p.16. Letter from America by Matthew Willis.
I dare say you will be anxiously awaiting to hear something of America, and doubtless you will have long wondered why I did not write earlier, as indeed, I promised to do; I have given you one reason why I did not, and another reason was I did not wish to write prematurely on subjects which require intimate knowledge and deliberate consideration; for had I been hasty in so doing I might have committed more errors than I had corrected, as many before me have done. I find many things misrepresented, and others not represented at all. America is a beautiful country especially in many parts of the state of New York. Wisconsin, my present and probably my future home is not in my taste so beautiful as the state just named but the soil is better in quality. It is rich, mellow, and dry from the Lakes to the Missipi river with the exception of a very small portion of low lands which are wet, but not naturally so, as they only require to have the water flowing the springs taken away to render them dry and productive in the first degree.
A considerable portion of this territory is smooth prairie, the rest is part brush prairie, that is covered with brushwood principally hazel from 2 to 4 feet deep, ready to become timberland in a few years, the next sort is timber groves, then heavy timber, and lastly stunted timberland commonly called the barrens or “oak-openings” from the dwarfish appearance of the trees bespeaking a barren soil, but which is believed by some to be the effect of fire running through the woods in the fall, I would rather think the black portion of the soil exhausted by the continued growth of timber, and that in a few years these lands would become smooth prairie or wild meadow, which to American is like lying fallow.
The water here is extremely fine much more so than in England; being the produce of the purest limestone springs; which probably is the reason of the clearness of our rivers, wankies and creeks, which are all formed and formed by them. There is one thing particular to this country, namely, springs of water are seldom found but in the bottoms of the ravines being what is called “rolling” that is hill and valley, ridge and ravine; the rivers running along narrow dead level bottoms, like Yore at Yorescott, while the lands adjoining seem to have been thrown up by some natural convulsion, looking like “crosshills” with steep fronts to the rivers but lying in fine ridges farther back resembling the Wireholms ridge from Breckonbar to T. Robinsons, but the land much superior in quality. The herbage is strong, and wild; with a great many botanic plants which deserve particular attention, and may probably occupy another letter; and it is not a little remarkable that during our long bright summers, where the drought is seldom interrupted except by an occasional thunder shower there is no appearance in the grass, as is too generally the case in the dry parts of the old country. This is quite a mining part, lead ore being found at lmost every step through the southern counties of the territory. It is sometimes found in its pure state, at others it is mixed with black-jack, zinc, saltpeter, sulpher, &c. Whether this circumstance has any effect on the health of the inhabitants or not I am unable to determine. I do not see any other cause why America should not be a much healthier country than Great Britain. But certainly it is the Americans are not so healthy as the British; but this I think is owing to the extreme poor diet on which the Americans live, together with their regular habit of drinking spirits; especially the worst sort of whiskey. I was much disappointed in the manner of the Americans living – they have always been represented as living in the midst of great plenty; they have plenty it is true, but not plenty of those good rich things you enjoy in England; their bread flour is indeed cheap and sound, 5 dollars a barrel 196 lbs, beef and mutton 3 or 4 cents a lb but very poor in quality. I do not think it cheaper than your beef at 4d or 5d, bacon I have bought at three cents quite sweet, but the regular price is 7 or 8 cents, sugar is about the same price as with you, but not so good quality, ours being prepared from the mapletree: coffee is about 12 cents, but so wretchedly bad that it is impossible for an Englishman to drink it with any degree of relish, always sold unroasted. I am unable to tell you the prices of, congou tea such as you drink has not yet been introduced to any part of the United States so far as I can learn – all drink green tea here, such as I myself am wholly unable to manage; here is not any sort of black tea sold commonly here. I have sent to Galena for congou and got in return a miserable sort of bohea, which in the Chineese tongue signifies “dirt” or refuse of sweepings up, but even that is not kept by any of the shopkeepers here. The want of good black tea I have found to be the greatest privation I have hitherto been doomed to endure since our arrival in the new country. I have given from 2 to 4 shillings a pound for bohea tea, which I consider dearer than congou at from 5s to 6s when the quality is taken into the account, salt is 2 cents a pound, cheese is from 10 to 12 ½ cents, but it is with difficulty met with, and I understand that it seldom reaches the age of 4 weeks, frequently not 3, butter, like cheese, is hardly ever seen on the table, not near so good as in England – seldom to be met with at any price; but I suppose it runs from 12 to 36 cents per lb. it appears the Americans don’t think of taking more than three meals a day; and these chiefly consist of the poorest butcher-meat, with potatoes and bread, and coffee or tea to drink. Milk is not much in use here. Bacon and salt pork is sometimes substituted for fresh meat, but the fact of the pigs running 2 years or more in the woods renders it impossible for their flesh to be so fine as those that have a regular feeding and are slaughtered young. Most of the above named things have been shamefully misrepresented, but for what reason I cannot tell. However any that come here may in some measure shape their manner of living to their own minds, as we intend to do so soon as we get settled which we hope will not be long, as we have bought 2 estates of land – one of 60 acres in Grant County about 2 miles from Beeton. The other about 240 acres situated in the County of Iowa. The former of these has 2 dwellings upon it with plenty of the best timber, and is heavy mineral ground exactly in the range of the big lead that was struck between it and Beetown a few days ago of 15 ft by 6 of solid ore. The miners are working for me at one in 7 rent, making, I believe pretty good wages. We gave for it about £17 [English], and it is confidently believed by the neighbours that it would prove a source of great wealth if fairly tried. I suppose about 200,000 lbs of mineral have been raised upon it already. The second place we have named Rawa in commemoration of out little one whom we dropped into the water. It is chiefly smooth prairies with a fine spring of pure water about the size of St James’s well, which increases as it runs through the estate to about the size of Kendal-beck. It is unhappily without much timber which is scarce here; there is however 2 nice young groves of from 10 to 20 years growth upon it. These if protected from the fire will one day be of some account. The rest of the land is finely adapted for plough cultivation being a deep, rich, dry, upland soil, not unlike brother Orton’s garden. 200 acres of this might be ploughed without breaking a furrow, and the worst of it capable of bringing 40 bushels of wheat per acre, for years together. It is also a fine place for a dairy stock, we can keep any quantity of cows or of sheep either, as here is almost unbounded pasturage near. We are having a plot on one of the ridges broke up this fall which we intend to sow with wheat. The plot we are breaking up is 350 yards long and 300 broad, the ridge will make altogether a field of about 100 acres, and it is one of the finest ridges in this part of Wisconsin. Other 10 or 12 acres we intend for potatoes, oates, Indian corn, &c, so that if we be fortunate we may have a tolerably comfortable home in a few years. Our coming out here cost us about £50. I should not have been in a hurry to buy land but on arriving here I found being rapidly taken up, and advancing in value of course. I therefore set to looking for a place immediately; and for the first 4 weeks traveled on foot from 20 to 30 miles a day when the weather was very hot, the thermometer sometimes at 97 in the shade. However I think I have been pretty fortunate in meeting with a nice farmstead near to good markets and good roads, being midway between Dallas on the west fork of the Peckatonic and Pedlars Creeks, 3 miles from each place, and about 8 or 9 miles from Mineral Point the county seat of Iowa, and 33 or 34 from Galena, and from 25 to 30 from the Mississippi river. Here is a good demand for farming produce, wheat from 2s 6d to 3s, oats 1s 3d, and Indian corn 2s per bushel, potatoes 1s 6d or 1s 7d, but not near so good measure as with you. We shall be obliged to make sod fences for want of timber, but we intend to plant trees of some kind on the top of the cap – perhaps wild plum trees, as they succeed well here, wild apple trees and wild cherry trees also are very common about the farm and some few acacias are found in the grove which tops the hill on which we intend to build our dwelling; and it is somewhat amusing to see the deer leap over the hay-cocks and pikes on the farm. Here are no hawthorns here and we find great want of them for hedges. Rhubarb is scarce here and very poor, gooseberries and currantberries are likewise not to be had in this territory except what are wild and nothing worth. Stone is not very plentiful here. I suppose out ploughers have not met with one in all the soil they have turned over on the ridge, which had it been in England might have been expected to abound with stone. Here is, however, some stone on the estate, but being mineral stone it is soft, and little worth for building, this appears to be the best place in America for farming. With about £100 a man may buy and enclose about 100 acres of fine prairie land, this he can break up and sow with wheat in the fall, and reap in July from 35 to 40 bushels per acre. Thus making about £5 or nearly for every £2 he lays out, as the cost of breaking up is only 2 dollars and the harvesting 1 dollar an acre. Had I mine enclosed and put in proper state of cultivation, with suitable live stock to run upon the adjoining open grounds the annual income arising from it would hardly be less than £500 besides paying all expenses. Had I had time this summer to have mown all our land at Rama, it would have produced hay worth more money than the cost of the whole estate. I have mown 2½ or perhaps nearly 3 acres of bottom land near to the spring, and we have got a 9 fathom stack therefrom. I have been very explicit in writing on my own concerns, a subject that would have hardly been touched by some, but you ordered me to tell you every particular about the country, and I did not know how I could give you more correct information than by giving you a description of what I myself was best acquainted with. In conclusion I would say that although the country is in my opinion far superior to the old country for either farmer artisan or day labourer, yet my advice to all is this, - if you be getting tolerable good living in England remain there quietly – if not, here is plenty of work here and plenty of money for doing it. I believe a smith has a dollar for shoeing a horse round, and for heavy iron and steels goods such as hammers, picks, pickaxes, &c, the price is from 1s 3d to 1s 8d per lb, so that nobody need fear bringing too many tools along with him as the carriage will not be more than 3 cents a lb from Liverpool up hither. But bear this in mind, you cannot be so comfortable here as in your native land, houses here are miserably poor in construction and convenience when compared with yours. Perhaps here is not one in all Wisconsin equal to your house, or to brother Richard’s or to brother S. Ws. Westtown. Nearly all here swarm with bugs and ants, which renders it almost impossible to sleep in summer except with ones clothes on; serpents are also very plentiful; locusts likewise, and creckets of all colours; with a great variety of fourfooted animals which it is useless to mention. Their works of art in America are not to be compared to those in the old country. Their cattle are of a mixed breed and small in size, a cow from 10 to 15 dollars. Horses light and somewhat beautiful, sheep rather like the cheviot breed but sometime with horns resembling the old English sort. This is a land that calls for the hand of cultivation, which it would repay tenfold. I myself have traveled through nearly all the southern part of this Territory and scarcely seen an acre of bad land in the whole. The soil is much better than I had anticipated, but timber is not so plentiful. Here are no holly trees here. We entered this territory on the morning of the 25th of June between Waddam’s Grove and White Oak Springs; and arrived at New Diggings about the middle of the afternoon, and Jane and the children stopped at James Harker’s a few weeks till I had made choice of a place to settle. I think wages are about a dollar a day. J. Longmise os mowing at a dollar and board. I do not think a man can live for less money here than in England. Houserents are high and firewood is also very dear in this part of America but work is plentiful and all sorts of work people are very much wanted; we ourselves could do right well with a good farm servant next summer. The climate here so far as we can judge is exceedingly fine, the summers are long, warm, bright and clear, corn harvest in July, good crops this year.
You can direct to me at Rama, Pedlars Creek, Iowa County, Wisconsin Territory, North America, which will be sure to find me.
I remain, &c &c. Matthew Willis. August 18th 1845.