A Frontier Letter Home – 1840

Following is the text of a letter written in 1840 by Mr. John Howe, an early settler in the Rock County, Wisconsin Territory, to his parents back east. Mr. Howe had come west to Rock County from Vermont and built a house by hand, using field stone and other local materials. Amazingly, this 160 year-old house still stands between Brodhead and Orfordville and was the subject of a fascinating talk by Everett Klusmeyer at our February members meeting.

As you read, imagine coming west by ship and then by wagon to the “frontier” Wisconsin Territory, by yourself, in an age with no telephone, no cars, no railroads, no shopping centers and little in the way of civic infrastructure or medical care. These are the hardy souls who built and defined the area as we know it today.

The letter below is printed courtesy of Everett Klusmeyer.

To John Howe, Esq., Danville, Vermont

Dear Parents,

It has been a long time since I left home, the reason why I have not written is because I have to had an opportunity. But I feel very anxious to hear from home. I want to hear how you get along. My health has been rather poor since I came here, I have had the ague [similar to malaria] which is a hard disorder. But I have take quinine and broke it, have not had a shake for about a week, shall soon be able to go to work. The ague is not considered dangerous if attended to in season. I think I took the ague in Michigan for people who come across the lakes in this country do not have the ague very often. I think this is as healthy a country as Vermont. The soil is very fertile producing every kind of grain and every kind of vegetable that one can wish.

This is one of the most delightful countries to look upon as there is in the world. The prairies which extend as far as the eye can reach without a tree. There is a prairie about one mile from this place which contains 64,000 acres, a smart chance for a farm as the Housier says. The prairie wolf inhabits these vast prairies. You can hear them howl very often in the night but hardly ever see one. They will hear you and lay flat upon the ground so that you cannot see them. They are about as large as a common sized dog. There are plenty of deer, wild geese (no turkey) ducks, hill cranes, fish of every description inhabit the rivers, Catfish, Pike, Pickeriel, Rock Bass, Red Horre and a great many other kinds. Rock River is one of the handsomest rivers in the world. It’s bottom is rocky as any in the east, its current is about 2 miles per hour.

I will give you prices of grain: wheat 50 cents, corn 20 cents, oats 12 and a half. Other things in proportion. I can buy factory clothes as cheap here as in Vermont. I am satisfied that a man could get a bushel and a half of wheat and from 5 to 6 bushel of corn for one days work. I expect to work in the mill this winter if my health is so I can. If I work in the mill it will be at the rapids about 50 miles from Janesville up the river. I am very much pleased with this country.

I saw Mr. Dunken, Mrs. Hale, Ira and Gideon Cobby, Albert Chamberlain, and (?) Suis. Suis has the ague. I want to hear from you very much. Write all the news and let me know how you get along. I have no more to write at present so Good Bye. Direct your letters to Janesville, Rock County, Wisconsin Territory.

Sept. 28, 1842

From your faithful son,
J. Howe, Jr.

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