Part Seven: 1834 Journey Through The Hills Of Southeastern Kentucky

In The Land Of Clay County's Famous Goose Creek Saltworks

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 seventh 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 Clay County's Goose Creek Saltworks on April 14, 1834.

By Charles Fenno Hoffman - 1834
Part Seven (of Eight)

If you look upon the pocket-map found in, "The Traveller's Guide Through The United States," you will see somewhere about the sources of the river Kentucky a place called Manchester, with a broad highway marked as running through it; the same being the identical spot from which I now write to you, and the route thither so broadly indicated upon paper, the identical path along the rocky channels of brooks, and up and down declivities unconscious of a pickaxe, which we have lately been travelling.

The post-town of Manchester (what a contemptible poverty of invention is displayed everywhere throughout the Union in borrowing the names of places 50 times over) consists of about half a dozen indifferently-built houses pitched here and there upon a pretty knoll, which is washed on two sides by a broad and deep stream that winds through a romantic valley, and is lost at last among the precipitous hills by which the village is nearly surrounded. The place sprung suddenly into existence at the first establishment of the salt-works in its neighborhood many years since, and has now, I believe, for more than a generation remained in status quo. The paint, if it were ever there, has long been worn off the houses, and the youngest man in the town belongs as much to a generation that has passed as does the gray and shattered dwelling in which he first drew breath. The regular outlay of small sums for the little necessaries required by some hundred laborers employed in the salt-works keeps life flickering in one or two small stores, and the same quantum of capital is probably the circulating medium of the whole place.

The dozing inhabitants are certain of having the use of it, and pretty certain of getting no more; and having no market but that at their doors, and that being sufficient to keep starvation out of the threshold, their enclosures all look like the patrimony of Rip Van Winkle. Young Rip, when his waking father beheld his slouching figure leaning against the tree, was not more like old Rip than are the Goose Creekers like both of them. It is now about ten o'clock, and looking out of the window, in front of which I am writing, I can see a dozen of these industrious burghers dawdling about a barroom opposite. No sound of riot or obstreperous mirth comes thence, and were it not for the guttural chuckle that gurgles now and then from the burly person of my landlord, you would hardly know that they were talking. They are just now changing their position, to study the points of that sorry-looking nag, whose gummy lips, green with half-chewed grass, seem sagging to the sand as his hollow neck droops to the full length of his bridle. An hour hence the steed will still stand where he is, but the group around him will have advanced with the shadows some five yards beyond the eaves. You may then see them curiously grouped upon the clump of logs which form a primitive kind of stile to the fence before the door, and the morning mist, which still hangs upon the hills around, having by that time disappeared, they will be in less doubt about the weather.

The appearance of two well-mounted and thoroughly-equipped travellers has caused quite a sensation in the village. The idea of persons travelling from motives of liberal curiosity cannot enter into the brains of the inhabitants. They insist upon setting down my companion and myself as Yankee peddlers, and as the familiarity of the people has already afforded us a good deal of quiet diversion, we are at no pains to dispel the illusion.

A villager asked me yesterday, while looking at my fowling-piece, if I had "no more of them left;" while another inquired what price I "set upon the remaining one." The first question implying, I suppose, that we had been driving a trade in guns through the country, and the last presuming, as a matter of course, that a Yankee had no use for firearms.

"Are there any gentlemen, sir, among the Yankees?" asked quite a decent-looking man of me this morning. I looked at the fellow. "I hope no offence, sir," he added, "I mean by gentlemen, planters, and such-like, that live as gentlemen do here. If you ask for information, my friend, I have never lived among the Yankees, but..."

"To be sure there are," interrupted an old Irishman sitting by; "and two gentlemen to one to what there is here."

"Well, you see, stranger, I thought they were all peddlers; but how comes you to deny your country, if it isn't after all among the leavings of Nature's work?"

I answered that I was from the state of New York.

"And what now do you call that but a part of Yankee-land?" replied this intelligent yeoman. Just then I heard mine host, who wants but an inch or two added to his long jacket to turn it into a doublet, and qualify him for the immediate personation of Jack Falstaff, calling out most lustily.

"Halloo, horse!" said old Boniface, slapping on the shoulder a broad-backed fellow that stood in the doorway. "Where's Yankee and Dutchee? The bacon and greens are smoking on the table, and I must take a glass of cool liquor with them before we sit down. Ah! There's my stout rifle-cracker; come along, Dutchee, my boy," added he, as L. made his appearance; and then to me, "Yankee, my tall fellow, a glass of old peach with us before dinner. Smack! How it relishes! Down with it all; it won't hurt a hair of your head. I've washed my mouth with it these forty years. And now, boys, in to dinner while the bacon's hot."

Among the subjects for observation in this secluded nook of the world there is a poor idiot, of about sixteen, who exhibits in his person the most singular sport of nature that I ever beheld. He is exceedingly long armed, with broad flat palms and lank fingers, which make his hands look like the claws of some wild animal; while every motion of his limbs and body has precisely that fumbling character which pertains to the actions of a bear. There is a brook hard-by the house, to which the hogs sometimes come out of the woods to wallow, when this strange-looking creature sallies nearly naked from the kitchen-door to meet them. He soothes the half-wild swine with uncouth sounds nearly resembling their own; and as they retire to sun themselves beneath the rocky bank of the rivulet, you may see him creeping along its ledges on all-fours, pausing the while to swing his long arms to and fro, and then, finally, coiling himself to rest among their miry bodies. My landlord, to whom this unfortunate being belongs, tells a story of the boy's mother having been frightened by a pet bear; to which, I need hardly say, all credence is given in the neighborhood.

Tomorrow, after spending several days here, I shall bid adieu to the curiosities of Goose Creek, and part with the companion to whom I have been lately indebted for so many agreeable hours. L., I believe, returns by another route to Lexington, for it is almost impossible to take care of man and horse on the road by which we came. The people are miserably poor among these wild hills, and the small snatches of soil which they cultivate on the banks of the streams are hardly large enough to produce the necessaries of life. The country is, however, exceedingly healthful; and having no newspapers circulating among them, and but rarely seeing a traveller, they live on in utter ignorance of the world, and sing the praises of "old Kaintuck" with as much fervour as the yeoman who rides over his thousand fat acres in the finest regions of Kentucky.

These primitive people live altogether in log huts, and you may form some idea of their extreme poverty, from our being utterly unable in our last day's ride to procure grain of any sort for our horses, or even a mouthful of food for ourselves. We pressed forward over the most rugged road, from early in the morning till long after noon, being told at every house that we would find refreshment at the next cabin; but at last, in despair, we were compelled to feed our tired beasts upon the corncakes with which we had filled our pockets in the morning for our own refreshment. We then stretched ourselves upon a mossy bank, where a brook that crept by made an opening in the deep forest, and admitted the sunshine to the myriads of wild flowers that bent over its current.

Our two faithful companions, divested of their equipments, were tethered near, and after taking a bite of the long grass which grew around the roots of the trees, would ever and anon thrust their noses towards us, and whinny for more of the grateful food with which we had recently supplied them. Our hard riding had given us full two hours to spare, and the disposition to enjoy them as the spot suggested; the sheltering foliage above-the murmuring brook hard-by- the grass softer than sleep - what could be more inviting? But suddenly, the green thatch above seemed to cast a deeper shade, the squirrel ceased his pranks upon the fallen beech-tree near, the red-bird stilled his whistle, the woods were silent as death, and the sickly odour that stole from the flowers was rank, as if they grew upon a sepulchre.

The day had been excessively warm; but now, without a breath of air stirring, the atmosphere seemed to have become damp and clammy as the air of a dungeon. We heard an ancient tree fall. They sometimes fall, as every wood man knows, when nature is calm around, and their destruction is no prognostic of a coming tempest, but the crash of this one broke upon the still scene like thunder. Its echoes seemed to rend the cloud above us; for straightways, peal on peal, the bolts went rattling by, as if the whole of Heaven's artillery were in the field. But we were mounted and miles on our way before a drop of rain descended. It seemed as if it were held back to let one element do its work alone, for the lightning flashed with such fierce rapidity that the very air seemed burning with it; I could almost fancy that it played around my horse's feet, and pierced the ground beneath them.

And now the rain began to fall in torrents, while the sudden blast that swept it in blinding sheets against us came crashing through the forest like a tornado. Bending low in the saddle to clear the whirring branches, we levelled our guns lest they should attract the lightning, and spurring our terrified horses, dashed through the woods at a rate which soon carried us beyond the danger of the driving boughs; and fording a rapid creek, whose waters were already turbid with the growing freshet, were glad to get safe in our present quarters, just as the night closed in.

L____ tells me, that in hunting yesterday morning on a hillside along our route, he counted five places where the lightning had struck.

(Conclusion Next Month)