September 1988

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 8

Detroit: A Tour To Buy A Town Or Two

Our breakfast table at __________ House was surrounded by as motley a crew as Mirth ever owned. The standing ornament of the upper end was a very large light blue crape turban, which turban surmounted the prolonged face of a lady, somewhere (it is not polite to be exact in these matters) between forty and fifty, and also partly concealed a pair of ears from which depended ear rings whose pendants rested not far from the Apalachian collar bones of the dignified wearer. This lady, turban and ear rings, were always in their places before the eggs came, and remained long after the last one had disappeared at least, I judge so; for I, who always take my chance (rash enough in this case) for a breakfast, never saw her seat vacant. Indeed, as I never met her anywhere else, I might have supposed her a fixture, the production of some American Maelzel, but that the rolling of her very light grey eyes was quite different from that of the dark Persian orbs of the chess player' while an occasional word came to my ear with a sharp sound, even more startling than the "Echec" of that celebrated personage.

Another very conspicuous member of our usual party was a lady in mourning, whom I afterwards discovered to be a great beauty. I had indeed observed that she wore a great many curls, and that these curls were carefully arranged and bound with a ribbon, so as to make the most of a pair of dark eyes; that nothing that could be called throat was ever enviously shaded, even at breakfast; and that a pair of delicately white hands, loaded with rings of all hues, despite the mourning garments, were never out of sight. But I did not learn that she was a beauty till I met her long after at a brilliant evening party in rouge and blonde, and with difficulty recognized my neighbor of the breakfast table.

But if I should attempt to set down half my recollections of that piquant and changeful scene, I should never get on with my story: so, begging pardon, I will pass over the young ladies, who never were hungry, and their papas, who could never be satisfied, and their brothers, who could not get anything fit to eat; the crimson faced celibataire, who always ate exactly three eggs, and three slices of bread and butter, and drank three cups of tea, and then left the table, performing the whole in perfect silence; the lady, who played good mamma and would ever have her two babies at the table with her, and feed them on sausage and strong coffee, without a mouthful of bread; and the shoals of speculators, fat and lean, rich and poor, young and old, dashing and shabby, who always looked very hungry, but could not take time to eat. I saw them only at breakfast, for the rest of the day we usually spent elsewhere.

While we were awaiting the arrival of our chattels from the east, Mr. Clavers accepted an invitation to accompany a party of these breakfast table companions last mentioned, men of substance literally and figuratively, who were going to make a tour with a view to the purchase of one or two cities. Ponies, knapsacks, brandy bottles, pocket compasses, blankets, lucifers, great India rubber boots, coats of the same, and caps with immense umbrella capes to them: these things are but a beginning of the outfit necessary for such an expedition. It was intended to "camp out" as often as might be desirable, to think nothing of fasting for a day or so, and to defy the ague and all its works by the aid of the potent exorcisor contained in a bottle above mentioned. One of the company, an idler from _____, was almost as keen in his pursuit of game as of money, and he carried a double barrelled fowling piece, with all things thereunto appertaining, in addition to his other equipments, giving a finishing touch to the grotesque cortege. My only parting charge to my quota of the expedition was to keep out of the water, and to take care of his spectacles. I should have cautioned him against buying a city, but that he was never very ambitious, and already owned Montacute. He went merely pour se desennuyer; and I remained at the very focus of this strange excitement an unconcerned spectator, weary enough of the unvarying theme which appeared to fill the whole soul of the community.

The party was absent just four days; and a more dismal sight than they presented on their return cannot well be imagined. Tired and dirty, cross and hungry, were they all. No word of adventures, no boasting of achievements, not even a breath of the talismanic word "land," more interesting to the speculator of 1835 6 than it ever was to the ship wrecked mariner. They seemed as if they would, Esau like, have sold their city lots for a good supper, though I doubt whether the offer of a "trade" would not have aroused all their energies, and so prevented the bargain.

After tea, however, things brightened a little: I speak for one of the party only. The bath, the razor, the much needed change of those "lendings" on which so much of the comfort of life depends, produced their usual humanizing effect; and by questions skillfully timed and cautiously worded, I drew from my toil worn spouse a tolerably circumstantial account of the journey.

The first day had been entirely consumed in reaching Shark River, or rather its junction with another considerable stream. Twilight had already shaded the woody path, when the surveyor, who was acquainted with the whole region, informed them that they had yet some miles of travel before they could hope to reach any kind of shelter. They had been for some hours following an Indian trail, and some of the city gentlemen recollecting, as the day declined, that they were a little rheumatic, began to give vent to their opinion that the evening was going to be particularly damp. One went so far as to hint that it would have been as well if Mr. ______ (the sportsman) had not taken quite so long to ascertain whether that white moving thing he had seen in the woods was a deer's tail or not.

To this the city Nimrod had replied, that as to its being a deer's tail, there was no possibility of question; that if the other gentlemen had been a little more patient, they might have had venison for supper; and this little discussion, growing more and more animated as it proceeded, at length occupied the attention of the whole party so completely, that they lost the trail and found themselves at the end of what had seemed to them as open path. There was nothing for it, but to turn the horses' heads right about, and retrace the last mile or more, while the faint gleam of daylight was disappearing.

The good humor of the party was, to say the least, not increased by this little contretemps, and the following of a trail by star light is an exercise of skill and patience not likely to be long agreeable to gentlemen who have been for many years accustomed to pavements and gas lamps. Not a word was said of "camping out," so manfully planned in the morning. The loads of preparations for a bivouac seemed entirely forgotten by every body at least, no one thought proper to mention them; and after some few attempts of the younger members to be funny, the whole caravan yielded to fate, and plodded on in gloomy and determined silence.

The glimmer of a distant light had an electrical effect. The unlucky sportsman was fortunately in the van, and so had an opportunity of covering up his offences by being the announcer of joyous tidings.

He sang out cheerily, "So shines a good deed in this naughty world!" and pricked on his tired Canadian into something akin to a trot, while the soberer part of the cavalcade followed as fast as they could, or as they dared. Ere long they reached the much desired shelter, and found that their provident care in regard to the various items requisite for food and lodging had not been in vain.

The log cabin which received the weary way farers was like many others which have served for the first homes of settlers in Michigan. It was logs and nothing else, the fire made on the ground, or on a few loose stones, and a hole in the roof for the escape of the smoke. A family of tolerably decent appearance inhabited this forlorn dwelling, a man and his wife and two young children. They seemed little moved at the arrival of so large a company, but rendered what assistance they could in providing for the ponies and preparing the meal from such materials as were afforded by the well stored hampers of the baggage pony.

After the conclusion of the meal, the blankets were spread on the ground, and happy he who could get a bag for a pillow. But the night's rest was well earned, and Nature is no niggard paymaster.

Chapter 9

A City Beneath The Swamp

The morning sun showed the river and its adjunct bright and beautiful, though a leetle marshy at the sides. The dead silence, the utter loneliness, the impenetrable shade, which covered the site of the future city, might well call to mind the desolation which has settled on Tadmor and Palmyra; the anticipation of future life and splendor contrasting no less forcibly with the actual scene than would the retrospect of departed grandeur. The guide, who had been much employed in these matters, showed in the course of the day six different points, each of which, the owners were fully satisfied, would one day echo the busy tread of thousands, and see reflected in the now glassy wave the towers and masts of a great commercial town. If already this infatuation seems incredible, how shall we make our children believe its reality?

The day was to be spent in exploring, and as it was desirable to see as much as could be seen of the river so important to the future fortunes of the company, it was concluded to follow the bank as closely as the marshes would allow, and pass the night at the house of a French trader near the outlet of the stream.

The spirits of the party were not very high during the ride. There was something a little cooling in the aspect of the marshes, and, although nobody liked to say so, the ground seemed rather wet for city building. However, the trader's dwelling looked very comfortable after the accommodations of the preceding night, and a few Indian huts at no great distance gave some relief to the extreme solitariness of the scene, which had contributed not a little to the temporary depression of the party.

The Frenchman was luckily at home, and with his Indian wife treated the travellers with much civility: the lady, however, declining conversation, or indeed notice of any sort unless when called on to perform the part of interpreter between the gentlemen and some wretched looking Indians who were hanging about the house. Several children with bright, gazelle like eyes, were visible at intervals, but exhibited nothing of the staring curiosity which is seen peeping from among the sun bleached locks of the whiter broods of the same class of settlers.

The Indians to whom I have alluded, had come to procure whiskey of the trader, and after they had received the baleful luxury which performs among their fated race the work of fire, famine and pestilence, they departed with rapid steps. They had scarcely quitted the house when another was seen approaching the door with that long easy trot which is habitual with the savage when on a journey. He was well dressed, in his way; his hat boasted a broad band of silver lace; his tunic, leggins and moccasins were whole and somewhat ornamented; his blanket glorying in a bright red border; and on his shoulders, slung by a broad thong, was a pack of furs of considerable value. He seemed an old acquaintance of the family, and was received with some animation even by the grave and dignified mistress of the mansion. The trader examined and counted the skins, spoke to the Indian in his own tongue, and invited him to eat, which however he declined, with a significant gesture towards the huts before alluded to.

This evening's supper was made quite luxurious by the preserved cranberries and maple syrup furnished by the settlers; and our friends retired to rest in much more comfortable style than on the proceeding night.

The first nap was in all its sweetness, when the whole party was aroused by a hideous yelling, which to city ears could be no less than an Indian war whoop. Every one was on foot in an instant; and the confusion which ensued in the attempt to dress in the dark was most perplexing and would have been amusing enough but for certain unpleasant doubts. The noise continued to increase as it approached the house, and terror had reached its acme, everyone catching at something which could be used as a weapon; when a violent knocking at the door aroused the trader, who slept in an inner room or closet, and who had not been disturbed by the bustle within doors or the yelling without. He seemed much surprised at the confusion which reigned among his guests assured them it was "noting at all" but the Indians coming for more whiskey; and then admitted one of them, and coolly shutting the door in the face of the rest spoke to the desperate looking savage very sharply, evidently reprobating in no gentle terms the uproar which had disturbed the sleepers.

The Indian made scarce any reply, but pointed with an impatient gesture to the keg, repeating "Whiskey! whiskey!" till the trader refilled it; he then departed leaving our party once more to repose.

The next morning, much was said of the disturbance of the night. The Frenchman seemed to look upon it as a thing of course, and unblushingly vindicated his own agency in the matter. He said that they would get whiskey from someone -that an Indian could not live without it, and that they would pay honestly for what they got, although they would steal anything they could lay their hands on, from the farmers who lived within reach of their settlements. Bitter complaints he said were often made of corn, potatoes, or cucumbers being spirited away in the night, and the Indians got the blame at least, but from him they took nothing. His lady listened with no pleased aspect to this discussion of the foibles of her countrymen, and seemed quite willing to expedite the departure of the guests.

The way to the "Grand Junction" seemed shortened as they went. The day was fine and the ponies in excellent spirits. The sportsman came very near shooting a fat buck, and this miss kept him in talk for all day. The old gentlemen were much pleased with certain statistical accounts furnished them by the trader, whom they decided on the whole to be a very sensible fellow: and when they reached once more the chosen spot, they saw at a glance how easily the marshes could be drained, the channel of the Shark deepened, and the whole converted into one broad area on which to found a second New York.

They passed another night at the log hut which had first received them, and leaving with the poor couple who inhabited it, what cheered their lonely dwelling for many a day, they returned to Detroit.

Our friends considered the offers which had been made them so very advantageous that the bargain for the site at the "Grand Junction" was concluded the very next day. "Only one hundred shares at three hundred dollars each!" the money might be quadrupled in a month. And some of the knowing ones, who took shares "merely to oblige," did realize the golden vision, while the more careful, who held on to get the top of the market but why should I tell secrets?

Nobody happened to mention to these eastern buyers that the whole had been purchased for four hundred dollars, just a week before they reached Detroit.

These things certainly cost a good deal of trouble after all. They ought to have paid well, unquestionably. When lots were to be sold, the whole fair dream was splendidly emblazoned on a sheet of super royal size; things which only floated before the mind's eye of the most sanguine, were portrayed with bewitching minuteness for the delectation of the ordinary observer. Majestic steamers plied their paddles to and fro upon the river; ladies crowding their decks and streamers floating on the wind. Sloops dotted the harbors, while noble ships were seen in the offing. Mills, factories, and light houses canals, rail roads and bridges, all took their appropriate positions. Then came the advertisements, choicely worded and carefully vague, never setting forth anything which might not come true at sometime or other; yet leaving the buyer without excuse if he chose to be taken in.

An auctioneer was now to be procured (for lots usually went rather heavily at a private sale,) and this auctioneer must not be such a one as any executive can make, but a man of genius, or ready invention, of fluent speech; one who had seen something of the world, and above all, one who must be so thoroughly acquainted with the property, and so entirely convinced of its value, that he could vouch on his own personal respectability, for the truth of every statement. He must be able to exhibit certificates from no matter whom Tom a Nokes perhaps but "residing on the spot" and he must find men of straw to lead the first bids. And when all this had been attended to, it must have required some nerve to carry the matter through; to stand by, while the poor artizan, the journeyman mechanic, the stranger who had brought his little all to buy government land to bring up his young family upon, staked their poor means on strips of land which were at that moment a foot under water. I think many of these gentlemen earned their money.

It is not to be supposed that the preliminaries I have enumerated, preceded every successful land sale. Many thousand acres were transferred from hand to hand with a rapidity which reminded one irresistibly of the old French game of "le petit bon homme" (anglicized into "Robin's alive") while all gained save him in whose hand Robin died.

I have known a piece of property bought at five hundred dollars, sold at once for twenty thousand; five thousand counted down, and the remainder secured by bond and mortgage. Whether these after payments were ever made, is another question, and one which I am unable to answer. I mention the transaction as one which was performed in all truth and fairness savoring nothing of the "tricksy spirit" on which I have been somewhat diffuse.

I must not omit to record the friendly offer of one of the gentlemen whose adventures I have recapitulated, to take "two Montacute lots at five hundred dollars each." As this was rather beyond the price which the owner had thought fit to affix to his ordinary lots, he felt exceedingly obliged, and somewhat at a loss to account for the proposition, till his friend whispered, "and you shall have in payment a lot at New New York at a thousand; and we have not sold one at that I can assure you."

The obliged party chanced to meet the agent for New New York about a year later and inquired the fortunes of the future emporium—the number of inhabitants, &c.

"There's nobody there," said he "but those we hire to come."

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR