Wisky For The Men


For the past several days I have been traveling from Dover, New Jersey, toward Fort Washington, Ohio, with my great-great-great-grandmother.

We left on the May 9, 1804, with a wagon drawn by a team of oxen and with horses for the men to ride—or so I surmise. The diary that three-times-great grandmother Phoebe Ford Marvin kept is not particular about such matters as who rode alongside and who drove, but deduction from her narrative leads me to feel that she had the reins part of the time. She also had her mother and a baby to care for on the way and the household money to handle and account for.

She is the first American woman of her time whom I have come to know—opinionated, game, sharp-eyed, moral rather than religious, not uncomplaining but certainly persevering, and a wonderful, head-on speller of whatever words she wanted.

Here is the beginning of the first entry I have. It is for the twelfth of May, and during it we will pass Allentown, Pennsylvania.

She is the first American woman of her time whom I have come to know—opinionated, game, sharp-eyed, moral rather than religious, not uncomplaining.

“12th day. (May) we pay 2 shillings apece for keeping horses to hay last night, sixpence for loging. We git up and go two mils and there git our breckfast and hay for our oxon. Tha would not eat the hay where we stayed last night.”

There are thirty-three more entries in the document I have. As I read it, I have a strong sense of being in daily conversation with the author.

“13th day. (May).”

Good morning, great-great-great-grandmother. Nice day.

“it has cleared up. it is quite cold, the going is bitter.”

It’s sunset now. How far do you think we’ve come today?

“We set out, com 12 mils, stop to feed—git one lofe of Bred, baiting for oxen—half pint of cider—total 2s. 6d. Then com on—put up six mils before we get to Reading at a tavern.”

Does it seem like a nice tavern?

“a great deal of noys, quereling with men and dogs. I fear we shall sleep but little.”

What was the name of that last town we came through?

“Cutztown. Thair houses is the best in ginrel that I ever see. The women look as harty as horses, and all drest in a shift and petticoat and hancerchief—out maken fences—planten corn—shearing sheep.”

But I shan’t continue inventing my part of the conversation. There will be no perils, a few small hazards, numerous discomforts. I’ll quote her reports of those, and of pleasant moments, too, but most of the excerpts I’d like to offer are those that show me the woman she was and the diction she used. Note, for example, the final word in the entry for May 14:

“we set of for Reading. In a little time, we see the town, but a bad hill to go down and a bad one to rise.”

She likes Reading, and we stop for some shopping. The first purchase surprises me a little:

“The men stop to buy rifles.” Apparently firearms were not first-priority equipment when one started West in 1804. What comes next is just what I’d expect, though, “tha go to try them.”

Of course we did.

“and I went to git me a coffapot. I left mine at a tavern. I git one and git some soap, some fine thread and come back to the wagons. The men dus not cum and we all go to the Market and git cake and beer. The women and little boys in abundance and calline out ‘cakes and beer.’”

Now comes the first expression of a deep prejudice:

“we all set of to cross the Skullkill—inquire the way of a durn Duchmen and go down a rong street.”

We get straightened out, and my new word occurs again:

“as soon as we got over the ferry, the worst road, crooked, narrow, rough, up and down hill, on the edge of the river between rocks. Very bad. we rise the hill, the road is very much cut up, very rocke.”

Next day the Dutch get a rare word of approval:

“we put up at a Duch tavern at Daniel Mirs. tha apear very clever. I have maid my bed. I will put up my buck so Good Night.”

Buck means “book,” the one she is writing in, writing like someone self-taught. Her grandfather Jacob Ford was a prosperous man who operated an iron foundry, made gunpowder for the Revolutionary army, and was a colonel in it when he died of pneumonia in 1777, at the age of thirty-nine. In the rough-and-tumble years since, the family may have had a steep decline.