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History Lives Here Text

`I shall have a living at least...'

William Forbes was a surveyor andearly settler in Allegan County near the junction of the Gun River and theKalamazoo. In 185 he sent this illustrated letter to his brother in ScotlandNow in the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

 

Plainville, Allegan Co., M. T.10 April 1835 Dearestfriends,

 

I have been long anxiously waiting tohear from you having written you in Nov. last nearly 5 months ago since whichtime no material change has taken place excepting that John [another brotherwho immigrated with him] has got another, son, a fine stout boy who alongwith all his family has enjoyed good health. We have built him a handsome housein which he is now living. It is located on the side of the river where itmakes a bend and is very beautifully situated, it is about 114, milt from mint.I shall scud you some sketches of and from it. I have as pretty a situation foryour house too on the river side, for I will always live in the hope that youwill sometime or other live near me - or your children. But experience teachesme more and more the great change of circumstances you have to encounter andthe difficulties of encountering an entirely new mode of life, and also thevery great expense which must be incurred before any profitable return can bemade, and the want of physical strength to accomplish the tasks of the day. Ihave however put my hand to the plough and shall not look back and, although Ifeel my constitution not very fit to encounter labor I have to perform, uponthe whole enjoy myself more than I ever did before and my health and prospectsare cheering. I have incurred very great expense in living and since I settledhere laying out money... my crops are in. I shall have a living at least, myfarm looks very well and I have got 100 acres under fence and I am building,ploughing for oats, Indian corn, etc. The soil is two feet deep and is rich asany garden you ever saw. I have bought some more heavily timbered land acrossGun river, principally for the sake of the timber, but the soil is also goodfor the purpose of sowing. I have been within a few days offered about as muchmoney for the use of my mill seat as I paid for my farm 2 years go,but would not now sell it alone for one thousand dollars. It is a beautifulplace for a village and a good command of timber. I intend, if you can by anymeans raise me the money, to build a saw mill then immediately she would payherself the first year because others here have done so. We will saw 2000 ft ofbeard in 24 hours at $f p.m. There is great demand for it and none nearer than5 miles across the river Kalamazoo. Indeed a saw mill is the first property inthe country, she will perhaps cost 1 000 dollars, After this when 1 am able Tintend building a grist or flower & thrashing mill. The water if 60 feet 7broad and 2 deep and always shady summer and winter never rising or fallingover a foot or 18 inches. There is about 7 feet fall. After these mills are agoing and a blacksmith and carpenter shop established this will form thenucleus or a beginning of a village and then my property would rise from thevalue of 3 dollars p. acres to that of 100$ or more as in many similarinstances in this country, such a thing requires only a beginning and some naturaladvantages and a proper range of country around it I know ground bought 4 yearsago for 1 t/4$ now will sell for 100.

 

I informed you in my last letter that James Flockharthad come here and bought a farm along the river. He has just this winter heardfrom his father and mother and sister who are coming out here and I supposewill settle in this place. I will not be surprised to see father here thisseason but I would not advise him to come although I would be happy to see him.Believe he would be of use to me in building a mill, etc. I am afraid he wouldnot endure the fatigue of the travel and sea voyage etc. I should like to seehim once more in this world. I feel a great comfort in John being here. I hopewe will get on very well together and be mutually useful to each other owing incircumstances his expenses was very great coming here. Charity and the childrenare quite healthy and they are well pleased with the situation of their house.I think you would say yourself you had seldom seen a prettier. There are plentyof fish in the river such as pickerel bass mullet suckers trout sturgeon. A fewdays ago 2 Indians in a canoe speared about 40 averaging from 3-5 pounds eachof different kinds just opposite John's house, the half of which we bought fromthem for a little flower and salt. It is an interesting sight to see theIndians manage their canoes and spear the fish. Tell father that the stories weused to hear about Robin Hood and William Tell and the bows and arrows and notbelieve, I now believe firmly because I have seen them strike an arrow on thetop of a high tree and not as thick as you little finger at every shot and withthe rifle they are equally dexterous. One of them made us place a little bit ofsnow on the trunk of a tree 170 yards distant and he put the ball right to thecenter of it. The more we know of the Indians we like them better. The manwhich John brought I like very much and I should like if another good handwould come out. I would give him 80 acres of land for 18 months work, but I amafraid I shall be short of means now and must go on slowly until things beginto pay themselves. Cows can be bought for $10 in Illinois and sell here for $20and 25 so that you see what a chance there is of employing money profitably.had I from 200 [pounds] to 500 [pounds] I think I could afford to pay a highinterest and clear the principle very soon, seeing my visions and prospects Ihope you will be able, if you have not already dune so, to raise some money forme either upon the security of the Brickwork or rather than want it I think Iwould sell my share of brickwork and houses in the Kirktown, 1 not at too greata loss.

John alsoowes me upwards of 100 [pounds] which I hope he will be able to raise for me insome way or other. If anyone is coming out here from your place I should likeif they would bring me some potatoes oats or other variety, barley, somehedging seeds or slips if they can be preserved, ryegrass seeds. There is nonehere... In one of your letters you request a sketch of my occupations. Well, inWinter get up at 7 o.c., breakfast. I go out to the woods to chop trees or drawrails upon a sled which is an agreeable although laborious employment, perhapsweaving baskets or working in a carpenter shop if the day is snowy. In spring,summer and autumn up between 5 & b, chop firewood, tend oxen cows pigs,etc. breakfast at 7, plowing, laying fences, clearing land, dinner at 12 untilsunset supper at 6 or 7 o.c. always tired enough to wish for bed by 9 o. c.This winter has been long but generally steady weather no rain for 3 months,during b or 8 days thermometer 25 degrees under freezing not in the house,bread, milk, water, meat all frozen hard ... The spring has now advanced. Thebirds are coming out, the grass and the land look green, the wheat looks fine.We are breaking the land. It is cool, that is about as warm as a Scots summer,even warmer weather will commence in July when things grow with a rapidity thatstaggers the belief of those accustomed to the slow growth of colder climate,my Indians corn grew 8 inches every 24 hours. Pumpkins that were one day inbloom as large as your head three days after. Mornings and evenings delicioussitting out of doors in the shady side of the house or trees at breakfast orsupper eating melons in the middle of the day not a cloud, pure blue sky, fightand heat. Cattle breaking away to get into the deep shadow of trees or into theriver to cool themselves - drinking water by the gallon which distills from youin large drops in a few minutes. Dress shirt and trousers and straw hat, thisnever lasts of 3 or 4 days until it is succeeded by a thunder shower falling intorrents for 1 hour and all is fair and cool and fresh again. Neither rain orthe droughts injure us here. The rain sinks immediately into the open subsoiland when underground currents toward the rivers, and the subsoil is of such anature that the roots of the trees reach into it at a depth of 12 or 14 feet.You will think this singular but I have dug them up myself out of wells thatdepth. Some of our soil has a small bed of clay resting on the gravel or marlfor a great part of it is composed of lime of the former bed of a vast lake andupon the clay the black compound of decayed vegetable & tree - product ofthousands of years for I have cut down trees of 500 years growth and 160 ft inheight beautiful oaks & I think they must have been many years generationsbefore the present growth. About a month hence the surface of the ground willbe covered with successive crops of flowers in great profusion - blue, purple,white, then yellow and red are equally fine to see & being no botanist Icannot describe them. There is one which for its peculiarity and abundancegrowing upon our prairies which I shall describe. It is neither (or both) grass& flower, it grows up like a small shrub 12 or 8 inches and the tips of theleaves turn into brilliant scarlet red almost overpowering the deep andbrilliant green of the terrain at that season. It has no seed that I haveobserved, at night this is drenched in dews during the hot weather. You say youdid not suppose there was so much wood upon my farm, excepting on one cornerwhere it is heavy timber. These trees are 4 or 5 yards asunder and we mightplough through them without cutting one done, no hills of any consequence,small risings knolls and little valleys and dells, in general the viewsobstructed by trees except on the prairie. The Agues of the country seem to beproduced by a variety of causes such as the quality of water drank, the situationnear standing water and marshy decayed vegetables, exposure to night dews, overfatigue and anxiety of mind, quality of food, bad lodging and thin clothing. Ihave seen one or two Indians have it but not commonly but their mode of life isparticularly exposed to all the causes. The old country man seems to be moreexempt from it than the Americans from the Eastern States. None of us have hadany symptoms of it but several of our neighbors and Gull Prarie have been veryunhealthy these last two years.

 

 

"Aremarkable bend in river where the Indians frequently camp. "Indian gravesat right, John's house, at left, looking south one-quarter mile.

 

Tell Mary that rudeness and vulgarityare entirely inapplicable to the Americans. They might have other vices ingreat abundance as most other people, peculiar to and growing out of theircircumstances, but the freedom of their manners approaches not to rudeness.Never are their habits at all vulgar. I tell you again if I am any judge thatthey are fully equal in that respect to the middling classes of either Englandor Scotland. Their love of money and eager desire to acquire property, theirdexterity as trying to over reach in a bargain their scheming, etc., is aboutthe worst traits in their characters, but all this is perfectly understood byone another and each acts his part as dexterously as two wrestlers trying togive his opponent a fall and it is by no means considered injustice by them,what we call cheating. We have our set of rules in trade and they have anotherbut there arc exceptions to all this and you will find the natural bias ofcharacter prevailing over education, example and circumstances. In short fromthe honorable to the mean shabby action of all tricks. One of my neighbors toldme a story a few days since. He removed here with his family from Ohio the sametime I did. He says there was a Dutchman living in the same settlement he camefrom who was on the point of selling his farm and moving back to a Dutchsettlement and asked him the reason of his leaving that he considered it a goodsettlement and agreeable intelligent neighbors. Well, says the Dutchman, I willtell you a Dutchman among Yankees is like a Cat in hell without her claws. Iwas traveling along with two Yankees in Illinois and met a German who hadsettled there. One of the former said he might like to settle here where therewas nothing but Indians. The German immediately said he preferred an Indian toa yankee as a neighbor any time. You asked me if I think him better or worse here.It is neither better or worse but merely a different aspect which will be foundor answered according to the tasks. But shall give you now more of this in mynext... By and by I should wish that a blacksmith and plough and millrightshoemaker, etc. and cartwright would come out here. I think they would do welland they are much wanted in this settlement. John says that John Copeland hassince [written] of coming here. I wish he would. I expect Flockhart andhis family here soon as his letter [with news) to that effect yesterday.The letter was three weeks on the way. If you come bring over 8 day clock forme .. I wish somebody would bring it for me. It was from king. I shouldlike also some Gooseberry seeds of different variety. We have wild ones here,but not of any size.

The countysite is an abundant market for all kinds of produce from the new sellers comingin, and there will be regular water communication with N. York and so withEurope. A regular mail even 3 times a week. Last summer to within 10 miles ofus, and this we expect further down the river where it is proposed to [connect]with a steam boat where papers and baggage will be conveyed across lakeMichigan to Illinois where there will always be a great market for lumber,there being a great scarcity of timber there. We have now got a bankestablished at the county site. It is a branch of the Bank of Michigan, Detroitand perhaps will be the best way of transferring money here by sending to me adraught upon any of the London banks. I hope you continue to preserve yourhealth and your family, if you find your profession undermining it, you shoulddrop it at once and go to the brick work.

[Above]River bridge and house looking east.

I thank youfor the portraits of Father and Mother, they are very dear to me. My wife iswell and wishes to be remembered to you and will be happy to see you here.Little Jane is thriving and is running about. She is very amusing. I hope myDear William is healthy. Tell him I have not got any ponies yet but cats and dogsand cows and pigs and oxen and calves. I have apple trees planted but they havenot borne any apples yet. I expect they will be the time he comes to see me. Donot press too much study upon him. It will injure his constitution. By allmeans improve his health and strength and if you have any notion of coming herelet him learn some mechanical employment such as plow and wagon work,blacksmith and depend upon it it will contribute more to his happiness thanshowy and useless learning or accomplishments of fashion.

 

As eversincerely.

W. Fortes