Letter from Edward Gillen

The Boston Pilot Saturday May 11, 1850     

      The West Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin April 22nd, 1850     

      My dear Donahue,  Since I wrote last to you, I have traversed a considerable portion of Iowa, by inland, and river roads, and from what I have seen of the country, I never met with a better prospect, or I might say none so good for the man with small means to settle down on the farm, and secure for himself a permanent residence.     

      On the eastern boundary of Iowa, along the banks of the Mississippi, which is from 100 to 150 feet high, and about 2 or 3 miles back from the river.  The ground is considerably broken and hilly, but generally well supplied with timber, along the banks.  From that westward, the aspect of the country is one uniform succession of regular rolling and undulating little hills, like so many extensive and luxuriant meadows, - the grass varying from one to five feet high, some parts burned in fall last, and other prairie not burned yet.  Along rivers and other small streams there is timber enough, and on some of these dark, alluvial soil from one foot to three feed deep.  The greater part of this are many excellent locations not taken as yet.  There is one place in particular to which I would call the emigrant's attention: it is the vicinity of DeWitt, fifty-four miles south of Dubuque and twenty miles north of Davenport, on the state road between both places, and sixteen miles west from Camanche, a village, and landing on the Mississippi.  It is the chief town of Clinton County, - containing about a score of houses at present; about a mile West of it are two new mills, and one grist mill.  There is government land within half a mile of the town, and any amount of the same from that out on every side.     

      On the Waspsipinicon River, which flows past it about three miles South there is abundance of timber, on both sides of the river.  Some of the best of it is taken, but there is still a large portion of it unoccupied as yet.  There is another ridge about one mile in breath, called Centre Grove.  The East end of which is about eight to ten miles from the Mississippi; there is timber and good water enough to be found there.  I am told there are some good springs in that Grove, and there are running streams on both sides of it.      

      There is a beautiful stream takes its rise in the North side of Centre Grove, turned around the East end, and runs South about six miles into the Wapsipinicon, - it is called "Brophy's Creek".  A Mr. Brophy from the Green Isle has a large farm on it at present.  There are but three or four settlers in this Grove as yet, and they are squatters, who have paid nothing for the land as yet.  From this Grove, about six miles South, and twenty miles North, and eight or ten miles East, to the Mississippi, is all extensive prairie, with some groves towards the North, and principally all government land, - few houses to be seen in any direction.  What a pity to see so much excellent land, wood and water, inhabited only by the prairie hen, and so many able-bodied men in the Eastern cities, who, with little trouble, could reap a rich harvest on these fertile plains.  What an excellent place for raising cattle; both here and throughout the whole state, a man might keep one thousand head of them in summer, no one to ask, where they came from; he may also mow as much hay as he pleases, (and good hay) haul it home and stack it, no one to hinder him, and what is still better, he may select one hundred and sixty acres of government land, raise some sort of a dwelling on it, fence, and plough as much as he can, no felling or burning of trees, no stubbing nor grabbing, nothing but fence it, and plough it, and in with the seed.  In a few years, if he be able to pay $1.-25 cents per acre, for his land, it is all right, if not, some one comes along with some hundreds of ready cash in his pocket.  Seeing a house already built, a portion of the farm in cultivation and generally speaking, a good location, he gives the squatter from $100 to $500 for his improvements, and good will of the claim, goes then, and if possible, gets a land warrant, gets his deed and he is secure.  These land warrants for 160 acres of land are sold out West, for $136 as cash, thus saving about $64 in a quarter section.  The man who squatted on the farm a few years ago, without a dollar, has now himself, or go still further ahead and raise another claim on some other desirable spot, and sell it; and so keep moving on towards the setting sun, - some make a business of this squatting and going ahead.  However it is a very handy way to support a family, and raise cash to purchase a farm himself.  As I have remarked in my first letter, the law is, that another man paying cash for the squatter's claim, can get a complete deed, and turn him out, however, seldom happens, especially in Iowa, or where government land is plenty.  In such places there are club laws, or fraternal laws among neighbors themselves, that no interloper is to turn with any man's claim, without his consent, - if he would; he might not look out some dark night for a bonfire of his crop, or fences, or the roof over his head.  They will tell him, if he wants land, there is plenty of Uncle Sam's land; but let the poor man be.  Some are seven years out there on land, and never paid a cent either to "Uncle Sam" or the tax collector.     

      In DeWitt is a little Catholic Church, about half a dozen of Irish Catholic families in the vicinity.  The nearest Catholic clergyman to it is Rev. A. Pelamourgass of Davenport, one of the most assiduous, attentive, and accommodating ministers I have met with.  He constructs a portion of his Church into a schoolroom during the week, and hauls off the desks before Sunday; he teaches himself; has about seventy or eighty children in average attendance.  From Davenport North, about seventeen miles to the Wapsipinicon River, it is all expansive prairie, little timber, until we come to the vicinity of the river, where there is timber enough; some Irish families are settled on the South side of the river, who removed there from Indiana, - they say they can raise as much crop on one acre there as on two acres in Indiana.  There are good locations on the South side of the river, timber and prairie at government prices.  For such as would wish to proceed there, I will point out the route, and the names of those who will give them any necessary information on the subject.     

      From the East, their course, via Buffalo, to Chicago either around the North end of Michigan by a steamer, or across Michigan by railroad, to New Buffalo, on Lake Michigan, then by steamer across Lake Michigan to Chicago, then from Chicago to Galena, them by a steamer down the Mississippi to Camanche, about fifty miles, about seven miles West from Camanche, Mr. Brophy resides on "Brophy's Creek", also Mr. Malachy, Gennooney and Mr. William Horne, DeWitt, Clinton County, Iowa; on the South side of the Wapsipinicon is Mr. Patrick McCalpin, Walnut Grove, Iowa.  These gentlemen will take pleasure in giving any information respecting the location of any advantageous spot, in the vicinity.  There is none of those Western states clear of ague; but Iowa and Wisconsin, has less of it, and are more healthy than any other Western states in general.  There is little marshy ground; the water is pure, and runs freely, which causes the country to be more healthy; but in flat or marshy ground they do have some ague, the worst places I have met in Wisconsin, are the counties from Milwaukee to Rock river, - West from there you will scarce hear a word about ague.  Iowa is healthy, except in some flat ground near some river.     

      The California fever continue to rage with great fury throughout the West, especially in Iowa.  There are thousands of gone cases already this season.  The principal antidote, and cure is, want of cash.  Any man can get a farm cheap, for ready money.  I have already advised emigrants coming to those Western states, if they cannot get employment, shortly after arriving in those landing places, not to remain there, let them proceed ahead into the country, and they will get employment somewhere.  It is impossible they can get employment in those landing ports, where hundred are flocking in daily.  They will be as ill situated as in the Eastern cities.  The country, and inland towns and villages, are the best chance for either the laborer, farmer, or mechanic.     

      I would also remark, there are various landing places along the Western lakes which might be more advantageous for some to land at, then the two chief ports, vis, Milwaukee and Chicago, - for these two cities are overcrowded and will be during the time of navigation.  In the North of Wisconsin, the first port met with is Manitowoc; about thirty miles South is Sheboygan; thirty miles further South is Port Washington; about twenty-five miles on is Milwaukee, twenty-five miles further South is Racine; ten mile is Southport; fifteen miles further on is Waukegan; and forty miles further South is Chicago.  I might be well for some of the emigrants to land at these intermediate ports, - there is often more opportunities of getting employment, and less crowded houses to shelter in, until they find a more permanent residence.     

            Yours, etc.,                           Edward Gillen


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