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Chapter 10: Fort Crawford, 1832-33.

Mr. Davis wrote: “In 1832, Zachary Taylor became colonel of the First Infantry, with Headquarters at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien. The barracks were unfinished, and his practical mind and conscientious attention to every duty were manifest in the progress and completion of the work.”

After the duty had been performed at Yellow River, Lieutenant Davis was ordered to Fort Crawford, where he was again active in the building of the fort. Several of the brightest men of Lieutenant Davis's class, his dear friends, were stationed there, and many of the officers had their families. Colonel Zachary Taylor had with him his wife, three daughters, and a son. Of these all were more or less associated with Lieutenant Davis's after-life.

Anne, the eldest daughter, one of the most excellent, sensible, and pious women of her day, became the wife of Dr. Robert Wood, who was afterward Surgeon-General of the United States Army. Sarah Knox became [94] Lieutenant Davis's wife two years after this time. Elizabeth married Colonel Bliss, who was General Taylor's adjutant during the war with Mexico, and became his private secretary during his Presidency. The only son, Richard, became a Lieutenant-General in the Confederacy, and was one of the most gallant and daring heroes of an army that was “the admiration of one continent and the wonder of the other.” He was much beloved by Mr. Davis, who felt like a brother toward him. After the war he was the author of “Destruction and Reconstruction,” a brilliant and witty book, which is as stirring and interesting as it is epigrammatical.

Mrs. McRee, the widow of the officer mentioned below, gave to Mr. Dousman the following account of Lieutenant Davis's relations with Colonel and Miss Taylor:

The arrival of a steam-boat from St. Louis was the great event of the season. During the long winter the fort was fully two weeks journey from the settlement in the States. Colonel Zachary Taylor, known in the campaign of 1848 as ‘ Old Rough and Ready,’ and afterward President of the United States, commanded this fort. With him was Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, Major Thomas F. Smith, a fiery, gay officer of the old army, and Samuel McRee, the captain, and afterward [95] Taylor's, and subsequently Scott's, paymaster-general in Mexico.

Quarters were scarce at the fort, and Lieutenant McRee, his wife, and several little children, lived in a tent, where Lieutenant Davis and Miss Taylor were frequent visitors. Lieutenant Davis and Colonel Taylor's daughter, Miss Sarah Knox Taylor, became very much in love, and were to be married, with her father's consent.

When Lieutenant Davis proposed for the hand of Miss Knox Taylor, Colonel Taylor said to Mr. Dousman that

While he had nothing but the kindliest feeling and warmest admiration for Mr. Davis, he was in a general way opposed to having his daughter marry a soldier. Nobody knew better than he the trials to which a soldier's wife was subjected. His own wife and daughter had complained so bitterly of his almost constant absence from home, and of their own torturing anxieties for his safety, he had once resolved that his daughter should never marry a soldier with his approval. Aside from this, however, there was no reason why the proposal of Lieutenant Davis should not meet with his warmest approval.

Some time after this, a court-martial was being held, composed of Taylor, Smith, Davis, and a lieutenant whose name Mrs. McRee [96] had forgotten. There was an angry feud between Taylor and Smith. By the rules of the army, then and now, each officer sitting on such a court was bound to appear in full uniform. The lieutenant had left his uniform at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. He asked the court to excuse him from wearing it. Taylor voted no, Smith voted aye, and Davis voted with Smith. Colonel Taylor became highly incensed. One thing led to another, until he swore, as an officer only in those days could swear, that no man who voted with ‘Tom Smith’ should ever marry his daughter. He forbade Davis from entering his quarters as a guest, and repudiated him utterly.

Lieutenant Davis served for a short time at Jefferson Barracks, and also at Prairie du Chien, with his friend Albert Sidney Johnston, where he became much attached to Mrs. Johnston, and rejoiced with them over the birth of their little boy, William Preston Johnston, who afterward served on Mr. Davis's staff while he was President of the Confederacy, and occupied the chair of history in the Washington-Lee University while General Lee was President; afterward, he was President of the college at Baton Rouge, and is now President of the Tulane University of New Orleans. Everywhere his course has [97] been marked by all the qualities that the friends of his illustrious father could have desired or expected to see developed in him. Descended from one of the greatest and purest men of his day, he was named after his uncle, William Preston, and if there is virtue in a name none could confer more honor or a better earnest of a noble life than that of General William Preston, of Kentucky.

Whenever Lieutenant Davis remained long enough to be known by the settlers, they thoroughly liked him, and he adapted himself to their way of life with a kindliness and ready sympathy which they appreciated heartily. Their peculiarities were many in number, but their high qualities, their generosity, courage, industry, and good faith, inspired him with sincere respect. With characteristic modesty he used to praise them for the great diversity of things they could accomplish and which he could not, and was never tired of speaking of their fertility of resources and their generous hospitality. They had little of the education of the schools; but, as he once said in speaking of them to a friend, “Sustained effort, danger, and the habit of living alone with nature had developed a thousand radical virtues.”

Their conversation was interlarded with so many frontier phrases, heard nowhere else, [98] that it entertained him greatly. They coined words sometimes from the sound; a strip of rawhide in that day was called a “whang,” probably because of the noise it made when plaited into a whip.

Mrs. Kinzie adds one example of the mode of expression of these people, of which Mr. Davis gave many instances. “A miner, who owned a wife and baby, in taking leave of us, ‘ wished us well out of the country, and that we might never have occasion to return to it. I pity a body,’ said he, ‘when I see them making such an awful mistake as to come out this way, for comfort never touched this western country.’ ”

There was a class of frontiersmen engaged in convoying travellers to and fro, up the rivers and bays and through the wilderness: these were called voyageurs. Certain people did special things, and had a monopoly of these duties. To the boatman or guide there was an allowance given, besides his pay, of one quart of lyed corn and two ounces of tallow, per diem, or its equivalent. There was a regular period of graduation, which was one of time. One year made an engage or a mangeur-de-lard,1 the second an hivernant,2 [99] the third a voyageur; and the voyageur considered it infra dig. to associate with either of the lower grades until their graduation. These men sang, and told frontier stories, cooked for their passengers, and procured every facility for making them comfortable that the wilds could afford. The voyageurs, occupied in these cares, contentedly ate their bread and maple syrup, chewed their kinni-kinnic, and were happy.

There were men who ran the mails, generally “Mitiffs,” or half-breed Indians, and Mr. Davis mentioned one who ran forty miles in a day, with a heavy sack of mail. He did it by resting five minutes at every five miles.

Chippewa was the court language of the Indian world, and these voyageurs, with very few exceptions, could act as interpreters. They had a nomenclature of their own, and a patois rather difficult to translate; they designated people by their qualities rather than by their names. The Indians also received new names from the Canadians. The Chippewas were Sauteurs; Menominees, Folles Avoines; Ottawas, Courtes Oreilles; Winnebagoes, Les Puans, and other sobriquets, indicative of the peculiarities of each tribe.

The names of places which were corrupted from the English and French names of the [100] trees which grew about them, are now hardly traceable to their original source — for Bois Blanc Island, Bob Law's Island; for Roche Percd Creek, Roosha Persia Creek; Piche‘s Grove, Specie Grove; the latter was probably just where Oswego is now situated.

The frontier houses consisted generally of one room. When strangers came, who were rarely refused such hospitality as the people had to offer, a rope was stretched across from one wall to another, and whatever of clothing was removed before lying down, was thrown across this extemporized partition. All the family, of both sexes, occupied the same room. The frontier girls had few of the adventitious aids to modesty which we think so indispensable; but they were hardy, blooming, virtuous, truthful, and dutiful to their parents, obliging and industrious, and many of them possessed a remarkable share of personal beauty. Perhaps they would not, however, have impressed people like N. P. Willis, who declared he could perceive no beauty in any one “arrayed in unsophisticated calico.”

Mr. Davis told how once he stopped at an old man's house, who lived near Vide Piche, and alluded, in admiring terms, to some very good-looking daughters, of whom his host was very proud. The father responded, “Yes, they are likely gals, and are the nerviousest [101] and pompiusest gals in these diggings.”

The white inhabitants in the West at that time were not less a noteworthy and picturesque population than the Indians. There was an old lady to whom Lieutenant Davis owed many kindnesses, who was so fearless, that, armed only with an axe, she once kept at bay a party of half-drunk Indians, but she had a great horror of ghosts. Once, in one of his many reconnaissances, he had been detained until late one night, and had taken shelter in a cave, which had been a sepulchre where he had slept peacefully until morning. On returning he told his hostess where he had passed the night; her face blanched and she asked him how in the world he could manage to sleep in such a terrible place, it had been an Indian burying ground. He answered, laughingly, that as they were dead Indians they did not trouble him, whereupon she rejoined: “I don't like them when they are dead; I am not afraid of any live Indian that I ever saw.”

He had a store of such memories, furnished from peculiarities of the frontier people, among whom he spent the most impressionable part of his early manhood.

It was wonderful, in view of the crude state of the country, how the traditions of civilization [102] had operated upon the young people, who only knew it by the tales of their parents.

There were no schools, for there were not enough white children to support a school. The sister of General A. C. Dodge rode on horseback four hundred miles to Lexington, Ky., to reach a school. When he was first elected delegate to Congress from Iowa, he received forty votes at the Fort Snelling settlement, where St. Paul and Minneapolis now stand. In 1840 that region paid one hundred and twenty dollars taxes to the Clayton County tax-gatherer!

Now when demagogues rail at “West-Point education,” “shoulder-strap aristocracy,” “would-be satraps,” “toy soldiers,” with all the other choice epithets such critics have always in store, it would seem that in looking over the teeming, smiling West, while the whole United States feels the force of the golden stream pouring in from it, Aesop's fable of the quarrel among the members of the body might be suggested. The art of defence is learned in weariness, watchings, and self-denial. Had the art been new to these daring young men, who had been educated and refined, only to throw them out as a barrier against barbarism, to dwell among the unlearned for the best part of their lives, they must have succumbed to the forces arrayed [103] against them; but the devices of science were united to the expedients suggested by the frontiersmen, and these magnificent powers were incorporated into a body which wrought great good in the undeveloped wilds of the Northwest. Shall the head not be respected by the hands?

1 This name took its rise from the rations of tallow for which each voyageur stipulated when he hired himself.

2 An hivernant was one who had worked for a winter.

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