Family Letters 1854-1863

Prepared for the American History and Genealogy Project.
This is not a USGenWeb Project or Property
Copyright (C) 2001-2003 by Sandra Sanchez
All Rights Reserved

These letters, were written by Mrs. Benjamin Ford to her family in New York during the years 1854-1863. These letters give us a first hand picture of life on the prairies in that time period.

October 10, 1854

Dear Parents and All,
After a long and weary journey we arrived at Mt. Vernon Sunday October 7. Benjamin didn't expect us so soon and was out in the thicket gathering wild plums. They rang the dinner bell and, knowing what had happened, he was no long reaching the house.
Our Journey to Chicago was tiresome and uneventful. The girls got very tired and wanted. "to go back East". When we reached Chicago a cholera epidemic was raging. Father Ford took us to a tavern and wouldn't allow us to leave our room while he bought a wagon and two fine black horses. As you know we loaded our household goods and came by Erie Canal by way of the Great Lakes to Chicago. Father went to the kitchen and personally supervised the scalding of our dishes and preparation of our food which was principally crackers and boiled milk. It was three rather wearisome days before he had completed his purchases and had our goods loaded. You can well imagine how happy we were to end such an unhappy experience, Ann Alida and Mary chattering all the way "Now we'll see Papa". Some of the roads were terribly rough and some days we drove until dark to reach a tavern, and often drove for hours without seeing a house. Mt. Vernon is a pretty village built on rising ground with lots of hazel brush and plum thickets at the edge of town.
The Prairies are still beautiful. It seems strange to see them stretch for miles and miles. You cannot imagine such a sight. They still look beautiful in the October sunlight and , in the spring, they tell me they are covered with masses of wild flowers. (I have one pressed that father sent his mother 92 years ago) It being Sunday when we arrived, our wagon was left in the barn yard and the horses got in and ate the cane bottoms out of our chairs. I felt badly about it, but it couldn't be helped. Monday we moved to Mr. Bowman's tavern; it is built of brick and is very warm and convenient.

We received your letter Friday, also one from Mother Ford. Our health is exceedingly good at present and the girls are as merry as crickets. I never saw children break off fro fruit so easily. We were visiting Mrs. Ash Thursday and she was peeling some apples for pie and the Ash Children and mine stood around eating the peelings. Mr. Ash has a new orchard just beginning to bear. Apples are very scarce and, if you find them they are worth $1.50 per bushel.
Game is very plentiful here of all kinds, quail, prairie chickens, and squirrel. The day Father Ford started home, Mr. Bowman shot fifteen pigeons, three small quail, and a prairie chicken. There are some wild turkeys and over by the river there are plenty of deer, but not many here. Sarah wrote that she wished to know what we had for our first meal when we commenced to keep house. We had biscuits, butter, smoked beef, plum sauce and tea, and made out very well. You asked how our goods carried. They came through fine. There wasn't a scratch on the highboy, but the stove was broken and we had to use Mrs. Willet's stove until ours was mended.


I like this place very well-if only some of you were here. We have four boarders; they are making brick and burning lime and they earn $1.25 per day. The soil here is very rich. It is no more to be compared to New York land than the sand plains to the Mohawk flats. The cheapest land in Mt. Vernon can be bought for $18.00 per acre and lots are selling for $75.00 each. There is a farm for sell here withing a quarter of a mile from Lisbon that can be bought for $20.00 per acre. Benjamin and I went to look at it. It has a good dwelling, frame barn,-a good one for this country. It is well fenced with rails-some of them nine feet high. It has 100 acres under cultivation and 46 acres of timber, principally oaks, and is situated along the Davenport river. There is government land in Linn, Benton and Tama counties.
Henry A. Collin arrived here Monday. Dr. Carhart arrived here over two weeks ago, but his goods haven't come. Your box hasn't come yet and I am feeling uneasy about it. Benjamin has written to Rock Island, but has not had an answer. He wants to thresh his grain before he goes to the river. When Dennison came, Mother Ford sent a vest pattern of black brocade satin for Benjamin, a beautiful collar and a gingham apron for me. James Ford sent Ann Alida and Mary each a McGuffey primer. They are very much pleased with them; Ann Alida already reads and Mary knows her A B C's. Also Mother and Father Ford sent the girls each a little rocking chair and they have already received Fanny's and Rebecca's dressed dolls. I wish you could see how happy they are with them as they rock in their little chairs. Henry A. Collin arrived her Monday He is Father Ford's cousin. He has been all through Illinois and northeastern Iowa. He and two other men were out on the prairie four days, slept in their wagon and shot game. He said that he bought tea and crackers and other food in Dubuque and when he left he hired a wagon and left for the wilderness, and at times were forty miles from any habitation. He likes it here as well as any place he has seen, and thinks of buying here so as to have benefit of the schools. Father, if you will sell and come here, you can buy a scholarship for $60.00 and send one of the children at a time as long as the institution lasts-and each one of the family can receive a good education.

I don't believe I have written you how different the holidays are here than at home. Christmas is more like the fourth of July; they fire off guns and anvils and at night send up fire balls. People don't spend Christmas here as they do in New York instead of "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" their greeting is " Christmas gift", and "New Years gift"; and you don't see any hot toddy or liquor of any kind, which I think is a fine change. We attended an oyster supper at Mr. Camp's; there was also one at McKane's. We had a temperance lecture at the church by Mr. St. John of Delhi. Before the lecture started the house was crowded and they could not all be seated. He had them either laughing or in tears. The next night he lectured at Church Town(Lisbon) Mr. Collin went hunting yesterday and brought in a nice mess of quail; just dressed the breasts of the fowl and threw the rest away. He brought a shot gun with him, leaving his rifle and a large trunk in Chicago-only bringing a satchel with him.

We all have been down with chills and fever. I was so terribly sick that I thought I never would live thought it. My things were destroyed more by hired help than all the time that I've kept house. Our girl went home Monday, saying that she would be back the next day and Benjamin had to coax her to return with him. The next morning she burned her hand while pouring coffee and went straight home without giving the children and me our breakfast. The children were crying and I was just beginning to ear, and we had six boarders. As soon as possible Benjamin took care of us and started out for another girl, and Maria Birdsall kindly came and it took her the entire morning to carry out mouldy food from the cellar and wash the dishes that had been accumulating. Then Benjamin got another girl seven miles beyond Tipton, but in a few days she got homesick and left for home. Just as soon as I feel better and up awhile, I come down with the chills again. It is a cold blustery day. I have been shut in so long that I long to get out again. I am still very weak and instead of going to church with Benjamin, I thought I would write you again. It is a fine growing morning and our garden is looking fine. We have had several meals of radishes and salad. The prairies are green and beautiful and the wheat is beginning to head. ....It is all enclosed, the windows are in and the doors hung. We think that we shall be able to move by the last of the month as the carpenter work is done except the clothes presses and the stoop.
Sarah Birdsall got here Tuesday. She left Schenectady on Tuesday and was only eight days on the road. She said that she was treated very kindly at every stopping place. She visited us a week, then left for Burlington. I think that you would like it here. The people seem to dress better than when we first came. Alfred Rigby said it was owing to the influence of the New York people, and Mrs. Vanderbelt said it was a good thing so they could see how they ought to live.
Today we had chicken and dumb lings for dinner,-the nicest fat hens. Benjamin paid a quarter apiece for them. If Benjamin had more time, he would have taken some of them to the fair. I've had some pretty hard days since I last wrote to you. When the immigrants got here, I had nearly twenty to care for. Benjamin bought 770 pds. of pork for $2.75 per hundred. I made 13 gallons of lard and we had bacon and hams and a lot of such nice sausage. I had no casings and was not able to stuff any,- fried it down in jars and pans also head cheese, heckies, and souse. Mother Ford sent us a box; it contained a dozen window shades, a lot of yarn, and a beautiful collar, two pairs of knitted socks for Benjamin, a nice pair of pillows, a sack of coffee, a box of all kinds of spices and one of saleratus, some little cake pans and a large one and a little iron kettle-the old fashioned kind- and some calico- a piece of wall paper with which I papered my box. How we enjoyed opening all the packages.
Prices in land are advancing. Mt Vernons lots are selling for $75.00. Benjamin is talking of buying an unimproved prairie farm. He has already bought fifteen acres of timber adjoining Vanderbelts. There has been more buying and selling in Mt. Vernon than any time since we came. Property is changing hands very fast. Mr. Bowman has sold the tavern and one of his lots. Rigby is selling out and Isaac Green has sold. Mr. Ash has rented his farm for $500.00 a year and intends building a new home. I will send you this letter by Mr. Bowman as he intends to start for home tomorrow- it will reach you sooner than by mail. He likes it here and is returning to try and interest Bishop Hamlin to raise funds to build a college and try and get him to come here.
The girls have had the mumps but are well again. Ann Alida grows tall and slender and her hair is getting black, while Mary is short and fat.
Nearly all the New Yorkers have sterling spoons and, like ourselves, use them only for company,-and for everyday use we use our copper ones that we always have to scour with brick dust or they taste brassy. What is left of my nice pans I scour with ashes, but they are not as bright as they were. Have just finished ironing and am quite tired. Had eight shirts besides the girls and my clothing.
I have made a dress and a pair of pants for Benjamin. When you write please don't leave so much blank and tell us all the neighborhood news.
You asked me about Chris's and Henrietta's goods. She had a feather bed, one straw tick of factory muslin, two pairs of pillows cases and a pair of factory sheets and a pair of homespun flannel blankets, three quilts, and three light comforts, one brown spun table cloth and two towels, but no sign of a bed valance, a stove, china tea set, and a set of knives, forks and spoons,-two cotton gowns and two caps.
In my last letter I wrote for a new winter bonnet,-you needn't send it as I took my old one to Birdsall's and had it made over. But I wish you would send me a Sunday dress, something that is fashionable but not to expensive. You will never know how much we enjoyed the dried apples that you sent us. There is not fruit of any kind to be had except wild plums, crab apples and black berries. How we miss the many varieties we had at home. While I know this is a fine country, I still get homesick at times, especially during an attack of the ague,- and can hardly endure it, thinking of how far away from you and that I may never see you again. I never want to be buried here. A young man at the seminary died at Camps' early in the morning and was buried in the afternoon.
Whenever I get a letter, before I open it, I sit and think, "That has been in some of their hands." The girls are always as pleased as we are when one comes and always want to hear it read. I wish that you would send us your daguerreotypes; you don't know what a satisfaction it would be to have them. We have Father and Mother Ford's and it seems as though they could speak to us.
I have a new rag carpet down. Benjamin put plenty of straw under it and our parlor is very comfortable. Benjamin has his corn all gathered and the barn built. The New Yorkers are all well and Dr. Carhart has all that he can do. I have gathered twenty quarts of hazel nuts and Benjamin has two large sacks of walnuts. Thanksgiving we had all the New Yorkers here and I roasted a turkey and two chickens. We spent a very pleasant day and I wish you had been with us. You asked if we have dried fruit. There was no plums this year, but plenty of blackberries and I dried all that I could for pies and preserved some. I was at a neighbors and she had just bought a few apples from a man passing through. She gave us a couple. Ann Alida cut one in tow and gave Mary half. Mary only ate part of hers and cut the remainder in little pieces and put them in the buttery - she said for her birthday party which is two days away. She ask her father what he was going to give her on her birthday and he told her a roast chicken, but they always want a birthday cake.

We have sold our house and corner lot for $1200.00 and have move out on the prairie in a one room house. We are pretty crowded. Chris is building our new house. The cellar wall is laid and the frame is up. We don't build as high on the prairie as in town. There will be one large room, bedroom, buttery, clothes press and hall on the first floor and two rooms upstairs. It's only a story and a half. The reason we moved before the house was finished, it was to far for Benjamin to go night and morning. Chris's live in a nearby shack. When her baby was born, I took care of her, saving them both bills for Doctor and hired girl. Ann Alida cares for the baby like an old grandmother. As our timber is near, Benjamin is busy getting out rails and posts for fencing. We planted allot of walnut and locust seeds. We have two fat hogs to butcher and so far we have plenty to eat. I spend all my spare time knitting socks, mittens, and stockings for the children. Since moving here I imagine that we shall see very little of Peter Cartright, as he always stopped for a visit.
At times I felt rather badly about moving again, but I believe it is for the best. Benjamin thinks that he can make more by improving his prairie farm than by staying in town. Mother Ford sent Ann Alida and I each a delaine dress. They are striped and very rich colors. When I make them, I'll send you a sample. Also Miss Pratt sent me an autographed copy of one of her books. The girls are very pleased over the candy that Fanny sent them. It is so far to town, I fear that we'll not be able to get in to church until spring.
We have killed our hogs and have such a nice lot of meat. Benjamin is making a smoke house so we can cure and smoke hams and shoulders for our summer meat. Have seen no dried beef since we used the last that we brought from the east. Benjamin says that we'll have some next year. Before we came out here Benjamin offered Mr. Ash $45.00 per acre for his lots. There are also ten acres of white oak timber; it lays just two miles from here and can be bought for $200.00 - and timber is very scarce here. Before we moved here the Collin's were all settled in their new house. She is a tiny woman and a fine housekeeper and cook. Chris and Henrietta visited them Sunday.
We had a terrible blizzard last week. The snow came spattering on the stove and the wind blew, and the roof creaked like it would go every minute. I was nearly frightened to death. We are nearly a mile from the nearest neighbor and would have been lost if we had tried to reach them. We decided that if the roof blew off that we would get under the bed and wait for morning but providence spared us- but we had no sleep. The barn where Benjamin keeps his horses was half a mile away and he fought his way through five feet drifts to feed them. But as much as we suffered, we fared better than many who were caught away from home and soon found the roads and trails blotted out - and several lost their life's. As soon as the roads were open Benjamin moved us to Mt. Vernon but it will be some time before he can bring the cattle and feed.
It's spring again and the cruel winter is at an end. We moved out on the prairie into our new house two weeks ago. It is still unplastered, but we will have it done as soon as the crops are in. I planted cabbage and tomato seed in boxes in April and the plants are large enough to set out.I have been working very hard getting settled and a big wash and ironing, and making garden.

The wheat begins to look green and beautiful. Our garden is up and looks like we would have an abundance of early things. Benjamin has planted both kinds of melons. Tell the girls they must let me know how they make dresses for little girls. I have had my summer bonnet made over and it looks very nice. It is fine white straw trimmed in white and it cost $5.00.
You ask me if I am making cheese. I don't think that I'll undertake it until next summer. We milk eight cows and butter is 25 cents per pound. Ham and lard are 20 cents and very scarce. Chris has only what we give him, but we have hired help and use much more than usual.
We had an unusual experience last Sunday. We went to church in the morning and were invited home with friends living about four miles from here, but we were unable to accept on account of Benjamin's leaving a colt in the barn. It was terriby hot and after dinner Benjamin lay down on the floor by the front door and went to sleep. Ann Alida and the hired girl started for the prairie to hunt for wild strawberries. The girls became frightened at the appearance of the sky and ran for home just as the pans and pails began to fly around the yard. Benjamin and I ran out in time to see a black funnel cloud in the distance. We escaped the fury of the storm but the home where we were invited was badly damaged and some of their stock was killed and some of their friends were killed. A baby was found a mile from home in a field sound asleep in its cradle. A stove was blown a long way from home with partly baked corn bread in the oven.

Spring has come again. We have a fine garden-have had salad and radishes and the early peas are in bloom; wish you could see our little grove around the house. The little seedlings have grown very fine and Benjamin has transplanted them on the north, west and east side of the house. I have been working on the garden and am going to have fritters for dinner. We have nearly 100 chickens and they are laying now.
We are all well and it's fine to be out in the soring sunshine. We do not see the New York people so often but visit the Collins as often as we can. Chris made Dr. Carhart a jumper; he paid $12.00 for it. Father and Moter are still talking of coming here. Father will come perhaps this year; he wants to start up the merchantile business. Ashs are living in their new home. Last fall Benjamin sold his wheat in Davenport; he got $1.35 per bushel for it. His oats and corn he sold in Mt. Vernon for 25 cents per bushel.
Bishop Hamlin raised $75,000.00 back east and he and the elder are hauling lumber from Dubuque with oxen and when the corner stone is laid he says that all our names will be placed in it.

I made a couple gallons of mince meat last week. I used dried apples and it's very good; how I wished for a gallon of your boiled cider.
I wish you wouldn't worry about the Indians. We occasionally see them when they come to the house begging, and, while they are always dirty, they seem harmless, and since that terrible time at Spirit Lake the government has them pretty well subdued. One sees quite a number of log cabins, but everyone is now building frame and brick houses.
I have just made a nice kettle of soft soap. We still have plenty to use until this ages. I have about the same laundry equipment as we had at home; a barrel and pounder, tubs and a boiler. The washings are always large and I wash for the hired man. In the winter I turned my homespun linen sheets as they were beginning to wear thin and I don't like factory ones. One of my neighbors taught me how to knit those shaggy mittens. I made Benjamin a pair for Sunday ou of the white yarn, with pink roses and green leaves on the back.
We have looked forward to the coming of the railroad. It has been such a long time getting to Mt. Vernon and when the day finaly came crowds of people were here for the event. Ann Alida was attencing a tea given by her Sunday School teacher, and from a upper floor window at the seminary they watched the first train pull in. Now I know that you and Father wil be sure to come and visit us. Benjamin thinks that you can come so easily now and you have plenty of help to leave home.
Since I last wrote you we have sold our prairie farm and bought and moved to Linn County. We have a very nice well built frame house, with a cellar under the entire house. It is situated eight miles north of Mt. Vernon. There is a large kitchen witha a bedroom and buttery off it, two front rooms with a hall between and two rooms upstairs. It is painted white inside and out; two rooms are papered, though I shall do more papering soon. There is a fine new barn with a side hill basement under the whole building. A little brook runs near it; there are thickets of wild fruit near the house. There is plenty of timber and we are well sheltered. Benjamin says it is a fine stock farm. We wanted to make maple sugar but were too busy. Benjamin has sown his wheast and oats and is plowing corn.
We too, hear alot of war talk , but hope it never comes. It doesn't seem possible that there cannot be a peaceful settlement other than barother fighting against brother.

Now that it has started the excitement is growing less. The men are gone and the women and children are left to cope with the situation alone. Maybe it doesn't sound patriotic, but I was glad that Benjamin wasn't accepted. Food is scarce as the soldiers must be clothed and fed. The woman work in the fields doing the men's work, Ann Alida and I with them. We hardly see real coffee, but make it of parched barley. No sweetening but honey and molasses; there is very little flour and we live principally on corn bread and mush. God grant that it will soon be over.
It is a beautiful day and so many birs are singing I can hardly stay in the house. Have been busy making garden and trying to clean one room a day. We have more cows now and I shall soon start making cheese. It is a good price and we can get 20 cents per pound for it.
There is a school only a mile away.

We miss our church but have Sunday School every two weeks; we have preaching services.
This is a friendly neighborhood and the children like the school and they have a Lyceum every Wednesday night. Benjamin and the children always attend. They carry a lantern and candles with which to light the room. Two weeks ago they had a play "Ten nights in a Barroom" and Ann Alida took part in it. We had company three days last week. I had them put their wraps in the downstarirs bedroom and they admired my "Bird of Pardise" coverlet very much.
The children and I are very busy sewing carpet rags . I have attended several quilting parties and think I shall have one soon. Ann Alida has started a charm string and wishes for you to send her some buttons.
I emptied and refilled all the straw ticks and Benjamin tightened all the bed ropes; tje v;amces are all ironed ready to put on. It's quite a good start in house cleaning.
I think we have a very nice house. There are oak trees in the yard and Benjamin is setting out evergreens and Mother ord has sent shrubs and flower seeds.
While attending the out of door commencement last week, we witnessed quite a dramatic episode. We were seated listening to the orations- a friend of Ann Alida's was speaking. Suddenly we were startled by an uproar on the grounds. Quite a few of the boys were there, several of them still in uniform- and some Copperheads were wearing their buttons. This act was resented by the soldiers and a bitter fight in which both men and women took part. The clothing was torn from their backs, and, as the fight became general, the president dismissed both class and audience. I hope never to see anything like it again.

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