The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 4/Illinois in Spring-Time: with a Look at Chicago
I remember very well, that, when I studied the "Arabian Nights," with a devotion which I have since found it difficult to bestow on the perusal of better books, the thing that most excited my imagination was the enchanted locomotive carpet, granted by one of the amiable genii to his favorite, to whom it gave the power of being in a moment where nobody expected him, paying visits at the most unfashionable hours, and making himself generally ubiquitous when interest or curiosity prompted. The other wonders were none of them inexhaustible. Donkeys that talked after their heads were cut off, just as well as some donkeys do with them on,--old cats turned into beautiful damsels,--birds that obligingly carried rings between parted lovers,--one soon had enough of. Caves full of gold and silver, and lighted by gems resplendent as the stars, were all very well, but soon tired. After your imagination had selected a few rings and bracelets, necklaces and tiaras, and carried off one or two chests full of gold, what could it do with the rest,--especially as they might vanish or turn to pebbles or hazel-nuts in your caskets?
But flying carpets! They could never tire. You seated yourself just in the middle, in the easiest possible attitude, and at a wish you were off, (not off the carpet, but off this work-a-day world,) careering through sunny fields of air with the splendid buoyancy of the eagle, steering your intelligent vehicle by a mere thought, and descending, gently as a snow-flake, to garden-bower or palace-window, moonlit kiosk or silent mountain-peak, as whim suggested or affairs urged. This was magic indeed, and worthy the genii of any age.
The sense of reality with which I accepted this wonder of wonders has furnished forth many a dream, sleeping and waking, since those days; and it is no uncommon thing for me, even now, to be sailing through the air, feeling its soft waves against my face, and the delicious refreshment of the upper ether in my breast, only to wake as if I had dropped into bed with a celerity that made the arrival upon earth anything but pleasant. I am not sure but there is some reality in these flights, after all. These aërial journeys may be foretastes of those we shall make after we are freed from the incumbrance of avoirdupois. I hope so, at least.
Yet there are good things of the kind here below, too. After all, what were a magic carpet that could carry a single lucky wight,--at best, but a species of heavenly sulky,--compared with a railroad train that speeds along hundreds of men, women, and children, over land and water, with any amount of heavy baggage, as well as a boundless extent of crinoline? And if this equipage, gift of genii of our age, seem to lack some of the celerity and secrecy which attended the voyagers of the flying carpet, suppose we add the power of whispering to a friend a thousand miles off the inmost thoughts of the heart, the most desperate plans, the most dangerous secrets! Do not the two powers united leave the carpet immeasurably behind?
Shakspeare is said, in those noted lines,--
"Dear as the ruddy drops
That visit this sad heart,"
to have anticipated the discovery of the circulation of the blood: did not the writers of the Oriental stories foresee rail and telegraph, and describe them in their own tropical style?
It is often said, that, although medical science leaves us pretty much as it found us with regard to the days of the years of our pilgrimage, and has as yet, with all its discoveries, done little towards prolonging "this pleasing, anxious being," yet the material improvements of our day do in effect lengthen mortal life for us. And truly, what must Indian life have been worth, when it took a month to cut down a tree with a stone hatchet, and when the shaping of a canoe was the work of a year? When two hundred miles of travel consumed a week's time, every two hundred miles' journey was worth a week's life; and if we accept the idea of a certain celebrated character, (not "Quintus Curtius," but Geoffrey Crayon, I believe,) that the time we spend in journeying is just so much subtracted from our little span of days, what a fearful loss of life must have resulted from our old modes of locomotion! And yet we inconsiderately grumble at an occasional smash-up! So easily are we spoiled!
There are grave doubts, however, in some minds, whether our present celerity of travel be wholly a gain upon the old methods. It must depend upon circumstances. If agreeable people virtually live longer now, so do bores, cheats, slanderers, hypocrites, and people who eat onions and chew tobacco; and the rail enables these to pursue their victims with inevitable, fatal swiftness.
Some hold that the pleasure of travelling is even impaired by this increase of speed. There is such a thing as fatal facility. As well eat a condensed dinner, or hear a concert in one comprehensive crash, ear-splitting and soul-confounding, as see miles of landscape at a glance. Willis says, travelling on an English railway is equivalent to having so many miles of green damask unrolled before your weary eyes. And one may certainly have too much of a good thing.
But, instead of discussing railroads in general,--too grand a theme for me,--let me say that nobody can persuade me it is not delightful to fly over ground scarcely yet trodden by the foot of man; to penetrate, with the most subtle resources of inventive art, the recesses in which Nature has enshrined herself most privately,--her dressing-room, as it were, where we find her in her freshness, before man-milliners have marred her beauty by attempts at improvement. The contrast between that miracle of art, a railroad-train at full speed, and a wide, lonely prairie, or a dusky forest, leafless, chilly, and silent,--save for the small tinkling of streams beginning to break from their frosty limits,--is one of the most striking in all the wide range of rural effects. It reminds me, though perhaps unaccountably to some, of Browning's fine image,--
"And ever and anon some bright white shaft
Burnt through the pine-tree roof, here burnt
As if God's messenger through the close
Plunged and re-plunged his weapon at a venture."
Even where fields have begun to be tilled and houses and barns to be built, the scared flying of domestic animals at sound of the terrific visitor,--the resistless chariot of civilization with scythed axles mowing down ignorance and prejudice as it whirls along,--tells a whole story of change and wonder. We can almost see the shadows of the past escaping into the dim woods, or flitting over the boundless prairie, shivering at the fearful whistle, and seeking shelter from the wind of our darting.
The season for this romantic pleasure of piercing primeval Nature on the wings of subtilest Art is rapidly drawing to a close. How few penetrable regions can we now find where the rail-car is a novelty! The very cows and horses, in most places, know when to expect it, and hardly vouchsafe a sidelong glance as they munch their green dinner. A railroad to the Pacific may give excitement of this kind a somewhat longer date, but those who would enjoy the sensation on routes already in use must begin their explorings at once. There is no time to be lost. If we much longer spend all our summers in beating the changeless paths of the Old World, our chance for the fresh but fleeting delight I have been speaking of will have passed by, never to return. It were unwise to lose this, one of the few remaining avenues to a new sensation. Europe will keep; but the prairies will not, the woods will not, hardly the rivers. Already the flowery waving oceans of Illinois begin to abound in ships, or what seem such,--houses looming up from the horizon, like three-masters sometimes, sometimes schooners, and again little tentative sloops. These are creeping nearer and nearer together, filling and making commonplace those lovely deserts where the imagination can still find wings, and world-wearied thought a temporary repose. Where neighbors were once out of beacon-sight, they are now within bell-sound; and however pleasant this may be for the neighbors, it is not so good for the traveller, especially the traveller who has seen Europe. Only think of a virgin forest or prairie, after over-populated Belgium or finished England! Europeans understand the thing, and invariably rush for the prairies; but we Americans, however little we may have seen of either world, care little for the wonders of our own. Yet, when we go abroad, we cannot help blushing to acknowledge that we have not seen the most striking features of our own country. I speak from experience. Scott, describing the arid wastes of the Hebrides,--
"Placed far amid the melancholy main,"
and swept bare by wintry-cold sea-breezes, said,--
"Yes! 'twas sublime, but sad; the loneliness
Loaded thy heart, the desert tired thine eye."
But how different the loneliness of a soft-waving prairie,--soft even before the new grass springs; soft in outline, in coloring, in its whispering silence! Nothing sad or harsh; no threat or repulsion; only mild hope, and promise of ease and abundance. Whether the glad flames sport amid the long dry grass of last year, or the plough turn up a deep layer of the exhaustless soil, or flocks of prairie-chickens fly up from every little valley, images of life, joy, and plenty belong to the scene. The summer flowers are not more cheerful than the spring blaze, the spring blackness of richness, or the spring whirr and flutter. The sky is alive with the return of migratory birds, swinging back and forth, as if hesitating where to choose, where all is good. Frogs hold noisy jubilees, ("Anniversary Meetings," perhaps,)--very hoarse, and no wonder, considering their damp lodging,--but singing, in words more intelligible than those of the opera-choruses, "Winter's gone! Spring's come! No, it isn't! Yes, it is!"--and the Ayes have it. The woodpecker's hammer helps the field-music, wherever he can find a tree. He seems to know the carpenter is coming, and he makes the most of his brief season. All is life, movement, freedom, joy. Not on the very Alps, where their black needles seem to dart into the blue depths, or snow-fields to mingle with the clouds, is the immediate, vital sympathy of Earth with Heaven more evident and striking.
The comparative ease with which prairie regions are prepared for the advent of the great steam-car is exactly typical of the facilities which they offer to other particulars of civilization. As the smoothing of the prairie path, preparatory to railway speed, is but short work, compared with the labor required in grading and levelling mountainous tracts for the same purpose, so the introduction of all that makes life desirable goes on with unexampled rapidity where the land requires no felling of heavy timber to make it ready for the plough, and where the soil is rich to such a depth that no man fears any need of new fertilizing in his life-time or his son's. We observe this difference everywhere in prairiedom; and it is perhaps this thought, this close interweaving of marked outward aspect with great human interests, that gives the prairie country its air of peculiar cheerfulness. To man the earth was given; for him its use and its beauty were created; it is his idea which endows it with expression, whether savage or kindly. Rocks and mountains suggest the force required to conquer difficulties, and the power with which the lord of creation is endowed to subdue them; and the chief charm and interest of such regions is derived, consciously or unconsciously, from this suggestion. Prairie images are more domestic, quiet, leisurely. No severe, wasting labor is demanded before corn and milk for wife and little ones are wrung from reluctant clods. No danger is there of sons or daughters being obliged to quit their homes and roam over foreign lands for a precarious and beggarly subsistence. No prairie-boy will ever carry about a hand-organ and a monkey, or see his sister yoked to the plough, by the side of horse or ox. Blessed be God that there are still places where grinding poverty is unfelt and unfeared! "Riches fineless" belong to these deep, soft fields, and they become picturesque by the thought, as the sea becomes so by the passing of a ship, and the burning desert by the foot-print of a traveller or the ashes of his fire.
It was in spring weather, neither cold nor warm, now and then shiny, and again spattering with a heavy shower, or misty under a warm, slow rain,--the snow still lying in little streaks under shady ridges,--that I first saw the prairies of Illinois. Everybody--kind everybody!--said, "Why didn't you come in June?" But I, not being a bird of the air, who alone travels at full liberty, the world before him where to choose and Providence his guide, cared not to answer this friendly query, but promised to be interested in the spring aspect of the prairies, after my fashion, as sincerely as more fastidious travellers can be in the summer one. It is very well to be prepared when company is expected, but friends may come at any time. "Brown fields and pastures bare" have no terrors for me. Green is gayer, but brown softer. Blue skies are not alone lovely; gray ones set them off--Rain enhances shine. Mud, to be sure;--but then railroads are the Napoleons of mud. Planks and platforms quench it completely. One may travel through tenacious seas of it without smirching one's boot-heel. There is even a feeling of triumph as we see it lying sulky and impotent on either side, while we bowl along dry-shod. When Noah and his family came out of the Ark, and found all "soft with the Deluge," it was very different. The prospect must have been discouraging. I thought of it as we went through, or rather over, the prairies. But if there had been in those days an Ararat Central, with good "incline" and stationary engine, they need not have sent out dove or raven, but might have started for home as soon as the rails shone in the sun and they could get the Ark on wheels. It would have been well to move carefully, to be sure; and it is odd to think what a journey they might have had, now and then stopping or switching-off because of a dead Mastodon across the track, or a panting Leviathan lashing out, thirstily, with impertinent tail,--to say nothing of sadder sights and impediments.
There were only pleasant reminiscences of the Great Deluge as we flew along after a little one. Happy we! in a nicely-cushioned car, berthed, curtained, and, better than all, furnished with the "best society," _sans_ starch, _sans_ crinoline; the gentlemen sitting on their hats as much as they pleased, and the ladies giving curls and collars the go-by, all in tip-top humor to be pleased. I could imagine but one improvement to our equipage,--that a steam-organ attached to it should have played, very softly, Felicien David's lovely level music of "The Desert," as we bowled along. There were long glittering side-streams between us and the black or green prairie,--streams with little ripples on their faces, as the breeze kissed them in passing, and now and then a dimple, under the visit of a vagrant new-born beetle. To call such shining waters mud or puddles did not accord with the spirit of the hour; so we fancied them the "mirroring waters" of the poet, and compared them t o fertilizing Nile,--whose powers, indeed, they share, to some extent. By their sides _ought_ to be planted willows and poplars, and alders of half a dozen kinds, but are not yet. All in good time. Thirsty trees would drink up superfluous moisture, and in return save fuel by keeping off sweeping winds, and money by diverting heavy snows, those Russian enemies to the Napoleon rail, and by preserving embankments, to which nothing but interlacing roots can give stability. Rows of trees bordering her railroads would make Illinois look more like France, which in many respects she already resembles.
The haze or _mirage_ of the prairies is wonderfully fantastic and deceptive. The effect which seamen call _looming_ is one of the commonest of its forms. This brings real but distant objects into view, and dignifies them in size and color, till we can take a farm-house for a white marble palace, and leafless woods with sunset clouds behind them for enchanted gardens hung with golden fruit. But the most gorgeous effects are, as is usual with air-castles, created out of nothing,--that is, nothing more substantial than air, mist, and sun- or moon- or star-beams. Fine times the imagination has, riding on purple and crimson rays, and building Islands of the Blest among vapors that have just risen from the turbid waters of the Mississippi! No Loudon or Downing is invoked for the contriving or beautifying of these villa-residences and this landscape-gardening. Genius comes with inspiration, as inspiration does with genius; and we are our own architects and draughtsmen, rioting at liberty with Nature's splendid palette at our command, and no thought of rule or stint. Why should we not, in solider things, derive more aid, like the poor little "Marchioness" of Dickens, from this blessed power of imagination? Those who do so are always laughed at as unpractical; but are they not most truly practical, if they find and use the secret of gilding over, and so making beautiful or tolerable, things in themselves mean or sad?
Once upon a time, then, the great State of Illinois was all under water;--at least, so say the learned and statistical. If you doubt it, go count the distinctly-marked ridges in the so-called bluffs, and see how many years or ages this modern deluge has been subsiding. Where its remains once lay sweltering under the hot sun, and sucking miasms from his beams, now spread great green expanses, wholesome and fertile, making the best possible use of sunbeams, and offering, by their aid, every earthly thing that men and animals need for their bodily growth and sustenance, in almost fabulous abundance.
The colored map of Illinois, as given in a nice, new book, called, "Illinois as it is," looks like a beautiful piece of silk, brocaded in green (prairies) on a brownish ground (woodland tracts),--the surface showing a nearly equal proportion of the two; while the swampy lands, designated by dark blue,--in allusion, probably, to the occasional state of mind of those who live near them,--take up a scarce appreciable part of the space. Long, straggling "bluffs," on the banks of the rivers, occupy still less room; but they make, on land and paper, an agreeable variety. People thus far go to them only for the mineral wealth with which they abound. It will be many years, yet, before they will be thought worth farming; not because they would not yield well, but because there is so much land that yields better.
Some parts of the State are hilly, and covered with the finest timber. The scenery of these tracts is equal to any of the kind in the United States; and much of it has been long under cultivation, having been early chosen by Southern settlers, who have grown old upon the soil. Here and there, on these beautiful highlands, we find ancient ladies, bright-eyed and cheerful, who tell us they have occupied the selfsame house--built, Kentucky-fashion, with chimney outside--for forty years or so. The legends these good dames have to tell are, no doubt, quite as interesting in their way as those which Sir Walter Scott used to thread the wilds of Scotland to gather up; but we value them not. By-and-by, posterity will anathematize us for letting our old national stories die in blind contempt or sheer ignorance of their value.
The only thing to be found fault with in the landscape is the want of great fields full of stumps. It does not seem like travelling in a new country to see all smooth and ready for the plough. Trees are not here looked upon as natural enemies; and so, where they grow, there they stand, and wave triumphant over the field like victors' banners. No finer trees grow anywhere, and one loves to see them so prized. Yet we miss the dear old stumps. My heart leaps up when I behold hundreds of them so close together that you can hardly get a plough between. Long, long years ago, I have seen a dozen men toiling in one little cleared spot, jollily engaged in burning them with huge fires of brush-wood, chopping at them with desperate axes, and tearing the less tenacious out by the roots, with a rude machine made on the principle of that instrument by the aid of which the dentist revenges you on an offending tooth. The country looks tame, at first, without these characteristic ornaments, so suggestive of human occupancy. The ground is excellently fertile where stumps have been, and association makes us rather distrustful of its goodness where nothing but grass has ever grown.
The prairies are not as flat in surface as one expects to find them. Except in the scarcity of trees, their surface is very much like other portions of what is considered the best farming land. There are great tracts of what are called bushy prairies, covered with a thick growth of hazel and sassafras, jessamine and honey-suckle, and abounding in grape-vines. These tracts possess springs in abundance. The "islands" so often alluded to by travellers are most picturesque and beautiful features in the landscape. They must not be compared to oases, for they are surrounded by anything but sterility; but they are the evidence of springs, and generally of a slight rise in the ground, and the timber upon them is of almost tropical luxuriance. Herds of deer are feeding in their shade, the murmur of wild bees fills the air, and the sweet vine-smell invites birds and insects of every brilliant color. Prairie-chickens are in flocks everywhere, and the approach of civilization scarcely ever disturbs them. No engine-driver in the southern part of the State but has often seen deer startled by the approach of his train, and many tell tales of more ferocious denizens of the wilds. Buffalo have all long since disappeared; but what times they must have had in this their paradise, before they went! On the higher prairies the grass is of a superior quality, and its seed almost like wheat. On those which are low and humid it grows rank and tough, and sometimes so high that a man on horseback may pass through it unobserved. The crowding of vegetation, owing to the over-fertility of the soil, causes all to tend upward, so that most of the growth is extra high, rather than spreading in breadth. In the very early spring, the low grass is interspersed with quantities of violets, strawberry-blossoms, and other delicate flowers. As the grass grows taller, flowers of larger size and more brilliant hues diversify it, till at length the whole is like a flowery forest, but destined to be burnt over in the autumn, leaving their ashes to help forward the splendid growth of their successors.
One of the marvels of this marvellous prairiedom, at the present hour, is the taste and skill displayed in houses and gardens. One fancies a "settler" in the Western wilds so occupied with thoughts of shelter and sustenance as hardly to remember that a house must be perpendicular to be safe, and a garden fenced before it is worth planting. But every mile of our prairie-flight reminds us, that, where no time and labor are to be consumed in felling trees and "toting" logs to mill,--planks and joists, and such like, walking in, by rail, all ready for the framing,--there is leisure for ref lection and choice as to form; and also, that, where fertility is the inevitable attendant upon the first incision of the plough, _what_ we shall plant and _how_ we shall plant it become the only topics for consideration. Setting aside the merely temporary residences of the poorer class of farmers,--houses sure to be replaced by palaces of pine-boards, at least, before a great while, provided the owner does not "move West," or take to whiskey,--the cottages we catch glimpses of from car-windows are pretty and well-planned, and some of them show even better on the inside than on the out. I must forbear to enlarge on the comfort and abundance of these dwellings, lest I trench upon private matters; but I may mention, by way of illustrating my subject, and somewhat as the painter introduces human figures into his picture to give an idea of the height of a tower or the vastness of a cathedral, that I have found an abundant and even elegant table, under frescoed ceiling, in a cottage near the Illinois Central, and far south of the mid-line of this wonderful State, so lately a seeming waste through much of its extent.
And thus throughout. At one moment a bare expanse, looking man-despised, if not God-forgotten,--and at the next, a smiling village, with tasteful dwelling, fine shrubbery, great hotels, spires pointing heavenward, and trees that look down with the conscious dignity of old settlers, as if they had stood just so since the time of good Father Marquette, that stout old missionary, who first planted the holy cross in their shade, and, "after offering to the Mightiest thanks and supplications, fell asleep to wake no more."
There are many interesting reminiscences or traditions of the early European settlers of Illinois. After Father Marquette,--whom I always seem to see in Hicks's sweet picture of a monk inscribing the name JESU on the bark of a tree in the forest,--came La Salle, an emissary of the great Colbert, under Louis XIV.; an explorer of many heroic qualities, who has left in this whole region important traces of his wanderings, and the memory of his bloody and cruel murder at the impious hands of his own followers, who had not patience to endure to the end. Counted as part of Florida, under Spanish rule, and part of Louisiana, under that of the French,--falling into the hands of the celebrated John Law, in the course of his bubble Mississippi scheme, and afterwards ceded with Canada and Nova Scotia to the English, Illinois was never Americanized until the peace of '83. The spongy turf of her prairies bore the weight of many a fort, and drank the blood of the slain in many a battle, when all around her was at peace. The fertility of her soil and the comparative mildness of her climate caused her to be eagerly contended for, as far back as 1673, when the pioneers grew poetical under the inspiration of "a joy that could not be expressed," as they passed her "broad plains, all garlanded with majestic forests and checkered with illimitable prairies and island groves." "We are Illinois," said the poor Indians to Father Marquette,--meaning, in their language, "We are men." And the Jesuits treated them as men; but by traders they soon began to be treated like beasts; and of course--poor things!--they did their best to behave accordingly. All the forts are ruins now; there is no longer occasion for them. The Indians are nothing. There can scarcely be found the slightest trace of their occupancy of these rich acres. Nations that build nothing but uninscribed burial-places foreshadow their own doom,--to return to the soil and be forgotten. But the mode of their passing away is not, therefore, a matter of indifference.
On the stronger and more intelligent rests the responsibility of such changes; and in the case of our Indians, it is certain that a load of guilt, individual and national, rests somewhere. Necessity is no Christian plea, "It must needs be that offences come, but woe to him by whom the offence cometh!" The Indian and the negro shall rise up in judgment against our rich and happy land, and condemn it for inhumanity and selfishness. Have they not already done so? Blood and treasure, poured out like water, have been the beginnings of retribution in one case; a deeper and more vital punishment, such as belongs to bosom-sins, awaits us in the other. Shall no penitence, no sacrifice, attempt to avert it?
Illinois, level, fertile, joyous, took French rule very kindly. The missionaries, who were physicians, schoolmasters, and artisans, as well as preachers, lived among the people, instructed them in the arts of life as well as in the ceremonies and spirit of the Catholic faith; and natives and foreigners seem to have dwelt together in peace and love. The French brought with them the regularity and neatness that characterize their home-settlements, and the abundance in which they lived enabled them to be public-spirited and to deal liberally even with the Indians. They raised wheat in such plenty that Indian corn was cultivated chiefly for provender, although they found the _voyageurs_ glad to buy it as they passed back and forth on their adventurous journeys. The remains of their houses show how substantially they built; two or three modern sudden houses could be made out of one old French picketed and porticoed cottage.
The appearance of an Illinois settler in those days was rather picturesque than elegant,--substance before show being the principle upon which it was planned. While the Indian still wore his paint and feathers when he came to trade, the rural swain appeared in a _capote_ made of blanket, with a hood that served in cold weather instead of a Leary, buck-skin overalls, moccasins of raw-hide, and, generally, only a natural shock of Sampsonian locks between his head and the sun; while his lady-love was satisfied with an outfit not very different,--save that there is no tradition that she ever capped the climax of ugliness by wearing Bloomers. There were gay colors for holidays, no doubt; but not till 1830, we are told, did the genuine Illinois settler adopt the commonplace dress of this imitative land. What pity when people are in such haste to do away with everything characteristic in costume!
Both sexes worked hard, bore rough weather without flinching, and attended carefully to their religious duties; but, withal, they were gay and joyous, ready for dance and frolic, and never so anxious to make money that they forgot to make fun.
What must the ghosts of these primitive Christians think of their successors, ploughing in broadcloth and beaver, wading through the mud in patent-leather boots, and all the while wrinkled with anxiety, gaunt with ambition, and grudging themselves three holidays a year!
Immigrants in time changed the character of the population as well as its dress, and for a while there seems to have been something of a jumble of elements, new laws conflicting with old habits, hungry politicians preying upon a simple people, who only desired to be let alone, and who, when they discovered some gross imposition, were philosophical enough to call it, jokingly, being "greased and swallowed." This anarchical condition resulted, as usual, in habits of personal violence; and, at one time, an adverse vote was considered matter for stabbing or gouging, and juries often dismissed indictments, fearing private vengeance in case of a discharge of their duty. They made a wide distinction, in murder trials, between him who committed the crime in a passion and those who did the thing quietly; so that you had only to walk up to the person who had offended you, and shoot him in the open street, to feel tolerably sure of impunity. In short, there seems to have prevailed, at that time, north of Mason and Dixon's line, very much the same state of things that still prevails south of it; but there was other leaven at work, and the good sense of the people gradually got the better of this short-sighted folly of violence.
It is reported as fact, by all writers on the earlier history of this State, that the holding of courts was conducted very much in the style reported of the back counties of Georgia and Alabama in our day. The sheriff would go out into the court-yard and say to the people, "Come in, boys,--the court is going to begin,"--or sometimes, "Our John is going to open court now,"--the judge being just one of the "boys."
Judges did not like to take upon themselves the _onus_ of deciding cases, but shared it with the jury as far as possible. One story, well authenticated, runs thus: A certain judge, having to pass sentence of death upon one of his neighbors, did it in the following form: "Mr. Green, the jury in their verdict say you are guilty of murder, and the law in that case says you are to be hung. Now I want you and all your friends down on Indian Creek to know that it is not me that condemns you, but the jury and the law. What time would you like to be hung, Sir?" The poor man replied, that it made no difference to him; he would rather the court should appoint a time. "Well, then, Mr. Green," says the judge, "the court will allow you four weeks' time to prepare for death and settle up your business." It was here suggested by the Attorney-General that it was usual in such cases for the court to recapitulate the essential parts of the evidence, to set forth the nature and enormity of the crime, and solemnly to exhort the prisoner to repent and fit himself for the awful doom awaiting him. "Oh!" said the judge, "Mr. Green understands all that as well as if I had preached to him a month. Don't you, Mr. Green? You understand you're to be hung this day four weeks?" "Yes, Sir," replied Mr. Green, and so the matter ended.
One legal brilliant blazes on the forehead of youthful Illinois, in the shape of a summary remedy for duelling. One of those heroes who think it safer to appeal to chance than to logic in vindication of tarnished honor, and who imagine the blood of a dead friend the only salve to be relied on for the cure of wounded feelings, killed his opponent in a duel. The law of Illinois very coolly hanged the survivor; and from that time to this, other remedies have been found for spiritual hurts, real or imaginary. Nobody has fancied it necessary to fight with a noose round his neck. If ever capital punishment were lawful, (which I confess I do not think it ever can be,) it would be as a desperate remedy against this horrid relic of mediaeval superstition and impiety, no wiser or more Christian than the ordeal by burning ploughshares or poisoned wine. The rope in judicial hands is certainly as lawful as the pistol in rash ones; so the duellist has no reason to complain.
Some of the later days of Illinois, the days of Indian wars and Mormon wars, pro-slavery wars and financial wars, are too red and black for peaceful pages; and as they were incidental rather than characteristic, they do not come within our narrow limits. There is still too large an infusion of the cruel slavery spirit in the laws of Illinois; but the immense tide of immigration will necessarily remedy that, by overpowering the influence introduced over the southern border. So nearly a Southern State was Illinois once considered to be, that, in settling the northern boundary, it was deemed essential to give her a portion of the lake-shore, that her interests might be at least balanced. They have proved to be more than balanced by this wise provision.
The little excuse there is in this favored region for a sordid devotion to toil, a journey through the State, even at flying pace, is sufficient to show. The fertility of the soil is the despair of scientific farming. Who cares for rules, when he has only to drop a seed and tread on it, to be sure of a hundred-fold return? Who talks of succession of crops, when twelve burdens of wheat, taken from the same soil in as many years, leave the ground black and ready for another yield of almost equal abundance? An alluvial tract of about three hundred thousand acres, near the Mississippi, has been cultivated in Indian cor n a hundred and fifty years,--indeed, ever since the French occupation of Illinois. What of under-draining? Some forty or fifty rivers threading the State, besides smaller streams innumerable, always will do that, as soon as the Nilic floods of spring have accomplished their work by floating to the surface the finest part of the soil. Irrigation? You may now grow rice on one farm and grapes on another, without travelling far between. It is true, there must be an end to this universality of power and advantage, some day; but nobody can see far enough ahead to feel afraid, and it is not in the spirit of our time to think much about the good of our grandchildren. "What has posterity done for me?" is the instinctive question of the busy Westerner, as he sits down under vine and fig-tree which his own hands have planted, to enjoy peace and plenty, after suffering the inevitable hardships of pioneer life. You may tell him he is not wise to scorn good rules; but he will reply, that he did not come so far West, and begin life anew, for the sake of being wise, but of making money, and that as rapidly as possible. He has forgotten the care and economy learned among the cold and stony hills of New England, and wants to do everything on a large scale. He likes to hear of patent reapers, Briarean threshing-machines, and anything that will save him most of the time and trouble of gathering in his heavy crops,--but that is all. The growth of those crops he has nothing to do with. That is provided for by Nature in Illinois; if it were not, he would move "out West."
Stories of this boundless fertility are rife here. One pioneer told us, that, when a fence is to be made and post-holes are wanted, it is only necessary to drop beet-seed ten feet apart all around the field, and, when the beet is ripe, you pull it up and your post-hole is ready! To be sure, there was a twinkle in the corner of his eye as he stated this novel and interesting fact; but, after all, the fertility in question was not so extravagantly "poefied" by this _canard_ as some may suppose. Our friend went on to state, that, in his district, they had a kind of corn which produced from a single grain a dozen stalks of twelve ears each; and not content with this, on _most_ of the stalks you would find, somewhere near the top, a small calabash full of shelled corn! To put the matter beyond doubt, he pulled a handful of the corn from his pocket, which he invited us to plant, and satisfy ourselves.
The reader has probably concluded, by this time, that beets and corn are not the only enormous things grown in Illinois.
A friend told us, in perfectly good faith, that a tract of his, some fourteen thousand acres, in the southern part of the State, contained coal enough to warm the world, and more iron than that coal would smelt,--salt enough for all time, and marble and rich metallic ores of various kinds besides. In one region are found inexhaustible beds of limestone, the smoke of whose burning fills the whole spring air, and the crevices of whose formation make very pokerish-looking caves, which young and adventurous ladies are fond of exploring; in another we come to quantities of that snow-white porcelain clay of which some people suppose themselves to have been originally formed, but which has been, in a commercial point of view, hitherto a _desideratum_ in these United States of ours. The people at Mound City (an aspiring rival of Cairo, on the banks of the Ohio) are about building a factory for the exploitation of this clay, not into ladies and gentlemen, (unpopular articles here,) but into china-ware, the quality of which will be indisputable.
One soon ceases wondering at the tropicality of the Illinoisian imagination. Ali Baba's eye-straining experiences were poor, compared to these every-day realities.
The "Open Sesame" in this case has been spoken through the railroad-whistle. Railroads cannot make mines and quarries, and fat soil and bounteous rivers; yet railroads have been the making of Illinois. Nobody who has ever seen her spring roads, where there are no rails, can ever question it. From the very fatness of her soil, the greater part of the State must have been one Slough of Despond for three quarters of the year, and her inhabitants strangers to each other, if these iron arms had not drawn the people together and bridged the gulfs for them. No roads but railroads could possibly have threaded the State, a large and the best portion of whose surface is absolutely devoid of timber, stone, gravel, or any other available material. The prairies must have remained flowery deserts, visited as a curiosity every year by strangers, but without dwellings for want of wood. The vast quarries must, of course, have lain useless, for want of transporting power,--our friend's coal and iron undisturbed, waiting for an earthquake,--and the poetical pioneer's beets and Indian corn unplanted, and therefore uncelebrated. Well may it be said here, that iron is more valuable than gold. Population, agriculture, the mechanic arts, literature, taste, civilization, in short, are all magnetized by the beneficent rail, and follow wherever it leads. The whole southern portion of Illinois has been nicknamed "Egypt," --whether because at its utmost point, on a dampish delta, reposes the far-famed city of Cairo,--or whether, as wicked satirists pretend, its denizens have been found, in certain particulars, rather behind our times in intellectual light. Whatever may have been the original excuse for the _sobriquet_, the derogatory one exists no more. Light has penetrated, and darkness can reign no longer. Every day, a fiery visitant, bearing the collective intelligence of the whole world's doings and sayings, dashes through Egypt into Cairo, giving off scintillations at every hamlet on the way,--and every day the brilliant marvel returns, bringing northward, not only the good things of the Ohio and Mississippi, but tropic _on-dits_ and oranges, only a few hours old, to the citizens of Chicago, far "in advance of the (New York) mail." With the rail comes the telegraph; and whispers of the rise and fall of fancies and potatoes, of speculations and elections, of the sale of corner-lots and the evasion of bank-officers, are darting about in every direction over our heads, as we unconsciously admire the sunset, or sketch a knot of rosy children as they come trooping from a quaint school-house on the prairie edge. Fancy the rail gone, and we have neither telegraph, nor school-house, nor anything of all this but the sunset,--and even that we could not be there to see in spring-time, at least, unless we could transmigrate for the time into the relinquished forms of some of these aboriginal bull-frogs, which grow to the nice size of two feet in length, destined, no doubt, to receive the souls of habitual croakers hereafter.
But if the railroads have been the making of the land, it is not to be denied that the land has been the making of the railroads. Egyptian minds they must have been, that grudged the tracts given by the United States to the greatest of roads, the greatest road in the world. Having bestowed a line of alternate sections on this immense undertaking,--vital in importance, and impossible without such aid,--the Government at once doubled the price of the intermediate sections, _and sold them at the doubled price_, though they had been years, and might have been ages, in market unsold, without means of communication and building. Who, then, was the loser? Not the United States; for they received for half the land just what they would otherwise have received for the whole. Not the State; for it lays hands on a good slice of the annual profits, not to speak of incalculable benefits beside. Not the farmer, surely; for what would his now high-priced land be worth, if the grand road were annihilated? Not the bond-holder; for he receives a fair, full interest on his money. Not the stock-holder; for he looks with eyes of faith toward a great future. It was a sort of triangular or quadrangular or pentangular bargain, in which all these parties were immensely benefited. The traveller blesses such liberal policy, as he flies along towards the land of oranges, or turns aside to measure mammoth beets or weigh extra-supernal corn, to "bore" or to "prospect," to pick at oölite and shale or to "peep and botanize" through an inexhaustible Flora. The present writer has certainly reason to be grateful,--not, alas! with that gushing warmth of feeling which the owners of shares or bonds naturally experience,--but as an "'umble individual" who could not have found material for this valuable article, if certain gentlemen who do own the said shares had not been very enterprising.
The man who may be said to have devised the land-basis for railroads through unsettled tracts--a financier of unsurpassed sagacity, and once the soul of commercial honor as well as intelligence--should not, in his dishonored grave, and far beyond the reach of human scorn or vengeance, be denied the credit of what he accomplished before the fatal madness seized his soul and dragged him to perdition. Let it be enough that his name has come to be an epithet of infamy in his land's language. Let not the grandeur of his views, the intent with which he set out, and the good he achieved, be lost in oblivion. Pride--"by that sin fell the angels!"--cast him headlong down the irrecoverable steep,--
"And when he fell, he fell like Lucifer,"--
aye! like Wolsey and Bacon,--
"Never to rise again!"
It is no sin to hope that the All-seeing eye discerned in those noble undertakings and beneficent results the germ of wings that shall one day bear him back to light and mercy. Let us, who benefit by his good deeds, not insist on remembering only the evil!
Chicago, the Wondrous, sits amid her wealth, like a magnificent sultana, half-reclining over a great oval mirror, supplied by that lake of lakes, the fathomless Michigan. Perhaps the resemblance might be unpoetically traced to particulars; for we are told by lotos-eating travellers, that Oriental beauties, with all their splendor, are not especially clean. Certain it is that our Occidental sultana dresses her fair head with towers and spires, and hangs about her neck long rows of gems in the shape of stately and elegant dwellings,--yet, descending to her feet, we sink in mud and mire, or tumble unguardedly into excavations set like traps for the unwary, or oust whole colonies of rats from beneath plank walks where they have burrowed securely ever since "improvements" began. At some seasons, indeed, there is no mud; because the high winds from the lake or the prairies turn the mud into dust, which blinds our eyes, fills our mouths, and makes us Quakers in appearance and anything but saints in heart. Chicago-walking resembles none but such as Christian encountered as he fled from the City of Destruction; yet in this case the ills are those of a City of _Con_struction.--sure to disappear as soon as the builders find time to care for such trifles. Chicago people, it is well known, walk with their heads in the clouds, and, naturally, do not mind what happens to their feet. It is only strangers who exclaim, and sometimes more than exclaim, at the dangers of the way. Cast-away carriages lie along the road-side, like ships on Fire Island beach. Nobody minds them. If you see a gentleman at a distance, progressing slowly with a gliding or floundering pace, you conclude he has a horse under him, and, perhaps, on nearer approach, you see bridle and headstall. This is in early spring, while the frost is coming out of the ground. As the season advances, the horse emerges, and you are just getting a fair sight of him when the dust begins and he disappears again. So say the scoffers, and those who would, but do not, own any city-lots in that favored vicinity; and to the somewhat heated mind of the traveller who encounters such things for the first time, the story does not seem so very much exaggerated. Simple wayfarers like myself, however, tell no such wicked tales of the Garden City; but remember only her youth, her grandeur, her spirit, her hospitality, her w cares, her immense achievements, and her sure promise of future metropolitan splendors.
The vicinity of Chicago is all dotted with beautiful villa-residences. To drive among them is like turning over a book of architectural drawings,—so great is their variety, and so marked the taste which prevails. Many of them are of the fine light-colored stone found in the neighborhood, and their substantial excellence inspires a feeling that all this prosperity is of no ephemeral character. People do not build such country-houses until they feel settled and secure. The lake-shore is of course the line of attraction, for it is the only natural beauty of the place. But what trees! Several of the streets of Chicago may easily become as beautiful drives as the far-famed Cascine at Florence, and will be so before her population doubles again,—which is giving but a short interval for the improvement. No parks as yet, however. Land on the lake-shore is too precious, and the flats west of the town are quite despised. Yet city parks do not demand very unequal surface, and it would not require a very potent landscape-gardener or an unheard-of amount of dollars to make a fine driving-and riding-ground, where the new carriages of the fortunate might be aired, and the fine horses of the gay exercised, during a good part of the year.
To describe Chicago, one would need all the superlatives set in a row. Grandest, flattest,—muddiest, dustiest,—hottest, coldest,—wettest, driest,—farthest north, south, east, and west from other places, consequently most central,—best harbor on Lake Michigan, worst harbor and smallest river any great commercial city ever lived on,—most elegant in architecture, meanest in hovel-propping,—wildest in speculation, solidest in value,—proudest in self-esteem, loudest in self-disparagement,—most lavish, most grasping,—most public-spirited in some things, blindest and darkest on some points of highest interest.
And some poor souls would doubtless add,—most fascinating, or most desolate,—according as one goes there, gay and hopeful, to find troops of prosperous friends, or, lonely and poor, with the distant hope of bettering broken fortunes by struggling among the driving thousands already there on the same errand. There is, perhaps, no place in the world where it is more necessary to take a bright and hopeful view of life, and none where this is more difficult. There is too much at stake. Those who have visited Baden-Baden and her Kursaal sisters in the height of the season need not be told that no "church-face" ever equalled in solemnity the countenances of those who surround the fatal tables, waiting for the stony lips of the croupier to announce "Noir perd" or "Rouge gagne." At Chicago are a wider table, higher stakes, more desperate throws, and Fate herself presiding, or what seems Fate, at once partial and inexorable.
But, on this great scale, even success fails to bring smiles. The winners sit "with hair on end at their own wonders," and half-fearing that such golden showers have some illusion about them and may prove fairy favors at last. Next to this fueling comes the thirst for more. Enlarged means bring enlarged desires and ever-extending plans. The repose and lightness of heart that were at first to be the reward of success recede farther and farther into the dim distance, until at last they are lost sight of entirely, confessed, with a sigh, to be unattainable. How can people in this State wear cheerful countenances? When one looks at the gay and social faces and habits of some little German town, where are cultivated people, surrounded by the books and pictures they love, with leisure enough for music and dancing and tea-garden chat, for deep friendships and lofty musings, it would seem as if our shrewd Yankee-land and its outcroppings at the West had not yet found out everything worth knowing. Froissart's famous remark about the English in France—"They take their pleasure sadly, after their fashion"—may apply to the population of Chicago, and it will be some time yet, I fancy, before they will take it very gayly.
At a little country-town, the other day, not within a thousand miles of Chicago, a family about leaving for a distant place advertised their movables for sale at auction. There was such a stir throughout the settlement as called forth an expression of wonder from a stranger. "Ah!" said a good lady, "auctions are the only gayety we have here!"
Joking apart, there was a deep American truth in this seeming niaiserie.
Chicago has, as we have said, with all her wealth, no public park or other provision for out-door recreation. She has no gallery of Art, or the beginning of one,—no establishment of music, no public library,—no social institution whatever, except the church. Without that blessed bond, her people would be absolute units, as independent of each other as the grains of sand on the seashore, swept hither and thither by the ocean winds.
But even before these words have found their way to the Garden City, they will, perhaps, be inapplicable,—so rapid is progress at the West. The people are like a great family moving into a new house. There is so much sweeping and dusting to do, so much finding of places for the furniture, so much time to spend in providing for breakfast, dinner, and tea, lodging and washing, that nobody thinks of unpacking the pictures, taking the books out of their boxes, or getting up drives or riding-parties. All these come in good time, and will be the better done for a little prudent delay.
There is, to the stranger, an appearance of extreme hurry in Chicago, and the streets are very peculiar in not having a lady walking in them. Day after day I traversed them, meeting crowds of men, who looked like the representatives of every nation and tongue and people,—and every class of society, from the greenest rustic, or the most undisguised sharper, to the man of most serious respectability, or him of highest ton. Yet one lady walking in the streets I saw not; and when I say not one lady, I mean that I did not meet a woman who seemed to claim that title, or any title much above that of an ordinary domestic. Perhaps this is only a spring symptom, which passes off when the mud dries up a little,—but it certainly gave a rather forlorn or funereal aspect to the streets for the time.
There is, nevertheless, potent inspiration in the resolute and occupied air of these crowds. Hardly any one stays long among them without feeling a desire to share their excitement, and do something towards the splendid future which is evidently beckoning them on. Preparing the future! It is glorious business. No wonder it makes the pulse quicken and the eye look as if it saw spirits. It may be said, that in some sense we are all preparing the future; but in the West there is a special meaning in the expression. In circumstances so new and wondrous, first steps are all-important. Those who have been providentially led to become early settlers have immense power for good or evil. One can trace in many or most of our Western towns, and even States, the spirit of their first influential citizens. Happy is it for Chicago that she has been favored in this respect,—and to her honor be it said, that she appreciates her benefactors. Of one citizen, who has been for twenty years past doing the quiet and modest work of a good genius in the city of his adoption, it is currently said, that he has built a hundred miles of her streets,—and there is no mark of respect and gratitude that she would not gladly show him. Other citizens take the most faithful and disinterested care of her schools; and to many she is indebted for an amount of liberality and public spirit which is constantly increasing her enormous prosperity. Happy the city which possesses such citizens! Happy the citizens who have a city so nobly deserving of their best services!