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THE BARK COVERED HOUSE,
or, BACK IN THE WOODS AGAIN;
BEING A GRAPHIC AND THRILLING DESCRIPTION OF REAL PIONEER LIFE IN THE
WILDERNESS OF MICHIGAN
BY WILLIAM NOWLIN, ESQ.
I little thought when I left my farm yards, horses and cattle in the care
of other men, and began to write, that I should spend nearly all the
winter of 1875 in writing; much less, that I should offer the product of
such labor to the public, in the Centennial Year. But I have been urged
to do so by many friends, both learned and unlearned, who have read the
manuscript, or listened to parts of it. They think the work, although
written by a farmer, should see the light and live for the information of
others. One of these is Levi Bishop, of Detroit, who was long a personal
friend of my father and his family, and has recently read the manuscript.
He is now President of the “Wayne County Pioneer Society,” and is widely
known as a literary man, poet and author.
Sketch of the lives of John and Melinda Nowlin; of their journeying and
settlement in Michigan.
Thrilling scenes and incidents of pioneer life, of hopes and fears, of
ups and downs, of a life in the woods; continuing until the gloom and
darkness of the forest were chased away, by the light of civilization,
and the long battle for a home had been fought by the pioneer soldiers
and they had gained a signal victory over nature herself.
Hope never forsook them in the darkest hours, but beckoned and cheered
them on to the conquest of the wilderness. When that was consummated hope
hovered and sat upon her pedestal of realization. For better days had
come for the pioneers in the country they had found. Then was heard the
joyful, enchanting “Harvest Home;” songs of “Peace and Plenty.”
Crowned with honor, prosperity and happiness—for a time.
I have delineated the scenes of this narrative, from time to time, as
they took place. I thought at the time when they occurred that some of
them were against me.
I do not place this volume before its readers that I may gain any
applause: I have sought to say no more of myself than was necessary.
This is a labor of love, written to perpetuate the memory of some most
noble lives, among whom were my father and mother who sought a home in
the forests of Michigan at an early day. Being then quite young, I kept
no record of dates or occurrences, and this book is mostly sketched
It is a history of my parents’ struggles and triumphs in the wilderness.
It ought to encourage all who read it, since not many begin life in a new
country with fewer advantages than they.
It is said that “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In this I have detailed
the walks of ordinary life in the woods. In these pictures there is
truth. All and more than I have said have been realized. My observations
have been drawn from my own knowledge, in the main, but I am indebted to
my sisters for some incidents related. Together, with our brother, we
often sat around the clay hearth and listened to father’s stories, words
of encouragement and counsel. Together we shared and endured the fears,
trials and hardships of a pioneer life.
This work cannot fail to be of deep interest to all persons of similar
experience; and to their descendants for ages to come who can never too
fully appreciate the blessings earned for them by their parents and
others amid hardships, privations and sufferings (in a new country) the
half of which can never be told.
I—TALKING OF MICHIGAN
III—HOW WE GOT OUR SWEET, AND THE HISTORY OF MY FIRST PIG
IV—OUR SECOND HOUSE AND FIRST APPLE TREES
V—THE JUG OF WHISKY AND TEMPERANCE MEETING
VI—HOW WE FOUND OUR CATTLE
VII—TROUBLE CAME ON THE WING
VIII—HARD TIMES FOR US IN MICHIGAN
IX—A SUMMER HUNT
X—HOW WE GOT INTO TROUBLE ONE NIGHT AND I SCARED
XI—THE INDIANS VISIT US—THEIR STRANGE AND PECULIAR WAYS
XII—THE INSIDE OF OUR HOUSE—A PICTURE FROM MEMORY
XIII—METHEGLIN; OR, THE DETECTED DRINK
XIV—OUR ROAD—HOW I WAS WOUNDED
XV—PROSPECT OF WAR
XVI—FISHING AND BOAT RIDING,
XVII—HOW I GOT IN TROUBLE RIDING IN A CANOE
XVIII—OUR CLEARING AND THE FIRST RAILROAD CARS
XX—DRAWING CORD-WOOD—HOW THE RAILROAD WAS BUILT—THE STEAM WHISTLE
XXI—HOW I HUNTED AND WE PAID THE MORTGAGE
XXIII—GRANDFATHER’S POWDER HORN—WAR WITH PIRATES
XXIV—LIGHT BEGINS TO DAWN
XXV—MAKING A BARGAIN
XXVI—HOW I COMMENCED FOR MYSELF—FATHER’S OLD FARM
XXVII—THOUGHTS IN CONNECTION WITH FATHER AND EARLY PIONEER LIFE
XXVIII—FATHER’S NEW HOUSE AND ITS SITUATION—HIS CHILDREN VISIT HIM
XXIX—MY WATCH LOST AND VISIT TO CANADA
XXX—MOTHER’S VISIT TO THE EAST
XXXI—LEAVING NEW YORK CITY FOR HOME
THE BARK-COVERKD HOUSE
THE THOMPSON TAVERN
HOUSE BUILT IN 1836
FIRST RAILWAY CARS
HOUSE BUILT IN 1854
TALKING OF MICHIGAN.
My father was born in 1793, and my mother in 1802, in Putnam County,
State of New York. Their names were John and Melinda Nowlin. Mother’s
maiden name was Light.
My father owned a small farm of twenty-five acres, in the town of Kent,
Putnam County, New York, about sixty miles from New York City. We had
plenty of fruit, apples, pears, quinces and so forth, also a never
failing spring. He bought another place about half a mile from that. It
was very stony, and father worked very hard. I remember well his building
But hard work would not do it. He could not pay for the second
place. It involved him so that we were in danger of losing the place
where we lived.
He said, it was impossible for a poor man to get along and support his
family; that he never could get any land for his children there, and he
would sell what he had and go to a better country, where land was cheap
and where he could get land for them.
He talked much of the territory of Michigan. He went to one of the
neighbors and borrowed a geography. I recollect very well some things
that it stated. It was Morse’s geography, and it said that the territory
of Michigan was a very fertile country, that it was nearly surrounded by
great lakes, and that wild grapes and other wild fruit grew in abundance.
Father then talked continually of Michigan. Mother was very much opposed
to leaving her home. I was the eldest of five children, about ten or
eleven years of age, when the word Michigan grated upon my ear. I am not
able to give dates in full, but all of the incidents I relate are facts.
Some of them occurred over forty years ago, and are given mostly from
memory, without the aid of a diary. Nevertheless, most of them are now
more vivid and plain to my mind than some things which transpired within
the past year. I was very much opposed to going to Michigan, and did all
that a boy of my age could do to prevent it. The thought of Indians,
bears and wolves terrified me, and the thought of leaving my schoolmates
and native place was terrible. My parents sent me to school when in New
York, but I have not been to school a day since. My mother’s health was
very poor. Her physician feared that consumption of the lungs was already
seated. Many of her friends said she would not live to get to Michigan if
she started. She thought she could not, and said, that if she did,
herself and family would be killed by the Indians, perish in the
wilderness, or starve to death. The thought too, of leaving her friends
and the members of the church, to which she was very much attached, was
terribly afflicting. She made one request of father, which was that when
she died he would take her back to New York, and lay her in the grave
yard by her ancestors.
Father had made up his mind to go to Michigan, and nothing could change
him. He sold his place in 1832, hired a house for the summer, then went
down to York, as we called it, to get his outfit. Among his purchases
were a rifle for himself and a shot gun for me. He said when we went to
Michigan it should be mine. I admired his rifle very much. It was the
first one I had ever seen. After trying his rifle a few days, shooting at
a mark, he bade us good-by, and started “to view” in Michigan.
I think he was gone six or eight weeks, when he returned and told us of
his adventures and the country. He said he had a very hard time going up
Lake Erie. A terrible storm caused the old boat, “Shelvin Thompson” to
heave, and its timber to creak in almost every joint. He thought it must
go down. He went to his friend, Mr. George Purdy, (who is now an old
resident of the town of Dearborn) said to him: “You had better get up; we
are going down! The Captain says ‘every man on deck and look out for
himself.'” Mr. Purdy was too sick to get up. The good old steamer
weathered the storm and landed safely at Detroit.
Father said that Michigan was a beautiful country, that the soil was as
rich as a barn-yard, as level as a house floor, and no stones in the way.
(I here state, that he did not go any farther west than where he bought
his land.) He also said he had bought eighty acres of land, in the town
of Dearborn, two and a half miles from a little village, and twelve
miles from the city of Detroit. Said he would buy eighty acres more, east
of it, after he moved in the spring, which would make it square, a
quarter section. He said it was as near Detroit as he could get
government land, and he thought Detroit would always be the best market
in the country.
Father had a mother, three sisters, one brother and an uncle living in
Unadilla Country N.Y. He wished very much to see them, and, as they were
about one hundred and fifty miles on his way to Michigan, he concluded to
spend the winter with them. Before he was ready to start he wrote to his
uncle, Griffin Smith, to meet him, on a certain day, at Catskill, on the
Hudson river. I cannot give the exact date, but remember that it was in
the fall of 1833.
The neighbor, of whom we borrowed the old geography, wished very much to
go West with us, but could not raise the means. When we started we passed
by his place; he was lying dead in his house. Thus were our hearts,
already sad, made sadder.
We traveled twenty-five miles in a wagon, which brought us to
Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson river, then took a night boat for Catskill
where uncle was to meet us the next morning. Before we reached Catskill,
the captain said that he would not stop there. Father said he must. The
captain said he would not stop for a hundred dollars as his boat was
behind time. But he and father had a little private conversation, and
the result was he did stop. The captain told his men to be careful of
the things, and we were helped off in the best style possible. I do not
know what changed the captain’s mind, perhaps he was a Mason. Uncle met
us, and our things were soon on his wagon. Now, our journey lay over a
rough, hilly country, and I remember it was very cold. I think we passed
over some of the smaller Catskill Mountains. My delicate mother, wrapt
as best she could be, with my little sister (not then a year old) in her
arms, also the other children, rode. Father and I walked some of the
way, as the snow was quite deep on the mountains. He carried his rifle,
and I my shot-gun on our shoulders. Our journey was a tedious one, for
we got along very slowly; but we finally arrived at Unadilla. There we
had many friends and passed a pleasant winter. I liked the country
better than the one we left, and we all tried to get father to buy
there, and give up the idea of going to Michigan. But a few years
satisfied us that he knew the best.
Early in the spring of 1834 we left our friends weeping, for, as they
expressed it, they thought we were going “out of the world.” Here I will
give some lines composed and presented to father and mother by father’s
sister, N. Covey, which will give her idea of our undertaking better than
any words I can frame:
“Dear Brother and Sister, we must bid you adieu,
We hope that the Lord will deal kindly with you,
Protect and defend you, wherever you go,