Thursday, November 8, 2018

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Thursday Evening, January 25

Detroit, Thursday evening, January 25

At one this morning we were driven down to the [Hamilton] station. It was filled with large English or Irishmen reposing on benches. Presently a freight train came thundering in, and up jumped all the Irishmen. Going out I found that there was an emigrant car attached, and then out came bundling a multitude of women and children, and also numerous great neat corded boxes. Poor creatures, I supposed them newcomers, and wondered what would become of them. I saw that all seemed to get off very quickly, and the great boxes were wheeled away with miraculous activity, while the elders seemed quite at home. At last I discovered that these were the wives of the men on the benches, fresh from the old country, every soul of them, nine women and fifteen children, five children having died on the voyage, which explained the tears that streamed down the cheeks of one wild dark woman, as she convulsively grasped her husband's hand.

When this was once understood, it became a scene worth watching. All, without exception, were comfortably clothed and looked pictures of health — such round little rosy children, clustering round the fire, winking and blinking, the older ones asking, “Mother, is it morning?” and the smallest always decided on that point — “Oh, yes, iss morning!” Most were English; the few Irish were more talkative and demonstrative, telling all their experiences; the English were quicker, but all seemed really happy, and the men shouldered about the babies, and didn’t believe little Jimmy was the same boy, which all the Jimmies resented. The women looked handsome and respectable, but seemed coarse; they swore a little and the husbands a great deal; then one man treated all the others with hot wine and water and whiskey and water, and all the women drank in a circle, very quietly, and let the children taste, even an urchin two years old. It was like a scene out of Dickens. Of course I began distributing candy, and plump little girls dropped old-fashioned curtsies. Then our train came up and I whirled away, and left them still talking and laughing and crying behind; on this the first night of their New World.

(On the train.) . . . We had several Irish families; it was pleasant to see that nothing could disturb Irish good-nature or make Irish peasants — even the ruggedest men — any less devoted to their sturdy little children. Was wood wanting in the stove, the Irish laughed, the English grumbled briefly and sat still, the Yankees grumbled nervously and then set out, hunted up wood, and revived the fire. . . . I saw no Germans or Swedes, but to my surprise found the “notice to passengers” translated into both those languages — a thing which speaks volumes. . . .

I felt a childish pleasure in the thought that I was really getting into the West. Our track ran through scores of miles of woods, broken only by log huts, and one could see our straight path, looking back, far as eye could reach. Some log huts held Irish apparently, and some negroes; others of the latter were driving wood-sleds, or sawing at the stations. All looked hale and well dressed.

My heart bounded when we came out of the trees on a vast level plain, with the withered grass appearing through the snow, and a snow-storm driving across it — reminding me of Sarah Clarke's brown etchings. They tell me since that it was not a prairie, but it was as good as one to me.

At last we got to Windsor, where the ferry-boat was slowly toiling through the ice, and I preferred, with many others, to walk across, carpetbag in hand, and thus I reached Detroit at 3 P.M.

SOURCE: Mary Potter Thacher Higginson, Editor, Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1846-1906, p. 99-101

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