1819 Prescott

Philander Prescott (1801-1862) spent more than forty years on the frontier as a fur trader, supervisor of Indian farming, interpreter, and businessman. He wrote about his experiences in 1860.


Philander PrescottIn the year [1819], April 19th, I left my native place, Phelps town, Ontario County. At this time my brother, Z.W. Prescott, was living at Detroit, Michigan Territory, clerking in the sutler's store for the Troops. My brother wrote me to come to Detroit and assist him in the Store, and accordingly I left home on the above date.. . . .

On the first day of May, 1819, I embarked on board the steamboat Walk-in-the-Water the first steamer that was built on Lake Erie, - in 1818. The steamer did not start until afternoon. There were a large number of passengers on board. Four yoke of oxen were hitched to a long hauser and they, with the engine, took us over the rapids at the foot of Lake Erie. There was a considerable ice still floating in the lake. The weather was fine and calm, and we had a pleasant voyage except for the first night; the ice was still thick and in large pieces, and when the boat would strike one of them, it would startle all the passengers with the crashing sound. . . .

My brother informed me that troops had received orders to move to the West and occupy the forts on the Mississippi at Rock Island and Prairie du Chien, and to build a new fort on the reserve, including the falls of St. Anthony. This reservation was purchased by Lieut. Z.M. Pike in the years 1804 and 1805 from the Mdewakanton Sioux. The troops were already moved and my brother was packing up the last of the goods belonging to the sutler, Mr. Louis Devotion, and making preparations to follow in a few days. So I found employment for a few days assisting in packing goods for the use of the troops.

My brother left about the first of June. A man by the name of [Willlam] Belcher, another clerk, had started with the troops. A few days after, Mr. Devotion, the proprietor, left Detroit for New York to get a new stock of goods for to supply the troops for the winter. I was then left alone with one man, a servant of Mr. Devotion's by the name of Thomas Hogan, an Irishman.

Not having much to do in the store, the most of the goods having been packed and sent off, I had time to study and I used the most of the time at my arithmetic [and kept the store in order until Mr. Devotion returned.]

Now and then I used to walk about the city, and particularly along the river, and look at the shot holes in the storehouses along the levee that were thrown across from the British side in the time of the last war. And little did I then think of getting acquainted with the Sioux Indians and that I should learn from them that several of them participated in the war on the part of the British, and many a barbarous story they told me about the cruelties of other tribes and their treatment of the whites, their women, and children.

I have left my history a little and now continue again and state as [I] was walking out one Sunday to church with our man, or servant as people may choose to call them, the family I boarded with saw me walking with the hired man, and when I went in to dinner the old lady of the house set at me and gave me a great lecturing for going in company of such a man.

The family's name was Orden, some Old Country French but of the first class of people. The wars had ruined them and they had lost nearly all they had, and they were then keeping a few boarders at five dollars per week to make a poor and scanty living. I did not find out the real cause of the old lady's lecturing me for some days, but the sequel worked out after a while. It was because I went to the Roman Catholic church with our servant that I got a reprimand. The old lady and husband were Protestants; and the old lady said our servant was a deserter from the British, and went on and abused him terribly behind his back. I swallowed the whole patiently and kept it to myself.

After that I walked alone in the day time but in the evenings I would get into a canoe and take a little sail on the Detroit River, and sometimes go as far as the Canada side and back. The last time I tried to take a sail on the river I got myself and man into a little difficulty about the boat that we were to have. I had asked a gentleman by the name of Dorr for the use of the boat that was lying in front of the commissary store. Mr. Dorr was quartermaster, otherwise contractor, for beef and several other things, and used the government boats whenever he wanted to move his provisions. He told us we could use one of the boats.

So about dark I and our man went down to the wharf to take a boat and, all at once, we were hailed by some person near the commissary store. We looked around and saw a soldier coming towards us. He hallooed as loud as he could and wanted to know what we were doing with the boats. We told him Mr. Dorr had loaned us one for to take a little sail on the river.

"Oh, and by jabers, I will let you know that Mr. Dorr nor yourselves has any right to take any of those boats!" This oath and threat came out in the full Irish brogue; and - "Sirs, you are to stay under guard until I send for an officer." And he took his musket from his shoulder and stood in a threatening posture, so if we moved he could be ready to fire on us. And he commenced hallooing for the sergeant-of-the-guard.

There we were compelled to stand about one hour before the officer of the day could be found and have a hearing on the case. And no doubt our Irish sentinel was quite happy to get a chance to show a little authority over an American. This I know to be a fact from experience, and I have seen others in the power of the Irish soldiers. They not only carry the laws to the utmost extent and are very insolent to a Protestant prisoner, and they ought not to be enlisted for soldiers, for they know very little about the use of firearms and, as they are enlisted for five years, it takes them the whole time to learn the use of firearms. There is more drunkenness and disturbances got up by them than by any other nation that helps make up our armies.

After the officer of the day arrived and heard our story he very graciously told us to go about our business but warned us not to give them, the officers, any more trouble. Very likely the officer of the day had been disturbed in some little party of pleasure, which made him a little sour on the occasion; and this ended our boat riding for the season.

During the summer of 1819 a treaty was made with the Indians of Michigan Territory. Governor [Lewis] Cass was one of the commissioners and purchased a large tract of country at a trifling expense to the Government. After the treaty was made, large delegations of [Indians] came frequently into the city of Detroit and they used to have terrible drunken spells in which many were stabbed and several were killed from the effect of strong water. Large numbers still wore British ornaments, guns, and swords, which they used to carry about, brandishing them, through the streets in the wildest kind of frenzy; troops often had to be called on to take them into custody.

An election was held to elect a delegate to Congress in the fore part of October or September (I do not now recollect), but I believe that a gentleman by the name of Wing was elected. Here a stratagem of the Irish soldiers was shown forth. Although the officers of the Territory were acquainted with the facts, nothing was said about the deception. The party above named went and borrowed a large quantity of citizens' clothes and [the Irish] dressed up as citizens and went to the polls and voted, then [went] home to their quarters and another party would take the same clothes and dress up and go to the polls and vote; and so they worked until they got in between 200 and 300 votes. Judge Williams, I believe, was the name of the opposing delegate.

One day I was busy at something about the store and I got the hired man to black my shoes for me. Mr. Devotion, the owner or proprietor of the establishment, came accidentally and saw his man at work blacking my shoes, and asked him whose shoes he was blacking. He said, "The young clerk," at which the owner, Mr. D., flew into a passion and forbade the man ever blacking my shoes again. And then he came to me and wanted to know if I had come out there to be waited upon, and swore some, and told me never to employ the man to black my shoes again, and actually insisted on my getting some slush [refuse grease or fat from the galley of a ship] to grease my shoes. He did not stop abusing me until I went and cleaned my shoes myself.

At this time money was very scarce in Detroit, and many of the businessmen had, for their convenience and some for cheating, issued those little bills called shinplasters, from six and a quarter cents to one dollar. This was caused on account, mostly, of the suspension of business after the war.

One Rev. Mr. Ishard, a Roman Catholic priest, was building a large stone church at Detroit, and the old gentleman could not make a "raise" of funds, the times being very hard and money scarce. So he set to work and issued a large amount of these little shinplasters, and at first redeemed them for a while until he had got some thousands of dollars issued. Then he stopped payment under the following supposition, that a large amount of his bills had been counterfeited. And when people would go to the old gentleman with some of his bills for payment, he would commence examining them and throwing them out, and he would say, "Dat is counterfeit, and dat is counterfeit, and dat is counterfeit," and so on until he would throw out about three-fourths of the amount. The report was that he raised enough to pay for his church and get out of debt by pronouncing his own bills forgeries and not redeeming them.

After Mr. Devotion returned from New York with his supply of goods for the winter's trade, we commenced packing the few old goods and our provisions and getting the new assortment ready for shipment.

In the latter part of September appeared a sloop. The Hannah, if I recollect right, was the name, and Captain Belden master and part owner. Mr. Devotion and the captain were three days bartering before they could agree upon a price for the chartering of the sloop. Finally they agreed after three days, and I believe the price was to be seven hundred dollars for a trip from Detroit to Green Bay, as near as I can recollect.

In a few days the sloop was loaded and all was ready for a start. Our master had settled up all his business except for one thing; that was his housekeeper, a woman - or lady, as those who choose may call her. This woman had been brought out from New York by Mr. Devotion, and he had kept her several years in an old French family living a short distance from the store.

The great trouble was to get rid of this woman and send her back to New York. That kept him three days, for she was determined to go with him to the West, and many tears she shed, and clung to Mr. Devotion with a great display of love, etc., and no kind of persuasion could induce her to leave him, and the only way he got rid of her was by threats and money, of which no doubt he had to shell out pretty largely to prevent exposure; and they parted.

The sloop sailed for Green Bay [in October] with a light breeze.

From: THE RECOLLECTIONS OF PHILANDER PRESCOTT, FRONTIERSMAN OF THE OLD NORTHWEST 1819-1862. Edited by Donald Dean Parker. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966: 3 - 10.