When on the western bank of the Mississippi River west of Rock Island she felt she had crossed into the true West, a land of "buffalos and Indians." There she saw emigrant trains heading to the vastness of the Great Western Desert and uncertain futures. "There, in a long wooden shed with blackened rafters and an earthen floor, we breakfasted at seven o'clock, on johnnycake, squirrels, buffalo-hump, dampers, and buckwheat, tea and corn spirit, with a crowd of emigrants, hunters, and adventurers..."
The regular readers of this blog by now realize I love to include accounts by visitors to this nation. Isabella was an excellent writer and observer and her little-known memoir stands up to many of the better-known accounts. I especially appreciate Isabella trying to navigate the shoals of American slang from the mid-nineteenth century. For example, when two Kentuckians passed a frame shanty on the shore one pointed at it and said, "Who's the alligator to hum?" The pointing man had asked if the other knew owned the home (hum). Alligator was a vulgarism for "fellow" in those days.
Isabella had wild encounters on her trip and her thwarting a clever Chicago pickpocket is delightful. Her description of travel accommodations reflect the shock that many foreign travelers had in America. "Meaning to stay all night at Chicago, we drove to the two best hotels, but, finding them full, were induced to betake ourselves to an advertising house, the name of which is unnecessary to give, though it will never be effaced from my memory. The charge advertised was a dollar a day, and for this every comfort and advantage were promised.
The inn was a large brick building at the corner of a street, with nothing very unprepossessing in it external appearance. The wooden stairs were dirty enough, and on ascending them to the so-called "ladies' parlour," I found a large, meanly furnished apartment, garnished with six spittoons, which, however, to my disgust, did not prevent the floor from receiving a large quantity of tobacco-juice.
There were two rifles, a pistol, and a powder flask on the table; two Irish emigrant women were seated on the floor (which swarmed with black beetles and ants), undressing a screaming child; a woman evidently in a fever was tossing restlessly on a sofa; two females in tarnished Bloomer habiliments were looking out of the window; and other extraordinary-looking human beings filled the room. I asked for accommodation for the night, hoping that I should find a room where I could sit quietly. A dirty chambermaid took me to a room in dormitory containing four beds. In one part of it three women were affectionately and assiduously nursing a sick child; in another two were combing tangled black hair; upon which I declared that I must have a room to myself.
The chambermaid then took me down a long, darkish passage, and showed me a small room without fireplace, and only lighted by a pane of glass in the door; consequently it was nearly dark. There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up, and swarms of living creatures fell out of it, and the floor was literally alive with them. The sight of such a room made me feel quite ill, and it was with the greatest reluctance that I deposited my bonnet and shawl in it."
The fun was only beginning for poor Isabella, as she found that the house contained one case of Asiatic cholera, three cases of ague (a malarial fever), and one of typhus. The Cholera was especially dangerous as it spread through bodily fluids, and any patient was emitting those in every way imaginable. Thousands were then perishing of cholera on the emigrant trails and in slums. Her traveling companions thought they should all press on to Detroit (yes, Detroit) but Isabella wanted to learn about America's "society in its lowest grade."
"We went down to dinner, and only the fact of not having tasted food for many hours could have made me touch it in such a room. We were in a long apartment, with one table down the middle, with plates laid for one hundred people. Every seat was occupied, these seats being benches of somewhat uncouth workmanship. The floor had recently been washed, and emitted a damp fetid odour. At one side was a large fireplace, where, in spite of the heat of the day, sundry manipulations were going on, coming under the general name of cookery. At the end of the room was a long leaden trough or sink, where three greasy scullery-boys without shoes, were perpetually engaged in washing plates, which they then wiped upon their aprons. The plates, however, were not washed, only superficially rinsed. There were four brigand-looking waiters with prodigious beards and mustaches.
There was no great variety at table. There were eight boiled legs of mutton, nearly raw; six antiquated fowls, whose legs were of the consistence of guitar-strings; baked pork with "onion fixings," the meat swimming in the grease; and for vegetables, yams, corn-cobs, and squash. A cup of stewed tea, sweetened with molasses, stood by each plate, and no fermented liquor of any kind was consumed by the company. There were no carving knives, so each person hacked the joints with his own, and some of those present caved dexterously with bowie-knives taken out of their belts. Neither were there salt-spoons, so everybody dipped his greasy knife in the little pewter pot containing salt. Dinner began, and after satisfying my own hunger with the least objectionable dish, namely "pork with onion fixings," I had leisure to look around me."
Isabella determined that her dining company included Scots, Irish emigrants, French traders, Mexicans, Californians, New England speculators, Canadian pack-men, Prairie-men, trappers, hunters, and adventurers. It added zest that many in the crowd were armed with pistols and bowie-knives. She took time out to castigate two women sitting opposite her in Bloomers. Next to Isabella sat a swarthy Mexican relating his success in a duel that very morning and how he laid his opponent low with a pistol shot. Isabella learned that there had been three duels that very day in Chicago before they were interrupted by desert. Even this had it's adventure, "...when the waiters changed the plates, their way of cleaning the knives and forks was so peculiarly disgusting, that I did not attempt to eat anything."
Isabella was somewhat shocked that in this lowest of company that the use of foul language was absent and that women were treated with "deferential respect." She also noted that there was little public inebriation (the only case she mentions being a Scotch fiddler). We could go on here... as after dinner it was a night on the town in the Windy City. However, you get the point. If you want an entertaining and educational reading experience, give Isabella's book a try. Remember to book your lodging well in advance if you don't want bed bugs, bad food, and to eat a greasy dinner with a noted duelist. At least they didn't make her share a bunk with a sick person as happened to many a traveler in those days.
See ya later alligator!