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MISSISSIPPI VOYAGE. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 2.
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“That it was full of monsters who devoured canoes as well as men; that the devil stopped its passage, and sunk all those who ventured to approach the place where he stood; and that the river itself at last was swallowed up in the bottomless gulf of a tremendous whirlpool.”—Quarterly Review.
About four o'clock in the afternoon of the 6th of May we were conveyed, by a large party of friends, to the “Henry Clay,” on board of which accommodations had been secured for us by great exertion on the part of a fellow-voyager. The “Henry Clay” had the highest reputation of any boat on the river, having made ninety-six trips without accident; a rare feat on this dangerous river. As I was stepping on board, Judge P. said he hoped we were each provided with a life-preserver. I concluded he was in joke; but he declared himself perfectly serious, adding that we should probably find ourselves the only cabin passengers unprovided with this means of safety. We should have been informed of this before : it was too late now. Mr. E., of our party on board, told me all that this inquiry made me anxious to know. He had been accustomed to ascend and descend the river annually, with his family; and he made his arrangements according to his knowledge of the danger of the navigation. It was his custom to sit up till near the time of other people's rising, and to sleep in the day. There are always companies of gamblers in these boats, who, being awake and dressed during the hours of darkness, are able to seize the boats, on the first alarm of an accident in the night, and are apt to leave the rest of the passengers behind. Mr. E. was a friend of the captain; he was a man of gigantic bodily strength, and cool temper; every way fitted to be of use in an emergency: and the captain gave him the charge of the boats, in case of a night accident. Mr. E. told me that, as we were particularly under his charge, his first thought, in a time of danger, would be of us. He had a life-preserver, and was an excellent swimmer, so that he had little doubt of being able to save us, in any case. He only asked us to come the instant we were called; to do as we were bid; and to be quiet. As we looked at the stately vessel, with her active captain, her two pilots, the crowds of gay passengers, and all the provision for safety and comfort, it was scarcely possible to realize the idea of danger: but we knew that the perils of this extraordinary river, sudden and overwhelming, are not like those of the ocean, which can be, in a great measure, guarded against by skill and care. The utmost watchfulness cannot here provide against danger from squalls, from changes in the channel of the river, and from the snags, planters, and sawyers (trunks of trees brought down from above by the current, and fixed in the mud under water,) which may, at any moment, pierce the hull of the vessel.
Our Now Orleans friends remained with us upwards of an hour, introducing us to the captain, and to such of the passengers as they knew. Among these were Mr. and Mrs. L., of Boston, Massachusetts. We little imagined, that afternoon, how close an intimacy would grow out of this casual meeting; how many weeks we should afterwards spend in each other's society, with still-increasing esteem and regard The last thing one of my friends said was that he was glad we were going, as there had been forty cases of cholera in the city, the day before.
After five o'clock, the company on deck and in the cabins, who had bidden farewell to their friends some time before, began to inquire of one another why we were not setting off. We had found the sun too warm on deck, and had had enough of mutual staring with the groups on the wharf: we turned over the books, and made acquaintance with the prints in the ladies' cabin; and then leisurely arranged our state-rooms to our liking: and still there was no symptom of departure. The captain was obviously annoyed. It was the non-arrival of a party of passengers which occasioned the delay. A multitude of Kentuckians and other western men had almost forced their way on board, as deck-passengers; men who had come down the river in flat-boats with produce, who were to work their way up again by carrying wood at the wooding-places, morning and evening, to supply the engine-fire. These men, like others, prefer a well-managed to a perilous boat; and their eagerness to secure a passage was excessive. More thronged in, after the captain had declared that he was full; more were bustling on the wharf, and still the expected party did not come. The captain ordered the plank to be taken up which formed a communication with the shore. Not till six o'clock was it put down for the dilatory passengers, who did not seem to be aware of the inconvenience they had occasioned. They were English. A man on the wharf took advantage of the plank being put down, to come on board, in spite of prohibition. He went with his bundle to the spot on the second deck which he chose for a sleeping place, and immediately lay down, without attracting particular notice from any one.
We braved the heat on the hurricane dock, for the sake of obtaining last views of New Orleans. The city soon became an indistinguishable mass of buildings, lying in the swamp; yet with something of a cheerful air, from the brightness of the sun. The lofty Cotton-press, so familiar to the eye of every one acquainted with that region, was long visible, amidst the windings of the river, which seemed to bring us quite near the city again, when we thought we should see it no more.
At seven we were summoned to supper, and obtained a view of the company in whose society we were to pass the next ten days. There was a great mixture. There was a physician from New York, with his wife and a friend or two; an ultra exclusive party. There were Mr. and Mrs. B., also from New York, amiable elderly people, with some innocent peculiarities: and showing themselves not the less mindful of other people from taking great care of each other. There was the party that had kept the captain waiting,—some of them very agreeable: and the L.'s, whom it would have been a privilege to meet any where. There were long trains of young men,—so many as to extinguish all curiosity as to who they were, and where they came from: and a family party belonging to the West, father, mother, grandmother, and six children, who had a singular gift of squalling; and their nurses,—slaves. These are all that I distinctly remember among the multitude that surrounded the almost interminable table in the cabin. This table, long as it was, would not hold all the company. Many had to wait till seats were vacated; and yet we were to go on receiving passengers, all the way to Natchez.
We took in more this evening. After supper we hastened again to the hurricane deck, where the air was breathing cool, and, to our great joy, strong enough to relieve us from mosquitoes. The river was lined with plantations of cotton and sugar; as it continued to be for two hundred miles farther. Almost every turn of the mighty stream disclosed a sugar-house of red brick, with a centre and wings;—all much alike. Groups of slaves, most of them nearly naked, were chopping wood, or at other kinds of toil along the shore. As the twilight melted into the golden moonlight of this region, I saw sparkles among the reeds on the margin of the stream. It did not occur to me what they were, till I saw a horse galloping in a meadow, and apparently emitting gleams of fire. I then knew that I at length saw fire flies. One presently alighted on the linen coat of a gentleman standing beside me; where it spread its gleam over a space as large as the palm of my hand, making the finest of the threads distinctly visible.
In a dark recess of the shore a large fire suddenly blazed up, and disclosed a group of persons standing on the brink of the stream. Our boat neared the shore; for this was a signal from a party who had secured their passage with us. Night after night I was struck with the same singular combination of lights which I now beheld;— the moonlight, broad and steady; the blazing brands, sometimes on the shore, and sometimes on board the flat-boats we met; and the glancing fire-flies.
When we went down for the night, we had our first experience of the crying of the little H.'s. They were indefatigable children: when one? Became quiet, another began; and among them, they kept up the squall nearly the twenty-four hours round. Their mother scolded them; their nurses humoured them; and, between these two methods of management, there was no peace for anybody within hearing. There was a good deal of trampling overhead too. Many of the deck passengers had to sleep in the open air, on the hurricane deck, from there being no room for them below; and, till they had settled themselves, sleep was out of the question for those whose state-rooms were immediately beneath. At length, however, all was quiet but the rumbling of the engine, and we slept.
When I went on deck in the morning, before six, I was privately told, by a companion, that the man who had last forced his way on board had died of cholera in tho night, and had boon laid under a tree, at the wooding-place, a few minutes before. Never was there a lovelier morning for a worn wretch to lie down to his long sleep. The captain particularly desired that the event should be passed over in entire silence, as he was anxious that there should be no alarm about the disease; on board the boat. The poor man had, as I have mentioned, lain down in his place as soon as he came among us. He lay unobserved till two in the morning, when he roused the neighbour on each side of him. They saw his state at a glance, and lost not a moment in calling down the New York physician: but before this gentleman could get to him, the sick man died. His body was handed over to the people at the wooding-place, and buried in the cheerful morning sunshine. We sped away from that lonely grave as if we were in a hurry to forget it; and when we met at breakfast, there was mirth and conversation, and conventional observance, just as if death had not been among us in the night. This was no more than a quickening of the process by which man drops out of life, and all seems to go on as if he had never been:—only seems, however. Even in this case, where the departed had been a stranger to us all, and had sunk from amidst us in eight hours. I believe there were few or no hearts untouched,—either by sorrow for him or fear for themselves, We were none of us as we should have been if this, his brief connexion with us, had never existed.
All the morning we were passing plantations; and there were houses along both banks, at short intervals: sometimes the mansions of planters; sometimes sugar-houses; sometimes groups of slave-dwellings, painted or unpainted, standing under the shade of sycamores, magnolias, live oaks, or Pride-of-India trees. Many dusky gazing figures of men with the axe, and women with the pitcher, would have tempted the pencil of an artist. The field were level and rich-looking, and they were invariably bounded by the glorious forest. Towards noon, we perceived by the number of sailing boats that we were near some settlement, and soon came upon Donaldsonville, a considerable village, with a large unfinished State-House, where the legislature of Louisiana once sat, which was afterwards removed to New Orleans, whence it has never come back. Its bayou boasts a steamer, by which planters in the south back-country are conveyed to their estates, on quitting the Mississippi.
We now felt ourselves sufficiently at home to decide upon the arrangement of our day. The weather was too hot to let the fatigues of general conversation be endurable for many hours together; and there was little in the general society of the vessel to make us regret this. We rose at five, or a little later; the early morning being delicious. Breakfast was ready at seven: and after it. I apparently went to my state-room for the morning: but this was not exactly the case. I observed that the laundresses hung their counterpanes and sheets to dry in the gallery before my window, and that therefore nobody came to that gallery. It struck me that this must be the coolest part of the boat, such an evaporation as was perpetually going on. I therefore stepped out of my window, with my book, work, or writing; and, sitting under the shade of a counterpane, and in full view of the river and western shore, spent in quiet some of the pleasantest morning I have ever known. I was now and then reminded of the poor parson, pitied by Mrs. Barbauld:—
and sometimes an unsympathizing laundress would hang up an impenetrable veil between me and some object on shore that I was eagerly watching; but these little inconveniences were nothing in the way of counterbalance to the privilege of retirement. I took no notice of the summons to luncheon at eleven, and found that dinner, at half-past one. came far too soon. We all thought it our duty to be sociable in the afternoon, and therfore took our seats in the gallery on the other side of the boat, where we were daily introduced to members of our society who beofre were strangers, and spent two or three hours in conversation or at chess. It was generally very hot, and the conversation far from lively, consisting chiefly of complaints of the heat or the glare—of the children, or of the dulness of the river: varied by mutual interrogation about where every body was going. A remark here and there was amusing; as when a lady described Canada as the place where people row boats and sing “Row, brothers, row.” and all that. When the heat began to decline, we went to the hurricane deck to watch the beauty of evening stealing on: and as no one but ourselves and our most esteemed acquaintance seemed to care for the wider view we here obtained, we had the place to ourselves; except that some giddy boys pursued their romps here, and kept us in aperprtual panic, lost, in their racing, they should run overboard. There is no guard whatever, and the leads overhang the water. Mr. E. said he never allowed his boys to play here; but gave them the choice of playing below, or sitting still on the top.
After tea we came up again on fine evenings; walked for an hour or two, and watched the glories of the night, till the deck passengers appeared with their blankets, and compelled us to go down.
Nothing surprised me more than to see that very few of the ladies looked out of the boat, unless their attention was particularly called. All the morining the greater number sat in their own cabin, working collars, netting purses or doing nothing: all the evening they amused themselves in the other cabin, dancing or talking. And such scenery as we were passing! I was in perpetual amazement that, with all that has been said of the grandeur of this mighty river, so little testimony has been borne to its beauty.
On the evening of our first day on the Missisippi. Mr. E. told me of the imminent danger he and his lady had twice been in, on board steamboats. His stories give an idea of the perils people should make up thier minds to, on such excursions as ours. On their wedding journey, the E.'s. accompanied by their relative. Judge H., went down the Alabama river. One night, when Mr. E. was just concluding the watch I have described him as keeping the boat ran foul of another and parted in two, beginning instantly to sink. Mr. E. roused his lady from her sleep, made her thrust her feet into his boots, threw his cloak over her, and carried her up to the deck, not doubting that, from her being the only lady on board, she would be the first to be accommodated in the boat. But the boat had been seized by some gamblers who were wide awake, and ready dressed, when the accident happened, and they had got clear of the steamer. Mr. E. shouted to them to take in the lady,—only the lady: he promised that neither Judge H, nor himself should enter the boat. They might have come back for every one on board with perfect safety: but he could not move them. Judge H. meanwhile had secured a plank on which he hoped to seat Mrs. E., while Mr. E. and himself, both good swimmers, might push it bofore them to the shore, if they could escape the eddy from the sinking vessel. Mr. E. heard next the voice of an old gentleman whom he knew, who was in the boat, and trying to persuade the fellows to trun back. Mr. E. shouted to him to shoot the wretches if they would not come. The old gentleman took the hint, and held a pistol (which however was not loaded) at the head of the man who was steering: upon which they turned back and took in, not only Mrs. E., her party and their luggage, but every body else; so that no lives were lost. Mrs. E. lost nothing but the clothes she had left by her bedside. She was perfectly quiet and obedient to directions, the whole time. The vessel sank within a quarter of an hour.
A few years after, the E.'s went up the Mississippi with their little girl. Some fine ladies on board wondered at Mrs. E. for shaking hands with a rude farmer, with whom she had some acquaintance: and it appears probable that the farmer was aware of what passed. when Mr. E. was going down to bed, near day, he heard a deck passenger say to another, in a tone of alarm, “I say, John, look here?” “What's the matter?” asked Mr. E. “Nothing, Sir: only the boat's sinking.” Mr. E. ran to the spot, and found the news too true. The vessel had been pierced by a snag, and the water was rushing in by hogsheads. The boat seemed likely to be at the bottom in ten minutes. Mr. E. banded the men a pole and bade them thrust their bedding into the breach which they did with much cleverness, till the carpenter was ready with a better plug. The horrid words, “the boat's sinking,” had, however, been overhead: and the screams of the ladies were dreadful. The uproar above and below was excessive: but through it all was heard the voice of the rough farmer saying, “Where's E.'s girl? I shall save her first.” The boat was run safely ashore, and the fright was the greatest damage sustained.
We passed Baton Rouge, on the cast Louisiana bank, on the afternoon of this day. It stands on the first eminence we had seen on these shores, and the barracks have a handsome appearance from the water. A summer-house, perched on a rising ground, was full of people, amusing themselves with smoking and looking abroad upon the river; and truly they had an enviable station. A few miles farther on, we went ashore at the wooding-place, and I had my first walk in the untrodden forest. The height of the trees seemed incredible, as we stood at their foot, and looked up. I made us feel suddenly dwarfed. We stood in a crowd of locust and cotton-wood trees, elm, maple, and live oak: and they were all bound together by an inextricable tangle of creepers, which seemed to frobid our pencirating many paces into the forest beyond where the wood-cutters had intruded. I had a great horror of going too far; and was not sorry to find it impossible: it would he so easy for the boat to leave two or three passengers behind, without finding it out: and no fate could be conceived more desolate. I looked into the wood-cutters' dwelling, and hardly knew what to think of the hardihood of any one who could embrace such a mode of life for asingle week, on any consideration. Amidst the desolation and abominable dirt, I observed a mosquito bar,—a muslin curtain,—suspended over the crib. Without this, the dweller in the wood would be stung almost to madness or death before morning. This curtain was nearly of a saffron colour; the floor of the hut was of damp earth, and the place so small that the wonder was how two men could live in it. There was a rude enclosure round it to keep off intruders; but the space was grown over with the rankest grass and yellow weeds. The ground was swampy all about, up to the wall of untouched forest which rendered this spot inaccessible except, from the river. The beautiful squills-flower grew plentifully; the only relief to the eye from the vastness and rankness. Piles of wood were built up on the brink of the river, and were now rapidly disappearing under the activity of our deck-passengers, who were passing in two lines to and from the vessel. The bell from the boat tinkled through the wilderness, like a foreign sound. We hastened on board; and I watched the wood-cutters, with deep pity, as they gazed after us for a minute or two, and then turned into their forlorn abode.
We were in hopes of passing the junction of the Red River with the Mississippi before dark; but found that we were not to sec the Red River at all; a channel having been partly found and partly made between an island and the eastern shore, which saves a circuit of many miles. In this narrow channel the current ran strong against us; and as we laboured through it in the evening light, we had opportunity to observe every green meadow, every solitary dwelling, which presented itself in the intervals of the forest. We grew more and more silent as the shades fell, till we emerged from the dark channel into the great expanse of the main river, glittering in the moonlight. It was like putting out to sea.
Just before bed-time we stopped at Sarah Bayou to take in still more passengers. The steward complained that he was coming to an end of his mattresses, and that there was very little more room for gentlemen to lie down, as they were already ranged along the tables, as well as all over the floor. So much for the reputation of the “Henry Clay.”
The next morning, the 8th, I was up in time to witness the scramble for milk that was going on at the wooding-place. The moment we drew to the land, and the plank was put out, the steward leaped on shore, and ran to the wood-cutters' dwelling, pitcher in hand. The servants of the gentry on board followed, hoping to get milk for breakfast; but none succeeded, except the servant of an exclusive. This family had better have been without milk to their coffee than have been tempted by it to such bad manners as they displayed at the breakfast table. Two young ladies who had come on board the night before, who suspected nothing of private luxuries at a public table, and were not aware of the scarcity of milk, asked a waiter to hand them a pitcher which happened to belong to the exclusives. The exclusives' servant was instantly sent round to take it from them; and not a word of explanation was offered.
The wood-cutters' dwelling before us was very different from the one we had seen the night before. It was a good-sized dwelling, with a cotton-wood tree before it. casting a flickering shadow upon the porch; and behind it was a well-cleared field. The children were decently dressed, and several slaves peeped out from the places where they were pursuing their avocations. A passenger brought me a beautiful bunch of dwarf-roses which he had gathered over the garden paling. The piles of wood prepared for the steam-boats were enormous; betokening that there were many stout arms in the household.
This morning, we seemed to be lost among islands, in a waste of waters. The vastness of the river now began to bear upon our imaginations. The flat boats we met looked as if they were at the mercy of the floods, their long oars bending like straws in the current. They are so picturesque, however, and there is something so fanciful in the canopy of green boughs under which the floating voyagers repose during the heat of the day, that some of us proposed building a flat boat on the Ohio, and floating down to New Orleans at our leisure.
Adams Fort, in the State of Mississippi, afforded the most beautiful view we had yet seen on the river. The swelling hills, dropped with wood, closed in a reach of the waters, and gave them the appearance of a lake. White houses nestled in the clumps; goats, black and white, browsed on the points of the many hills; and a perfect harmony of colouring dissolved the whole into something like a dream. This last charm is as striking to us as any in the vast wilderness, through which the “Father of Waters” takes his way. Even the turbid floods, varying their hues with the changes of light and shallow, are a fit element of the picture; and no one wishes them other than they are.
In the afternoon we ran over a log: the vessel trembled to her centre; the ladies raised their heads from their work; the gentlemen looked overboard; and I saw our yawl snagged, as she was careering at the stern. The sharp end of the log pricked through her bottom as if she had been made of brown paper. She was dragged after us, full of water, till we stopped at the evening wooding-place; when I ran to the hurricane deck, to see her pulled up on shore and mended. There I found the wind so high that it appeared to me equally impossible to keep my seat, and to get down: my feather-fan blew away, and I expected to follow it myself,—so strangling was the gust,— one of the puffs which take the voyager by surprise amidst the windings of this forest-banked river. The yawl was patched up in a surprisingly short timé. The deck passengers clustered round to lend a hand; and the blows of the mallet resounded along the shore, fitfully, as the gust came and passed over.
Every one wished to reach and leave Natchez before dark; and this was accomplished. As soon as we came in sight of the bluff on which the city is built, we received a hint from the steward to lock our state-rooms, and leave nothing about; as there was no preventing the townspeople from coming on board. We went on shore. No place can be more beautifully situated;—on a bend of the Mississippi, with a low platform on which all the ugly traffic of the place can be transacted; bluffs on each side; a steep road up to the town; and a noble prospect from thence. The streets are sloping, and the drains are remarkably well built: but the place is far from healthy, being subject to the yellow fever. It is one of the oldest of the southern cities, though with a new,—that is, a perpetually shifting population. It has handsome buildings; especially the Agricultural Bank, the Court House, and two or three private dwellings. Main-street commands a fine view from the ascent, and is lined with Pride-of-India trees. I believe the landing-place at Natchez has not improved its reputation since the descriptions which have been given of it by former travellers. When we returned to the boat, after an hour's walk, we found the captain very anxious to clear his vessel of the townspeople, and get away. The cabin was half full of the intruders, and the heated, wearied appearance of our company at tea bore testimony to the fatigues of the afternoon.
In the evening, only one fire-fly was visible; the moon was misty, and faint lightning flashed incessantly. Before morning, the weather was so cold that we shut our windows; and the next day, there was a fire in the ladies' cabin. Such are the changes of temperature in this region.
The quantity of drift-wood that we encountered above Natchez was amazing. Some of it was whirling slowly down with the current; but much more was entangled in the bays of the islands, and detained, in incessant accumulation. It can scarcely be any longer necessary to explain that it is a mistake to suppose this drift-wood to be the foundation of the islands of the Mississippi. Having itself no foundation, it could not serve any such purpose. The islands are formed by deposits of soil brought down from above by the strong force of the waters. The accumulation proceeds till it reaches the surface, when the seeds contained in the soil, or borne to it by the winds, sprout, and bind the soft earth by a network of roots, thus providing a basis for a stronger vegetation every year. It is no wonder that superficial observers have fallen into this error respecting the origin of the new lands of the Mississippi; the rafts of drift-wood look so like incipient islands; and when one is fixed in a picturesque situation, the gazer longs to heap earth upon it, and clothe it with shrubbery.
When we came in sight of Vicksburg, the little H.'s made a clamour for some new toys. Their mother told them how very silly they were; what a waste of money it would be to buy such toys as they would get at Vicksburg; that they would suck the paint, &c. Strange to say, none of these considerations availed anything. Somebody had told the children that toys were to be bought at Vicksburg; and all argument was to them worth less than the fact. The contention went on till the boat stopped, when the mother yielded, with the worst possible grace, and sent a slave nurse on shore to buy toys. An hour after we were again on our way, the lady showed me, in the presence of the children, the wrecks of the toys; horses' legs, dogs' heads, the broken body of a wagon, &c., all, whether green, scarlet, or yellow, sucked into an abominable daub. She complained bitterly of the children for their folly, and particularly for their waste of her money; as if the money were not her concern, and the fun theirs!
We walked through three or four streets of Vicksburg; but the captain could not allow us time to mount the hill. It is a raw-looking, straggling place, on the side of a steep ascent, the steeple of the Court House magnificently overlooking a huge expanse of wood, and a deep bend of the river. It was three months after this time that the tremendous Vicksburg massacre took place; a deed at which the whole country shuddered; and much of the world beyond. In these disorders, upwards of twenty persons were executed, without trial by jury, or pretence of justice. Some of the sufferers were gamblers, and men of bad character otherwise. Some were wholly innocent of any offence whatever; and I believe it is now generally admitted that the plot for rousing the slaves to insurrection, which was the pretext for the whole proceeding, never had any real existence. It was the product of that peculiar faculty of imagination which is now monopolized by the slave-holder, as of old by imperial tyrants. Among the sufferers in this disturbance was a young farmer, of Ohio, I think, who was proceeding to New Orleans on business, and was merely resting on the eastern bank of the river, on his way. I have seldom seen anything more touching than his brief letter to his parents, informing them that he was to be executed the next morning. Nothing could be quieter in its tone than this letter; and in it he desired that his family would not grieve too much for his sudden death, for he did not know that he could ever feel more ready for the event than then. His old father wrote an affecting appeal to the Governor of Mississippi, desiring, not vengeance, for that could be of no avail to a bereaved parent; but investigation, for the sake of his son's memory, and the future security of innocent citizens. The Governor did not recognize the appeal. The excuse made for him was that he could not: that, if the citizens of the State preferred Lynch law to regular justice, the Governor could do nothing against the will of the majority. The effect of barbarism like this is not to justify the imputation of its excesses to the country at large; but to doom the region in which it prevails to be peopled by barbarians. The lovers of justice and order will avoid the places where they are set at naught.
Every day reminded us of the superiority of our vessel: for we passed every boat going the same way; and saw some so delayed by accidents that we wondered what was to become of the passengers; at least, of their patience. A disabled boat was seen on the morning of this day, the 9th, crowded with Kentuckians, some of whom tried to win their way on board the “Henry Clay” by witticisms; but our captain was inexorable, declaring that we could hold no more. Then we passed the Ohio steam-boat, which left New Orleans three days before us, but was making her way very slowly, with cholera on board.
The 10th was Sunday. The children roared as usual: but the black damsels were dressed; there was no laundry-work going on, nor fancy-work in the cabin; and there was something of a Sunday look about the place. As I was sitting by my state-room window, sometimes reading, and sometimes looking out upon the sunny river, green woods, and flat boats that keep no sabbath, a black servant entered to say that Mr. E. desired me “to come to the preachin'.” I thought it unlikely that Mr. E. should be concerned in the affair, and knew too well what the service was likely to be, in such a company, and conducted by such a clergyman as was to officiate, to wish to attend. I found afterwards that the service had been held against the wishes of the captain, Mr. E., and many others; and that it had better, on all accounts, have been omitted. Some conversation which the young clergyman had thrust upon me had exhibited, not only his extreme ignorance of the religious feelings and convictions of Christians who differed from him, but no little bitterness of contempt towards them: and he was therefore the last person to conduct the worship of a large company whose opinions and sentiments were almost as various as their faces, This reminds me that an old lady on board asked an acquaintance of mine what my religion was. On being told that I was an Unitarian, she exclaimed, “She had better have done with that: she won't find it go down with us.” It never occurred to me before to determine my religion by what would please people on the Mississippi.
Before breakfast, one morning, when I was walking on the hurricane deck, I was joined by a young man who had been educated at West Point, and who struck me as being a fair and creditable specimen of American youth. He told me that he was very poor, and described his difficulties from being disappointed of the promotion he had expected on leaving West Point. He was now turning to the law; and he related by what expedients he meant to obtain the advantage of two years study of law, before settling in Maine. His land-travelling was done on foot; and there was no pretension to more than his resources could command. His manners were not so good as those of American youths generally; and he was not at first, very fluent; but expressed himself rather in schoolboy phrase. His conversation was, however, of a host of metaphysicians, as well as lawyers; and I thought he would never have tired of analyzing Bentham; from whom he passed on, like every one who talks in America about books or authors, to Bulwer, dissecting his philosophy and politics very acutely. He gave me clear and sensible accounts of the various operation of more than one of the United States institutions, and furnished me with some very acceptable information. Alter our walk and conversation had lasted an hour and a half, we were summoned to breakfast; and I thought we had earned it.
During the morning, I heard a friend of mine, in an earnest but amused tone, deprecating a compliment from two slave women, who were trying to look most persuasive. They were imploring her to cut out a gown for each of them like the one she wore. They were so enormously fat and slovenly, and the lady's dress fitted so neatly, to make the idea of the pattern being transferred to them most ludicrous. As long as we were on board, however, I believe they never doubted my friend's power of making them look like herself, if she only would; and they continued to cast longing glances on the gown.
On the 11th, we overtook another disabled steamboat, which had been lying forty-eight hours with both her cylinders burst; unable, of course, to move a yard. We towed her about two miles, to a settlement: and the captain agreed to take on board two young ladies who were anxious to proceed, and a few deck-passengers.
The scenery was by this time very wild. These hundreds of miles of level woods and turbid, rushing waters, and desert islands, are oppressive to the imagination. Very few dwellings were visible. We went ashore in the afternoon, just for the sake of having been in Arkansas. We could penetrate only a little way through the young cotton-wood and the tangled forest, and we saw nothing.
In the evening, we touched at Helena, and more passengers got on board, in defiance of the captain's shouts of refusal. He declared that the deck was giving wav under the crowd; and that he would not go near the shore again, but anchor in the middle of the river, and send his boats for provisions.
While I was reading on the morning of the 12th, the report of a rifle from the lower deck summoned me to look out. There were frequent rifle-shots, and they always betokened our being near shore,— generally under the bank, where the eye of the sportsman was in the way of temptation from some object in the forest. We were close under the eastern bank, whence we could peep through the massy beech-trunks into the dark recesses of the woods. For two days, our eves had rested on scenery of this kind: now it was about to change. We were approaching the fine Chickasaw bluffs, below Memphis, in the State of Tennessee. The captain expressed a wish that none of the passengers would go on shore at Memphis, where the cholera was raging. He intended to stay only a few minutes, for bread and vegetables, and would not admit a single passenger, on any consideration. We did not dream of disregarding his wishes, if indeed the heat had left us any desire to exert ourselves: but Mr. B. was so anxious that his lady should mount the bluff, that she yielded to his request; though stout and elderly as she was, the ascent would have been a serious undertaking, on a cool afternoon, and with plenty of time, The entire company of passengers was assembled to watch the objects on shore;—the cotton bales piled on the top of the bluff; the gentleman on horseback on the ridge, who was eyeing us in return; the old steamer, fitted up as a store, and moored by the bank, for the chance of traffic with voyagers: and above all the slaves, ascending and descending the steep path with trays of provisions on their heads,—the new bread and fresh vegetables with which we were to be cheered. Of course, all eyes were fixed upon Mr. and Mrs. B. as they attempted the ascent. The husband lent his best assistance, and dragged his poor lady about one-third of the way up: when she suddenly found that she could not go a step forward or back: she stuck, in a most finished attitude of panic, with her face to the cliff, and her back to us, her husband holding her up by one arm, and utterly at a loss what to do next, I hope they did not hour the shout of laughter which wont up from our vessel, A stout boatman ran to their assistance, and enabled the lady to urn round, after which she came down without accident, She won every body's esteem by her perfect good-humour on the occasion. Heated and flurried as she was, she was perfectly contented with having tried to oblige her husband. This was her object, and she trained it; and more,—more than she was aware of unless indeed she found that her follow-passengers were more eager to give her pleasure after this adventure than before.
The town of Memphis looked bare and hot; and the bluffs though a relief from the level vastness on which we had been gazing for two days are not so beautiful as the eminences four or five hundred miles below.
The air was damp and close this night; the moon dim the lightning blue, and glaring: incessantly and the wood-ashes from the chimneys very annoying. It was not weather for the deck; and seeing that Mr. E. and two other gentlemen wanted to make up a rubber. I joined them. In our well-lighted cabin, the lightning seemed to pour in in streams; and the thunder soon began to crack over-head. Mrs. H. came to us, and rebuked us for playing cards while it thundered, which she thought very blasphemous. When our rubber was over, and I retired to the ladies cabin, I found that the lady had been doing something which had a least as much levity in it. After undressing, she had put on her life-preserver, and floundered on the floor, to show how she should swim if the boat sank. Her slaves had got under the table to laugh, They little thought how near we might come to swimming for our lives before morning. I believe it was about three hours after midnight when I was awakened by a tremendous and unaccountable noise overhead. It was most like ploughing through a forest, and crashing all the trees down. The lady who shared my state-room was up, pale and frightened; and lights were moving in the ladies cabin, I did not choose to cause alarm by inquiry; but the motion of the boat was so strange that I thought it must waken every one on board. The commotion lasted. I should think, about twenty minutes, when I suppose it subsided, for I fell asleep. In the morning. I was shown the remains of hail-stones, which must have been of an enormous size, to judge by what was left of them at the end of three hours. Mr. K. told me that we had been in the utmost danger, for above a quarter of an hour, from one of the irresistible squalls to which this navigation is liable. Both the pilots had been blown away from the helm, and were obliged to leave the vessel to its fate. It was impossible to preserve a footing for an instant on the top; and the poor passengers who lay there had attempted to come down, bruised with the tremendous hail, (which caused the noise we could not account for.) and seeing, with the pilot, no other probability than that the hurricane deck would be blown completely away: but there was actually no standing room for these men, and they bail to remain above, and take their chance. The vessel drove madly from side to side of the dangerous channel; and the pilots expected every moment that she would, founder. I find that we usually made much more, wav by-night than by day, the balance of the boat being kept even while the passengers are equally dispersed and quiet, instead of running from side to side, or crowding the one gallery and deserting the other.
I was on the look out for alligators, all the way up the river, but could never see one. A deck passenger declared that a small specimen slipped off a log into the water one day when nobody else was looking: but his companions supposed he might be mistaken, as alligators are now rarely seen in this region. Terrapins were very numerous, sometimes sunning themselves on floating logs, and sometimes swimming, with only their pert little heads visible above water. Wood-pigeons might be seen flitting in the forest when we were so close under the banks as to pry into the shades; and the beautiful blue jay often gleamed before our eyes. No object was more striking than the canoes which we frequently saw, looking fearfully light, and frail amidst the strong current. The rower used a spoon-shaped paddle, and advanced with amazing swiftness; sometimes crossing before our bows; sometimes darting along under the bank; sometimes shooting across a track of moonlight. Very often there was only one person in the canoe; as in the instance I have elsewhere mentioned* of a woman who was supposed to be going on a visit, twenty or thirty miles up the stream. I could hardly have conceived of a solitude so intense as this appeared to me;—the being alone on that rushing sea of waters, shut in by untrodden forests; the slow fish-hawk wheeling overhead; and perilous masses of drift-wood whirling down the current,— trunks obviously uprooted by the forces of nature, and not laid low by the hand of man. What a spectacle must our boat, with its gay crowds, have appeared to such a solitary! what a revelation that there was a busy world still stirring somewhere:— a fact which, I think, I should soon discredit, if I lived in the depths of this wilderness; for life would become tolerable there only by the spirit growing into harmony with the scene,— wild and solemn as the objects around it.
The morning after the storm the landscape looked its wildest. The clouds were drifting away, and a sun-gleam came out as I was peeping into the forest at the wooding-place. The vines look beautiful on the black trunks of the trees after rain. Scarcely a habitation was to be seen; and it was like being set back to the days of creation, we passed so many islands in every stage of growth. I spent part of the morning: with the L's: and we were more than once alarmed by a fearful scream, followed by a trampling and scuffling in the neighbouring gallery. It was only some young ladies, with their work and guitar, who were in a state of terror because some green boughs would sweep over when we were close under the bank. They could not be re-assured by the gentlemen who waited upon them: nor would they change their seats: so that we were treated with a long series of screams, till the winding of the channel carried us across to the opposite bank.
In the afternoon we came in sight of New Madrid, in the State of Missouri; a scattered small place, on a green table land. We sighed to think how soon our wonderful voyage would be over: and at every settlement we reached repined at being there so soon. While others went on shore, I remained on board to see how they looked, dispersed in the woods, grouped round the wood-piles and seated on logs. The clergyman urged my going, saying, “It's quite a retreat to go on shore.” This gentleman is Vice-president of an educational establishment for young ladies, where there are public exhibitions of their proficiency, and the poor ignorant little girls take degrees. Their heads must be so stuffed with vain-glory, that there can be little room for any thing else.
There were threatenings of another night of storm. The vessel seemed to labour much; and the weather was gusty, with incessant lightnings. The pilots said that they were never in such danger on the river as for twenty minutes of the preceding night. The captain was, however, very thankful for a few hours of cold weather: for his boat was so overcrowded as to make him dread, above all things, the appearance of disease on board. Some of us went to bed early this night, expecting to be called up to see the junction of the Ohio with the Mississippi, by such light as there might be two hours after midnight. Mr. E. promised to have me called; and on the faith of this I went to sleep at the usual time. I had impressed him with my earnest desire not to miss this sight as I had seen no junction of large rivers, except that of the Tombigbee with the Alabama. Mrs. B, would not trust to being called, but sat up, telling her husband that it was now his turn to gratify her, and he must come for her in good time to see the spectacle. Both she and I were disappointed, however. When I awoke, it was five o'clock, and we were some miles into the Ohio. Mr. E. had fallen asleep, and awaked just a minute too late to make it of any use to rouse me. Mr. B. had put his head into his wife's room, to tell her that the cabin floor was so completely covered with sleepers, that she could not possibly make her way to the deck; and he shut the door before she could open her lips to reply. Her lamentations were sad. “The three great rivers meeting and all: and the little place on the point called Trinity and all: and I having sat up for it and all! It is a bad thing on some accounts to be married. If I had been a single woman, I could have managed it all for myself, I know.”
However, junctions became frequent now, and we saw two small ones in the morning, to make up for having missed the large one in the night. When I went up on deck. I found the sun shining on the full Ohio, which was now as turbid as the Mississippi, from the recent storms. The stream stood in among the trees, on either bank, to a great depth and extent, it was so swollen. The most enormous willows I ever saw overhung our deck, and the beechen shades beyond, where the turf and unincumbered stems were dressed in translucent green, seemed like a palace of the Dryads. How some of us fixed our eyes on the shores of free Illinois! After nearly five months of sojourn in slave-land, we were now in sight of a free State once more. I saw a settler in a wild spot, looking very lonely among the tall trees; but I felt that I would rather be that man than the wealthiest citizen of the opposite State, who was satisfied to dwell there among his slaves.
At eleven o'clock, on this, the ninth and last day of our voyage, we passed Paducah, in Kentucky, a small neat settlement on the point of junction of the Tennessee and Ohio. Preparations were going on before our eyes for our leaving the boat; our luggage, and that of the L.'s, who joined company with us, was brought out: cold beef and negus were provided for us in the ladies' cabin, the final sayings were being said, and we paid our fare;—fifty dollars each, for our voyage of 1200 miles. Smithland, at the mouth of the Cumberland river, soon appeared; and, as we wished to ascend to Nashville without delay, we were glad to see a small steam-boat in waiting. We stepped on shore, and stood there, in spite of a shower, for some time, watching the “Henry Clay” ploughing up the river, and waving our handkerchiefs in answer to signals of farewell from several of the multitude who were clustered in every part of the noble vessel.
If there be excess of mental luxury in this life, it is surely in a voyage up the Mississippi, in the bright and leafy month of May.
Society in America, vol. ii., p 101.