In May 1842 Rev. Charles Edwin Brown and his wife, Frances Lyon Brown, both 29 years old, and their two young sons (Benjamin Perry Brown, almost three years old, and Charles Perry Brown, one and a half years old) left their home in the small village of Warren in the central part of the State of New York to go on a Baptist missionary trip of roughly 1,500 miles to another small village, Maquoketa, in the eastern part of the Iowa Territory.
At the time Rev. Brown was the Pastor of the Baptist Church in Warren. Previously he had submitted an application for appointment as a missionary “in the distant West” with a preference for the Iowa Territory, and his application had been endorsed by the New York State Missionary Convention. Later the American Baptist Home Missionary Society appointed him to be a missionary to the forks of the Maquoketa River in Iowa at an annual salary of $100 plus $75 for travel expenses.
The Browns could not economically ship all of their household goods to Iowa so they sold everything except clothing, bedding, a table, a stand, a rocking chair and a small cook stove. These remnants weighed approximately 1,600 pounds.
This would not be an easy journey. Of course, there were no airplanes or automobiles on Interstate highways to take them there. Nor were there any cross-country railroads. An account of the journey that is set forth in the memoirs of Rev. Brown, my maternal great-great grandfather (2nd great-grandfather in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s parlance), provides a window into what life and transportation were like in the U.S. of 1842 when approximately 17 million people lived in the 26 states of the Union. (Four years later, in 1846, Iowa became the 29th state in the Union.)
The First Stage: Warren to Utica, New York
The initial stage of their trip for six or seven days, from Warren to Little Falls and Utica, New York, of approximately 130 miles presumably was by horse-drawn wagon. Utica, then a town with a population of approximately 13,000, was a terminus on the 17-year old Erie Canal that had been built to connect New York City’s harbor with Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes and thereby improve transportation into, and from, the interior of the U.S. This stage cost the family $15.00.
The Second Stage: Utica to Buffalo, New York
On Monday, May 2nd, at Utica the Browns boarded the Little Western, a passenger packet or Line boat on the Erie Canal for the second stage of their journey. They had a comfortable cabin in the bow. The kitchen and dining cabin were in the stern with freight and baggage amidships. “With good company, clean wholesome food, a sober and accommodating master and crew, the two hundred mile trip from Utica to Buffalo was comfortable and pleasant.” As the boat did not run on Sunday, it was tied up for the day in Tonawanda, New York. This gave the family the opportunity to attend a Methodist Church worship service in the morning and for Rev. Brown to preach in the afternoon. On Monday (May 9th), they arrived in Buffalo, then a town of 18,000 people. The family’s total fare at 2 cents per mile for each adult was $8.00.
With the Erie Canal, Buffalo became a key junction for the shipment of western grain to the east coast and beyond as the Great Lakes ships were too big to go on the Erie Canal. Until 1842 loose grain on the ships had to be manually scooped into baskets and transferred to the wharves by block and tackle while sacks, barrels and casks of grain and flour had be to manually hauled to the wharves and then loaded onto the canal boats, oftentimes with an in-between hauling into and out of warehouses. In late 1842, however, this changed with the invention by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar of a grain elevator with a steam-powered conveyor belt and buckets for the direct transfer of grain from the ships to grain elevators on the land.
The Third Stage: Buffalo, New York to Chicago, Illinois
On May 9th, the family boarded the Great Western, a Great Lakes steamer, for the third stage of their journey. The four-year old, 185-foot Great Western was one of the largest and finest of the day and was the first to have a spacious upper cabin for its nearly 400 passengers. The entire hull was occupied by the boilers with holds for freight and wood.
Prior to completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, shipping on the Great Lakes was primarily on sailing craft as traffic was not sufficient to make the more-expensive steamers profitable to operate. The Erie Canal, however, expanded Lakes traffic so that steamers increasingly became the preferred mode of transportation as they offered fast, efficient and predictable delivery of passengers and freight.
The Great Lakes voyage on the Great Western steamer took six days before arrival on Sunday, May 15th, in the village of Chicago, population of approximately 5,000. Other than a storm the first night out, the trip was pleasant with short stops in Cleveland (population of 6,000) and Detroit (population of 9,000). Mrs. Brown commented that on the way they had seen the “pleasant villages” of Milwaukee, Racine and Southport, Wisconsin. The total fare for the family was $48.00.
The Fourth Stage: Chicago to Savanna, Illinois
After an overnight stay at the New York House, a two-story hotel in Chicago, Rev. Brown hired a man with horses and lumber wagon to take the family and their possessions the additional 200 miles to Savanna, Illinois on the Mississippi River. Their rocking chair and a small chair were put on top of the boxes for Mrs. Brown and the older son to sit on during the ride.
On Monday, May 16th, the fourth stage of the journey began in the lumber wagon. After two over-night stops, they arrived in the town of Rockford, Illinois, the home of the wagon owner. Unfortunately the owner had to testify in a trial, and the family was forced to stay there until the following Monday. The delay, however, gave Rev. Brown the opportunity to preach that Sunday in Rockford’s Baptist Church, his “first sermon in the west.”
On the following Monday after a day’s ride, near Crane’s Grove, Illinois, they asked Mrs. Crane, “middle aged and stout” with a pail of milk, if they could stay there that night. She replied, “Oh, I reckon, though I am mighty tired. The old cow gives a right smart of milk, well on to half a bushel.”
The next morning, the owner of the lumber wagon discovered that he had overfed his horses and one had died. Mr. Crane was then enlisted to take the Browns, again by horse-drawn wagon, the next 18 miles to Cherry Grove, Illinois, where the next day (May 24th) another man, Mr. Gardner, took the family to Savanna, Illinois on the Mississippi River. This was the Brown family’s first view “of the mighty river, its volume then being much greater than in later years.”
The Fifth Stage: Savanna, Illinois to Charleston, Iowa
The fifth stage of the journey on the evening of the 24th was a ferry across the Mississippi River from Savanna to Charleston (later Sabula), Iowa where they stayed the night in the local tavern. Perhaps the ferry looked like the one pictured at the right.
The Sixth Stage: Charleston to Maquoketa, Iowa
The next morning, May 25th, Rev. Brown hired yet another man and team to take them the final 25 to 30 miles to Maquoketa, Iowa. Around midnight they arrived at their destination, Mr. C. W. Doolittle’s cabin. “With cordial frontier hospitality . . . Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle turned out and welcomed us, prepared supper and then gave us their bed, while they found lodging for themselves and family in the cabin loft. Tired and worn by the long and tedious last day’s drive we slept sweetly and soundly, four in the bed, myself, wife and two children.”
This six-stage journey took a month: 6 or 7 days from Warren to Utica plus 24 days from Utica to Maquoketa.
Rev. Brown served as a Baptist missionary in Iowa for most of the following 36 years, a subject that will be examined in a subsequent post.