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The Bark Covered House
Chapter 1. Talking of Michigan


MY father was born in 1793, and my mother in 1802, in Putnam County, State of New York. Their names were John and Melinda Nowlin. Mother's maiden name was Light.

\Iv father owned a small farm of twenty- five acres, in the town of Kent, Putnam County, New York, about sixty miles from New York City. We had plenty of fruit, apples, pears, quinces and so forth, also a never failing spring. He bought another place about half a mile from that. It was very stony, and father worked very hard. I remember well his building stone wall.

But hard work would not do it. He could not pay for the second place. It involved him so that we were in danger of losing the place where we lived.

lie said, it was impossible for a poor man to get along and support his family; that he never could get any land for his children there, and he would sell what he had and go to a better country, where land was cheap and where he could get land for them.

He talked much of the territory of Michigan. He went to one of the neighbors and borrowed a geography. [Jedediah Morse, "father of American geography," was the father also of Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph. While still in his early twenties, Morse produced in 1784 the first geography published in the United States. Various geographies and gazetteers in a variety of editions followed and their acceptance by the public was such that throughout the author's lifetime his geographies "virtually monopolized their field in the United States." Presumably the work consulted by Nowlin was one of the many editions of The American Universal Geography.] recollect very well some things that it stated. It was Morse's geography, and it said that the territory of Michigan was a very fertile country, that it was nearly surrounded by great lakes, and that wild grapes and other wild fruit grew in abundance.

Father then talked continually of Michigan. Mother was very much opposed to leaving her home. I was the eldest of five children, about ten or eleven years of age, when the word Michigan grated upon my ear. [Wi!liam Nowlin was born Sept. 25, 1821. This statement would indicate that the family talk about Michigan began about 1831 or 1832. The migration was made in 1833-34.] I am not able to give dates in full, but all of the incidents I relate are facts. Some of them occurred over forty years ago, and are given mostly from memory, without the aid of a diary. Nevertheless, most of them are now more vivid and plain to my mind than some things which transpired within the past year. I was very much opposed to going to Michigan, and did all that a boy of my age could do to prevent it. The thought of Indians, bears and wolves terrified me, and the thought of leaving my schoolmates and native place was terrible. My parents sent me to school when in New York, but I have not been to school a day since. My mother's health was very poor. Her physician feared that consumption of the lungs was already seated. Many of her friends said she would not live to get to Michigan if she started. She thought she could not, and said, that if she did, herself and family would be killed by the Indians, perish in the wilderness, or starve to death. The thought too, of leaving her friends and the members of the church, to which she was very much attached, was terribly afflicting. She made one request of father, which was that when she died he would take her back to New York, and lay her in the grave yard by her ancestors.

Father had made up his mind to go to Michigan, and nothing could change him. He sold his place in 1832, hired a house for the summer, then went down to York, as we called it, to get his outfit. Among his purchases were a rifle for himself and a shot gun for me. He said when we went to Michigan it should be mine. I admired his rifle very much. It was the first one I had ever seen. After trying his rifle a few days, shooting at a mark, he bade us good-by, and started "to view" in Michigan.

I think he was gone six or eight weeks, when he returned and told us of his adventures and the country. He said he had a very hard time going up Lake Erie. A terrible storm caused the old boat, "Sheldon Thompson" [The Sheldon Thompson was not an old boat in 1833 (the probable date of this journey, rather than 1832), but it may well have seemed so to the passenger, unfamiliar with the conditions surrounding early steam boat navigation on the Great Lakes. From 1818 to 1826 there was but one steam vessel on Lake Erie—the Walk-in-the-Water, 1818-22, and the Superior, 1822-26. Several small steamboats were built in the latter year, the Henry Clay, William Penn, Niagara, and Enterprise. The Sheldon Thompson was built at Huron in 1830, and in August made her first trip to Mackinac and Green Bay. The vessel, of 242 tons burden, had three masts, being the first steamer of this type on the Upper Lakes.] to heave, and its timber to creak in almost every joint. He thought it must go down. He went to his friend, Mr. George Purdv, (who is now an old resident of the town of Dearborn) said to him: "You had better get up; we are going down! The Captain says 'every man on deck and look Out for himself.'" Mr. Purdy was too sick to get up. The good old steamer weathered the storm and landed safely at Detroit.

Father said that Michigan was a beautiful country, that the soil was as rich as a barnyard, as level as a house floor, and no stones in the way. (I here state, that he did not go any farther west than where he bought his land.) He also said he had bought eighty acres of land, in the town of Dearborn, two and a half miles from a little village, and twelve miles from the city of Detroit. Said he would buy eighty acres more, east of it, after he moved in the spring, which would make it square, a quarter section. He said it was as near Detroit as he could get government land, and he thought Detroit would always be the best market in the country.

Father had a mother, three sisters, one brother and an uncle living in Unadilla Country [Apparently first printed "Unadilla Country," and later corrected to "County." There is no Unadilla County, but the village of Unadilla is in southwestern Otsego Counts', on the Susquehanna River. This is but one of several curious type corrections in the book which must have been made by the printer. The method employed was that of pasting over the erroneous spelling a tiny piece of paper on which the correct letters were printed. The pasting was done by hand, and usually the letters thus supplied are noticeably out of line.] N. Y. He wished very much to see them, and, as they were about one hundred and fifty miles on his way to Michigan, he concluded to spend the winter with them. Before he was ready to start he wrote to his uncle, Griffin Smith, to meet him, on a certain day, at Catskill, on the Hudson river. I cannot give the exact date, but remember that it was in the fall of 1833.

The neighbor, of whom we borrowed the old geography, wished very much to go West with us, but could not raise the means.

When we started we passed by his place; he was lying dead in his house. Thus were our hearts, already sad, made sadder.

We traveled twenty-five miles in a wagon, which brought us to Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson river, then took a night boat for Catskill where uncle was to meet us the next morning. Before we reached Catskill, the captain said that he would not stop there. Father said he must. The captain said he would not stop for a hundred dollars as his boat was behind time. But he and father had a little private conversation, and the result was he did stop. The captain told his men to be careful of the things, and we were helped off in the best style possible. I do not know what changed the captain's mind, perhaps he was a Mason. Uncle met us, and our things were soon on his wagon. Now, our journey lay over a rough, hilly country, and I remember it was very cold. I think we passed over some of the smaller Catskill Mountains. My delicate mother, wrapt as best she could be, with my little sister (not then a year old) in her arms, also the other children, rode. Father and I walked some of the way, as the snow was quite deep on the mountains. He carried his rifle, and I my shot-gun on our shoulders. Our journey was a tedious one, for we got along very slowly; but we finally arrived at Unadilla. There we had many friends and passed a pleasant winter. I liked the country better than the one we left, and we all tried to get father to buy there, and give up the idea of going to Michigan. But a few years satisfied us that he knew the best.

Early in the spring of 1834 we left our friends weeping, for, as they expressed it, they thought we were going "out of the world." Here I will give some lines composed and presented to father and mother by father's sister, N. Covey, which will give her idea of our undertaking better than any words I can frame:

"Dear Brother and Sister, we must bid you adieu,
We hope that the Lord will deal kindly with you,
Protect and defend you, wherever you go,
If Christ is your friend, sure you need fear no foe.

The distance doth seem great, to which you are bound,
But soon we must travel on far distant ground,
And if we prove faithful to God's grace and love,
If we ne'er meet before, we shall all meet above."

About twenty years later this aunt, her husband and nine children (they left one son) sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grand-children visited us. Uncle had sold his nice farm in Unadilla and come to settle his very intelligent family in Michigan. He settled as near us as he could get government land sufficient for so large a family. With most of this numerous family near him, he is at this day a sprightly old man, respected (so far as I know) by all who know him, from Unionville to Bay City.

Now as I have digressed, I must go back and continue the story of our journey from Unadilla to Michigan. As soon as navigation opened, in the spring, we started again with uncle's team and wagon. In this manner we traveled about fifty miles which brought us to Utica. There we embarked on a canal boat and moved slowly night and day, to invade the forests of Michigan. Sometimes when we came to a lock father got off and walked a mile or two. On one of these occasions I accompanied him, and when we came to a favorable place, father signaled to the steersman, and he turned the boat up. Father jumped on to the side of the boat. I attempted to follow him, did not jump far enough, missed my hold and went down, by the side of the boat, into the water. However, father caught my hand and lifted me out. They said that if he had not caught me, I must have been crushed to death, as the boat struck the side the same minute. That, certainly, would have been the end of my journey to Michigan. When it was pleasant we spent part of the time on deck. One day mother left my little brother, then four years old, in care of my oldest sister, Rachel. He concluded to have a rock in an easy chair, rocked over and took a cold bath in the canal. Mother and I were in the cabin. When we heard the cry "Overboard!" we rushed on deck, and the first thing we saw was a man swimming with something ahead of him. It proved to be my brother, held by one strong arm of an English gentleman. He did not strangle much; some said the Englishman might have waded out, in that case he would not have strangled any, as he had on a full-cloth overcoat, which held him up until the Englishman got to him. Be that as it may, the Englishman was our ideal hero for many years, for by his bravery and skill, unparalleled by anything we had seen, he had saved our brother from a watery grave.

That brother is now the John Smith Nowlin, of Dearborn. [John Smith Nowlin, the subject of this adventure, was born in Putnam County, New York, June 13. 1829, and died at Burlingame, Kansas, November i, 1902. He was twice married, and several of his children still live in Detroit. He spent the later half of his life in Kansas, saving a three-year period following the death of William Nowlin in 1889, when he returned to Michigan to operate the farm left by the latter to his heirs.]

Nothing more of importance occurred while we were on the canal. When we arrived at Buffalo the steamer, "Michigan," [The Michigan was launched at Detroit in 1833, and until 8837 was regarded as the finest steamer on the Upper Lakes. The builder and owner was Oliver Newberry of Detroit, elder brother of Walter L. Newberry of subsequent Chicago fame. An innovation of the Michigan which seems never to have been copied on other boats was the installation of two separate engines, one on each side, and each independent of the other. The arrangement gave increased power (the engines on early lake steamers were frequently woefully weak) and in smooth water worked well enough. in stormy weather, one side-wheel might be laboring deep under water, while the other spun wildly above it, thereby jerking the vessel from side to side, with consequences unpleasant to the passengers. The voyage the Nowlins undertook was made on the finest ship then on the Great Lakes. The experiences, which passengers who embarked on smaller and less imposing ships might undergo, are illustrated in the opening pages of Mrs. Kinzie's Wan Bun, published in the Lakeside Classics series for 1933.] then new, just ready for her second trip, lay at her wharf ready to start the next morning. Thinking we would get a better night's rest, at a public house, than on the steamer father sought one, but made a poor choice.

Father had four or five hundred dollars, which were mostly silver, he thought this would be more secure and unsuspected in mother's willow basket, which would be thought to contain only wearing apparel for the child. We had just got nicely installed and father gone to make preparations for our embarkation on the "Michigan," when the lady of the house came by mother and, as if to move it a little, lifted her basket. Then she said, "You must have plenty of money, your basket is very heavy."

When father came, and mother told him the liberty the lady had taken, he did not like it much, and I am sure I felt anything but easy.

But father called for a sleeping room with three beds, and we were shown up three flights of stairs, into a dark, dismal room, with no window, and but one door. Mother saw us children in bed, put the basket of silver between my little brother and me, and then went down. The time seemed long, but finally father and mother came up. I felt much safer then. Late in the evening a man, with a candle in one hand, came into the room, looked at each bed sufficiently to see who was in it. When he came to father's bed, which proved to be the last, as he vent round, father asked him what he wanted there. He said he was looking for an umbrella. Father said he would give him umbrella, caught him by the sleeve of his coat; but he proved to be stronger than his coat for he fled leaving one sleeve of a nice broadcloth coat in father's hand. Father then put his knife over the door-latch. I began to breathe more freely, but there was no sleep for father or mother, and but little for me, that night.

Everything had been quiet about two hours when we heard steps, as of two or three, coming very quietly, in their stocking feet. Father rose, armed himself with a heavy chair and waited to receive them.
Mother heard the door-latch, and fearing that father would kill, or be killed, spoke, as if not wishing them to hear, and said: "John have the pistols ready," (it will be remembered that we had pistols in place of revolvers in those days) "and the moment they open the door shoot them." This stratagem worked; they retired as still as possible.

In about two or three hours more, they came again, and although father told mother to keep still, she said again: "Be ready now and blow them down the moment they burst open the door."

Away they vent again, but came once more just before daylight, stiller if possible than ever; father was at his station, chair in hand, but mother was determined all should live, if possible, so she said "They are coming again, shoot the first one that enters!" &c., &c.

They found that we were awake and, no doubt, thought that they would meet with a little warmer reception than they wished. Father really had no weapons with him except the chair and knife. I said, the room had no window, consequently, it was as dark at daylight as at midnight. The only way we could tell when it was daylight was by the noise on the Street.

When father went down, in the morning, he inquired for the landlord and the man that came into his room; but the landlord and the man with one sleeve were not to be found. Father complained to the landlady, of being disturbed, and showed her the coat-sleeve. She said it must have been an old man, who usually slept in that room, looking for a bed.

We went immediately to our boat. As father was poor and wished to economize, he took steerage passage, as we had warm clothes and plenty of bedding, he thought this the best that he could afford. Our headquarters were on the lower deck. In a short time steam was up, and we bade farewell to Buffalo, where we had spent a sleepless night, and with about six-hundred passengers started on our course.

The elements seemed to be against us. A fearful storm arose; the captain thought it would be dangerous to proceed, and so put in below a little island opposite Cleveland, and tied up to a pier which ran out from the island. Here we lay for three weary days and nights, the storm continually raging.

Finally, the captain thought he must start out. He kept the boat as near the shore as he could with safety, and we moved slowly until we were near the head of the lake. Then the storm raged and the wind blew with increased fury. It seemed as if the "Prince of the power of the air" had let loose the wind upon us. The very air seemed freighted with woe. The sky above and the waters below were greatly agitated. It was a dark afternoon, the clouds looked black and angry and flew across the horizon apparently in a strife to get away from the dreadful calamity that seemed to be coming upon Lake Erie.

We were violently tempest-tossed. Many of the passengers despaired of getting through. Their lamentations were piteous and all had gloomy forebodings of impending ruin. The dark, blue, cold waves, pressed hard by the wind, rolled and tumbled our vessel frightfully, seeming to make our fears their sport. What a dismal, heart-rending scene! After all our efforts in trying to reach Michigan, now I expected we must be lost. Oh how vain the expectation of reaching our new place, in the woods! I thought we should never see it. It looked to me as though Lake Erie would terminate our journey.

It seemed as if we were being weighed in a great balance and that wavering and swaving up and down; balanced about equally between hope and fear, life and death.

No one could tell which way it would turn with us. I made up my mind, and promised if ever I reached terra-firma never to set foot on that lake again; and I have kept my word inviolate. I was miserably sick, as were nearly all the passengers. I tried to keep on my feet, as much as I could; sometimes I would take hold of the railing and gaze upon the wild terrific scene, or lean against whatever I could find, that was stationary, near mother and the rest of the family. Mother was calm, but I knew she had little hope that we would ever reach land. She said, her children were all with her and we should not be parted in death; that we should go together, and escape the dangers and tribulations of the wilderness.

I watched the movements of the boat as much as I could. It seemed as if the steamer could not withstand the furious powers that were upon her. The front part of the boat would seem to settle down—down--lower--and lower if possible than it had been before. It looked to me, often, as though we were going to plunge headforemost—alive, boat and all into the deep. After a while the boat would straighten herself again and hope revive for a moment; then I thought that our staunch boat was nobly contending with the adverse winds and waves, for the lives of her numerous passengers. The hope of her being able to outride the storm was all the hope I had of ever reaching shore.

I saw the Captain on deck looking wishfully toward the land, while the white-.caps broke fearfully on our deck. The passengers were in a terrible state of consternation. Some said we gained a little headway; others said we did not. The most awful terror marked nearly every face. Some wept, some prayed, some swore and a few looked calm and resigned. I was trying to read my fate in other faces when an English lady, who came on the canal boat with us, and who had remained in the cabin up to this time, rushed on deck, wringing her hands and crying at the top of her voice, "We shall be lost! we shall be lost! oh! oh! oh! I have crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, and it never compared with this! We shall be lost! oh! oh! oh!"

One horse that stood on the bow of the boat died from the effects of the storm. Our clothes and bedding were all drenched, and to make our condition still more perilous, the boat was discovered to be on fire. This was kept as quiet as possible. I did not know that it was burning, until after it was extinguished; but I saw father, with others, carrying buckets of water. He said the boat had been on fire and they had put it out. The staunch boat resisted the elements; ploughed her way through and landed us safely at Detroit.

Some years after our landing at Detroit, I saw the steamboat "Michigan" and thought of the perilous time we had on her coming up Lake Erie. She was then an old boat, and was laid up. I thought of the many thousand hardy pioneers she had brought across the turbulent lake and landed safely on the shore of the territory whose name she bore.

But where, oh where "are the six hundred!" that came on her with us? Most of them have bid adieu to earth, and all its storms. The rest of them are now old and no doubt scattered throughout the United States. But time or distance cannot erase from their memory or mine the storm we shared together on Lake Erie.


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