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.
In the year , 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
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
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
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
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.