The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2006-Winter 2007

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Robert Beck's Story

Kansas Fever, Going to New Orleans, On the Mississippi,
Seamen, Hired as Apprentice Seaman


Robert Beck

Kansas Fever

In 1857 our little town was struck with the Kansas fever as Kansas Territory was then open for settlement and the beauties of Kansas were the topic of village talk. Its riches were unlimited and the grand future and possiblities for young men were unbounded. For two hundred dollars anyone could secure 160 acres of the finest land on earth.

I became all absorbed in the subject and listened to all the wonderful tales with intense interest and in short got struck with the Kansas fever. So in the summer of 1857 seven young men organized themselves into a company to go to Kansas. I was the youngest of the party. Our objective point was a place called Coffagee in the southeastern part of Kansas on the Neosho River, a place represented as the paradise of America, a land abounding in game and everything else that is good and desirable for man.

I sold my town lot and all the timber and lumber, and after I had squared up all round I had nearly three hundred dollars in gold. I felt quite rich and intended to land in Kansas with at least two hundred dollars to pay for 160 acres of land.

We bought a pair of oxen, a wagon, a tent and provisions, and a breaking plough, all of which we owned in common as each of [the] seven members had to pay his share. When all things were ready we bid goodby to our friends at Butlerville and started on our journey overland through Missouri and so on into Kansas.

I will here mention that about this time the Kansas excitement ran high all through the northern states and everything was done to induce northern men to migrate to Kansas whether it was fair or unfair, as the object of the Abolition party was to rush men from the North into the territory to prevent it from becoming a slave state. The whole scheme was run by the Abolition politicians against the Southern interest and it finally led to a small war which was the prelude to the great rebellion of 1861.

Well, we landed in Kansas about September 1st, but three of our party left us in the northern part of Missouri; we bought out their interest in the outfit. We crossed the western border of Missouri a little west of Kansas City, which was a small village at that time. We took a southwesterly course through Kansas territory to a town called Osowatomie, which was at that time the home of John Brown who was a terror to all Southerners and was the leader at the Harpers Ferry insurrection and was hung in 1860. We went into camp a few miiles out of Osowatomie for the night as we traveled a good deal like the gypsies.

That evening there came a man into our camp on horseback. He soon learned that we were a party of young adventurers and that two of us were carpenters, one an engineer, and the other a common laborer. He told us that we were just the men he was looking for. That he and his brother-in-law had just arrived in the country from Penn., that they brought with them machinery for a saw mill and a grist mill but there was no one to build the mill for them, and if we would go with him and build the mill they would pay us good wages, that their place was about 20 miles from Osowatomie on North Pattowatomie Creek, that there were some six or eight families there and they needed the mill. We soon struck up a bargain with him and agreed to go there [and] build the mill for him. The whole business was done up in fifteen minutes and he went his way happy.

The next morning we started for Pattowatomie Creek and the next day we found the little settlement. We put up our tent on the bank of the creek and commenced to build a mill out of the trees that were standing all around us, and in a couple of months we put life into the thing, so we had the honor of erecting the first saw and grist mill in Anderson Co., Kansas. But at that time, 1857, there was no county organization as there were not yet men enough to fill the offices.

We liked that part of Kansas and two of us picked out a quarter section of land, as we had the first choice. I selected a very fine piece and made the required improvements on it, but it soon leaked out that I was not yet twenty-one years old and so could not hold it. My plan was to keep still until the following May when I would be 21 years old and then pre-empt it, but a man took it away from me, and so [I] lost my improvements. After I had been there about 6 or 7 weeks I was taken sick with fever and ague but soon broke it up with quinine.

Going to New Orleans

There was a young man in our party by the name of William Malcolm that had a great itching to go to New Orleans to stay through the winter and return to Kansas in the spring. I also fell in love with the idea as I had some ready money and a strong desire to see and learn someting of that part of the world and as my education was limited and as I was yet young, concluded that a little experience in traveling would do me no harm. But how little did I dream of the schooling I would receive in the three years following, that I would circumnavigate the globe, visit other continents, and that I would experience the most interesting period of my life.

Well, I proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for a six-months' absence from my beloved Kansas. I left my interest in the oxen and wagon and all other loose property, also my carpenter tools, in charge of one of our party by the name of William Johnson. He was to take care of my interest until I returned in the spring.

About the time I had everything ready and what few clothes I had packed in a carpet bag and the time set for starting, my friend backed out of going and so left me in the lurch. But my head was set on going to New Orleans and all arrangements made and nothing would stop me. So I bid goodbye to my friends and promised them to be back in the spring, which I did in good faith.

I took passage to Kansas City with a teamster that was going there after a load of goods. There were no railroads west of the Missouri River at that time and the only was of travel was by wagon, horseback or on foot. There was not even a stage line through that part of the country at that time, 1857.

After a journey of 150 miles over a very poor road we landed in Kansas City where the next day I took [a] steamer down the Missouri River to Jefferson City. Mo. There I took [a] train for St Louis, Mo., on the Mo. Pacific R. R. which was the farthest westward railroad at that time. On arriving at St. Louis I went to the Planters' Hotel, one of he best hotels in the city at that time.

While at St. Louis I bought me a fine outfit of clothes as my clothes looked rather seedy and of a cheap kind. I also bought me a trunk as I wished to go to New Orleans in good style and did not wish to be taken for a western greenhorn. After a few days' stay at St. Louis and at a great expense at the hotel as it was a high-priced house, I took passage for New Orleans on board the fine packet steamer Pennsylvania as first class passenger for which I paid 24 dollars. You see I had more money than brains, as I could have gotten to New Orleans for half that price, but I wanted to go in fine style, and I did, and I also wanted to show off my fine new clothes.

After a delightful trip of five days we landed ni New Orleans. I was delighted with the city and the fine climate, for it was in the fall of the year, also the tropical plants and fruits and the great quantity of cotton that was being shipped and the great fleet [of] sailing ships and steamers from all parts of the world, all of which made a great impression on me. I went to a hotel and the next day I went job hunting as a carpenter and joiner but when the bosses asked me for a recommendation and reference I could only inform them that I was a stranger in the city, that I had just come from Kansas. They would look at me with some suspicion and others would tell me they had just bought a slave carpenter. I began to realize some of the disadvantages of slavery. I also found it not so easy to find a situation in a strange city and among strangers.

After trying for about two weeks I began to get discouraged and my stock of cash began to run low, then I began to realize that I had been altogether too extravagant in my expenses and the future did not look very bright. As there was nothing in sight by way of employment, matters began to look gloomy. I was in a strange city without friends and about out of money, still I felt that I would turn up something.

On the Mississippi

One afternoon [as] I was strolling along the levee or river front I saw the steamer Pennsylvania on which I came down the river on. While on the passage to New Orleans I formed a slight acquaiantance with the steward of the boat. I went on board and the steward happened to be in the pantry. I struck up a conversation with him. I told him what poor luck I was having in getting a job at my trade and that my cash was nearly run out and that I was somewhat puzzled how I was going to winter through as I had no acquaintances in the city.

He asked me how I would like a berth on the steamer as second pantry man as he was in need of one. I told him I would accept anything that would bring in a living, that I was not ashamed to work, that if he could help me to a situation I would feel very thankful to him. He told me to come on board that evening, that my pay would be 25 dollars a month and board. I thanked him, went [to] the hotel, paid my bill, got a dray cart to move my trunk on board, for I was in luck until something better turned up.

When on board I reported to the steward ready for duty. He first took me to the clerk's office where I gave in my name and was placed on the pay roll. Then he introduced me to the first pantry man who proceeded to instruct me as to my duties of which I knew nothing, but soon learned as the work was not hard nor complex.

The boat was a regular packet running between St. Louis and New Orleans. The next day we started up the river for St. Louis with a full complement of passengers. The trip was about six days long and I enjoyed it very much and also liked the work and the future began to look brighter as the fall is the most delightful season on the Mississippi and the steamer was one of the finest mail boats on the lower river. The scenery along the lower Mississippi was at that time indescribably beautiful as it was in the midst of the cotton picking and sugar cane cutting time and all nature seemed to be singing and the cabin passengers were in their happiest mood. As my work was light and [I] had plenty of opportunity for observing the scenery and mingling to some extent with the passengers, I certainly did enjoy my short experience on the Mississippi the best of anything in all my life. But on our second trip from New Orleans we met with a mishap which knocked my fine air castles in the head and put an end to my short career as a river boat man on the Mississippi.

The boat pulled out of New Orleans on our second trip about 4 pm and everything looked favorable for a pleasant trip to St. Louis. The steamer Vicksburg, which was also a fine mail steamer, had pulled out about an hour ahead of us, and there was a strife between the two boats for the mail and passengers along the river. We caught up with the Vicksburg about fifty miles up the river and the two boats began a race for the next landing, and as we were passing through a narrow channel in the river the Vicksburg smashed into our port side, knocked down our port wheel and wheel house, and stove a great hole in the boat's side which disabled our further progress. The Vicksburg came along side and took off the passengers, mail and cargo, which took all night to transfer, and the next day we limped back to New Orleans on one wheel and the boat was pulled up on the dry dock for repairs, and so ended my steamboat job. I drew my pay and began to look for another situation on some other boat but met with no success.


As I was wandering along the river front the thought struck me that I would like to make a voyage to sea as there were so many ships in port going to all parts of the globe and as I had not yet seen much of this world and I was yet young and my educatiion somewhat limited and a little experience at sea on one of these great large ships as a sailor would be quite a schooling. Of course I had heard and read that a sailor's life on shipboard was very rough, but [as] I was somewhat used to a rough life and had stood everything but killing, I though I could stand a little of a sailor's life if they did not kill me.

I knew nothing of the duties of a sailor and did not know that a man had to learn the trade and that there were different grades to sailors such as apprentices, ordinary sea men and able sea men. I supposed all that was necessary was to go to the captain and ask for a job [the] same [as] one would ask or apply for a job at any common labor. Well, I soon learned to distinguish the difference between American ships and English, Spanish or French, or other nationalities, by the flags. So I went on board of an American ship, a very large one called the Lancaster of Philadelphia. She was being loaded with cotton. She was a very large and handsome full-rigged ship of three thousand tons and when I stepped on her decks I thought if I could only get a position on this noble ship, how proud I would feel pacing up and down her decks. But how to get a situation and who to go to or where to go, I certainly did not know, as there was no one in sight that looked like a captain or anyone else that looked as if he had any authority for I saw no one but working men all busy at work.

At the bow end sat two sailors mending an old sail. One of them was an old tar all sunburned [with] horny-looking hands, a great big burly-looking fellow that looked as if he could eat up a half dozen fellows like myself for breakfast. His bare arms were very large and tattooed but looked as if he could lift six tons. On the whole he looked like a monster of the deep and a man that had weathered may a hard storm but still he had a kindly look in his face, at least what little could be seen of it as his heavy grizzly beard covered nearly the whole face. However, I ventured to speak to him and to my surprise he did not bite me but spoke very kindly to me from which I took courage and began to ask him questions such as where the ship is bound for, when they expect to go to sea and so on, all of which he answered very readily, and after a little conversation with him he did not look so savage to me and I began to confide in him and ventured still further by telling him that I would like to hire out to the captain of this ship.

I asked him what he thought of the propect of my getting a job. Of course he knew I was no sailor and knew nothing of sailors' phrases and that I was a greenhorn right from the country without my telling him so. He asked me if I was in earnest about wanting to go to sea. I told him I was. Then he asked me why I wanted to be a sailor and proceeded to tell me what it meant to be a seafaring man which rather opened my eyes and [I] began to think that it was not so easy to get a job on shipboard as I had thought. Just at this time the old tar pointed out a man that had just come on board as the captain of the ship and told me to go to him and ask him for a berth.

I hardly knew what a berth meant but surmised that it meant a job on shipboard. However, I put on a bold front and walked toward the gentleman. He was a fine looking man past middle age and very neatly dressed and of very fine commanding appearance. I approached him with confidence and asked him for a berth on his ship. He asked me if I was a sailor; I told [him] that I was not but would like to be one. He told me I would have to ship as an apprentice and as I knew nothing about a ship to come on board as soon as possible and learn all I could before we went to sea. He wheeled around and went off and left me to guess the rest.

Hired As Apprentice Seaman

Well, I was tickled all over. My joy was unbounded. I was so tickled over my good luck I went forward and told my new found friend, my new success, I mean the old tar. I call him my friend because he was my friend from start to finish. I told him I had shipped as an apprentice and that the Captain wanted me to come on board [as] soon as possible. I asked him what my duties would be and what part of the ship I would live in. He answered all my questions very civilly and gave me all the points he could and told me to do just as the captain had ordered me, and when I got my trunk on board the mate of the ship would take me in hand and instruct me as to my duties. I scampered off and engaged a truck to take my trunk on board for I wanted to become a full-fledged sailor as soon as possible.

On coming on board with the trunk, the old tar told me to put it in the forecastle which is between decks and just as I got down with my trunk I saw a heavy-built man coming down the forecastle stairs. I had not seen this man before and in a very gruff and stern voice [he] demanded of me to open that trunk. I told him that it was my trunk and there was nothing in it but what belonged to me and that I would not open it for him or anyone else. He told me to open it as he wished to see its contents. I told him I would not, that he need not try to bulldoze me, that I was not as green as he thought I was, that I had hired out to the captain and that I considered myself a part of the ship's crew, and to clear out and let me alone, that I knew what I was about.

He looked at me very stern[ly] and said, "I am the first mate of this ship and I want you to open that trunk without delay." He looked me clear through. I began to tremble, my teeth began to chatter, and my knees knocked together. I fumbled in my pockets for the key and unlocked the trunk. I lifted up the tray to show him that I had nothing offensive or defensive. After looking in he told me to close it and then proceeded to give me a lecture, and the first lesson he taught me was to say, "Yes Sir" and "No Sir" when speaking to an officer of a ship, and never to speak to an officer except on business and then use as few words as possible, and to obey all orders given by an officer quickly, to keep myself clean and obey all orders promptly, then Iwould always get along without any trouble. He talked to me so nice and kindly that he gained my confidence at once; he took me in his watch and no young man ever fell into better hands that I did while I was on board the good ship Lancaster. He told me to take my trunk to the carpenters' state room as that would be my place.

That evening the captain sent for me to come to the cabin. I walked into the cabin and found myself in the presence of the captain. He told me to take my hat off and gave me a lecture on good manners, and made me promise to remember all instructions he should in the future give me. He then pointed to a large paper that was spread out on the table, asked me if I could write my name, if so to put my name on a certain spot indicated by his finger. I commenced to read the long document and told him that I was taught never to put my name to a document without first reading it. After reading enough of it to know what it was, Ii signed it. Then he asked me if I had any suitable clothing to wear at sea. I told him I had good clothes but none suitable for sea use. He wrote me out an order of twenty four dollars' worth of an outfit and told me where the store was to get the goods and that one of the ship keepers would go with me and tell me what I needed. By the ship keepers he meant one of the old sailors that I first met.

The next day evening I took the old grizzly sailor with me and together we picked out my outfit. When it came to the question of woolen shirts I insisted on having bright-red color as I thought it looked more sailer-like but he thought blue would look the best and not show dirt so easy, but nothing short of red would do me. So when we returned on shipboard I donned my bright red shirt, strutted about the deck as proud as a peacock, and considered myself a full-fledged sailor boy.

This was about the last part of November, 1857, and I am writing this January 1st, 1899. All these incidents come to my mind as vivid as if it were but yesterday.

Index to Robert Beck's Story
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