SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER V - SEEKING A HOME
Our joy of arrival in St. Joseph was short-lived. Mother, who had seemed well throughout the voyage, now became ill. In two weeks she died and we buried her in a St. Joseph churchyard. Well was it that I had given my doll to Elise Jendervin, for in the same grave with my mother I buried my childhood. Although I lacked a month of being thirteen years old, I had no more time for dolls. I had to be mother to my two younger brothers and soon was to be housekeeper for my father.
Mother's sickness and death, together with the calm and storm at sea, had so delayed us that it was too late to find a claim and plant crops that season. Uncle advised Father to make his home at the boarding house for the year and to take his time in selecting a suitable claim.
In the meantime I was assigned to learn American housekeeping in Aunt Christine's kitchen, while the boys were given tasks about the place. Father also arranged that I should attend day school at a convent, the tuition being one dollar a month. Father realized that it was important for me to learn to read and speak English at once. He knew that after I assumed the duties of a home, I would be so busy with my housework that I could no longer attend school, while the boys would have plenty of time to learn English.
Father impressed upon me the importance of learning the speech of the land where we were to live. I was eager to learn, and the Catholic sisters were good teachers. In consequence I could speak and read English fairly well at the end of a two month term. Of course my accent was broken, and I mixed up the order of my verbs and nouns in the sentences, thereby causing people to laugh at me, but instead of being deterred because of their laughter, I tried all the harder. When any one would laugh I would exclaim:
"You no laugh! You tell me how!"
Soon after our arrival Aunt Christine called in a dressmaker and shortly had me fitted out with calico dresses in the best St. Joseph style. But my foreign accent proclaimed to strangers that I had not been long in America, and that brought trouble. The liberality of America in admitting immigrants was regarded with apprehension by a portion of the population which was expressing itself in the "Know-Nothing" movement. The "Know-Nothings" were especially vociferous in western Missouri, where opposition to immigrants was influenced by the fact that Europeans generally opposed slavery, which was the paramount issue on the Kansas-Missouri border. Father took out his first naturalization papers after he had resided in St. Joseph six months, which, under the liberal provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, would make him a voter in either Kansas or Nebraska even though five more years were required for complete citizenship. The provision that foreigners could vote after six months' residence especially irked the "Know-Nothings," and we felt their hostility.
As I walked to school, I was taunted by "Know-Nothing" children for being Dutch. To them all foreigners were Dutch or Irish; and while they did not know my nationality, they knew I was not Irish. Of course it annoyed me to be called Dutch, but their mocking tones annoyed me more. When I reported their taunts to Uncle, he told me not to care but to answer that Dutch was better than they. Next day a big boy ran after me, yelling:
"Yaah, see the Dutch girl!"
When he paused for breath, I retorted:
"Dutch is better than you!"
That surprised him and quieted him and it also gave me satisfaction.
My brother Adolph did not fare so well. One day, the boarding house pump being out of order, Aunt Christine sent him to the public pump to bring a pail of water. A group of "Know-Nothing" boys told him that no Dutch boy could draw water at that well. They threw him into the mud, spilled water on him, soiled his clothing, and beat and kicked him; and as he ran crying toward home, they yelled after him:
"Bawl, you Dutchman, you!"
Adolph arrived home so disheveled and mud-plastered that I scarcely recognized him. His yellow curls were black with mud; his clothing was torn; his face was livid with bruises. Taking him into the house, I helped him wash himself. Father knew only the mountaineer's form of redress, which he promptly put into execution. Leading Adolph by the hand, he went to the public well, where Adolph pointed out the ringleader of the juvenile "Know-Nothings." Father seized and spanked the lad, who howled for help, while his comrades scattered.
Either the howls or the reports of fellow gangsters reached the ears of the victim's mother, for the spanking was scarcely administered before she came running with a constable. Father was taken before a justice of the peace, who delivered a lecture in English, which Father did not understand, and fined him five dollars, which he did understand. I believe, however, that the spanking had a beneficial effect, for after that we were tormented less.
While we were engaged in our various childhood activities, Father busied himself at his brother's workshop. He also made two exploratory journeys into Kansas in quest of a claim. He found much beautiful unoccupied land far back from the river, but the good claims near St. Joseph were already entered. He was especially desirous of settling near St. Joseph, because of the market it afforded and because of the nearness to his brother.
While searching in Doniphan County, which lies across the river from St. Joseph, he found a farmer named Gardner who had pre-empted a claim a day's ox-team drive northwest from St. Joseph but who was unable to make a living for his nine children on the land and was willing to relinquish. As near as I can recall, Mr. Gardner sold Father the relinquishment for one hundred dollars. Father still had to prove up his claim by living on it and by paying the government fee of a dollar and a quarter an acre. This brought the total cost of the one hundred and sixty acres up to three hundred dollars. The claim was mostly upland prairie, but about sixty acres was richly-timbered bottom adjoining the Missouri River almost opposite the town of Amazonia. There was a stone quarry on the farm, and Mr. Gardner had built a log cabin. We decided to take possession in March.
For his farm operations Father bought a wagon, a plow, and several other farm implements. To supplement the feather beds, table linen, and other furnishings which we had brought from Switzerland, he bought a table, chairs, beds, stove, and housekeeping utensils; and for live stock he acquired cows, two yoke of oxen, and a saddle pony named Dick. When all was ready we kissed Uncle Christian and Aunt Christine goodbye and departed for our claim.
What a sensation we would create going down Frederick Avenue in St. Joseph with an ox-team today! But in 1856 a wagon loaded with household effects, farming tools, and a family of children, and all drawn by a double ox-team was so common a sight that the town loafers did not so much as pause in their whittling as we went past. I can still hear Father shouting to the oxen, calling them by name to encourage them.
These were American cattle, unable to understand German or French or the Swiss patois, so Father addressed them in their own language.
"Get up there, Buck and Berry, Spike and Jerry!" he shouted. "Haw, there, haw! Come around, Gee, Gee there, Buck. Gee, Berry, Gee!"
Perched on a sea chest I observed our progress down the avenue to the river and watched our oxen haul us aboard a flat scow, which served as a ferryboat and was propelled by towline and sweeps. Solid board fences prevented the cattle from seeing the surging Missouri across which we voyaged; but from the vantage point of the sea chest I saw the boatmen heave on the towline, which stretched from one bank to the other; and soon we came to the Kansas shore. Climbing up the bank, we drove west and then northwest up on a high prairie ridge overlooking the Missouri bluffs.
It was March and grass was coming to life. Here and there we passed cabins, the homes of pioneers who had entered the territory the summer before. We arrived at our cabin door at dusk, where with a loud "whoa" Father brought the oxen to a stop.
What a contrast was this cabin to our neat Swiss home! The logs were so poorly matched and chinked that wind sifted between them. To my surprise there was no window. One small room composed the downstairs and the upstairs was an unfloored loft reached by a ladder nailed to the wall. The downstairs room was floored with puncheons, so inexpertly placed that they wobbled underfoot as I stepped on them. I wondered where Mr. Gardner found room to stow his nine children.
In the wall opposite the door was a fireplace. Here Father kindled a fire. Then he and the boys brought in our stove, set it up, and built a fire in that. The stove was a necessity, for I had had no experience with cooking in a fireplace. Soon I had a kettle steaming; and while the others unloaded the furniture and took care of the stock, I prepared supper. I had everything ready by the time Father and the boys came in, and we bowed our heads as Father asked the blessing. At last we were at home.