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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Downhill All the Way?

Reading today's headlines fills our minds with endless examples of outrageous depravity. Contrasting these horrors with nostalgic memories of our own idealized childhoods, it's easy to conclude that the world is going to the dogs. Standards of personal morality and public behavior have both deteriorated dramatically.

But maybe society has always been like this.

"More Tolerable to Live amongst Indians "

In the summer of 1834 a Wisconsin minister named Cutting Marsh set out from Lake Winnebago to visit the Meskwaki (Fox) Indians in southeastern Iowa. He'd been asked to see if they'd like to have a missionary come live with them. Rev. Marsh was a very stern New England puritan, and he was appalled by the behavior of frontier settlers he encountered along the way.

A few weeks into his journey across Wisconsin and into Iowa, Marsh made the following notes at a frontier trading post:

"In the morning after breakfast, the company all left and went up the river, and late in the P.M. returned and stayed some time. The brandy bottle was again resorted to and some used awfully profane language. How much more tolerable to live amongst Indians than such as only use their knowledge of God to blaspheme his holy name! Let my abode rather be in some vast wilderness than with such…

"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.

"Exceedingly Shocked"

"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."

Marsh had especially harsh words for the greedy traders who ruined the lives of both their Indian customers and themselves:

"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."

Downhill All the Way?

Rev. Marsh was a prude, even by contemporary conservative standards. In his diary he denounced smoking, drinking, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, and all forms of vice. He was peculiarly alert to the minutiae of frontier culture, the little day-to-day oddities that were white-washed out of the official histories which, a generation later, portrayed every community's founding fathers in the most favorable light.

His observations also show that greed, cruelty, and hideous random violence were routine parts of early Wisconsin life, as they are in our own. If society is really going to the devil, it's been en route for a long time.

You can follow Rev. Marsh across the frontier and into the lodges of the Sauk and Fox on our Historic Diaries site. You can also view the entire manuscript of his diary at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in on August 2, 2012
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