The author of this letter signed her name, “C. C. Smyth” and called herself the niece of Philadelphia cabinet maker, Joseph Crout (1798-Aft1870) who was married to woman named Alletta (“Letty”). A search of census and genealogical records was unsuccessful in revealing more information about this family. It appears that C. C. Smyth had a husband and a little boy when she wrote this letter in 1866 but she does not give either of their names. She only mentions a sister named Mary. I presume that the Smyth’s relocated from the Philadelphia area to frontier Minnesota just after the Civil War.
The letter provides an excellent description of life on the Minnesota frontier and significant detail in the construction of their cabin and furniture. What is truly remarkable is that such detail was provided by a woman. Mention is also made of a Chippewa (Ojibwa) chief named Big Dog. He was an ally to American troops in the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in 1862.
Joseph Crout is considered one of the “most notable of native-born cabinetmakers.” He and his brother started their business in 1833. “In the 1841 issue of the Public Ledger, they advertised a ‘splendid assortment of furniture, manufactured from a selection of American wood, such as has never before been introduced to the American public, and which, for beauty and design, cannot be surpassed by any cabinet ware manufactured from Imported Wood.’ By 1850, the Crout shop was producing $10,000 worth of light-wood furniture annually.” [Source: Charles L. Venable, Germanic Craftsmen and Furniture Design in Philadelphia, 1820–1850]
There is a lock of George Washington’s hair encased in a wooden frame with a note pasted to back which reads: “Description of frame: 1. Oval from Washington’s mansion – Mt. Vernon; 2. Part of a chestnut tree planted by Washington which is the molding; 3. Beed around frame from Independence Hall, Philadelphia; 4. The ring from Carpenter’s Hall; 5. Upper right star Tree Lafayette planted; 6. Upper left star, Gen’l Anthony Wayne house; 7. Lower right star, Frigate Constitution; 8. Lower left star, Frigate Alliance; 9. Back from pew Washington worshipped in at Christ Church. I believe the above to be correct and true. Roxborough Feb. 18th, 1860 Joseph Crout.”
Addressed to Joseph Crout, Esq., Roxborough, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Alexandria, Douglas County, Minnesota
March 3d 1866
Dear Uncle Josie,
We received today your kind letter. It is a very remarkable coincidence that Will’s letter to you should have arrived just at the time you were writing to us. Perhaps our letter was a surprise. But you know a man’s poor relations will hunt him up from all quarters. Like everybody else, you seem to have an idea that terrible privations & a frontier life are naturally inseparable. This is an error. Of course everything does not move off quite as smoothly in the opening of a new farm on wild lands where conveniences are not easily procurable & a man must be not only his own architect but mechanic & laborer.
Houses must be built but logs are plenty in the woods & even laid up, chinked and mudded without any hewing they make a wall that will effectually repulse the attacks of Jack Frost. Then there are the floors & roof & neither lumber or shingles to be had.
For the roof we split basewood trees (about a foot or eighteen inches through & as long as our house requires) & hollow them into troughs with an axe. These we lay on the roof thus:
— that is two troughs laid on their backs & one turned on top to cover them. That is a poor representation but it may be you can make it out. The roof is not very handsome but it cannot leak & if well put on is very warm.
The floors are made in equally primitive style. Logs split as long as the distance between the sleepers — say 4 feet & hewn on one side, chaffered off with an axe on the under side until they lay without rocking & the edges straightened so that they will lay tolerably close & you have a frontier parlor floor. We call it puncheon & it requires no nailing because the pieces are heavy enough to keep their place. The doors are puncheon too — only hewn on both sides & battened together by the assistance of ½ inch oak pins.
Then we make our bedsteads, chairs, tables &c. Our stock of tools being a crosscut saw, an axe, & a couple of augers. Of course we must buy glass, a stone & tinware. But you will allow that it comes very near to independence or self dependence with frontier settlers. Of course we can build outbuildings & fences with the same tools & materials & once started if we could find a kind of tree that would produce a dew clothes, we’d never need to see a cent except to pay postage on letters. Indeed, even in the clothing department we depend some on the natural products of the country. Vide–Pater Familias in a suit of buckskin.
Now as to the inner man (women & children inclusive), we have in the Spring & Fall ducks, geese & bear. In the summer, fish, pheasants, & prairie chickens & in the winter, deer in abundance. And as for vegetables we can raise anything that will grow other places. We have wild strawberries, raspberries, plumbs, Indian cherries & grapes, besides an unlimited quantity of rice & cranberries.
Now, although all this is to show how we can do without money, you must not suppose that there is none to be had. On the contrary. For a new country, money is plenty & wages good all the year round. Anyone who can drive oxen (& anyone can) can get $40 per month & ____. Woodchoppers command $1.50 per day & the demand is always greater than the supply. We sold corn last year at $1.75 per bushel and oats commanded $1.25 while potatoes were worth 75 cents to $1.00. Of course these are high prices & owing in a great measure to the demand of the government for supply to the army which has been engaged in fighting Indians, but the constant influx of settlers who must buy feed & provisions for awhile will insure a fair remunerative price for produce for several years yet. In the meantime, farmers here must turn their principal attention to stock for which the country is particularly adapted & which just now is very profitable in consequence of the demand to supply the Idaho markets. Oxen which two years ago would scarcely bring $75 now command ($200) two hundred & cows, then worth $15.00 are now worth $40.00.
By & by we shall have a railroad to the head of navigation on the Mississippi when prices will be regulated by those of New York & New Orleans. In the meantime, if we have greater hardships than other folks, we don’t know it & “where ignorance is bliss” &c.
We have settled ourselves down determined to do our best to make a home in spite of Indians & wild beasts & feel great confidence that we have gained by the exchange for city life both in health & happiness. We have all the necessaries & many comforts of life & although hoping to be somewhat better off pecuniarily at some future time, feel comparatively contented with our lot.
I thought I would add a few words before the closing of this letter. We sometimes have visits from Indians and on one occasion “Big Dog” — a chief — gave my little boy this garter for a piece of bread & thinking perhaps it would be acceptable to you as coming from a real live Indian, I sent it to you. It is not very pretty & rather torn but it is as we got it & I never have taken up the stitches. I am much obliged to you for your kind letter & the seed & other things which my sister Mary tells me you have sent. I shall prize them very highly, I can assure you.
This is a beautiful country indeed and I feel very happy in it and would like all my friends to enjoy it with me. Give my best love to Aunt Letty and the family and please write to us often as your letter was very cheering to us.
Affectionately your niece, — C. C. Smyth