Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 9/From Youth to Age As an American

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By John Minto.



The writer was born to the avocation of a coal miner in 1822 ; and it seems to me at 85 years of age I must have an hereditary love of forests. My observation of forest growth began when I was too small to be trusted alone in a piece of natural forest yet remaining near my birthplace on the banks of the Tyne River, nine miles west of Newcastle.

In those woods there were shallow pits and caves in the sides of hills— evidences that surface coal seams had been opened and worked out and probably the best trees had been cut for props, just as they were being cut in the coal regions of which Pottsville and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, were the centers when I reached the United States in 1840, in my eighteenth year. Trees were cut up rather than down in England at that date ; ropes, blocks and pulleys were used to throw the tree to the best advantage. It was cut below the surface of the ground, and, if a tan bark tree, cut when the sap was up, and peeled. No part was wasted, as even the small twigs were added to a small charcoal pit, provided to save the last chip.

Coal was mined and sold at Pittsburg in 1840 cheaper than wood could be cut. Small bodies of natural forest yet stood near the city. In these the newly arrived English youth could wander at will and see the varied autumn leaves fall, and hear and feel the spat of hickory nuts, walnuts and acorns falling in ripeness to the ground.

In Washington County the change from wood to coal fuel was beginning from the same reasons of economy. In early spring of 1842, hearing that the Great Western Iron Works of Brady's Bend of the Alleghany were starting up, I went 74 John Minto. there, but was too early. Clearing ground, opening the coal seams and ore beds, squaring timbers and erecting buildings, were the kinds of work required. The Americans of the dis- trict could beat the English, Scots, or Welsh at such jobs. I saw the wonderful flight of the passenger pigeons here. The five days I was there I saw the passage of flocks in hurried flight, each day and all day, in countless numbers. They must have come from immense bodies of mast-bearing forest which had been destroyed and the pigeons had to dis- appear with its destruction. As grasshopper plagues cease with the cultivation of the land— being compelled to migrate —so was it with the pigeons. There were still some wild deer and turkeys in this valley of the Alleghany within fifty miles of Pittsburg. But farms were small, as there were stone, timber and brushwood in the way of the plow. The largest trees were often killed where they stood by "girdling"— cut- ting through the sapwood all around the tree. There was no thought of timber famine and little attention to trees as ob- jects of beauty. To remove the obstacles in the shape of brush and young trees up to six inches in diameter, and to girdle the remaining trees, was worth acre for acre of the land so cleared. The writer refused a contract for clearing fifty acres on those terms, with five years' time allowed for performing the con- tract. The offer was made by an honorable man entirely re- sponsible. I made a journey into Canada West (now Ontario) to search for kindred arriving in 1818. The clearing of land was going on on the American side seemingly as fast as men could find means for it ; but it was hard times and wages for such work very low. In Canada I found wages low also and the em- ployers more exacting. The slaughtering of timber by throw- ing trees into windrows was done with great skill. To get a successful fire to consume as much as possible of the fallow— as it was called— was also a matter of skill. Clearing land seemed more active than farming it, although I noted some From Youth to Age as an American. 75 well-conducted wheat farms, managed (to my surprise) by stew^ards of English farmers sent over for that purpose. Offers of land for sale" were frequent— posted at road crossings, and telling that "His Grace the Duke of had by letters patent from Her Gracious Majesty," etc., become owner of a district named. Terms of sale and price were given, and almost uniformly the statement was added that the value of the black salts and pearl ash yielded by burning the timber would go far towards paying for the land. I found among my relations, who had come to Canada be- fore I was born, some who might pass easily for Americans, but also some who carried an undying hatred and prejudice against the people and government of the United States. As to property rights, the owners seemed to me more English than the English at home. A girl begging for a penny stood by the gangplank of the steamer at Toronto landing — a sight I had not seen since leaving England. It was not till I read in Oregon, Henry Thoreau's remark made in 1832, that humanity was the cheapest thing in Canada," that I found others had felt something of what made me glad to get back to the American side and to mining coal at the salt works near the Great Western Iron Works. By this time I had opportunity to observe more closely the timber stand of these broken lands bordering the Alleghany and Red Bank rivers. There were yet rafts run out of the latter stream upon high spring freshets. My father had bargained for the purchase of twenty acres of land on the east bank of the Red Bank and on it I took my first lessons in clearing land— burning brush sometimes till midnight on Saturdays after walking home across Brady's Bend from the salt works seven miles to spend Sundays. It was a rough, broken, hilly country as Jacob Riis describes it in the "Making of an American, ' ' though I can hardly imagine it to have re- mained so twenty-eight years later when he got there, sup- posing he had reached the "West." Mining to him also proved fearfully dangerous from his own ignorance and that 76 John Minto. of his associates. He wisely found his road to fortune, honor and fame in the slums of New York. Though four miles of the six between Robinson's salt works south to Red Bank were wild woods, in my trips between t passed through orchards where apples and peaches strewed the ground. I witnessed with my own eyes also the wonderful phenomenon of the migration of squirrels from the west to the east side of the Alleghany River. I saw the little creatures dash into the river as I took my seat in a skiff— beat them across and saw them make shore without swerving either from man's club or dog's teeth. There was no great sign made, they did not move in numbers nor was there any noise. Where the surface of the river was smooth a good eye might see four to six little heads— but each for itself— unknown to others apparently. Their eyes expressed helpless fear. To see it was unforgetable. When I first got employment at the Great Western, the honest Welshmen, as Mr. Riis called them, outnumbered all other classes of miners, and naturally clannish as the Celts of the Scotch Highlands are, it tended to keep others out. Being restless to earn ajid save, I went to Pittsburg in the winter of 1842-3, it being generally the busiest season there. I had a bitterly disappointing winter, getting back to Red Bank penniless just as father and two friends had signed a contract to drive a tunnel through a hill in order that the Great Western Company might reach a body of especially good ore. They needed another man to work in eight-hour shifts and invited me to join, which I did. We had nearly four months of hard but pleasant work at good earnings on the company's books. When suspension came all we could do was to put our claims into an attorney's hands and, at some sacrifice of plans and property, get to some other mining district. We had cleared a few acres, raised a little corn and more potatoes— and had tasted corn of our owji culture in the roasting ear and the more delicious flavor of the grated corn cakes. But we resolved to sacrifice clearing, cabin and everyI From Youth to Age as an American. 77 thing we must to collect at least four months' provisions that we might place them in a flat boat and float west and south- to settle on the banks of the pleasant Ohio," perhaps. In a few weeks we had done this and tied up at Pittsburg to bid farewell to friends, daughters and sisters. I went to Wash- ington County to summons the last married of those. Found she could not come, and found a chance for work. Returned to Pittsburg and reported— to find father had been dissuaded from risking floating down the river so late in the season. I hurried back to Washington County and took the waiting job —mining coal at one cent per bushel of eighty-four pounds. It was sold on a platform arranged so that farmers could do their own loading. They paid in cash, or produce at cash prices: instance— fresh beef at two and one-half cents a pound; a barrel of good cider at one dollar, barrel returned when empty. I teased my sister, with whom I boarded, by eating that delicious beef without salt or other addition— telling her I was training for life in the buffalo country. I hunted rabbits and shot muskrats, to get my hand in," I said. I crossed and recrossed the Merino sheep pastures of Hon. John H. Ewing, ex-M. C, to learn in Oregon later his relation to fine wool sheep husbandry, and that at this very date James G. Blaine, his kinsman, made his home with Ewing while a student at Washington College. The first money I had to spare was invested in a book of adventures of frontier life— some touching Pittsburg and Brady's Bend. The title page had the following lines: "Who be you that rashly dare, To trace in woods the forest child;— To hunt the panther to his lair, The Indian in his native wild?" They thrilled me, and I read of Braddock, Washington, Wayne, Boone, Brady, Kenton, Wetzi I, Bede, Crockett and Putnam; little dreaming I would chase the wild wolf to his den— dig to him and shoot him in it; climb a fir tree and find a lynx in it, and shoot him ; trace a panther to his lair on a 78 John Minto. few inches of fresh-fallen snow as he had passed around a doorless cabin without waking me. I left him, but a few months later the dog of a friend hunting there rushed into the cave after the panther and passed him — then stopped howling in fear. Others closed in, when the owner of the dog went in with lighted torch in one hand and a Colt's in the other and shot him between the eyes. Acquaintance with animal life greatly lessens the danger of their killing. In addition to this book on frontier life I bought and read a small volume of selections from Plutarch's Lives — grand reading for a youth. Having met the season's supply of coal, T went to Pitts- burg and found my father and others idle by reason of the failure of a freshet to float the coal to market in the No- vember previous ; so there was a glut of coal on hand, and of course hard times for both masters and men. Pittsburg had become an objective point for English miners immigrating, which tended to a glut of men. I had $33 to travel on, with a supply of clothing. At a public meeting to consider the situation I advised those who could, to seek other districts, or other occupation, and did so myself, as told years ago. The foregoing is an outline of labor life in Pennsylvania mines. The story of the journey from Pittsburg to Astoria I need not repeat and will even be brief in my story of life on the land, as much of that is known in pioneer publications and the history of the agricultural development of Oregon. (To be continued.)