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Autobiography: Journey to Missouri PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wilson Thompson   



I WAS now preparing to move my residence to Missouri Territory, and my mind became deeply impressed with a conviction that God had a work for me to do in that country, although I had never seen that part of the world. One of my uncles, with a young family, had moved there a few years before, but he was not a professor of religion.

I knew very little of the country, the manners of the people, or the state of religion there, but from some cause, unknown to me, my mind had become so led out for the people there, that I could see them, in my imagination, gathering in crowds to meeting, while a wonderful reformation was going on among them. To that place I thought God had directed my steps, and thither I felt that I must go; but I thought my wife would not be willing to go so far, and leave all her people. Her parents, and all her brothers and sisters, lived a few miles of each other, and they were nearly all members of the Licking Church. Although several of them were married, yet they were all near each other; so I thought my wife would be unwilling to break off from their society and leave them and go so far off among strangers. To go into a new and strange country, and leave the church, too, where we had both been baptized, and where we had so long enjoyed a home and had formed our first religious attachments, I knew would be hard, and I believed she could not consent to do so. I kept this all to myself, but one day my father told me that an old claim had come upon his land, and it being the third farm that he had lost in Kentucky, he never intended to own another in that state, but had resolved to go to Missouri as soon as he could get ready. This struck me with surprise. I knew of the old title having come on his land, but the talk had been that he would rebut it again. My wife and I went home, and that evening she asked me if I believed my father would really move to Missouri. I replied I did, for I saw that his mind was fixed, and I knew that whenever he had become settled on an object he would not hesitate to perform his resolutions. She then inquired if I wished to go with him. I replied that I did not unless she was willing to leave all her people and go with me willingly. She then said she was, “for,” added she, “your people are my people. Their kindness to me since I have been in the family will render it as hard for me to part from them as from my own. I told her I wished her to study the matter well, that I should not take her against her will, but if after due deliberation she concluded she was willing to go, I would surely go. But I wanted her to take time, and count all the cost of parting with her father, mother, brother, sister, church, and all her associates, and the land of her nativity, and go among strangers. I wished her to think of all these things well, “and then,” said I, “if you say that you are willing, we will surely go.” After some days I asked her; she said she was prepare& to say she was willing to go, and, if I so desired, I might prepare for the journey. From that time I believed that God had opened the way in His providence for me to go, and that I should see the work manifested in Missouri. I began to arrange my business accordingly.

The church concluded that, as I was about to leave them, they would call a council, from the several churches, to consider the propriety of having me ordained as a minister before I left them. The council was called and met. The result of their deliberations was to give me general and unlimited license to preach the gospel wherever God, in His providence, should direct, and they recommended me to the churches, and to all whom it might concern, as a licensed preacher. This was approved by the Church at the Mouth of Licking, and by a large council of brethren (elders) from a number of the churches of the North Bend Association of Regular Baptists. I then visited my half-uncle, Elder James Lee, who then lived near the mouth of Twin Creek, Butler County, Ohio, and I tried to preach a few times while out there.

Soon after my return home, we embarked, to go down the Ohio River, in a flat-boat, having taken our start from above the Little Miami River. There was a small rise of the river, but the water was still too low for fast floating, and we were often detained by wind storms that made the journey both tedious and dangerous.

One circumstance I will here relate: One day, as the wind was blowing fiercely, and as we made a short turn in the bend of the river, we suddenly found our boat entering the white foaming breakers. We sprang to our oars and rowed for life. The boat began to rock from side to side, the water occasionally pouring in upon us through the oar-holes. The boat cracked as if she must soon go to pieces, and there were none but Father and myself to work her, except what help the women could give. This was truly a critical time. The women became faint and gave out, excepting my wife who still plied her oar. Finally, we landed on the shore in safety. Several large trading boats were in sight, and they also landed safely.

From one of these boats, which had been tied up not far us, there came a man, who invited us to go to his boat and drink some cider oil, and so be neighborly while the storm prevented us from traveling. The man seemed to be polite and genteel, so my wife, and oldest sister, and I went with him to his boats. There were two of the large boats lashed together; they lay off from the shore, with their bows up the stream, and their stems had floated around against a cluster of willows. The current was swift, running down under the bow of the boat. A long, slim, round-bottomed canoe lay with one end at the shore, and the other reaching along the bow of the large boat. This canoe was the only passway from land to the boat. The man said the canoe was so very easy to turn over, that I had better stay on shore and hold the canoe steady, and he would go with the ladies to the other end and help them into the boat. I stood on the land holding the canoe steady, while the man led my sister, my wife following them, to the further end, when they all took hold of the bow.

As the man stood in the canoe and was assisting my sister over the bow, his position shoved the canoe up the stream away from the boat’s bow, and this caused my wife, who had hold of the boat, to lose her position in the canoe, and, in her effort to regain it, she let go and fell into the river between the canoe and the boat, the current sweeping swiftly und the bow at the time. In falling she threw one hand around and caught a slight hold, with the ends of her fingers, on edge of the canoe, but her feet were carried instantly around under the bow of the boat. I saw it all, and as the man, having failed to get my sister into the boat, still had hold of and could not let her go, I sprang to the further end of canoe, and reaching over the side caught my wife under arms. She was then over her shoulders in water, and her feet were under the bow of the boat. With one strong effort I stood her steadily on her feet in the canoe. All this was the work of a moment. I have always viewed this as a special interposition of Providence. My wife was very heavily clothed, and over all she had a thick cloth riding habit; these were wet and full of water. She lay with her feet from the canoe, down a strong current, and the canoe was so upset, it seems like a special act of Providence, that when I reached out at arm’s length and with almost supernatural strength lifted her up, that the canoe did not immediately turn over. We returned to our boat, and, the next day being mild, we proceeded on our journey.

One day as we were floating along, the women, having become tired of being confined to the boat, requested me to take them to shore in the skiff, and let them walk down the shore awhile. My wife and sister got into the skiff, and, as I was rowing them to shore and had come near the water’s edge, I saw a deer up in the mouth of a hollow. I let the skiff float down out of its sight, and then landed and the women stepped out. I rowed back to the boat and got my gun, and was returning to shore when I saw the deer go into the water to swim across the river. I ran the skiff between the deer and the shore, and then pursued it. A hard race ensued; but I soon overtook it and raised my gun to shoot it as it swam; but after snapping several times, I examined and found my powder all wet. I laid down my gun, pursued the animal again, and, after many fruitless efforts to hit it with oar, which I broke, I was left with but one oar to manage skiff. I used this as a paddle, and ran up to the deer, and caught it by the tail, and then by the hind legs, and so raised hinder parts as to plunge its head under water until it became weak; then I took it into the skiff and butchered it. I then returned to the shore, took the women in, and returned the boat with not a little degree of satisfaction, having quite a fair prospect of living for awhile on venison, for the deer was a very fat one.

In addition to this we occasionally had the opportunity shooting wild geese, ducks, and turkeys, which in these are considered dainties. After being about one month on the water we reached the mouth of the Ohio, and crossed the Mississippi, making fast at “Bird’s Landing”. I here trapped for two pairs of Indian moccasins for Father and myself.

Leaving the women and children in the boat, Father and I started on foot for my uncle’s. It was now cold weather, and we had to travel about sixty miles up the Mississippi to Cape Girardeau, and thence about twelve miles to Uncle Benjamin Thompson’s. We had sent our horses by land, in the care of my brother Jeremiah and a cousin, John Reynolds. We went to get the horses to move the family on, and a keel-boat, and hands to work it, to take our freight up to Cape Girardeau. When we left the boat it was sunset. I took my gun along with me.

Having been so long confined to the boat, and wearing boots all the time, I felt, on getting on my moccasins, and out on the land, as if I could almost fly, and that I could run that seventy miles in a few hours. We had a new tract to travel; the shrubbery was very thick up the river bottom, and a pathway was opened by cutting off the bushes about six inches above the ground. It soon became dark, and as I went I would hit one foot against one of these stubs and then step on another. At first I would jump and spring, bruising my feet almost every minute, which soon became so very sore that they gave me great pain.

Late in the night we heard very strange noises before us. At first we thought it must be some sort of bugle, used on boats along the river. We walked on, but as we neared the noise Father said it was the noise of swans. I never had seen this species of fowl. At length we came to a large lake pond, where the river had apparently once run, but the channel being changed, the basin was left as a kind of lake. There we beheld an innumerable multitude of various kinds of waterfowl. There were flocks of swan, geese, brant, and various species of ducks. They seemed to be holding a general rendezvous, and all were so merry that the air was filled the mingled notes of the bugle whistles, squalls, and flutters. Some newcomers were coursing round and round in the as if seeking the most favorable place to locate; others, tired of the festivity, would rise and with a splash and farewell yell or squall, leave the water and give room for others. I wanted to shoot at them, but Father reminded me that we could not use them nor get them out of the pond, and it would be wrong to kill any of them for mere sport, seeing we should have to leave them.

We struck a fire and lay down by this lake for a little rest, and as we were tired, we were soon fast asleep. It was not long until a feeling as if I were nearly suffocated with smoke caused me to awake. I found that the fire had communicated with the leaves under Father, as he lay with his back to the fire, and had burned a large place out of his coat. I sprang to him, caught him by the shoulders, shook him and called him loud and sharp. He awoke in sudden surprise, and as we had heard a panther scream as we came up, and the wolves had been howling near us, and foxes had been barking, and withal there being a dense forest around us, Father supposed that some wild beast had made an attack upon us. He sprang for the gun; I held to his coat, and we had quite a scuffle before I could make him understand what was the matter. He might have put his head through the hole that was burnt in his new cloth coat.

We then left our fire and went on, and a little after daylight reached Harris’ Settlement, and as Father had some business with Harris, and moreover he being a Baptist, we took breakfast with him. Having rested a short time and got a description of our way, we then proceeded on our journey. My feet were so bruised with the snags that they were swollen and inflamed very much. Every nail finally came off my toes. In this crippled condition I walked on, but with great pain, and the inflammation of my feet caused some fever and headache. The soles of my feet were much bruised from stepping on the sharp stubs in the night, and I became so thirsty I drank at every brook. In this situation we pursued our way until near sunset, when we entered what was called the “Big Swamp”. This was a chain of low, wetlands, interspersed with many large lakes or ponds, cypress swamps, canebrakes, and bayous. This big swamp was from four to eight miles wide, and some three hundred miles long. It ran from the Mississippi River, a little below the town of Cape Girardeau, and extended westward to the St. Francis River near its mouth, as I was told, and hills and cedar cliffs bordered it. All the streams along this region, such as White-water, Castor, Turkey Creek, Bird’s Creek, Hub’s Creek, Randle’s Creek, etc., emptied their waters into this big pond, and were lost in long sloughs of dead, stagnant water Tradition said that the Mississippi once ran through this place, but had finally forced its way through and formed its present channel, until it connected its waters with those of the Ohio at their present junction. The junction of these rivers had formerly been at the mouth of the Arkansas or S Francis. This, though it be tradition, is by no means at all improbable.

Near sunset we entered this big swamp where it was about four miles wide. We had to walk on logs when we could do so, and much of the way we had to wade in water from ankle to knee deep. It was about dark when we reached the high lands. A negro man overtook us, but refused any reward for taking us to my uncle’s. We were very weary, hungry and in much pain. Father’s feet were not so badly hurt as mine, but he was wearied in his hips and back. We walked about two miles farther in the night and came to a cabin. We asked for lodging but were refused, with the plea that they were not prepared “to entertain strangers”. I told the man we were on foot, had no horses to trouble him, and we could lie on the floor by the fire, and, as to eating, we should not be particular, for if we could get that which was good, and plenty of it, we would be satisfied, as we were very hungry. I grew earnest and determined: “We intend to stay with you,” said I, emphatically, “unless you say we shall not, for we are too tired to go any farther if we can help it, and now we await your order.” He replied that he had never turned any one out and should not begin to do so now, but I interrupted him and said: “It is enough,” and we walked in.

We found Mr. and Mrs. Dunn, for that was their name, to be very familiar and kind people. We soon had a good supper, after which we sat by the bright fire, chatted socially until, at our request, we had our bed prepared on the floor so as to lie with our feet to the fire. We were woodsmen and hunters enough to know that lying with the feet to the fire would generally prevent taking cold. We were soon asleep.

Toward midnight I was aroused by the loud snapping of the boards on the roof of the cabin, and on looking up through the loose boards in the garret, I saw the roof in a flame. I sprang from my bed, gave Father a shake, and hallooed “fire! fire! the house is burning!” I threw the door open, and ran up the wall to the top of the house, and began throwing off the poles and burning boards and very soon had most of the roof on the ground. Father ran and fetched water, and quenched the fire on them, and then handed some to me. I succeeded in quenching the fire on the top of the house. When all was done we went into the house, and found Dunn and his wife sound asleep; neither the falling poles and boards, nor the loud talking of Father and me had aroused them, and evidently they would have been burned with their house, with one or two small children, if we had not been there.

So inconceivable is the wisdom of God in the dispensation of His providence, to fulfill His purposes of mercy, that no event is unforeseen by Him, nor can anything surprise or frustrate His designs. However we may view such events as mere casualties or accidents, all are known to God, both means and ends; and, in His providence, they are directed and controlled, so that all the movements, or secondary causes, are conducted according to His wise designs. These people, when we had with much difficulty awakened them, and when they had heard and seen, with astonishment, what had happened while they were strangely sleeping so soundly, seemed deeply affected, and the man said he would never again refuse to entertain strangers. His life and that of his family had probably been rescued by us. Finding that the fire was entirely extinguished, we again retired to rest, and early in the morning we started on our journey. My feet remained extremely sore and painful, but being young, I felt a little rested, and could hobble along; but Father was worse, and his hips and back were so lame, he doubted being able to walk to his brother’s, which, we learned, was distant about six or seven miles. We started, however, and in due time arrived.

After getting some men to take the keel-boat down the river to bring up our freight, and finding my brother and cousins all there, safe with the horses, we hurried back. Some went by land with the horses, others went down the river with the keel-boat, to meet us opposite the mouth of the Ohio, at Bird’s Landing, where we had left our boat and family. It began to snow the day we started, and it snowed very hard, too, but we traveled hard until dark, and stopped at a house for the night. The snow-storm continued. Some time in the night the man that had started in the keel-boat came to us, saying that the river was so full of floating ice, they had been compelled to secure the keel-boat at Harris’ Landing, and could not get her any further until the ice had stopped running.

We became very uneasy about our women and children that we had left in our boat, lest the ice might injure them. We hired our landlord to go down with us, and take his oxen wagon to haul our goods up to Harris’s. So, as soon the morning light enabled us to see our way, we started, and, before night, reached our boat, and found all well and safe. We left my brother and cousin to load the wagon and go up with it to Harris’s, about thirty miles, and there store our goods until the ice would permit the keel-boat to run. We went on with the family, and at Harris’s, we examined the keel-boat, and got him to take charge of its safety, and of our goods when they came. The next evening we reached my uncle’s again.

Here we continued a few days. My brother and cousins came home; and they told us that the man who hauled our goods got drunk, broke down his wagon on a rainy day, and they had to unload and reload in the snow and rain. All our things had got wet, and many of them were broken and some were lost. They had finally got them to Harris’s, and stored them into a waste house all wet. Here they lay until the ice stopped running. We then got some hands, and went down and loaded them into the keel-boat, and got them up to Cape Cirardeau.

Here was performed the first “cordelling” that I ever did. This is done by fastening a long rope to the bow of the boat, and grasping the other end in your hands, taking the rope over your shoulder and running along the shore, bending forward and pulling the boat after you, while others in the boat keep it from the shore, and off the rocks or sand-bars. In many places the current of the Mississippi is so strong, that for an hour or more, you have to keep in a constant strain, for the least relaxation gives the boat the advantage you, and the current takes her back. Sometimes, in pulling this rope, you have to clamber along the sides of rocks that bluff into the river; at other times you have to climb over large fragments of broken rocks which have slid down from the neighboring cliffs; at another time you will have to pull with your feet sinking in the quicksand, in which case you dare not let them rest in one place for a minute, or you would sink down in the sand. Still, let the foothold be what it may, you must keep all your strength steadily on the rope, or the boat would go back. I, being young and strong, had to take my place at the “cordell”. My feet were still tender, so we made slow headway; my shoulder became sore with the rope, but I had to stand it.

Finally, we arrived at the Cape. Here we hired a team to take the goods out to my uncle’s, and then I went out on foot, but Father staid behind to come with the team. Next day we became uneasy at the non-arrival of the wagon, and I was about to start to see what could be the matter when we saw them coming. The first man Father had hired broke his wagon, and he had to procure another, which caused him some delay. Father moved into a house that was empty, on a claim; and I stopped in my uncle’s kitchen until we could look for some place to rent for the first year.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 November 2006 )
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