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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XXIV


To the West, to the West, to the land of the free,
Where mighty Missouri rolls down to the sea;
Where a man is a man if he's milling to toil,
It's there he will gather the fruits of the soil.
Mackay.

ON the nth of August, 1848, on leaving money with Mr. Clements for the transit of my family, I took leave of all that was dear to me, on my pioneer excursion ; took passage in the Britannia, at Liverpool, on the 12th; arrived at Halifax on the 24th, Boston on the 26th. The enterprise of the press of America was made manifest by the news we brought over with us being sold, of which we were the bearers, before we reached the depot to take our tickets for New York. Arriving at Stonington I was surprised to find myself on board of a beautiful steamer, the Vanderbilt. We arrived at New York on the following day. My first desire was to find Frederick Wheeler, my wife's only brother, whom I found in Philadelphia, with his wife, boarding with a Quaker lady. While sitting at supper one evening one of the boarders left the table in haste for a few minutes; she returned and asked the lady if any one had been to her room. Upon being answered in the negative she then said, "I have lost a purse of money and a gold watch." Upon this announcement several followed her example, with a like result. I took the alarm and went myself, finding my two trunks, with locks wrenched off and the clothes scattered, but nothing stolen. Going to the theater the night before I put my money round my waist. On the following day I asked the parties if they intended applying to the police, an idea which they seemed to scout, preferring spiritualistic means to recover their property,— my first lesson in this American folly. Curiosity led me to postpone my journey back to New York, to witness the fun. The losers went in a body to Dr. Knapp, whose medium sat with her back to him, blindfolded. He, facing the audience, asked the questions, and received the answers through the medium, but nothing touching the whereabouts of the stolen property transpired.

I had arranged with Mr. Earl, an artist, whose acquaintance I made in Peckham, and who intended to embark with his family to New York, when they arrived to mail a letter for me, to be left till called for. I did call several times, perceiving by the papers that the vessel had arrived in which they embarked; but still no letter. I was put to considerable expense to find him, which led us mutually to call on the postmaster to ascertain the reason his letter was not delivered to me. We were well received by the postmaster, who rang a bell and demanded the clerk to deliver a letter directed to Mr. Johnston, which the clerk did.

The postmaster thanked me for the pains I had taken, and was pleased to say that such were necessary to insure perfectibility in the office. Finding the character of Mr. Connoly, the man discharged, to be good, I ventured to beseech the postmaster, on behalf of his wife and three children, to reconsider his loss of position, which he did, and I had the satisfaction of personally receiving thanks from both the employer and employe on the following day. Under the advice of Fred I procured a soldier's warrant for $108, which was good for 160 acres of land, wheresoever found unpreempted in Uncle Sam's extensive domain. In quest of that ideal home I started for the far west. My admiration of the beautiful scenery of the Hudson was only surpassed when first I caught a glimpse of that wonderful inland sea at Buffalo, of which I had read so much. Nor was it impaired by a voyage to Chicago on the superb steamer Empire City, which was delightfully interesting, a description of which appeared in the London Weekly Dispatch. Chicago in 1848 was anything but a tempting place whereon to pitch one's tent. The Tremont House was then in the process of building, but such was the general aspect of the town that a slice of its land in any part of it, if blessing at all, would have been a blessing in disguise. The state of Illinois had just been formed and admitted into the family of commonwealths. The waters of the Mississippi were joined to those of Lake Michigan by means of a canal from Chicago to Peru, and ground was either broken or about to be broken for a railroad between Chicago and Galena. By canal I went to Peoria, thence to Princeville. In the neighborhood of this little place I inspected a quarter-section of fine, undulating prairie land, whereon I thought I might pitch my tent, all other things being equal.

On my way back to the village I called at the only human dwelling within a mile of the spot. It was a log-cabin, presenting a scene of misery such as I have never seen the like before nor since. The door was hanging by one hinge ; the window-sash had evidently once contained six panes of glass, for one, though broken, still remained. The other five apertures where transparency was intended were now rendered opaque by means of an unseemly mass of unwashed remnants of human clothing, not forgetting the hat. Notwithstanding the forbidding appearance of the external aspect of the domicile I ventured to essay a knowledge of the interior. "Unwelcome" stood out in bold relief on the countenance of the eight inmates. The head of the house was a man of forty, who, though handsome, evinced the most villainous expression. His head he carried five feet nine from the ground he trod on; his frame was muscular, his action agile, and his black hirsute covering might have adorned a dandy, if, like the mother of Hood's lost heir, he only took time to show it the comb. A description of the mother and of the six half-naked offspring is, by the above picture of the man, I think, the work of supererogation. On my way to the tavern I called, on invitation, to take tea with the Methodist minister, who informed me after supper that the individual whom I visited was known in the neighborhood as a murderer, and it would be unsafe to preempt land in his locality. This testimony was corroborated by others, and settled the question of changing the field of prospecting. In the course of the evening a Mr. McClennan, a Scotch farmer, arrived to stay for the night. He was on his way to Peoria with wheat; should be back here on the morrow, and proposed to carry me to Elmira, a land of milk and honey. We rode through a rich, promising country twenty miles, and I had a real Highland welcome in the bosom of his family, and on the following morning was introduced to John Turnbull, who, at the moment of our approach, was in the act of laying the first brick of a new dwelling. The mechanic who contracted to build this house was a Mr. O'Grady, a good bricklayer from New York and London. John gave me a hearty welcome and expressed a wish that I should stay with them till the house was finished. I told him that my family was still in London, that until navigation opened in the spring I should be locked up in the west, and should be happy, on conditions, to accept of his hospitality.

"What are the conditions?"

"That you will give me something to do," which met with nothing but pooh-poohing till I pulled out my bricklayer's trowel, and then they saw that I was in earnest, and allowed me to build the inner walls and help Grady, who had dropped the prefix of his name, on the inner part of the outer walls. I was also enabled to be useful on the roof and in glazing eleven windows, and in putting on several coats of paint, so that in consequence of my little help the family was enabled to get safely housed in the new mansion before the keen winds of the severe winter of 1848-9 set in, for which they expressed cordial thanks. Grady, in receiving his pay in gold, threw down two ten dollar pieces, which he, with John's help, insisted on my accepting for my labor. He also said that if I should settle there and would help him build the new school-house, for which he had already contracted, he would build a house for my family similar to the one he had just finished for Mr. Turnbull and charge me nothing, which led me to think that my services were overestimated. Be that as it may, the partiality shown on the part of the individuals named seemed to pervade the community at large, for scarcely had the paint on the door-panels dried before the three school commissioners called on me and expressed a wish for me to keep school in the district for the ensuing five months at the tempting salary of twelve dollars per month. Seeing that I was at all events fixed for the winter, what better amusement during its long, dreary days and evenings than keeping school? So I rode on horseback to La Fayette, nine miles, to the superintendent, to pass examination and obtain my certificate. I passed this ordeal evidently more to his satisfaction than to my own, for he offered me an advance of three dollars a month to induce me to teach in his own district. I thanked him and excused myself on the score of the friendship existing with the people of Elmira. On my way back I was overtaken by a blinding snow-storm, and was glad (not altogether free from a sense of danger) to take shelter in the first cabin that fell in my path. Pleased was I to find myself snugly ensconced in the comfortable dwelling of the venerable Mr. Oliver, Mrs. Turnbull's father, who entreated me to stay until the storm subsided, which took three days. Forty members of Young America, male and female, assembled in the old log school-house to be taught the common school rudiments by one who stood as much in need of instruction as any of his charge, but other duties of equal importance, to say the least, pressed themselves upon me. With the girls I had no trouble, but several of the more advanced boys were difficult to manage. Among the objectionable habits of the boys, that of chewing tobacco I was determined to break, at least when practiced in school hours. Such, indeed, was the character of one young man, who shall here be nameless, that the neighbors were unanimous in their desire to keep him away from the school altogether, but I am happy to say their arguments were unavailing. I learned that his brutally ignorant father was credited with the cause of the very faults he essayed to cure by beating the boy with a heavy stick, and on one occasion nearly killing him with a rail. Resolved to test the law of kindness in such a case I tried to reach him in a variety of strategic manoeuvers, but utterly failed, and I confess to having been painfully disheartened one day when he in wanton cruelty rammed a pin into the fleshy part of a girl's arm. This crime was too bad to be passed unnoticed, and I requested him to remain after the school was dismissed. I then informed him that I had searched the locality in vain to find one citizen, male or female, to speak well of him, all having declared that he was incorrigible, and that providence had sent him a friend. I had also endeavored to find a cause for his wanton brutality; I said that he had been charged with an attempt to stab my predecessor; that his father had taken . the wrong means in chastising him in a brutal manner; that on one occasion he had knocked him down with a rail—the effect of all which had hardened his nature and made him a second Ishmael, but that, in opposition, to the whole neighborhood, I should proffer him my kindness, and he might rely upon me to be his friend forever. He burst into tears, and from that moment became an exemplary youth.

I had the satisfaction at a subsequent period of meeting this person at the Illinois fair at Chicago, a prosperous farmer and father of a family. In 1872 I visited Elmira. I found he had departed this life.

At the close of my term, and on the receipt of $60 for my five months' work, I turned my steps to New York, there to meet all that were dear to me on earth. Mr. Turnbull drove me to Chillicothe, on the Illinois river. The California fever was then at its zenith, and it was certainly a strange sight to see so many covered wagons laden with human beings, many of whom had sold their farms and broken up their homes to traverse that horrid wilderness in their eager thirst for gold. On our way we called on the genial borderer, Mr. Davidson, the veritable Dandy Dinmont of Sir Walter Scott.

On the 5th of April, 1849, I bade good-by to the kind-hearted, hospitable John Turnbull, who returned to spend the night with Davidson, and I to embark on board the Revolution steamer for St. Louis, thence to Pittsburgh on the steamer Consignee, thence up the Monongahela river to Brownsville, thence by coach to Cumberland, thence by rail down through Harper's Ferry and the valley of the classical Potomac to Baltimore, thence to Philadelphia and New York, where I remained long enough to witness one of the most disgraceful scenes that could be perpetrated by a community calling itself civilized. The celebrated tragedian, Mr. Macready, was closing up his farewell tour in America, and was announced to play in the Astor House for two nights, when a malicious opposition was got up on the part of the roughs, instigated, it was said, by his American rival, Forrest, but certainly fanned into flame by a worthless wretch of the cognomen of Ben Buntling. This creature harangued the ruffians into fury by a species of slang in the public park unmolested by the authorities, the burden of their idiotic song being "codfish aristocracy." The conduct of part of the audience on the first night was so rude as to induce Macready to decline playing on the following evening. The drowsy authorities then half awoke' to a sense of their danger. "What!" said they, "shall the great city of New York be given up to the governance of a rabble?" The elite of old Manhattan, headed by poets, editors and eminent literary characters, with which the island abounds, waited on the histrionic chief and earnestly besought him to fulfill his engagement. Yielding to their importunities he essayed to play on the second evening. The mob returned in tenfold fury and numbers, tore down the iron railings, burst open the doors, and would doubtless have destroyed the opera house but for the tardy mayor, backed by the military, appearing on the dastardly scene. The riot act was read, unheeded by the fools, nor did they disperse until thirty-three of their number bit the dust in mortal agony. For the part Ben played in this wholesale murder he was sent to Sing Sing prison for two years.

Advised by letter that my family had embarked at London on board of the bark Earl Durham, I took up my abode on Staten Island to await their arrival. In a little more than a month, after a passage of seven weeks and three days, in a dense fog, the Durham safely anchored in the harbor. Counting heads, I missed one of our progeny. "Where is Emma? Is she hiding?" "Emma is still in England with Aunt Parker," my wife said, explaining the reason for leaving her behind.

Seated in council at Rucastle's hotel in reference to our future course, my wife requested the assistance of a man of the name of Steers, who came out in the same ship with the family, and, strange to say, who had rendered himself sufficiently obnoxious on the passage by his hauteur. But the influence of money is potent,' and he brought £7,000 with him and several votes, so he was invited to participate in the councils which were destined to govern our future steps in securing a living for ten in family. In their best room the two families convened to legislate for the future course of one of said families. The ipsi dixit of the moneyed man was parliament enough for the occasion. The discussion resolved itself into town versus country for the pivot of our action in the future. One hundred and sixty acres of fine land in the midst of a civilized community, with other advantages, together with my ten months' American experience, were all held at naught by this worshiper of the God of Mammon and his satellites. Indeed, I had the mortification of standing alone in a proposition on which unmistakably hung the welfare of our family. The evil consequences of this decision are ever present with me, and will avaunt only at my grave. Had it been accomplished by dint of intelligent argument the reflection might have been partially relieved of its bitterness, and I might have been reconciled to the loss of the tangible advantages of my ten months' pioneering, but to think of being stultified by pompous ignorance is too much, and that, too, displayed on the part of a man to those placed under his charge. But think of seven thousand pounds, all in hard cash, pitted against something short of one hundred. This man settled in Marquette county, Wis., lent out his cash to needy neighbors, and died with a universal reputation of having been a man of very sharp practice in his dealings with those under his thumb.

This vote, having the effect of casting aside all my pioneering efforts, and that by my own consent, has left an impression on my mind which I have hitherto failed to remove, and which, I suppose, will there stick till the last hour. In this debate which resolved itself into town versus country, of course, town carried the vote, and to town we sailed. Arrived at Milwaukee, I rigged up a small school-room and commenced teaching Young America. My school increased till I was earning at the rate of $600 per annum, when Dr. James Johnson called to give me a chance to take charge of the first ward public school, assuring me that the board of commissioners, of which he was a member, intended to increase the salary of the teachers on the following year. My objection that to give up six for four would be anything but prudent was met by saying the people were determined to support the public schools, and with that view a new brick schoolhouse in each of the five wards of the city was now in process of erection, "and in unison with such sentiments I must take my three sons from your select and place them in the public school, and I am authorized to say the same in regard to the three sons of John Furlong, an eminent merchant." These being prominent men in the city, and being myself much attached to the American system of common schools, I was forthwith installed as principal of the first ward school. My labors commenced in my new avocation in an old wooden church building, which in the dead of winter took fire at the shingle roof and was totally destroyed. This accident threw us prematurely into the unfinished brick building on Division street, in the basement of which business went on pretty smoothly during the cold weather; but when the spring of 1851 set in the ground was overloaded with snow, and a sudden change in the temperature, with rain, was the means of causing a street flood, and on opening the door one morning I found all the school furniture afloat. Thus, between fire and water, our experience the first year was rather rough. However, the building was hastened to a finish, and soon we were in comfortable quarters. The fiscal year terminated satisfactorily to all but the teachers, who, instead of being paid in cash, were paid in county scrip at a discount of twenty per cent, a remuneration which, with all our frugality, we found inadequate to support a family of ten persons, for we had added one to our number in the shape of an ingrate.

William McGarry had grown up in my service at Peckham, and when the day arrived that we must part his love for us waxed so strong that he would travel the world over with and for us, and if Mrs. J. would only advance the wherewithal to get him across the Atlantic, being young and strong and willing to work, he would repay every farthing, with interest. I transmitted my consent, and he was added to our responsibilities. Mr. Alonzo Seaman took a lively interest in our struggles, and sold me a lot on time, whereon to place my school-room, and by reconstruction and addition convert it into a dwelling. Mr. George E. Harper Day (a relative of the Harpers of New York) became a warm friend, who, in his capacity of commissioner of schools, had favorably noticed our second daughter, Margaret, who was indeed somewhat precocious and evinced all the attributes of a natural teacher. This practical teacher's friend one day very agreeably astonished me by the gratifying intelligence that he had been daily watching Maggie's usefulness in the management of the class assigned to her, and that such talent and assiduity should not go unrequited. His next visit brought the welcome tidings that the board had placed her on the list of teachers with a salary of $200 per annum, and dated her pay back six months; this before she had attained her fifteenth year. Her elder sister, Mary Ann, proved the domestic right hand of her mother in the management of the happy family. The board also kept faith with the dominies by augmenting their salary to the tune of $50 for the ensuing year; this in the face of an enhanced price on fuel and many of the leading articles of family consumption. To make ends meet proved as difficult as on the previous twelve months notwithstanding another advance of $50 for the third year, and relieved of the affectionate McGarry, who went on a farm at Summit, leaving his note for his indebtedness to me as a kind of souvenir, I suppose, for never did I catch a glimpse of his handsome Irish face again. Mr. Henry Hull became a constant visitor at our little cottage, and no member of our little coterie was blind enough not to perceive that the bewitching eye of Maggie proved the vulnerable point of our family stronghold. At the close of the third year I determined to try other means by which to live. I had in my leisure hours looked a little into the mysteries of photography, and in the autumn of 1853 embarked in that business in East Water street, Milwaukee, and at the end of the year I found my indebtedness increased.

In the spring of 1854 I opened a gallery in Waukesha, with no improvement in success. This year was eventful. While the great comet shone brightly in its eccentric course through the firmament the star of England was burnished by the great battle of Inkerman on the 5th of November, and the general aspect of the war in the Crimea. Henry Hull and Margaret were made one by Rev. Mr. Holmes in matrimony, while the Asiatic cholera raged in the village with fatal effects. In 1855, at the request of the village authorities, I kept one of their schools, returning to the camera September 8, 1855 (the day Sebastopol fell). In 1856 I satisfied my Milwaukee creditors by authorizing H. Hull to dispose of my hard-earned home. The balance came in the shape of forty acres of swamp school lands, which I parted with as an equivalent for instruction in the new method of making pictures on glass, patented by Cutting, of Boston, which patent was proved afterward to be worthless, from his having borrowed or stolen the formula from another person in his employ, and from its having been in use in London for a year prior to his burdening the shelves of the Patent Office at Washington with his trash.

Up to this period I had been proof against the malarial diseases peculiar to a new country, and had the presumption to attribute this exemption to my many years' practice of teetotalism. Dearly did I pay for this self-righteous folly. Three long years did I suffer from this dire disease, twice a day shaking like an aspen leaf. My photographic instructions were given in Milwaukee, and I sojourned with my daughter, who, with her husband, were bigoted homoeopathists, and I became utterly helpless on their hands, daily craving, in vain, of their favorite Esculapius to relieve my constipation, with which I had been afflicted for fourteen days. Mr. Willard Haskins, to whom I am indebted for the prolongation of my life, appeared at my bedside one day and desired me to go home to Waukesha with him. I showed him my helpless condition, and he clothed me and carried me down stairs, took me in a carriage to the depot, thence by rail to Waukesha, and there at home for several weeks he nursed me to health. I was then about fifty-three years of age, and now I am eighty-three, and I must say in common honesty I have never failed to tak aff ma dram frae that dreary day tae this.

In my convalescence I had the honor to recite the poem of Tarn O' Shanter at the centennial of Burns' birthday at the N'ewhall House, Milwaukee, on the 25th January, 1859 (the day on which the local St. Andrew's Society was formed). Also at Madison and at the Episcopal mission, Nashota, I gave three Scotch entertainments, and elsewhere gave evenings with the poets. Leaving Waukesha we again took up our abode in Milwaukee, and there our eldest born, Mary Ann, was united in marriage by Rev. Mr. Love to W. H. Williams. The slave power about this time assumed an encroaching attitude. The unanswerable arguments of Sumner against that villainous power in his place as a representative of the people were met by the bludgeon or heavy cane of a consistent exponent of the then peculiar institution. And it was worthy of remark that for such striking arguments and such signal service the perpetrator was presented by certain women with a golden-headed cane. It became a matter of great solicitude with the American people as to who should be nominated for president for the ensuing term of four years, and the anti-slavery portion, with whom I ranked, was not a little disappointed in the nomination of Abraham Lincoln. The choice of the party seemed to fall on W. H. Seward, but the judgment of Horace Greeley ran counter thereto, and proposed the more suitable man for the crisis. Impatient of control, the pro-slavery element, accustomed to rule, acted as if they would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. Such, indeed, was their infatuation and traitorous ambition that nothing short of civil war could satiate. Early in 1860 I went ahead of my family to Chicago, where we lived twenty - three years and experienced many vicissitudes. I have had the satisfaction of seeing all my daughters married and happy. The shading of the domestic picture is to be found in the dealings of death. The first sad blow of that dread messenger fell on my only surviving son, John Washington, 27½ years of age, in whose death, from hemorrhage of the lungs, I not only lost a dear son, but in confidence a friend. Of the cause of his death I have something to say hereafter. Next of the family to pass away, after two painful operations for cancer, was poor Margaret, who bore her dreadful sufferings with remarkable fortitude, and died on the 25th of January, 1864, leaving two children, Alice and David. James Kavanaugh, too, was stricken down in his manly, robust youth, leaving two children, Jeanie and Marion, to be supported and brought into society by dint of the easel of their talented mother in Milwaukee. The Williams branch, also, was destined to taste of the scathing visitations of the destroying angel. Two fine children were snatched from their embrace at Fox Lake, and George, their only son, a most promising, bright boy, was taken from us at Milwaukee. Two noble girls, Hattie and May, survive to bless and comfort their sorrowing parents. Annie and her two daughters, Daisy and Mabel, both recently married, are happy.'

We left the Badger State in 1860, and found the court house yard of Chicago occupied with all the habiliments of war in the dire expectation of the dogs being let loose. Nor had they long to wait. Too soon, to the eternal disgrace of Beauregard, the suicidal sounds of Fort Sumter were borne upon the breeze. My early efforts in Chicago were attended with success, and in 1864 I joined the St. Andrew's Society. My business at that time carried me among the machine shops, in which many Scotchmen were employed, who nearly to a man were ready to argue against the propriety of becoming members thereof, on the ground chiefly of exclusiveness. Five dollars for the annual dinner was too steep for a workingman, the objector supposing that the whole of that sum was expended in the dinner. Hence the idea of forming a Caledonian Club in 1865. The club was formed, Robert Harvey, Esq., chief.


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