Chasing Smallwood – 8. Avoiding slavery

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.8. Avoiding slavery

[After a few days, I began posting each morning’s journal entries to a Monroe Institute connected group, and suddenly I was performing in public. It didn’t lessen my anxiety any.]

(12:30 p.m.) Went looking to see about Mr. Muir. One source says his family emigrated to Wisconsin in ’48, one says ’49. But I realized after a bit that it didn’t matter in the slightest because Joseph wasn’t there till about 1854! And as I pondered I remembered that I had lived a year in Iowa City, and “heard” him suggest that this should tell me something, and suddenly realized the next part of the story. He said he came home to a changed country. He wasn’t comfortable in Missouri. What more likely than that he would go to the next nearest free state that was still a western state? (i.e. not Illinois) Iowa! But I’ll let him tell it when we resume. This is getting sort of exciting.

(1 p.m.) All right, Joseph.

See how easy it gets? And this demonstration in public ought to encourage more of your fellow Monroe people to learn to do the same. So don’t complain about not working on your book on guidance.

That’s as close to a joke as I’ve heard you make.

Well listen for them, then. Besides, I’m from New England. That’s where you get your joke about life being always serious.

All right, where were we? Jackie and I parted and I fooled around here and there and you did get it – Saint Louis was changed. More people, for one thing. And lots more coming, if I knew it, Germans and French – Germans chiefly – fleeing from the wreckage of their revolutions in 1848. It’s funny how things work out (either it’s funny or it’s divine providence, there ain’t a third choice) because it was those Germans who came here to be free of the old ways – and to save their lives, of course – it was them more than anybody, tipped the balance in Missouri and kept it in the Union. They were a good counterweight in Cincinnati too, that kept the river roughs from turning that whole part of the state into a Copperhead stronghold and den of troublemakers from Ohio and Kentucky too.

Anyway, they weren’t in Saint Louis in any numbers to be noticed when I was there in the summer of ’48, but everything was different in just those few years. Or maybe it was me, was different. For the first thing, I couldn’t stand the presence of slavery. Where traders are, you know, there the slave traders were too. Commerce is commerce, we used to say, and it didn’t matter it if was commerce with the very devil – which it was. It’d take a stronger stomach than I had to watch the bullying that just naturally went on.

Remember, I’d just come from three years in a free western country where you could do about whatever you thought you’d do, always provided you were willing to pay for it one way or another if it came to that. You could – and everybody else could too. We weren’t as free as the Indians, but nobody was except maybe the mountain boys, but that was only when they were out by themselves, or out with others like them. But, hell!, anybody can be free when he’s by himself. It’s how you live among your own kind that says how free you are – or are not.

Side trail – I do go off on them.

I’d come from a free country and I didn’t like the ordinary rules cities have – let alone seeing men – and women! – and children! – in chains. Paraded around town that way, going from one owner to another. Humiliated every day in a thousand ways. They said the negroes didn’t have feelings, but any dam fool could see they was doing just what the Indians did: you got the great stone face, and no hint of feelings about themselves. Except, the women especially would wail about their children. It was pitiful, and it turned my stomach, and it made me afraid of myself, too. I was afraid if I didn’t get out of Missouri and away from slavery I’d wind up in jail, or lynched more likely. So I got out while I could.

Now, you wouldn’t think of St. Louis as any kind of city at all, but it was plenty big for our day, and I didn’t see harm in getting out into the unruined world again.

Wait a bit. “Unruined” is your word, stuck in while I was looking for a better one. I just meant the world that wasn’t all streets and alleys and buildings and too many people – let alone slavers and slavery.

Anyway, I went upriver to Iowa. I’d sold my horse, so I went up by boat, fetched up at Dubuque [except it turned out that he meant Keokuk; that was my faulty geography “seeing” that he meant the first Iowa city you come to, coming north on the river and thinking that was Dubuque], eventually wound up in Davenport. It was convenient, being on the river. I could go up the big river and trade, come back and get some more stuff and go out again. I wasn’t trying to pile up a fortune, but I did like to have good reasons to visit my friends, and I had Indians all over several future states who were my friends.

They had a name for me, translates more or less to “Sees Clear.” They meant that I saw life more or less like they did, not like the inscrutable white men. There, that was a joke for you. Wouldn’t have meant anything in my time, in Iowa they never saw enough Chinamen to make them inscrutable.

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