Robert Beck's Story
Sailing to Port Ontario and
Tramping to Iowa
Sailing to Port Ontario
Well, as time went on matters began to look a little brighter to us and
it was not so much of a struggle against poverty. About 1850 my father
bought two acres of land just a little below the Curyer place and on the
west side of Clinton Street. He bought it for three hundred dollars to
be paid in installments. In 1851 he sold one half acre of it for three
hundred dollars. He also bought the little house where we lived and had
it moved on his place where it was enlarged and finished in fairly good
shape so I can say my parents never lived in but one house while in America
as they owned it the rest of their lives.
As we children grew up we were all put to work. My oldest brother Leonard
was apprenticed out to learn the cabinet maker's trade and my sisters
worked as house servants and I did all kinds of odd jobs. One winter I
worked in a drug store on Exchange Street and in the summer I sold fruit
and flowers which I carried in a basket.
My schooling which was just a few months at a time ended in 1851, so
far as my German education was concerned. That year I was confirmed and
my education was considered complete.
[In] the summer of 1851 at what used to be called the upper landing,
just below Rochester on the Genesee River, there was considerable lake
shipping and I helped to unload vessels that were loaded with pine lumber,
tan bark and other light cargoes, for which I was well paid. I helped
to unload a vessel loaded with pine lumber. I worked 91/2 hours for which
[I] received one dollar and fifteen cents which was quite a sum of money
for a boy to earn in one day.
When the captain paid me he asked me if I had a father and mother. I
told him I did. He also asked me how I would like to live with him as
he wanted a boy to live at his home which was at Texas, Oswego Co., N.
Y. I rather liked the looks of the man and I told him I thought I would
like it first rate. He then told me to ask my father and if he was willing
that I should go, to have him come on board the schooner the next morning
and he would talk it over with him. Well, I went home a happy boy that
night. When I arrived home I gave my father the money I had earned that
day and told him what the captain had said to me.
He told me he would go and see the man in the morning and see what could
be done. Well, in the morning we both went down to the landing and found
the captain on board and without further preliminaries they proceeded
to the business for which they met.
I was called to witness the bargain, which was that I should live with
Mr. Turk, for that was the captain's name. I was to work at anything he
set me at, and work faithful[ly] and obey all orders. And he was to send
me to school in the winter, board and clothe me, and in a general way
treat me as his own boy. I was also to be whipped whenever in his judgment
I needed it, and at the end of two years I was to be sent home. This was
just a verbal contract but Mr. Turk carried out every word of it, but
the whippings I never got.
I was then in my thirteenth year of age and very small and never had
been away from home over night so I hardly realized what it all meant.
I did not even know where Texas, Oswego Co., was or where I was going
to be taken to, but took my chances as I liked the looks of the man and
felt sure that he would not harm me.
We were to start that evening. We went back home and reported to my mother
and the other children what had been done. My mother packed up what old
clothes I had in an old carpet bag. The best thing I had was a new pair
[of] boots that I earned by picking cherries. That evening I bid good-bye
to my father, mother, brother, and little sisters, left home which was
never to be my home again [f]or [I] never returned to it as a home, only
as a visitor.
I went on board the schooner that evening a proud and happy boy, for
the future began to look brighter to me and how the air castles did loom
up in my young mind. And as we floated down the river to the lake I strutted
up and down the deck of the ship, for the little two-masted schooner looked
like a great ship to me.
I was eager to get out in the deep and broad lake and be rocked by the
great waves and show the captain my good sea qualities. The next morning
we got under way and struck out for Oswego under close-reef[ed] mainsail,
for it was blowing a good stiff breeze and the lake was up quite rough.
We had not been out on the rolling billows very long when I began to
feel squeamish but tried to conceal it from the captain who asked me if
I felt sick. But the more I tried to conceal it the sicker I got and began
to throw up everything inside of me even to my boots which I surely thought
would come up also. Well, I was seasick in good earnest. Not only seasick
but all my beautiful air castles vanished and I wanted to die or to be
set ashore again.
Dear Reader, were you ever seasick? If so, a further description of my
feelings is not necessary.
However, I survived it all and after a passage of one day we landed at
Oswego, N. Y., where the following day we started for Port Ontario where
the good ship was made fast and myself and Mr. Turk walked to Texas, Oswego
Co., N. Y., which was to be my home for two and a half years.
Mr. Turk's home was a small farm of 15 acres of land. His family consisted
of his wife and three daughters and one son. Two of the daughters and
the daughter-in-law were at home, as the son was also a sailor on the
lakes. And the oldest daughter was married. Mrs. Turk was a very fine
lady as she was like a mother to me and I never can forget her kindness
to me. And Mr. Turk was more than a father, for he did everything to make
me a good boy and I will never forget his good precepts.
My duties the first summer were to plough, sow, and reap the harvest,
cut wood, milk cows, and make myself useful in a general way. And in the
winter I went to the district school.
The second summer I went with Mr. Turk on the lake as cook and an all-round
man on shipboard which I enjoyed very much, as the trips were short and
allowed me to visit home once during the 21/2 years' stay. My work was
steady but not hard as he was not a hard master, and I liked going to
school in the two winters I was with them which was about all the English
education I ever received. But Mr. and Mrs. Turk taught me a great many
good and useful lessons which I have never forgotten and I have the best
of recollections of that period as being the happiest of my boyhood days,
thanks to the good people of that community and Mr. and Mrs. Turk.
When my time of service was up with Mr. Turk he gave me a new suit of
clothes and paid my passage home. I must say I left Mr. Turk with regrets,
but my father wanted me to learn a trade.
After a short visit at home my father secured a place for me as an apprentice
to the carpenter and joiner's trade with a man at Rochester by the name
of J. B. Souls, who lived on Wells Street. I was bound out for three years
and was to have 25 cents a week for the first year, 2 dollars the second,
and 3 dollars the third year, and he was to board me. I was to furnish
25 dollars worth of tools during the three years and I had to clothe myself.
So you will see that I had no spending money as my father gave me none.
I was with Mr. Souls until the spring of 1855 when he gave up the carpenter
business and as he was not worth anything I could not hold him to the
contract so I had to shift for myself. Now commences my period of what
is sometimes called sowing wild oats. But for the lack of funds, as it
was still a struggle for a living, my oat sowing period was of a tame
nature as it taxed all my skill how to feed and clothe myself in a decent
way, as I was yet unskilled in the art of money making.
Tramping to Iowa
When my master informed me that he intended to give up the carpenter
business and that I would have to hunt up another place to work, my first
thought was to go west as west going was very popular at that time. It
did not take me long to make up my mind, and west I did go.
I sold my little kit of tools, bought me a new pair of shoes and a new
cap and one new shirt, stowed my old clothes in an old carpet bag, bought
a ticket for Chicago as that was about as far as my cash would carry me
on the cars. But my mind was set on not stopping east of the Mississippi
River and nothing short of that would satisfy me. On arriving at Chicago
I had about 50 cents left. I bought me a cheap breakfast which cost I
think 20 cents, so reduced my cash to 30 cents, a small sum to pay my
expenses on a journey of 200 miles, but it had to be done and so I started
after I had refreshed myself on that 20 cent breakfast.
Well at the railroad station I learned that I could buy a ticket to a
station about 8 miles out on the C. & R. I. R. R. which was in the direction
I wanted to go, so I handed over my last cash and went on board the train.
But just before the train arrived at the station where my ticket said
I should get off, I fell asleep, and when the conductor came around to
collect tickets he had to wake me up and informed me that we were past
the station where I was to get off and the only thing I could do was to
stay on the train to the next station and wait for the next train to take
me back. I thanked him for his kindness, but when we got to the next station
I had not the cheek to stay on any longer and of course got off, but did
not go back as the conductor advised me to. Now this was about 4 o'clock
pm. I learned that the next little town was about 6 miles farther on so
concluded to walk there. And now I became a full-fledged tramp and one
of the first of that order in America, but since then the order of tramps
has grown to a great army.
I arrived in the little town in the evening, went to a hotel, and called
for supper, lodging and breakfast. I never enjoyed my supper better in
my life as I was very hungry. After supper I asked to be shown to my room
and to bed as I was tired and needed sleep as I had not slept well for
In the morning the landlord called me to breakfast. I felt quite refreshed
after my good night's sleep and I informed the landlord that I was ready
for breakfast and felt like eating but was sorry to inform him that I
had no money to pay him for his kindness but if he had any little odd
job he wished to have done I would gladly do it in payment for the favors.
I told him that I was going to Davenport, Iowa. He told me to have some
breakfast and after breakfast his neighbor was going with a horse and
wagon to the next town and I could ride with him, which invitation I accepted
On arriving at the next town there was a freight train about to pull
out so I tried my luck at stealing a ride, but it was a failure as I sat
on the bumper next to the tender with my carpet bag in front of me. A
spark from the engine set fire to my pants and burned a hole in them as
big as my hand and as I had all I could do to hold on, I nearly burned
up. At the next station I dismounted and concluded to walk the rest of
That was my first and last experience at stealing a ride on a railroad
The second night I fetched up in a small town. There was no hotel there
but a cheap boarding house filled with a lot of railroad track hands.
The landlady gave me some supper and a place to sleep on the floor as
I told her beforehand that I had no money. Of course I did not get the
best in the house but she used me well as she offered to mend my pants
for me as it looked bad where the fire had burned a great hole in them.
But I told her if she would give me a piece of cloth and thread I would
mend them myself which I did. In the morning I bid good-bye to the dear
old Irish lady and went my way rejoicing.
As the weather was fine and I was in good walking trim I made good headway
that day but tramped all day without any dinner, and that evening I stopped
at a hotel, ordered my supper, lodging and breakfast. I never had such
an appetite as I did that night, for it looked as if I was hollow clear
through and as the supper was good I ate until I nearly burst.
In the morning after breakfast I informed the landlord that I was dead
busted and had no money, [and] that I was on my way to Iowa. He gave me
one of those withering looks and began to swear, and proceeded to inform
me that he would fix me. I began to tremble with fright for I began to
think I would have to serve a term in the state prison. I told him I was
willing to work for him until he was satisfied and more than compensated
for my supper, lodging, and breakfast. But it was no use as I was dead
beat, he would punish me. So he took me by the coat collar and led under
the shed where there stood a grindstone and told me to turn the crank.
Of course I expected he would bring on some tools to be ground but not
a tool did he or anyone else bring to be ground. But I had to keep turning
just the same. I did not mind turning [the] grindstone but those sitters
that usually hang around country hotels would come and look at me, then
snicker and go off, and others would come and do the same. That was the
worst punishment I ever received. After keeping me turning about 1/2 hour,
he came around and told me to get and I got.
The morning was a little foggy but not cold. I still walked on the railroad
track as that part of the country was not very densely populated. About
10 am I struck a fortune. I found two dead prairie chickens lying on the
track. They evidently had not been killed long as they were still warm
and there were no wounds to be found on them and they were in good flesh,
and how they came there or what killed them was a mystery to me unless
they had flown against the telegraph wire or a moving train of cars. However,
it struck me that I could turn them to good use as they were perfectly
fresh and in good order and clean.
I struck a little town about noon where I offered my chickens for sale
and was not long in finding a customer at a grocery store kept by a German.
I showed him my chicks. He looked them over and then called his wife from
the back part of the store. She also looked them over carefully and felt
of their ribs and pronounced them O.K. The next step was to agree on a
price, but I told them as it was the last pair I had I would not be hard
on them and they could have the pair for 40 cents, but the old lady held
up her hand in horror and declared that the price was too much and 30
cents plenty. Well, I told them they could have that pair for that but
I would never sell them any more for that price. So they gave me the 30
cents which was a great deal of money to me and made me feel quite rich.
I bought 10 cents worth of crackers and cheese and tramped my way rejoicing
and with a light heart and step.
Well, nothing of any particular interest occurred the following two or
three days except my feet began to get sore but I was bound not to stop
east of the Mississsippi. So after a tramp of about 10 days on a bright
sunny afternoon I came in sight of that grand and noble Father of all
Rivers. Oh, how happy I was to know my journey was about over and how
good the high bluffs on [the] west side of the Mississippi looked to me.
Well, I tramped through the city of Rock Island to the ferry. As there
is, or was, not at that time, a bridge across the river to Davenport,
there was no other way, only to cross on the ferry. But now my game was
blocked for it cost 10 cents fare on the ferry and [I] had no 10 cents.
Now this was a puzzle; how to get across. I sat down on the bank of the
river and watched the ferry making her trips from shore to shore. I soon
discovered that the charge for a two-horse or two-ox team and wagon including
a whole family that ride in the wagon was 50 cents.
Now it occurred to me if I could scrape up an acquaintance with some
emigrant family, as there were plenty of them travelling west in wagons,
I would crawl in the wagon with them and the ferry boat captain would
not know the difference. I did not wait long when there came a covered
wagon drawn by oxen. As the ferry had just left for the other side they
had some time to wait. Now this family consisted of father, mother, and
eight or nine children, some of them were good-sized boys who were on
foot, and when the wagon stopped they crawled under the wagon to rest
and get out of the sun.
Now this was my opportunity. I also crawled under the wagon with the
boys and struck up a chat with them. I soon found they were inclined to
be social and romp with me. But just as we had gotten a little acquainted
the father of the family gave the order for all to get in the wagon. The
boys scampered from under and began to get inside and I followed suit
and also scampered in. The old man drove the oxen and wagon on the ferry.
He paid the 50 cents. I was inside and mixed in with the kids. On landing
on the other side the old Hoosier, for he was from Indiana, drove ashore.
I dismounted on the western side, bid my new acquaintances good-bye, thanked
my good luck and was happy for I was across the Mississippi.
About April 20th, 1855, I found myself in Davenport, Iowa, after my first
and rther unpleasant expeience of tramping, which taught me never to undertake
a journey without a well-filled purse.