Six Months in Kansas by Hannah Anderson Ropes


MARCH 1856.

MY DEAR MOTHER,-Your most kind and acceptable letter reached me in the same mail with Sarah's, and gave me so great a start, lest something unpleasant had occurred, that I hardly dared break the seals. Since receiving them I have written to Ellen, so that you will, if it reaches you, know how much better I am. We moved back to the cabin last Monday. It was hardly warm enough weather to make the change, but the men were plastering the hotel, and I felt as though they would be glad to have us leave. Besides, I recollected the theory you always advanced, that plastering, when fresh, was a dangerous near-neighbor. The two first nights after I came into the cabin I coughed almost incessantly. The fire went out, and the rough winds crept in everywhere. But it seemed pleasant to get back once more and brighten up the cabin with a warm fire, and a general washing of dishes and dusting of furniture.

We have made another improvement, too, by covering two-thirds of the floor with carpeting. On that portion we have the bed, bureau, washstand, grandpa's chair and the little table. The carpet reaches close to one side of the cooking-stove; and in front of the stove I have a thick mat, upon which my feet now rest as I write. The children have just gone down to the bank of the river, to see a skiff launched.

Kansas river is now a deep and rather good-looking stream, but lacks motion and a clear bottom. The ice is out as far as St. Louis, but no boats have come up yet; and travelling any other way is too hard for people. So far, I have seen no improvement upon our New England climate. One can but consider themselves most seriously taken in, by all the grand talk about Kansas winters. The Delawares, however, say this is the coldest winter for very many years. Indeed, they warned us last fall, by various signs, to prepare for a cold winter. But how could we get ready to be comfortable, while watching the signs so much more momentous-of war! And how could people make tight houses, without lumber? Saw mills and grist-mills should have preceded printing-presses in the proportion of a dozen to one. Then, the little money among us would have gone much farther. Many a field of corn was lost because the owner was on guard in Lawrence, when he should have been gathering his crops; and many a bag of meal was emptied, and many a quarter of beef was roasted, gladly and generously, to feed the soldiers. These things, in a country so new, have of course left their effects upon the whole winter. There has been a great scarcity of money, and of many things which money alone could buy. It is not possible for those who sit in whole houses and by warm fires, to understand this winter, out in Kansas. Those who have been on the spot and passed through its own peculiar history, must always consider it as a rich legacy in the line of experience.

I really wish I had more births and marriages to report to you, with fewer deaths. The former, I am sorry to say, are quite unusual in the present epoch of Kansas history. In this respect our history is quite in character with the history of the early settlement of other States and Territories; the graveyard is one of the first apportionments, and the soonest to be thickly inhabited. Quite late in the autumn, one of our merchants returned east to bring his wife out here. She died of cholera on the Missouri river, and was buried where many other immigrants have found a last resting-place, upon its wild, uninhabited banks. The forlorn husband, Mr. Wilder, continued his journey, and reached this place in safety. He inherited consumptive tendencies, and this sad misfortune aggravated and increased them. He died this week. He had made every preparation to return to his former home in Vermont, and waited only for better weather and better travelling. They both came too late.

My first escape from the winter prison was at the invitation of Typhoid, to pass the day with her. It is of necessity a crowded, depot-like house; people always coming to warm themselves and departing, or getting a night's lodging and then going on their way bright and early in the morning.

On this gala-day for me, there was still some snow and frost about the earth, and a curious-between "hay and grass"-aspect of people, cattle, and equipages. Carts, with oxen or horses attached, stood side by side with sleds of most extemporaneous build; while men with blankets or coats, or without either, carefully picked their busy way to and from the town. At noon, strangers and boarders accept the call of the house-bell, and flock in for dinner. While in the midst of the gathering, aspirants for dinner, a yoke of red and white oxen drag a most rare pattern of a sled close before the door-steps. The man guiding the oxen is very young; and he seems remarkably careful of his load. How could he be otherwise? for she is a beautiful young girl, dressed in refined taste, notwithstanding the rude sled and the clumsy bed-comforter with which she is so carefully wrapped. She takes a seat by the sitting-room fire; is very cold, and prefers the warmth to dinner. On our return from the dining-room, she is absorbed in the perusal of letters just brought her by her husband from the post-office. She is so pretty, and so young -looking, one cannot refrain from gazing at her, and wondering how she came out here. Without undue curiosity, the impalpable atmosphere about persons gives you some kind of a clue to their condition.

This lady finished her letters, read them over a second time, then wrapped them up carefully and placed them in her basket. She was too young and unsuspicious not to trust those about her. She seemed to crave sympathy; and began the story one most wished to hear. She lived on a claim out ten miles, on the road up the river; a very lonesome place. If they only could live in the town. She always had lived in a town before. But now she had spoken to but two women out of the house since September; and there was no travelling past, wherewith to amuse herself. To be sure, her husband's mother lived with them, and was very kind; what would they do without her? And the house was more comfortable than any she passed in her ride; it was built of logs, cemented inside, and had three rooms and quite a cellar; but she had frozen her feet, how she could not tell, for there was a carpet on the floor, and she had not been out; but then the winter had been so cold! it was now six weeks since her feet were first frozen, and she could not yet walk upon them. She came out here in company with Dr. P. and she thought the day was so fine she would come and consult him about her sore ankles.

A cheering little spirit she seemed to be; telling many pleasant bits of her experience in house-keeping. As good luck would have it, Dr. P. came into the room where we were. He seemed very glad to see her; questioned her about her feet, which had neither stockings nor shoes upon them, but were wrapped carefully and securely in an abundance of flannel. He seemed quite anxious at some of her replies, and said she must go home with him and pass the night, the better to secure a fair chance to examine the poor feet. The team was again brought to the door; the little lady lifted carefully into the seat, softened with a comforter; and, the last glimpse I ever expect to have of her, she was being faithfully escorted by her husband on one side, ox-whip in hand, and Dr. P. on the other, reining in his prancing, splendid, black horse, and pointing over the country to the place where his cabin stands. Through him I have since learned that she was from Cincinnati; the only daughter of a wealthy family, married without their knowledge or consent, while a school girl. Dear little "child-wife," who can ever avert the doom, sealed by your own thoughtless hand! There are men for whom, under some rare circumstances, so great a sacrifice might compensate, but this is not one of them. I see nothing before her but a life of protracted anxiety and suffering.

Disagreeable news begins to float up the river. A few persons from the East have arrived in town, and bring us word that a quantity of Sharpe's rifles and four guns, coming up the river, packed in carpenter-chests, and in charge of Boston men, were forcibly seized at Lexington and kept. The joke of it is, some little machinery belonging to each rifle was packed separately, was undiscovered by the pirates, and reached here in safety; so that if they fire the rifles, they will discharge at both ends! How many times, think you, will they fire them? One of the persons who had them in charge has gone to see Gov. Shannon, and demand an order for them. The Governor is now at Lecompton, a few miles farther up the river. What will that "gutta percha" man do in such a dilemma? If he refuses, then he acknowledges himself in favor of the robbers. If he grants the order, the robbers become his enemies. Poor "Gutta," I am always curious, and somewhat pitiful, too, when you have to decide a question.

Tell Ellen's "Uncle Ben" that I was very glad to receive the letter in which he bore a part. I hoped to answer it; but I have but little time to write, and very few conveniences for doing so-for a long while no table, nor chair, nor ink fit to mark paper with. Then, at first, I was very homesick. It seemed chronic like a tooth-ache or a side-ache to which one has long been accustomed in a milder form; for I don't think I ever made even a temporary change of residence without suffering somewhat from it. In this instance I could do nothing to relieve it, and never told it to others; that is not my way. The heat through September was intense; the winds, even, seemed to come from a hot furnace. The sky was remarkable for its clear brightness. I felt almost as though I belonged to the owl family, it seemed so staring bright to me. Then, when the sun went down so grandly, so gracefully, behind the most exquisitely terraced hills in the far, far distance, and I would have refreshed myself by a cosey sit-down outside the cabin, to watch the stars and muse alone, there could nothing be found over this dreadfully cleared-up wilderness whereof a seat might be made! not a dear old pasture-knoll, or rock with its mossy cushion, or a wall holding so many nice flat stones, where one always is tempted to sit, alone, or with a friend, far into the night, or the stump of a tree, could this boasting, much talked-of new world produce for my comfort, and remind me of home. The next great cause of discomfort to us was the lack of water. Accustomed to use it as freely as a duck-or, more to the point, perhaps, a goose -the doled-out pitcher-full at a hotel, with the thermometer at eighty or ninety, seemed wholly unendurable, though chargeable to the fault only of a certain condition of things, which time and more advanced "city improvements" could remedy.

For the cabin, water must be brought nearly a quarter of a mile, unless taken from the river sleeping but a few rods off, and settled down to its narrowest bed by the dry hot summer, and cushioned round with shifting, strange-looking sand-bars, which partakes too much of the properties of the broader Missouri, into which it empties, for any Eastern house-keeper to risk her white Cotton in it, or to use it willingly about her person.

I wonder if all this sounds like fault-finding? I mean it simply as a statement of facts, which I believe I started with to excuse myself for not writing to all my friends. How often they pass through my thoughts! or rather when they are absent from my thoughts it would be difficult to find out. Like the figures in a panorama, they come at my call, each making way for another, as in pictures turned by other machinery than the fancies of a busy brain. My promises to write come with them, like shadows on the wall; and then follows a discussion upon the weightiness of this or that reason for the neglect.

If I really had a conscience, I dare say these communings would be set down to its righteous upbraidings. But, mother, my present opinion is that I have no such attendant. Certainly, whatever labors I perform are a pleasure, usually; if not, they lie so close before me that intuition, I think, prompts to their accomplishment. Or, it may be, they intervene between me and something which I desire in my more interior nature to come at. Intuition helps: this puts spurs to my activity. What I do for my friends is a whole-hearted pleasure. Conscience does not help or hinder me, even to the taking off any amount of me, for their benefit. My friends! are they not the circumference of my heaven? Then surely it is no duty-call which makes me true, loving, and faithful to them. The world in general is an object of such intense sympathy and pity for all, that in its wrong-headedness it suffers,-as well as for all it loses, by resting on so low a moral and intellectual plane, -that naturally, not dutifully, I run all round, lifting a weary head here, or bathing an unsightly limb or visage there, till, weary with the energy I expend, I put myself upon the shelf for rest, saying very privately, whispering it close in the ears of this me, "What is their torture to yours? Has not your life been a long humiliation? a solitude, broken only upon its surface? a lone, helpless, womanly desolation, kept from dying out only by the often kindly grasp of the hand, the friendly recognition of the eye, or the more demonstrative letter, costing time, thought, and remembrance?

This childish, credulous me, thus flattered into a continued keeping upon the shelf, complacently makes out a case of justifiable repose for its future, keeping still a negative friendliness to the poor, pitiable portion of the world; but no more actual service. Where, I wonder, is my conscience now? If asleep, it is time a better sentinel was placed on guard over my soul!

Upon the whole, mother, my pen has struck out on the wrong road altogether. "Uncle Ben" did not wish a word on this highway: make it over to his brother; it will furnish him a theme for a sermon of rebuke to all conscienceless people.

This "Uncle Ben" of Ellen's, once before, wrote for my advice about the advantages to be gained by his going West; and I urged it with very many to me then, strong reasons in favor of it. Our wise "sage of America" says: "Let a man speak what he thinks to-day, and to-morrow say what he believes; even if he contradicts the words of yesterday." Acting upon this permission, as well as the wider experience of to-day, I should take back whatever inducement at a former period, and in quite a state of ignorance, I might have then presented to him. At his age, (he will excuse me,) changes cannot be made in all one's habits of action and position, without pain; not to speak of loss, never to be regained-of ties, made strong with years, and strengthened by joy and sorrow. Few cultivated minds like his can safely go so far from everything they have known and joined sympathy with.

Did I ever tell you about a colony of emigrants, who went south from this place some seventy miles, or more or less? (I am never good with numbers.) Report says it was a most promising colony, and that they located in a most fertile, sunny region, where the rough winds do not have full play, as they do here. The summer was one of delightful weather-too fascinating for work, and too full of promise for sufficient preparation to be made against the coming winter-time. Autumn settled down with damp nights and heavy dews. The fever and ague spread among them all. The clergyman and his family were all down with it.

One day a brother clergyman, from New England-who had taken up the time of his summer vacation in coming to see his friend, and gratify his desire to see the country-found his way to the colony, and to the humble cabin of his friend. Rather a sad meeting it was; for there was no one able to provide for his comfort or their own. He cut wood for the fire-made his own coffee-and provided for his horse. While taking his own refreshment, there came in a poor, old, sick-looking man, who could hardly carry himself about, to borrow a shovel for the purpose of digging a grave for another man, who, he said, had just died; and on further inquiry, replied, that he was the only person left at all able to perform the service. The visitor "lifted up his voice and wept," repeating to himself," I never could have believed in such a state of things without coming here to see it! As soon as the clergyman and his family were well enough to be moved, they were brought to Lawrence.

The first time I saw them, a young lad, the only son of his mother, was suffering from a fit of the ague, wrapped up in blankets upon a lounge. The mother, a fair, gentle English woman, sat in adjoining room, sewing together the breadths of a comforter. The only cabin they could obtain was a poor affair, leaking badly, and partly covered with cotton cloth. This little fellow worked with right goodwill to keep wood cut for the fire, as soon as he was able; but the weather came on so cold that fire made but little impression. At last, when the winter was far spent, a very comfortable house was made ready for them. The lady, however, had fastened upon her a serious cough, before the relief of warm air was granted to her. Hopes were entertained that spring would restore all she had lost through the winter. When, very suddenly, last week, the young lad was siezed with fever and total delirium. He survived but a few days. And in less than a week, his sorrow-stricken mother passed away also.All who now remain, are the father, a daughter about seventeen, and a pretty little pet, in the shape of a little girl about five years old. They came to stay with Typhoid, until preparations could be made for them to return east. The little girl still has turns of ague, but a change of climate will probably restore her.

This young boy's history reminds me of another lad, still younger, who has been an object of a great deal of interest to many persons among us. I cannot recall his name-for we all call him "Bub." When L. was travelling over the territory, at some place where he stopped he heard a conversation about this little boy, eleven years of age, who came out with his father to look about for a place of settlement. The father grew sick, and in order to provide for the boy, commenced a return journey. One night they put up, for the night only; but it proved the last of his life. The poor little orphan was completely crushed under the weight of a grief and desolation so dreadful. L. was so interested in the case, especially as they were Massachusetts people that he made arrangements for the boy to he brought to Lawrence. As Soon as he arrived here, I went in often to see him. He always met me with a smile, but made no conversation about the past. I'm sure I could not ask him any questions directly personal-sorrow seems so sacred. He is remarkably interesting in person; has more than the usual share of beauty; and, through his periods of almost daily fever or ague, he never frets nor exacts much from others. Indeed, the strange, bewildering loneliness of his position seems to have paralyzed every childish emotion. Sitting in a hard, ugly chair, close to the stove, when the chill is upon him, it is pleasant to witness how the roughest, sternest nature is softened when brought close to the same stove for warmth. "Well, Bub, are you better today?" comes in tones so truly sympathetic that the child-heart leaps up to answer.

Now there arrives from the East (that much-loved "land of Egypt" to every wandering, Israelite in this far-off, strange land) a man whom we all love and honor-to whom we all look, as to a sheet-anchor in a storm. General Pomeroy gives both warmth and light to the parlor the of the miniature "Cincinnati House." He loves children-they know by intuition who does; and this desolate little boy gives his unresisting hand into the great brown palm of the General, while, as the evening settles down into approaching night, and people pass out from the room usually so crowded, the kind-hearted man touches with so much tenderness the "aching cord" of his little companion, that the fountain of tears breaks open like a long pent-up flood. The little hand is covered with another brown palm-smoothed gently, and time given for all the relief which sobs and tears can bestow. Now follows, naturally, the story of his departure from home with his father-all the details of their long journey-the coming sickness-the final death of the father. Poor little fellow! It would have melted the stoutest heart to hear his unaffected, simple statement of the, to him, awful tragedy. Questions came often from the General, as well as words of comfort, in a voice gentle as that of a loving mother.

This man, with a heart in which the milk of human kindness had not been permitted to become acid, came down to the simple plane of the child's mind; took this great dilemma of his young life in hand, and solved it for him. He repeated his mother's name over and over again to him, until the poor little fellow became accustomed to the sound, and could repeat it himself without shrinking, and Hope lifted itself from the torpor of many a long day. Gen. Pomeroy promised to see him safe home to his mother; but not now. He must get well first; and for this purpose he would get him boarded at Dr. Barber's, long known as a missionary among the Indians, and well skilled in the treatment of diseases of the country. His mother should be written to immediately; and, when the warm spring weather came, he should be conducted to her.

All the while I am gathering to myself beautiful expositions of character like what I have just related. They are riches to me, in this far-off land, where there has been so much to disturb and irritate everybody. I turn from them with a sort of unutterable soul-sickness, to watch the dark clouds heaving up over our hopeful sky, from our heartless, poor-apology of a neighbor, Missouri. You will remember this, as the month when our own legislative body is to meet. We womenkind look with fear and trembling upon the departure of so many of our strong men to Topeka.If it was located between us and Missouri, I think we might enjoy the gathering together of this political machinery for the very laudable purpose of making laws for our protection. But Topeka is twenty-five miles farther up the river. I remember very well that in the winter, when Gen. L. hesitated about accepting an invitation to pass a portion of the cold winter with a friend in Missouri, "Sheriff Jones," judging, rightly enough, that it was as a soldier he hesitated, said, very decidedly: "I give you my word, as a man of honor, this people will be free from all invasion for the next six weeks."

Whatever faults the sheriff has, and however strong his prejudices may be against us unfortunate New Englanders, he pledged himself in a way not to be doubted; and he must have had good reason for limiting the time. That time is now up, and our people are assuming to take care of themselves."Uncle Sam" feeds Missoui with sugar plums; but our cry, to be allowed to earn bread for ourselves, is not heard. What then can we do? Justice has fled entirely out of the country. The position of our people has reached the highest point of heroic desolation. Now we must "put our trust in God, and keep ourpowder dry."

I hope you will read Gov. Robinson's message. It does not sound much like the voice of a reckless renegade. I feel very proud of it. Fifty years from now it will read quite as well, "I reckon," as anything Frank Pierce has had to offer on this subject. You will see, too, that "his excellency, Gutta Percha" is on his way back here; and, to arrest our wise men and take them all to pay a visit to Washington! I only hope he will have courage to do it. Many of them are worthy to fill high places at the seat of government, and only need to be seen that this may be acknowledged.

Most solemnly, I declare to you, that I do not see any reason at all why this people have been so beset by an adjoining State. Everybody here seems disposed to mind their own business and let other folks alone. The quarrel in this instance is all on one side. We do not need couriers to bring us intelligence of Missouri's purposes concerning us. We feel it in the opposing sphere of the air around us. We hear it in the broken bits of talk, the awful oaths poured out upon the heads of all "Yankees"-- which includes everybody east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio. I smile at this wholesale contempt for us and the land of our birth; I smile, too, at the former narrowness of my views, when Boston seemed to me quite a place; its sons and daughters noble, aye, almost royal,by the right of persevering, successful effort. And, notwithstanding the new face with which my dear old home is here presented to me, I hug my prejudices the closer. I am not only proud, but thankful, very thankful, that New England is the land of my birth. Her laws and institutions are dearer to us than ever before; and Kansas, without a similar elevating basis of social and moral restraint, would not be worth travelling two thousand miles to secure.

Young as she is, Kansas is not without her "Moses and Aaron," to create and expound a code of laws suitable to meet her necessities, and worthy the epoch in which she appears before the public. Leave her in freedom to gather about her what she feels the need of, and even you will live to hear of her harmonious completeness and social comfort.

But if Kansas is to be the battle-field whereon all the exciting questions agitating the whole country are to be fought, in the name of all humanity, send "Wise men from the East" to do the work. We who came here to make homes, have already encountered quite a sufficiency of hard ship to make our homes dear to us when they are made secure; quite enough of unkindness on the part of our neighbors, to settle, for a period at least, the question of "hospitality and chivalry."

I believe I have told you of the continual annoyance we experience from having boxes, packages, and goods generally, overhauled while coming up the river, or after they arrive at Kansas City. The last article looked upon as suspicious was a box containing a piano! I yesterday saw Professor Daniels, of Wisconsin. He informed me that while at St. Louis he saw several hundred men from the South, "armed and equipped" for Kansas! I think I shall go back to Massachusetts, for the present. I am heart-sick at all this fuss-and in the spring-time, too, when everything is beginning to look so hopeful and bright for the poor immigrants. Ploughs are out, making furrows in the smooth old prairies; while everywhere can be seen oxen and cows, with their noses close to the earth, pulling at the young blades of grass. There is a great stir, too, among the house-builders. Everybody is busy. I will not believe that better days are not in store for this sorely-tried and badly-used people. Frank Pierce can't live forever; and,after him, we must hope and pray for "Joseph," who can hold the reins of government evenly, and unite contending parties by the strong bond of mutual safety.

Let me hear from you again very soon, and oblige your affectionate daughter,

                  H. A. R.

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