- Historic Sites
A Pennsylvania Boyhood
An affectionate memoir of rural life a century ago
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Father went out to answer the call. I sneaked out to hear what was going on; my father, seeing me, gave me a ringing cuff on the ear, and sent me back to the house. I went back and sat down on the porch, but my ears were sharp and I heard the whole story. These creatures, the two men at the pump, were hunting the five runaways. The fact was, although I did not know it then, that Captain Culbertson’s house was marked by the “slave catchers.” The owners of runaway slaves would frequently advertise the loss of their slaves, giving descriptions and offering rewards for their capture; and sad to say, there were men on the border low-down enough to pursue and sometimes capture the poor wretches. The first words spoken were startling. “Captain, we are chasing five runaway Negroes. We have traced them to this neighborhood. Have you seen anything of them?” There was a silence for a moment, and then Father said: “Well, Jim, if I had I would not tell you. You don’t think that I would help you in your dirty business? If that is all you want to see me about, you might as well move on.” Jim and his unsavory partner moved on.
That night about midnight the runaways were piloted by my father up to the head of the valley and given directions about how to move onward on the mysterious underground railway that led toward freedom. This was the last chapter of my parents’ connection with the underground system. The situation was becoming dangerous. In one of the parties of slaves who passed through our hands was a sick woman who could no longer keep up with her companions; she was cared for by Mother until she was able to go forward on her difficult journey.
But as I have said, the trip to the new West was the third and greatest of my boyhood sensations. The only shadow that marred the fair scene was that Mother did not seem herself. I could not fathom the cause then. I know now; all her life had its roots here. Here she was born, here she was married, here her children were born, here dwelt her kinsfolk, the strong, far-reaching ties of blood and friendships. Here she had borne the heat and the burden; now, when the shadows were beginning to lengthen, all must be put behind her, and in a strange land a new beginning must be made.
Toward evening of the first day we reached Fort Loudon at the foot of the valley, on the Baltimore and Pittsburgh pike, then the great highway from the East to Pittsburgh. Here were long trains of covered wagons, and great coaches, drawn by six horses, carrying mail and passengers. To me, a boy raised in the quiet of the country, it was a wonderful sight to watch the great coaches whirl by, raising clouds of dust, the driver so skillfully guiding the swiftly moving horses. Had I been able to drive a six-horse coach, my boyish ambition would have been fully satisfied.
Every day was full of excitement—new scenes, new faces. It was circus and movie, two in one, in real life, nothing made up. Many of the gentlemen in the coaches wore high white collars, great silk stocks, high stiff hats, rich blue shad-bellied coats adorned with highly polished brass buttons. The ladies had great poke bonnets; I cannot describe their garments. At the posthouses, the “quality” dined in a separate room and had waiters; we common folks ate in the ordinary dining room and helped ourselves. Mother and the children slept in the posthouses; Father slept in the wagon to care for the stuff.
All went well until we reached the Allegheny Mountains; here we had some real excitement. A driving snowstorm came down on the mountain unexpectedly, a month too soon. The wind blew straight into the faces of the drivers. The rule of the road was that the teams ascending should have the right of way. When the storm was at its worst, we met teams coming down the mountain, and for some reason they refused to give way. Hades broke loose, epithets were hurled back and forth, two or three men stripped for the fray, vowing they would pitch each other down the mountainside. But soon the storm diminished in severity, the gentlemen who had shed their coats put them on again, the train descending the mountain gave way, and our caravan moved on up the mountain. After this incident, our journey was without any untoward event.
Our caravan reached Pittsburgh on a Saturday afternoon. Next morning we and our chattels were dumped on board a steamer bound for St. Louis. As we drove down through the city to the steamboat landing, I noticed that the boys, who were on their way to Sunday school, wore short pants reaching just below the knees and long stockings. I called Mother’s attention to it, and asked if that was the right way for boys to dress.
There were many strange sights and stranger sounds. We passed a church; the doors were open, and someone was playing an organ. I did not know then what an organ was. I only knew that something within me responded to the stirring chords. I was accustomed to the music of the violin, but the tones of the organ sent their plummet down into the deeper soundings of the soul. I had crossed the threshold of a new world.
The steamers of those days were built with an eye to the needs of the great body of immigrants then moving west, to give comfortable accommodations at a price within their means for themselves and their stock. On the lower deck toward the stern of the boat, suites of rooms were fitted up in simple fashion, with a large stove outside where all the families could prepare their meals.
In the center of the boat, just forward and adjoining the family section, stalls were prepared for horses and cattle, and sties for pigs. There were coops for chickens, crates for ducks and geese.