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The Story of a Pioneer
Digital History ID 3647

Author:   Anna Howard Shaw
Date:1915

Annotation: Anna Howard Shaw emigrated with her family to the United States when she was only four years old. They settled in Michigan but her father left the family when Anna was only 12 years old. Her mother had a mental breakdown leaving Anna to care for her family. She became a teacher at fifteen and in 1886 graduated as a doctor from Boston University. However, working for woman’s suffrage was her passion. She was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She published her autobiography in 1915.


Document: In 1846, my parents went to London. There they did not linger long, for the big, indifferent city had nothing to offer them. They moved to New- castle-on-Tyne, and here I was born, on the fourteenth day of February, in 1847. Three boys and two girls had preceded me in the family circle, and when I was two years old my younger sister came. We were little better off in Newcastle than in London, and now my father began to dream the great dream of those days. He would go to America. Surely, he felt, in that land of infinite promise all would be well with him and his. He waited for the final payment of his debts and for my younger sister's birth. Then he bade us good-by and sailed away to make an American home for us; and in the spring of 1851 my mother followed him with her six children, starting from Liverpool in a sailing- vessel, the John Jacob Westervelt.

I was then little more than four years old, and the first vivid memory I have is that of being on ship- board and having a mighty wave roll over me. I was lying on what seemed to be an enormous red box under a hatchway, and the water poured from above, almost drowning me. This was the beginning of a storm which raged for days, and I still have of it a confused memory, a sort of nightmare, in which strange horrors figure, and which to this day haunts me at intervals when I am on the sea. The thing that stands out most strongly during that period is the white face of my mother, ill in her berth. We were with five hundred emigrants on the lowest deck of the ship but one, and as the storm grew wilder an unreasoning terror filled our fellow-passengers. Too ill to protect her helpless brood, my mother saw us carried away from her for hours at a time, on the crests of waves of panic that sometimes approached her and sometimes receded, as they swept through the black hole in which we found our- selves when the hatches were nailed down. No mad- house, I am sure, could throw more hideous pictures on the screen of life than those which met our childish eyes during the appalling three days of the storm. Our one comfort was the knowledge that our mother was not afraid. She was desperately ill, but when we were able to reach her, to cling close to her for a blessed interval, she was still the sure refuge she had always been.

On the second day the masts went down, and on the third day the disabled ship, which now had sprung a leak and was rolling helplessly in the trough of the sea, was rescued by another ship and towed back to Queenstown, the nearest port. The passengers, relieved of their anxieties, went from their extreme of fear to an equal extreme of drunken celebration. They laughed, sang, and danced, but when we reached the shore many of them returned to the homes they had left, declaring that they had had enough of the ocean. We, however, remained on the ship until she was repaired, and then sailed on her again. We were too poor to return home; indeed, we had no home to which we could return. We were even too poor to live ashore. But we made some penny excursions in the little boats that plied back and forth, and to us children at least the weeks of waiting were not without interest. Among other places we visited Spike Island, where the convicts were, and for hours we watched the dreary shuttle of labor swing back and forth as the convicts car- ried pails of water from one side of the island, only to empty them into the sea at the other side. It was merely ``busy work,'' to keep them occupied at hard labor; but even then I must have felt some dim sense of the irony of it, for I have remembered it vividly all these years.

Our second voyage on the John Jacob Westervelt was a very different experience from the first. By day a glorious sun shone overhead; by night we had the moon and stars, as well as the racing waves we never wearied of watching. For some reason, prob- ably because of my intense admiration for them, which I showed with unmaidenly frankness, I be- came the special pet of the sailors. They taught me to sing their songs as they hauled on their ropes, and I recall, as if I had learned it yesterday, one pleasing ditty:

Haul on the bow-line, Kitty is my darling, Haul on the bow-line, The bow-line--HAUL!

When I sang ``haul'' all the sailors pulled their hardest, and I had an exhilarating sense of sharing in their labors. As a return for my service of song the men kept my little apron full of ship sugar-- very black stuff and probably very bad for me; but I ate an astonishing amount of it during that voy- age, and, so far as I remember, felt no ill effects.

The next thing I recall is being seriously scalded. I was at the foot of a ladder up which a sailor was carrying a great pot of hot coffee. He slipped, and the boiling liquid poured down on me. I must have had some bad days after that, for I was ter- ribly burned, but they are mercifully vague. My next vivid impression is of seeing land, which we sighted at sunset, and I remember very distinctly just how it looked. It has never looked the same since. The western sky was a mass of crimson and gold clouds, which took on the shapes of strange and beautiful things. To me it seemed that we were entering heaven. I remember also the doctors com- ing on board to examine us, and I can still see a line of big Irishmen standing very straight and holding out their tongues for inspection. To a little girl only four years old their huge, open mouths looked appalling.

On landing a grievous disappointment awaited us; my father did not meet us. He was in New Bedford, Massachusetts, nursing his grief and preparing to return to England, for he had been told that the John Jacob Westervelt had been lost at sea with every soul on board. One of the missionaries who met the ship took us under his wing and conducted us to a little hotel, where we remained until father had received his incredible news and rushed to New York. He could hardly believe that we were really restored to him; and even now, through the mists of more than half a century, I can still see the expression in his wet eyes as he picked me up and tossed me into the air.

My father was one of a number of Englishmen who took up tracts in the northern forests of Michigan, with the old dream of establishing a colony there. None of these men had the least practical knowledge of farming. They were city men or followers of trades which had no connection with farm life. They went straight into the thick timber-land, in- stead of going to the rich and waiting prairies, and they crowned this initial mistake by cutting down the splendid timber instead of letting it stand. Thus bird's-eye maple and other beautiful woods were used as fire-wood and in the construction of rude cabins, and the greatest asset of the pioneers was ignored.

Father preceded us to the Michigan woods, and there, with his oldest son, James, took up a claim. They cleared a space in the wilderness just large enough for a log cabin, and put up the bare walls of the cabin itself. Then father returned to Law- rence and his work, leaving James behind. A few months later (this was in 1859), my mother, my two sisters, Eleanor and Mary, my youngest brother, Henry, eight years of age, and I, then twelve, went to Michigan to work on and hold down the claim while father, for eighteen months longer, stayed on in Lawrence, sending us such remittances as he could. His second and third sons, John and Thomas, re- mained in the East with him.

Every detail of our journey through the wilder- ness is clear in my mind. At that time the railroad terminated at Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we covered the remaining distance--about one hundred miles--by wagon, riding through a dense and often trackless forest. My brother James met us at Grand Rapids with what, in those days, was called a lumber-wagon, but which had a horrible resem- blance to a vehicle from the health department. My sisters and I gave it one cold look and turned from it; we were so pained by its appearance that we refused to ride in it through the town. Instead, we started off on foot, trying to look as if we had no association with it, and we climbed into the un- wieldy vehicle only when the city streets were far behind us. Every available inch of space in the wagon was filled with bedding and provisions. As yet we had no furniture; we were to make that for ourselves when we reached our cabin; and there was so little room for us to ride that we children walked by turns, while James, from the beginning of the journey to its end, seven days later, led our weary horses.

To my mother, who was never strong, the whole experience must have been a nightmare of suffering and stoical endurance. For us children there were compensations. The expedition took on the char- acter of a high adventure, in which we sometimes had shelter and sometimes failed to find it, some- times were fed, but often went hungry. We forded innumerable streams, the wheels of the heavy wagon sinking so deeply into the stream-beds that we often had to empty our load before we could get them out again. Fallen trees lay across our paths, rivers caused long detours, while again and again we lost our way or were turned aside by impenetrable forest tangles. Our first day's journey covered less than eight miles, and that night we stopped at a farm-house which was the last bit of civilization we saw.

The division of labor planned at the first council was that mother should do our sewing, and my older sisters, Eleanor and Mary, the housework, which was far from taxing, for of course we lived in the simplest manner. My brothers and I were to do the work out of doors, an arrangement that suited me very well, though at first, owing to our lack of experience, our activities were somewhat curtailed. It was too late in the season for plowing or planting, even if we had possessed anything with which to plow, and, moreover, our so-called ``cleared'' land was thick with sturdy tree-stumps. Even during the second summer plowing was impossible; we could only plant potatoes and corn, and follow the most primitive method in doing even this. We took an ax, chopped up the sod, put the seed under it, and let the seed grow. The seed did grow, too--in the most gratifying and encouraging manner. Our green corn and potatoes were the best I have ever eaten. But for the present we lacked these luxuries.

We had, however, in their place, large quantities of wild fruit--gooseberries, raspberries, and plums --which Harry and I gathered on the banks of our creek. Harry also became an expert fisherman. We had no hooks or lines, but he took wires from our hoop-skirts and made snares at the ends of poles. My part of this work was to stand on a log and frighten the fish out of their holes by making horrible sounds, which I did with impassioned earnestness. When the fish hurried to the surface of the water to investigate the appalling noises they had heard, they were easily snared by our small boy, who was very proud of his ability to contribute in this way to the family table.

During our first winter we lived largely on corn- meal, making a little journey of twenty miles to the nearest mill to buy it; but even at that we were better off than our neighbors, for I remember one family in our region who for an entire winter lived solely on coarse-grained yellow turnips, gratefully changing their diet to leeks when these came in the spring.

Such furniture as we had we made ourselves. In addition to my mother's two chairs and the bunks which took the place of beds, James made a settle for the living-room, as well as a table and several stools. At first we had our tree-cutting done for us, but we soon became expert in this gentle art, and I developed such skill that in later years, after father came, I used to stand with him and ``heart'' a log.

On every side, and at every hour of the day, we came up against the relentless limitations of pioneer life. There was not a team of horses in our entire region. The team with which my brother had driven us through the wilderness had been hired at Grand Rapids for that occasion, and, of course, immediately returned. Our lumber was delivered by ox-teams, and the absolutely essential purchases we made ``outside'' (at the nearest shops, forty miles away) were carried through the forest on the backs of men. Our mail was delivered once a month by a carrier who made the journey in alter- nate stages of horseback riding and canoeing. But we had health, youth, enthusiasm, good appetites, and the wherewithal to satisfy them, and at night in our primitive bunks we sank into abysses of dream- less slumber such as I have never known since. Indeed, looking back upon them, those first months seem to have been a long-drawn-out and glorious picnic, interrupted only by occasional hours of pain or panic, when we were hurt or frightened.

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