KANSAS COLLECTION BOOKS
Six Months in Kansas by Hannah Anderson Ropes




WINTER EXPERIENCES AND
OBSERVATIONS.



FEBRUARY 1856.

MY DEAR MOTHER,-You will feel anxious, to have a whole month pass by without even a word from us. It has, however, been the fault of no one. Soon after closing my last, sickness and the most freezing cold weather entered hand-in-hand into the cabin. Both were wholly unexpected guests, and quite unprepared for. The cold never took such a fearful grasp of this country before, within the memory of Indian or missionary. The cabins of new settlers, from necessity poor at best, are made with the understanding that winters here are not severe. Think of the thickness of a "shake" only, between one and the cold measuring twenty degrees below zero!

A sorry sort of experience the past month has been to our little household; cheered very often, it is true, by the great kindness and constant attention of people about us; yet, dreary in its details. A bed of "prairie feathers" is not very comfortable at any time; and warmth is not one of its inherent qualities, under any circumstances. Every twenty-four hours, almost, brought some accession to the snow-drifts, and filled the atmosphere of cabins with a most subtle, throat-cutting element, almost impossible to breathe. Large cooking stoves, well heated, made but little headway in a contest so unequal. The wood was not always dry; and to keep it in a decent state for the fire, it was piled up in the cabin, out of the full force of the oft-recurring snow storms. Late in the autumn, L____ had gone up into the territory on important business, and been obliged to camp out without the usual preparation travellers make when it is their intention to sleep under the stars. He and his companion lost their way. They had but two matches left, and expended a good deal of unavailing effort before they succeeded in finding anything dry enough to kindle a fire with. The wind took possession of the first match as soon as it ignited. You can better imagine than I describe the state of two wanderers, totally at a loss how to "define their position," in the darkness of a November night, many miles from any habitation, on a prairie unmarked by any lines of travelled roads, and a storm lowering over their heads! One match left! With the greatest care, not unmingled with proportional fear as to results, it was lighted. Some good angel must have spread its wings of safe protection between the tiny flame, and the winds which monopolize every point of compass, for the fire was lighted. Heaps of wood were piled up, the wagon drawn near enough to shelter the heads of the two young men; the horses sheltered by the "timber," corn given them, and a portion roasted in the fire for the supper of our travellers. With their feet towards the fire and heads under the wagon, they went to sleep, and did not wake till the fire was out by the intrusion of rain and snow, and their persons were crusted over entirely by the frozen mixture. Daylight was worth more than anything else, and that was now about them. With the hope and elasticity belonging not only to the young, but almost inherent in the wild freedom of western life, the horses were harnessed and a point taken, to reach if possible some place of shelter and refreshment. At ten o'clock a cabin appeared under the shelter of a wild and most picturesque bluff; and our guests were most cordially welcomed by its only inhabitant, a German immigrant.

L____ has often told me, since, that he never experienced so great a surprise. The welcome he expected, because there are no more hospitable people than the far-off, wide-apart "squatters" on Uncle Sam's farm. This German, however, fed them with venison, rubbed down the almost perishing horses, and then gave his guests an intellectual treat of the rarest kind. His mind seemed full of the finest specimens of culture, and his enthusiasm over Nature's wild beauty in this western world, seemed almost boundless. L____ and his companion felt quite ill-used and frozen, through the evening; but the compensation of the morning, and indeed the whole day and night, through which they remained as guests to the kind German, was more than an equivalent for all they suffered.

When the cold days of Christmas pressed down upon us, we felt as though we were to go through another edition of L.'s experience on the prairie. Our spirits held out very remarkably. Things did not look any worse than they really were-which, to be sure, were bad enough. Sickness pressed heavily upon me; but the fever made me quite insensible to the danger from the cold air, until, like poor "Joe," I began to heave hard for my breath, like one laboring with an oar. Now that it is past, there come to my mind distinct pictures, vivid, and most touching, of that period. A group of three, snuggled close round the stove, vainly endeavoring to get warm, leaving it in haste to get more wood, to place a hot brick about my person, or to break the ice for me to drink. For some time I refused to have any watcher, it seemed too cold for any one to stay out of bed. Alice was placed under cover very early in the evening. Water was all I craved, and it would freeze solid before midnight. Edward tried the experiment of boiling some, filling a mug with it, and placing the mug in a tin pail, covered tight. This answered very well awhile; but at last the mug froze down in the pail, so that it could not be got out without being set on the stove. At this time E. seemed quite tired out with care and anxiety. One night he went to bed early, leaving a great fire. It was about nine when I took up my tumbler to drink--it was frozen solid. In a moment the door opened for Mr. W.; my sight was very dim and he looked a long way off, and the bed seemed to have been moved back into another room. I tried to speak; but could not make a sound. I beckoned to him; for I did not realize that the fault was mine that he seemed so far away. He saw my movement, came to give me the tumbler, saw that it was full of ice, and went to the pail, which was in the same condition. He replenished the fire, took up the pail and vanished. The air was full of a driving snow-storm; and it was a long way to the spring; but very soon the pail and man returned into the cabin. I had not only a "cup of cold water," but a dish of nice cocoa, brought as soon as it could be made. L. came in, in a few moments, and remained the rest of the night. He says it was the only time in his life when he thought he was in danger of freezing; and that, with the largest fire he could build, the water for me to drink froze upon the stove-hearth!

Towards night the next day, I was roused from a stupid sleep by the entrance, first, of a fair and delicate-looking woman, then the Dr., L., Mr. W., and several others. The lady announced to me that I was to be moved immediately, and proceeded at once to tuck the clothes closely about the narrow bed, and to spread a woollen shawl over my head; the gentlemen then raised me up, bed and all, bore me out the door, and placed me in a cart as gently as a mother could have laid away a babe. The company mounted in about me, holding a buffalo-skin over the bed. The ride was not at all painful to me, and I did not feel the cold in the least.

The famous hotel, which has quite a history of its own, notwithstanding its youth, was soon reached. It stands up quite high from the ground; had no steps yet made; and to enter, an inclined plane of boards rested upon the sill and the ground. The stairs, too, in the hall, as yet existed only in the mind of the master-builder. The space they were to occupy was covered with narrow strips of board; and as one flight rose over the other, from the cellar up four stories, it was enough to make any head dizzy to take themselves up, without the weight of a bed and sick person./

Now that I am well, I cannot but consider it a remarkable feat that all these uncertain steps were taken without injury to any one. My head was not uncovered till the door of L.'s office had shut me in, and the bed settled down by the side of a wall, covered with law books, the odor from which awakened most pleasant remembrances of home. Those who have had the sensation of a heavy plank bound over the lungs, can understand how great the relief was to breathe the warm air of this comparatively warm and finished room. It was a long and narrow place, with one window looking to the south; walls on two sides, of cemented lime-stone, very rough, with occasional chinks through which the sky was visible. The other sides were thin partitions, dividing it on one side from the "council-chamber," and on the other from the powder-magazine! Still farther along the hall, Mr. W. had secured a room for himself. At night a mattress was drawn by my bed-side, and there L. and E., alternately tending the fire and nursing me, passed the time till morning. On the other side, close to me, was drawn another lounge, where, in the unbroken sleep of childhood, little Alice securely rested. About this room there has always seemed the atmosphere of the utmost peace and security; and hereafter, in years to come, these young people will, I think, forget all that it was at the time so hard to bear, and remember it as one of the periods of safe-keeping, and active mental growth.

Meanwhile the snow and cold seem to keep time with each other. The hum of voices in the council chamber is increased by numbers. Matters of importance are before its members. We are startled often by the report of firearms.

There is a stone building nearly opposite, in one part of which is a tailor's shop. Living somewhere in this settlement is a creature, half man, half brute, who sometimes allows the one nature to rule him, and sometimes the other-a noisy, uproarious bully, when warmed up with whiskey, called "Buckskin." Some real or imaginary cause of offense has sprung up between him and this tailor, opposite. The brute nature has rule over Buckskin to-night; his grievance, whatever it may be, is athirst for vengeance. Loud and awfully profane talking peals forth from his mouth at this puny strip of a tailor, who shuts and bolts his door for safety, putting out the light within. Buckskin fires through the door and window, shot after shot. We are in great anxiety, expecting to hear of the tailor's murder. Quite a mob have collected in the street. What a strange sight this would be in Boston! and how quickly the strong hand of a Boston policeman would lead away the aggressor, and disperse the gathering multitude! Late into the night the sounds die out; even Buckskin must have sleep.

Sheriff Jones has had quite a novel finale to an arrest. The wife of the arrested man should have been born on the other side of the Atlantic; and would have made a fitting mate to some modern Robin Hood. In the first place, she hid the Sheriff's dragoon coat, which in itself was very valuable as well as a necessary appendage this cold weather. After her husband was placed in the carriage for removal, she drew a loaded pistol from her person, pointed it at Sheriff Jones, and declared she would fire if he did not release her husband. As there seemed no possible doubt of her sincerity, and as the gentleman could not avenge himself upon a woman, he released the man-expressing the opinion, that he should rather face an army of men than one furious woman. More recently, that same woman went into a yard of horses kept to let, and demanded one, over which she had some real or imaginary right, presenting at the same time her pistol at the hostler. The shock to his sensibility was so great, that he suffered her to mount the horse and ride off without molestation. This reminds me of another "strong-minded woman." When at the peace party, the Doctor called my attention to a woman, sitting very straight in a chair, quite near an illuminated window, by the light of which she was reading a newspaper. Her eyes were very black; her face not only determined, but somewhat brazen. The Doctor amused himself, as well as me, by detailing some of her freaks during our troubles. In one instance, when her cabin was visited by the enemies, she passed herself off as a Missourian, and, through the statement of her defenceless position, gained from them two rifles! On another occasion, when going home from Lawrence, the distance from which is about six miles, she rode her own horse and led that of her husband, who, being one of the soldiers, could not return with her. After riding about half way home, she saw a man hastening after her; and, when within speaking distance, he demanded the extra horse. She replied, "Take it if you can," and put her pony into a fast trot. Stimulated both by the ride and her nearer approach to her home, she, when at a good distance, reined in her horse and laughed at him for not taking what he wished. The pursuer got very angry; he was drunk before; he drew his pistol but had not steadiness of nerve to hold it, and it slipped from him to the ground. Fearing, half drunk as he was, to dismount, he started on to secure the horse, uttering oath after oath. My lady's spirit was now up, she did not fear drunken man on horseback, so she made a wide circuit, bringing herself back to where the pistol lay; it was but the work of a moment for her to jump to the ground, secure the prize, spring upon the horse, and gallop home.

The quiet of the hotel, hitherto broken only by the click of the workmen's hammers, or the hurried step of its few inmates, has suddenly changed. There are armed men quartered again in the rooms directly beneath us. Steps of many people press along the entries to the "council-chamber." Soberness settles over the faces which have borne so lightly and bravely the vexatious inconveniences of a first winter in a new country. Dame Rumor has issued her bulletin, that our little town is to be burned, and women and children must be removed or share the massacre of men.

The forts have miserable shanties erected in them for the soldiers stationed in each. The cold increases. Officers sleep upon the floor of the council-chamber. Over our heads, upon the flat roof of the hotel, we hear the steady, measured tread of a sentinel. The sound is crisp and cold, with the deep snow still increasing, driven furiously by the wind. Each soldier at the different quarters takes his hour's tramping watch. There is over all a fearful sense of forsaken helplessness. It seems almost as though heaven and earth had forsaken us. Our officers, however, are strong and brave men; they stand like a wall of fire between us and danger. But how few of them in numbers! Who among you whom we left at home can ever reckon up the wear and tear that these men are passing through? The half-sleeping posture upon the floor or a rude bench; the family, left at home without its rightful protection; and the constant, reliable impression that attack is inevitable, and that no sufficient force is ready to meet it.

Almost every day brings some few fresh hands and true hearts into the town. Very often our door is opened by mistake, and men rush close to the fire, regardless of everything but to warm themselves. I amuse myself scrutinizing their various wrappings,-an odd mixture of Indian gay blankets, leggins, and moccasins, with the remnants of a former civilization in the shape of gloves, caps, and coats. Stupid people, we have none. The hard attrition of border life, and the granite roughness of every circumstance surrounding us, brings to the surface every available element of human capability. I can readily imagine how, unsanctified with a righteous cause, this surface-power may become cruel and vindictive.

Now, to the tramp of the watchmen overhead is added the more distant tread of a wide-awake sentinel in the long hall, upon the first floor. Early in the morning the soldiers are astir. Their cook regales us by the pleasant flavor of his coffee and broiled beef, to say nothing of corn-mush and hot biscuit. Like all invalids, for want of other employment, I trace his march through breakfast, the orders for more water, for towels to wipe the dishes with, intermingled with the clatter of cups and saucers, snatches of pleasant songs, uproarious laughter, and jokes quite unintelligible to us up above; though we cannot resist the magnetic influence to join the laugh. Then there is a sudden rush at the material for dinner. No joke, this, in a freezing day -to cook for a company of soldiers, and the days so short. Sometimes the meat burns with the hurry, or the mush binds itself to the bottom of the kettle, or the water boils out from the potatoes. Every housekeeper knows how very unpleasant the odor ascending from such a culinary failure is.

This settled routine is at length broken in upon, at midnight, by the arrival of a courier from Fort Leavenworth. The council are awakened to hear the news of another murder at Easton, where an election was held; and a request for assistance in the shape of armed men.

There is no more sleep in the hotel. Men are selected to start out immediately as far as the house of Sicoxie, a friendly Delaware Indian, and there remain for their orders from Leavenworth. Three men are to keep on, one of whom is L_, to get accurate information about the murder.

To-day, Captain Dicky, of Topeka, follows their march, with quite a company. The distance is about thirty miles, I believe, through an unbroken road, a wild Indian country. Captain Brown lived but a few hours after his wounds were inflicted. He was taken prisoner by men from Platte county, and confined in a room, to be hung the next morning; but, so greedy were his captors for his blood, that, before he was really led out of the entrance to his prison, hatchets were raised above his head and bowie-knives thrust into his body. He fell most barbarously wounded. At his earnest request, he was placed in a wagon and taken to his home, where, on his arrival, he had time enough to bid farewell to his wife and children.

Capt. Brown was born at the South; emigrated from Ohio to this Territory with his family, and located near Fort Leavenworth. In the autumn he came to Lawrence, and remained till our safety was no longer in jeopardy. In personal appearance he was quite a marked man, even in a crowd. He was unusually tall, with a rich, brown complexion, dark, abundant hair and beard, and eyes large, dark, and sad in expression. I do not think that any one who ever saw him will forget his personal appearance, and no dweller in Kansas can ever forget the mark his cruel death has made upon the pages of its early history.

Capt. Dicky arrived on Saturday evening. They came across the river at the foot of Massachusetts street, and rode up in front of this hotel, where they were received with loud cheers. Certain military maneuvers, quite unintelligible to my ignorant self, were performed, interspersed with cheers, speeches, and other testimonials of rejoicing. It really was a grand display. The moonlight, glittering upon the Snow; the fantastic, distorted shadows of curious cabins, piles of lumber, wood, and sleds of an entirely new pattern, stretching out on every side; the immense, rude, unfinished hotel, looming up behind the smoking, tired horses, mounted with men quite as originally dressed and as truly brave as were the men of old revolutionary times! After going through the (I suppose usual) courtesies of military tactics on similar occasions, the company galloped, in single file, to temporary places of shelter for their tired horses; and soon after refreshed themselves with a supper, prepared for them at a restaurant close by; then accepted the hospitality of the hotel, wherein people are stowed away for a night's rest, very much as trunks and boxes are packed into a warehouse.

The distinctive lines between those who live for themselves and those who live for others, are never so clearly defined as in a new, yet unpossessed country. I cannot give you a faithful transcript of our own daily experience, without telling something of the kind acts of strangers, who prepare for us nice delicacies in the shape of broiled birds, prairie chickens, and rabbits, accompanied with wheat-bread and ginger-cakes. Our box in the corner, bearing upon its top our small pattern of china and delf, rarely fails to sustain some nice little mess, carefully covered with a napkin or newspaper to secure it alike from the gaze of visitors, the dust of a dirty room, and the cunning mice, who between four and five o'clock descend from the upper portion of the cemented walls, creeping out from the smallest little crevices, and travelling at the most rapid rate, to the floor below. The little curious creatures have, as a race, most inquiring minds. There is no space of this room which they have not measured with their rapid feet; and no secret hiding-place they have not peered into. Harmless always, except in taking a bite of everything eatable, they make themselves perfectly at home. If the room is still, they amuse me by their frolics upon the floor; and often they play "'possum," by rolling themselves up and dropping from the stone wall down to the floor below. Often, in the night, they make a short cut across the bed's head, springing thence to the books, scrambling among the papers, for a night's entertainment. Woe be to any delicacy, if they get at it! We learn at home to say, "still as mice," but that saying grew out of ignorance of this miniature race of creatures. One should be deaf, to sleep well where they are. Such dissipated night merry-makings as they have can hardly be recorded of any other race; and their grace of motion is beautiful indeed.

There are a large proportion of remarkably pretty women in Lawrence. Most of them married, yet quite young; indeed, I consider myself, for the first time in my life, quite venerable when compared with those about me. Living in a "shake" cabin, close under my window, is the fair little lady who helped me into my present "quarters." She is from Ohio. Her place of abode, with its one window towards me, its chimney of stove pipe, its tiny tallow candle of an evening, is always an object of interest; a cold little home it is. Her feet have frozen this cold winter while busy about her house-work. There was a gathering moisture in her eye when she told me; but the quiver about the mouth passed into her usual smile of cheerful hopefulness, and absorbed the tears before they fell. With more than usual interest I have watched her one room, the past week. She has taken in a sick man, Major Robinson, of Tecumseh, who for some time has been rather sick, at the "Cincinnati House." That is no place for sick people. This man has fallen into good hands; but he is quite unconscious of those about him. Sweet forgetfulness spreads a mantle over his present, and memory takes him back to other days, and to his early home. He holds long talks with his mother. Almost his last request is, "Mother, take off my shoes; my feet are tired and swollen, I cannot travel any farther to-night." And so, in a state of pleasant surroundings, a happy unconsciousness of his present condition, he passes into the other life, where every want may be met, without opposition. I know when his life ceases; for the lady brings out the bed-clothes and stretches them upon the line. My friend from Paschal Fish's, formerly of Roxbury, with another beautiful woman from Worcester, step out with saddened faces, and walk quickly away. Poor fellow! he had no relative near him at the close of his life, but there are good, kind people everywhere; and under their blessed ministry he passed away. The body, once placed in its coffin, is brought to this depot of all things, whether living or dead. This shelter is the last resort; the place, too, for all assemblies, whether of business, pleasure, meetings for prayers, or, as in this instance, services for the dead. Many days passed before the honors due to this brave young officer were attended to. The accumulating snow and freezing cold were a very tolerable excuse, yet not enough to satisfy those who had consciences. At last people assembled in respectable numbers; company A. trod the white, almost unbroken snow, as escort, far out of town to the appropriate burial-ground.

E. goes up the river in company with several men every day, to haul down wood upon the ice. They wrap up as warm as though we had suddenly exchanged climates with Labrador. People are very busy cutting ice from the river; and, although our ears are not enlivened with the merry jingle of bells, we are very much amused at the numberless new inventions in the shape of sleds and sleighs that are each day coming into town. The business portion of Lawrence has always more or less of the Indian tribes within its capacious street. Delawares and Shawnees mingle among our people very pleasantly, and are not much to be distinguished from them in dress this winter,-for our men resort to buffalo or blanket, as the most comfortable promenade dress. Other tribes of Indians, living farther west and less civilized, leading rather wandering lives, pitch their tents in the "timber bottom-lands" not far distant, and come hither for their food. I have amused myself not a little, sitting by this window, so high above the ground and overlooking every building in sight, watching the movements of these Indians. This afternoon is as cold as possible, the snow dry and frozen stiff; some wild-looking specimens have come up the street, fastening their ponies to a pile of wood near a grocery store. One of the squaws has set down a tall red bag close beside the walls of a cabin; presently she brings two bags of flour round near her pony. She proceeds to take off the saddle, produces a leather strap from her pocket, ties a bag of flour to each end of the strap, and balances them by means of the strap thrown over pony's back. Now the saddle is replaced and girted tightly on. Pony is very patient, being evidently well acquainted with his mistress' movements. There are some small packages, too, which she fits on some safe way, at least I hope so, for my attention is suddenly arrested by the shrill cry of a baby, and my eyes astonished by the appearance of a pair of little hands and arms thrust out through the red flannel bag. The mother expedites her packing business, springs quickly up over the flour on to the saddle, while a tall Indian suddenly turns the corner, lifts red flannel and its wondrous contents into her lap, over which she spreads a blanket, smothering any further attempts at crying which the ill-used infant might have had in view. Another woman, mounted in the same way, appears in the street. Both ponies so heavily laden pass slowly down to the river and cross to the Delaware country, which stretches along the opposite bank of the Kansas river, and is densely wooded.

It is not till the middle of February that the winter relents-the eaves of our humble dwelling begin to drip; and travelling up and down the river with loaded teams is set aside as unsafe. The winter has indeed been a long and trying one. Provisions have become scarce, and the difficulty of providing for so many men, a question of the utmost interest to wise men. Everybody has denied themselves luxuries most cheerfully. But the goal of a fruitful summer, the nearer relief even of access to our friends, through the opening navigation of the western rivers, all seem a long way off. The unbridged streams between this place and the nearest market-town in Missouri, together with the now softening drifts of snow, make all market communication quite impossible. All through the winter our mails have been most unfaithfully attended to; to speak fairly, one half of our letters and papers never get through the two borders of our most truly interesting neighbor, Missouri. Numerous money-drafts, forwarded from the East to help us in our utmost need, have been detained. I should certainly be obliged, in face of all I have seen and learned this winter to accept the awful doctrine of total depravity, if it were not for my firm conviction that there is a great misunderstanding somewhere. Certainly there must be a great proportion of good and kind people in the State of Missouri; this, however, is simply a matter of faith, not of sight. To us, however good they may be, they turn a deaf ear and keep a cold silence.

Feb.22d.-This twenty-second of February witnesses a social gathering in the hall of this hotel, or rather in the dining-room. "Company A" give the party, and preside over it with a great deal of hospitality. Tables are spread in the upper entry, which is very spacious. I am quite surprised at the clean and nice appearance of the tables, and the variety spread upon them for our refreshment. In the course of the evening, "Company A" entertain us with an original song got up by them, in the ballad style, giving quite a history of this settlement. This company is a matter of general interest to us all. Its members are young men, and very brave. One of its members, a native of Ohio, has in several instances shown remarkable presence of mind. Very early in the commencement of this settlement a tented cabin took fire, there was no person in it, but there were some trunks of clothes belonging to absent members of the settlement, and also, a keg of powder. Persons who saw the fire knew the cabin could not be saved. With a sudden cry at the remembrance of the powder, young B. sprang down the slope, entered the burning curtain, and took the cask, already smutty and slightly charred, in his arms, and running out still farther down the ravine, threw it from him, and then returned and hauled out the trunks in safety. Another young man, from New England, succeeded in getting a team, loaded with cannon, up from Kansas City, when camps on the road were filled with armed men.

Feb. 24th.-The ice in our river dissolves its winter-union to-day--this twenty-fourth day of February--a bright, cheerful Sabbath. The sky appears in its own peculiar clearness, bringing distant objects distinctly before the eyes. I go from one window of the hotel to another, uttering exclamations at the prospect. I see the river curving quite round, up towards its source, walled with tall, tastefully arranged trees, and, floating sluggishly upon its surface, cakes of ice thick enough to have done justice to a more northern latitude. Groups of people stand along the shore, watching with apparent interest the indications of a clear and navigable river. While, from many little homes, church going people pick their way through the softened snow, pools of dirty water, and mud of uncertain depth, towards the rude place of worship. Off in the distance, towards the south-west, Blue Mound lifts its fair proportions against the sky, making a line with the Wakarusa river, marking its course by the fringe of trees along its nearest banks; and its farther shore, by the rising, terraced slopes lifting themselves far in the distance to the line of the horizon, sprinkled here and there with patches of clean snow, upon a ground of dried grass and the black mould of this truly fertile country. Without any great stretch of the imagination, one can fancy many distant towns and villages nestled in those pleasant slopes. One can never look over this beautiful country without a feeling of astonishment that it was never taken up for settlement before.

The month of February closes full of hope and cheerfulness to us all. The winter is indeed gone, and our places of abode are still standing unmolested. The hour of my imprisonment, too, is nearly out. We must go back to cabin house-keeping soon; and till then, believe me as ever, your affectionate daughter,

                  H.A.R.


Previous     Next     Table of Contents