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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

Thunder on the Wisconsin

Editor's Note:

The portage between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers is probably the most important location in Wisconsin history. Connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi, this mile or so of land was traversed for thousands of years by Indians, traders, and settlers before our modern city, Portage, had been formed. Capt. Thomas Jefferson Cram mapped it in detail about 1840 and it figures prominently in most early travelers' accounts.

Trader Pierre Paquette (1799-1836), famous for his physical strength, carried them and their belongings across in an ox-cart kept there for the purpose. Surgeon McDougall has not been identified.

Thunderstorms, often spawning tornadoes, were frequently commented on by all travellers. Although most probably did not engage in philosophical reflections such as Marsh's, fear was a natural reaction in the face of massive natural forces encountered on the open lakes and prairies, far from any buildings.

20th [June, 1834].

Was busy during the A.M. in making preparation to leave and cross the Portage into the Wisconsin. Had an interview with Mrs. Cutler, found her a very accomplished lady, formerly from Salem, Mass., a member of the Ep.[iscopal] church and apparently a very good woman. Was introduced to Dr C. McDougall, Surgeon of the Ft and his lady also, both members of the Pres[byterian] ch. and a very fine couple.

About 2 o'clock P.M. left the Ft having all of our luggage on board of a waggon and the canoe also, attached to the waggon was three yoke of oxen, and the road exceedingly bad.

After putting our things on board we again started our journey down the Wisconsin, a large fine river, the water of a reddish color, and not very pleasant to the taste. In many places very shallow and has dangerous sand-bars. The numerous islands at once attracted my attention and it is said that there are fifteen hundred from the Portage to the mouth where it empties into the Mississippi. The current being strong we descended rapidly and after running 10 or 15 miles we encamped for the first time up its banks...

At about 10 or 11 o'clock a tremendous cloud arose in the south and came up the river heavily charged with electric fluid, and lightning very sharp, and the peals of thunder frequent and heavy. The rain poured down in torrents seemingly and the wind blew a gale. The tent was at once sent from its fastenings, and it was with our utmost efforts that we prevented its being entirely swept away.

It was then that I felt that our lives and destinies were in God's hands and he might most easily as well as most justly cut us off... How feeble our efforts to preserve our own lives, when a single stroke of lightning darting continually about us like arrows of divine vengeance might strike us dead in a moment!... But he who rides upon the storm and holds the winds in his fists graciously preserved our lives.

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