1834 Journey Through The Hills Of Southeastern Kentucky

An Excerpt From "A Winter In The West By A New Yorker"


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 fifth 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 the Forks of the Kentucky River on April 13, 1834.


By Charles Fenno Hoffman - 1834

(Part Five)

Our route from Irvine left the Kentucky River on the left, and we very soon entered the "knobs," or pyramidal hills, I described in my last, as looming like mountains at a distance. I had in fact thought that we were already in their bosom; but the first steep ascent of some three hundred feet by a bridle-way which some upstart mountain-torrent, called into brief existence by the spring rains, had appropriated just long enough to gash into lean gulleys filled with rascally cobble stones, removed that impression. Gaining the top with some difficulty, we found ourselves upon a narrow serpentine ridge covered with chestnuts and stunted pines; our pathway affording, in its devious course, some very pretty views of patches of cleared and partially cultivated land below us, lying often in small amphitheaters, formed by the gentle curve of the main ridge and the sudden intersection of others that traverse the country, or heave up singly from the plain.

After a while the road became more rocky, and then began to descend, until, almost unconsciously, we found ourselves near the bottom of a magnificent mountain glen, a cavernous gorge among the hills with more than one feature about it, to remind one of the rock-ribbed abode of the freebooter in "the heart of Mid-Lothian." It was divided in the midst by a roaring stream, which seemed to gush from the mouth of a cave at the upper end, a broad plateau of rock projecting from the mouth of the cavern throwing the water like a spout far in advance, and sending it leaping like "a thing of life" along its rocky channel. On the left, the evergreens and thick underwood depended so heavily from the steep bank as almost to cover the stream, but on the right the rock rose sudden and bare. A broken wall with detached crags projected continually in advance, leaving room, where the fragments were displaced, for many an aged chestnut to find nourishment for its roots, and fling wide its shadowy branches. Upon this side, cut out of the rocky hill and winding among the clefts and detached pieces of rock, lay the path up which we forced our horses.

The ease and spirit with which they accomplished their task, when once fairly started, convinced me that one may climb almost anywhere with a horse, if properly managed. L. preferred leading his nag, and went ahead to explore, but my animated little fellow could not be restrained when he heard the echoing shouts from above, and allowing him to have his own way entirely, he pressed forward and carried me as safely to the top of the gorge as if we had been swung up together. Once clear of the ravine, the view that awaited us above was worth all the toil of struggling through it, if that had not already been repaid by its own scenic charms. Our road lay immediately on the edge of a precipitous wall; and four hundred feet below, the Kentucky River, here broad, clear and placid, kept its way through a rich alluvial bottom. It was nearly dark when we effected our descent from the rocky bluffs to the arabic flats below, at a place called "Rockshoal Mills," where we expected a cottager of the name of Lutzow to entertain us for the night. Stopping at a rude enclosure which surrounded the first log dwelling we came to, our hallooing for some time only brought a posse of angry dogs about us, and then out came the owner of the mansion, hardly more hospitable. It was too dark to see his face, but our parley with him was to this effect: "Good evening, sir, can you keep us here for the night?"

"Why, I reckon not, stranger; my house is small, you see, and it's full already."

"We care not for anything but shelter and food for our horses, which are nearly knocked up."

"Well, now I allow you'll be much better accommodated about a mile ahead, just over the hill there; you could see the place if you were on the top, that is, if it was not so dark."

This hint was not to be mistaken; and turning the heads of our unwilling horses, we descended into the bed of a deep and rapid brook; and climbing a precipitous bank, after proceeding about a hundred yards, a rugged path, through a thick wood of stunted growth, brought us, after dodging about half an hour in its defiles, to a cabin on the brow of the hill along whose rough sides we had been for some time riding. A lad of sixteen, lightly dressed in loose drawers and a hunting shirt, came to the door with evident unwillingness, after we had exercised our lungs for some time in stirring up the establishment. He stood in the entrance with one hand upon the half-open door, while the other seemed to be employed in keeping back a very pretty girl about his own age, who stood peering curiously over his shoulder, while she shielded with an old bonnet the flaring tallow candle that "shed its light" with anything but "hospitable ray" across the humble threshold. All our suing for admission was vain; the lad's father and mother were absent, and had told him to admit no strangers to sleep in the house. We offered him money most liberally, and urged that the night was such as it would be cruel to turn a dog from the door, but it produced not the least effect; he only told us that the house we had passed was better able to take us than his father's; and that there was still one about a mile ahead, where we might get in; winding up every time with, "It don't signify, strangers, anyhow; if this was my house, I'd try and accommodate you, and so would father; but father's not here, and you can't come in."

I admired the boy's firmness, even while cursing the occasion of his constancy; but there was no help for us, unless we took the house by storm; and with some difficulty urging our horses from the door, we descended a steep hank, as the lad had directed us, and found ourselves in a few moments floundering in a swamp at the bottom. The night was pitchy dark, and the rain and wind seemed utterly to confuse our horses, to whose sagacity we surrendered ourselves, in tracking out the way. But when the point proposed was at last attained, our condition was but little bettered. A noise that would have awakened the seven sleepers failed to arouse the worthy housekeeper that we were about to honour as guests. His name, also,-like that of the hospitable individual two miles back,-chanced to be Lutzow, and Koerner's free companions on a charge could not have cried it more lustily. The woods rang with our shouts and hallooing; but the echo of our own voices coming back in the gusts that swept the hillside was the only reply vouchsafed to us. We determined, at last, to sleep in the woods; but having no conveniences for camping out, thought it better, at least for the sake of our horses, to try the boy once more.

I confess, however, that I was so exasperated at the stolid selfishness of the last party, whose hospitality we had so vainly invoked, that riding as near as possible beneath the only window in the house, I first raised a clatter with the butt-end of my gun, that would have shaken the sleeping efficacy out of a vial of the strongest opiate had it stood near; and then, when not a doubt remained that my words would not be thrown away, I thanked the inmates of the house for their politeness, in terms sufficiently vivid to impress the recollection of our nocturnal visit upon their minds. This acknowledgment made, we commenced our retrograde movement; but choosing the rocky hillside in preference to the tangled swamp at the bottom, we bounced about among broken cliffs and fallen trees with an agility and success that would have made the three Diavoloes eat themselves with vexation and envy, could this celebrated house of leapers have witnessed the various feats that we lavished upon the darkness. Among the rest, I was not a little amused when L., more keen-sighted than myself, insisting upon choosing the path, which I left wholly to my horse to find, mistook the phosphorescent trunk of a decayed tree for the gleam of a slimy and level path, and impelling his horse upon the narrow causeway, as it shot out from the hillside on which it had fallen, proceeded to dance a pas seul on the slippery timber.

A few steps, a mere flourish on the deceitful path, carried horse and man head over heels several yards down the hill in a moment; and, as you may well imagine, it was a moment of intense anxiety to me, when I heard the branches crashing and the stones rolling beneath the hoofs of my friend's unfortunate courser, as he struck out on every side to arrest his downward progress. The activity of L., however, embarrassed as he was with his long heavy rifle and various accouterments, soon brought him to his feet; he shouted cheerily from below, and passing his hand over his horse's limbs to assure himself that none were broken, mounted again, and we pursued our way in parallel lines at some distance from each other. Endeavoring to unite again, we became inextricably confused among a mass of trees lately felled. "Lutzow's wild chase" (the great partisan major never took a wilder one) was at last up, we could no more; but seeing a faint light gleaming through the trees on a high bank above us, we shouted lustily for a light. We were answered by the lad who an hour before had denied us admission to his house, and in a few minutes a dozen pine-torches, in the hands of as many half-naked children, showered their red light from the steep bank, and flashed upon a broad rivulet that crept through the heavy underwood beneath it.

"Stranger," shouted the noble boy, "hold on till I come below. I haven't been able to sleep since I turned you from the door; and, come what may, you shall share what we've got tonight."

A single toss of his torch threw the light, as he finished speaking, upon a bold rock below him, and leaping upon the narrow but firm foothold, he let himself down into the copse below, bounded over the brook, and was by our side in a moment. The other children, approaching the edge of the bank, threw the glare of their blazing pine-knots over a narrow and more circuitous pathway; while, marshalled by their elder brother, we scrambled up the ascent, and soon gained the house. A few moments sufficed to secure our horses in the miserable collection of logs that served for a stable. There was nothing but a bundle or two of dried fodder for them to eat, but we endeavored to make up for the want of more substantial refreshment by rubbing them well with corn-cobs, which, you must know, are a tolerable substitute for both wisp and brush in grooming. But the warmth created by the exercise did not make a share of the children's beds less acceptable, when, stripping off our wet clothing, we bestowed ourselves supperless beneath the covering.

(To Be Continued Next Month)


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