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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Town and Country Life in 1800
By John Bach McMaster (1852–1932)
From ‘A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War’

WHAT was then known as the far West was Kentucky, Ohio, and central New York. Into it the emigrants came streaming along either of two routes. Men from New England took the most northern, and went out by Albany and Troy to the great wilderness which lay along the Mohawk and the lakes. They came by tens of thousands from farms and villages, and represented every trade, every occupation, every walk in life, save one: none were seafarers. No whaler left his vessel; no seaman deserted his mess; no fisherman of Marblehead or Gloucester exchanged the dangers of a life on the ocean for the privations of a life in the West. Their fathers and their uncles had been fishermen before them, and their sons were to follow in their steps. Long before a lad could nib a quill, or make a pot-hook, or read half the precepts his primer contained, he knew the name of every brace and stay, every sail and part of a Grand Banker and a Chebacco, all the nautical terms, what line and hook should be used for catching halibut and what for mackerel and cod. If he ever learned to write, he did so at “writing-school,” which, like singing-school, was held at night, and to which he came bringing his own dipped candle, his own paper, and his own pen. The candlestick was a scooped-out turnip, or a piece of board with a nail driven through it. His paper he ruled with a piece of lead, for the graphite lead-pencil was unknown. All he knew of theology, and much of his knowledge of reading and spelling, was gained with the help of the New England Primer. There is not, and there never was, a textbook so richly deserving a history as the Primer. The earliest mention of it in print now known is to be found in an almanac for the year 1691. The public are there informed that a second impression is “in press, and will suddenly be extant”; and will contain, among much else that is new, the verses John Rogers the Martyr made and left as a legacy to his children. When the second impression became extant, a rude cut of Rogers lashed to the stake, and while the flames burned fiercely, discoursing to his wife and nine small children, embellished the verses, as it has done in every one of the innumerable editions since struck off. The tone of the Primer is deeply religious. Two thirds of the four-and-twenty pictures placed before the couplets and triplets in rhyme, from
  “In Adam’s fall
We sinnèd all,”
  “Zaccheus, he
Did climb a tree
Our Lord to see,”
represent Biblical incidents. Twelve “words of six syllables” are given in the spelling lesson. Five of them are—abomination, edification, humiliation, mortification, purification. More than half the book is made up of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, some of Watts’s hymns, and the whole of that great Catechism which one hundred and twenty divines spent five years in preparing. There too are Mr. Rogers’s verses, and John Cotton’s ‘Spiritual Milk for American Babes’; exhortations not to cheat at play, not to lie, not to use ill words, not to call ill names, not to be a dunce, and to love school. The Primer ends with the famous dialogue between Christ, Youth, and the Devil.
  Moved by pity and a wish to make smooth the rough path to learning, some kind soul prepared ‘A Lottery-Book for Children.’ The only difficulty in teaching children to read was, he thought, the difficulty of keeping their minds from roaming; and to “prevent this precipitancy” was the object of the ‘Lottery-Book.’ On one side of each leaf was a letter of the alphabet; on the other two pictures. As soon, he explained, as the child could speak, it should thrust a pin through the leaf from the side whereon the pictures were, at the letter on the other, and should continue to do this till at last the letter was pierced. Turning the leaf after each trial, the mind of the child would be fixed so often and so long on the letter that it would ever after be remembered.  2
  The illustrations in the book are beneath those of a patent-medicine almanac, but are quite as good as any that can be found in children’s books of that day. No child had then ever seen such specimens of the wood-engraver’s and the printer’s and the binder’s arts as now, at the approach of every Christmas, issue from hundreds of presses. The covers of such chap-books were bits of wood, and the backs coarse leather. On the covers was sometimes a common blue paper, and sometimes a hideous wallpaper, adorned with horses and dogs, roosters and eagles, standing in marvelous attitudes on gilt or copper scrolls. The letterpress of none was specially illustrated, but the same cut was used again and again to express the most opposite ideas. A woman with a dog holding her train is now Vanity, and now Miss Allworthy going abroad to buy books for her brother and sister. A huge vessel with three masts is now a yacht, and now the ship in which Robinson Crusoe sailed from Hull. The virtuous woman that is a crown to her husband, and naughty Miss Kitty Bland, are one and the same. Master Friendly listening to the minister at church now heads a catechism, and now figures as Tommy Careless in the ‘Adventures of a Week.’ A man and woman feeding beggars become, in time, transformed into a servant introducing two misers to his mistress. But no creature played so many parts as a bird, which after being named an eagle, a cuckoo, and a kite, is called finally Noah’s dove.  3
  Mean and cheap as such chap-books were, the peddler who hawked them sold not one to the good wives of a fishing village. The women had not the money to buy with; the boys had not the disposition to read. Till he was nine, a lad did little more than watch the men pitch pennies in the road, listen to sea stories, and hurry, at the cry of “Rock him,” “Squail him,” to help his playmates pelt with stones some unoffending boy from a neighboring village. By the time he had seen his tenth birthday he was old enough not to be seasick, not to cry during a storm at sea, and to be of some use about a ship; and went on his first trip to the Banks. The skipper and the crew called him “cut-tail”; for he received no money save for the fish he caught, and each one he caught was marked by snipping a piece from the tail. After an apprenticeship of three or four years the “cut-tail” became a “header,” stood upon the same footing as the “sharesmen,” and learned all the duties which a “splitter” and a “salter” must perform. A crew numbered eight; four were “sharesmen” and four were apprentices; went twice a year to the Banks, and stayed each time from three to five months.  4
  Men who had passed through such a training were under no temptation to travel westward. They took no interest, they bore no part in the great exodus. They still continued to make their trips and bring home their “fares”; while hosts of New-Englanders poured into New York, opening the valleys, founding cities, and turning struggling hamlets into villages of no mean kind. Catskill, in 1792, numbered ten dwellings and owned one vessel of sixty tons. In 1800 there were in the place one hundred and fifty-six houses, two ships, a schooner, and eight sloops of one hundred tons each, all owned there and employed in carrying produce to New York. Six hundred and twenty-four bushels of wheat were brought to the Catskill market in 1792. Forty-six thousand one hundred and sixty-four bushels came in 1800. On a single day in 1801 the merchants bought four thousand one hundred and eight bushels of wheat, and the same day eight hundred loaded sleighs came into the village by the western road. In 1790 a fringe of clearings ran along the western shore of Lake Champlain to the northern border, and pushed out through the broad valley between the Adirondacks and the Catskills to Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. In 1800 the Adirondack region was wholly surrounded. The emigrants had passed Oneida Lake, had passed Oswego, and skirting the shores of Ontario and the banks of the St. Lawrence, had joined with those on Lake Champlain. Some had gone down the valleys of the Delaware and Susquehanna to the southern border of the State. The front of emigration was far beyond Elmira and Bath. Just before it went the speculators, the land-jobbers, the men afflicted with what in derision was called “terraphobia.” They formed companies and bought millions of acres. They went singly and purchased whole townships as fast as the surveyors could locate; buying on trust and selling for wheat, for lumber, for whatever the land could yield or the settler give. Nor was the pioneer less infatuated. An irresistible longing drove him westward, and still westward, till some Indian scalped him, or till hunger, want, bad food, and exposure broke him down, and the dreaded Genesee fever swept him away. The moment such a man had built a log cabin, cleared an acre, girdled the trees, and sowed a handful of grain, he was impatient to be once more moving. He had no peace till his little farm was sold, and he had plunged into the forest to seek a new and temporary home. The purchaser in time would make a few improvements, clear a few more acres, plant a little more grain, and then in turn sell and hurry westward. After him came the founders of villages and towns, who, when the cabins about them numbered ten, felt crowded and likewise moved away. Travelers through the Genesee valley tell us they could find no man who had not in this way changed his abode at least six times. The hardships which these people endured is beyond description. Their poverty was extreme. Nothing was so scarce as food; many a wayfarer was turned from their doors with the solemn assurance that they had not enough for themselves. The only window in many a cabin was a hole in the roof for the smoke to pass through. In the winter the snow beat through the chinks and sifted under the door, till it was heaped up about the sleepers on the floor before the fire….  5
  Beyond the Blue Ridge everything was most primitive. Half the roads were “traces” and blazed. More than half the houses, even in the settlements, were log cabins. When a stranger came to such a place to stay, the men built him a cabin and made the building an occasion for sport. The trees felled, four cornermen were elected to notch the logs; and while they were busy the others ran races, wrestled, played leap-frog, kicked the hat, fought, gouged, gambled, drank, did everything then considered an amusement. After the notching was finished the raising took but a few hours. Many a time the cabin was built, roofed, the door and window cut out, and the owner moved in, before sundown. The chinks were stopped with chips and smeared with mud. The chimney was of logs, coated with mud six inches thick. The table and the benches, the bedstead and the door, were such as could be made with an axe, an auger, and a saw. A rest for the rifle and some pegs for clothes completed the fittings.  6
  The clothing of a man was in summer a wool hat, a blue linsey hunting-shirt with a cape, a belt with a gayly colored fringe, deerskin or linsey pantaloons, and moccasins and shoe-packs of tanned leather. Fur hats were not common. A boot was rarely to be seen. In winter, a striped linsey vest and a white blanket coat were added. If the coat had buttons—and it seldom had—they were made by covering slices of a cork with bits of blanket. Food which he did not obtain by his rifle and his traps he purchased by barter. Corn was the staple; and no mills being near, it was pounded between two stones or rubbed on a grater. Pork cost him twelve cents a pound, and salt four. Dry fish was a luxury, and brought twenty cents a pound. Sugar was often as high as forty. When he went to a settlement he spent his time at the billiard-table, or in the “keg grocery” playing Loo or “Finger in Danger,” to determine who should pay for the whisky consumed. Pious men were terrified at the drunkenness, the vice, the gambling, the brutal fights, the gouging, the needless duels they beheld on every hand. Already the Kentucky boatmen had become more dreaded than the Indians. “A Kentuc” in 1800 had much the same meaning that “a cowboy” has now. He was the most reckless, fearless, law-despising of men. A common description of him was half horse, half alligator, tipped with snapping-turtle.  7
  On a sudden this community, which the preachers had often called Satan’s stronghold, underwent a moral awakening such as this world had never beheld.  8
  Two young men began the great work in the summer of 1799. They were brothers, preachers, and on their way across the pine barrens to Ohio, but turned aside to be present at a sacramental solemnity on Red River. The people were accustomed to gather at such times on a Friday, and by praying, singing, and hearing sermons, prepare themselves for the reception of the sacrament on Sunday. At the Red River meeting the brothers were asked to preach, and one did so with astonishing fervor. As he spoke, the people were deeply moved; tears ran streaming down their faces, and one, a woman far in the rear of the house, broke through order and began to shout. For two hours after the regular preachers had gone, the crowd lingered and were loath to depart. While they tarried, one of the brothers was irresistibly impelled to speak. He rose and told them that he felt called to preach, that he could not be silent. The words which then fell from his lips roused the people before him “to a pungent sense of sin.” Again and again the woman shouted, and would not be silent. He started to go to her. The crowd begged him to turn back. Something within him urged him on, and he went through the house shouting and exhorting and praising God. In a moment the floor, to use his own words, “was covered with the slain.” Their cries for mercy were terrible to hear. Some found forgiveness, but many went away “spiritually wounded” and suffering unutterable agony of soul. Nothing could allay the excitement. Every settlement along the Green River and the Cumberland was full of religious fervor. Men fitted their wagons with beds and provisions, and traveled fifty miles to camp upon the ground and hear him preach. The idea was new; hundreds adopted it, and camp-meetings began. There was now no longer any excuse to stay away from preaching. Neither distance, nor lack of houses, nor scarcity of food, nor daily occupations prevailed. Led by curiosity, by excitement, by religious zeal, families of every Protestant denomination—Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians—hurried to the camp-ground. Crops were left half gathered; every kind of work was left undone; cabins were deserted; in large settlements there did not remain one soul. The first regular general camp-meeting was held at the Gasper River Church, in July, 1800; but the rage spread, and a dozen encampments followed in quick succession. Camp-meeting was always in the forest near some little church, which served as the preachers’ lodge. At one end of a clearing was a rude stage, and before it the stumps and trunks of hewn trees, on which the listeners sat. About the clearing were the tents and wagons ranged in rows like streets. The praying, the preaching, the exhorting would sometimes last for seven days, and be prolonged every day until darkness had begun to give way to light. Nor were the ministers the only exhorters. Men and women, nay, even children took part. At Cane Ridge a little girl of seven sat upon the shoulder of a man and preached to the multitude till she sank exhausted on her bearer’s head. At Indian Creek a lad of twelve mounted a stump and exhorted till he grew weak, whereupon two men upheld him, and he continued till speech was impossible. A score of sinners fell prostrate before him.  9
  At no time was the “falling exercise” so prevalent as at night. Nothing was then wanting that could strike terror into minds weak, timid, and harassed. The red glare of the camp-fires reflected from hundreds of tents and wagons; the dense blackness of the flickering shadows, the darkness of the surrounding forest, made still more terrible by the groans and screams of the “spiritually wounded,” who had fled to it for comfort; the entreaty of the preachers; the sobs and shrieks of the downcast still walking through the dark valley of the Shadow of Death; the shouts and songs of praise from the happy ones who had crossed the Delectable Mountains, had gone on through the fogs of the Enchanted Ground, and entered the land of Beulah, were too much for those over whose minds and bodies lively imaginations held full sway. The heart swelled, the nerves gave way, the hands and feet grew cold, and motionless and speechless they fell headlong to the ground. In a moment crowds gathered about them to pray and shout. Some lay still as death. Some passed through frightful twitchings of face and limb. At Cabin Creek so many fell, that lest the multitude should tread on them, they were carried to the meeting-house and laid in rows on the floor. At Cane Ridge the number was three thousand.  10
  The recollection of that famous meeting is still preserved in Kentucky, where, not many years since, old men could be found whose mothers had carried them to the camp-ground as infants, and had left them at the roots of trees and behind logs while the preaching and exhorting continued. Cane Ridge meeting-house stood on a well-shaded, well-watered spot, seven miles from the town of Paris. There a great space had been cleared, a preacher’s stand put up, and a huge tent stretched to shelter the crowd from the sun and rain. But it did not cover the twentieth part of the people who came. Every road that led to the ground is described to have presented for several days an almost unbroken line of wagons, horses, and men. One who saw the meeting when it had just begun wrote home to Philadelphia that wagons covered an area as large as that between Market Street and Chestnut, Second and Third. Another, who counted them, declared they numbered eleven hundred and forty-five. Seven hundred and fifty lead tokens, stamped with the letters A or B, were given by the Baptists to communicants; and there were still upward of four hundred who received none. Old soldiers who were present, and claimed to know something of the art of estimating the numbers of masses of men, put down those encamped at the Cane Ridge meeting as twenty thousand souls. The excitement surpassed anything that had been known. Men who came to scoff remained to preach. All day and all night the crowd swarmed to and fro from preacher to preacher, singing, shouting, laughing, now rushing off to listen to some new exhorter who had climbed upon a stump, now gathering around some unfortunate, who in their peculiar language was “spiritually slain.” Soon men and women fell in such numbers that it became impossible for the multitude to move about without trampling them, and they were hurried to the meeting-house. At no time was the floor less than half covered. Some lay quiet, unable to move or speak. Some talked but could not move. Some beat the floor with their heels. Some, shrieking in agony, bounded about, it is said, like a live fish out of water. Many lay down and rolled over and over for hours at a time. Others rushed wildly over the stumps and benches, and then plunged, shouting “Lost! Lost!” into the forest.  11
  As the meetings grew more and more frequent, this nervous excitement assumed new and more terrible forms. One was known as jerking; another, as the barking exercise; a third, as the Holy Laugh. “The jerks” began in the head and spread rapidly to the feet. The head would be thrown from side to side so swiftly that the features would be blotted out and the hair made to snap. When the body was affected, the sufferer was hurled over hindrances that came in his way, and finally dashed on the ground to bounce about like a ball. At camp-meetings in the far South, saplings were cut off breast-high and left “for the people to jerk by.” One who visited such a camp-ground declares that about the roots of from fifty to one hundred saplings the earth was kicked up “as by a horse stamping flies.” There only the lukewarm, the lazy, the half-hearted, the indolent professor was afflicted. Pious men, and scoffing physicians who sought to get the jerks that they might speculate upon them, were not touched. But the scoffer did not always escape. Not a professor of religion within the region of the great revival but had heard or could tell of some great conversion by special act of God. One disbeliever, it was reported, while cursing and swearing, had been crushed by a tree falling on him at the Cane Ridge meeting. Another was said to have mounted his horse to ride away, when the jerks seized him, pulled his feet from the stirrups, and flung him on the ground, whence he rose a Christian man. A lad who feigned sickness, kept from church, and lay abed, was dragged out and dashed against the wall till he betook himself to prayer. When peace was restored to him, he passed out into his father’s tan-yard to unhair a hide. Instantly the knife left his hand, and he was drawn over logs and hurled against trees and fences till he began to pray in serious earnest. A foolish woman who went to see the jerks was herself soon rolling in the mud. Scores of such stories passed from mouth to mouth, and may now be read in the lives and narratives of the preachers. The community seemed demented. From the nerves and muscles the disorder passed to the mind. Men dreamed dreams and saw visions, nay, fancied themselves dogs, went down on all fours, and barked till they grew hoarse. It was no uncommon sight to behold numbers of them gathered about a tree, barking, yelping, “treeing the Devil.” Two years later, when much of the excitement of the great revival had gone down, falling and jerking gave way to hysterics. During the most earnest preaching and exhorting, even sincere professors of religion would on a sudden burst into loud laughter; others, unable to resist, would follow, and soon the assembled multitude would join in. This was the “Holy Laugh,” and became, after 1803, a recognized part of worship.  12

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