Hoffman's 1834 Travels End At Cumberland Gap


Editor's Note: During the winter of 1833 and spring of 1834, Charles F. Hoffman, an editor, poet, and novelist of New York, spent several months traveling mostly alone by horseback through what was then the western United States. He recorded highlights of his journey through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky in letters. During his travels he mailed the letters to the New York American magazine for publication. Because of the popularity of his letters, they were later published in two volumes entitled "A Winter In The West By A New Yorker." This is the eighth of Mr. Hoffman's letters featured in our magazine, written while he was traveling through Kentucky 166 years ago. Each letter gives an interesting look at a much younger Kentucky. In the following letter Mr. Hoffman writes from Cumberland Gap on April 17, 1834.
By Charles Fenno Hoffman - 1834
(Part Eight: Final Installment)

The morning mist was yet hanging over the upland on the day that I left Manchester; as L. and I, after receiving the hearty farewell of our jovial host, Uncle Tommy, crossed the little brook that flowed near our quarters, and proceeded on our separate journeys.

Our roads parted at the base of a steep, wooded hill or mountain, and long after our last adieux were exchanged, as we wound around its shaggy side in opposite directions, our horses manifested the strong mutual friendship they had contracted, by continuing to echo each other's neighs till the sound of their hoofs had died in the distance. The interchange of regretful feeling could sooth their ears no more. My sympathy for my bereaved Bucephalus was, however, I will confess, almost swallowed up in concern for myself. I felt how much I should miss my late accomplished companion among the wild and grand scenes I was about to visit.

I had then a most romantic ride of 17 miles along the most unromantically-named "Goose Creek;" which, it must be acknowledged, keeps its way as heroically and gracefully among the savage cliffs and soft meadows, that by turns, scowl upon or dally with its waters, as if it had been happier in its godfathers. But you know, one sometimes finds a Snooks with the soul of a Marion, and sees the ankles of a Vestris supporting a Higginbottom.

In the course of this ride, I saw several establishments for the manufacture of salt, in rather a flourishing condition; but the cottagers along my bridle-path, for the road was but little more, seemed as poorly off in this world's goods as most of those in this district, whom I have had occasion to mention.

At last, coming out upon the state road, a very tolerable inn greeted my eyes. There was a white man reading a newspaper on the piazza in front, and a Negro groom at the porch to take my horse. These being the first indigenous reader and hostler I had seen for some time, I could not but congratulate myself upon the promising aspect of things. My expectations were realized in a capital breakfast, which was soon set before me; during which, while chatting with the good woman of the house, as she poured out my coffee, and pressed me now to take another egg, and now to try a little more of the smoked venison. I learned that the family had been driven from Lexington last summer by cholera, after losing 11 out of their number.

The rest of that day's ride, though not a week has yet intervened, is now, from the rapid succession of the various beautiful scenes that opened upon me, too confused in memory for me to attempt particular description. I have before given you the general features of the scenery in this region, and I must leave you to imagine those sharp conical hills, or miniature mountains, I have so often lately spoken of; gradually swelling in magnitude until they insensibly deserve the name of mountains, and so attaching themselves by degrees to the Cumberland chain, that they at last become almost embodied with it and claim kindred with the majestic Alleghanies.

That there is some distinction still kept up, however, in their ranges, you may gather from the reply of a countryman of whom I asked the road, when somewhat puzzled once among the various defiles, "I reckon you don't go this road very often, stranger, for it is as plain as the first sight on a rifle. Well, now, you know where Major Douglas's barn is? That's it across the road. You just take that on your left hand, and go ahead about 200 rods. I allow, then, you may take yonder knob on your right shoulder, and carry it till it joins the ridge about two miles from here. You may then keep the ridge in the same place (videlicet, on my right shoulder) till it slaps into the mountain yonder."

This idea of carrying a knob or hill on one's shoulder till it becomes a mountain, no doubt, is borrowed from the worthy Cretan, who carried a calf till it became a bull. Milo's task was, however, mere boys' play to mine. You may fancy, as it was growing late, how I whipped up the major's barn in my left hand, and flirted it aside like a feather after going the 200 rods. Conceive me then curling my fingers in the shaggy pines on the top of the hill designated, and wrenching it from its roots, as a Lilliputian would a peanut.

I swung the growing thing over my right shoulder, till in a portage of two miles, it swelled into a mountainous ridge, nor dropped my burthen till it could stand alone a full-grown mountain.

I was now riding along the banks of the Cumberland River, and the moonbeams had already begun to silver the cliffs that bend over its beautiful waters. I reached the celebrated ford whose romantic banks have been so well described in one of Judge Hall's Western legends. The stream looked broad and deep, and advancing into its full current, where the moon, touching a slight ripple, indicated, as I thought, a zigzag pathway. My saddle was thoroughly wetted before I heard a warning voice on the opposite side, directing me to head the stream, and push for another point than that which I had immediately in view.

A glance at the foaming rifts over my right shoulder gave me, I confess, every disposition to act upon the advice with all alacrity. Soon gaining shallow water, I was much provoked to learn from my friendly cautioner, as he approached the bank to receive me; that I might have escaped a partial ducking by availing myself of a ferry within a mile of the place where I had crossed the stream. A Western man never thinks of directing a mounted traveller to such a convenience, unless the stream be otherwise impassable.

I passed the night at a capital inn within a few yards of the water's edge; and the morrow's dawn still carried my route along the picturesque Cumberland. The advance of the season had become rapidly apparent as I proceeded southwardly. The foliage was richer and of a deeper hue. As the morning light shot athwart the crags above me, and glanced on the glossy magnolias that fringed the river's brink, nothing could be more beautiful than the contrast of shades; which the deep green of the towering hemlocks and the light leaves of the buckeye and paw-paw afforded.

I began soon to ascend a mountain, and there, too, the deep woods afforded other objects of interest. The squirrels pranked it away among the leafy boughs, as pertly near me as if wholly free from fear. The timid rabbit made the last year's leaves rustle, as affrighted by the sound of my horse's hoofs, he darted beneath his bushy covert. The redbird and gold-winged woodpecker played fearlessly about my path, while the wood doves alighted like tame pigeons in the road, or fluttered for miles along it.

Emerging from this forest, where many a tree would throw a column of a 90-foot shaft above thickets, rich with the white blossom of the dogwood and the deep verdure of the mayapple, a ride of a mile or two through a beautiful undulating amphitheater brought me to the base of the Cumberland Mountains. Their unbroken chain extended far away on either side, to the northeast and southwest, from "The Gap" in front of me; which is, I believe, the only defile by which they are passed.

This notch in the rocky ridge, though its sides are so steep as to appear as if worn away by the action of water, is still so elevated above the adjacent country as to afford a prospect of the grandest description. Whichever way the eye turns, its view is terminated by wooded summits. The Cumberland chain itself is so narrow that you can almost see the base on either side, while the intermediate distances between it and the detached heights around are filled with meadows, orchards, bright streams, and craggy promontories, blended together in the most picturesque confusion.

It was my last look at beautiful Kentucky. I lingered on the magnificent landscape as the breeze of day became hushed upon the hillside, till the growing twilight shut it from my view. It was my last look at beautiful Kentucky and I could not but recall, while slowly turning my horse's head from the setting sun, the emotions which the patriarch Boone has recorded; when that bold adventurer first pushed beyond the mountains, and at the same golden hour, and perhaps from the very height where I was then standing, looked down upon the wilderness of tufted blossoms before him.

Boone wrote (From The Narrative of Colonel Daniel Boone, his first arrival in Kentucky, 1769 to 1782):

After a long and fatiguing journey through a mountainous wilderness, in a westward direction, I at last, from the top of an eminence, saw with pleasure the beautiful land of Kentucky. . .

It was in June; and at the close of day the gentle gales retired, and left the place to the disposal of a profound calm. Not a breeze shook the most tremulous leaf. I had gained the summit of a commanding ridge, and looking round with astonishing delight, beheld the ample plains and beauteous tracts below. . .

Nature was here a series of wonders and a fund of delight. Here she displayed her ingenuity and industry in a variety of flowers and fruits, beautifully colored, elegantly shaped, and charmingly flavored. I was diverted with innumerable animals presenting themselves continually before my view. . .

The buffaloes were more frequent than I have seen cattle in the settlements, browsing on the leaves of the cane, or cropping the herbage on these extensive plains, fearless because ignorant of man.

The whippoorwill was already beginning to call from the hillside, when I reached the little inn from which I write, at the foot of the mountain. The smooth cascade that glides over a tall cliff in the rear of the house shone amid the dusky cedars, like a pillar of light beneath the uprising moon.

Such a spot is not to be met with every day of one's life, and I determined, as soon as I found I could be accommodated in the inn, to spend some time in looking around me. I have been amply repaid by passing a day in exploring the finest cavern I have ever beheld, but as it is worthy of a letter by itself, I will endeavour to describe it in my next...