The Recorder – Phillipston: Rare travel letter from 1835 documents brutal westward journey

Fortunately, the letter was saved. Fortunately, it caught the attention of Sandra Larson of Petersham who recognized its value and transcribed it from the first English script into an easy-to-read typewritten copy. Luckily for the Historical Society of Phillipston, Larson volunteered to read it at a recent reunion, a very enjoyable evening that took audiences 186 years back.

The letter is an 18-page account Ellen Bigelow wrote to her aunt about her trip from Petersham to Peoria, Ill., To join her father, who was a lawyer in this developing new city. In 1835, it was a journey that required courage and endurance.

The trip lasted over a month and required many stops to organize the trip to the next destination along the way. She traveled by stagecoach, train, barge, brig, wood cart and steamboat. While reading this summary, try to imagine taking such a trip.

■ The schedules were irregular – “We were hoping to get a little rest but the waiting time for the stage prevented us from doing so. The scene was four hours late.

■ The roads were bumpy and muddy… “the most horrible roads ever… I was in constant fear for my life. “

■ The sleeping cabins in the canal boat were crowded – “Twelve women shared a small 6 by 10 cabin with straw mattresses” and the decks were so low that people had to lie flat on the deck ” or submit to the alternative of being beheaded.

■ Strong winds on the brig “pushed and shook incessantly… we all had terrible seasickness”.

■ Several times they had long delays because their brig ran aground – “The crew predicted the load was too heavy to do so and they were right … after 200 barrels of salt were thrown away overboard, the brig was on its way again. “

■ “We have been completely stuck six times. “Once, when the carriage got stuck crossing a stream, everyone had to get out and the traveling men” put their shoulders to the wheels of the carriage and with the horses kicking and diving they went. finally cleared “. It was a very muddy group in the car.

■ Sitting on the rough planks of the wood cart “almost broke every bone in our body”.

How does that sound for a trip? The only segment without problems or discomfort was the train ride from Albany to Schenectady – “Traveling a mile and a half in three minutes, we quickly reached town. However, it would be many years before train travel was available from Massachusetts to Illinois.

Did all the trials discourage Ellen? No. She spoke about it but she did not complain about it. She realized that everyone was doing their best. She kept a positive attitude and found a lot to enjoy along the way, and she wrote about them so poetically.

■ At Genesee Falls, “we had a beautiful view of the rainbow formed over the constantly rising spray… it was the most romantic and beautiful scene I have ever seen”.

■ Several new passengers joined them in Rochester, “who contributed a lot to my happiness the rest of the way.”

■ At Lockport, to our delight, “we saw the finest masonry exhibit in the United States.

■ “The shores on the Michigan side slope gently down to the water, alternating smooth savannahs and wooded patches, with a cottage here and there and a thrifty orchard of apple, plum and peach trees in full bloom. “

■ Sailing along Lake Huron – “the glass-smooth water reflected every object, and the luminous torches of the Indian fishing boats illuminated the dark shadows of the woods along the shore.”

■ A stop at Fort Mackinaw – “The soldiers’ quarters were the finest specimens of cleanliness I have ever seen, and the work was done entirely by men.”

■ “In all my life, I have never seen or dreamed of a sight as beautiful as the rolling meadows … the splendid hues of multitudes of flowers. I watched with admiration too hard for words.

Ellen’s letter is an inspiration. It made us realize how lucky we are to be able to make this trip to Illinois today in four hours from Boston by plane or 16 hours by car. The letter also taught us to be understanding when things are not going well; people are probably doing their best. Ellen has shown us that we live life the way we seek it.

Life is not always perfect, but if we are looking for the positive, this is what we are going to experience.

Carole Gariepy of Phillipston has written seven books, all documentaries. A recent is a travel book, “Why Go?” In her youth, she was a teacher.

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