ROCK RIVER -- HOURS OF TROUBLE.
IT was late on the following day (March 18th), when we took leave of our hostess. She loaded us with cakes, good wishes, and messages to her sister Dixon and the children. We journeyed pleasantly along through a country, beautiful, in spite of its wintry appearance.
There was a house at "Buffalo Grove," at which we stopped for half an hour, and where a nice-looking young girl presented us with some maple-sugar of her own making. She entertained us with the history of a contest between two rival claimants for the patronage of the stage wagon, the proprietors of which had not decided whether to send it by Buffalo Grove or by another route, which she pointed out to us, at no great distance. The driver, she took care to inform us, was in favor of the former; and the blush with which she replied in the affirmative to our inquiry, "Was he a young man?" explained the whole matter satisfactorily.
At length, just at sunset, we reached the dark, rapid waters of the Rock River. The "ferry" which we had travelled so far out of our way to take advantage of, proved to be merely a small boat or skiff the larger one having been swept off into the stream, and carried down in the breaking up of the ice, the week previous.
My husband's first care was to get me across. He placed me with the saddles, packs, &c., in the boat, and as, at that late hour, no time was to be lost, he ventured, at the same time, to hold the bridles of the two most docile horses, to guide them in swimming the river.
When we had proceeded a few rods from the shore, we were startled by a loud puffing and blowing near us, and looking around, to our great surprise, discovered little Brunêt just upon our "weather-bow." Determined not to be outdone by his model, Jerry, he had taken to the water on his own responsibility, and arrived at the opposite shore as soon as any of the party.
All being safely landed, a short walk brought us to the house of Mr. Dixon. Although so recently come into the country, he had contrived to make everything comfortable around him, and when he ushered us into Mrs. Dixon's sitting-room, and seated us by a glowing wood fire, while Mrs. Dixon busied herself in preparing us a nice supper, I felt that the comfort overbalanced the inconvenience of such a journey.
Mrs. Dixon was surrounded by several children. One leaning against the chimney-piece was dressed in the full Indian costume -- calico shirt, blanket, and leggings. His dark complexion, and full, melancholy eyes, which he kept fixed upon the ashes in which he was making marks with a stick, rarely raising them to gaze on us, as children are wont to do, interested me exceedingly, and I inquired of an intelligent little girl, evidently a daughter of our host:
"Who is that boy?"
"Oh! that is John Ogie," answered she.
"What is the matter with him? he looks very sad."
"Oh! he is fretting after his mother."
"Is she dead then?"
"Some say she is dead, and some say she is gone away. I guess she is dead, and buried up in one of those graves yonder" -- pointing to two or three little picketed inclosures upon a rising ground opposite the window.
I felt a strong sympathy with the child, which was increased when the little spokeswoman, in answer to my inquiry, "Has he no father," replied --
"Oh, yes, but he goes away, and drinks, and don't care for his children."
"And what becomes of John, then?"
"He stays here with us, and we teach him to read, and he learns dreadful fast."
When the boy at length turned his large dark eyes upon me, it went to my heart. It was such a motherless look. And it was explained, when long afterward, I learned his further history. His mother was still living, and he knew it, although with the reserve peculiar to his people, he never spoke of her to his young companions. Unable to endure the continued ill-treatment of her husband, a surly, intemperate Canadian, she had left him, and returned to his family among the Pottowattamies. Years after, this boy and a brother who had also been left behind with their father found their way to the Upper Missouri, to join their mother, who, with the others of her tribe, had been removed by the Government from the shores of Lake Michigan.
A most savoury supper of ducks and venison, with their accompaniments, soon smoked upon the board, and we did ample justice to it. Travelling is a great sharpener of the appetite, and so is cheerfulness, and the latter was increased by the encouraging account Mr. Dixon gave us of the remainder of the route yet before us.
"There is no difficulty," said he, "if you keep a little to the north, and strike the great Sauk trail. If you get too far to the south, you will come upon the Winnebago Swamp, and once in that, there is no telling when you will ever get out again. As for the distance, it is nothing at all to speak of. Two young men came out here from Chicago, on foot, last fall. They got here the evening of the second day; and even with a lady in your party, you could go on horse. back in less time than that. The only thing is to be sure and get on the great track that the Sauks have made, in going every year from the Mississippi to Canada, to receive their presents from the British Indian Agent."
The following morning, which was a bright and lovely one for that season of the year, we took leave of Mr. and Mrs. Dixon, in high spirits. We travelled for the first few miles along the beautiful, undulating banks of the Rock River, always in an easterly direction, keeping the beaten path, or rather road, which led to Fort Clark, or Peoria. The Sauk trail, we had been told, would cross this road, at the distance of about six miles.
After having travelled, as we judged, fully that distance, we came upon a trail, bearing north-east, and a consultation was held as to the probability of its being the one we were in search of.
Mr. Kinzie was of opinion that it tended too much to the north, and was, moreover, too faint and obscure for a trail so much used, and by so large a body of Indians in their annual journeys.
Plante was positive as to its being the very spot where he and "Piché" in their journey to Fort Winnebago, the year before, struck into the great road. "On that very rising-ground at the point of woods, he remembered perfectly stopping to shoot ducks, which they ate for their supper."
Mr. Kellogg was non-committal, but sided alternately with each speaker.
As Plante was "the guide," and withal so confident of being right, it was decided to follow him, not without some demurring, however, on the part of the "bourgeois," who every now and then called a halt, to discuss the state of affairs.
"Now Plante," he would say, "I am sure you are leading us too far north. Why, man, if we keep on in this direction, following the course of the river, we shall bring up at Kosh-ko-nong, instead of Chicago."
"Ah! mon bourgeois," would the light-hearted Canadian reply, "would I tell you this is the road if I were not quite certain? Only one year ago I travelled it, and can I forget so soon? Oh! no -- I remember every foot of it."
But Monsieur Plante was convinced of his mistake when the trail brought us to the great bend of the river with its bold rocky bluffs.
"Are you satisfied, now, Plante?" asked Mr. Kinzie. "By your leave, I will now play pilot myself" and he struck off from the trail, in a direction as nearly east as possible.
The weather had changed and become intensely cold, and we felt that the detention we had met with, even should we now be in the right road, was no trifling matter. We had not added to our stock of provisions at Dixon's, wishing to carry as much forage as we were able for our horses, for whom the scanty picking around our encamping grounds afforded an insufficient meal. But we were buoyed up by the hope that we were in the right path at last, and we journeyed on until night, when we reached a comfortable "encampment," in the edge of a grove near a small stream.
Oh! how bitterly cold that night was! The salted provisions, to which I was unaccustomed, occasioned me an intolerable thirst, and my husband was in the habit of placing the little tin coffee-pot filled with water at my bed's head when we went to rest, but this night it was frozen solid long before midnight. We were so well wrapped up in blankets that we did not suffer from cold while within the tent, but the open air was severe in the extreme.
March 15th. We were roused by the "bourgeois" at peep of day to make preparations for starting. We must find the Sauk trail this day at all hazards. What would become of us should we fail to do so? It was a question no one liked to ask, and certainly one that none could have answered.
On leaving our encampment, we found ourselves entering a marshy tract of country. Myriads of wild geese, brant, and ducks rose up screaming at our approach. The more distant lakes and ponds were black with them, but the shallow water through which we attempted to make our way was frozen by the severity of the night, to a thickness not sufficient to bear the horses, but just such as to cut their feet and ankles at every step as they broke through it. Sometimes the difficulty of going forward was so great that we were obliged to retrace our steps and make our way round the head of the marsh, thus adding to the discomforts of our situation by the conviction, that while journeying diligently, we were, in fact, making very little progress.
This swampy region at length passed, we came upon more solid ground, chiefly the open prairie. But now a new trouble assailed us. The weather had moderated, and a blinding snow storm came on. Without a trail that we could rely upon, and destitute of a compass, our only dependence had been the sun to point out our direction, but the atmosphere was now so obscure that it was impossible to tell in what quarter of the heavens he was.
We pursued our way, however, and a devious one it must have been. After travelling in this way many miles, we came upon an Indian trail, deeply indented, running at right angles with the course we were pursuing. The snow had ceased, and the clouds becoming thinner, we were able to observe the direction of the sun, and to perceive that the trail ran north and south. What should we do? Was it safest to pursue our easterly course, or was it probable that by following this new path we should fall into the direct one we had been so long seeking? If we decided to take the trail, should we go north or south? Mr. Kinzie was for the latter. He was of opinion we were still too far north -- somewhere about the Grand Marais, or Kish-wau-kee. Mr. Kellogg and Plante were for taking the northerly direction. The latter was positive his bourgeois had already gone too far south -- in fact, that we must now be in the neighborhood of the Illinois river. Finding himself in the minority, my husband yielded, and we turned our horses' heads north, much against his will. After proceeding a few miles, however, he took a sudden determination. "You may go north, if you please," said he, "but I am convinced that the other course is right, and I shall face about -- follow who will."
So we wheeled round and rode south again, and many a long and weary mile did we travel, the monotony of our ride broken only by the querulous remarks of poor Mr. Kellogg. "I am really afraid we are wrong, Mr. Kinzie. I feel pretty sure that the young man is right. It looks most natural to me that we should take a northerly course, and not be stretching away so far to the south."
To all this, Mr. Kinzie turned a deaf ear. The Frenchmen rode on in silence. They would as soon have thought of cutting off their right hand as showing opposition to the bourgeois when he had once expressed his decision. They would never have dreamed of offering an opinion or remark unless called upon to do so.
The road, which had continued many miles through the prairie, at length, in winding round a point of woods, brought us suddenly upon an Indian village. A shout of joy broke from the whole party, but no answering shout was returned -- not even a bark of friendiy welcome -- as we galloped up to the wigwams. All was silent as the grave. We rode round and round, then dismounted and looked into several of the spacious huts. They had evidently been long deserted. Nothing remained but the bare walls of bark, from which everything in the shape of furniture had been stripped by the owners and carried with them to their wintering-grounds; to be brought back in the spring, when they returned to make their corn-fields and occupy their summer cabins.
Our disappointment may be better imagined than described. With heavy hearts, we mounted and once more pursued our way, the snow again falling and adding to the discomforts of our position. At length we halted for the night. We had long been aware that our stock of provisions was insufficient for another day, and here we were -- nobody knew where -- in the midst of woods and prairies -- certainly far from any human habitation, with barely enough food for a slender evening's meal.
The poor dogs came whining around us to beg their usual portion, but they were obliged to content themselves with a bare bone, and we retired to rest with the feeling that if not actually hungry then, we should certainly be so to-morrow.
The morrow came. Plante and Roy had a bright fire and a nice pot of coffee for us. It was our only breakfast, for on shaking the bag and turning it inside out, we could make no more of our stock of bread than three crackers, which the rest of the party insisted I should put in my pocket for my dinner. I was much touched by the kindness of Mr. Kellogg, who drew from his wallet a piece of tongue and a slice of fruitcake, which he said "he been saving for the lady since the day before, for he saw how matters were a-going."
Poor man! it would have been well if he had listened to Mr. Kinzie, and provided himself at the outset with a larger store of provisions. As it was, those he brought with him were exhausted early the second day, and he had been boarding with us for the last two meals.
We still had the trail to guide us, and we continued to follow it until about nine o'clock, when, in emerging from a wood, we came upon a broad and rapid river. A collection of Indian wigwams stood upon the opposite bank, and as the trail led directly to the water, it was fair to infer that the stream was fordable. We had no opportunity of testing it, however, for the banks were so lined with ice, which was piled up tier upon tier by the breaking-up of the previous week, that we tried in vain to find a path by which we could descend the bank to the water.
The men shouted again and again in hopes some straggling inhabitant of the village might be at hand with his canoe. No answer was returned save by the echoes. What was to be done? I looked at my husband and saw that care was on his brow, although he still continued to speak cheerfully. "We will follow this cross-trail down the bank of the river," said he. "There must be Indians wintering near in some of these points of wood."
I must confess that I felt somewhat dismayed at our prospects, but I kept up a show of courage, and did not allow my despondency to be seen. All the party were dull and gloomy enough.
We kept along the bank, which was considerably elevated above the water, and bordered at a little distance with a thick wood. All at once my horse, who was mortally afraid of Indians, began to jump and prance, snorting and pricking up his ears as if an enemy were at hand. I screamed with delight to my husband, who was at the head of the file, "Oh John! John! there are Indians near -- look at Jerry!"
At this instant a little Indian dog ran out from under the bushes by the roadside, and began barking at us. Never were sounds more welcome. We rode directly into the thicket, and descending into a little hollow, found two squaws crouching behind the bushes, trying to conceal themselves from our sight.
They appeared greatly relieved when Mr. Kinzie addressed them in the Pottowattamie language --
"What are you doing here?"
"Digging Indian potatoes" -- (a species of artichoke.)
"Where is your lodge?"
"On the other side of the river."
"Good -- then you have a canoe here. Can you take us across?"
"Yes -- the canoe is very small."
They conducted us down the bank to the water's edge where the canoe was. It was indeed very small. My husband explained to them that they must take me across first, and then return for the others of the party.
"Will you trust yourself alone over the river?" inquired he. "You see that but one can cross at time."
"Oh! yes" -- and I was soon placed in Ihe bottom of the canoe, lying flat and looking up at the sky, while the older squaw took the paddle in her hand, and placed herself on her knees at my head, and the younger, a girl of fourteen or fifteen, stationed herself at my feet. There was just room enough for me to lie in this position, each of the others kneeling in the opposite ends of the canoe.
While these preparations were making, Mr. Kinzie questioned the woman as to our whereabout. They knew no name for the river but "Saumanong." This was not definite, it being the generic term for any large stream. But he gathered that the village we had passed higher up, on the opposite side of the stream, was Wau-ban-see's, and then he knew that we were on the Fox River, and probably about fifty miles from Chicago.
The squaw, in answer to his inquiries, assured him that Chicago was "close by."
"That means," said he "that it is not so far off as Canada. We must not be too sanguine."
The men sat about unpacking the horses, and I in the meantime was paddled across the river. The old woman immediately returned, leaving the younger one with me for company. I seated myself on the fallen trunk of a tree, in the midst of the snow, and looked across the dark waters. I am not ashamed to confess my weakness -- for the first time on my journey I shed tears. It was neither hunger, nor fear, nor cold which extorted them from me. It was the utter desolation ot spirit, the sickness of heart which "hope deferred" ever occasions, and which of all evils is the hardest to bear.
The poor little squaw looked into my face with a wondering and sympathizing expression. Probably she was speculating in her own mind what a person who rode so fine a horse, and wore so comfortable a broadcloth dress, could have to cry about. I pointed to a seat beside me on the log, but she preferred standing and gazing at me, with the same pitying expression. Presently she was joined by a young companion, and after a short chattering, of which I was evidently the subject, they both trotted off into the woods, and left me to my own solitary reflections.
"What would my friends at the East think," said I to myself, "if they could see me now? What would poor old Mrs. Welsh say? She who warned me that if I came away so far to the West, I should break my heart? Would she not rejoice to find how likely her prediction was to be fulfilled?"
These thoughts roused me. I dried up my tears, and by the time my husband with his party, and all his horses and luggage, were across, I had recovered my cheerfulness, and was ready for fresh adventures.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 156-170.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.