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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter XII

American Notes

Chapter XII


LEAVING Cincinnati at eleven o'clock in the forenoon, we embarked
for Louisville in the Pike steamboat, which, carrying the mails,
was a packet of a much better class than that in which we had come
from Pittsburg. As this passage does not occupy more than twelve
or thirteen hours, we arranged to go ashore that night: not
coveting the distinction of sleeping in a state-room, when it was
possible to sleep anywhere else.

There chanced to be on board this boat, in addition to the usual
dreary crowd of passengers, one Pitchlynn, a chief of the Choctaw
tribe of Indians, who SENT IN HIS CARD to me, and with whom I had
the pleasure of a long conversation.

He spoke English perfectly well, though he had not begun to learn
the language, he told me, until he was a young man grown. He had
read many books; and Scott's poetry appeared to have left a strong
impression on his mind: especially the opening of The Lady of the
Lake, and the great battle scene in Marmion, in which, no doubt
from the congeniality of the subjects to his own pursuits and
tastes, he had great interest and delight. He appeared to
understand correctly all he had read; and whatever fiction had
enlisted his sympathy in its belief, had done so keenly and
earnestly. I might almost say fiercely. He was dressed in our
ordinary everyday costume, which hung about his fine figure
loosely, and with indifferent grace. On my telling him that I
regretted not to see him in his own attire, he threw up his right
arm, for a moment, as though he were brandishing some heavy weapon,
and answered, as he let it fall again, that his race were losing
many things besides their dress, and would soon be seen upon the
earth no more: but he wore it at home, he added proudly.

He told me that he had been away from his home, west of the
Mississippi, seventeen months: and was now returning. He had been
chiefly at Washington on some negotiations pending between his
Tribe and the Government: which were not settled yet (he said in a
melancholy way), and he feared never would be: for what could a
few poor Indians do, against such well-skilled men of business as
the whites? He had no love for Washington; tired of towns and
cities very soon; and longed for the Forest and the Prairie.

I asked him what he thought of Congress? He answered, with a
smile, that it wanted dignity, in an Indian's eyes.

He would very much like, he said, to see England before he died;
and spoke with much interest about the great things to be seen
there. When I told him of that chamber in the British Museum
wherein are preserved household memorials of a race that ceased to
be, thousands of years ago, he was very attentive, and it was not
hard to see that he had a reference in his mind to the gradual
fading away of his own people.

This led us to speak of Mr. Catlin's gallery, which he praised
highly: observing that his own portrait was among the collection,
and that all the likenesses were 'elegant.' Mr. Cooper, he said,
had painted the Red Man well; and so would I, he knew, if I would
go home with him and hunt buffaloes, which he was quite anxious I
should do. When I told him that supposing I went, I should not be
very likely to damage the buffaloes much, he took it as a great
joke and laughed heartily.

He was a remarkably handsome man; some years past forty, I should
judge; with long black hair, an aquiline nose, broad cheek-bones, a
sunburnt complexion, and a very bright, keen, dark, and piercing
eye. There were but twenty thousand of the Choctaws left, he said,
and their number was decreasing every day. A few of his brother
chiefs had been obliged to become civilised, and to make themselves
acquainted with what the whites knew, for it was their only chance
of existence. But they were not many; and the rest were as they
always had been. He dwelt on this: and said several times that
unless they tried to assimilate themselves to their conquerors,
they must be swept away before the strides of civilised society.

When we shook hands at parting, I told him he must come to England,
as he longed to see the land so much: that I should hope to see
him there, one day: and that I could promise him he would be well
received and kindly treated. He was evidently pleased by this
assurance, though he rejoined with a good-humoured smile and an
arch shake of his head, that the English used to be very fond of
the Red Men when they wanted their help, but had not cared much for
them, since.

He took his leave; as stately and complete a gentleman of Nature's
making, as ever I beheld; and moved among the people in the boat,
another kind of being. He sent me a lithographed portrait of
himself soon afterwards; very like, though scarcely handsome
enough; which I have carefully preserved in memory of our brief

There was nothing very interesting in the scenery of this day's
journey, which brought us at midnight to Louisville. We slept at
the Galt House; a splendid hotel; and were as handsomely lodged as
though we had been in Paris, rather than hundreds of miles beyond
the Alleghanies.

The city presenting no objects of sufficient interest to detain us
on our way, we resolved to proceed next day by another steamboat,
the Fulton, and to join it, about noon, at a suburb called
Portland, where it would be delayed some time in passing through a

The interval, after breakfast, we devoted to riding through the
town, which is regular and cheerful: the streets being laid out at
right angles, and planted with young trees. The buildings are
smoky and blackened, from the use of bituminous coal, but an
Englishman is well used to that appearance, and indisposed to
quarrel with it. There did not appear to be much business
stirring; and some unfinished buildings and improvements seemed to
intimate that the city had been overbuilt in the ardour of 'going-
a-head,' and was suffering under the re-action consequent upon such
feverish forcing of its powers.

On our way to Portland, we passed a 'Magistrate's office,' which
amused me, as looking far more like a dame school than any police
establishment: for this awful Institution was nothing but a little
lazy, good-for-nothing front parlour, open to the street; wherein
two or three figures (I presume the magistrate and his myrmidons)
were basking in the sunshine, the very effigies of languor and
repose. It was a perfect picture of justice retired from business
for want of customers; her sword and scales sold off; napping
comfortably with her legs upon the table.

Here, as elsewhere in these parts, the road was perfectly alive
with pigs of all ages; lying about in every direction, fast
asleep.; or grunting along in quest of hidden dainties. I had
always a sneaking kindness for these odd animals, and found a
constant source of amusement, when all others failed, in watching
their proceedings. As we were riding along this morning, I
observed a little incident between two youthful pigs, which was so
very human as to be inexpressibly comical and grotesque at the
time, though I dare say, in telling, it is tame enough.

One young gentleman (a very delicate porker with several straws
sticking about his nose, betokening recent investigations in a
dung-hill) was walking deliberately on, profoundly thinking, when
suddenly his brother, who was lying in a miry hole unseen by him,
rose up immediately before his startled eyes, ghostly with damp
mud. Never was pig's whole mass of blood so turned. He started
back at least three feet, gazed for a moment, and then shot off as
hard as he could go: his excessively little tail vibrating with
speed and terror like a distracted pendulum. But before he had
gone very far, he began to reason with himself as to the nature of
this frightful appearance; and as he reasoned, he relaxed his speed
by gradual degrees; until at last he stopped, and faced about.
There was his brother, with the mud upon him glazing in the sun,
yet staring out of the very same hole, perfectly amazed at his
proceedings! He was no sooner assured of this; and he assured
himself so carefully that one may almost say he shaded his eyes
with his hand to see the better; than he came back at a round trot,
pounced upon him, and summarily took off a piece of his tail; as a
caution to him to be careful what he was about for the future, and
never to play tricks with his family any more.

We found the steamboat in the canal, waiting for the slow process
of getting through the lock, and went on board, where we shortly
afterwards had a new kind of visitor in the person of a certain
Kentucky Giant whose name is Porter, and who is of the moderate
height of seven feet eight inches, in his stockings.

There never was a race of people who so completely gave the lie to
history as these giants, or whom all the chroniclers have so
cruelly libelled. Instead of roaring and ravaging about the world,
constantly catering for their cannibal larders, and perpetually
going to market in an unlawful manner, they are the meekest people
in any man's acquaintance: rather inclining to milk and vegetable
diet, and bearing anything for a quiet life. So decidedly are
amiability and mildness their characteristics, that I confess I
look upon that youth who distinguished himself by the slaughter of
these inoffensive persons, as a false-hearted brigand, who,
pretending to philanthropic motives, was secretly influenced only
by the wealth stored up within their castles, and the hope of
plunder. And I lean the more to this opinion from finding that
even the historian of those exploits, with all his partiality for
his hero, is fain to admit that the slaughtered monsters in
question were of a very innocent and simple turn; extremely
guileless and ready of belief; lending a credulous ear to the most
improbable tales; suffering themselves to be easily entrapped into
pits; and even (as in the case of the Welsh Giant) with an excess
of the hospitable politeness of a landlord, ripping themselves
open, rather than hint at the possibility of their guests being
versed in the vagabond arts of sleight-of-hand and hocus-pocus.

The Kentucky Giant was but another illustration of the truth of
this position. He had a weakness in the region of the knees, and a
trustfulness in his long face, which appealed even to five-feet
nine for encouragement and support. He was only twenty-five years
old, he said, and had grown recently, for it had been found
necessary to make an addition to the legs of his inexpressibles.
At fifteen he was a short boy, and in those days his English father
and his Irish mother had rather snubbed him, as being too small of
stature to sustain the credit of the family. He added that his
health had not been good, though it was better now; but short
people are not wanting who whisper that he drinks too hard.

I understand he drives a hackney-coach, though how he does it,
unless he stands on the footboard behind, and lies along the roof
upon his chest, with his chin in the box, it would be difficult to
comprehend. He brought his gun with him, as a curiosity.

Christened 'The Little Rifle,' and displayed outside a shop-window,
it would make the fortune of any retail business in Holborn. When
he had shown himself and talked a little while, he withdrew with
his pocket-instrument, and went bobbing down the cabin, among men
of six feet high and upwards, like a light-house walking among

Within a few minutes afterwards, we were out of the canal, and in
the Ohio river again.

The arrangements of the boat were like those of the Messenger, and
the passengers were of the same order of people. We fed at the
same times, on the same kind of viands, in the same dull manner,
and with the same observances. The company appeared to be
oppressed by the same tremendous concealments, and had as little
capacity of enjoyment or light-heartedness. I never in my life did
see such listless, heavy dulness as brooded over these meals: the
very recollection of it weighs me down, and makes me, for the
moment, wretched. Reading and writing on my knee, in our little
cabin, I really dreaded the coming of the hour that summoned us to
table; and was as glad to escape from it again, as if it had been a
penance or a punishment. Healthy cheerfulness and good spirits
forming a part of the banquet, I could soak my crusts in the
fountain with Le Sage's strolling player, and revel in their glad
enjoyment: but sitting down with so many fellow-animals to ward
off thirst and hunger as a business; to empty, each creature, his
Yahoo's trough as quickly as he can, and then slink sullenly away;
to have these social sacraments stripped of everything but the mere
greedy satisfaction of the natural cravings; goes so against the
grain with me, that I seriously believe the recollection of these
funeral feasts will be a waking nightmare to me all my life.

There was some relief in this boat, too, which there had not been
in the other, for the captain (a blunt, good-natured fellow) had
his handsome wife with him, who was disposed to be lively and
agreeable, as were a few other lady-passengers who had their seats
about us at the same end of the table. But nothing could have made
head against the depressing influence of the general body. There
was a magnetism of dulness in them which would have beaten down the
most facetious companion that the earth ever knew. A jest would
have been a crime, and a smile would have faded into a grinning
horror. Such deadly, leaden people; such systematic plodding,
weary, insupportable heaviness; such a mass of animated indigestion
in respect of all that was genial, jovial, frank, social, or
hearty; never, sure, was brought together elsewhere since the world

Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and
Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees
were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the
settlements and log cabins fewer in number: their inhabitants more
wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet. No songs of
birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and
shadows from swift passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless
glare of the hot, unwinking sky, shone upon the same monotonous
objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along, as wearily and
slowly as the time itself.

At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot
so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the
forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full
of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat
and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is
inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague,
and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and
speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many
people's ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot
away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and
teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful
shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and
die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and
eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy
monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre,
a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one
single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is
this dismal Cairo.

But what words shall describe the Mississippi, great father of
rivers, who (praise be to Heaven) has no young children like him!
An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running
liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current
choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest
trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the
interstices of which a sedgy, lazy foam works up, to float upon the
water's top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled
roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant
leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some
small whirlpool, like wounded snakes. The banks low, the trees
dwarfish, the marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few
and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather
very hot, mosquitoes penetrating into every crack and crevice of
the boat, mud and slime on everything: nothing pleasant in its
aspect, but the harmless lightning which flickers every night upon
the dark horizon.

For two days we toiled up this foul stream, striking constantly
against the floating timber, or stopping to avoid those more
dangerous obstacles, the snags, or sawyers, which are the hidden
trunks of trees that have their roots below the tide. When the
nights are very dark, the look-out stationed in the head of the
boat, knows by the ripple of the water if any great impediment be
near at hand, and rings a bell beside him, which is the signal for
the engine to be stopped: but always in the night this bell has
work to do, and after every ring, there comes a blow which renders
it no easy matter to remain in bed.

The decline of day here was very gorgeous; tingeing the firmament
deeply with red and gold, up to the very keystone of the arch above
us. As the sun went down behind the bank, the slightest blades of
grass upon it seemed to become as distinctly visible as the
arteries in the skeleton of a leaf; and when, as it slowly sank,
the red and golden bars upon the water grew dimmer, and dimmer yet,
as if they were sinking too; and all the glowing colours of
departing day paled, inch by inch, before the sombre night; the
scene became a thousand times more lonesome and more dreary than
before, and all its influences darkened with the sky.

We drank the muddy water of this river while we were upon it. It
is considered wholesome by the natives, and is something more
opaque than gruel. I have seen water like it at the Filter-shops,
but nowhere else.

On the fourth night after leaving Louisville, we reached St. Louis,
and here I witnessed the conclusion of an incident, trifling enough
in itself, but very pleasant to see, which had interested me during
the whole journey.

There was a little woman on board, with a little baby; and both
little woman and little child were cheerful, good-looking, bright-
eyed, and fair to see. The little woman had been passing a long
time with her sick mother in New York, and had left her home in St.
Louis, in that condition in which ladies who truly love their lords
desire to be. The baby was born in her mother's house; and she had
not seen her husband (to whom she was now returning), for twelve
months: having left him a month or two after their marriage.

Well, to be sure, there never was a little woman so full of hope,
and tenderness, and love, and anxiety, as this little woman was:
and all day long she wondered whether 'He' would be at the wharf;
and whether 'He' had got her letter; and whether, if she sent the
baby ashore by somebody else, 'He' would know it, meeting it in the
street: which, seeing that he had never set eyes upon it in his
life, was not very likely in the abstract, but was probable enough,
to the young mother. She was such an artless little creature; and
was in such a sunny, beaming, hopeful state; and let out all this
matter clinging close about her heart, so freely; that all the
other lady passengers entered into the spirit of it as much as she;
and the captain (who heard all about it from his wife) was wondrous
sly, I promise you: inquiring, every time we met at table, as in
forgetfulness, whether she expected anybody to meet her at St.
Louis, and whether she would want to go ashore the night we reached
it (but he supposed she wouldn't), and cutting many other dry jokes
of that nature. There was one little weazen, dried-apple-faced old
woman, who took occasion to doubt the constancy of husbands in such
circumstances of bereavement; and there was another lady (with a
lap-dog) old enough to moralize on the lightness of human
affections, and yet not so old that she could help nursing the
baby, now and then, or laughing with the rest, when the little
woman called it by its father's name, and asked it all manner of
fantastic questions concerning him in the joy of her heart.

It was something of a blow to the little woman, that when we were
within twenty miles of our destination, it became clearly necessary
to put this baby to bed. But she got over it with the same good
humour; tied a handkerchief round her head; and came out into the
little gallery with the rest. Then, such an oracle as she became
in reference to the localities! and such facetiousness as was
displayed by the married ladies! and such sympathy as was shown by
the single ones! and such peals of laughter as the little woman
herself (who would just as soon have cried) greeted every jest

At last, there were the lights of St. Louis, and here was the
wharf, and those were the steps: and the little woman covering her
face with her hands, and laughing (or seeming to laugh) more than
ever, ran into her own cabin, and shut herself up. I have no doubt
that in the charming inconsistency of such excitement, she stopped
her ears, lest she should hear 'Him' asking for her: but I did not
see her do it.

Then, a great crowd of people rushed on board, though the boat was
not yet made fast, but was wandering about, among the other boats,
to find a landing-place: and everybody looked for the husband:
and nobody saw him: when, in the midst of us all - Heaven knows
how she ever got there - there was the little woman clinging with
both arms tight round the neck of a fine, good-looking, sturdy
young fellow! and in a moment afterwards, there she was again,
actually clapping her little hands for joy, as she dragged him
through the small door of her small cabin, to look at the baby as
he lay asleep!

We went to a large hotel, called the Planter's House: built like
an English hospital, with long passages and bare walls, and sky-
lights above the room-doors for the free circulation of air. There
were a great many boarders in it; and as many lights sparkled and
glistened from the windows down into the street below, when we
drove up, as if it had been illuminated on some occasion of
rejoicing. It is an excellent house, and the proprietors have most
bountiful notions of providing the creature comforts. Dining alone
with my wife in our own room, one day, I counted fourteen dishes on
the table at once.

In the old French portion of the town, the thoroughfares are narrow
and crooked, and some of the houses are very quaint and
picturesque: being built of wood, with tumble-down galleries
before the windows, approachable by stairs or rather ladders from
the street. There are queer little barbers' shops and drinking-
houses too, in this quarter; and abundance of crazy old tenements
with blinking casements, such as may be seen in Flanders. Some of
these ancient habitations, with high garret gable-windows perking
into the roofs, have a kind of French shrug about them; and being
lop-sided with age, appear to hold their heads askew, besides, as
if they were grimacing in astonishment at the American

It is hardly necessary to say, that these consist of wharfs and
warehouses, and new buildings in all directions; and of a great
many vast plans which are still 'progressing.' Already, however,
some very good houses, broad streets, and marble-fronted shops,
have gone so far ahead as to be in a state of completion; and the
town bids fair in a few years to improve considerably: though it
is not likely ever to vie, in point of elegance or beauty, with

The Roman Catholic religion, introduced here by the early French
settlers, prevails extensively. Among the public institutions are
a Jesuit college; a convent for 'the Ladies of the Sacred Heart;'
and a large chapel attached to the college, which was in course of
erection at the time of my visit, and was intended to be
consecrated on the second of December in the next year. The
architect of this building, is one of the reverend fathers of the
school, and the works proceed under his sole direction. The organ
will be sent from Belgium.

In addition to these establishments, there is a Roman Catholic
cathedral, dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier; and a hospital,
founded by the munificence of a deceased resident, who was a member
of that church. It also sends missionaries from hence among the
Indian tribes.

The Unitarian church is represented, in this remote place, as in
most other parts of America, by a gentleman of great worth and
excellence. The poor have good reason to remember and bless it;
for it befriends them, and aids the cause of rational education,
without any sectarian or selfish views. It is liberal in all its
actions; of kind construction; and of wide benevolence.

There are three free-schools already erected, and in full operation
in this city. A fourth is building, and will soon be opened.

No man ever admits the unhealthiness of the place he dwells in
(unless he is going away from it), and I shall therefore, I have no
doubt, be at issue with the inhabitants of St. Louis, in
questioning the perfect salubrity of its climate, and in hinting
that I think it must rather dispose to fever, in the summer and
autumnal seasons. Just adding, that it is very hot, lies among
great rivers, and has vast tracts of undrained swampy land around
it, I leave the reader to form his own opinion.

As I had a great desire to see a Prairie before turning back from
the furthest point of my wanderings; and as some gentlemen of the
town had, in their hospitable consideration, an equal desire to
gratify me; a day was fixed, before my departure, for an expedition
to the Looking-Glass Prairie, which is within thirty miles of the
town. Deeming it possible that my readers may not object to know
what kind of thing such a gipsy party may be at that distance from
home, and among what sort of objects it moves, I will describe the
jaunt in another chapter.

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