1857-8: George Carpenter to Eliza Jane Carpenter

Lt. George Carpenter, 3rd Rhode Island

These four letters were once part of a larger collection written by George Carpenter (b. 17 July 1831; d. 28 June 1862), the son of Capt. Wooster Carpenter (177-1858) and Lovina Brown (1799-1883) of Seekonk, Massachusetts. The collection was sold by Cowan’s Auction House in November 2016 who provided some of the biographical material below:

After failing in the comb business, George Carpenter left Seekonk, Massachusetts, and ventured over 900 miles West to Chicago, hoping to recover some of his lost luck. Chicago became an incorporated city in 1830. It received its first railroad and telegram in 1848, which prompted exponential growth. Its fast development affected the land and forced the city to raise its sinking streets in two stages. Carpenter entered the city during its second stage in 1857. He was, in a way, an architectural enthusiast and often commented in his letters about the buildings in the city and the happenings on the streets.

Not long after his arrival in Chicago, Carpenter wrote, “I have a Box at the P.O. now and can stride into the lobby with that face of independent air proper to a citizen of this town, and instead of intruding offensively my not very high founding and dignified name can shout out a number which concerns nobody but myself.” He has many interesting observations of the city, which by 1854 had become the world’s largest grain port and a thriving metropolis. “The only danger arises from Cholera and summer complaints caused by the filthy condition of the place. Were it not for the lake and prairie breezes the place would be intolerable. My rooms are high enough up to get the benefit of all breezes that flow and I am well satisfied with them.” He also spoke of his business, “I’m doing very well in business for a common man — pay all expenses without trouble. I hold the purse and also the books.” And also comments on his finances: Paid 2 months rent 60 dollars yesterday and have paid out for stock some $250.”

“I feel very ashamed to go to church as my clothes are very shabby, wrote Carpenter.  My pants … have huge rips and my attempts at repair make them look more shocking. I must give the tailor a job very soon or go to seed rapidly. (Chicago, September 13). Not long after, some good fortune found Carpenter with a new business partner, “Capt.” Perry. They opened a store together selling dry goods and helium lamps. But the Panic of 1857 which struck at about the same time left them struggling. “Oh, what hard times one has to struggle against. Everyone clamorous for money and none to be had. Banks smashing up daily. I have sums in bills of Banks which have been discarded in 3 weeks hardly fit to light a cigar with. I have no security as I have no Capital that a single week may ground me to the wall. By taking my last cent I managed to meet my notes at the first of the month. No one gives Credit or time to pay bills in days like these.” Still, he wrote, “I do a good deal in spite of the financial pressure. I sold over a 100 dollars worth of goods last week alone. What Perry has done I do not know yet.”

Less than a few months after opening their store, a fire engulfed eleven establishments on their street. Carpenter salvaged what he could while the firemen extinguished the inferno. The letter written February 21, 1858 addresses this: “It is full 2 weeks now – and I am still in an anxious way. But I shall get out tomorrow or soon – and being at leisure with commerce and mind. To speak of the future. Though I have not been at all successful since I have been here and moreover do not like this place, still I have no desire to return East to live. I consider that there is a better chance to reason and a patient sprint will see the hope realized. If duties and circumstances permit I shall try to endear you to my Western life here.” The store survived but another fire back east destroyed his small inheritance. In a letter written at the end of April 1858, Carpenter wrote: “I was baptized and admitted to Church Fellowship, Sunday the 18th and it seems Father’s earthly remains were finally committed to the silent earth. The next day, in church I can almost feel that he might have looked when while I took the vows and consecrated myself to the service of that Savior to whose claims I have been so indifferent and neglected heretofore.” The letter details his views on Christianity, the Church, and the “Christian life” he has embraced. He owes much of his teachings to Rev. A. H. Clapp of the Broad St. Congressional. Throughout the letters, George Carpenter speaks of his love of music and his enthusiasm for the architecture of the cities and roads. He also speaks candidly of his finances and frequent difficulties in life and business. He seems to be quite the optimist, as he seems resolute to carry on in Chicago.

Undeterred by his misfortunes, Carpenter chose to view his failures as opportunities for personal growth. “It is very plain to me that if my life had been always successful, if my projects had made me wealthy, I should have become a worldly wise, selfish man—certainly never a Christian—It was all for our good that I left home for the far west though it is hard to think so—and the future so dark.” (Chicago, June 23, 1858) But compounding misfortunes did dampen Carpenter’s spirits a little. He was melancholy at times about his singlehood. He wished for a wife, but could not afford one. News of the marriages of some of his old flames only increased his desire to marry. He told his sister that many of the Chicago belles were, pretty enough to make a man’s heart jump into his hands but he remained unlucky in love and in business (September 3, 1857). The store failed. Desperate for work, he toiled as a farm hand in Princeton, Illinois, while he waited for his friends to find him a clerkship in Chicago. His journey from Princeton, Illinois, back to Chicago in the hot summer of 1858 took him right through Ottawa, Illinois, just two weeks prior to the Lincoln-Douglass debate in that frontier village.

George returned East prior to the Civil War and he enlisted on 2 March 1861 as a private in Co. D, 1st Rhode Island Infantry. He was wounded at the battle of Bull Run and returned home to recover. Once healed, he was commissioned as 2nd lieutenant in Co. D, 3rd Rhode Island Infantry. [Note: This regiment was changed from the 3rd Rhode Island Infantry to the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery on 19 December 1861.] After completing training, he left with his regiment aboard the Cahamba, where he became miserably sea sick (Fortress Monroe, October 15, 1861). Carpenter was part of the Du Pont expedition, which was the largest joint Army-Navy operation of the war to date and the largest flotilla ever assembled in the United States. En route to a secret attack on Port Royal, a rumor circulated on board his ship. Apparently, a sergeant deserted the Union and brought his signal book to the enemy. Consequently, officers had to adopt new signals, which delayed their arrival. The traitorous scoundrel, wrote Carpenter. If he had a hint of the destination of the fleet, may give information that may ruin the enterprise but the trail will be made (October 29, 1861). The rumor was not the only action on board. Carpenter and his crew endured a terrible storm with hurricane strength winds that dispersed the fleet. After all of their efforts, the secret mission was disrupted when Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin telegraphed Governor Pickens and General Drayton, notifying them that there was an enemy fleet heading for Port Royal. Carpenter’s ship arrived and the battle began. On November 7th he wrote:

A day of battle and a victory and our flag waves over the Confederate batteries of Port Royal harbor in South Carolina…. A grand sight it was believe me to see the armed vessels led by the Frigate Wabash…The Rebels fought strongly and hour after hour there was hundreds of explosions of the big guns and a rain of shot and shell upon the ironclad batteries…how much life has been lost on both sides (November 7). On the war torn beaches of Port Royal he wrote to his sister about the bloody aftermath: “For the last long 4 nights I have slept a troubled sleep (on all of the avenging land ticks and mosquitos) wrapped in my cloak on its blood stained sands…[we] are hard at work in putting things to the rights so that now with the exception of freshly moved earth and the dismantled and shattered guns most traced of the battle are removed. The slain with the exception of one- (a Surgeon who was mangled and buried under a bomb shelter—by the bursting of a shell and afterwards dug out by our fatigue parties)- were buried before I was landed which was the day after the battle. Little had been done besides that so that I have ocular proof of the terrible effects of a bombardment…. splatters of blood and pieces of flesh stick to the splinters and frames [of the barbette guns] was all that told of them. No wonder they fled such a pit of horror as the first must have been in the height of the fire leaving everything not even stopping to strike the serviceable guns throwing away their muskets blankets etc. and running for dear life.” (Fort Walker, Hilton Head, Port Royal Harbor, S.C.)

After securing the area, Carpenter and his men settled at Fort Wells in Hilton Head, S.C. He wrote to his sister: “We are drilling hard on siege Columbia…our southern cousins kindly left for out use Our regt. has charge of the fort the Generals Headquarters and also the immense department of the Quarter Master General’s stores of ordinance and provisions and the like. About 100 men with Sergts. And Corps. are detailed for guard daily and each 1st Lieut. have command of the guard in turn.” (Fort Wells, Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C., November 20, 1861)

Shortly after his letter, he was ordered to Fort Seward to be quartermaster and commissary. Proud of his new appointment, he wrote to his sister: “I have some 400 men to provide for including soldiers, citizens, contraband, mechanics, SC(?), and a small squad under my immediate direction.” (Ft. Seward, Bay Point, SC) He wrote to her frequently and in great detail of his life, duties, battles, and of General Thomas Sherman.

Carpenter nearly died in the spring of 1862 from a case of dysentery. Confused from fever and lack of fluids, he weakly scrawled a letter to his sister: “I have been to the valley of the shadows since I last wrote and it is with an uncertain hand that I scrawl a few lines today. I managed to sit up for the first time in two weeks and I looked in the glass…dysentery has reduced me to a skeleton nearly fate shadowing as a ghost, but I think I am rid of him.” (Ft. Seward, Bay Point, S.C., May 28, 1862) In a much stronger hand, he wrote to his sister again:  “I am gaining strength fast and can attend to my duties very well now. But I came very near paying the debt to nature—she gave me up.” (June 6, 1862) Nature had not given up Carpenter, it only allowed him to gain more strength before taking his life on 28 June 1862.

All of George’s letters were written to his sister, Eliza Jane Carpenter (1829-1879).

birth record
Massachusetts Vital Records showing the children of Capt. Wooster Carpenter and Lovina Brown


Chicago [Illinois]
Sunday Morning [@ May 1857]

Dear Jane,

Got here all safe yesterday, tired to death with the almost interminable ride in the cars. A thousand miles ride is no joke as experience has taught me. Shall know enough to take the Lake steamers when I go over it again. My head has not got over buzzing yet after a night’s rest.

Thursday noon, arrived at Suspension Bridge where I stopped till Friday morning, giving me a chance to “do” Niagara hastily. I forgot my fatigue when my ears first caught the roar of the waters and all the afternoon till 9 o’clock at night, I was racing over the cliffs to see the many different views spoken of and illustrated by the tourists. Some have intimated disappointed expectations when taking the first look. I felt none. Stepping out of the cars, I sat down in one corner of the depot and fished out of my basket provender which I beg you to believe was eat[en] with great nonchalance, despite the place and the monotonous thunder in my ears. With hasty stride, I struck for the river with increasing excitement, not knowing what my eyes should see first. I passed by the Cataract House and came upon the rapids above the American Falls just where the bridge crosses to Goat Island. I stood on the bridge perhaps half an hour, watching the waters running as they did, to come from the clouds and pass with resistless rush beneath my feet. A minute’s steady look will turn one’s head — such the swiftness and such the power. On the other side I could see down to where they made the final plunge.

I walked down to the edge and putting my foot on an old root, looked down the cliff, perhaps 200 feet to the bottom. ‘Tis a trial to the nerves indeed. The American Falls is much the highest and perhaps the most pleasing at first. From where I stood, at the edge of the American Falls, the Great Fall is partially from a half a mile off, hid in clouds of spray, the water of the darkest green, showing the immense depth & body of the fall.

I then went down to the foot of the stairs and ferried across to the Canada shore. An umbrella was indispensably necessary to keep from being soaked through with the clouds of mist that that rush down the gorge. A few glimpses showed a most magnificent sight. This side gives the most complete view of both fully and tis curious to observe the different colors of the water. The American Fall is dusky yellow and the Horseshoe deep green with purple and yellow edges — very bright too. I lingered along stopping as I caught new effects and recognized points where I had seen sketches made. At the place that Table Rock fell, I sat down and indulged in luxurious reveries. Had to endure the infernal impertinences to which every visitor must submit — a universal shout for “Bucksheesh!” salutes your ears on all sides. Car men & guides want to drive you around. Sleek darkies and degenerate descendants of Chin-gack-gook &c. thrust beadwork, wampum, trinkets under your reluctant nose. No less than three “mysterious men” beckoned with finger raised and whispered the commands of the “God Terminus” into my astounded ear. I had the impiety to refuse, to sacrifice, though I appeased the God by saying, “I would do it before I left.”

14-03-31 Godfrey Frankenstein
Godfrey N. Frankenstein painting at Niagara Falls

I recognized the place from which Mr. [Godfrey Nicholas] Frankenstein took his sketches. The moonlight view from the rocks at the foot of the American Falls. The old tree at the top where he sat and sketched the perspective view of the American Fall, the Horseshoe in the distance. That old birch you see bent over is on Goat Isle and looks very like standing in front of the birch and holding on to it, I could look sheer down a most tremendous depth. T’was very trying to the nerves.

Ship and Brig. Islands are exact. They are in the American rapids and look very picturesque indeed. I was on Goat Island in the eve sunset till 9 o’clock alone most of the time, other visitors having all departed. I don’t believe the world contains a more romantic and beautiful spot. I was perfectly enchanted and half wild with excitement. Was on that [terrapin] tower you see in the picture late at night, the wind blowing heavily, clouds drifting across the moon, and my ears stunned with the din of the Great Fall, almost beneath my feet. My feelings can better be imagined than described. That tower is getting unpleasantly near the edge and a few years will see the fall of it. The rock does not wear away so fast there, however, as it does at the centre of the fall. There it has got far beyond it. The weight of the water at that place must be enormous. It has been estimated as 20 feet deep on the edge where it curves over without a ripple to whiten the surface of the deepest green.  Below, the water is like cream — for a long ways below clouds of spray shooting up to the top and rolling away on the wind.

Painting of Terrapin Tower at brink of Horseshoe Falls in 1854

I should like to have stayed a week and enjoyed myself fully and sketched a little, but I must wait till I can have more time. All the next day I was riding through Her Majesty’s Dominion on the way to Detroit. I was agreeably disappointed with the beauty of some of the country. Some of the villas and farms were nice. One place (Chatham) has 4,000 inhabitants of which 3500 are fugitive slaves from the land of the “Free.” Those I saw around the depot were sleek and comfortable looking as one could wish, showing their teeth from ear to ear in broad grins. Their houses were but one story and small but neat & clean. I have seen worse places in Michigan since, by half. Beyond these was interminable woods and prairies with here and there a squatter’s cabin. They girdle the trees and when dead & dry set fire and burn the clearings. Mrs. [Susanna] Moodie‘s book I read once at home gives a very truthful picture of the Canadian backwood’s clearings. Once cleared up, I don’t doubt they take off great crops, but it must be tremendous labor before ’tis done. The country is a dead level for a hundred miles — monotonous enough, low & swampy, fever & ague districts, I know.

Watercolor of Chatham, Ontario, as it appeared in 1854 (1915)

Chicago is a great city — already over a 100,000 inhabitants — and one has to step sharp or be run over. Lake Street where I am stopping now has iron & granite fronts to the blocks equal to any I have seen in New York. Prov. is out of sight. The streets are being graded and are in awful condition at present. The whole city is being raised out of the mud. The sidewalks before the old buildings are 4 feet below the new so ’tis up & down stairs as you go along.

Raising a block of buildings on Lake Street in Chicago (1857)

One street I walked out on today is very beautiful — the lake on one side and the palaces of the merchant princes on the other more than a mile long. But down in the Dutch Quarter ’tis horrid — mud such as Eastern folks never see [and] small dirty shanties sit right in it swarming with beer drinkers. The memory haunts my nose this minute.

Plank sidewalks are almost universal all over the city and are dry & clean enough in any decent part. I can readily believe though that in the quarter I spoke of in muddy times a careless tread will squash torrents of mud into the face between the planks. On the whole, I think the place is better than I expected and if I can make money, shall be content to stay awhile. When I know more about it, will write again. Shall be busy so that I can’t write much for a week or two. Direct to G. C., Chicago, at present. Will write to others at home soon to whom I send greetings, &c.

Have not seen a mosquito yet & but one flea has presented his bill. tis rather cool though & rained all day yesterday. Was at church this morning. This afternoon write &c.

Your loving brother, — Geo. Carpenter

[to] Miss E. J. Carpenter, Seekonk, Massachusetts


Chicago, [Illinois]
January 10, 1858

Dear Jane,

Have your letters on hand — the last I took out of the office this Sunday morning — and must devote a part of this eve in getting up an answer. Dropped in the mail yesterday a letter for Solent and also letters to William and Old Put who had favored me with a scrawl. Have you heard nothing of Miss B[landing]. She may have gone by the Joliet cutoff, thereby saving some 8 or 10 hours in Chicago. Shall be gratified to see her but now hardly expect it.

Z. Grover, Dearborn Seminary

Have seen but two familiar faces since last May. One Mr. Z[uinglius] Grover — used to be principal in High School at Providence — now moved here and has charge of Dearborn Seminary, ¹ and this morning at church I had the pleasure of seeing his [   ]face and spectacles shining benignantly in my vicinity. I feel a glow steal clear into my boots when we meet though he is a comparative stranger — our acquaintance extending no farther than a nod or a touch of hot brine — such is the magnetism of anything that reminds of home. Probably, however, if I was at home like William, a week or 2 would make me ripe for another flitting. Human nature is a strange mixture of contradictions never satisfied with its surroundings, pursuing some fancied good only to be disgusted with, once possessed.

By the way of news, while you was writing your letter last Sunday the 3rd [of] January, I was having a close visit and a fight with the Power Ignipotent — another big fire which burnt right up to the wales of my store. Eleven stores burnt out clear to the ground leaving a large tract of smoking ruins. Thought I was a goner) and began a hasty packing up. Had sense enough to keep my doors locked or the crowd of officer friends might have commenced setting things out without saying, “by your leave.” The fire was checked and I came out unscathed — no loss at all. But I don’t care about having many such close escapes — especially when I have no insurance. You probably saw the account of fire in Chicago in the Journal without dreaming that it came right up to me.

Have not read much of late. Atlantic [Monthly] for January is out but have not seen it yet. Didn’t read [Whittier’s] Skipper Ireson’s Ride… “curse poetry” T. T. essays sentiments. Confound Brahma — I have not thought it worthy of a glance. The Shepherd when he remarked “that he had heard that [m    ] & Foust was obscure — was answered by Southside that the “Master” was an old Humbug and ended a tirade to cursing all German romances and calling for a spit box to vent some of his spleen in expectorations so I never would bother my brains about finding the hidden meaning of Brahma, which being found is not worth the trouble, but dismiss the whole to the Tickler style. I hope you will have a clarion idea of my position than the Shepherd had. “Says: Ma head’s confused” I [   ] I canna find your real opinion of Gutty” as Mr. North calls him. “Christopher thinks he will do a puzzle to posterity and is melancholy threat.” [?]

Thursday 15th.

Am dull and at a stand how to make my letter interesting, and ’tis time I passed it over to our Uncle’s mail bags. Will try to give an idea of the people I am in contact with in this fast town. For some months, Perry & I have been boarding out bills on different parties indebted to us. I am in curious company just now — a kind of 3d class Boarding House where the boarders are actors and fellows in infinite leisure — chaps that have seen the world — Californians, Southerners, Sailors, &c. — who by some hocus pocus have got at last under one roof. The talk is highly interesting in consequence. Tales of adventure told as though they were of everyday occurrence — screeds of Shakespeare & other gramatials  are common. A deaf old Beldame to wait on table which necessitates a shout to be served — also an “enfant terribile” or two of shocking dirty appearance and rascally ugly temper. I go to meals as I would go into a menagerie of wild animals and find new sources of interest for my admiration each visit. I am looked upon as a sort of ogre, I imagine — so much out of the common run of young men about town. Am treated with deference and no one ventures on the slightest familiarity. My mug is getting decidedly grim — equal to brother William’s in repelling familiar advances and strong lack of expression under the most trying circumstances.

Have been in contact with people of the greatest variety of character & standing. The most here are adventurous from all parts of the civilized world. New Englanders are plenty enough here but quite exclusive and I have seen less of htem than any other. My immediate neighbors are Scotch & English — dreadfully conceited about their origin and their rascally isle. Scandinavians also. Boorish and stupid Germans — porkhouse politicians & guzzlers of Lager Beer. A portion of the German element is very intelligent and distinguished in appearance. I have some acquaintances with one or two fine fellows — intense Republicans, who in ’48 were obliged to leave the old country to save their heads. [I] meet the fiery Southerner sometimes. Go to an [  ] in a lines [    ], ignorant & vile men that I like to stand beside of and look down upon with supreme contempt. I feel more proud of being a New England Yankee since I have voluntarily exiled myself from that privileged section.

[Friday] 16th.

Charlotte Cushman (1855)

I saw Charlotte Cushman in Macbeth the other night. Wish you had been with me to enjoy this magnificent play. She is a great actress and her conception of the character of Lady Macbeth equals my imagination of the same which is saying a good deal. I have a distaste to the Theatre & go very seldom and only when sure of an intelligent treat. Miss Cushman gave me one — a real Shakespearian one. ²

I do not know what sort of weather you are having at home. We are having an extraordinary winter here, an apology — and a lame one — for cold weather. Warm, sunny days — the nights hardly cold enough to freeze the earth & mud — so that one can travel. Today it rains & looks like a dull March or April day down East. One feels spiritless & dull on such days — hardly energy enough to overcome one’s daily tasks.

Read another screed of The Virginians [by William Makepeace Thackery]. I today found it intensely pleasant and refreshing.  Thack imputes poor human nature in the point of his pen to relentless expense — the grim [      ]. Saw the illustrations by the author in Harpers “Curse the Happy Major). Thack’s pencil is almost as good as his pen. Took a cursory glance at the Atlantic [Monthly] [and] read the article on Books and consider it a model of the instructive magazine paper. One arrives from a perusal with his imagination quickened and ideas enlarged. So of the rest, the Atlantic promises well. Let Put [Putnam’s Monthly] sink. It will not be missed. Our new Major can’t be popular at the Sunny South. “Spartacus” is an implied threat at the patriarchal institution — one the chivalry cannot brook. “The President’s Message” [Atlantic Monthly, January 1858] I reviewed as a knock & [  ]. Pity the “First Families” ain’t got talent enough to have a periodical to reflect their opinions. Didn’t ever see the “Southern Literary Messenger” — ’tis a fit companion to the sentimental melancholy of Philadelphian Monthlies. I used to see it in reading room of the Providence Atheneum and say I have seen some of the weakest, sickly stuff that I ever did read anywhere in this Southern [       ].

I notice on glancing over your letter again that you have allowed your imagination to run a free course which I shall be compelled to reprove gently however. Nay, Santa Clause brought me no presents. I feel very melancholy thereat and inclined to murmur at my fate — that of being forgotten. No delicate little enclosure of pocket linen or neck tie for my manly throat scented by the magical touch of fair hands christened for me the New Year. Am I already set down as inveterate? Does no daughter of Eve consider me catchable? My grim mug must be against me and my susceptible heart is let down to be as stoney as my face. Shall be grisly as Frater W. soon — my days of grace are rapidly being counted off. I want it known that I am in the field inviting attacks from skirmishers in the guise of New Year’s presents. No chance for a chap out West. The [female] sex is in great demand [here] and each one of any pretense to good looks is beset by half dozen of the Lords of Cretin. Perry, my partner, who has lived in Pawtucket, would advise any Calibs to visit that favored isle where the proportion is 10 to 1 in favor of the ladies. He would insinuate that the sight of a blackcoat and a stranger creates great excitement. In 15 minutes the news of his arrival is known all over the island and who he is and his business. — perhaps better than himself.

Sketching the other day, i came somewhere in the neighborhood of the Capt’s Mug and I enclose it for your benefit. My partner considers himself A1 as a seaman & I send a card of his scrawl.

I haven’t ideas enough to fill out the sheet so I will close here & save something for next time.

As ever yours, — Geo. Carpenter

¹ The Young Ladies’ Seminary was located on Wabash Avenue near the corner of Washington street, opposite the old Second Presbyterian Church. Grover attended  Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and then attended Dartmouth College and later graduated from Brown University in 1842.

² The Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) reported on 28 January 1858 that “Charlotte Cushman has just completed a most profitable engagement at Chicago, She is said to be worth a quarter of a million of dollars. She received for twelve nights in Chicago one-half the gross receipts, amounting to $2750.00.”


Princeton [Illinois]
July 18, 1858

Dear Sister Jane,

Your letter did not reach me till this morning There it mailed on the 9th. That will account for the possible delay before [   ] have before it reaches you. I wrote to [brother] Horatio some days ago and you will probably see it and not be surprised at the new direction. I got impatient waiting at Chicago so long and started out with the determination to earn my board at least at ______. Things are in a shocking state at Chicago else I should have had a place long ago. Even now I have pretty strong hopes of securing some clerkship there soon. My friends were urgent to have me stay and will when any chance offers write me at once so that I can return and secure any possible opening. They are under obligations to me and better. I can assist in musical matters where no others are competent to fill my place. So interest will work upon my side but if they don’t hurry up, twill be too late for I shall either engage myself to teach school the coming fall & winter or return East. I will get something either in Providence or Boston easy enough.

But to the present, as I told H, I am at farm work. I am on a place about 2 miles from Princeton, just over Bureau creek and I assure you, it don’t look much like Illinois just around this place. The house is on a pretty high hill on 3 sides surrounded by deep woods. The other a long stretch of rolling prairie—high hills with sides clothed with clumps of trees. The scene reminds me very much of the view from the high hill that we used to pass over going to the Blanding’s—not as rugged though the hills are higher. They round off so smoothly and gradually into valleys unbroken by rude enclosures of stone wall or abrupt precipice that one can look upon like a vast garden laid out strictly for securing a beautiful landscape, immense wheat fields, now yellow in the sun, contrasting finely with the deep green of the corn fields or the waving woods. Looking upon this when the sun is going down (and a western sunset is glowing) you would think with me that it is a beautiful landscape—one of the most lovely in God’s earthly creation.

In crossing from Princeton, I walked through a mile of woods—immense trees—no sign of the woodman’s axe—all just as the Indian’s left. Found some emigrant wagons drawn up under the trees and the women of the party were just getting breakfast ready. Some heads poked out of the canvas of the wagon, showed the [  ] had just begun to think of getting up. Others were picking their eyes open at the gurgling brook close by. Farther on I went down to the creek bottom—creek just as large as our river at Central or Hunt’s bridge. Here the scene was wild enough. A steep bank of some 80 feet behind me covered with great gnarled oaks and tall cottonwoods. A rude bridge. The road winding up the steep hill, through a ravine, then the open country again. A mile from where I left. The Chicago B. & Quincy Railroad have a bridge over the whole ravine nearly a 1,000 feet long and 86 feet above the bed of the creek. I walked over it the other day on the timbers (it is not planked) and tested my steadiness of nerve but twas not al all dangerous as I had the side rail to hold on to. But to look down between the timbers to the bed of the creek, seeing the tops of high trees way beneath when you are walking was some trying to the head from dizziness.

I have been working for the last 4 days in a wheat field with some dozen others. The farmers all use reapers and our duty is to bind the wheat & shock it up, and tis very hard work to keep up all day.

The second day I was so tired & faint from heat &c. at noon that I could hardly walk. I thought then I must give it up but an hours rest brought me to and I have got along better since. But now there is not a bone or muscle in me but what is sore and I am as stiff as an an old man. A few days will break me in in better shape, I hope. This work is harder than haying, the tough old chaps here says & I believe it.

John Howard Bryant—“ugly as sin, round-shouldered, hatchet-faced…” — GC

I work for John Ball—an Englishman—and the other hands are of all nations almost—Dutch, Irish, Swede, English, Yankee & Canadian. One Rhode Island chap & myself are the only Yankees. 3 brothers of William Cullen Bryant, the poet, live here—all farmers, and rich—have splendid homes. I knew before that the Bryant’s lived here and the day I arrived was walking out taking a look at the sights. I went on who I knew at once was one of the brothers from a resemblance to the poet. I made some enquiries and entered into conversation. At first I expected I would get a job out of him but done better since. I have seen them all since—strongly marked countenances. Each have but homely as one could imagine. Cyrus [Bryant] is 60 years old, I guess, and a tough looking old chap he is. John H[oward Bryant] is the most influential in town—has office, rich &c. &c. [but] ugly as sin—round-shouldered, hatchet faced, three distinct colors in his leathery-looking phiz. Not much of the poet about the looks of these brothers. But then all resemble to some extent the editor, Wm. C. Bryant.

My birthday yesterday. I suppose you all at home remembered the [   ]. Celebrated it by a day of tough back-breaking labor. What great changes have happened to me since my last birthday—more real vicissitudes & changes than any other year I have lived. But God, our Heavenly Father works all things for our good. A sentence free of consolation in any afflictions or disappointments to the believing Christian. I try to be content and succeed very happily.

I am tired and my hand not very steady and have written this very fast and you may possibly have some trouble to read my uncertain handwriting. At any rate, I have finished my sheet and all except the last few lines at a sitting. Let me know all about your health. I fear tis rather poorly. How mother gets along. Give my love to all inquiring friends. Write very soon or I may be out of Princeton before your note gets here. I may take a notion to come home when harvest is over if nothing turns up in Chicago for I can’t fool away time any longer. Always, your brother, — Geo. Carpenter

to Miss E. J. Carpenter
Seekonk, Mass.


Chicago, [Illinois]
August 13th 1858

Dear Sister,

Your letter appeared yesterday in the old box. I had been back to the city a couple of days looking around a little and trying to be cool as possible in the sweltering sun. The last 4 days I worked haying were terrible — thermometer standing 98 to 99 [degrees] in the shade — not a breath of a breeze stirring. I pitched hay from sunrise to sunset — hard, hot work it was — and I felt relieved when Mr. Coulton said he wanted my services no more. I picked up my duds and went back to the village, staid a couple of days, then — as harvest was over and no farther demand for help — I came back to the city.

Came up on the Rock Island Road through another section of the State. Ottawa is on this road, where Miss Sarah Blanding ¹ proposed to visit. I should have stopped had she been there though I should have been puzzled in making inquiries, not knowing Nancy B’s husband by name. [Ottawa is] rather a common place looking town, about as large as Pawtucket, I should judge. It is on the Illinois River and the houses straggle to the bluffs which rise some little ways back — country around low and flat — general look not at all inviting to my eye. Houses — Dutchy — small & dirty the most of them. Some very pretty cottages half hid in shade trees & shrubbery up on the bluff redeemed the place somewhat, speaking of the presence of refinement and taste even there. A stone bridge over the river for the canal which connects Chicago with the waters of the Mississippi was noticeable. I don’t think I should care to live there.

Princeton is so far the prettiest place I have seen in the State and that will not begin to compare with some of our New England towns — say Worcester, Springfield, or New Haven. But it takes long years to make a place attractive and home like. Princeton is just about as large as Warren and it is the prettiest place of the two. The trees and shrubbery are just as luxuriant and the homes more uniformly cosy and tastily built. A great deal of brick is used in building making some very large & imposing residences.

George Catlin’s Upper Mississippi Scene

The Rock Island Railroad follows up the valley of the Illinois River some 70 or 80 miles so I had a fine chance to see the country round a western river. I noticed many magnificent views that I should liked to have attempted to sketch. They reminded me of those beautiful line sketches up the Mississippi in [George] Catlin’s Indian travels that you have in William’s books at home. No bluffs as high probably, but the general character was similar. Soft rounded outlines of the hills rising back from the river, lines of forest trees in regularity like as the work of art. No grandeur but all soft and pleasing. The river itself looks best in the distance. The water is sluggish and muddy — banks very low and overflowed probably half the time. Up near Ottawa, however, the banks are steep, the land gravelly, and the current stronger.

At La Salle it is hemmed in between ledges of rock. I looked with wonder and interest upon the first precipice of rock I had seen for over a year. La Salle itself was a dirty place and I was glad to see the last of it. Near where I first saw the river, there was a snagged steamboat, the bow run right into a clump of trees. It looked melancholy enough falling to pieces in the woods, the flashy painting faded out, ribs bare, &c. &c.

I felt glad when I got into Chicago again. The city looked pleasant and lively. Walked over on the Avenue once more and got a delicious cool breeze off the Lake. I don’t believe another city in the country has got a more beautiful promenade than Chicago. I wish you could see it. The scene is lovely in the afternoon & evening. The waters 5 or 6 shades of color, all deeply marked when the sun shines brightly — from bright yellow to the deepest green. Then the trim lake craft make the scene picturesque. All the magnificent residences along the avenue — almost hidden in a wealth of foliage. There the Chicagoans  turn out in great force in the cool of the eve to enjoy their splendid walk & lake view. The basin inside the breakwater is full of sail boats and skiffs, Indian canoes, and the long race boat. Every pleasant evening one can see a regatta — free & a lively scene it is.

There are lots of English in this city. They are famous walkers so I met them often in my tramps. I have watched their peculiarities with much interest. No Cockney’s but the true, blue Britisher. One can tell them from the [    ] a long way off. Their red, healthy cheeks, muscular, firm & elastic step contrast wonderfully with puny, young Americans. They march along with self reliant tread swinging a dainty cane, seeming totally unconscious of all the rest of mankind. I have often been honored with “that stony British stare.” no wonder they rule the world if their aristocracy generally are like the specimens I see here. They are full of vitality and perfection of manly grace and strength. They are the ones who have the race boats and every eve they strip the coat and pull the oar lustily for an hour or two. Fast horses — but the Chicago Yankee does a good deal too on the road. [Our little brother] Horatio would be delighted to see [them]. Some of the nasty turnouts on and off Pawtucket Turnpikes can’t show such teams as the lengthy avenue round about Chicago — skillful whips are plenty.

My first duty after dark when I got back was to have a swim in the lake. I went out on the breakwater and stripping, made a reckless plunge into the cool waves. Most every eve in this hot weather about 10 o’clock finds me taking long stretches out upon the lake — generally alone. Sometimes it is so dark that I can hardly grope my way out on the timbers. Taking a jump into the dark and a short swim and the whole world is lost, except the dark rolling waves around me, and the cloudy sky above. There is a kind of fierce delight in such a position. The little spice of danger enhances the charm. I feel very proud of my skill and courage as a swimmer and I never have found the man yet who excelled me in this art. A short time ago I met one who prided himself in his skill in the water and he invited me to go in with him for he was going to show me how to do it right. I supposed I had met a Leander and did not boast much of my own skill but on the trial I beat him with great ease and left him puffing in my wake far behind. But enough.

By the time this reaches you, the Atlantic [Monthly] for August will be on the table. I have just read hastily some of the best articles. It is a capital No. The magazine sustains itself very well. The Autocrat is not tedious but talks on as engagingly as at first. His monologue has a deal of fancy with subtle humor and fine feeling. That article on Farming Life in New England is good, bristling with facts. The author knew what he was talking about and has hit the nail again on the head. When will farmers learn wisdom and try to make their farms attractive to their sons. Then they would be spared the pain of seeing them flitting the home roof at the first opportunity, glad to be rid at any terms of the unsatisfying drudgery which crushes out all the amenities of life. The end of the process is almost invariably the clod hopper. All of us city people sigh for the ideal country life. I hate a city life most thoroughly but endure it rather than accept the life of a farmer as I have always seen it. So the process of draining the best blood out of the fields goes on and will till there is a radical change. What a terrible fact that description of the life of a farmer’s wife. Our own mother could testify to the living truth of the sketch. Who would be a farmer’s wife? Not I, if I was a girl. In a very few years the soft, rounded lines of the school girl’s face are changed into the angular lines of the dissatisfied, overworked drudgeon. If she survives, ’tis at the expense of all that is lovely in woman. Where is the exception? I do not know of any. ² There is no necessity for this. the farmer’s life can be made the most attractive and refining, as it is the healthiest & most independent and that too without neglecting any of his daily duties. I wish I owned an unencumbered farm so that I could realize my ideal of life. I would at least try and if I did not succeed, t’would be cause there was something lacking in me, not in the idea.

I am sadly lacking in energy and decision and placed in Robinson Crusoe‘s place, I never should have shown such resources. I fear, in fact, after my bitter experiences and disappointments of the last 5 or 6 years, failing in everything I have undertaken, I have come to this state of mind. I have no inclination to try again and have a strong repugnance to all trade & business. Let me only secure a clerk’s berth so that all I have to do will be to keeping affairs right and receive my salary and I think I shall be content to remain. If I had plenty of capital and there were openings every day for enterprise, I never should have the courage to attempt one. Ambition has left me, I think. I foresee that I shall be a quill driver or mechanic of some kind all my life, living on daily wages. An old bach[elor] perhaps — wedded only to books and newspapers. My desires don’t hardly reach any higher for since my heart has been changed and I am become a Christian as I trust, the vanity & worthlessness of earthy possessions are very prominent in my thoughts. I never care nor will devote my time and energies solely to the object of being rich or famous, to the neglect of higher duties, or my literary or artistic tastes. Many times like the melancholy Dane I exclaim, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable are the uses of this world,” ³ and wish that I were done with it — that I had won my crown. But oh! I tremble to remember my sins, duties neglected, & how really unworthy I am to receive pardon and forgiveness. But His grace is sufficient for us all.” Pleading only the merits of that Savior who died for me, I can come and feel that peace of soul which is joy unspeakable.

Next Sabbath I suppose you will be baptized. I shall remember for I have been looking forward to it. It will be the happiest [   ] of your life — trust me — and that happiness will remain and cling always to your soul, holding the fainting spirit up in the hour of darkness and trouble. My best wishes and prayers go with you.

I am sorry to hear that Cousin Mary is so unwell. They must be in great trouble there. How very common it is this shadowing of the mind in despondency & darkness. (Mr. Coulton — [the man] I worked for — has continued fits of hypochondria.) Remember me to Cousin when you are there. She very kindly wished me all prosperity when I bid her goodbye off for the West. Now I give mine from the heart too. All health and peace of mind. Perhaps I shall have the pleasure of seeing her and all the rest of you before long. So I give you some warning so that you may not be surprised if you should see me in the course of two or three weeks. I will not endure my position in Chicago any longer and I feel sure I can scare up something either in New York, Providence, or Boston in a very short time. I mean to try at any rate. That will bring me so near home that I shall bring up there pretty soon. I can get East very cheap just now through fortunate circumstances so I may write pretty confidently that I shall start very soon.

Chicago is in a bad fix & my friends — while they want me to stay — cannot do anything now from the shocking state of business. I may come back again when flush times come once more. Till then, I turn my back. Guess you had better not send any more letters till you hear from me. I am expecting one tomorrow and if one comes within a few days, I will answer it before I start. I shall be some time on the road for I shall not hurry. Will take Lake boat to Buffalo, then Erie Road to New York, then home if nothing prevents. And I shall come in upon you some evening right sudden so look out. I’ll write from Buffalo, I guess, for I may (do) Niagara again. T’will take a weeks sail to go round the lakes but I do not care for time and I can go very cheap. If I get work in New York City, shall stop a little while. Will write if I do. In the meantime, I think you will be so glad to see me that the anticipation will rouse your spirits some so that you may be in better health. Ain’t that egotistical? But I want to excite you a little.

Yours ever, — Geo. Carpenter

[to] Miss E. J. Carpenter, Seekonk, Mass.

¹ Sarah Murray Blanding (1827-1911) was the daughter of James Blanding (1781-1870) and Elizabeth Carpenter (1784-1865) of Rehoboth, Bristol county, Massachusetts. She married Reuben Bowen (1813-1903) in 1865. Sarah’s older sister, Nancy Augusta Blanding (b. 1816) married John G. Nattinger, a German immigrant who settled in Ottawa, Illinois, where he became a merchant and coal dealer. In 1860, he constructed a Gothic Revival-style house at 406 Congress street in Ottawa where he lived until his death in 1890.

² In the 1858 article, “Farming Life in New England,” — “The most intelligent and enterprising of the farmer’s daughters become school-teachers, or tenders of shops, or factory girls. Them condemn the calling of their father, and will, nine times in ten, marry a mechanic in preference to a farmer. they know that marrying a farmer is a very serious business. they remember their worn-out mothers.” [Atlantic Monthly, August 1858, p. 341]

³ A line from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2.




Griff View All →

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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