1866: William Frederick White to Ivers White

This letter was written by William Frederick (“Fred”) White (1834-Aft1920), the son of Ivers White (1804-1884)—a house, carriage, and ornamental painter residing in Ashburnham, Worcester county, Massachusetts. Fred’s mother was Zoa Lawrence (1804-After 1865); his sister was Annie Eliza Celestia White (1841-1901). All are mentioned in the letter. During the Civil War, Ivers White served as an adjutant to Col. Josiah Watkins of the 9th Massachusetts Regiment.

Fred was the proprietor of his own paint shop and still at his profession in Ashburnham in 1920 at the age of 85. Fred was first married in 1857 to Alice W. Wheeler but I believe they divorced. Fred was married again in 1885 to Hattie C. (Vannell) Wetherbee (1855-Bef1920). In 1877, Fred submitted a patent application for “a new and useful palette for use by painters.”

[Note: See also—1867: Fred White to Ivers White]


Addressed to Mr. I___ White, Esq, Ashburnham, Massachusetts

On board Steamer “War Eagle
off Winona, Minnesota, Mississippi river
Sunday, November 4, 1866

There, how’s that for a dedication? And the loved ones at home are wondering where the fates have cast the wayfarer for this holy day. So this shall be a journal of voyaging down the Grand Old Mississippi. Yesterday morning then I wrote you from St. Paul before embarking on the “Damsel” (a stern wheel boat; Annie will know better all of the wheelbarrow” class: “How are your wheelbarrow?—a Boston harbor joke I think she has not forgotten). St. Paul is a fine city owing much of its wealth to the fur trade that naturally centers there. It is situated 2.060 miles from New Orleans on high bluffs 10 miles below the falls of St. Anthony by land and 7 below the junction of the Minnesota river at Ft. Snelling. It boats some fine residences & stores & two large first class hotels, but its public buildings are quite inferior at present. It is at the head of heavy boat navigation and the starting point of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad.

Our departure was enlivened by a characteristic river episode—viz: a darkey boat song (there goes one of the points of my pen). The boat’s crew gathered at the bow and the leader—a fine-looking face & dashing fellow with slouched hat & rugged coat—mounted on the capstan in their midst [and] commenced the refrain, the chorus going in time & time, “Eha yor an ah ee” at the end of the lines, “O rock me like a baby, oh yay oh”—&c. The peculiar melody like all they sing harmonious.

For a long time we kept the deck, studying the varied beauties of the landscape—passing the pretty town Hastings where are Vermillion falls, the mouth of St. Croix river—from the deck of our boat, getting a fine view up the lake. I forgot to mention hat a short distance above St. Paul is a large cave that has been explored a mile & over, and another below a short distance, ___ing in the bank from the river.

To return. Before reaching the St. Croix [river], we passed on the west bank “red rock”—a large stone on a low interval, painted red by the Indians at each annual visit. They were in the habit of paying the spot to consult and hold “medicine meetings”—also famous for being the scene of a severe battle between the Chippewa & [left blank] a few years ago. About nine o’clock we pass, after a short stop, “Red Wing” so named after a noted Indian brave who was here buried on the summit of a towering mound 350 feet high. Here we take on a passenger who ____ cast to many—after an eventful frontier life—his narratives are full of interest and romance being personal experience mostly.

Wondering our way still on with the sluggish current until we enter the channel at the head of Lake Pepin. Here another episode serves to enliven the occasion and give life to the trip. The river here narrows between the bluffs and one of the immense timber rafts—of which we have passed several—we find tied to the shore for the night. Being over thirty feet wide, it is an ugly thing—some 100 ft. long—and a tugboat with two barges (long flat boats) in tow alongside is just aground on the opposite side while two large steamers are below trying to force their way through up the river between the two. We were alongside the raft and “bow too” tie up to the bank. The scene now becomes exciting. The light on the raft like sentinels far & near show like fireflies on a plain. While the little tug is throwing up showers of sparks & cinders & flame from her tall chimneys “bugging” most vigorously in the vain attempt to “back” or “swing” or get off the bar at any way. The beacon torches are blazing away with broad red glare, lighting up the leafless trees and black shadowed water. Still further back in the darkness the long rows of light from the decks of the steamer while again and again they send up dense clouds of smoke & steam and glowing cinders in attempting to force away through. To stand on our deck and look on them was a singular & thrilling sight. The peculiar construction of these boats makes them look—when lighted as tonight with the blazing pine torches—like some fiendish cavern into whose jaws we are rushing. The dark forms of the busy, swarthy crew hanging here & there, the noise of the paddles, escaping steam & voices of the crew, all make it quite an interesting pandemonium—quite up to an Indian’s idea of a “pow wow,” I reckon.

Our captain is now called from his berth to take command of our boat and after a shake of himself under his cuffed coat and rubbing his eyes to peer into the wild scene of night prepares himself to put things in shape with us by God Damning in every possible tone and variation, construction & intonation of voice. We “untie her”—“back off”—and after almost dashing into one of the upcoming boats, pass by the scene and enter the widening river which takes the name of Lake Pepin, being 3 miles wide & some 30 miles long. On the shores of this lake is seen the “Maiden’s Rock”—a very high bluff surmounted by a rocky precipice overlooking the lake into whose bosom a lovely Indian girl is said to have thrown herself on account of baffled love. Very late the hour and weary, I return to my state-room, waking in the morning.

After breakfast, we try the bracing air of a November morning and find ample pleasure in the scenery. As we near Winona, the bluffs are most picturesque—the steep banks smooth as meadow lawn surmounted by rocks that look like castles of some ancient people. Hugh piles of ____’s masonry surmounted with turret & pinnacle of every conceivable beautiful shape, rounded buttresses with castleated towers and massive embrasures, while often springing from the bank a bold frontier fortress wall seems to wait but occupancy to be a stronghold against the largest army. For the last hour I have been writing with the boat underway. We have a nice band on board & they have been playing almost all the time fine music to enhance the pleasure of the trip. And now I notice the western sunlight gilds with crimson light the grand old town and castles of the lofty headlands and upon our deck our band are playing as brass band to the people of Tremplan which place we are just making and to view which I leave you.

6th—“Northern Belle.” After leaving our lovely sweet view, we had supper, then music by the string band.

7th—at Dubuque, Iowa. I was called away by a part of friends who are companions “du voyage” & will resume now for morning’s mail. And so with reading & music, the evening passed quickly away & again we were at La Crosse with blazing torch and busy crew, discharging cargo & passengers for the East.

Before midnight we are off again & pushing down the winding river. The morning found us tugging along four heavy grain barges holding each over 10,000 bushels wheat. We watched the rising sun as he lighted up with rosy hues the thin, curling mists that play like tiny silvery clouds upon the eddies of the river. We still are enchanted with the scenic beauties of scene—high bluffs & peaks and rounded knoll. At last we near Prairie du Chien. Stepping ashore, then on to McGregor, ferrying back at night. After tea, we are invited to join a very select party of young people in dancing at the Hotel and I am favored with good partners so trip the light fantastic quite late. Expecting a boat down the river but none comes until morning about 10 when we are glad to step aboard the “Northern Belle” & leave the extensive one horse town to its fate. At the Railroad House where we stopped, we found Holbrook of Keene & Surry—one of the proprietors.

This day has been lovely—the air soft and balmy, and towards night we pass Grand Bushis [?]. Our companionship have been pleasant and after discharging cargo at Dimluth we are landed at Dubuque. After a good “sing” in the cabin chancery to find we had a good quartet club in our party. So after over four hundred miles of Mississippi travels, we are once more landed for business in a large thriving city where today I have sold the Railroad fellows and got a clue on other trade. Warner goes on tomorrow & I at night to join him. We both find trade very dull. The western country is full of goods and “drummers” too for that. But now it is getting quite late & so I will close. Warner has gone to sleep after sending you his love. I hope to get a letter from you in the morn before I leave. It is now raining so I expect dull day. I shall be at Chicago in about a week after visiting Burlington, Peoria, &c. And now as I am quite well, I must keep so—and retire sending much love to all. — Fred

I go to Galena this morn and shall get your next Sunday’s letter at Chicago, This letter is to be continued. Much love to mother, father, sister & hope you are all well as I.

Regards to Dr. Ned. In haste. — Fred


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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