who remained on the bank long enough to witness our passage across -- ourselves in the canoe, and the poor horses swimming the stream, now filled with cakes of floating ice.
Beyond the rising ground which formed the opposite bank of the stream, extended a marsh of perhaps three hundred yards across. To this the men carried the canoe which was to bear us over. The water was not deep, so our attendants merely took off the pack from Brunêt and my side-saddle from Le Gris, for fear of accidents, and then mounted their own steeds, leading the two extra ones. My husband placed the furniture of the pack-horse and my saddle in the centre of the canoe, which he was to paddle across.
"Now, wifie," said he, "jump in, and seat yourself flat in the bottom of the canoe."
"Oh, no," said I; "I will sit on the little trunk in the centre; I shall be so much more comfortable, and I can balance the canoe exactly."
"As you please, but I think you will find it is not the best way."
A vigorous push sent us a few feet from the bank. At that instant two favorite greyhounds whom we had brought with us, and who had stood whining upon the bank, reluctant to take to the water as they were ordered, gave a sudden bound, and alighted full upon me. The canoe balanced a moment -- then yielded -- and, quick as thought, dogs, furniture, and lady were in the deepest of the water.
My husband, who was just preparing to spring into the canoe when the dogs thus unceremoniously took precedence of him, was at my side in a moment, and seizing me by the collar of my cloak, begged me not to be frightened. I was not, in the least, and only laughed as he raised and placed me again upon the bank.
The unfortunate saddle and little trunk were then rescued, but not until they had received a pretty thorough wetting. Our merriment was still further increased by the sight of the maladroit Pillon, who was attempting to ride my spirited Jerry across the marsh. He was clinging to the neck of the animal, with a countenance distorted with terror, as he shouted forth all manner of French objurgations. Jerry pranced and curvetted, and finally shot forward his rider, or rather his burden, headforemost, a distance of several feet into the water.
A general outcry of mirth saluted the unfortunate Frenchman, which was redoubled as he raised himself puffing and snorting from his watery bed, and waddled back to his starting-place, the horse, meanwhile, very sensibly making his way to join his companions, who had already reached the further bank.
"Well, wifie," said Mr. Kinzie, "I cannot trust you in the canoe again. There is no way but to carry you across the marsh like a pappoose. Will you take a ride on my shoulders?"
"With all my heart, if you will promise to take me safely" -- and I was soon mounted.
I must confess that the gentleman staggered now and then under his burden, which was no slight one, and I was sadly afraid, more than once, that I should meet a similar fate to old Pillon, but happily we reached the other side in safety.
There my husband insisted on my putting on dry shoes and stockings, and (must I confess it) drinking a little brandy, to obviate the effects of my icy bath. He would fain have made a halt to kindle a fire and dry my apparel and wardrobe properly, but this I would not listen to. I endeavored to prove to him that the delay would expose me to more cold than riding in my wet habit and cloak, and so indeed it might have been, but along with my convictions upon the subject there was mingled a spice of reluctance that our friends at the fort should have an opportunity, as they certainly would have done, of laughing at our inauspicious commencement.
Soon our horses were put in order, and our march recommenced. The day was fine for the season. I felt no inconvenience from my wet garments, the exercise of riding taking away all feeling of chilliness. It was to me a new mode of travelling, and I enjoyed it the more from having been secluded for more than five months within the walls of the fort, scarcely varying the tenor of our lives by an occasional walk of half a mile into the surrounding woods.
We had still another detention upon the road, from meeting Lapierre, the blacksmith, from Sugar Creek, who with one of his associates was going into the Portage for supplies, so that we had not travelled more than twenty-three miles when we came to our proposed encamping ground. It was upon a beautiful stream, a tributary of one of the Four Lakes, * that chain whose banks are unrivalled for romantic loveliness.
I could not but admire the sagacity of the horses, who seemed, with human intelligence, to divine our approach to the spot where their toils were to cease. While still remote from the "point of woods" which foretold a halt, they pricked up their ears, accelerated their pace, and finally arrived at the spot on a full gallop.
We alighted at an open space, just within the verge of the wood, or, as it is called by western travellers, "the timber." My husband recommended to me to walk about until a fire should be made, which was soon accomplished by our active and experienced woodsmen, to whom the felling of a large tree was the work of a very few minutes. The dry grass around furnished an excellent tinder, which soon ignited by the sparks from the flint (there were no loco-focos in those days), and aided by the broken branches and bits of light-wood, soon produced a cheering flame. "The bourgeois," in the meantime, busied himself in setting up the tent, taking care to place it opposite the fire, but in such a direction that the wind would carry the smoke and flame away from the opening or door. Within upon the ground were spread, first a bearskin then two or three blankets (of which each equestrian had carried two, one under the saddle and one above it), after which, the remainder of the luggage being brought in, I was able to divest myself of all my wet clothing and replace it with dry. Some idea of the state of the thermometer may be formed from the fact that my riding-habit, being placed over the end of the huge log against which our fire was made, was, in a very few minutes, frozen so stiff as to stand upright, giving the appearance of a dress out of which a lady had vanished in some unaccountable manner.
It would be but a repetition of our experience upon the Fox River to describe the ham broiled upon the "broches," the toasted bread, the steaming coffee -- the primitive table furniture. There is, however, this difference, that of the latter we carry with us in our journeys on horseback only a coffeepot, a teakettle, and each rider his tin cup and hunting-knife. The deportment at table is marked by an absence of ceremony. The knife is drawn from the scabbard -- those who remember to do so, vouchsafe it a wipe upon the napkin. Its first office is to stir the cup of coffee -- next, to divide the piece of ham which is placed on the half of a travelling biscuit, which is held in the left hand, and fulfils the office of a plate. It is an art only to be acquired by long practice, to cut the meat so skilfully as not at the same to destroy the dish.
We take our places around the mat to enjoy what, after our fatiguing ride, we find delicious food. The Frenchmen are seated at a little distance, receiving their supplies of coffee, meat, and bread, and occasionally passing jokes with "the bourgeois," who is their demigod, and for whom their respect and devotion are never lessened by any affability or condescension.
The meal being finished, the table furniture is rinsed in hot water and set aside until morning. A wisp of dry prairie-grass is supposed, in most cases, to render the knife fit to be restored to the scabbard, and there being, at this season of the year, no amusement but that of watching the awkward movements of the spancelled horses, in their progress from spot to spot in search of pasturage, we are usually soon disposed to arrange our blankets and retire to rest.
At break of day we are aroused by the shout of "the bourgeois,"
"How! how! how!"
All start from their slumbers. The fire which has been occasionally replenished through the night, is soon kindled into a flame. The horses are caught and saddled, while a breakfast, similar in kind to the meal of the preceding evening is preparing -- the tent is struck -- the pack-horse loaded -- "tour démanché," as the Canadian says. The breakfast finished, we rinse our kettles and cups, tie them to our saddle hows, and then mount and away, leaving our fire, or rather our smoke, to tell of our visit.
March 9th. Our journey this day led us past the first of the Four Lakes. Scattered along its banks was an encampment of Winnebagocs. They greeted their "father" with vociferous joy -- "Bon-jour, bon-jour, Shaw-nee-aw-kee." "Hee-nee-karray-kay-noo?" (how do you do?) To this succeeded the usual announcement, "Wys-kap-rah tshoonsh-koo-nee-no!" (I have no bread.)
This is their form of begging, but we could not afford to be generous, for the uncertainty of obtaining a supply, should our own be exhausted, obliged us to observe the strictest economy.
How beautiful the encampment looked in the morning sun! The matted lodges, with the blue smoke curling from their tops -- the trees and bushes powdered with a light snow which had fallen through the night -- the lake, shining and sparkling, almost at our feet -- even the Indians, in their peculiar costume, adding to the picturesque!
I was sorry to leave it, as we were compelled to do, in all haste, Souris, the pack-horse, having taken it into his head to decamp while we were in conversation with our red friends. As he had, very sensibly, concluded to pursue his journey in the right direction, we had the good fortune to overtake him after a short race, and having received much scolding and some blows from young Roy, whose charge he specially was, he was placed in the middle of the cavalcade, as a mark of disgrace for his breach of duty.
Our road, after leaving the lake, lay over a "rolling prairie," now bare and desolate enough. The hollows were filled with snow, which, being partly thawed, furnished an uncertain footing for the horses, and I could not but join in the ringing laughter of our Frenchmen, as occasionally Brunêt and Souris, the two ponies, would flounder, almost imbedded, through the yielding mass. Even the vain-glorious Plante, who piqued himself on his equestrian skill, was once or twice nearly unhorsed, from having chosen his road badly. Sometimes the elevations were covered with a thicket or copse, in which our dogs would generally rouse up one or more deer. Their first bound, or "lope," was the signal for a chase. The horses seemed to enter into the spirit of it, as "halloo" answered "halloo;" but we were never so fortunate as to get a shot at one, for although the dogs once or twice caught, they were not strong enough to hold them. It was about the middle of the afternoon when we reached the "Blue Mound." I rejoiced much to have got so far, for I was sadly fatigued, and every mile now seemed two to me. In fact, the miles are unconscionably long in this country. When I was told that we had still seven miles to go, to "Morrison's," where we proposed stopping for the night, I was almost in despair. It was my first journey on horseback, and I had not yet become inured to the exercise.
When we reached Morrison's I was so much exhausted that, as my husband attempted to lift me from the saddle, I fell into his arms.
"This will never do," said he. "To-morrow we must turn our faces towards Fort Winnebago again."
The door opened hospitably to receive us. We were welcomed by a lady with a most sweet, benignant countenance, and by her companion, some years younger. The first was Mrs. Morrison -- the other, Miss Elizabeth Dodge, daughter of General Dodge.
My husband laid me upon a small bed, in the room where the ladies had been sitting at work. They took off my bonnet and riding-dress, chafed my hands, and prepared me some warm wine and water, by which I was soon revived. A half hour's repose so refreshed me that I was able to converse with the ladies, and to relieve my husband's mind of all anxiety on my account. Tea was announced soon after, and we repaired to an adjoining building, for Morrison's, like the establishment of all settlers of that period, consisted of a group of detached log-houses or cabins, each containing one or at most two apartments.
The table groaned with good cheer, and brought to mind some that I had seen among the old-fashioned Dutch residents on the banks of the Hudson.
I had recovered my spirits, and we were quite a cheerful party. Mrs. Morrison told us that during the first eighteen months she passed in this country she did not speak with a white woman, the only society she had being that of her husband and two black servant-women.
A Tennessee woman had called in with her little son just before tea, and we amused Mr. Kinzie with a description of the pair. The mother's visit was simply one of courtesy. She was a little dumpy woman, with a complexion burned perfectly red by the sun -- hair of an exact tow-color, braided up from her forehead in front and from her neck behind, then meeting on the top of her head, was fastened with a small tin comb. Her dress was of checkered homespun, a "very tight fit," and as she wore no ruff or handkerchief around her neck, she looked as if just prepared for execution. She was evidently awe-struck at the sight of visitors, and seemed inclined to take her departure at once; but the boy, not so easily intimidated, would not understand her signs and pinches until he had sidled up to Mrs. Morrison, and drawing his old hat still farther over his eyes, begged for a whang, meaning a narrow strip of deer-skin. The lady very obligingly cut one from a large smoked skin, which she produced from its receptacle, and mother and son took their leave, with a smiling but rather a scared look.
After tea we returned to Mrs. Morrison's parlor, where she kindly insisted on my again reposing myself on the little bed, to recruit me, as she said, for the ensuing day's journey. My husband, in the meantime, went to look after the accommodation of his men and horses.
During the conversation that ensued, I learned that Mrs. Morrison had passed much time in the neighborhood of my recent home in Oneida county -- that many of the friends I had loved and valued were likewise her friends, and that she had even proposed to visit me at Fort Winnebago on hearing of my arrival there, in order to commence an acquaintance which had thus been brought about by other and unexpected means.
Long and pleasant was the discourse we held together until a late hour, and mutual was the satisfaction with which we passed old friends and by-gone events in review, much to the edification of Miss Dodge, and of the gentlemen when they once more joined us.
* Between two of these lakes is now situated the town of Madison -- the capital of the State of Wisconsin.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 129-141.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.