1823 Willcox

Orlando Willcox (1823- ) the noted Civil War general was born in Detroit, Michigan. He wrote this fictionalized autobiography under the name of Walter March.


Orlando WillcoxOurs was a little antiquated city. Its inhabitants were mostly French. At the time I came upon the stage of events, the transition to a modern American town had scarcely commenced. The body of the population was still of the ancien regime. The few Americans were officers, or ex-officers, of either the general or territorial government, and their families, relations, dependents, and friends, whom they had persuaded to venture beyond the "jumping-off place," as Buffalo was then termed. The spirit of emigration had not been fully aroused; and the spirit of speculation, if felt at all, was confined to fur-traders, a class made up of all nations.

I cannot compare the society more nearly than to that of some principal East India Company station in a city of Hindostan. There were the governor of the territory and his family, the judicial, executive, and military functionaries, with their families and dependents; like subahdar, nabobs, begums, and the lesser lights - traders and natives, French, Indian, and half-breed. But one could not well imagine a pleasanter state of feeling than mutually existed, with sufficient distinction between the different castes or classes to prevent wrangling, and yet sufficient community of interest, prejudice, and pleasure to make everybody sociable. The French gave a tone of gaiety - the military, both elevation and hospitality. There were balls, where everybody danced with everybody's wife and daughter. There were theatricals, where the most dignified gentlemen took parts. It may be a mere whim, but I think I never have elsewhere met such easy polish and affability among gentlemen. There was no touchiness about position in the social scale, and consequently neither stiffness nor affectation; and to this day, the same easy grace of manner is notable among the sons and daughters of the good old city.

The traveller, journeying at that period from New York westward, after leaving Albany, penetrated into regions where civilization grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until he became quite certain of having passed the ultima thule, when he would stumble with astonishment on our little community. There he would be welcomed with a courtesy no less gracious, and a hospitality much warmer than he would himself have extended to a stranger in the metropolis.

Yet there he would behold the Frenchman, riding in his two-wheeled cart to market with white fish and onions, and screaming a rascally patois. Or he might observe a wedding procession, of the same mercurial race, driving through the principal - or rather only - avenue, at full speed to church, two and two, in little antique caleches; the bride, of course, dressed in white, but wearing no bonnet, though rejoicing in a veil that sweeps the ground, and her bridesmaids driving after, as bonnetless as herself - a happy state of things to which the dear ladies of the present day are fast returning.

As he sauntered along up the street, he would see old-fashioned buildings, stores and dwellings forming a promiscuous row, with high gables and dormer-windows, roofs peaked like Vandyke hats, with their edges notched and painted red, and doors panelled into four parts, and opening by subdivisions, like modern window-shutters. Motley groups, consisting of French, Americans, and Indians, sit with their sociable pipes enjoying confabulations made up of words, nods, shrugs, and the impenetrable "ugh! ugh!" of the taciturn red man. Peeping into the halls and rooms as he passed, he might here and there discern a carpet, but generally the floors were covered with Indian mats. The shops would be filled with bales of fur, gaudy-colored calicoes - known as Indian calicoes - mococks of maple sugar, broidered with painted porcupine quills, deerskins, moccasins, and Indian trinkets; few such, however, as are now palmed off upon the curious and credulous stranger at Niagara.

Often he may meet on the sidewalk an Indian - some dark Potowattimie, or tall, painted Sac or Fox - one of Nature's own noblemen, erect and martial in his bearing, and with a single ridge of stiff, black hair, standing like the crest of a helmet on his head; or, peradventure, groups of Winnebagoes, with blue blankets on their handsome squaws, while their own arms, ears, and noses would jingle with silver ornaments; or, skulking along, some thievish craven of a Mennomonie, whose name was no less a term of reproach among the nobler tribes, than hat of the Samaritan with the disdainful children of Judah. Passing above the town, he might find large, conical, birch-bark tents pitched on the long slope of the river bank, and graceful, light pirogues drawn up in regular rows on the shore; these belong to the Indians, whom he may, if it chance to be payment season, behold in hundreds, or even thousands. Succotash is boiling in huge iron or brass pots over the fires. A small army of famished, wolfish-looking dogs lie around, winking lazily in the sun; and no smaller army of naked children are running every where - some pitching bright coppers, other shooting with their bows and arrows, and others swimming and diving in the limpid water; while around on the trees or fence, or sides of the wigwams, he may behold many infant papooses sleeping in their hanging cradles of hide and birch; or with their heads strapped back, looking on the scene with wise, unwinking eyes. They seldom cry, and are no inapt representations of Patience on a monument.

He would meet pretty, fawn-faced young squaws who glance coquettishly at him, and no less so at themselves, or rather some ornament, or little rude mirror half-concealed on their persons. Now and then one peeps at him from behind the blanket at the tent-door. Respectable elderly women would be sitting around, at work on mococks, mats, or moccasins, or cooking game, or pilfered chickens in the sugar-boiler, or smoking fish, depending from a stick sustained over the fire by two forked uprights. Shame to the Pale Faces! - he might hear drunken noises issuing from a lodge here and there; or worse, see an Indian and his wife, or several squaws by themselves, alternately caressing each other and quarreling, moved by the demon that lurks in fire-water.

There must be dark shadows in every picture, especially in a picture of human life.

Gratefully, now, let him turn, at the soft sound of an Indian flute, played with no great skill or variety of cadence, but plaintively, by some young dandy. It is a reed, into which holes are burned for the gamut of notes, and around it are wound deerskin thongs to prevent splitting. Possibly, your Indian Pan may be joined by a musical brother on the drum, which is naught else, after all, than a species of rude banjo - a skin drawn over a hoop, as everybody knows. Then fortunate the Gothamite might deem himself to witness an Indian dance at that comparatively primitive period.

As he strolls out further from the town, he is struck with a peculiarity in the divisions of the farms; for each one is but a narrow strip of land running back into the woods two or three miles, so that every farmer may have a front on the river. A hundred or so yards from the beach stands the farm-house, similar to those already described, with only more amplitude of dimensions, and a broad, indolent, sun-loving porch, on which sleeps an old dog - practised no less in raccoon lore than experienced in swimming after wild-ducks. In cozy familiarity, and old cat is blinking by his side, or purring as she rubs her electric coat against his shaggy hair; or perched on his back, a piping chicken is with difficulty balancing itself, as it picks at the flies which buzz around his nose, or alight with a tickling mischief on his lazily-flapping ears.

In front of the house are the cherry-trees, and in the rear the pear and apple-orchards; and the traveller is surprised to find the best of fruit thus far beyond the pale of civilization - fruits brought from sunny France, and planted by the skillful Jesuit; apples, red to the core, large and luscious; cherry that rival nectarines; and pears of every variety, and of every season, from July to November. Nor will the patch of onions escape his notice: it is a Frenchman's flower-garden - the invariable concomitant of every family who may claim a foot square of mother earth. The fish-net or seine is stretched on the fence. The long, flint-lock duck gun, with leathern pouch and powder-horn, is hung on wooden hooks in the hall. The canoe is drawn up on the beach.

But hark! you hear the sound of distant voices come stealing over the water. Turn towards the river. See a long pirogue, or more ample Mackinaw boat - perhaps a little fleet of them in a single line, manned by voyajeeurs, or courreurs de bois, and loaded with packs of peltries. The oarsmen have fitted out at Mackinaw, to appear in style at Detroit - the greater station, and nearer civilization. Probably the present is the glad occasion to which they have looked forward, and they have talked over their plans concerning it for many, many months. Each garcon has a sash around his waist, and pulls a red oar. They keep perfect time - and it is joyous quick time - with the notes of a French song which was chanted in France a century ago:

"Malbrooks s'en va t'a guerrah!"

Or perchance the air is one you may not recognize:

"A Lon-don day.

S'en va coucher!"

No music could be more lively or inspiring. It comes over the water - is accompanied by the plash of oards. It is roared out with the utmost spirit, too, by that most glorious of all instruments, the human voice. It has pealed through the woods, and over the river and lakes, for thousands of miles. It has animated those brave adventurers in camp, at portage, through summer and winter, rain and snow, sickness, peril, and death; and now, joy! joy! it greets the steeples of St. Ann! The children run out of the houses, down to the river shore, to hear it; the maiden turns pale, and blushes, and hurries to the door; the old man hobbles out and waves his hat. Troops of people rush down to the wharves to see them land; and such shouts of welcome and rejoicing never were known before.

Ah! that was a happy time for everybody. Our little community was not yet divided on the question of Bibles in schools, or wine on the side-boards. Slavery was little talked of, and as for disunion - the mere word was considered, by the veriest Kenuck, as a profanation of human language.

But as settlers from New England began to thicken among us - Bostonians they were indiscriminately denominated - it gradually came to light that our lively little community were scarce a grain better than the wicked, nay than the very heathen; witness the fiddling and dancing on Sunday evenings (and pleasant Sunday evenings they were deemed by us, in our dreadful ignorance), wherever there was any little neighborhood of French people - on the great wide porch, or beneath the trees on the grass; or, if in the house, with the doors and windows thrown wide open. And there were the prettiest and most mischievous-eyed French girls, dancing away for dear life with the good-looking, frank-mannered voyajeurs, or courreurs de bois, in their red, yellow, or green sashes, long black hair, and blue calico shirts. Such abominations attracted the "growing attention" of the strict sober-sides from the land of Jonathan Edwards, as he passed these dens of Apollyon, on his way to the place where prayer was wont to be made. Then was there not racing to church the year round, and racing home again? And were there not regular trotting matches on the afternoons of the great days of the church, which brought the people in from the country, up and down the river? Especially, was there ever anything like it in the winter season, when the wicked river would even wink at these atrocities by freezing over, so that nothing was seen on Sunday afternoons but carioles turned up in the front, in a curl like a skate, gliding, or rather flying, over the ice, two and two? The little Canadian ponies held their tails up in the air like banners, and their noses protruding into the clouds, or snorting between their legs - they trotting like made, while the garcons whooped like Indians, shouting, whey! avance! arriez! ever and anon stealing a flashing kiss from the bright demoiselles at their sides.

Then on Easter morning, was not the church-yard of St. Ann's fairly riotous with boys cracking painted eggs? Nay, in the same precincts, were not idolatries frequently committed? Was not the Host carried in procession by chanting Jesuits and nuns, to a high mound called Mount Calvary, where there was a huge cross , and beneath which lay the tomb of our Savior? Doubt not that these abominations smelt in the nostrils of the sons of the Puritans.

But, in the time of my boyhood, the feud had not taken any religious turn among the boys, who, I must confess, were very far behind the boys of the present day, and knew little of religious controversies, and talked not dogmatically of these, nor of the various ologies in which the present juvenile generation are so good and wise. There was, however, a feud; it was the boys of one schoolyard against the boys of another schoolyard, and easily waxed warm, in consequence of any collision, invasion, or interference. It might occur over a game of ball, or the schism might arise over a combat between individuals of the two opposing schools, which would always lead to a choice of champions, and wager by battle to settle the respective merits; but which generally raised new grounds of controversy, and involved greater numbers, till each and every member of one community stood ready to thrash each and every member of equal size on the other side.. . .

The Vicar of St. Ann's was the pious and polished old missionary, Father Robert. Where this son of the Scarlet Lady hid his cloven foot, I never knew; for of all men he was beloved in our community - even among the unco good Protestants. He was celebrated in the Catholic annals of the Northwest for his learning, self-devotion, and enthusiasm. He was the first to do honor to the neglected remains of Father Marquette, the explorer of the Mississippi. He established the first newspaper; though, whether this was an act of grace and Christian charity, some of the Berkeleys of the day may be disposed to doubt. He was likewise entrusted without interests at the seat of the Federal Government, as our territorial deputy to Congress, and was acknowledged by everybody at home as the best-hearted and most agreeable of men. He did good Protestants the honor to respect their heretical prejudices, and was a frequent visitor at their houses.

"Ah, Mrs. March," he would sometimes say to my mother with great politeness, "if all Protestants were as good Catholics as you, there would be no trouble in the world." . . .

There was yet wanting in our cup another element of happy discord considered now indispensable in every well-organized city - the foreigner question. We scarcely knew what foreigners were, except as brethren in pursuit of fortune and happiness. The Frenchman who left his cherries to the birds, his sheep to the dogs, and his fish-seine to le diable, for the purpose of shouldering his musket at the call of General Hull, would have been astonished to have been branded as a foreigner. And as for the English or Scotch fur trader, whose packs had been pillaged by the British at Mackinaw, whose money had flowed freely as his blood would have flowed in defence of the town, and who cursed "Old Hull" as a traitor, or pitied him as a coward - no one ever thought of him as a foreigner. In fact we all dwelt together harmoniously, to the best of my recollection, and knew no more distinction of blood or nationality than they are innocently supposed to know in heaven.

From: SHOEPAC RECOLLECTIONS: A WAY-SIDE GLIMPSE OF AMERICAN LIFE. By Walter March. New York: Bunce & Brothers, 1856: 1 - 23.

See Also:

Hamil, Fred Coyne. The French Heritage of the Detroit Region. Michigan History 1963 47 (1): 41-46.

Willcox, Orlando. Forgotten Valor: The Memoirs, Journals, and Civil War Letters of Orlando B. Willcox. Edited by Robert Garth Scott. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999.