Monday, January 18, 2016

Elizabeth Creighton Best's Prairie Springtime

It's one of Iowa's colder January mornings --- minus-2 here in the southland before dawn, much colder up north. So now is a good time to haul out some photos I look May-August during the year just past of flowers blooming on Derby-area prairie remnants and scatter them among Elizabeth Creighton (Alexander) Best's memories of arrival by covered wagon in Lucas County during the spring of 1855. All of these flowers would have been blooming then, as now, but in far greater numbers during that long-ago season.

That's Elizabeth at left in a photo taken when she was growing older. The dashing gentleman in Civil War uniform below is her husband, Joseph C. Best. These photos have been posted online in a couple of places by descendants, including Betty Best --- great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth and Joseph.

The setting for the memoir is the immediate neighborhood of Oxford Cemetery, 3-4 miles northeast of Chariton, where the earliest marked graves are those of Best family members and their relations.

Elizabeth, just 16 at the time, had married her distant cousin, Joseph, 11 years her senior, on Oct. 24, 1854, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania; and had just turned 17 when they set out the following spring for Iowa. She was pregnant during that trip west with their first child, Edward H. Best, who was born in Lincoln Township on Aug. 5, 1855. There would be nine more children, two of whom died young.

The J.C. Best mentioned in the memoir was Joseph's brother, Jacob Cruzen Best, who had already settled in Lucas County with his family during 1853. Joseph and Elizabeth were accompanied during 1855 by his father, Jacob Best Sr., then 70, who later returned to Pennsylvania. 

Elizabeth's memoir was prepared for and read during the annual Lucas County Old Settlers reunion in Chariton during late September, 1907, and was published in The Chariton Herald of Thursday, October 3. Here it is:

On the evening of March 24, 1855, we started from Pittsburgh, Penn., for what then was called the far west.

We Pennsylvanians in those days thought Iowa was almost out of the world and as I stood on the deck of the steamer, the "Gray Eagle," and watched through fast-falling tears the lights of my native city fade away in the distance, I felt as though I were going to the end of the world.

The river was low and we did not arrive in Keokuk, Iowa, until the 6th of April. At Keokuk, we embarked on a prairie schooner for Chariton. It was an early spring and the prairie grass was just high enough to wave in the wind, and I thought as I looked out over the rolling prairies with their waving billows of green, that it was well named Iowa, beautiful land, for it was indeed beautiful. To one raised in a large city, it was a grand sight beyond description.

Little villages dotted the prairies at long intervals, and little log cabins were few and far between. However it was grand and beautiful then, not with the beauty it now boasts of, elegant farm dwellings, fine barns and fields of waving grain, meadows filled with fine horses, cattle and sheep, and orchards bending beneath their loads of crimson and golden fruit; but with the grand, yet simple beauty of nature which possesses a beauty all its own.

Our trip from the river was uneventful, and we arrived at our destination, the home of our brother, J.C. (Jacob Cruzen) Best, four miles northeast of Chariton, on the evening of April 12th.

Early the next morning, being anxious to see our new home, we walked across the prairie only a quarter of a mile, as our farms joined. In a few minutes we came to a lonely little cabin just in the edge of the timber. I had talked of it, thought of it, and being of a romantic turn of mind, I had dreamed of that cabin; but when I saw the reality my heart failed me and I could scarcely keep back the tears.

It was a log house built of round logs, 16 by 18 feet, having a sod chimney, two clapboard doors, a puncheon floor and no window.

Determined to make the best of things, we cleaned the little pen out, scrubbed the linn (Linden) puncheons until they were white as paper, and moved our stuff in.

Our furniture consisted of a bedstead which our kind brother, J.C. Best, made out of native Iowa poles, a table made from a store box we had brought our goods in from Pennsylvania, and three stools made of the ends of the linn puncheons.

We bought two splint-bottomed chairs from an opulent neighbor by the name of Willis Stevens who was moving farther west where they did not need such fine furniture. When we got our things all arranged in our little cabin we felt quite at home.

The summer was ideal; you old settlers all know what beautiful summers we had way back in the fifties. The sun shined brighter, the birds sang sweeter and the rain fell more gently then.

We were all young and happy, and the future seemed like a bright and beautiful dream; alas, have we all realized the dream?

Wild fruit was in abundance in those early days and of a splendid quality. Wild grapes, plums, cherries, and crab apples were all utilized to the best of our ability.

Sometimes I got very lonely and longed for the dear ones at home and at such times the whip-poor-wills, which were very numerous, would annoy me very much.

Our house, as I told you, was built of round logs and some of the logs ran out past the corner and we had never sawed them off. On moonlight nights the birds would sit on those logs, six or eight of them at a time, and sing their mournful "whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will" until I would get desperate, jump out of bed, run out doors and throw the broom at them; but would hardly get to bed again until all of them would be back again, and I had to "list to the whip-poor-will's song."

Wild animals of all kinds were numerous. prairie wolves were thick as hops, and would come in the evenings just at dark, sit in the hazel brush, which grew in a perfect thicket within twenty feet of our back door, and howl until it sounded as if there were fully a thousand of them. The first evening they came after we moved in, my husband had gone over to his brother's on an errand. I jumped into bed, covered my head and shivered with fright, but the pioneer woman got used to such things.

Deer were plentiful, too; they passed our house in droves of 12 or 15 at a time. Wild turkeys, too, were very numerous; there was a large flock of them in our timber, a dozen or more at first. My husband shot some of them and the neighbors some until they were all gone but one wary old hen. I guess she got lonesome as she came into the yard and ate corn with our chickens when no one was around. We had a pile of corn fodder, with the corn on it, about 60 feet from the house, and on cold days that old hen came and ate corn.

Every day I saw her, and finally concluded I'd catch her. While she had her head in the fodder rattling around she couldn't hear me, so taking off my shoes, I crept along on the ice in my stocking feet behind her and grabbed her by one foot. Of course, you all know what happened, though there were several seconds that I did not know. The first thing I did know, I was lying on my back on the ice, looking up at the murky sky, wondering where I was and how I got there.

I soon realized what was the matter, and swearing vengeance on the old hen, I gathered myself up and went into the house to warm my feet  and reflect on what would be the next move. In a few days the old turkey came back, and I took down the rifle which always hung on the wall loaded, ready for use; raised the window 3 or 4 inches, laid the gun on the sill, cocked it but did not set the triggers, so of course it would not go off (I had never had a gun in my hands in my life before).

That evening when my husband came home I told him all about it and he showed me how to fire it off. The next day when the old hen came I fired out of the window and she sailed away up above the tree-tops, but I knew I had hit for I could see the feathers flying, and suddenly she began to turn over and over, and fell to the ground. I ran down and carried her home, and no young Indian was ever prouder of his first scalp, than I was of that turkey.

Speaking of these things brings back many pleasant memories of those days, fifty-two years ago; how we spent our time those first years in the wild west. Our Sabbath days especially were lonely as there were only a few of us near enough to visit; but we used to get, not into our double-seated rubber-tired carriage, but into our old ox wagon, and go from two to five miles to one of the neighbors, on Sabbath day. All in bounds would be there, and we had little prayer meetings led by Robert Robe, Harvey Roderick, E.P. Young and others; and I believe the humble prayers that went up from those little log cabins were heard and answered in the present prosperity and happiness of that old neighborhood.

Nearly all are gone away, some have gone to their long home, and the few of us who are left are feeble and old and gray, but the memory of those happy days and dear old friends will live in our hearts while life lasts. Elizabeth Creighton Best.


Elizabeth was 69 and seemed to be in good health when she wrote her memoir, but died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack just two months later, on Dec. 9, 1907. Her husband, Joseph, died five years later, on Feb. 13, 1913, at the age of 86. They are buried side by side in the Chariton Cemetery.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing, I love to read of the pioneer days of our state and remember stories my grandmother told me, told by her grandmother of being a child and living in a cabin that the indians used to visit. this was sw of Chariton if I remember right.

Frank D. Myers said...

The earliest settlers of Lucas County recalled frequent interaction with groups of Prairie Potawatomi who hunted frequently in south-central and southwest Iowa before and after 1846 when they all were officially forced west of the Missouri River.

Betty Best said...

Thank you Frank!