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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Frontier Culture

On this day in 1834 a Wisconsin minister named Cutting Marsh was en route to a village of Meskwaki (Fox) Indians in southeastern Iowa, to see if they'd like a missionary to open a school at their town, show them how to farm, and teach them how to read the Gospel. On the way there, Rev. Marsh stopped off at a trading post and made this entry in his diary:

"Passed up the river 5 or 6 miles and camped about middle of the P.M. at a Mr. Harrison's. Soon one of the Indians went and traded off his blanket for whiskey and they drank and caroused all night. Their carousing, the dogs, and the people of the house kept an uproar all night so that I was not conscious of sleeping at all.

"Never before have I met with people so untutored, so destitute of good breeding and regard to common civility, particularly as it respects the use of profane language, in my life. Although the female part of society in this family is not chargeable with the use of such language, still they appear exceedingly ignorant and lack delicacy.

"My feelings here have been exceedingly shocked with the things afore mentioned, and when morning light approached I rejoiced to see it, as my mind was constantly roving and could fix upon nothing steadily.

"Surely if there is a righteous God he will recompense such an iniquitous practice as that of trafficking in ardent spirits with Indians. Avarice prompts wicked men to sell this poisonous drug, while it impoverishes the poor Indian, affords the white man but a paltry profit, which when compared with the injury done is not worthy being mentioned."

We like to picture our pioneer ancestors the way they look in old photographs we stumble on at antique malls -- upright, hard-working, and devout. Many of them were. But often the first white people to settle at any specific spot on the frontier were just the opposite: ambitious low-life characters out to make a quick buck in the Indian trade or in real estate speculations.

Rev. Marsh was a prude, even by modern standards. In his diary he denounced smoking, drinking, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, and all forms of vice. So he was peculiarly alert to the minutiae of frontier culture, the little day-to-day oddities that were often white-washed in official county histories that, a generation later, wanted to portray their founding fathers in the most favorable light.

You can follow Rev. Marsh across the frontier and into the lodges of the Sauk and Fox, where he met Black Hawk, Keokuk and other leaders, on our Historic Diaries site. You can also view the entire manuscript at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 24, 2006

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