I found this book through another book I was researching, Early Indiana trails and Surveys (1919), by George R. Wilson. In Wilson’s book, he notes, “For a good pioneer description of Princeton and southwestern Indiana, as of 1817,” see Morris Birkbeck’s Notes on a Journey in America. I’ve become a frequent visitor of the American Libraries’ site, Archive.org, which has volumes of historical books in various digital formats. It was there that I found an online version of Birkbeck’s 1818 work. And it has been a fascinating read, thus far.
The earliest accounts of pioneer life in southwestern Indiana I had discovered previously were written from second- and third-hand accounts after the Civil War. This book is the first eyewitness account I’ve read, and it confirms, in large part, the descriptions of pioneer life from the accounts, like that of Col. William Cockrum, penned decades later.
I have quite enjoyed the perspective of this English gent who praises the qualities of Vincennes’ French residents and looks down in disgust at the filth of many cabin-dwelling pioneers in the countryside. He describes the attitude of the latter as “yawning lassitude.” From what I gather, he considers Princeton somewhere in the middle.
From the outset of the book, Birkbeck explains his reason for the “narrower limits” of his American exploration through only Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. “I can forego the well-earned comforts of an English home, [but] it must not be to degrade myself and corrupt my children by the practice of slave-keeping.” The “curse” of slavery—“the bane of society”—he says, has taken “fast hold” of Kentucky and every state south, so he sets a northward course for the untamed wilderness of the Wabash Valley.
He lands at Norfolk, Virgina, 3 May 1817 with the hopes of reaching the Illinois Territory by winter (Note: it would not be entered as a state within the Union until December the following year). Upon reaching Pittsburgh, he foregoes the most common means of travel—down the Ohio River upon a flatboat—for the land-bearing route across Ohio. He finds that horses are rather inexpensive here, since most eastern travelers dismount in favor of the river highway to ports south, namely New Orleans. After purchasing a couple of horses, the Birkbeck party set out for Cincinnati on 4 Jun 1817.
It is not clear the precise date that Birbeck’s traveling party reaches Indiana, as there is a gap in his journal from 23 June – 6 July. By the former, he is writing from Cincinnati and by the latter from Madison, Indiana, about 90 miles downriver. Upon reaching Madison, he writes in his journal,
Indiana is evidently newer than the state of Ohio; and if I mistake not, the character of the settlers is different, and superior to that of the first settlers in Ohio, who were generally very indigent people : those who are now fixing themselves in Indiana, bring with them habits of comfort, and the means of procuring the conveniences of life: I observe this in the construction of their cabins, and the neatness surrounding them, and especially in their well-stocked gardens, so frequent here, and so rare in the state of Ohio, where their earlier and longer settlement would have afforded them better opportunities of making this great provision for domestic comfort. (p.85)
Birkbeck finds from his own personal experience that the stereotypes held in England of the inhabitants of Indiana are quite false. He does not encounter “lawless, semi-barbarous, vagabonds, dangerous to live among.” On the contrary, he finds Hoosiers to be both “kind and gentle to each other, and to strangers.” He also finds across the rolling hills between Cincinnati and Madison several cleared settlements that seem to “multiply daily” interspersed among miles of uncleared timber. His first impression of Indiana and its people is very favorable. He writes that Madison is but five years old at the time of his arrival, which is off by three years, as the town was incorporated in 1809. Still, we get a glimpse into our pioneer past and see the southern portion of our state as it was in its infancy.
Making great headway through the State of Indiana, he comes within a day’s journey of Vincennes by 12 July, stopping at a spot 16 miles east of there, called Hawkins’ Tavern. He speaks of another tavern just 20 miles east of there which sits on the White River, called Stolt’s Tavern. I’m guessing this would have been in the area of present-day Loogootee, Indiana. Most of the land between these two stops, he says, is “unentered, and remains open to the public at two dollars per acre.”
The final destination of the Birkbeck party was eastern Illinois, but for some reason, upon reaching Vincennes, they head south, reaching Princeton by 18 July. For whatever reason he chose the budding town, Morris Birkbeck opines, “Prince Town affords a situation for a temporary abode, more encouraging than any place we have before visited in this neighborhood.” He rents a log home in town with a bountiful garden for nine months at a cost of 20 pounds. This would become his headquarters for the remainder of the book. From here, he would venture out on several explorations of southwestern Indiana and across the Wabash into Illinois Territory.
On one such exploration, he journals from Harmony, Indiana, on 25 July, that he has traveled from there 18 miles south to the banks of the Ohio River, lodging for the night in Mt. Vernon. He speaks of the vast amount of valuable land rich in sand, but it is no match for the prairie land he seeks in Illinois. He calls Mt. Vernon “a very new town,” which by name it was. Settled in 1805, it would be known for the next 11 years as McFadden’s Bluff, renamed in 1816 after President Washington’s home. Upon return from Mt. Vernon to Harmony the next day, Birkbeck finally crosses the Wabash into Illinois and explores the region called the Big Prairie between the Wabash and Little Wabash rivers.
At the beginning of August, 1817, Morris Birkbeck finds his way to the land office in Shawnee Town, Illinois, where he purchases 1,440 acres of prairie and marsh land near the Little Wabash. He describes at great length the land and inhabitants of the Big Prairie with which I will not bore you here. He does return to Harmony, Indiana, a forty mile trek from Shawnee Town, on Sunday night, 3 August. There, he finds the streets empty as everyone is at church. In fact, he has to call the innkeeper out of church to fetch his horses. He comments on the neatness and peaceful appearance of the Harmonites as they pour out of the church, all 700 of them, though he laments their religious superstitions.
By 4 August, he is back in Princeton and pens his next several entries from there, commenting on everything from wild game to the climate. It is for these brief glimpses into the life and times of the Hoosier pioneer that this book is well worth the reader’s investment.