MEMOIRS OF HENRY VILLARD
FIRST EXPERIENCES IN AMERICA
New York and Westward Ho—1853-4
MY landing upon American soil took place under anything but auspicious circumstances. I was utterly destitute of money, had but a limited supply of wearing apparel, and that not suited to the approaching cold season, and I literally did not know a single person in New York or elsewhere in the Eastern States to whom I could apply for help and counsel. To crown all, I could not speak a word of English.
It was natural that this consciousness of my condition should weigh upon my spirits. I felt, indeed, greatly oppressed, and spent the first day in gloomy thoughts at the Hotel Constanz. A travelling companion who had tried to persuade me to accompany him to California noticed my depression, and guessed its cause from what he had drawn out of me on the voyage about my antecedents and plans. He generously offered to lend me twenty dollars, which I accepted, of course, with joy. As my weekly board-bill was to be only five dollars, I felt quite relieved from immediate anxiety, and sufficiently at ease in mind to look the future straight in the face. I resolved to seek some sort of employment without delay, but, at the same time, I could not feel at all sure of success, and determined to make an appeal for help to my relatives in the West. At home I had become acquainted with several of them — my great-uncle, Theodor Adolf Engelmann, the brother of my step-grandmother, and Johann Scheel, who married one of her sisters. But I did not remember their addresses. I knew, however, that another distant relative, Dr. George Engelmann, was a physician in good practice in St. Louis, and so I ventured to address a letter to him, enclosing another for my father's brother Theodor, with a request to forward it. Next I took counsel with the landlord regarding employment, got a number of addresses, including that of the Bavarian consul and the German Emigrant Aid Society, from him and from advertisements in the two German daily papers for help in various occupations, and, thus equipped, began my search for something to do by which I could earn my daily bread.
In the pursuit of my object I saw much of New York. The city had then only about three hundred thousand inhabitants, but, unless my memory deceives me, its leading business streets presented as striking and stunning a picture of intense commercial activity as to-day. The sidewalks on Broadway were certainly very crowded with people, and the street proper jammed full of vehicles of every description. But, of course, the city had comparatively small dimensions. Fourteenth Street was the limit of animated street-life. Beyond it the rows of buildings began to thin out, and above Twenty-third Street things still had an open-country appearance. The Fifth Avenue Hotel was not then built. Between the City Hall and Canal Street there were still whole streets exclusively occupied by private residences. The best and most frequented hotels seemed to be located south of Canal Street. I remember very clearly being struck with astonishment at the sight of the lounging habits of their guests, visible through the great windows of the reading- and smoking-rooms on the ground floor. Whole rows of elevated legs were presented to the passers-by on Broadway. The black servants in several of them astonished me also.
The most renowned hotel was then the Astor House. Several of my fellow-boarders had, like myself, read at home descriptions of its grandeur, and we were all very anxious to see it, as one of the wonders of the age. So we agreed to take a meal there for that purpose, as it was only a few minutes walk from our own hotel. No one of us knew any English, but that did not deter us, as we supposed that in such an establishment of world-wide fame all the languages of Europe would naturally be spoken. We made our way up-stairs to the office and boldly made our wishes known in our native tongue, but discovered promptly that we were not understood. One of us then tried French, saying: “Nous voulons diner.” The last word was understood by the official in charge, who called a boy and motioned to us to follow him, which we did. We were taken into the dining-room, which did not, however, as far as either size or decoration was concerned, much impress those of us who had seen large Continental hotels. After we had taken seats at a table, each of us was handed a bill-of-fare; but, being English, it was no clearer than Sanskrit to us. We tried both German and French with the waiter, without making the least impression. The head waiter was attracted by our loud efforts to make ourselves understood, and, although equally ignorant of our language, managed to comprehend the situation and, by signs, let us know that we should be taken care of. We were duly served, but, instead of having one course after another, according to the Continental practice, a medley of dishes was put before us, consisting of several kinds of meat and as many vegetables, all at once, followed by a miscellaneous assortment of pudding, pies, cakes, fruit, nuts, cheese, and other things. We were so taken aback that we did not enjoy anything, but were glad, under circumstances so embarrassing, to finish the novel repast at the earliest possible moment. We with drew in disgust, paid seventy-five cents each, and made our exit from the great building as hungry as we had entered it.
Our landlord was Max Weber, an ex-officer of the Baden army, who had emigrated in consequence of his participation in the revolutionary outbreak of 1849. He afterwards rose to prominence in the War of the Rebellion. Among his regular boarders were several political exiles. These two circumstances made the “Constanzer Hof” a favorite resort of the German refugees then still numerous in New York. Almost every evening there was a gathering of them in the tap-room, where there were noisy political discussions in true German beer-house style. They dwelt upon the Fatherland as well as the United States, and I listened to them with intense interest. That the talk about Germany was very bitter and angry was not surprising to me, in view of the high tide of reaction that had set in; but it astonished and puzzled me to hear likewise violent denunciations of the United States as a sham land of liberty, of its institutions as republican only in form, of the material attractions for European immigrants as a humbug—with other like expressions of grievous disappointment. Among the loudest declaimers in this strain was an individual called Professor Boehm, who supported himself as a writer for the local German press, and who spoke with a deep, gruff voice and snappish sort of delivery. He seemed surcharged with bitterness against the American Republic, and broke out into roaring diatribes against it on the slightest provocation. His prejudices amounted to a kind of monomania, and they were known all over New York. It was considered an amusement to hear him hold forth, and devices were resorted to, such as purposely opposing his views, in order to provoke outbursts on his part. This man did not know a single American, hardly ever saw anything of New York beyond the two or three streets through which his daily round took him, had never been outside of the city, and yet railed continually against everything American. This was an extreme case, but the minds of nearly all the refugees whom I heard express themselves were affected the same way. I need hardly say that, not knowing any better, I was much discouraged by their unfavorable judgment of the country. It acted as a damper to my sanguine expectations of a rapid and highly successful career.
The northern part of William Street, in which the Hotel Constanz was situated, was, in those days, a succession of hotels, boarding-houses, and beer-houses, and hence a centre of attraction for my countrymen. At the upper end of the street stood the Hotel Shakspere, then kept by one Fickler, a fat, jovial Boniface, who had, however, followed at home the more honorable profession of barrister and politician. He had taken a leading part in the Baden revolt, as a member of the revolutionary executive committee. His hostelry was much larger than ours, and was also a popular rendezvous for South Germans, who crowded it on Sundays to overflowing. But the character of the house was low, and it harbored adventurers of both sexes and of all nationalities. Some of the other William Street places represented a still lower grade of entertainment, being nothing less than vulgar concert-halls with suspicious-looking female attendants. Among the inmates of our house, too, some unsavory scandals broke out, and I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable in such surroundings and longed to get away from them. For two weeks I followed eagerly and faithfully every clew in my hunt for employment, but without the least result. The Bavarian consul had an average of twenty applicants for each of the few positions he heard of in the course of a year. I could have had a clerkship with mercantile wholesale and retail firms if I had had a commercial training and known English. My inability, too, to give references prevented me from getting the unfilled places from employers upon whom my earnest appeals and readiness to do any work made an impression. My disqualifications narrowed the circle of possibilities around me every day. Under the impulse of the rapid decrease of my small fund, I tried to get a place as helper in a drug-store or restaurant, and finally even as a waiter in a beer-hall. But my “greenness” or recent arrival in the country, and maybe my perhaps too genteel appearance, were against me. I received, indeed, my first lesson in the advantages which immigrants accustomed to manual labor enjoy over all classes in this country.
While I did not feel at all sure of being made welcome by my relatives, I still had a faint hope of an encouraging reply to my letter. But it had nearly become extinguished when, one evening in the third week of my stay, on entering the hotel in a very discouraged mood, the office-clerk handed me a letter post-marked Belleville, Illinois. It was the expected answer. For some time I did not dare to open it, lest its contents should prove disappointing. It turned out to be a letter from my great-uncle Theodor, couched in cautious language, and telling me, in response to the intimation of my intention to visit Belleville, that my relatives did not desire to see me until they clearly understood the reason why I came to America. As an offset to this rebuff, I unfolded from the letter a draft for fifty dollars.
The next day I made up my mind what to do. Having repaid the twenty dollars I had borrowed, I resolved to try and reach the West with the remainder. As it was already the latter part of November, and as I had nothing but an overcoat in the way of winter clothing, I invested one-third of the balance in a cheap, but warm suit. Thus equipped, I left New York on November 19, with eighteen dollars in my pocket and all my other possessions in a large hand-bag. I had decided to go via Philadelphia and Pittsburg to Cincinnati. My reason for choosing this city as my destination was solely the fact, gathered from my guide-book, that it had a large German population, including a considerable percentage of Bavarians.
There was no direct railway connection between New York and Philadelphia at that time. I took the principal route of travel, by boat to Perth Amboy and thence by rail to Camden on the Delaware, opposite Philadelphia. The boat and train were crowded with emigrants, among them many Germans. We reached Camden after dark, and found the ferry-boat literally swarming with emigrant-runners, who at once beset us with their solicitations. Knowing the risk one was exposed to in trusting them, I felt called upon to warn the ignorant peasants among my countrymen against them. This made me at once the target for their foul abuse and threats. Nothing daunted, I tried, after landing on the other side, to save a party of South Germans from being carried off by three of the ruffians. They seized the baggage and loaded it without permission on their wagons, so as to compel the owners of it to follow. As the runners were Germans, I boldly denounced them before the crowd and called on them to desist. Thereupon all three suddenly fell upon me, swearing loudly, and, before I could defend myself, I was knocked down and probably should have fared very badly but for the intervention of a German-speaking official. My assailants, however, got away with their prey. The official kindly showed me the way to the inn where I intended to spend a day before continuing my journey West.
I wished to stop at this inn for a special reason. I had learned in New York that it was kept by a refugee, formerly a lawyer in my native town, a classmate of my father's, and a friend of long standing of all our family. He had been a member of the German Parliament, and the head of the provisional government that ruled over Rhenish Bavaria for two months in the summer of 1849, and was under sentence of death for that offence. I remembered him as a very good-natured and witty fellow, rather too much given to conviviality, but a gentleman withal. I expected to receive a hearty welcome and to have a good time with him. A disagreeable surprise awaited me. I found him entirely changed. He received me in a cold and indifferent manner, showing no astonishment at my appearance before him, as I naturally expected he would. His face wore a stolid expression and disclosed a reddish hue, the sure sign of the habitual toper. I soon satisfied myself that the man had sunk low in every way, so that I was glad to be turned over to the solitary waiter. The inn was of a third-class character, small and insignificant in all its appointments. Under the circumstances, I was glad to be again under way the next day, having seen as much as my time permitted of the City of Brotherly Love.
The condition of my purse compelled me to travel again by an emigrant-train, as I had done from New York. The sight that greeted my eyes on entering the cars was anything but comforting. The cars were low, narrow, and only half as long as the present ones. The interior, including the seats, was of plain wood. The passengers consisted of a number of families, more or less numerous and dirty, with children of all ages. Each had brought hand-baggage, cooking-utensils and bedding, and was trying to occupy as much room as possible, which led to angry disputes among them. Before starting, the cars reeked with tobacco-smoke and bad odors. I went through all the cars in search of the familiar sound of my native tongue, but I listened in vain, and found myself in the embarrassing predicament of not being able to converse with a single one of my travelling companions, who seemed to consist of native Americans and Irish immigrants.
We moved slower even than freight trains, out of whose way we had to get time and again, and it took us fully a day and a half to reach Pittsburg. At that time the passage of the Alleghany Mountains was still made, on what is now the main line of the Pennsylvania, by means of stationary engines, placed at intervals in the mountains, from which one car after another was pulled up by means of wire ropes. I think that in this way it took us over twelve hours to cross the range. I had to share a narrow seat with another person, so no comfort was to be had in the daytime and no rest at night. A still greater trial, however, was to be obliged to go almost without food during the long journey. We passed the larger towns on the route during the night, when my inability to speak English made me afraid to leave the car, especially as I could not find out the length of the stops. For the same reason, I was afraid to leave the train in search of food in the daytime. Thus I had to depend for sustenance upon the apples and cake that were offered for sale in the cars here and there. Dirty and tired as I was, I greeted our arrival in Pittsburg as a deliverance from much misery. But I had to fare still worse. I had bought a through ticket to Cincinnati, entitling me to a second-class passage down the Ohio on a certain steamboat-line from Pittsburg. Not knowing the time of the departure of the boats, I made at once for the landing-place. This I managed to find by inquiring my way in stores whose signs indicated the German origin of their owners. There were three boats of the same line loading. I could not find out which would leave first, although I discovered some countrymen among the deck-hands, whom I questioned on the subject. “Whichever will be loaded full first,” was the reply. So I felt obliged to spend all day waiting and watching in one of the low German lodging and beer-houses frequented by the deck-hands who crowded the levee. Being no wiser by evening, I thought it best to spend the night there, repulsive as it was. I was given a bed in a room with two others, lay down with my clothes on and slept soundly. In the morning I was told that one of the boats had a sign up that it would leave at noon. After breakfast, I went on board in order to see what accommodations I should have as a second-class passenger. This I soon found out with the aid of a German deck-hand. To my great disgust, I ascertained that my ticket only permitted me to claim a place on the lower deck-quarter occupied by the deck-hands, including a sooty, bare, rough bunk. Made wise by my railroad experience, I laid in a good supply of bread and meat, and betook myself and my bag, with anything but a light heart, to the boat.
We steamed down the river promptly at the appointed time. It was a beautiful Indian summer day, warm and slightly hazy. The bluffs were still bright with the autumn hues of the foliage. The broad, winding river was alive with steam- and other craft. Farm-houses, hamlets and villages were constantly in sight. We stopped at several towns in the course of the afternoon, discharging and receiving passengers and freight. I sat all the afternoon and long after dark on deck near the bow of the boat, beholding and enjoying these varied sights. Finally, I became drowsy and sought the deck-passengers quarters astern. I found not only all the bunks on both sides occupied by two or more sleepers each, but men, women, and children crowded so closely together on the deck that one could hardly help stepping on them. I tried first to sleep in a sitting position, but after a while I likewise stretched out on the floor with my bag for a pillow, and soon forgot my surroundings. The warmth from the steam-boilers kept those comfortable who, like myself, had no other covering than their overcoats.
I was up again at daybreak, feeling stiff and dirty. I looked about for some washing utensils, but failed to find any. I actually was unable to wash my face and hands during the whole journey, lasting nearly forty-eight hours, owing to the score, more or less, of protracted stops made by the boat. What with my filthy surroundings and the low company, I could not help again feeling much dispirited. Though the weather continued to be fine and the sights along the river even more attractive than the first day, my only thoughts and wishes were for my release from these repulsive experiences. This feeling was intensified by the impossibility of sleeping at all during the second night, owing to the fearful racket made by the landing of piles of freight and filling the empty space with firewood. It was nearly noon of the second day when the City of Pittsburg reached the Cincinnati landing. The levee presented an imposing sight. At least twenty-five boats, sternand side-wheelers, were loading and discharging freight, and the bank was crowded with people, vehicles, and goods. Swarms of hotel-runners and omnibuses and carriages were waiting for passengers. Of course, the dirt-begrimed individuals emerging from the deck did not attract the runners. I had the address of a hotel kept by a Rhenish Bavarian whom I had known as a policeman in Zweibrücken, but my appearance seemed so discreditable to me that I was ashamed to go directly there. Moreover, my money was reduced to three dollars, and I had to be satisfied with the cheapest possible quarters. Discovering a number of emigrant boarding-houses on the street along the levee, I selected one kept by an Alsatian, who agreed to furnish me with board and lodging for the even then low price of $2.50 a week. The “Hôtel de Strasbourg” consisted of a bar-room in front, on the first floor, and behind it a room large enough to serve for both cooking and eating purposes. The second floor consisted of a loft, divided by thin board partitions into sleeping quarters. I was assigned to one containing three single beds, of which I happily remained the sole occupant during my whole stay. Altogether, it was the worst-looking tavern I had ever seen, but it at least gave me immediately a chance to clean up, for which I longed, and the food proved to be as good as that I had often had at peasant-houses in the vicinity of Phalsbourg.
Cincinnati even then laid claim to the title of Queen City of the West, and seemed to me to deserve it. It had already over two hundred thousand inhabitants. It occupied as fine a natural site as could well be found, rising gradually from the river to the hills that picturesquely enclosed it like an amphitheatre. It was regularly laid out in streets running parallel with and at right angles to the river. The streets adjoining the Ohio were solidly built up with business edifices, and those farther away with private residences. The buildings were mostly plain, but the whole presented a substantial and comfortable appearance. The upper part of the city was separated from the lower by the Miami Canal, nicknamed the “Rhine” from the fact that the quarter to the north of it was almost exclusively occupied by Germans, who even then formed fully one-third of the inhabitants. My first walk about the city naturally was in that direction.
I had no difficulty in finding the inn kept by the ex-policeman. He welcomed me with real heartiness, as he had served under my father and remembered our whole family well. He at once invited me to take up my abode with him, but, not feeling sure whether he meant to offer me hospitality or to wish to have me as a paying guest, I was afraid to accept. He told me of several Rhenish Bavarians whom I knew by name and who knew my family, and who were in the habit of enjoying a bottle of beer or wine regularly at his house. This was joyful news to me, for I felt sure of finding a suitable position with his and their help. I agreed to call again in the evening, in order to be introduced to my Landsleute. I continued my exploration of the city all day, and received such favorable impressions of it that I ardently wished matters would shape themselves so that I could remain there.
As a matter of fact, I stayed only a few days in Cincinnati, as I soon found that my entire ignorance of English and lack of a specific calling made the difficulty of finding employment among the German-Americans in that city very great. In my subsequent wanderings I was obliged to accept whatever work offered, whether light or hard, including manual labor; and altogether had a very trying experience during the winter following, as also during the greater part of 1854. I returned to the Queen City in March of that year, and for several months represented a firm of publishers as canvasser among the German-Americans. I then drifted from Ohio into Indiana, where I had my first experiences as a railroad man as part of the crew of a wood-train on the Indianapolis & Madison Railroad. Every day this train went out into the country for twenty miles or so, loaded up with wood to be used as locomotive fuel, and then ran back to Indianapolis and unloaded in a woodshed. The work was light, the hours were easy, and the pay good, so that I enjoyed the experience (little dreaming what an important part railroads would play in my career) until prostrated by a serious attack of intermittent fever, with which I had already made acquaintance. This confined me to my bed for so long a period that my place on the wood-train was filled before I was able to return to work. After obtaining light employment in Indianapolis until I had fully recovered, I set out for Chicago, and arrived there at the end of October, 1854, a year after my arrival in the United States.
Leaving my trunk at the station, I walked all over the city. Chicago had then a population not exceeding thirty thousand people, though the inhabitants claimed that it was more. Then, as now, the best improved part was south of the Chicago River, while on the north side there were only a few short streets, and still fewer on the west side. Five-sixths of the buildings were cheap wooden structures. Hardly any of the streets were paved, and most of the sidewalks were of wood. Still, there was an air of stir and push about the town that indicated great vitality, and promised a rapid growth in the future. I felt sure that I had come to the right place.
In passing along State Street, even then one of the most important thoroughfares, I noticed under the sign of a boarding- and lodging-house the name Bernhard Norkin, that borne by the elder brother of a playmate of mine in Speyer. Out of curiosity, I entered and inquired for the landlord, and saw, when he appeared, that I was correct in my surmise. As he had left Speyer many years before, he did not recognize me, but welcomed me very heartily, and invited me, on being told that I was a new-comer, to stop at his hotel. I of course gladly agreed to do so, and my trunk was sent for. He introduced me to his wife, a buxom, bright German woman. We had a very well-cooked German dinner together, and I congratulated myself on such an auspicious beginning in Chicago. But this feeling was considerably dampened when I discovered that, after all, I had only got into an ordinary emigrant boarding-house. The keeper of it employed a wagon and two runners, and, by means fair or foul, obtained all his patronage from the emigrant-trains arriving twice daily from the East. I subsequently saw for myself that the runners were not any more truthful or less urgent in their demands than their colleagues in New York. There was but one dining-room, in one corner of which the baggage of the guests was piled up, and a sleeping-hall directly above it, divided into two parts by a thin partition, for men and for women. Each compartment had eight beds, in one of which I had to sleep. Emigrants in those days were no more attractive in respect to cleanliness and otherwise than to-day; hence I was not very happy in my surroundings. But, as the host and hostess were really anxious to do all they could for me, and as I expected the former, who had been in Chicago for some years, to be very helpful to me in getting employment, I concluded to stay in spite of all drawbacks.
Norkin knew a number of Pfälzer, some of whom held influential positions. One of them was one of the publishers, and another one of the editors, of the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, at that time and to-day the leading German paper in the city. Another was a successful physician, and still another a wine-merchant. I applied to them all for advice and assistance in finding a suitable occupation, but, though they freely gave me counsel, they proved to be of no real help. I also inserted an advertisement in the Zeitung, but received no responses to it. I called daily at various intelligence offices, and, moreover, made personal inquiries for work in all sorts of establishments. But the only openings I found were for waiters in lager-beer saloons, which already abounded in the city, and for drivers of delivery-wagons. My host having assured me that he would board me all winter, if necessary, I did not avail myself of these unsatisfactory chances, although one week after another passed by in involuntary idleness. One morning, when I came down from my sleeping-room, the landlord sang out to me: “Here is some important news for you,” and pointed to an advertisement in the Zeitung. It was an urgent request to me to send my address immediately to the signer of it, in Belleville, Illinois. The advertiser was Robert Hilgard, my step-uncle and schoolmate. Of course, I felt a great shock of surprise, for it looked as if Robert had come to America on purpose to find me. Norkin had not been told that I was not in communication with my family. He questioned me, and I had to admit the fact, whereupon he urged me to answer the summons immediately. I told him that I had resolved not to make known my whereabouts to my family till I could tell them that I was able to support myself independently; but he insisted that it was my duty to write to Belleville without delay, and he added smilingly that if I did not do so he would. I replied that I would think the matter over for a day or two. Finally, I sat down and wrote Robert briefly where I was, and said that my lot had not been an enjoyable one since landing on this side of the water. I said further that, although I had not been very successful, I was confident of getting along, and that he need not have any anxiety on that account. I begged him also to explain how he happened to be in America, and to give me the fullest possible news of my family.
A week elapsed without bringing an answer to my letter, until, on returning to my lodging-house on the eighth day, a figure rose from a chair, and I recognized at once the tall form and the well-cut, handsome face of Robert himself. He greeted me very cordially, and, without waiting for any questions from me, told me all I wanted to know. He had been away from Belleville for a couple of days when my letter reached there. After reading it, he hesitated whether to write a reply or to make it in person, and advised first with my uncle and other relatives about it; the former authorizing him to offer me a home in his family. He decided finally to come, as he was afraid I might hesitate to accept. His strongest motive, however, was the solemn promise he had given to my mother, who had been a second mother to him, to make every effort to discover my whereabouts and to aid me in my upward struggles. This promise was not, indeed, his main motive in coming to this country a few months before. He had been wishing to go to America ever since he had finished his four years apprenticeship at Frankfort, believing that his prospects in life would be much better over here. He had visited my parents shortly before leaving Germany, and thus could give the latest news of them and of my sisters. It was such as to move me inexpressibly, and I promised to write home at the earliest possible moment, and open communication with my loved ones after the long interval of more than a year.
Robert then brought up the subject of my immediate future. He urged me to go at once with him to Belleville, assuring me that our relatives were ready to extend a kindly welcome to me. At first I could not look upon his proposal in the same light that he did. At last he appealed to me in the name of my mother, who certainly would not be relieved of her anxieties about me if I continued to lead the precarious life I had led for a year, instead of being under the care and guidance of my relatives. This argument prevailed with me, and we agreed to start together for St. Louis on the following evening. The next day I showed Robert the city. In the evening I took leave of my host and hostess, to whom I expressed my sincere gratitude. We travelled all night, and reached St. Louis the following noon.
We went directly to the house of a maternal aunt of Robert's, Mrs. Caroline Decker, one of the daughters of my great-great-uncle Friedrich Engelmann, a man already of advanced age when he emigrated with his large family from Rhenish Bavaria. She had married a German-American lawyer in St. Louis, who died, after a few years of happiness, and left her without means, but with a son and daughter to support and bring up. She resolutely started a boarding-house for the better class of Germans, and she was keeping it at the time. She made me feel at home at once. We remained there three days, seeing as much as we could of St. Louis and of some other relatives there. We then went by rail to Belleville, in St. Clair County, Illinois, only fourteen miles distant, stopping over night at the house of John Scheel, whom I knew, as he had visited us in Zweibrücken some years before. He had emigrated with Friedrich Engelmann, having been his assistant in the forestry service, and had married over here his youngest daughter Betty. He was a very active, shrewd man in a business way, and had succeeded in accumulating a moderate competency. He was very popular, and held at the time the lucrative office of Register of Deeds and Clerk of the Probate Court. He lived in a commodious house, enlivened by three small children. This very kind-hearted couple gave me a most cordial welcome, and invited me to remain with them as long as I liked. But Robert and I thought it best to drive to my uncle Theodor Hilgard's farm the next morning.
With Kinsfolk in Illinois.—1854-5
THE farm was situated five miles from Belleville in a rolling prairie region, and consisted of about one hundred acres of well-cultivated land. There was a rather small two-story frame house painted white, and with green shutters, with an extension — upon the crown of a hill, in the shade of some lofty trees, and commanding a fine view; also, a large barn and stable combined, and half a dozen other outbuildings used for various purposes. In front of the house was a large vineyard, and behind it a flower- and vegetable-garden. It being winter, the ensemble did not look as attractive as in the greenness of summer, yet was altogether pleasing.
My uncle Theodor and aunt, whom I had never seen, were awaiting our coming. The former received me rather stiffly, but the face of the latter fairly beamed upon me with kindness. My uncle was the next youngest of my father's brothers, and was then about forty-six years old. He was a thick-set man, rather under middle stature, with a strong, round head covered with curly hair, and a broad face framed by a full beard. Both hair and beard were already tinged with gray. His face had a set, stern expression in repose, but he had a pleasant smile, which showed that he was really very good-natured. My aunt won my heart at once. She was of good height, and, though already of matronly proportions, still had a graceful figure and movements. The shape of her head was beautiful and her hair still jet-black. Her brilliant, soft black eyes and gentle mouth imparted much light and sweetness to her face (though her features could not be called handsome), and made her very winning. She was, too, just what she seemed to be — clever, vivacious, interested in everything, and overflowing with inexhaustible kindness. I felt attracted to her as to a second mother, and she treated me as a mother would, for which I have always felt profoundly grateful. My uncle was a highly educated man, but was often blunt in his speech and given to ridicule and sarcasm. He was exceedingly well-informed about American as well as European affairs, and was full of progressive and even radical ideas, and not indisposed to talk. It required but little intercourse with him to bring out his absolutely sterling character, which secured him the highest respect of friends and neighbors and the community at large.
The couple were blessed with eight fine, model children — four boys and four girls. The eldest of the boys was named Gustav, after my father; he was a year older than I, and was away studying to be an engineer. The other boys — Carl, Theodor, and Ernst — ranging from fourteen to ten, were sweet-tempered, confiding, lusty fellows, who took at once to their newly arrived cousin. The eldest daughter, Anna, was of my age, a handsome, well-formed girl, with the black hair and bewitching eyes of her mother. The second daughter was a fresh-looking blonde of a very quiet disposition, never happier than when she could serve others. The other two daughters were affectionate, blooming little girls of seven and eight, with whom I quickly established the most cordial relations.
Altogether, I found myself in a family circle again, the equal of which for perfect harmony and mutual affection it would have been hard to find anywhere. I now felt the softening, elevating influences of this sweet home-life, and a sense of inner peace and happiness awoke in me that I had not felt for years. My aunt begged me to do my duty without delay and write to my parents. It was well indeed that I had delayed doing so till I had drawn in the right inspiration from the domestic picture before me. It took me days, however, to compose a letter that satisfied me. When it was done and sent off by mail, I felt the sense of relief that always comes with the final fulfilment of a long-delayed duty. Robert wrote likewise and at length, as I learned only after the lapse of many years; and my uncle and aunt sent letters to my father and mother after I had been a few weeks with them.
My uncle followed the practice of all successful Western farmers in doing every sort of work on his place himself. He had only one regular hand employed to help him, so that if he had not done so from choice, necessity would have compelled him to take a leading part in the farm routine. Though it was winter, there was enough to occupy him more or less, daily. There was also but one female servant in the house, so that much domestic labor devolved upon my aunt and the two eldest daughters in taking care of the large household. Naturally it became irksome to me to be idle while all the grown members of the family were continually busy. Moreover, without any thing to do, time came to hang heavily on my hands; so I soon offered my services for any in-door or out-door work, and this offer evidently gave pleasure all round. I helped feed the horses, cattle, and swine. I chopped, sawed, and hauled wood. After snow-falls, I cleared paths all over the place. I assisted in shelling corn, threshing wheat, and even in the annual killing of fat hogs. I performed also a variety of kitchen, dining-room, and yard offices for the ladies. I enjoyed the work, and it was obvious that my willingness to do it strengthened the warm feeling of the whole family toward me. I also had a chance to participate several times in so-called log-raisings, a peculiar custom, brought down from the pioneer days, of mutual assistance among neighbors in setting up dwellings, barns, and stables of logs.
What with these occupations in the daytime, and reading, games, and music in the evening — my aunt and the eldest daughter were very musical — time passed very quickly, and Christmas, 1854, was at hand before we knew it. The observance of it was in true German style, with a great tree which the whole family helped to decorate, and there were presents for everybody. What a contrast my enjoyment of the festival in such a home sphere offered to the loneliness and depression I had experienced during this hallowed season the year before! Until then I had seen none of the relatives but Robert, who stayed at the Engelmann farm about four miles away, and walked over once or twice a week to visit us. On Christmas Day, however, quite a number, old and young, as well as other friends from Belleville, appeared to celebrate the day with the family. The ice was broken for me, and after Christmas I began a round of calls with my uncle and aunt that extended all through January, and introduced me to dozens of pleasant families in the town and country.
My first call was at the Engelmann farm, where my great-great-uncle Friedrich had made his home after his arrival in Illinois. It presented a very modest appearance, consisting as it did of a small one-and-a-half-story frame building with a few outhouses. The farm extended over the slopes of several hills. The soil was not very good, having been chosen, if I remember rightly, mainly for its adaptability to fruit-growing, and on account of its southern exposure and sheltered position from the north winds. The interior of the dwelling was furnished in the simplest possible style, and had but little that could be called comfort. This home was occupied by Friedrich's wife Betty, who had been left a widow at a ripe old age a few years before, with her daughter Josephine and son Adolph. The old lady was a picture of venerableness, was well-preserved for her age, had a clear and active mind, and charming, benignant ways. But she was constantly depressed in spirits by the loss at sea the year before of her son Jacob, who was on his wedding-tour. Adolph I had seen when I visited Zweibrücken six years before. He was a most interesting person then, owing to certain romantic events in his career. When only eighteen, in 1846, he had enlisted for the war between the United States and Mexico, was made a lieutenant for gallantry, and returned with a severe wound that permanently crippled his left arm and secured him a pension for life. Notwithstanding this, he was carried away by youthful enthusiasm when the Schleswig-Holstein war broke out in 1848, while he was in Germany, and he went through it as a private soldier. He was a fine-looking youth, and had kept his striking personality.
It was my uncle's habit to drive into Belleville every Saturday morning and remain till evening. He spent the time in shopping, making calls, dining with relatives, and spending a social hour at one of the numerous beer-saloons, where, according to German custom, a number of his acquaintances met regularly. After the New Year I always went with him, and thus came to know the several families of relatives besides the Scheels. First among them in social position was Gustav Koerner. Trained as a jurist in Germany, and established as an attorney-at-law in Frankfort-on-the-Main, he was compelled to fly in consequence of his participation in the ill-judged political uprising in that city in 1833. He devoted himself to his profession in this country, and was associated with Theodor Engelmann, the oldest son of the Forstmeister. He had found it hard at first to obtain a satisfactory practice, but in time became very successful and was one of the best-known lawyers in Southern Illinois. From the beginning, he took a lively interest in politics. He affiliated with the Democratic party, which enjoyed a long ascendancy in Illinois. He rendered valuable service as a party manager and effective speaker both in English and in German, as a reward for which and as a representative of the German element he received much political preferment. He was elected to both houses of the Legislature, made a circuit judge, and subsequently a member of the Supreme Court, and, finally, Lieutenant-Governor and ex officio President of the Senate. He was then holding that office. When the proslavery tendencies of his party became so pronounced under Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, he assisted in the formation of the Republican party, and remained one of its leaders till after the Civil War. He was intimately acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, who honored him in 1862 with the mission to Madrid. He was now about forty-five years old, in his prime in every respect. He was a small, slight man, with a strong head, gray hair, and marked features, from whose expression the weakness of his eyes detracted much. He was somewhat distant on first acquaintance, and perhaps a little too self-assertive, but, withal, an amiable man and a very fine conversationalist. With my German conception of the dignity of official position, I looked upon him with awe. He was very happily married to one of the Engelmann daughters, Sophie. They had two sons and three daughters, all very bright and interesting. The elder son Theodor, a cadet at West Point, unfortunately died there during his second year. The two elder daughters, Marie and Augusta, were almost grown up, and promised to be very attractive. The family lived in a comfortable brick mansion, where they dispensed much hospitality.
Theodor Engelmann was no doubt the ablest of the Engelmann sons. With a sufficiency of practical sense to get on in life, he combined strongly idealistic tendencies and very warm feelings, which he preserved till the end of his protracted days. Besides being the law-partner of Koerner, he held the office of Clerk of the Circuit Court, which yielded him a considerable emolument in fees. Another relative was Molly, daughter of Theodor Erasmus Hilgard (then revisiting Germany), who presided over the home which her father had built for himself in West Belleville. She married an American, Sharon Tyndale, of a well-known Philadelphia family, who met with a terrible end. In 1871, while Secretary of State of Illinois and living at Springfield, the capital, he set out one night to take the midnight train to St. Louis, and was found murdered on the street the next morning. No clue was ever obtained to the motive or the perpetrator of the deed, though every effort was made and the State offered a reward of ten thousand dollars. Mrs. Tyndale's three sisters, Rosa, Clara, and Theresa, presented the remarkable case of having married three brothers Tittmann, who, belonging to a distinguished family in Saxony settled in Dresden and Leipzig, went to America from political choice and necessity. Clara, the younger of the two, was a woman of unusual parts, which had, moreover, been carefully developed, and from an early age she was tireless in her endeavor to store her mind with miscellaneous knowledge. Her tastes were strongly linguistic and literary. She was constituted very differently from her sister Rosa, who was quite as intellectual and, at the same time, a picture of sweet womanhood. She must have been beautiful as a young girl.
Besides my relatives, there were a great many nice people living in Belleville and its immediate vicinity. The town had but six or seven thousand inhabitants, and had no special external attractions except that it contained an almost purely German community. I was told that the population included only a few hundred native Americans. We hardly ever heard any English spoken. The business signs were almost exclusively in German. But this very German character of the place and the adjacent settlements made Belleville peculiarly attractive to people of that nationality, of high as well as of low degree. There was a curious representation of the former living in and about the place — quite a sprinkling of noblemen and jurists, doctors, academic teachers, and other professional men, together with merchants of the best type. Most of them had come to America either as political refugees or as victims of the fickleness of fortune; but not a few had, like my uncles, emigrated from choice. All sorts of callings were followed by them in town, and quite a number tried to earn their living as farmers. The latter were known among their own countrymen as “Latin peasants.” The most prominent among them was Friedrich Hecker, the well-known exile, who also played no mean political part in this country. He lived about ten miles distant from Belleville. I heard a good deal of him, but never chanced to see him in those days. He and one other among the “Latin peasants” were alone successful as farmers. Even my uncle, as it afterward turned out, failed, notwithstanding the hardest kind of labor, to make both ends meet.
In the latter part of January, to my own great relief and joy as well as that of the others, letters arrived from my father to my uncle, and from my mother and sisters to me. The former expressed his gratitude very warmly to his brother for receiving me into his family, and indicated his willingness to provide for my support to a moderate extent until I could earn a regular living, offering, of course, to reimburse my uncle for any outlay for necessaries that he had incurred for me. I really had no right to expect anything else from him. My mother and sisters wrote in the most loving and encouraging manner. Their letters were full, too, of a great amount of interesting local news. What with the reopened relations with my dear ones and my pleasant surroundings, I felt once more very contentand happy.
THOSE happy days could not last forever. On the contrary, I felt it to be my duty all the time to keep looking about for a suitable position. I consulted with my uncle and my other relatives regularly in regard to my hopes and wishes in that respect, and they were likewise on the lookout. As I could hardly expect anything but ordinary manual employment, I was anxious to find it out side and away from Belleville, as the social position of my relatives would have made it embarrassing to all. Week after week elapsed, however, without my obtaining any thing to do. One Saturday, in the latter part of March, 1855, my cousin Scheel informed me that an American acquaintance of his, a Mr. Case, who held in Clinton County, Illinois, the same official position that Theodor Engelmann had — that is, Circuit Court Clerk and Recorder of Deeds — had requested him to find him a clerk to copy deeds in the records. He thought that I might serve the purpose. I had doubts as to my qualifications, inasmuch as, firstly, I had made but little progress in English, owing to my wholly German surroundings, and, secondly, because my handwriting was very bad. But he felt sure that I knew enough to enable me to copy instruments in writing. So we agreed that he should write and inquire about terms. Mr. Case replied that the copying would be paid for at the rate of twenty-five cents a page. I at once made a trial in Theodor Engelmann's office as to the time it would take me to write a page of one of the ponderous record-books, and found that I could write one in less than an hour. After further deliberation, it was decided that I should accept the offer. Accordingly, on the morning of March 23, I left Belleville for Carlyle, the county-seat of Clinton County, on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, about fifty miles eastward, with a letter of introduction from Cousin Scheel to “Zophar Case, Esq.,” in my pocket. I need not say that it was with a very heavy heart I left the haven of rest in which I had found a spiritual restoration, and said good-bye to the dear family to which I had become attached almost as to my own.
The train left me in what was more of a village than a town. In fact, there were not more than three dozen buildings in it, and they were scattered over a good deal of space. I was taken to the only hotel in the place, a shabby and even dilapidated-looking frame building, whose interior appointments, including furniture and everything else, were in keeping with the exterior. After dinner, I went to the court-house, a good-sized building in the Grecian-temple style at one time in vogue in the United States, to find my employer. His office was locked, and it was only on my third attempt to enter, after three o'clock, that I found him in. He was seated in an arm-chair, with his feet on the edge of a large coal-stove in the middle of the room. He wore a dirty slouch hat, which did not change its place although I removed mine on entering; likewise, a long, light-blue woollen coat, such as Western farmers are in the habit of wearing, a very dirty shirt without a tie, and vest and trousers of coarse cloth full of grease-spots. The trousers were tucked into the red tops of boots that seemed never to have been blacked.
Such was the appearance of my master to be. He did not utter a word until he had read my letters of introduction, and then only saying, “Oh, it is you,” he rose, showing that he was a powerful six-footer, and added, “I will show you your work.” He stepped to the large writing-table, pointed to some books standing upright upon it, and opened a large drawer filled with bundles of paper tied with red tape, which he explained were the documents to be copied. I asked whether he wished me to begin at once, and he replied, “The sooner, the better,” as the records were very much behindhand. I said that I was ready, whereupon he opened the books and explained in which the different classes of instruments were to be copied. He gave me pen and ink and then resumed his seat, leaving me to begin as best I could. I felt a little embarrassed and nervous, but first went through the book of deeds in order to see the method of copying, and, at the end of an hour, mustered up courage enough to begin writing. In the meantime, several persons came into the office to file instruments and to have a chat with the clerk. At half-past four, the latter left, telling me that I need not stay later than five o'clock, when I must lock the office and take the key with me. He added that the regular office-hours would be from nine till twelve and from one till five, and that he expected me to sweep the office at least three times a week. The last part of his instructions rather surprised me, as he had not referred to such duties in his correspondence about me. As I had long before got over my former prejudices against that kind of service, and knew that it was a very common thing for professional men in the West to sweep out their own offices, I was perfectly willing to comply. The office certainly needed sweeping badly. It really looked as if neither broom nor duster had been used in it for months.
In a few days I became perfectly familiar with my work. It called for no exercise of intelligence, but only careful coöperation between hands and eyes. It was, indeed, the merest mechanical drudgery. The only stimulus I felt was that my daily earnings depended on the number of pages I copied. During the first week I succeeded in copying only a single page in an hour, as it was absolutely necessary to avoid mistakes; corrections not being admissible in records. But I could copy seven pages a day in the second week, and finally even nine in seven hours' work. My master turned out to be an excessively uncouth, but at the same time a very good-natured man, full of that humor that finds vent in the West in anecdotes and stories. He was laziness itself. After I had learned the full routine of the office, which included the reception of instruments for file and record, and of legal papers, and the fees therefor from the attorneys in the suits pending in the Circuit Court, he left everything to me, and he hardly did anything more than talk and joke with the people who called. But he offered me three dollars a week extra for taking charge of everything. The first month I managed to earn about forty dollars, and afterwards between fifty-five and sixty-five dollars a month.
Besides ensuring the means of self-support, my stay in Carlyle had the other great advantage for me that I was compelled to use the English language exclusively. While at my uncle's in Belleville, I hardly ever heard a word of English, for there was not a single American there. Now, with continued practice in speaking and systematic reading in the evening, I made rapid progress. After the lapse of six weeks, I had no difficulty in understanding ordinary conversation and in making myself understood. Having got so far, I made it a point to converse as much as possible, and for that purpose I tried to enter into social relations. There was not much choice in the town in that respect. The population did not exceed two hundred people, and consisted of a few merchants, the county officials, several doctors, not less than a dozen lawyers, who practised in the county circuit courts, and the usual complement of mechanics, with their respective families. The landlord's handsome daughter and two other young ladies constituted the greatest female attractions of the place. The former was very bright in conversation, and took particular pains to help me along in English, so that my calls on her were as good as lessons for me. The social centre of Carlyle was the house of Judge Sidney Breese, formerly United States Senator, then holding the office of Judge of the Supreme Court of the State. There were no young people in his family, but I ventured to call on him, as Mr. Koerner had given me a letter of introduction to him. His manner was rather cold and distant, and I could not get very near to him, though I saw him frequently in the court house. He was a man of great natural ability and was considered an eminent jurist. His figure was short and stout, with a large head, short red hair and round face, a good deal like Mr. Case; and he wore large gold spectacles. Upon the advent of warm weather he always wore a blue swallow-tail, brass-buttoned dress-coat, yellow nankeen trousers and vest, and a stove-pipe hat, presenting a truly comical appearance. Like nearly every other man, he had the nasty habit of tobacco-chewing.
I witnessed the monthly sittings of the probate courts and the semi-annual sessions of the Circuit Court, saw some curious illustrations of Western character, and listened for the first time to examples of forensic eloquence. There were among the attending lawyers men of evidently remarkable talent as speakers. I was astonished at the flood of words they managed to pour out. Sometimes the oratorical outbursts seemed to be indulged in on very slight provocation, and hence were rather ludicrous. What struck me particularly was the easy, informal way in which the proceedings were carried on. There was an abandon as regarded manners, too, that could not but shock me, accustomed as I was to the dignified ways of German courts. Several times some of the counsel were in a half-tipsy condition, and became colloquial in their arguments, as if they believed themselves to be in a bar-room. The term of the Circuit Court was held during a very hot spell in June. The judge presided without his coat and with unbuttoned shirt thrown wide open. He sat thus disarrayed, tipped back in his arm-chair, with his legs on the desk before him. The attorneys naturally followed his example and made themselves as cool as possible. One marked incident has remained fixed in my mind. While one of the most loquacious attorneys was making a fiery argument, he was interrupted by the judge, who called out to him: “Jim, you had better keep cool in this hot weather and give me a bite of your tobacco.” The pleader stopped, pulled out his plug and carried it to the judge, who took a hasty bite, whereupon the proceedings were resumed.
At the end of three months, my work became very slack. I had worked up the arrearages in recording, extending over nearly six months, and the new filings were so limited that I had only from three to five pages to copy daily. It became, indeed, more and more apparent from day to day that the regular work could yield me only a bare subsistence. I discussed the subject with Mr. Case, and he admitted that this was the fact. The prospect of a necessary change of occupation was thus presented to me. It was delayed for two months by my acting as temporary substitute for another county official who was compelled to go on a long journey. But, after this respite, about the middle of August, with the consent of my uncle, I returned to the farm.
I cannot say that I felt much regret when I turned my back on Carlyle. The life there had, after all, been too monotonous and unattractive, and there certainly was not the remotest chance for any sort of career for me in such a community. I left with sixty dollars in my pocket, my savings after I had provided myself with a modest outfit of summer clothing. I had already learned enough of affairs in this country to know that of all the professions the legal played the most important part, publicly and otherwise. This observation, together with my intimacy with members of the legal profession in Carlyle, made me conceive the notion that the best thing I could do would be to become a lawyer myself. The idea soon took deep root, and I communicated it, shortly after my return, to my uncle Theodor. He at once approved of it, but showed me that my plan could not be carried out without the consent of my father, as he would, of course, have to furnish me with means of support during my study of the law. He kindly offered to write to him in advocacy of my wishes, and it was arranged that I should continue to be his guest until a reply to his letter was received. Accordingly I resumed my former ways, helping all I could on the farm, and varying farm life with visits to relatives and friends.
When my father's answer came, it brought a prompt and favorable acknowledgment of my proposition, and offered to allow me a certain sum annually, for two years, which would enable me to live modestly and devote myself entirely to study. I was overflowing with happiness and enthusiasm because of what I considered an assured and bright future. I saw myself in imagination a successful lawyer and rising politician. The next day we drove to Belleville to consult with Mr. Koerner as to the best course to pursue in preparation for the profession. He at first suggested that I should attend one of the several law schools in this country for a couple of years, and then enter the office of some prominent lawyer to learn the practice. When the question of ways and means was considered — that is, that my father had agreed to provide for me for but two years — it became clear that the only way open to me was the one usually followed in the West up to that time, to begin the study of theory and practice combined, under a practitioner. The conclusion was not satisfactory to me, but I had to accept it. Mr. Koerner offered to give me a desk in his office, but, with reference to my knowledge of English, advised me strongly to try to get a place with a native lawyer. He kindly promised to look about for me among his colleagues in Belleville and St. Louis. A few days later I received a note from him, informing me that he had succeeded in securing my admission into the office of a leading lawyer in Belleville, George Trumbull (a brother of Lyman Trumbull, who afterwards obtained such high distinction as United States Senator from Illinois), and said that I might enter at once. The question of a suitable boarding-place in Belleville was solved by Cousin Scheel's kind invitation to me to become an inmate of his spacious home.
Mr. Trumbull was a descendant of the well-known Connecticut family of that name. In appearance and by nature he was a typical New Englander — keen, nervously active, wholly absorbed in his calling, not even caring for politics, and more reticent than genial. He occupied a small one-story brick building on the public square as an office, having two small front and rear rooms. I was assigned to a desk in the former. At first I had no other duty to perform than to ascertain the wants of callers, if he were out. I was at liberty to devote all the rest of my time to the study of Blackstone, which he placed in my hands and which I attacked vigorously. After a few weeks, the conviction was forced upon me that circumstances worked so much against regularity in that office as to render it very difficult, if not impossible, for me to make much headway in the law. The location was convenient, not only for clients, but for idlers and gossips; Belleville, like most small towns, containing an abundance of them. Altogether too many “dropped in” upon Mr. Trumbull and myself. This annoyance increased steadily as the weather grew cold in the fall and our warm stove became a point of attraction. Then, again, Belleville proved more and more to be a poor place for one so eager as I to perfect myself in the use of the English language. It was as plain as day to me that a mastery of English was the essential condition of success in this country. I had even engaged an American common-school teacher to instruct me in the proper pronunciation of English vowels, consonants, syllables, and words, just as beginners learn spelling, for I saw that most of my employers had failed to acquire it. I labored diligently with the teacher from one to three hours a day, but the benefit I received from his instruction was neutralized by my great want of practice and lack of opportunity to hear or speak English and so get my ear accustomed to it.
Thus, by degrees, I made up my mind to talk with my relatives about the advisability of pursuing my studies at another place, away from the disadvantages referred to. They consented to the change, after due consideration, and Mr. Koerner again kindly undertook to find what I wanted. About the middle of November it was settled that I should enter the office of a well-known law-firm, Manning & Merriman, in Peoria, Illinois, and I made my arrangements accordingly. I started for Peoria on November 20, and took, in St. Louis, one of the steamboats which regularly ran up the Illinois River. We made such slow progress, owing to numerous stoppages and obstructions because of low water, that we reached our destination only on the third day. Peoria was then, and I believe is now, a beautiful city, rising amphitheatrically from the west bank of the Illinois River, or rather lake into which the river widens at that point. It had about twenty thousand inhabitants in 1855 (over forty thousand now), and was laid out in the usual rectangular way. I stopped over night at a hotel, and next morning presented my letter of introduction to Messrs. Manning & Merriman. I was kindly received, and, after a brief colloquy, assigned to a desk in the office and instructed as to my duties. At first I was simply to copy legal papers drawn up by the principals. I was to receive no compensation, but had the privilege of “reading” in the office when I was not otherwise occupied. I soon got on very good terms with the two partners, and felt entirely at home in their office.
By chance I secured board and lodging in the house of the captain of the boat upon which I had arrived. He was absent most of the time, and his wife, who had the care of several small children, was anything but a good housekeeper, so that I did not fare very well, either as regards regularity or quality of meals. The house, too, was very cold, and, as the winter of 1855-6 was unusually severe, I suffered no little discomfort on that account. There was but one other boarder, a mercantile clerk, a few years my senior, who had recommended the place to me, as he was a relative of the only family in the town to which I had letters of introduction. He was a good-enough fellow, but with very limited mental resources, and was also a strong churchman. He urged me every Sunday to attend divine service with him, but without success. I then first discovered, by a very common experience, that non-church-going is a great social obstacle in this country. From the moment the family to which I presented my letters of introduction found out that I was a free-thinker, they dropped me entirely. I made hardly any other acquaintances than those mentioned. My social isolation made me often feel very lonesome, especially when I thought of the pleasant circle in which I had lived during the previous winter.
Months went by, and the spring approached without my having made much progress in legal lore under the guardianship of Messrs. Manning & Merriman. My one fellow-student, David McCullough, had to confess the same fact as to himself. We agreed, too, entirely, as to the causes of our slow advance. We found the same difficulty that had troubled me in Mr. Trumbull's office: there was not enough privacy for study. Not only clients, but politicians, came to consult with Mr. Manning. It was very entertaining to listen to him, whether he talked law or politics, but also irresistibly diverting from our studies. With the greatest determination, it was impossible to fix one's mind upon the contents of Blackstone, Chitty, and Story, while so much loud talking and joking was going on about us. Thus, McCullough and I daily looked at each other with despair, sighed and then listened perforce, yet often willingly, for the adroit and humorous way in which Mr. Manning answered the questions of the clients as to what he charged for his professional advice, was always very amusing. As day after day passed by with the same discouraging result, the conviction that I could never finish my studies under such circumstances, and that I was, indeed, continually wasting most of my time, gradually forced itself upon me, just as it did in Belleville. McCullough shared this view, and we both arrived at the conclusion that we must make a change.
In the course of the winter, I conceived the idea of writing some letters for publication in the columns of the Zeitung that appeared daily and weekly in Belleville. I had retained all along my old faith in my ability to write well. The editor, Dr. Wenzel, a German-Bohemian and political refugee, a man of uncommon talents and acquirements, seemed to take quite a fancy to me, and I felt sure that he would be glad to publish any of my contributions. So I concocted two letters of a partly descriptive and partly philosophic-æsthetic character — at least I considered them such — and sent them to him. They were poor attempts, in imitation of Heine and Boerne, rather stilted and labored. Still, they were printed, and Dr. Wenzel complimented me upon them in his letters of acknowledgment. Unfortunately, I had indulged in some rather sarcastic remarks upon the “German philistinism” that was manifested in a great many ways in Belleville. Letters from my relatives soon informed me that my criticisms had stirred up a good deal of ill-feeling against me. My uncle was particularly sharp in his censure of the license of my pen. I certainly had no deliberate intention to offend anybody, but I had, no doubt, been guilty of a pertness that was unbecoming my years, and decidedly improper in view of the circumstances under which I had gone to Belleville, and the cordiality with which I had been received. This untoward production was my first formal attempt at journalism. To be frank about it, while its effect troubled me in no small degree, the attention it attracted rather flattered my vanity.
This incident helped to mature the resolution that the drawbacks to my law-reading were evolving in me. I reasoned myself into the assumption that it would be futile to expect that such studies as I should be able to pursue in the office would make a good lawyer of me in a short or a long time. Mr. Koerner was right, after all, in his original advice to me to spend two years at a law school, had my father's allowance permitted it. Would it not be creditable, then, I asked myself, to try and earn enough in addition to enable me to go to a law school? Would such a resolute and independent course not also be the best means of dispelling the prejudices that my article had revived against me? Such was my argument, and theoretically I was no doubt right. But the real test would, after all, be the proof of my ability to make the money needed.
While I was casting about in my mind as to ways and means regarding it, I came upon what seemed to be a proper solution. I read in the daily papers long and glowing advertisements of a new work, a ‘History [or Encyclopædia] of American Literature.’ The value of the work was endorsed strongly by literary men of national reputation. It was to be published in three large volumes for five dollars each, and sold by subscription. The advertising firm, well-known Chicago booksellers, invited enterprising young men of good address to enter into communication with them, and offered to assign certain parts of the country exclusively to persons considered suitable canvassers, and otherwise to make the most liberal arrangements with them.
I thought, here is the right thing for me. Why should it be difficult to sell any number of copies of so well recommended a book, especially when there would be no competition in the sale of it? Why should it not be possible, with a strong will and proper push, to dispose of enough copies in a few months to earn enough to go, perhaps, to the Harvard Law School in the fall? The scheme took complete possession of me. I felt too impatient merely to write to the Chicago firm, and, towards the end of February, 1856, got a week's leave of absence, packed my trunk, and went bytrain to Chicago.
Through Politics to Journalism.—1856-7
ON applying at the store of the booksellers, at that time the leading firm in the trade in the Northwest, I was taken to the partner in charge of the subscription department. He was a gentleman in speech and manner. He took my measure at once as a youthful enthusiast with a lively imagination and but little judgment. He did not at all urge me on, but spoke very disinterestedly of the uncertainties of the canvassing business; but he failed to sober me. I told him rather proudly that I had been in the business before and knew what special capacities it required, and that I possessed them. He said, finally, that as I insisted upon it, he would be glad to let me make a trial. There would not be much risk in it for me, as I need buy only one copy of the work at a discount. He would assign me to an entirely unexplored and very promising field, the city of Milwaukee. I was to be allowed a commission of thirty-three per cent. on all subscriptions obtained. Being provided with a full equipment of subscription-books and circulars, I lost no time in starting for the scene of my future operations.
Milwaukee has always been an almost German city. In 1856, the preponderance of the German element was even greater than at present; in fact, its Americanization, which has in the meantime progressed very rapidly, had then hardly begun. It was known among German-Americans as “Deutsch-Athen,” and, comparatively speaking, deserved the name. There was a large number of educated and accomplished men among my countrymen, and in them the love of music and histrionic art was very marked. Under the leadership of Hans Balatka, who still wields the baton in Chicago, good orchestral and vocal music was more liberally provided for than in any other city in the West. There was also a very good German theatre. Another attraction was the Hotel Weltstein, the best German inn in the United States. It was named after the proprietor, who had belonged to a learned profession in the fatherland, and was a most intelligent, well-informed, and entertaining host, though too fond of a glass of good wine. He was killed twenty-five years afterwards by a fall from a window. He kept his house very neat and clean, furnished an excellent table, and his charges were reasonable.
I obtained quarters there and quickly became acquainted with a number of the leading Germans, who were either regular guests or who had the habit of enjoying a social glass there. I felt at first encouraged by the fact that my work would be mostly among my own countrymen. But I soon found out that it was, on the contrary, a disadvantage, for most of those I approached knew nothing of American literature and did not care much for it. They had not been in the country long enough for that, and, moreover, their purely German surroundings naturally kept their interest in American affairs at a low point. I was made to feel, before long, that they had not become sufficiently emancipated from their feelings of caste not to look down upon me, more or less, as a book-peddler. I strove very hard to obtain subscribers, and regularly set out every morning and devoted all the day to going about from store to store and office to office. I have a lively recollection of a very heavy snow-storm that raged for several days, and was followed by a bitter cold spell which made canvassing very irksome physically. By degrees, the meagre fruits of my efforts caused my sanguine hopes to vanish, and made me uneasy as to the final outcome. At the end of three weeks, I had sold only thirty-five copies in all, twenty-seven to Americans and eight to Germans. I believe that I am correct in saying that only one out of every twelve attempts to sell was successful. I need not mention that that meant all sorts of experiences for me, mostly of a disagreeable character. I had, as a rule, to drink continually of the cup of humiliation. I had the satisfaction of having tried my best, and enjoyed, upon the whole, a good time, socially. Of course, this did not suffice, as I had failed in my real object, which was to make money. The net pecuniary result was that I spent, all in all, five more dollars than I received during the three weeks, though I really had exhausted the field from which I expected so much.
I returned to Chicago much disheartened, and at a loss what to do. I ought to have said ere this that my confidence in the success of the venture had been so great that, before starting for Milwaukee, I had written to Messrs. Manning & Merriman that I had decided to give up the law temporarily, in order to engage in a most promising business that had unexpectedly come in my way.
I was fortunate enough to find what promised to be a suitable place in the office of a firm of real-estate agents, within a few days, by answering a “want” advertisement. The firm name was Staples & Sims, and they had a fine office at the corner of Dearborn and Clark Streets, fronting on Court-House Square. Staples was a retired merchant and capitalist, Sims a Scotch doctor who had not been able to find a satisfactory practice. It was a queer combination and did not last very long, as it turned out. The firm tried to do a commission business — that is, sell other people's real estate on commission. My special function was to attract German customers, and, accordingly, my name appeared under that of the firm, as salesman, in the advertisements in the German papers. My salary was fifty dollars a month and a small interest in the commission business secured by me. There was also a French clerk, as a bait to French buyers and sellers, who besides acted as draughtsman. I was very much set up when I secured the place, and in this hopeful frame of mind I completed my twenty-first year on April 10, 1856.
It was at this time that I received my first lesson in practical politics, so to speak, in this country. I had long before become a regular reader of newspapers, and fully understood the political questions of the day. The deliberate attempts of the Democrats in the South, aided by the bulk of their Northern sympathizers, to secure an extension of the territory open to slavery, in connection with the organization of Kansas as a Territory, was the all-absorbing and all-exciting topic. The formation of a new party out of the elements opposed to the admission of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska had already begun. Free soil was fast becoming a leading issue, not only in national and State, but even in local elections. It was also made the dividing line in the Chicago municipal election that spring. Of course, I had no right to vote, but that did not prevent me from enlisting as a violent partisan on the anti-Democratic side. The contest was fought directly over slavery. The Democratic nominee for Mayor was Thomas Dyer, and the leader of the opposition Frank C. Sherman. The canvass was made by both sides in the usual way, through public meetings, processions, and a most violent newspaper war. I engaged in it with heart and soul. Every evening I attended a meeting, used my voice as loudly as anybody in cheering and shouting, and joined in a torch-light procession. On election day, I acted as ticket-distributor, and had then my first sight of violent scenes and rioting at the polls. The “right” and “wrong” seemed to be so clearly defined that I could not understand how any intelligent mind could be at all in doubt. That the ignorant, priest-ridden Irish should support the Democratic candidates was comprehensible, but it aroused my disgust and indignation that there were Germans on the Democratic ticket, a German newspaper and prominent Germans who actually supported it. I looked upon them as contemptible apostates. I was confident, too, that the unholy combination would be overwhelmingly defeated. My unutterable humiliation and grief may be imagined, therefore, when the Democrats obtained a decisive victory. Influenced by the predictions of the dire, irremediable evils that would befall the country if the Democrats carried the day, I felt wofully depressed in spirit. It seemed to me almost as if the world would come to an end. It took me weeks to forget this grievous disappointment. A certain compensation for it lay in the extensive acquaintance which I secured through my political début.
My connection with Messrs. Staples & Sims continued only till the end of May. They were new to the business, having embarked in it only a few months before they engaged me, and they failed to secure the expected custom. They had also entertained extravagant expectations, which remained unfulfilled, of obtaining German customers through me. At the time mentioned, they proposed to change the terms of my engagement so that I should not be paid a salary, but only be allowed commissions on business secured by me. As I had so far not derived more than twenty-five dollars in this way, I could not possibly accept, and therefore left them.
The loss of my place did not at all trouble me, for I had conceived and was full of a scheme from the realization of which I expected much honor and great profit. It will be remembered that, at that time, both the proslavery and antislavery parties respectively were engaged in promoting with all their might emigration into the disputed Territory of Kansas. In the North as well as in the South, from the New England States to the Mississippi, a lively agitation was going on for the formation of “Kansas emigration societies.” Quite a number of such had already been formed and were sending settlers into Kansas. The newspapers announced almost daily the arrival of more or less numerous parties on their way West. My project was nothing less than the forming of a society among the young Germans throughout the Northwest to secure a large tract of land in Kansas and settle the members upon it. The colony was to be, like the other Northern settlements, a vanguard of liberty, and to fight for free soil, if necessary. Of course, I aspired to be the head of the organization. I wrote out a regular plan for it, and, as soon as I was free from office duties, I proceeded to push it. I had no difficulty in interesting in it quite a number of young men, “Turners” and members of political clubs. There was enough enthusiasm among us, but no capital. No one of us could do more than pay a moderate weekly contribution into the treasury. At my suggestion, it was resolved to try and interest local capitalists in our undertaking, and the task devolved upon me. I called upon a number of well-known and wealthy antislavery men, and obtained a dozen subscriptions ranging from fifty to a hundred dollars. Of course, this was not sufficient capital. It then occurred to me that we could far more readily obtain this in the large Eastern cities, which accordingly I persuaded my associates to authorize me to visit for the purpose of soliciting further subscriptions. I made them also instruct me to go to Washington, with a view to getting a donation of land for our purposes from Congress or the Government. I need not say that this feature of the venturesome enterprise was attributable to the fact that I had not the remotest idea of the insuperable difficulties of obtaining any sort of bounty from the Federal authorities.
I went direct from Chicago via Baltimore to the national capital. I had obtained letters of introduction from local political leaders to United States Senators and several members of the House from Illinois. The letters did not endorse my scheme, but said that I would explain what I wanted, simply vouching for my reliability. I devoted one day to sight-seeing before presenting them. Aside from the stately public buildings, Washington presented, thirty years ago, the appearance of a shabby, lifeless Southern town. The former dwarfed the masses of mean buildings around them, making them look shabbier and more insignificant. Intense July heat had set in, and hardly anybody was to be seen on the immense streets. The large colored population, exhibiting characteristics indicative of slavery, was a negatively interesting feature to me. But my general impression of the place was very unsatisfactory.
I had little difficulty in getting at the Illinois Senators, Lyman Trumbull and Stephen A. Douglas, and saw them both. Trumbull was a new member and had not made much of a reputation, while Douglas was at that time the most prominent political character before the American public, owing to his growing opposition to the extreme proslavery demands of his party, so that I considered the chance to see and talk with him quite a feather in my cap. Mr. Trumbull had heard of me as a former student in his brother's office; he knew my relatives, and so gave me a kindly reception. I found him very much like his brother, though of more commanding presence. I submitted our printed colonization plan to him. After reading it through, he asked what he was expected to do about it. Thereupon I dwelt as eloquently as I could upon our wishes for either executive or legislative aid from the Government. I saw a smile steal over his face, which produced a feeling of embarrassment in me; but I went through with my argument. “Young friend,” the Senator answered, “I regret that you have incurred the trouble and expense of coming to Washington, for your mission is absolutely hopeless. What you seek is contrary to law and usage, and especially ill-advised in the face of the pending party struggle, in and out of Congress, over Kansas.” He could but counsel me to abandon at once all contemplated attempts and to return home. This was a cold-water douche indeed, and I left him very crestfallen.
Nevertheless, during the day, I resolved to try my luck with Senator Douglas. Going to his hotel the next morning, I found more than a dozen callers ahead of me, and it was fully two hours before I stood before the “Little Giant,” as he was already dubbed by his party. The phrase was well suited to him. He was very small, not over four and a half feet high, and there was a noticeable disproportion between the long trunk of his body and his short legs. His chest was broad and indicated great strength of lungs. It took but a glance at his face and head to convince one that they belonged to no ordinary man. No beard hid any part of his remarkable, swarthy features. His mouth, nose, and chin were all large and clearly expressive of much boldness and power of will. The broad, high forehead proclaimed itself the shield of a great brain. The head, covered with an abundance of flowing black hair just beginning to show a tinge of gray, impressed one with its massiveness and leonine expression. His brows were shaggy, his eyes a brilliant black. He glanced at the letters I handed to him, and asked, with his deep, sonorous voice, that never failed to tell upon popular audiences, what he could do for me. I handed him our prospectus, when he remarked: “Can you tell me its substance? My time is so limited that I cannot read it.” I tried to explain, but I had hardly alluded to our object when he cut me short, saying: “Never mind, I understand it all, but I can do nothing for you. Similar requests are addressed to me almost daily by societies formed in the interest of the South, and, even if legal difficulties were not in the way, it would never do for me to favor either side in the national controversy, for political reasons.” With this brief and emphatic reply I had to be satisfied, and took my leave. It seemed useless to continue my efforts among the members of the House to whom I had recommendations, and hence I took the first train for Philadelphia.
I spent a whole week in the “City of Brotherly Love” in pursuit of my purpose. I had only one letter of introduction, to William D. Kelley, who was even then playing a leading part in the formation of the opposition to the proslavery Democracy into a new party, and who after wards achieved national distinction as a member of Congress representing the same Philadelphia district for over a generation. He received me very kindly, but did not hold out much encouragement as to local success in my mission. He went so far as to go around with me personally to wealthy political sympathizers. They were nearly all business men; among them was Mr. Drexel, the senior member of the great banking-firm of Drexel & Co. Several of them, and especially Mr. Drexel, examined me closely as to the details of my project, and particularly regarding the precise uses which we proposed to make of the capital I was trying to raise. I was much embarrassed by being unable to answer some of their questions. My plan did not cover the point whether the subscribers would get something like shares in the company in return for their money, or whether they were expected simply to make gifts. The truth was, that my business knowledge had not been sufficient to make me qualified to elaborate the scheme on a joint-stock basis, and that what I really wanted was outright donations. I remember very distinctly how confounded I was by Mr. Drexel's remark: “Supposing that your enterprise were really laudable enough to deserve pecuniary help from me and others, why should you and your associates alone have all the benefits reaped from such assistance?” I got out of the quandary as best I could by stating that the subscribers who desired it could, of course, have their contributions treated by the company as loans. But, as I was utterly unprepared to give any guarantees or to show that the proper legal forms had been provided for in that respect, I not only failed to obtain subscriptions, but evidently became an object of suspicion.
Depressed and humiliated, I proceeded to New York. I put up at the Prescott House, a well-known and well-kept German hotel, mainly patronized by the Germans of the better classes from all parts of the United States and from the old country. One of the first persons I saw among the guests was “Colonel” Blenker, who had acquired considerable notoriety, during the rising in the Palatinate in 1849, as the commander of a so-called “free corps,” an independent battalion of young ultra-radicals, who proved, however, more determined in the display of red emblems than on the battle-field. I became acquainted with him at the table d'hôte. He was tall, well-built, with fine manners, but his features, so far as they were not covered by his full beard, had the coloring of a confirmed toper. He was a very loud talker, and, when he did not brag of his martial achievements, could not say enough in denunciation of the United States, where his merits hitherto had not been recognized. I soon found out that the cause of his disgust with the country was the fact that he was obliged to eke out a precarious living as a small market-farmer in Rockland County, New York. He supplied the hotel with vegetables and fruit, and, strange to say, took his pay mostly in dinners and wine. He subsequently played quite a part on the Northern side during the War of the Rebellion.
I had a letter to Dr. Hexamer, a German physician of very high professional and social standing, and also a leader of the local German wing of the newly-formed Republican party. Had he lived, he would doubtless have had a brilliant career, but he was consumptive and had then but a short time to live, as he told me himself. He was one of the kindest and most delightful men in every way that I ever met, ready at once to help my scheme, with which he was much impressed. He introduced me personally to Friedrich Kapp, which proved the beginning of a lifelong intimacy. Kapp was engaged in the practice of law, so he seemed to be just the man I needed to put my project into legal shape. He was very willing, too, to give me the benefit of his advice. He agreed with my Philadelphia critics that I and my associates could not expect the public to place a large sum of money unconditionally in our hands, to be used as we saw fit. He advised me strongly to abandon all efforts to raise money under my original plan, and proposed to me to organize a joint-stock company. However, even a brief discussion of the details of the methods to be followed in acting on his proposition was sufficient, little as I then knew of business affairs, to satisfy me that, in the first place, having no acquaintance, no influence, and no means with which to meet the preliminary expenses, it would be utterly impossible for me to effect such an organization. Secondly, even if I succeeded in forming a company, I could not expect to realize my ambitious dream of controlling it, as I had nothing to contribute towards its capital.
Thus I was compelled to come to the conclusion that my scheme would have to be dropped. I was not inclined, however, to accept it at once, and my mind only gradually worked up to the recognition of that disagreeable necessity. But my reluctance was due as much to lack of conviction as to the recognition of the awkward position in which the miscarriage of my plans would inevitably place me — for had I not collected considerable money in Chicago, which was then spent for travelling expenses?
Meantime, I enjoyed an interesting political experience. Deep excitement over the memorable Presidential election of that year was felt throughout the country. The nomination of John C. Frémont as the candidate for the White House and the opponent of the further extension of slavery had, more than all others, produced intense enthusiasm, in which I shared. Hexamer and Kapp were very active in organizing German Republican clubs in New York and the adjoining cities. I accompanied them regularly to the meetings held for the purpose. Their propaganda was not as widely successful as they thought it would be, for the mass of our countrymen showed a stubborn adhesion (born of ignorance and their traditional voting for the Democratic ticket) to the Democratic party. I was also a regular frequenter of the Republican headquarters, which were established at Clinton Hall on Broadway, nearly opposite Clinton Place. The chairman of the Republican Central Committee was Simeon Draper, a well-known real-estate dealer. I remember well the admiration I felt every time I saw his commanding figure and heard his stentorian voice. I was also present when a serenade was given to “John and Jessie” (Colonel Frémont's wife, née Benton), who occupied a house on Clinton Place, and I had the good fortune to shake hands with them both on that occasion. I thus loitered in New York for several weeks before returning to Chicago to explain to my associates the reasons for my failure. Most of them were slow to accept my statement that I had tried my best but failed, owing to the nature of our scheme, and criticised my staying in the East longer than was necessary. In settling my account, there was strong opposition to allowing me all that I claimed for travelling expenses, in consideration of which I reduced my claim considerably, though I had charged for only part of my stay in New York. The result of it all was that I resigned and that the “land association” thereupon collapsed.
This sorry ending reduced me again to pecuniary embarrassment. I had not felt justified in drawing the monthly allowance from my father, after leaving Peoria. Thus I found myself with less than thirty dollars in my possession. I had intended to return to New York, feeling sure that, with the aid of my new acquaintances, I could find an acceptable position, but this was now out of the question. At this juncture, I learned accidentally of an opening that seemed to me especially attractive. The Republicans of Racine, Wisconsin, on the direct railroad line between Chicago and Milwaukee, were anxious to win over to their party the large German vote in their city, and for that purpose planned to buy the Democratic German paper and convert it into a Republican organ. They had asked the editors of the Illinois Staats-Zeitung to recommend a suit able person to take charge of the concern, and I had heard of the matter through one of them. I was convinced that I was sufficiently familiar with current politics, and that, as for the rest of the needed qualifications, the natural ability which I claimed for myself, together with the energy and enthusiasm that I should bring to the new occupation, would enable me to acquire them speedily. I saw a direct road to literary and political distinction before me. Accordingly, I lost no time in pursuing that great chance. I persuaded my informant to give me a letter of introduction to the Republican Executive Committee of Racine, and took the next train for that place. This was about the end of August, 1856.
Racine was then, and, I am told, still is, a beautiful town. It is situated right on the shore of Lake Michigan, of which it commands a grand view. There was one long, broad street, lined on both sides with business buildings. The residence part consisted of fine shaded avenues intersecting each other at right angles, with numerous attractive homes. The city was the seat of the county authorities, and of a well-frequented college which always enjoyed a good reputation among Western educational institutions. It contained about twelve thousand inhabitants, one-third of whom were Germans. The county population was also largely German. My first impressions of the place were so favorable as to make me doubly anxious to secure the acceptance of my services. The chairman of the Republican Committee, a bright young lawyer, received me with evident pleasure. I felt much relieved on learning from him that I had no competitor. He at once called a meeting of the committee and presented me to them. They asked no questions at all and engaged me on the spot, with expressions of great satisfaction. The committee had a secret option from the publisher of the German paper to buy it at a certain price, and they resolved to proceed at once to raise the necessary money and exercise it. I was to have eighteen dollars a week salary — princely pay, as it seemed to me — and the sole editorial and business management on behalf of the new owners. The chairman at once set out with me to find a suitable boarding-place, and I obtained a very satisfactory one in a genteel private family, for the low price of five dollars a week for a nice room and all my meals. Thus, literally, in less than twenty-four hours after leaving Chicago, I was at anchor in what appeared to be a permanent haven of rest and promise. A feeling of security and hopefulness came over me which I had not experienced to the same degree since I landed on American soil. As it took the committee several days to close the purchase, I had sufficient leisure to see the town and vicinity thoroughly and to make acquaintances. I was charmed with all I saw and heard.
This happiness was somewhat dimmed when the committee had concluded their bargain and I took possession of the weekly Volksblatt printing-office for them and ascertained the exact condition of the paper. The man who had sold it was a printer by trade, and had, with one assistant, edited and printed the paper. The supply of type was limited and nearly worn out. There was only an old-style handpress, on which six hundred copies could be printed in a working-day of twelve hours. The appearance of the paper was indeed wretched, and its contents no better. It had been edited mainly with the aid of scissors, but the selections plainly indicated absence of both taste and judgment. There was very little editorial matter, and what there was consisted of commonplace stuff expressed in ungrammatical language. Indeed, the author of it, who was not at all an educated man, confessed that he never had attempted to write out anything, but that it was his regular practice to put such thoughts as he had directly into type. Under the circumstances, it was not to be wondered at that the subscription-list always remained small. There were nominally about three hundred and eighty names on the books, but a close examination proved that many of the rural subscribers had either not paid at all for years, or paid in farming produce — butter, eggs, chickens, potatoes, corn, and the like. Further inquiries also showed that the subscribers were almost entirely made up of shopkeepers, saloon-keepers, mechanics, and farmers, and that two German doctors were the only representatives of the higher education among them. That with such readers there was not much chance for “literary distinction” was plain enough. As the paper was to raise boldly, between two issues, the Republican instead of the Democratic flag in its columns, the effect of this somersault upon the subscribers remained to be seen. It was clear that, as a preventive of numerous desertions among them, the contents of the paper ought to be very much improved; but the poor material equipment rendered this out of the question.
Still, I resolved to try my best. New as I was to the calling, the first weeks were full of hard work and nervous anxiety. I believe that I wrote and re-wrote the editorials in the first number issued under my control half a dozen times, until I could persuade myself that they would pass muster. I worked literally night and day, succeeding, I can say without self-flattery, in producing very respectable papers. There were at the time only three other German Republican papers published in Wisconsin, as against a score of Democratic, but they all complimented my work. The Democratic organs, as was to be expected, raised a great outcry against the political conversion of the Volksblatt, and at once began to abuse me as its originator, with much wrath and unanimity of feeling. The change in the politics of the paper provoked also a declaration, by about a score of old subscribers, published in a Milwaukee German paper, that the “treason” of the paper was due to the mercenariness and bad faith of the publisher, who had no right to sell it, as leading Democrats had originally supplied the capital. This added fuel to the flame, and made the war I waged in my columns against political opponents hotter from week to week. More than half of the subscribers stopped their paper; but I did not mind this, as the local managers of the campaign ordered as large an edition as we could print with our facilities, till after the election.
I was not expected to do anything except, through the newspaper, to persuade the local German voters to go with the Republican party. But I was too earnest, and too full of the intense excitement that took possession of the whole Union during the memorable Presidential contest of that year, to confine my activity to writing. I volunteered to organize a German wing of the local Republican club, and, although this was no easy task, owing to the stolid allegiance of my countrymen to the other party, I succeeded in working up a membership of nearly fifty from the smallest beginnings. We held frequent meetings, which gave me the long-desired opportunity to practise public speaking. I readily got over the first embarrassment, common to all beginners in that art, and acquired considerable fluency. I even addressed some gatherings of German voters especially brought together to listen to me. I was so much encouraged that I even ventured on two occasions on the bold experiment of speaking in English before general meetings of the Republican club. I was well prepared, and, as a double precaution against failure, spoke but briefly. It helped me very much to have the opportunity to listen to a number of prominent politicians and fine speakers from other States who came to Racine to address mass-meetings. There were also some very good speakers among the local leaders, whom I heard regularly in the club. The most prominent among them was Judge Doolittle, afterwards United States Senator.
Notwithstanding these political preoccupations, I found time to form a regular connection, as Western political correspondent, with the Neue Zeit, a weekly of the highest aspirations, founded by an enterprising German publisher in New York. It numbered among its contributors all the leading German-American writers, as well as eminent literati and journalists in the old country. It was edited with great care, and every number was replete with fine articles on politics, literature, science, music, and other subjects. I had become acquainted with its editors in New York, and had an ambitious longing to be permitted to write for it. Shortly after reaching Racine, I prepared a long letter on the general political situation in the Northwest I spent much time and labor on it and sent it to the editors at a venture. To my intense joy, there came an answer from them within a week, saying that it was gladly accepted, and that further contributions were desired from me. My compensation was to be five dollars a letter, which was not a liberal allowance, considering the hard work involved in it for me; still, it was adding just so much to my income, and, moreover, I thought it such an honor to write for the Neue Zeit that I would gladly have corresponded with it without pay.
I vividly recollect to this hour the feverish anxiety into which I had worked myself by the time of the near approach of the election. I became so restless that even my editorial duties seemed very irksome. I did outside political work from morning till midnight. The night following the elections, I stayed up with the local Republican leaders till the small hours of the morning. The election returns were not encouraging when we finally sought our quarters, but there was no ground for giving up hope. I need hardly say that I felt indescribably woful when it became a cruel certainty on the following day that, instead of achieving a sweeping victory, the Republicans had suffered an overwhelming, humiliating defeat. My inexpressible disgust made me shun the sight of everybody, and it took me nearly a week to recover my balance.
There was enough in the condition of the Volksblatt to sober me entirely. As already mentioned, its sudden political conversion had resulted in a considerable melting away of the subscription-list. The election being over, all the campaign subscriptions stopped, of course, and the fact stared me in the face that there remained only about two hundred and fifty names that could be positively relied on for the future. The advertising patronage, too, was slim. The total gross income of the paper from both sources was not more than eighteen hundred dollars. A close calculation showed that it would take nearly twice as much to pay my salary, the wages of two printers, the cost of paper, ink, etc. Moreover, the renewal of type was imperative. During the campaign, the paper had been allowed a subsidy of fifty dollars a week out of the party funds, and, in view of the condition described, it was of vital importance to me to know whether this stipend would be continued. Hence, I naturally communicated without delay with the Republican Committee on the subject, only to discover, however, that all their enthusiasm had evaporated with the lost election. I received, too, my first lesson in that common experience in this and every other free country, that there is the greatest difference between the promises of politicians before an election and their fulfilment after it. I was informed at once that not only had the campaign fund been entirely exhausted, but the committee was still in debt for electioneering expenses, and that hence they could not contribute another dollar towards the Volksblatt. Nor was this all. I now learned for the first time that the greater part of the purchase price of the paper was still unpaid — that, indeed, only one-fourth of it had been paid down in cash, and that the balance would become due in six months from the date of purchase and was secured by a mortgage on the whole concern. This revelation was accompanied by the suggestion, which, under the circumstances, sounded a good deal like mockery, that, in view of my zealous services during the campaign, the committee would be willing to waive all claim for the cash payment, and turn the paper over to me, to be dealt with as best I could, upon the sole condition that I should continue to advocate the Republican cause.
The double task was thus to be put upon me of increasing the income of the paper to a living point and making provision within less than four months for the payment of the remaining three-quarters of the purchase price a decidedly appalling outlook. But my enthusiasm and confidence in myself were greater than my business experience, so, after considering the question for a couple of days, I decided to accept the committee's proposal. I had persuaded myself that, with strong personal efforts, I might succeed in securing considerable additions to the subscription-list. Then I had reason to think that, by adding a job-printing outfit to the establishment, a new source of income might be found. As regarded the unpaid purchase money, I got over the difficulty by assuring myself that, if I was successful in my efforts in other directions and could make a small additional payment, the creditor would probably be willing to grant an extension of time. There remained the necessity of procuring a new lot of type for the paper. I had heard that it was not difficult to obtain credit from type-makers, and that was sufficient to do away with my hesitation on that score.
I can affirm that I left no stone unturned in my subsequent endeavors to establish the Volksblatt on a paying basis. I devoted all the time I could spare from my office labors as editor and publisher to a persistent canvass for new subscribers and advertisers. I solicited not only in Racine, but in three other smaller towns in the county. I even visited Milwaukee repeatedly, but at the end of the year I had secured only a hundred and thirty subscribers more and about seven hundred dollars worth of advertising — about one-third of the amount needed to keep up the paper. A good part of the new receipts, too, I had to use for travelling expenses.
This meagre result brought me to the end of my wits. I had exhausted the whole field in which anything was to be gathered. I might have bought job and ordinary type on credit, if I had made myself personally liable for it, but I was afraid to do so, and did not buy. The inevitable end of my newspaper ownership came early in January, 1857. Unable to pay the wages of the compositors any longer, I advised the chairman of the Republican Committee of my state of stress. He authorized me to turn the concern over to the former owner, who reluctantly accepted it and forthwith changed it back into a Democratic organ. He claimed at the time that the committee, and I myself as its successor in the control of the paper, were liable to him for the balance due, but he had no legal remedy and did not attempt to enforce his claim. Twenty-four years later, when at the height of my prosperity, I received a letter from this same person, saying that he had been ruined by relieving me of the paper and asking for some recognition on my part. I sent him a check forone thousand dollars.
Correspondent and School-Teacher.—1857-8
I HAD saved enough money to keep me for a few months, and concluded to remain in Racine till spring. Although without any regular employment, I was not idle. I continued my contributions to the Neue Zeit, even venturing to alternate letters with brief essays on social and political subjects, which were as readily accepted. I was justified then in believing that I should succeed as a German writer. I also knew that, owing to the limited field open to German journalism and literature in this country, a career as such would hardly be satisfactory as regarded either material profit or reputation. I saw, too, the incomparably wider sphere in both respects of the Anglo-American journalist. I had acquired such familiarity with English that there seemed to be no reason why I should not, with proper diligence, succeed before long in learning to write with sufficient fluency and correctness to enable me to enter that wider arena. I therefore determined to devote myself unremittingly to the task. I practised English composition for several hours every day, unless absent from home. I had to be my own teacher, and I followed a very simple and, as the result proved, effective method. I took a newspaper article or magazine, or a chapter in a novel, or some standard matter, read it over carefully several times, and then tried to reproduce it with pen and paper. Having the model before me, I could always correct my own work. After two months practice, I felt able to venture an article on European politics for the Daily Advocate, the local Republican paper. I took it to the editor myself, explaining that it was my first attempt at writing in English, and that I expected no compensation for it if he thought it fit to be published. He looked it over, detected only one error, and promised to publish not only that but any other matter in the same line that I might bring him. I wrote thereafter one or two articles a week for the paper, with constantly increasing facility.
After the New Year, 1857, I had frequent occasion to interrupt my labors for days at a time. I learned by chance that some leading Germans in Milwaukee had formed a project similar to my Chicago land scheme, and would apply to the Wisconsin Legislature for a special act incorporating a land company with powers to acquire real estate in any part of the United States and to issue stock and bonds against it. The information revived so strongly my former faith that such an organization could make no end of money, that I went to Milwaukee to confer with the parties in question. I found that, though having no definite plans, they were very enthusiastic about the matter. The idea again got such complete possession of me that I made up my mind to try for a charter myself, alone. I went to Madison, the capital of the State, where the Legislature was holding its biennial session, and interested the Senator and member from Racine County in the scheme. They framed the charter for me, and in due time it was passed by both houses; but, to achieve this success, it was necessary to make several visits to the capital. During my stay there, I renewed my acquaintance with Hermann Goll, whom I had met the year before at Chicago, a man of thorough scholarship and great literary capacity, who was fulfilling the uncongenial duties of editor of the weekly German newspaper. He was thoroughly disgusted with his vocation and surroundings, for he was withal an extreme radical (politically) as well as a most entertaining man. He did not endure his situation long, but returned to his native land of Baden, where he died a few years ago, being at the time the editor of the conservative official journal of the Government of the Grand Duchy. I also became acquainted with Dr. Fuchs, another German scholar and thorough gentleman, and his bright, amiable wife. He held a professorship at the State University. These pleasant acquaintances were the only actual fruits of my repeated visits to Madison, for subsequent efforts in Milwaukee to utilize the charter by forming a land company conjointly with the parties referred to proved unavailing, so that I gave up the attempt in disgust and the act remained a dead letter.
In the course of the winter, I had my first insight into American domestic life and society as it then existed in a comparatively new Western town. My recollections in this connection are of the most agreeable nature. I saw then, for the first time, the neatness, order, comfort, peace, and quiet that, as a rule, characterize the American home; and made the observation, which is confirmed every day of my life, that American women of any social position have not their equals in any other country for brightness, tact, and true womanhood, and that they are as intelligent as American men and superior to them in all other respects — except, of course, knowledge of practical life. The richest men were persons who began life as mechanics or small tradesmen. Their whole bearing showed their origin, but their wives and daughters looked like ladies, and in most cases were really such. Yet those uncouth-mannered men had given, or were giving, the very best education to their children that money could command. The professors of the college imparted a somewhat higher tone to social life than prevailed in other Western towns. Some of them were really learned and ardently devoted to their calling. The older college students and a goodly number of attractive young ladies rendered the social circles very animated and pleasant, at least for one of my age.
What with my past savings and current earnings, I was able to remain in Racine till early in May. I had had such a pleasant and at the same time useful experience there that I found it really hard to make up my mind to leave for good. It was true, too, that my departure was regretted by many of my acquaintances. But it was clear that my aim had to be pursued elsewhere, and, thinking that such pursuit would be more promising in the intellectual centres of the East, I set out once more for New York. I arrived there with a slender purse and half a dozen long articles on miscellaneous subjects, three in German and three in English, prepared in advance, as a means of further introduction to the metropolitan press.
With the acquaintances I had made the year before in the Empire City, I had no trouble in obtaining proper introductions to the editors of the principal American and German dailies — namely, the Tribune, Times, Herald, and the Staats-Zeitung, the Democratic paper. It was far more difficult to obtain personal interviews with several people, whom, however, I managed to see after more or less antechambering — Charles A. Dana, the editorial manager of the Tribune, and also Henry J. Raymond and Frederic Hudson, who filled like positions on the Times and Herald. The first-mentioned I found quite talkative and affable. He began the conversation in German, which he spoke very fluently, and, after a few keen questions, he soon took my measure, and made me confess that I was a new hand at the journalist's trade and had nothing to offer but a willingness to work and ambitious aspirations. He showed a disposition to sneer at the latter. Still, the ardor with which I pressed my application for employment seemed to impress him. He took down my address, saying that he would perhaps try me as a general reporter of the doings of the Germans in the city. I offered him one of my English articles on “German Life in the Northwest,” and he promised to read it. Mr. Raymond also received me kindly, but gave me no encouragement at all, and declined to receive and examine one of my English productions. He intimated that the Times had more editorial contributions than it could print, that it was always ready to pay liberally for what it published, and for valuable news. He was perfectly polite, but brief and decided. His whole manner, indeed, revealed the vigorous, resolute mind that characterized his career as a journalist. Mr. Hudson's response to my application was substantially the same. "What do you think that you can do for us?" he asked me, when I got through with my explanation of my wishes; and I found it hard, of course, to reply. "Anything in the way of news that you bring us, I will read, and use if acceptable." He merely cast a glance at the samples of my ability to write, and turned me off, saying, "It would have to be a matter of the highest value to induce the Herald to print anything so long."
The Staats-Zeitung was then and is now one of the most prosperous newspapers in the world, and, as such, entirely able, but willing only to a moderate degree, to pay for extra contributions. Mrs. Uhl, the widow of its founder, was the active business-manager. She was a woman of commanding and pleasing presence, and superintended the whole concern, including the editorial and business departments, with untiring industry (she was at her post at eight o'clock every morning), excellent judgment, and great success. The politics of the paper were abominable, but it had a Sunday issue on neutral ground, and to it I sought admission. Mrs. Uhl had a very kindly nature, which blossomed out in after years in the shape of private and public charity on the largest practical scale. On her death, in 1884 (she died Mrs. Oswald Ottendorfer), her worth was recognized by one of the greatest public demonstrations ever witnessed in New York. I understood that she was beset all the time with requests like mine, and hence hardly expected the friendly hearing which she granted me. She agreed to have my literary articles read by her literary editor and to advise me promptly of the result. My call at the office of the New-Yorker Demokrat bore no fruit, as I had anticipated from what I had heard of its limited pecuniary resources.
In a few days I received my manuscript from Mr. Dana, with a brief note saying that he could not use it. The Staats-Zeitung, on the other hand, informed me that two of my articles had been accepted, and that they would be paid for, when published, at the rate of four dollars a column. They brought actually twenty-one dollars to me in all. This was rather a humiliating compensation for what represented more than a week's hard work, and did not augur well for the rapid acquisition of wealth by means of my pen; but I took the money and worked on. If I remember correctly, my contributions to the Staats-Zeitung earned me only four dollars a week. The Neue Zeit also continued to accept about a column every fortnight, for which I received five dollars, and I managed, too, to get something to do for the German edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, which was started at that time. As regarded the American press, my dream of an editorial connection had been rudely dispelled; but, nothing daunted, I resolved to get en rapport with them as a chance reporter or penny-a-liner. I tried all the three dailies named with brief accounts of special occurrences among the German population, such as public festivals, military parades, proceedings of societies, etc., and succeeded fairly well. At least half of what I offered was accepted, but the work was hard and discouraging, owing to the uncertainty of the pay. I do not believe that my income from this source ever exceeded eight dollars a week.
This was literally scraping a precarious livelihood. I continued it for nearly three months and gradually grew very weary of it. I had neither sufficient income nor leisure for social enjoyments, and led a very lonesome life. I began to long for a change and to consider my leaving the West a great mistake. I was already thinking of ways and means of returning there when a chance to do so was suddenly presented to me. A contest had broken out between the Republicans and Democrats of Minnesota in the political convention called under an act of Congress to frame a State Constitution, that attracted a good deal of attention. It flashed upon me that I might induce one of the American dailies to send me as a special correspondent to the scene of action. I proposed this without delay to the three managing editors. Mr. Dana alone was willing to consider it. He would not, however, act upon my bold suggestion to allow me a regular salary and expenses, but agreed, after much parleying, only to let me write not less than twenty columns from St. Paul, and to allow me twelve dollars a column for the work. I figured up the travelling expenses to St. Paul at fifty dollars — more money than I had at my command. I was about to give up the plan, on account of this apparently insuperable obstacle, when an American fellow-reporter, with whom I had struck up a close acquaintance, helped me out with a good piece of advice. He recommended that I should go to Albany and ask Thurlow Weed, the famous editor of the Albany Journal, to obtain passes for me. My adviser had himself tried the same thing successfully.
I packed up and took the first evening boat for the capital of the State. On landing in the morning, I made directly for the Journal office, and ascertained that the renowned personage I went to see was fortunately in town. I had the desired interview with him before noon. His exterior was the index of a remarkable man. His tall form, beardless face, set in a frame of gray, bushy hair, heavy eyebrows, and a large mouth made a strong combination of features. His kindly eyes and pleasant smile were in contrast to the rest of his face. He gave me a friendly welcome and listened to my request. After questioning me as to the object of my Western trip, he said promptly, “I think I can help you,” sat down, and wrote a letter of introduction for me to a local railroad official, requesting him to obtain passes for me as far westward in the direction of St. Paul as possible. The thanks that I expressed were sincere, for I certainly had no claim upon him. The letters had the desired effect. I was given a pass from Albany to Buffalo, orders for transportation thence to Detroit by Lake Erie, and from Detroit to Grand Haven, Milwaukee, and Prairie du Chien, the terminus of the only railroad at that time crossing the State of Wisconsin to the Mississippi River. I started at once and had a most interesting and enjoyable, but uneventful, trip of four and a half days to Prairie du Chien. There I took a passenger steamer up the Mississippi to my destination. I found the scenery formed by the banks of the river very picturesque. Going up stream and making many landings, we were over twenty-four hours on the boat. I believe that we reached St. Paul on the 15th of August.
The town had not over seven thousand inhabitants. I was struck with the beauty and other advantages of its situation and was at once satisfied it had a great future. At the levee there was a long line of steamboats, showing already an extensive local commerce. The Territory of Minnesota being then on the eve of admission to the Union as a State, the tide of immigration from the Eastern States had set strongly in that direction. Several boats arrived daily from below with crowds of seekers of political and other fortunes. The place was thronged with a floating population far beyond its residential. It consisted of two straggling business streets parallel to the river, gradually ascending to a plateau bordered by wooded hills, which had already been reached by the residence portion of the town and was considerably developed. From the plateau there was a magnificent prospect over the Mississippi valley and a large expanse of country to the west of it. There were two main centres of life in the community — the large brick hotel, at which I stopped, and the Territorial capitol. There was stir enough, to be sure, but who would have dared to prophesy that in a little over thirty years the small town would grow into a city of two hundred thousand people?
The complication in the constitutional convention that led to my journey was this: The Democrats were charged with having perpetrated frauds in the election and sent up five members from Pembina County (now part of North Dakota), who were rejected as coming from outside territory. The Republicans numbered fifty-nine and the Democrats fifty-four. Upon the rejection of the Pembina delegates, the Democrats seceded and sat in a separate hall. Each party proceeded to make a constitution, denounced the other violently, and the bitterest war was raging between them when I arrived. For a week, there was plenty of material for letters, but wiser counsels prevailed, and a committee of conference was appointed to harmonize the two constitutions and submit only one to the people. The conference was successful, and the committee's report was made to both bodies and adopted on August 30. Thereupon, the “double-headed” convention adjourned and my mission was ended, much sooner than I wished.
Being thus deprived of political material for correspondence, I sought to obtain other by visiting various parts of the Territory. For this purpose, I joined a party of young fellows who set out for a fortnight's hunting-trip to the northwest of St. Paul. We started in an ordinary farmer's wagon, drawn by two horses. After travelling some hours, the road came to an end, and we continued our way at a venture across the wild prairie. We struck a tamarack swamp in the afternoon, and, thinking that it was of no great extent, tried to cross it. We struggled on, but had not reached the end of it when the sun set and we felt obliged to stop for the night in a comparatively dry spot. From the time we entered the swamp, men and animals struggled desperately to protect themselves from the swarms of mosquitoes, but, in spite of the most vigorous resistance, we were quickly stung all over. We walked alongside of the horses, which, although we brushed them incessantly with twigs, were constantly covered and driven almost wild by the insects. Their ears and nostrils suffered especially. On halting for the night, we made a narrow circle of branches strewn with green grass about our camp, and fired it, so as to surround ourselves with a dense smoke. It did but little good, and, owing to our efforts to protect ourselves and the horses, no one of us got any rest. We started again at daybreak, and it took us nearly the whole forenoon to reach dry prairie. The mosquito plague, however, diminished but little, so that we decided to make for St. Paul again as quickly as possible. We arrived there late in the evening of the third day. I was a sight to behold. My face was really disfigured, and I was so exhausted that I stayed in bed for a whole day.
In spite of this experience, I set out on another wagon-trip to the town of Faribault, on the Minnesota River, forty miles southwest of St. Paul. My motive was to see James F. Shields, formerly United States Senator from Illinois, and a resident of Belleville, where I had become acquainted with him. He had distinguished himself in the Mexican War, but belonged to the class of political adventurers, so numerous in the West in those days, who tried their fortunes in one new State after another. Not being reëlected to the United States Senate in Illinois, he migrated to Minnesota, whence he managed to be sent as Senator for a short term. Subsequently, on her admission into the Union, he served on the Northern side in the war against the Southern Rebellion, and succeeded in being elected United States Senator from Missouri. The newspapers had announced that Speaker Orr of South Carolina and several other leading Democratic politicians were visiting him, and this fact prompted my journey.
I had another sore trial from the mosquitoes in crossing the so-called Big Woods, a strip of timber, many miles wide, extending from south to north across the State. But otherwise the drive through the rolling prairie country, dotted with lakes fringed by oak groves, to the picturesque valley of the Minnesota was quite interesting. Faribault I found to be an embryo village of a few dozen brick, frame, and log houses, for which a large growth was expected. It never became more than a small country town, however. Under the pre-emption law, General Shields had acquired a quarter-section of land immediately adjoining the town. I found him living upon it, on an eminence commanding a beautiful view of the surrounding country, in a one-story log house of the most primitive description, divided into three rooms. He was sitting in front of it, with his visitors, on rude chairs; smoking a “corn-cob” and looking altogether like a true pioneer. He received me very cordially, and introduced me to the rest of the company, and I spent several hours listening to their varied talk. They were all supplied with a good stock of funny stories, which they dispensed with great liberality. Altogether, I gathered ample material for some descriptive letters, and bitter, therefore, was my disappointment when I found, on my return to St. Paul, a letter from the editor of the Tribune, declining to authorize me to write any more, thus leaving me once more without employment. While thinking over my situation, the idea came to me that I had better return to New York and offer my services to the Tribune, or any other paper there that might be willing to accept them, as a regular correspondent from the seat of the Sepoy Mutiny in India, which at that time absorbed the anxious attention of the whole world.
I arrived in New York about the middle of September, and immediately entered upon the pursuit of my objects. As no one of the great dailies had, up to that time, published special correspondence from the seat of the Mutiny, I felt very confident of success, and visions of prospective honors and profits cheered me on; but I had not taken one important factor into consideration. The country was fast plunging into the severe financial crisis of 1857. The suspension of the Ohio Life and Trust Company, which ushered in that era of long and general distress, had already occurred and was being daily followed by failures of banks and commercial houses in the city. General distrust prevailed, and trade of every sort had come almost to a standstill. The newspaper business, like every other, was being seriously affected, and publishers and editors necessarily were bent upon reducing rather than enlarging their current expenditures. My successive applications to the editors of the Tribune, Times, and Herald resulted in nothing, although I saw them more than once. The sole encouragement I received was from the editor of the Evening Post, John Bigelow, afterwards Consul-General and Minister to France, but he only offered to pay me twenty dollars a letter for what I wrote.
I was very loath to give up my plan, and for weeks taxed my wits for means to raise the needed funds. The only result was that, in the latter half of October, I found my self penniless and without any prospect of work in the great city, which was swarming with tens of thousands of idle men and women, the victims of the crisis. I was finally obliged to put up in a German boarding-house in Jersey City, and to appeal for help to a former female servant of my parents, whom I accidentally found to be living there. Her husband, whom I had also known in my youth, was a skilful journeyman stone-cutter, and had saved a little money from his earnings. These good people gladly provided for my wants, which did not exceed five dollars a week. In my subsequent prosperity I had the satisfaction of being able to manifest to them my grateful appreciation of their kindness.
I prepared a number of articles, both in German and in English, on various subjects, and every few days went to New York and visited the newspaper offices to find a market for them. But all through October I managed to sell only two German articles, for which I received ten dollars. While in a German office one day, I accidentally picked up the Reading (Pa.) Adler, the well-known principal paper of the Pennsylvania Germans in the eastern counties of the State, printed in the singular jargon spoken in those parts. Glancing over the advertising columns, I noticed quite a number of short advertisements for teachers in Berks and Bucks and Lebanon Counties. Being very much discouraged as to my ability to earn a living by literary work, and anxious to be relieved from my pecuniary straits, it occurred to me that there lay the possibility of regular employment. To be sure, I had not the slightest knowledge of teaching, but, from what I had seen of the country schools in different places, I was persuaded that I could manage to fill the prescribed requirements. Accordingly, I left Jersey City for Reading on the last of October. On reaching it, I called on the County School Commissioner, to whom I explained my aspirations. He informed me that there was no suitable opening for me in his county, but that he had just received a letter from his colleague in the adjoining county of Lebanon, asking for a teacher for one of the district schools under his administration. I took the next train for Lebanon, and presented myself without delay to the School Commissioner. He was a very kindly, elderly man, speaking very good German, who interested himself at once in my case. He asked me whether I had a teacher's certificate, and, when I replied that I had not, suggested that I should submit to an examination at once, or prepare myself for one, as I could not be accepted as a teacher without a certificate. I declared my willingness to be examined on the spot, though doubting my ability to pass, whereupon he assured me that I need have no fears. He made me sit down, and, for an hour and a half, put me through a series of questions in arithmetic, grammar, history, and geography, three-fourths of which, under his kind leading, I answered correctly. Then, on payment of one dollar, I received a certificate pronouncing me duly qualified to teach any district school in the State of Pennsylvania; also a letter of introduction to the Board of School Directors for Swatara Township, the chairman of which resided in the village of Jonestown, six miles from Lebanon, whither I went on foot the next morning.
I found Jonestown to be a neat, clean place, consisting of a public square from the four sides of which as many streets extended at right angles. The buildings around the square, which contained some fine elms, consisted of three hotels with old-fashioned swinging signs, two stores for general retail trade, and some mechanics shops. The hamlet had a most sleepy look, which on closer acquaintance proved to be in accordance with its true character. Its population, with the exception of a single family, was entirely made up of Pennsylvania Germans, and their peculiar language was used exclusively. I made my way to the most attractive hotel, the landlord of which, a fine-looking, white-haired man, was watching the goings-on from a chair on the main veranda. He gave me a hearty welcome, and, like a genuine village Boniface, immediately tried to find out who I was and what I wanted. On learning my object in being there, he made himself known as one of the school board, and offered to take me at once to the chairman of it. This proved to be the village doctor, a native of New York State, and an intelligent, well-educated man. He received me very kindly, and, after an hour's talk, we were on the best possible footing.
Having taken my intellectual measure, he told me frankly that I was altogether too well educated for the class of people I was to come in contact with, and for the common-school work I wished to undertake. But, on being informed that I sought the latter not from choice but from necessity, he offered to make it as pleasant as possible for me. He called a meeting of the school directors for the same evening, at which I was formally assigned to the vacant school for the two terms of three months each (the common schools in the county were not kept open longer), and my compensation fixed at thirty dollars a month and board — more than had ever been allowed for the same service. I was but too glad to accept, but was rather taken aback when the doctor explained to me that I was not to have an allowance for board, but would have to “board around” among the farmers whose children were to be my pupils — that is, to change my eating- and sleeping-place once a week. There was nothing to be done, however, but to submit.
The first school-term was not to begin for a week, so I remained at the tavern I had first selected during that time. I went back to Lebanon for the valise that contained all my belongings. I was reduced to the suit I wore, a fall overcoat, and a limited supply of linen and underwear. I bought the prescribed text-books, to the study of which I devoted myself diligently. During the week I also made myself acquainted with the leading villagers and the surrounding country. I found the latter most attractive every way. The Swatara River, that flowed through the village, coursed through a most picturesque valley from the beautiful Blue Mountains, the main ridge of which was but a few miles distant. The rolling country was finely diversified and highly improved, and dotted with prosperous farms. Fine public roads extended in every direction — a feature especially pleasing to a passionate pedestrian like myself. Assuredly, I did not fail to visit at once the scene of my future labors. The school-house was an ordinary building, decidedly neglected, and too small for the number of children entitled to use it, but well-lighted and well-situated on an elevation close to a by-road, about three-quarters of an hour from the village.
I duly entered upon my duties at the appointed time. Only thirty-five pupils out of sixty reported, and the attendance was always meagre, never exceeding forty, and sinking in bad weather often below thirty. The ages of my pupils ranged from eighteen to five, the majority being perhaps twelve, with the sexes about equally divided. Most of them were healthy and comely, but shabbily dressed and anything but cleanly in appearance. The majority of them were evidently intelligent, but the examination with which I began my teaching, in order to find out how they had been taught before and how much they knew, proved that they had received very irregular and limited teaching. Their spelling was very defective, their writing awkward, and their pronunciation of English very incorrect. It became clear that I should be equal to my task, as far as necessary knowledge was concerned, in all the branches except that of writing, in which I was disqualified by my own bad hand. I graded my pupils as best I could under the circumstances, and then proceeded regularly with the prescribed instruction.
The law required five hours teaching daily. The morning session opened at nine and continued till noon, with ten minutes recess at half-past ten, followed by an intermission till half-past one, and then two hours more of recitations. Saturday was a holiday. Thus I could not complain of excessive work, nor were my duties irksome to me, as the pupils were well-behaved and I soon got on a good footing with them. During my stay I had but few occasions to administer admonition or punishment, the latter only of a light sort. The main trouble was not bad conduct so much as laziness, especially on the part of the older girls. The general ignorance of my flock was amazing, and I seemed to be among veritable German peasant children. They saw very little of the outside world, and I readily attached them to me by reading and talking to them of it. Though they were the offspring of families that had been settled in Pennsylvania for generations, only a few of them could converse or understand English, so I spoke German to them. At first they found it difficult to understand me, accustomed as they were to the dialect. This very fact made them look upon the “schoolmaster,” as they all called me, with awe, as a sort of superior being. Within a few weeks, the whole school was ready to do anything for me, obviously feeling honored by being allowed to talk or walk with me.
I certainly could not boast of great achievements in my experience as a district teacher, but when I contrasted my freedom from care with my last experiences in New York, I felt very content with my temporary lot. This feeling was strengthened when I read in the New York daily Tribune, which I had subscribed for, of the progress of the general distress in the large cities. But there was a feature in my new life that was most distasteful to me from the start. As already mentioned, the terms of my engagement included “free board,” which was to be furnished in rotation at the homes of my pupils. Each family was bound to keep me only one week, so every Saturday I had to pick up my traps and move to new quarters. As a rule, my hosts were kindly disposed and treated me to the best they had; but their coarse fare, crude manners, and primitive domestic arrangements were hard to put up with. The people I stayed with were all descended from the poorest and most degraded class of peasants, who had emigrated under labor-contracts from my native province a century previous. They brought with them their domestic habits and had stuck to them ever since. I was surprised to find that their table-fare, beverages, furniture, utensils, and domestic practices generally were all but identical with those of the peasantry of the Palatinate at that very time. I found dishes on their tables that are not known in any other part of Germany. They slept on and under feather-beds, — and, alas! I had to submit to these too, — just as the peasants of the Palatinate do to-day. The very bench at the back of the stores for lounging purposes and smoking was not wanting. Of course, these people had been elevated above the level of a hundred years before, as their parents had had the advantage of the generally civilizing results of life in America, but my hosts were, almost without exception, sadly ignorant, narrow, and low. To be obliged to eat at table and to spend the evening hours and free days with these people, and to be obliged to sleep in the same room with the male farm help, was anything but an agreeable necessity. Yet I made the most of my predicament and got along without friction.
I was, however, immensely relieved when my friend the doctor, at Christmas, in response to my earnest and constant entreaties, persuaded the school board to let him arrange for my board and lodging on a different basis. Accordingly, we succeeded in persuading a family with which I had lived a week, and which I liked better than any other, to board me regularly for the modest sum of three dollars a week, which the school board was to pay. The family bore the name of Umberger, and consisted of two brothers and their wives and four children of the elder pair, two of whom were a boy of eighteen and a girl of seventeen. During the four months that I remained with them, there never was the least jarring between us. I requited their kindness by giving the children extra teaching at night, and entertaining the inquisitive older folks during the long winter evenings by telling them of life in the West, in Germany, and in the great American cities. To show how circumscribed the vision of these people necessarily was, I need but mention that most of the farmers and their wives whom I met during the winter, had never seen a railroad, though they lived within six miles of one!
I spent my evenings, except Saturdays, at home, talking and reading. Saturdays I set out for the school-house after breakfast, and, after starting the fire in the stove, spent all day doing journalistic work. I did not want to get out of practice, and I sought also to add to my modest income by it. Nothing that I offered to American papers in New York was accepted, but the Staats-Zeitung published some descriptive sketches and a short tale, if I remember aright. Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons and evenings, I made calls in Jonestown, or spent some time among the loungers around the office stoves in the several taverns. Of course, I longed for company, and sought what there was of it, poor as it was. One Sunday a month I spent in Lebanon, where I picked up a pleasant acquaintance with the editor of the leading local paper, the Lebanon County Courier, through some communications on various subjects which I sent him for gratuitous publication. Time passed quickly till the end of May, 1858, when my engagement was terminated by the closing of the schools.
- He “came very near joining one of the companies of Sharp's rifle men that were being formed all over the North in order to save that Territory to freedom.”
- One illusive opening was the Government's military expedition against the Mormons in the autumn of 1857.