Fairy Tracks

Its hard for us to really understand the difficulty that our ancestors faced, moving from another country to settle in the relative wilds of North America. Once in awhile, there is a blinding light of insight in the form of a published journal or a collection of letters "back home." One example is "A True Picture of Emigration," written by Rebecca Burlend and her son, Edward Burlend (edited by Milo Quaife and published by University of Nebraska Press). It covers not only the more obvious problems of transport, clearing land, planting crops, but also those startling little differences that remind a traveler or an emigrant that he is not at home.

Rebecca, with her husband, John, and three children left Yorkshire, England for Pike County in western Illinois in 1831. She was born in Yorkshire in 1793. They, of course, traveled by ship from England, but landed in New Orleans, rather that a more typical eastern seaport such as New York, and travel up the Mississippi to their destination. The book is based upon Rebecca's writings, which were edited by her son in England. It was first published in London in 1848 with the overwhelming title "A True Picture of Emigration: Or Fourteen Years in the Interior of North America; Being a Full and Impartial Account of the Various Difficulties and Ultimate Success of an English Family Who Emigrated from Barwick-in-Elmet, Near Leeds, in the Year 1831."

Her observations of early Illinois are all the more keen due to the newness to her eyes. She reports that "it is not etiquette" in Illinois to remain sitting at the table after eating. To do so is to imply that the quantity of food was insufficient. In regard to her log cabin, she notes that its description will give a correct idea of the "American peasantry." Her cabin was without windows; two rooms; with the rooms separated by boards so badly joined that cracks were clearly visible. One room had a dugout cellar with dirt floors and walls. During summer, one of the two cabin doors always stood open to help get the fire to draught to the chimney. The chimney was of local stone from the fields, held together with mud and clay. The house was covered with oak shingles, which she described as thin riven boards nailed upon each other so as to over-reach. The floor was built the same. There was a bed in the same room as a fireplace, there was a table made from a few boards nailed , supported by the timber in the wall and was "...dignified with the name 'sideboard'." The cabin had 4 chairs made of hickory and candlesticks made from ears of corn. Herbs were hung from the roof.

Food and eating seemed to be quite a change for Rebecca. She reports that the Illinois settlers only had three meals a day, with little variety- consisting primarily of bread, butter, coffee, and bacon. Fresh meat was uncommon unless a farmer had butchered or had been successful hunting. Corn became a main staple during winter. Candles were made, using metal molds, but since they had neither molds nor tallow, they used lard in a saucer, with a rag placed in it to serve as a wick. This caused a high saucer mortality rate, which was mourned as saucers were not easily obtained in rural Illinois.

Rebecca tells the story of hunting for meat in Illinois. They fed frequently on rabbit, but despite seeing a number of deer, they were never able to shoot one for lack of a rifle. After seeing numerous turkeys, her husband was finally successful in shooting one. They decided to share their luck with a neighbor. The neighbor seemed quite surprised that her husband was able to shoot a turkey with the weapon he possessed and asked to see the bird. As soon as he saw the bird, the neighbor exclaimed that it was a "buzzard" not a turkey and unfit for human consumption. Rebecca explains that they learned that a buzzard ate filth and was not fit to be eaten. They discarded their prize out the front door. Instead of turkey, they dined on corn and bacon.

Mosquitos also received quite a discussion for the folks back in England. She reports that they often make a fire at the door, covered it with green leaves, creating smoke that temporarily provides relief from the biting effects which she had to explain to those back in Yorkshire. On the other end of the insect spectrum, Rebecca tells of encountering "sparks of fire dancing about most mysteriously." She and her husband were curious but were afraid to approach them "for fear they were connected with something super-human." Upon arriving back to their cabin after their first observations, they saw a neighbor who explained that they were "light bugs", known in Illinois as fire-flies.

Apparently even Illinois nights evoked pronounced differences to the Yorkshire back home. Unlike the absolute stillness of a Yorkshire England that she describes as "a delightful silence", Rebecca tries to describe the variety on nighttime Illinois sounds . She notes the presence of numerous owls and the lark-sized bird that repeats but three notes crying "Whip away" or "Whip poor Will." Beyond this, she reports on the American bullfrog "whose voice completely drowns the preceding".

She tells the story of them encountering small footprints in their freshly plowed field- prints that appeared to be that of a small barefoot child. They wondered if they were made by a small Indian child that perhaps wandered away from the adults, carefully hidden in the nearby deep forest. Or perhaps the footprints were left by fairies. Her husband tracked the prints across the field, hoping to discern their origin. Later they learned they were from a raccoon­­ an exotic animal unknown to them in Yorkshire.

Of course Illinois weather differed much from the Yorkshire that she knew so well. She explains to those "back home" how much brighter the stars are in the Illinois winter night skies, due to the lower humidity. She describes the fearful lightning storms that prowl the Illinois lands, frequently striking trees near their log cabin, but never striking it because the "dry log house is a bad conductor of the electric fluid."

On the more serious side, she tells how her daughter's clothes caught fire while she was with her father, checking the progress of burning out stumps. The girl ran in terror and before the father could reach her and extinguish the flames, she ran through the wheat field, spreading the fire and initiating the destruction of much of their crop. She describes their efforts to fight the fire and the amount of the crop that was saved. The health of the daughter was not mentioned.

It is unlikely that their failures and successes were unique. It is more likely that this little book represents a time capsule of the life and times of early emigrants in Illinois. Its a sobering story about true hardships. If you wanted something, you either grew it, made it, traded for it, or did without it. Adding to this was the newness of a new country­­ strange plants and animals, and different weather, and new customs.

And fairy tracks across your new plowed fields.

<hr><FONT SIZE=3> This article posted to Zephyr online December 20, 1997<CENTER><IMG src="http://www.misslink.net/zephyr/hline.gif"></CENTER><CENTER><A href=HTTP://www.misslink.net/zephyr><IMG src="http://www.misslink.net/zephyr/baktozep.gif" alt="Back to the Zephyr home page."></A><A href=MAILTO:zephyr@misslink.net><IMG src="http://www.misslink.net/zephyr/sendmail.gif" alt="Send us e mail"></A></CENTER><CENTER><IMG src="http://www.misslink.net/zephyr/hline.gif"></CENTER>