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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

The (Ill-fated) Boat Party

The "boat party," as it was known for years in the annals of the town, usually prefixed by some such adjective as "unfortunate" or "ill-fated," had set out in the spring of 1836 with high hopes. John C. Smith, a canal boat proprietor of Utica in a small way, was active in the deliberations of the subscribers to Gale's plan from the very beginning. Able, energetic, but somewhat visionary, and more familiar with water transport than other methods of progression, he conceived the idea of emigrating to the new settlement in a canal boat by way of the Erie Canal (which he knew thoroughly), Lake Erie, the Erie and Ohio Canal, and the Ohio, Mississippi and Illinois Rivers (of which he was profoundly ignorant) ; some two thousand miles by water as against one thousand by land (or land and water) adopted by other emigrants.

He organized his company, and a canal boat of the packet type was bought on shares, and fitted up for the voyage. The men's cabin was used for storage of baggage and household goods, leaving only a narrow passageway to get to the bunks. The horses and wagons of the settlers were put on board, the horses to serve as motor power on the tow path. The galley was equipped for cooking, a supply of provisions laid in, and in May the boat started from New London, near Utica, for Buffalo, with Smith as captain, his wife as chief cook, and thirty-seven people on board, seventeen of them small children, one an infant.

On the comparatively quiet trip to Buffalo the passengers of this remarkable ark settled down to some sort of routine. Some were strangers to the others, but with a common purpose and sharing the same discomforts and relaxations, they became as the report says "one large family."

Cooking three times a clay for thirty-seven people proved too much for Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. [Clarissa Root] Phelps, in spite of six children clinging to her skirts, took charge, and for a time all went smoothly. It was rather close quarters for seventeen lively youngsters, and to give the elders some respite, "Aunt Kitty," as one of the spinsters was affectionately known, organized a sort of school along what would now be known as kindergarten lines, with regular lessons, and the future students of the Prairie College that was to be were thus kept quiet for some hours daily.

As may well be imagined in such a company, religious worship was more important than education, and prayer meetings were held daily. Each Saturday night the boat was tied up, and on Sunday they attended the nearest public service, or if there was none available, they organized their own in a convenient schoolhouse, and invited the neighborhood to join them.

At Buffalo passengers, goods and live stock were transferred to one of the lake steamboats bound for Cleveland; the canal boat was hitched behind. Off Ashtabula a violent storm struck them, so severe the steamboat captain thought his vessel endangered and cut the canal boat adrift. He landed the passengers at Cleveland, dumped their goods on the dock where they lay in the rain and were seriously damaged, while the party anxiously awaited news of their ark.

When the canal boat arrived, the damaged dunnage was loaded into it, the horses again put to work on the tow-path, and the party started to cross Ohio by way of the Ohio and Erie Canal, a winding and tortuous journey. They ascended the valley of the Cuyahoga, fringed with tulip, walnut and sassafras trees, with a lock every half mile, to Akron, the modern rubber tire city, whose name is Greek, meaning Elevation, now a sort of industrial acropolis. The canal passed through the center of the town by means of twelve locks. Beyond Akron it traversed a lake, with a bridge for the tow horses. Newportage marked the place where the fur traders carried their canoes from the Cuyahoga to the Tuscarawas.

The architecture was now becoming German, big hipped-roof barns with dormer windows, reminiscent of Bavaria, though these travellers [sic] probably did not know that. But they must have noted the picturesque village of Zoar with its pretty houses roofed with red tiles, the Moravian settlement of the Württemberg Separatists, its Canal Hotel and long wooden bridge spanning both canal and river. They may have caught sight of Swabian shepherds carrying crooks, wearing leather bandoliers ornamented with brass figures, flat-brimmed hats and long gray cloaks.

The mayapple was in full bloom, kingfishers, red-headed woodpeckers and orioles perched on the alder bushes and watched the boat slide slowly by. They gazed in wonder at prehistoric mounds and barrows frequently visible from their boat. They saw corn just springing into leaf, the largest fields they had ever beheld, a foretaste of what was later to become a familiar sight in Illinois. A tourist travelling [sic] west in those clays beheld the whole cycle of the development of a new country from unbroken prairie to well-tilled farm, but in reverse order, like a movie run backward.

From the high level the canal descends to the valley of the Muskingum and then cuts across to the Sciota, which it follows all the way to the Ohio. On Licking Summit it passes through a cut thirty feet deep; the tow line is lengthened, the horses looking small so high above the boat. They pass Circleville, appropriately named, for the village is surrounded by an Indian mound twelve to twenty feet high like a circular wall. Instead of the conventional public square there is a circular plaza in the center of the village, in which stands a round brick courthouse. After Chillicothe they arrive at Portsmouth where the Sciota and the canal empty into the Ohio, having negotiated fifty-three locks since Licking Summit. They find Portsmouth an inconsiderable town, with broad, unpaved streets, set high on its bank eighty feet above the river. On the trees which border the Ohio they saw curious vegetable growths which must have puzzled them, for it was their first sight of mistletoe. It had no sentimental associations for them, for these New England Christians did not celebrate Christmas.

Southern Ohio was wrought up over the slavery question, and there was much speculation as to the intentions of the boatload of abolitionist Yankees. A deputation of ministers called and warned them they would be mobbed, no idle threat. At Cincinnati the women and children were sent ashore as a precaution, while the men remained on the boat, but no demonstration was made.

Isaac Mills decided to leave rather than face the even worse discomforts and dangers beyond. His announcement caused the utmost consternation. He was the only member of the party with any money left. The others had sunk all they possessed in the venture. The unduly prolonged trip had exhausted their resources. Without him they could not go on, but would be left stranded, their journey half completed. Mills finally yielded to their urgings and remained with the party and defrayed its expenses, a decision that cost him his life.

The long stay in Cincinnati was for the purpose of rigging up some sort of propeller on the stern of the vessel so as to drive it upstream on the Mississippi, worked by a horse in a treadmill on board, and some such contrivance was made, not very efficient, as the sequel proved. Meanwhile the company visited the city, then a town of some 20,000, and saw its sights, which must have included the market, where rows and rows of four-horse Ohio wagons were backed to the curb, permitted to sell every sort of provender but fresh meat.

Cincinnati was then as now the pork city, and its streets were kept comparatively clean by the droves of hogs that roamed at will and ate up the garbage thrown out by housewives. Mills unloaded the horse and buggy which formed part of his cargo on the ark and with his wife and daughter drove about the city. A thill broke, and they sought the shop of William Holyoke, a sturdy wheelwright and forthright abolitionist. While a new thill was being made Mrs. Mills visited with Mrs. Holyoke, and Mills talked with her husband, and what they talked about was Gale's colony in Illinois.

The buggy got a new thill, and the colony gained nine recruits. The following spring Holyoke packed up and moved, with his wife, four sons, one daughter, one adopted daughter, and a woman helper. He bought the first house erected in Galesburg, set up a wagon and carriage shop, and organized the first anti-slavery society in Illinois.

An incident reveals the uncompromising, not to say intolerant, attitude of the Yankee emigrants. Sunday morning a steamboat arrived having on board southern delegates to an ecclesiastical convention. Seeing the canal boat alongside, several went aboard and invited the company to attend the meetings. Up spoke Sophronia Phelps:

"Didn't we see you arrive this morning?"

The puzzled dominie admitted it.

"We do not attend meetings conducted by men who travel on Sunday," was the spirited reply. Thus was visible the thin edge of the wedge that was to split Galesburg in its first great controversy, for what Sophronia meant was that these ministers not only travelled [sic] on Sunday, but were from slave-owning states where the church connived at sin.

As the ill-fated bark moved away from the Cincinnati landing and down the Ohio, things grew worse. The river was low, the air foul with miasma, the sun scorching, and the mosquitoes ferocious. They knew as little about malaria and fever and ague as they did about navigating a river full of snags and sandbanks. Often in the middle of the day when the heat became unbearable they tied up to the shore, and the party took refuge in the shade of the trees along the bank. Every one was more or less sick.

The lighter cases nursed the serious ones. It became a grim test of endurance, with no immediate escape from the evils that beset them.

The canal around the rapids at Louisville had just been completed, so they were able to get by where formerly travellers by steamboat had been transferred to another vessel. Between Louisville and the Mississippi lay the bottom lands of Egyptian Illinois with their dreary water-logged deadly towns, Shawneetown, Ft. Massac, Golconda, lawless, disorderly, and inhospitable, hardly safe for such unworldly pilgrims to stop at. In caves along the river lurked bands of pirates who robbed and murdered defenseless travellers by water.

In the Mississippi there was constant delay. Even experienced river pilots are often fooled by this treacherous stream. The propeller refused to work. Parts of it continually dropped off into the river, and Noble Phelps acquired such experience in diving that when Captain Smith lost his watch over the side, he went in and recovered that also. At St. Louis they refused an offer of $1000 for their boat; it would have been wiser to have accepted. Slowly they worked north while the sick lay in their bunks and longed for land.

At length they were forced to make the best arrangements they could for a tow, and were hauled up the Illinois as far as Copperas Creek, about twenty miles below Peoria, and forty from Log City. They had been eleven weeks on the way, and conditions were now desperate. Smith, Mills, and Lyman were seriously ill. They were all big men, over six feet tall. Only one young man had sufficient strength to sit on a horse. He was dispatched to Log City for help.

A rescue party with teams, blankets, and whatever supplies might alleviate the sufferings of the boat load of invalids was quickly assembled. The sight that met its eyes was a sad one. Emaciated, sallow, weak, the company showed the effects of the long strain. The sick and dying were lifted into the wagons for the long, rough, jolting journey back to Log City. Captain Smith died at Knoxville. Mills and Lyman lived only a few weeks. These three were the first martyrs. They lie in Hope Cemetery which the settlers had laid out near the site of their new city. Little Moses Root died the following spring.

In a one-room cabin were installed the worst cases, thirteen in number on beds of poles set in the walls, laced with ropes to support straw-filled ticks. Other beds were made up on the chests that held the clothing, which had to be removed whenever anything was needed. In the center of the room was a huge box stove on which all the cooking was done. In this improvised hospital in the heat of an Illinois summer the survivors slowly recovered. Compared with so lamentable an experience, the minor discomforts and discouragements of the next company, which came all the way by land in covered wagons, were the acme of luxurious travel.

Extracted from They Broke the Prairie: being some account of the settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley by religious and educational pioneers, told in terms of one city, Galesburg, and of one college, Knox. By Calkins, Earnest Elmo, 1868-1964. New York: Scribner's, © 1937.