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Wisky For The Men

June 2024
19min read

A novelist joins his ancestor on a trip West and discovers in her daily travails an intimate view of a tremendous national migration

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.

There is another family traveling with us, the Sampsons.

“May 16 Thursday night. We got up this morning, all well, but one of Mr. Sampson’s children, he had a sore throat, we feered he gitting the quinsy, but he is better tonight.”

What’s not better tonight are the accommodations:

“the poorest place that we have got into at any time, thare all duch, and very ill bred people. The house is cold and durty, no fire to boyl our teacittle—nobody to make one. We set our boys to making fire. The girls, little and big run and laugh after the boys, look into windows. Such behavior I have not seen before. The lanlord and lanlady ses little but dus less.”

Next day:

“Satterday the 18th (May), we came to the suskannah river. It tis one mile wide. It runs quite smooth. I went over in a boat with two waggons and seven horses and oxon and a good many people. We have crossed five ferris. Delaware river the first—Lahy the next—Skilkill Next—Sweet Arrah next—Sucannah next.”

She keeps working away on the spelling. The meal that begins the day is “breckfirst,” for example, in the next entry, which also includes my favorite moment:

“then come on to Shippeburd. got thare at sundown, Just at the entering in of the town we heard a terrible Noys. What is as I could not tell. Marvin stopped the teem, and it was men, women and childfen. Tha was Methados, preaching, praying, slapping thir hands, hollowing glory. I thought tha was children crying, cats fighting, but the dreadfulest Noys I ever heard.”


Bad roads, rains, rising of mountains continue, with an occasional lucky purchase (“I got a lofe of bread and a very good one”), gentling of the way, or rough turn of events, “at the top of this hill is a tavern which we have put up at—a very disagreeable place. The people of the house appear clever enough—but the house is full of travellers—teamsters, irishmen, and we have all to be together in the evening. But at bedtime the teamsters take another room, so we make our beds on the floor and lay down. Mama sometimes has a bed in the house to sleep on, but in a common way she chuses to lay down with me—for her loging has been poor when she called for it. I brought butter enough from home to last till tonight and meet till we git to the water, I think.”

I wonder how the butter has been kept for two weeks, and the meat so that it will last even longer.

“Mama” was Grace Kitchell (Mrs. Samuel) Ford, and all I know of her, this four-times-great grandmother, is in the next entry. She seems to have been a widow of some refinement:

“We put up nine miles this side of Bedford at a private house—a very clever man—his wife died last April. The people is very jinteel—sit a nice table and here met with one—Anderson a minister that lived at persipany with Mr. Benedick. He is very glad to see Mama. He come here upon a visit. Tha git tee for him. He gave Mama and me a invatation to drink tee with him. We had been to tee and refused. The old gentleman and his daughter insisted that we should drink tee. We drank tee. He sit and talked a long time, 1 mended billes pantaloons. It tis late. Anderson read a chapter in the bible—went to prare and we all went to bed.”

As one of the people who sleep outdoors in the wagon, I am spared discomforts like this one, next evening, at the tavern of “one Bowers—a loose place. We make our beds in the kitchen to get cleer of the company in the barroom. My bed was made before the fire. There was more fire on the hearth than I wished when I went to bed, I thought it would be covered up soon, so I said nothing. But not long after I went to bed, the landlady com and put on a dry small wood—made up a good fire. I told her it was very warm to lay thare by the fire, she said it was one mile to the house and that she must keep fire/The landlord was groggy so that he said or did but little. Marvin bought some hay of the landlord for the team. Tha told him whare to put his team, and in the evening thare came some men and had thare horses put up. So tha turned out our oxon from the hay—put thare horses to it.”

It was the 1804 equivalent of gas siphoning.

“In the morning Marvin told the lanlord what was done and he said, I am glad the boy has cheated you.”

Great-great-great-grandfather doesn’t seem to have been very forceful. I should note, since his wife never uses it, that his first name was Robert.

As we continue west, through the land of the Dutch, the roads are getting worse:

“Tha are stoney but not so bad on that account. But tha are very much cut to pieces with wagons. Stopped at a Duch tavern. Bred and mild for dinner. The lanlord was not home. His wife could not understand anything we said. I watched her when she milked her kows and made sins for some and got some. At some places we by bred and rusk, butter, cider, beer, unions, and whatever we want, we git for our comfort on the road.”

“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.”

I understand.

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.”

The third day on the river is about as hazardous as things get. I’ll quote in full without interruption, but it may take a couple of careful readings (it did me) to understand just what happened.

“Fore o’clock in the afternoon we com to riffles. We see som boys on shore. Ask them whare to go. Tha said, Close to shore and that there was a a keel boat fast. The boat that sit off with us from Redstone went on furst. In the middle of the river stuck fast. We went the other side of the keel boat and got fast. Then thare was a large boat hevy loaded a coming on behind. The water run very rapid, The keel boat called to hem to go ashore or make fast to a log—but all impossible. Their boat large and hevy-loaded come on like a harry Cane. The keel boat was the first to it loaded. If it com against that, the boatman said that the keel boat would a run threw it. If the large boat had come against us, it would a stove us. But Providence ordained it otherways. The men that belong to the boats was out at work to pry loose. The keel boat men run to the large boat, pushing off and hollowing ‘keep off—put their serving ore against the large boat, it snapped like a thread—nocked down one man and com very near going over him. If it had it would have killed him in a minute. Marvin made a fire in our boat and made a good fire on land for the men to dry themselves. But just before we all got fast our boat run on a rock and stuck fast. The large boat run against us—broke our oar—stove in a side above—Raked our roof. Tha chained and nailed it so that tha thought it would do.”

Sunday came four times and is called Sundy, Sunday, Sabaday, and Sabeday. The third of these was June 2:

“We set off pirty arely. Com on about three ours and come to McKeesport. There the men went ashore. Got some butter, wisky. While we were there the keel boat come in sight and stuck fast. The men went back to pry her loose, Tha stid a good while Marvin said it would not answer to wait for her, for she run so deep in the water that she would be fast often.”

That’s very much my own feeling about that wretched keelboat, and I’m pleased that my male ancestor seems to be taking firm stands and showing himself competent on this stretch of the trip. This emigration seems to be what he needed.

“This,” writes his wife, in a sudden, sweet non sequitur, “is a very pretty river.” And goes on:

“A river puts into this at MCkeesport. This is called the Monongahela. We left all our company behind—come on well. At sunset we put up to shore—got some wate—made our tee. Eat our suppers. All very still—only toods—tha made the greatest singing heard for them in my life. The

poeple told us it was five miles from Pittsburg. We are nearer than we thought, for we all went to bed in a good hart thinking to see Pittsburg in the forenoon the next day.”

A cheerful water race with the neighbor boats is going on, but there is still one grave worry: “My baby keeps a very bad cough. Has a fevous every day.”

Next morning the race goes on:

“Our nabour boats come on in the night allmost to us. Put up in sight. We see them—called to them and pushed off. Tha followed after. We got to Pittsburg about ten o’clock. Our people went into town—got bread, unions, radishes, apples, greens, a vial of parrigorrick—give half a dollar for it.”

On to a second Middletown, where we take on staples: “Marvin went into town—got milk and wisky. The children got fire and water—we got our tee and then got over som ham to byle and went to bed. This town had three houses in it. Two was taverns.”

Next morning we fall for a hitchhiker’s yarn, but things turn out pleasantly:

“Got a few yards off shore. A man called to us—said there was a very bad riffle a little lower in the river, he would pilate them threw. They went with the canue and brought him. The man said that thare had been a grate many people drowned there. But we found out that the man was drunk and that he new nether about the river. He took whare the water was so shallow that our boat run on the gravil and stone raked it and rumbled like thunder. We then see another boat made fast. We went to it. It was a marchant boat. We all went into his boat and he had shelves all around his boat all full of goods of all kinds that you wished for, and as cheap as at Dover. We bought one loaf sugar 2 and 6 pence per pound—one pound of green tea two dollars—a looking glass 4 and 6—one bottle snuff—six shillings and some brown sugar.”

We are about to have another encounter with some of the outlandish Dutch, but because of the episode that runs in counterpart to it, 1 withdraw my charge of prejudice. I think what generates my great-great-great-grandmother’s raised brow and pursed lips is better called clannishness:

“just behind us we see coming two boats lashed together. Tha go to shore. We go out to see them. They ware all Duch people. Thare was six famalyes—forty people in the hope—but one that could talk inglesh. So we com home again. We set of and overtook a boat that had lay by for the wind. Tha ware Jarsey people. Tha had four in the family. Tha had three horses in it. We tasked to them and went on all day together. The other duch boat, all the women went into the water—went to washing in the river. Pulled up thair Close above thair nees—all of us looking at them and tha cared nothing for it. We went on till after sunset. Made fast. In about an hour the two boats com along that we left a Sabaday in Monongahela. We called to them to com ashore. Tha asked if we were the deserters that left them. Tha com up—made fast, and we had quite a Nabourhood.”

Next day: “We went on till in the evening some time and heard a man on the shore. He said that we had better put up for thare was rocks in the river. Our strainger that was with us said that thare was robbers in the shore and that tha wanted us to put up so that tha could com upon us. We didnot believe him. We put to shore and found no difficulty.”

We are getting less credulous.

On Thursday we float past Charlestown. Just before it we saw, I think, a vision of what we hope to build in the new life. Of Charlestown itself:

I really am quite struck by the way my three-times-great granny has withheld expressing her animosity until the stranger is gone.

“The houses is on the bank of the river in plain sight. It tis a very hansom town—large houses painted red and white—some brick. The town makes a hansom appearance in the water. We see little children in the water a swimming. About halfway between Steubeville and Charlestown was the hansomest place I see in all these parts for a farm. There was two very Elegant houses on the bank—very level land—frute trees and shade tree set out.”

A parenthetical recollection intrudes:

“One thing I forgot to mention—that is whare we put up night before last and our stranger was afraid of the Robbers—there was a bullfrog that called out all night saying ‘Keep off the shore—Keep off the shore.’) Nite coming on the men concluded to go by moonlight. We were lashed together to another famaly boat and sailled together for the sake of company.”

The vision expands now, with a foreshadowing of good neighbors:

“Friday the 7th of June. Foggy morning. I walked out on the bank and see a hansom improvement. I called to our people to bring some money and a vesil and I would go and git some milk. I walked a little peece—see a fine improvment—a hansom peach orchard. In it a log house—but nobody living thare. 1 went on further—met an old woman and a boy. I asked them where I could git som milk. Tha said keep on that way a little way, I should come to a house and thare I should git som. I walked fast. The horn blue for me to com before I got thare. I went and asked them for milk. The black woman said she would go to her mistress. She went. I followed hir. She got me two quarts. I offered hir money. She said she would not take it and that I was welkom to it. She said she never sold any milk in hir life and she gave to all that asked hir.”

Now a reunion:

“We was nine days going from Redstone to Wheeling. Mr. Sampson and Billy and his sun stood on the bank at Wheeling looking for us. Sampson swong his hat and hollowed. Marvin swong his and we was glad to meet again. Tha had been thare two days waiting. Billy was took with the plurasy jest before tha got to Wheeling but got into town—sent for the doctor—was bled and blistered and got about before we got there. Sampson said that he was a mind to go by land—a boat cost so much. So he come into the boat and staid with us all nisht. In the morning he took out his things and we laid in our store of bred and butter—ham—fresh beef—unions—horsefeed—took our horses aboard—”

I’m watching the shopping list for more wesky or wisky, but remember that handsome orchard?

“sold our oxen and took peach brandy for them—took it in the boat—bought two chairs—made us a good table and set out at tenn o’clock in the morning, a satterday the 8th day of June.”

We will have a last meeting with Mr. Sampson, but first some very nice news:

“My baby is a grate deal better today than he has been in two weeks. While we lay by for the wind this morning, Sampson see us. He had a pewter plate in his wagon of ours. He com and brought it to us. He left a scythe in the boat and got it. He says he wishes he was afloat with us. Whare he is going to settle he knows not.”

There are nine more days to go before what I have of the diary breaks off. These nine days offer only occasional variety. On one of them:

“I see the biggest tree I ever see in all my life. I stood by it. It was as high as I could reach to the top of the log after it was cut down. The river is full of people moving. Thare is a good many keel boats that goes up the river loaded.”

The water is high. Some days we make as much as fifty miles.

“We com on very fast and com to Marietee. This town is very Elegant—far before all the others that we have past.”

They are still talking about last spring’s flood in Marietta.

“The water was three feet upon a level in the houses. All over town tha had moved into thare upper rooms. Some and a grate many went in Canoes out of town.”

Another day, another new sight:

“Now below Bellville I see a floating mill built in two boats—the water wheel in between the boats. It is moved anywhere on the water.”

Point Pleasant, where we’d hoped to buy provisions, is a disappointment:


“We could git nothing. It tis a very poor place and the people very lazy. I see no gardens or frute trees. I had flower. I made a cake for supper.”

Gallipolis is much better:

“Went into town—got som bred and corn for our horses—give half a dollar a bushel for corn. This place looked as if the people eat bred and did som work. Tha had fine gardens and frute trees. They are mainly French people.”

Here are two fine spellings, a new monetary unit, and a good laugh:

“Saterday the 15th June. About twelve o’clock left Virjinah and come to Caintucka. Thare is a creek that divides the states called Big Sandy. We put to shore. I went to git some milk. I got a point for a half of a five penabit—the change they save me in bred called pone. I brought it to the boat and it looked so droll that we all laughed hartely.”

A small privation, a small treat:

“we com on all very dry for some good cool water for this day is very warm. Towards night the boys a fishing hollow to us to no if we wanted fish. Tha brought fish to us. We bought too pirch—gave a quarter of a dollar for them.”

Here now is most of the last entry I have and a final revelation of Phoebe Ford Marvin:

“Our men got up in the night—pushed of the boat and took turns a watching. Bently—the man that was with us—”

Just before he is to leave us, I can put together the name of “our stranger,” Elezur Bently, more likely Eleazer Bentley, I would guess.

“went to watch his turn and I sopose lay down and went to sleep (for we found him doin so before) and the boat run on the pint of a Island and struck. We ware all asleep but as soon as we felt the shock we ware out in a minute. What to do we did not no, for the lazy man nue not whare we was. Our fire was out and thare we were in the middle of that grate river expecting every minute to stick fast and new not what the consequences would be. But in a little time we rowed to shore and put up till light, for we new not whare we was till we could see som buddy. Sunrise we set of—went very well—com to old Linnsome town a little after noon and thare our lazy self important man com to his journey’s end and I was glad to get cleer of him.”

I am really quite struck with the way she has withheld expressing her animosity, even to her diary, until the stranger is gone. I am struck with her never having shown her feelings toward her erstwhile traveling companion Mrs. Sampson or even her mother. Phoebe Marvin took people as they came and kept her own counsel. She must have been a very private woman.

I do not know what handsome improvement the Marvins may have built and planted when they settled at Fort Washington. The rest is merely genealogy.

One of their children, a daughter called Narcissa, married Crocker Snow. They were my great-great-grandparents.

Their daughter, Frances Adelia Snow, married Robert Newman John. They were my great-grandparents and had, so far as I know, a son named Herbert, a daughter, Bertha, whose married name was Willard, and Edith, my maternal grandmother, who married Charles Webb.

I have a reason for naming these forebears and for adding that Robert Marvin was Phoebe Ford’s second husband; the first was called Moses Ross.

We know that the Marvins had, at the very least, three children: the baby; Billy, whose pantaloons she mended; and Narcissa. There were probably others. But if we use the figure three as an average and calculate that by now children have been generated seven times, the diarist might have 6,561 three-times-great grandchildren around by now, with 19,683 the next figure in the sequence, and 59,049 by the two hundredth anniversary of the journey. Hi, cousins.

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