Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper
Come to the land of peace! Come where the tempest hath no longer sway, The shadow passes from the soul away-- The sounds of weeping cease. Fear hath no dwelling there! Come to the mingling--of repose and love, Breathed by the silent spirit of the dove, Through the celestial air. --MRS. HEMANS.
It is now more than thirty-three years since the last war with the English terminated, and about thirty-six to the summer in which the events recorded in this legend occurred. This third of a century has been a period of mighty changes in America. Ages have not often brought about as many in other portions of the earth, as this short period of time has given birth to among ourselves. We had written, thus far, on the evidence of documents sent to us, when an occasion offered to verify the truth of some of our pictures, at least, by means of personal observation.
Quitting our own quiet and secluded abode in the mountains, in the pleasant month of June, and in this current year of 1848, we descended into the valley of the Mohawk, got into the cars, and went flying by rails toward the setting sun. Well could we remember the time when an entire day was required to pass between that point on the Mohawk where we got on the rails, and the little village of Utica. On the present occasion, we flew over the space in less than three hours, and dined in a town of some fifteen thousand souls.
We reached Buffalo, at the foot of Lake Erie, in about twenty hours after we had entered the cars. This journey would have been the labor of more than a week, at the time in which the scene of this tale occurred. Now, the whole of the beautiful region, teeming with its towns and villages, and rich with the fruits of a bountiful season, was almost brought into a single landscape by the rapidity of our passage.
At Buffalo, we turned aside to visit the cataract. Thither, too, we went on rails. Thirty-eight years had passed away since we had laid eyes on this wonderful fall of water. In the intervening time we had travelled much, and had visited many of the renowned falls of the old world, to say nothing of the great number which are to be found in other parts of our own land. Did this visit, then, produce disappointment?
Did time, and advancing years, and feelings that had become deadened by experience, contribute to render the view less striking, less grand, in any way less pleasing than we had hoped to find it? So far from this, all our expectations were much more than realized. In one particular, touching which we do not remember ever to have seen anything said, we were actually astonished at the surpassing glory of Niagara. It was the character of sweetness, if we can so express it, that glowed over the entire aspect of the scene. We were less struck with the grandeur of this cataract, than with its sublime softness and gentleness. To water in agitation, use had so long accustomed us, perhaps, as in some slight degree to lessen the feeling of awe that is apt to come over the novice in such scenes; but we at once felt ourselves attracted by the surpassing loveliness of Niagara. The gulf below was more imposing than we had expected to see it, but it was Italian in hue and softness, amid its wildness and grandeur. Not a drop of the water that fell down that precipice inspired terror; for everything appeared to us to be filled with attraction and love. Like Italy itself, notwithstanding so much that is grand and imposing, the character of softness, and the witchery of the gentler properties, is the power we should ascribe to Niagara, in preference to that of its majesty. We think this feeling, too, is more general than is commonly supposed, for we find those who dwell near the cataract playing around it, even to the very verge of its greatest fall, with a species of affection, as if they had the fullest confidence in its rolling waters. Thus it is that we see the little steamer, the Maid of the Mist, paddling up quite near to the green sheet of the Horse-Shoe itself, and gliding down in the current of the vortex, as it is compelled to quit the eddies, and come more in a line with the main course of the stream. Wires, too, are suspended across the gulf below, and men pass it in baskets. It is said that one of these inventions is to carry human beings over the main fall, so that the adventurer may hang suspended in the air, directly above the vortex. In this way do men, and even women, prove their love for the place, all of which we impute to its pervading character of sweetness and attraction.
At Buffalo we embarked in a boat under the English flag, which is called the Canada, This shortened our passage to Detroit, by avoiding all the stops at lateral ports, and we had every reason to be satisfied with our selection. Boat, commander, and the attendance were such as would have done credit to any portion of the civilized world. There were many passengers, a motley collection, as usual, from all parts of the country.
Our attention was early drawn to one party, by the singular beauty of its females. They seemed to us to be a grandmother, in a well- preserved, green old age; a daughter, but a matron of little less than forty; and two exceedingly pretty girls of about eighteen and sixteen, whom we took to be children of the last. The strong family likeness between these persons led us early to make this classification, which we afterward found was correct.
By occasional remarks, I gathered that the girls had been to an "Eastern" boarding-school, that particular feature in civilization not yet flourishing in the Northwestern States. It seemed to us that we could trace in the dialect of the several members of this family, the gradations and peculiarities that denote the origin and habits of individuals. Thus, the grandmother was not quite as Western in her forms of speech as her matronly daughter, while the grandchildren evidently spoke under the influence of boarding-school correction, or like girls who had been often lectured on the subject "First rate," and "Yes, sir," and "That's a fact," were often in the mouth of the pleasing mother, and even the grandmother used them all, though not as often as her daughter, while the young people looked a little concerned and surprised, whenever they came out of the mouth of their frank-speaking mother. That these persons were not of a very high social class was evident enough, even in their language. There was much occasion to mention New York, we found, and they uniformly called it "the city." By no accident did either of them happen to use the expression that she had been "in town," as one of us would be apt to say. "He's gone to the city," or "She's in the city," are awkward phrases, and tant soit peu vulgar; but even our pretty young boarding-school eleves would use them. We have a horror of the expression "city," and are a little fastidious, perhaps, touching its use.
But these little peculiarities were spots on the sun. The entire family, taken as a whole, was really charming; and long before the hour for retiring came, we had become much interested in them all. We found there was a fifth person belonging to this party, who did not make his appearance that night. From the discourse of these females, however, it was easy to glean the following leading facts: This fifth person was a male; he was indisposed, and kept his berth; and he was quite aged. Several nice little dishes were carried from the table into his state-room that evening, by one or the other of the young sisters, and each of the party appeared anxious to contribute to the invalid's comfort. All this sympathy excited our interest, and we had some curiosity to see this old man, long ere it was time to retire. As for the females, no name was mentioned among them but that of a Mrs. Osborne, who was once or twice alluded to in full. It was "grandma," and "ma," and "Dolly," and "sis." We should have liked it better had it been "mother," and "grandmother," and that the "sis" had been called Betsey or Molly; but we do not wish to be understood as exhibiting these amiable and good-looking strangers as models of refinement. "Ma" and "sis" did well enough, all things considered, though "mamma" would have been better if they were not sufficiently polished to say "mother."
We had a pleasant night of it, and all the passengers appeared next morning with smiling faces. It often blows heavily on that lake, but light airs off the land were all the breezes we encountered. We were among the first to turn out, and on the upper deck forward, a place where the passengers are fond of collecting, as it enables them to look ahead, we found a single individual who immediately drew all of our attention to himself. It was an aged man, with hair already as white as snow. Still there was that in his gait, attitudes, and all his movements which indicated physical vigor, not to say the remains, at least, of great elasticity and sinewy activity. Aged as he was, and he must have long since passed his fourscore years, his form was erect as that of a youth. In stature he was of rather more than middle height, and in movements deliberate and dignified. His dress was quite plain, being black, and according to the customs of the day. The color of his face and hands, however, as well as the bold outlines of his countenance, and the still keen, restless, black eye, indicated the Indian.
Here, then, was a civilized red man, and it struck us at once, that he was an ancient child of the forest, who had been made to feel the truths of the gospel. One seldom hesitates about addressing an Indian, and we commenced a discourse with our venerable fellow- passenger, with very little circumlocution or ceremony.
"Good-morning, sir," we observed--" a charming time we have of it, on the lake."
"Yes--good time--" returned my red neighbor, speaking short and clipped, like an Indian, but pronouncing his words as if long accustomed to the language.
"These steamboats are great inventions for the western lakes, as are the railroads for this vast inland region. I dare say you can remember Lake Erie when it was an unusual thing to see a sail of any sort on it; and now, I should think, we might count fifty."
"Yes--great change--great change, friend!--all change from ole time,"
"The traditions of your people, no doubt, give you reason to see and feel all this?"
The predominant expression of this red man's countenance was that of love. On everything, on every human being toward whom he turned his still expressive eyes, the looks he gave them would seem to indicate interest and affection. This expression was so decided and peculiar, that we early remarked it, and it drew us closer and closer to the old chief, the longer we remained in his company. That expression, however, slightly changed when we made this allusion to the traditions of his people, and a cloud passed before his countenance. This change, nevertheless, was as transient as it was sudden, the benevolent and gentle look returning almost as soon as it had disappeared. He seemed anxious to atone for this involuntary expression of regrets for the past, by making his communications to me as free as they could be.
"My tradition say a great deal," was the answer, "It say some good, some bad."
"May I ask of what tribe you are?"
The red man turned his eyes on us kindly, as if to lessen anything ungracious there might be in his refusal to answer, and with an expression of benevolence that we scarcely remember ever to have seen equalled. Indeed, we might say with truth, that the love which shone out of this old man's countenance habitually, surpassed that which we can recall as belonging to any other human face. He seemed to be at peace with himself, and with all the other children of Adam,
"Tribe make no difference," he answered. "All children of same Great Spirit."
"Red men and pale-faces?" I asked, not a little surprised with his reply.
"Red man and pale-face. Christ die for all, and his Fadder make all. No difference, excep' in color. Color only skin deep."
"Do you, then, look on us pale-faces as having a right here? Do you not regard us as invaders, as enemies who have come to take away your lands?"
"Injin don't own 'arth. 'Arth belong to God, and he send whom he like to live on it. One time he send Injin; now he send pale-face. His 'arth, and he do what he please wid it. Nobody any right to complain. Bad to find fault wid Great Spirit. All he do, right; nebber do anyt'ing bad. His blessed Son die for all color, and all color muss bow down at his holy name. Dat what dis good book say," showing a small pocket Bible, "and what dis good book say come from Great Spirit, himself."
"You read the Holy Scriptures, then--you are an educated Indian?"
"No; can't read at all. Don't know how. Try hard, but too ole to begin. Got young eyes, however, to help me," he added, with one of the fondest smiles I ever saw light a human face, as he turned to meet the pretty Dolly's "Good-morning, Peter," and to shake the hand of the elder sister. "She read good book for old Injin, when he want her; and when she off at school, in 'city,' den her mudder or her gran'mudder read for him. Fuss begin wid gran'mudder; now get down to gran'da'ghter. But good book all de same, let who will read it."
This, then, was "Scalping Peter," the very man I was travelling into Michigan to see, but how wonderfully changed! The Spirit of the Most High God had been shed freely upon his moral being, and in lieu of the revengeful and vindictive savage, he now lived a subdued, benevolent Christian! In every human being he beheld a brother, and no longer thought of destroying races, in order to secure to his own people the quiet possession of their hunting-grounds. His very soul was love; and no doubt he felt himself strong enough to "bless those who cursed him," and to give up his spirit, like the good missionary whose death had first turned him toward the worship of the one true God, praying for those who took his life.
The ways of Divine Providence are past the investigations of human reason. How often, in turning over the pages of history, do we find civilization, the arts, moral improvement, nay, Christianity itself, following the bloody train left by the conqueror's car, and good pouring in upon a nation by avenues that at first were teeming only with the approaches of seeming evils! In this way, there is now reason to hope that America is about to pay the debt she owes to Africa; and in this way will the invasion of the forests, and prairies and "openings," of the red man be made to atone for itself by carrying with it the blessings of the Gospel, and a juster view of the relations which man bears to his Creator. Possibly Mexico may derive lasting benefits from the hard lesson that she has so recently been made to endure.
This, then, was Peter, changed into a civilized man and a Christian! I have found, subsequently, that glimmerings of the former being existed in his character; but they showed themselves only at long intervals, and under very peculiar circumstances. The study of these traits became a subject of great interest with us, for we now travelled in company the rest of our journey. The elder lady, or "grandma," was the Margery of our tale; still handsome, spirited, and kind. The younger matron was her daughter and only child, and "sis," another Margery, and Dorothy, were her grandchildren. There was also a son, or a grandson rather, Ben, who was on Prairie Round, "with the general." The "general" was our old friend, le Bourdon, who was still as often called "General Bourdon," as "General Boden." This matter of "generals" at the West is a little overdone, as all ranks and titles are somewhat apt to be in new countries. It causes one often to smile, at the East; and no wonder that an Eastern habit should go down in all its glory, beneath the "setting sun." In after-days, generals will not be quite as "plenty as blackberries."
No sooner did Mrs. Boden, or Margery, to use her familiar name, learn that we were the very individual to whom the "general" had sent the notes relative to his early adventures, which had been prepared by the "Rev. Mr. Varse," of Kalamazoo, than she became as friendly and communicative as we could possibly desire.
Her own life had been prosperous, and her marriage happy. Her brother, however, had fallen back into his old habits, and died ere the war of 1812 was ended. Dorothy had returned to her friends in Massachusetts, and was still living, in a comfortable condition, owing to a legacy from an uncle. The bee-hunter had taken the field in that war, and had seen some sharp fighting on the banks of the Niagara. No sooner was peace made, however, than he returned to his beloved Openings, where he had remained, "growing with the country," as it is termed, until he was now what is deemed a rich man in Michigan. He has a plenty of land, and that which is good; a respectable dwelling, and is out of debt. He meets his obligations to an Eastern man just as promptly as he meets those contracted at home, and regards the United States, and not Michigan, as his country. All these were good traits, and we were glad to learn that they existed in one who already possessed so much of our esteem. At Detroit we found a fine flourishing town, of a healthful and natural growth, and with a population that was fast approaching twenty thousand. The shores of the beautiful strait on which it stands, and which, by a strange blending of significations and languages, is popularly called the "Detroit River," were alive with men and their appliances, and we scarce know where to turn to find a more agreeable landscape than that which was presented to us, after passing the island of "Bobolo" (Bois Blanc), near Maiden. Altogether, it resembled a miniature picture of Constantinople, without its Eastern peculiarities.
At Detroit commenced our surprise at the rapid progress of Western civilization. It will be remembered that at the period of our tale, the environs of Detroit excepted, the whole peninsula of Michigan lay in a state of nature. Nor did the process of settlement commence actively until about twenty years since; but, owing to the character of the country, it already possesses many of the better features of a long-inhabited region. There are stumps, of course, for new fields are constantly coming into cultivation; but on the whole, the appearance is that of a middle-aged, rather than that of a new region.
We left Detroit on a railroad, rattling away toward the setting sun, at a good speed even for that mode of conveyance. It seemed to us that our route was well garnished with large villages, of which we must have passed through a dozen, in the course of a few hours' "railing," These are places varying in size from one to three thousand inhabitants. The vegetation certainly surpassed that of even West New York, the trees alone excepted. The whole country was a wheat-field, and we now began to understand how America could feed the world. Our road lay among the "Openings" much of the way, and we found them undergoing the changes which are incident to the passage of civilized men. As the periodical fires had now ceased for many years, underbrush was growing in lieu of the natural grass, and in so much those groves are less attractive than formerly; but one easily comprehends the reason, and can picture to himself the aspect that these pleasant woods must have worn in times of old.
We left the railroad at Kalamazoo--an unusually pretty village, on the banks of the stream of that name. Those who laid out this place, some fifteen years since, had the taste to preserve most of its trees; and the houses and grounds that stand a little apart from the busiest streets--and they are numerous for a place of rather more than two thousand souls--are particularly pleasant to the eye, on account of the shade, and the rural pictures they present. Here Mrs. Boden told us we were within a mile or two of the very spot where once had stood Castle Meal (Chateau au Miel), though the "general" had finally established himself at Schoolcraft, on Prairie Ronde.
The first prairie we had ever seen was on the road between Detroit and Kalamazoo; distant from the latter place only some eight or nine miles. The axe had laid the country open in its neighborhood; but the spot was easily to be recognized by the air of cultivation and age that pervaded it. There was not a stump on it, and the fields were as smooth as any on the plains of Lombardy, and far more fertile, rich as the last are known to be. In a word, the beautiful perfection of that little natural meadow became apparent at once, though seated amid a landscape that was by no means wanting in interest of its own.
We passed the night at the village of Kalamazoo; but the party of females, with old Peter, proceeded on to Prairie Round, as that particular part of the country is called in the dialect of Michigan, it being a corruption of the old French name of la prairie ronde. The Round Meadow does not sound as well as Prairie Round, and the last being quite as clear a term as the other, though a mixture of the two languages, we prefer to use it. Indeed, the word "prairie" may now be said to be adopted into the English; meaning merely a natural instead of an artificial meadow, though one of peculiar and local characteristics. We wrote a note to General Boden, as I found our old acquaintance Ben Boden was universally termed, letting him know I should visit Schoolcraft next day; not wishing to intrude at the moment when that charming family was just reunited after so long a separation.
The next day, accordingly, we got into a "buggy" and went our way. The road was slightly sandy a good part of the twelve miles we had to travel, though it became less so as we drew near to the celebrated prairie. And celebrated, and that by an abler pen than ours, does this remarkable place deserve to be! We found all our expectations concerning it fully realized, and drove through the scene of abundance it presented with an admiration that was not entirely free from awe.
To get an idea of Prairie Round, the reader must imagine an oval plain of some five-and-twenty or thirty thousand acres in extent, of the most surpassing fertility, without an eminence of any sort-- almost without an inequality. There are a few small cavities, howevers in which there are springs that form large pools of water that the cattle will drink. This plain, so far as we saw it, is now entirely fenced and cultivated. The fields are large, many containing eighty acres, and some one hundred and sixty; most of them being in wheat. We saw several of this size in that grain. Farm-houses dotted the surface, with barns, and the other accessories of rural life. In the centre of the prairie is an "island" of forest, containing some five or six hundred acres of the noblest native trees we remember ever to have seen. In the centre of this wood is a little lake, circular in shape, and exceeding a quarter of a mile in diameter. The walk in this wood-which is not an Opening, but an old-fashioned virgin forest--we found delightful of a warm summer's day. One thing that we saw in it was characteristic of the country. Some of the nearest farmers had drawn their manure into it, where it lay in large piles, in order to get it out of the way of doing any mischief. Its effect on the land, it was thought, would be to bring too much straw!
On one side of this island of wood lies the little village or large hamlet of Schoolcraft. Here we were most cordially welcomed by General Boden, and all of his fine descendants. The head of this family is approaching seventy, but is still hale and hearty. His head is as white as snow, and his face as red as a cherry. A finer old man one seldom sees. Temperance, activity, the open air, and a good conscience, have left him a noble ruin; if ruin he can yet be called. He owes the last blessing, as he told us himself, to the fact that he kept clear of the whirlwind of speculation that passed over this region some ten or fifteen years since. His means are ample; and the harvest being about to commence, he invited me to the field.
The peculiar ingenuity of the American has supplied the want of laborers, in a country where agriculture is carried on by wholesale, especially in the cereals, by an instrument of the most singular and elaborate construction. This machine is drawn by sixteen or eighteen horses, attached to it laterally, so as to work clear of the standing grain, and who move the whole fabric on a moderate but steady walk. A path is first cut with the cradle on one side of the field, when the machine is dragged into the open place. Here it enters the standing grain, cutting off its heads with the utmost accuracy as it moves. Forks beneath prepare the way, and a rapid vibratory motion of a great number of two-edged knives effect the object. The stalks of the grain can be cut as low or as high as one pleases, but it is usually thought best to take only the heads. Afterward the standing straw is burned, or fed off, upright.
The impelling power which causes the great fabric to advance also sets in motion the machinery within it As soon as the heads of the grain are severed from the stalks, they pass into a receptacle, where, by a very quick and simple process, the kernels are separated from the husks. Thence all goes into a fanning machine, where the chaff is blown away. The clean grain falls into a small bin, whence it is raised by a screw elevator to a height that enables it to pass out at an opening to which a bag is attached. Wagons follow the slow march of the machine, and the proper number of men are in attendance. Bag after bag is renewed, until a wagon is loaded, when it at once proceeds to the mill, where the grain is soon converted into flour. Generally the husbandman sells to the miller, but occasionally he pays for making the flour, and sends the latter off, by railroad, to Detroit, whence it finds its way to Europe, possibly, to help feed the millions of the old world. Such, at least, was the course of trade the past season. As respects this ingenious machine, it remains only to say that it harvests, cleans, and bags from twenty to thirty acres of heavy wheat, in the course of a single summer's day! Altogether it is a gigantic invention, well adapted to meet the necessities of a gigantic country.
Old Peter went afield with us that day. There he stood, like a striking monument of a past that was still so recent and wonderful. On that very prairie, which was now teeming with the appliances of civilization, he had hunted and held his savage councils. On that prairie had he meditated, or consented to the deaths of the young couple, whose descendants were now dwelling there, amid abundance, and happy. Nothing but the prayers of the dying missionary, in behalf of his destroyers, had prevented the dire consummation.
We were still in the field, when General Boden's attention was drawn toward the person of another guest. This, too, was an Indian, old like himself, but not clad like Peter, in the vestments of the whites. The attire of this sinewy old man was a mixture of that of the two races. He wore a hunting-shirt, moccasins, and a belt; but he also wore trousers, and otherwise had brought himself within the habits of conventional decency. It was Pigeonswing, the Chippewa, come to pay his annual visit to his friend, the bee-hunter, The meeting was cordial, and we afterward ascertained that when the old man departed, he went away loaded with gifts that would render him comfortable for a twelvemonth.
But Peter, after all, was the great centre of interest with us. We could admire the General's bee-hives, which were numerous and ingenious; could admire his still handsome Margery, and all their blooming descendants; and were glad when we discovered that our old friend--made so by means of a knowledge of his character, if not by actual acquaintance--was much improved in mind, was a sincere Christian, and had been a Senator of his own State; respected and esteemed by all who knew him. Such a career, however, has nothing peculiar in America; it is one of every-day occurrence, and shows the power of man when left free to make his own exertions; while that of the Scalping Peter indicated the power of God. There he was, living in the midst of the hated race, loving and beloved; wishing naught but blessings on all colors alike; looking back upon his traditions and superstitions with a sort of melancholy interest, as we all portray in our memories the scenes, legends, and feelings of an erring childhood.
We were walking in the garden, after dinner, and looking at the hives. There were the general, Margery, Peter, and ourselves. The first was loud in praise of his buzzing friends, for whom it was plain he still entertained a lively regard. The old Indian, at first, was sad. Then he smiled, and, turning to us, he spoke earnestly and with some of his ancient fire and eloquence.
"Tell me you make a book," he said. "In dat book tell trut'. You see me--poor old Injin. My fadder was chief--I was great chief, but we was children. Knowed nuttin'. Like little child, dough great chief. Believe tradition. T'ink dis 'arth flat--t'ink Injin could scalp all pale-face--t'ink tomahawk, and war-path, and rifle, bess t'ings in whole world. In dat day, my heart was stone. Afraid of Great Spirit, but didn't love him. In dat time I t'ink General could talk wid bee. Yes; was very foolish den. Now, all dem cloud blow away, and I see my Fadder dat is in heaven. His face shine on me, day and night, and I never get tired of looking at it. I see him smile, I see him lookin' at poor ole Injin, as if he want him to come nearer; sometime I see him frown and dat scare me. Den I pray, and his frown go away.
"Stranger, love God. B'lieve his blessed Son, who pray for dem dat kill him. Injin don't do that. Injin not strong enough to do so good t'ing. It want de Holy Spirit to strengthen de heart, afore man can do so great t'ing. When he got de force of de Holy Spirit, de heart of stone is changed to de heart of woman, and we all be ready to bless our enemy and die. I have spoken. Let dem dat read your book understand."