Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Old Settler's Story: Part One

Editor's Note: As we count down to May 11, 2008, and the official sesquicentennial of Minnesota's statehood, I want to return to the occasional "Blogger History of Northfield" series that I started here last fall. I'll begin today with the first installment of a multi-part piece about Robert Watson. I wrote briefly about Watson last September 11 in a post about Oaklawn Cemetery.

On September 8, 1825, Robert Watson was born in the city of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland. Dundee lies on the north bank of the Firth of Tay, the estuary where the fresh water of the River Tay mixes with the salt tides of the North Sea. In 1837, when Robert was twelve, he and his father and his ten-year old brother William decided to come to America.

We don’t know anything about Robert’s childhood in Scotland or about his voyage to America, except that the journey was long and hard. John Muir (1838-1918), who grew up to be a famous writer and naturalist, also came to America from Scotland when he was a boy. In The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), Muir writes about the fascination America held for a boy growing up in Scotland. He remembers that one of his school textbooks contained passages by famous American naturalists, including Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) and John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon wrote about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that sometimes darkened the entire sky overhead. Wilson wrote about the power and agility of the bald eagle. To young John Muir, America was a land of wonders.

“In another of our reading lessons,” Muir remembered, “some of the American forests were described. The most interesting of the trees to us boys was the sugar maple, and soon after we had learned this sweet story we heard everybody talking about the discovery of gold in the same wonder-filled country.

“One night, when [my brother] David and I were at grandfather’s fireside solemnly learning our lessons as usual, my father came in with news, the most wonderful, most glorious, that wild boys ever heard. ‘Bairns,’ he said, ‘you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!’ No more grammar, but boundless woods full of mysterious good things; trees full of sugar, growing in ground full of gold; hawks, eagles, pigeons, filling the sky; millions of birds’ nests, and no gamekeepers to stop us in all the wild, happy land. We were utterly, blindly glorious.”

Muir’s grandfather, who would be left behind in Scotland, cautioned his grandsons that there would be plenty of hard work awaiting them in the new country. It wouldn’t all be rollicking adventures in the mysterious woods. There would be chores, plowing and planting, grubbing stumps and roots from the cleared land, and the “cold, painful work” of winter corn husking. And before all of this, there was the long sea voyage from Scotland to America.

In those days, the journey by sailing ship took more than six weeks. The ships were often crowded, damp, and hot. There was often hunger and sickness on board, and the ships were often tossed by violent storms at sea. But between 1820 and 1860, nearly fifty thousand Scottish immigrants made the voyage to America. Nearly eighty percent of those settlers came in the decade between 1851 and 1860, after the rich agricultural land west of the Mississippi River was opened to white settlement.

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .