Barland letters reveal life of local pioneers

Thomas Barland was the first farmer to settle in Eau Claire County, coming here from McLean County, Illinois. Barland's letters and writings provide a vivid description of what the area was like when he arrived in the early 1850's.

     Many pioneers coming to the area in the early years scouted the district first with an eye for settling. There letters home provided a first-hand view of Eau Claire in its infancy.
     The Rev. Thomas Barland, educated in the universities of St. Andrew and Edinburgh, Scotland, came from McLean County, Illinois, in 1851, looking for a likely farming area to relocate his growing family. Early letters to his family tell of the journey and later letters to his sister describe life in the Chippewa Valley.
     On his initial visit to Eau Claire in December 1851, he describes to his wife and family his search for good farmland:
     "Still, to one coming from Illinois the chance for a good farm seemed rather indifferent. Next day wallied forth myself, traversed a prairie dug in scores of places, found it mostly more sand with a very scant coat of grass."
     He continues:
     "On Sunday morning I took a walk, not to survey the country but to admire the beautiful works of God. My walk was about a mile down the Chippewa and a lovelier view for its extend I never saw. O, how pleasant after all my toils and troubles and exposures to disagreeable company to behold in this solitude the glorious works of God, the deep blue tranquil river reflecting on its bosom the loveliness, the purity, the glory of heaven. On the side I walked a semi-circular shore 25 or 30 feet above the level of the winding stream behind a meadow begirt also by a semi-circular range of bluffs about 100 feet high on a level with the top of which there expanded the prairie I spoke of."
     Another day's searching brought him to the spot he desires:
     "Monday morning resumed my walk. Went on till I reached a romantic rock at the end of the semicircle and overhanging the river. Got up to the top of the bluffs and then saw a beautiful prairie about 120 feet above the level of the river, about two miles wide and for our five miles long fringed here and there with beautiful bluffs and hiss. I examined the soil and found it what I considered good, being black as cold be desired mixed with a considerable portion of sand, this quality of soil reaching from 6 to 18 inches deep. It is much superior to the land on the hillside where we raised our best potatoes and I suppose like that of the sod about a rod wide below the potatoes were raised. Landlord seems to think it poor, inferior to the other."
     He could invision his family's new holdings:
     "The view on the edge of this prairie down to the river and across it and down along the prairie and the river is truly beautiful. Between the corner where the house would be and the mills and ferry which ought to come to the village, and must if the owners do themselves justice, lies the beautiful walk I mentioned and which ought to become a handsome street. This is not imagination, it is the conclusion arrived at by sound reasoning. Already the millers who are landlords of the tavern and owners of the ferry accommodate from 10 to 15 travellers of all grades every week, although Minnesota is only in its infancy."
     The valley was young:
     "Then there are not probably 10 farms in the county. All that is needed is a few farms to make provisions reasonable and a village and finally a city must emerge from the wilderness to become comfortable abode of mechanics and commercial men."
     "I rather think I will locate a 40-acre land warrant I got at Galena on the timber there, pre-empt 160 acres of the adjoining prairie, fence 40 acres as well as is needful to keep our oxen which is all the stock that need be dreaded here and even of them there will be none to range in that direction next summer. Also, I will build a double log hose with good upper rooms and a stable. All this we should see if the Lord will. Also, I would like if I could get an 80-acre warrent to lay off along side of the 160 acres and a 40 warrant to lay off that other good tract I spoke of as cornering on the stage road...I will probably go in a few days to Willow River 75 miles distant to the land agent to pre-empt and locate my warrant."
     In November 1852, Thomas Barland made a second trip through this area to Minnesota: He addressed the letter to his wife at McLean County, Illinois from the "Mississippi River, 150 miles below Galena":
     "So here we are, slowly wending our way about the rate of 3 miles per hour with something like 670 miles river navigation still before us...The steamboats about the St. Louis are moving palaces. And nothing could be more respectable in the best society in the world than the arrangements on these boats. No drinking, no smoking, no swearing...There are a great many places stopped at. In short, in the present stage of water it takes about 5 days to go from Galena to St. Paul. Our weather has been very bad. It has rained nearly all the time since we left home 'til the last two days when we have had a heavy snowstorm and then a severe freeze. Of course in these steamboats we suffer nothing from the weather except diminution of speed when the wind is against us as it has been all the time."
     He talks of plans to emigrate:
     "Still we need wisdom and guidance. A very great number of the emigrants who came up last fall were very unfortunate. They settled on fine but rather low lands which, last summer, being very wet, proved in such a season to be swampy. In consequence numbers were cut off by cholera and others, discouraged, returned. I learn that St. Paul has been building up very rapidly, sometimes at the rate of 12 houses per week, taverns and boarding very high.
     "Butter ready sale at 50 cents per pound, good horses very high, Indian ponies low. Thomas McDermot will be glad to learn that common laboring wages are from $20 to $30 per month."
     He concludes this letter with directives about matters at home in Illinois:
     "Cellar should be finished as begun. Stacks fenced in. Perhaps it would be best to serve anxiety and labor to slaughter the oxen now and to sell the corn if not gathered. The boys should give fresh straw every other day to the pigs and boar, better haul a shock of corn now and then for litter to them. They should be regularly watered. Boar must not get out of his pen or get poor. Potatoes will undoubtedly be 1 a bushel in spring for seed, but railroad must still be regularly supplied at 50 cents. And now to dismiss wordly matters. How fares it with you and me with regard to our souls. Alas, scarcely one in our present company speaks without an oath and tomorrow will be necessarily a Sabbath on the river in such company.
     Two months later, January 1853, he writes from Stillwater, Minn:
     "Here I am slowly recommencing my journey back. How homesick I feel and yet one thing after another has occurred to hinder me from getting back. It is impossible to give the hundredth part of my history by letter."
     He tells of aiding an Indian missionary who had escaped from savages and was making his way to Washington, D. C., to plead for funds to help educate Indians and provide churches for them.
     He, the missionary in company, is heading home toward Illinois:
     "So having swapped my beautiful mare for a large horse valued to me at $100 and getting to boot $10 cash and a buffalo robe at $4 or $5, and swapping that sleigh for a smaller one but strong enough to do my hauling at Chippewa, and having got a box for it we have started yesterday at 3 o'clock and to save the horse he and I walked except downhill 18 miles."
     He continues with his plans:
     "I do not see what is to hinder me getting home by the end of February. And if we sell and be up by the end of April we will be in time for a crop. I am often in very low spirits, partly from body causes, partly from so little progress being made in my affairs, partly the great expense, partly undertaking such circumstances the cause of the poor missionary while almost everyone else stood aloof... The winters here I must say are beautiful. The landscape is often enchanting. The lakes are numerous and much more beautiful than I had any idea of. But the fertile land is found only in patches. But as I formerly mentioned that is all the better for those who get hold of these patches. At first when I saw Willow River and Stillwater, two very handsome villages, and then St. Paul and St. Anthony's which are places of great promise, I almost regretted my choice at Chippeway. But after full deliberation I see I have acted with great wisdom in the matter."
     The Rev. Mr. Barland brought his family here in 1854 to settle. They broke ground, built a home and resumed family life.
     In March 1860 Barland discusses Eau Claire's growth:
     "Notwithstanding the hard times the town improves. A new steammill has been put up and another is talked of. There are now six steammills and two water mills. Rents are high."

- Compiled by Joy Hoffman
from Barland family letters provided by Lois Barland,
author of "Sawdust City" and "Rivers Flow On."

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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