- Historic Sites
Wisky For The Men
A novelist joins his ancestor on a trip West and discovers in her daily travails an intimate view of a tremendous national migration
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
“Munday evening, 27th May” is a raucous one.
“We put up at a poor log tavern.” (Log as a building material always excited her disdain.) “The people appear to be clever, old-fashioned and dirty. The lanlord has but one eye and that is almost out. Thare is two Jintlemen to appearance puts up hear tonight. The four men all talks together as fast as tha can. Thare is another man puts up hear tonight. He looks like Samson when he carried off the Gats of Gaza, as if no rasor had ever com to his hed. My baby is not very well today. He has got a cold. The rest of us is quite tired. The twn men that has put up here tonight talks very foolish—makes a grate noise. Besides thare is three or four dogs a barking, and all together makes such a clammer, I shall quit riteing.”
On Tuesday we come to the “Yelagany.” The baby is quite a worry. “My baby was not well that day. He went to sleep in the afternoon, waked up towards night very sick. In the morning his fever abats. He is better. We set off thinking to reach water before night.”
Boats are often lashed together in pairs, for sociability. The river is a kind of moving city.
This water, which is our halfway goal and on which we’ll travel, seems to be a tributary of the Monongahela River, “to plumpsot it is called, and likewise is called middletown. The houses is log—little and mean. We git to Redstone. We put up at a tavern whare they keep boats for sale. We all went to the water to look at the boats. Marvin got a boat. Mr. Sampson could not git one to his liking. He thinks he will go further by land and take one at another place.”
These are flatboats, big enough for family, livestock, and possessions, with shelters, and built so that one could have a cooking fire on board.
Thursday is a day for provisioning and loading, which begins with Mr. Sampson changing his mind.
“Mr. Sampson concludes to take a boat—all go together. We git sum flower and go to baking. The men go to loading the boats. Our things is all put in the boat but the teem. They go to getting the teem in but almost impossible to git the oxen on the boat.”
Usually she is writing in her book at bedtime, but I seem now to see her sitting under a tree in Redstone, watching the men and reporting directly.
“After a grate deal of trouble tha git them in the boat. Tha carry on so that they are obliged to turn them out. Then tha conclude on of them to go by land with the teems and put all our loading in one boat and all our famelys go together in one boat. Mr. Sampson, his Thomas and my Billy gose with them teem.”
Billy must have been proud.
“The rest of us gets off in the boat. Thare is a man going with us. We find him, he works his passage.”
What happens next will happen again, almost every day. We run aground. “The men has had to jump out into the water to pry her loose.”
Another boat has started at the same time. “Just at dark we lashed our boats together and went on all night. One of the men in the other boat was groggy and a rowing the boat, rocked off one of the sideboards with his ors. Tha was put to som trouble to find nails, hammer, gimblet, for our candle burnt out when we was asleep.”
There are other boats, often lashed together in pairs for a while for sociability. The river is a kind of moving city.
Up to now the alcoholic drinks mentioned have been beer, mild, and cider. Life on the river brings changes.
“It was very foggy this morning. The men went to the Villedge and bought milk, ham, eggs, wesky.”
I don’t suppose that final item accounts for it, but the next observation is startling:
“We all looked over the boat for fish and saw two but tha was alligators. Tha had heads like a catfish and short legs—a very ugly looking creature.”
I think my three-times-great granny went for a riverman’s tall tale. The creatures must have been catfish, probably large flatheads, which have pectorals that could be mistaken for legs.
Perhaps the kidder was the man who is working passage. He’s busy:
“Our stranger Ellezur and one of the men in the other boat goes ashore for to git some drink. Tha take a cag and a teakettle. Git them full.”
Full, the context suggests, of water, but I want to keep my eye on Ellezur, even though our diarist adds: “Our stranger is a religious man.” Then: “my baby is quite unwell, has a very hard coff. I give him lixer every day.”