Lydia Bacon Goes to the Western Wilderness (of Pittsburgh)

Boston native Lydia Bacon decided to join Army Lt. Josiah Bacon — her brand-new husband — in the Pittsburgh wilderness in 1811. That meant uncomfortable and often frightening rides in stagecoaches and keelboats.

Fortunately for history, she wrote about her experiences in letters to her family. The Massachusetts Sabbath School Society in 1856 published her account of her travels.

View of Bald Face Creek from the Ohio River Valley by Henry Lovie, 1858

View of Bald Face Creek from the Ohio River Valley by Henry Lovie, 1858

Lydia Stetson was born on May 10, 1786, the daughter of Levi and Mary Stetson, in Boston.  She married Josiah Bacon in the early spring of 1807. They had known each other since childhood. Just after their marriage he joined the Army of the United States as a lieutenant and quartermaster of the 4th Regiment of the U.S. Infantry.  He was soon ordered to Pittsburgh. The new Mrs. Lydia Bacon decided to join him, bringing her younger sister along.

They left in May 1811, sailing through Delaware Bay to Philadelphia. From there, it took 10 days by stagecoach (the soldiers marched) to reach Pittsburgh.

Lydia Bacon found Pittsburgh to be a pleasant village, but she didn’t have long to enjoy it. In July, they were ordered to Newport, Ky., on the Ohio River. That meant a keelboat ride.

They stopped in Marietta, which was made up almost completely of New Englanders who had been engaged in boat building until the Embargo Act of 1807 was passed. In Newport they met future president Zachary Taylor’s brother who entertained them on his plantation. Of their friendship, she wrote:

Very pleasant is the recollection of the hours passed in their society. Sweet was our social converse when seated in the calm twilight, on the front piazza, overlooking the splendid lawn which spread its green carpet to the edge of the river.

Then they were ordered farther west. Here’s what happened:

Sept. 4th: We arrived at Jeffersonville this morning at nine o’clock, and now the boats are preparing to go through the Eapids. The water is very low and it is found necessary to take all the baggage out, and send it round by land. The distance is three miles and it takes only thirteen minutes to go by water. Lieut. G’s boat with himself and wife, and Mr. and Mrs. A. has gone over safely. We could go by land inasmuch as my husband being quarter-master, has cbarge of the property. But we prefer to run all risks which are necessary for the rest of the officers and their wives. It is rather critical navigation here; we are obliged to have two pilots, one at the bow and the other at the stern.

(Above) A keelboat

(Above) A keelboat

Sept. 4th: We are safe over the Rapids; it was frightful indeed. It seemed like being at sea in a storm, surrounded by breakers. The clouds were heavy, the wind was high, and a thunderstorm threatening us which burst upon us just as we got into port. We had no passengers in our boat except Capt. P. and lady, and ourselves, the soldiers having gone by land. We stood, while passing the Rapids, with our eyes stretched to their utmost width, that we might see the whole in its perfection; although hardly daring to take a long breath under the fear that our boat might strike the rocks. We have laid below the falls these two days, and have been highly interested, viewing the petrifactions which are abundant and extremely curious. I have taken some specimens along with me that I may show them to my friends some future day should I ever have the good fortune to meet them. Indeed, I often wish that I could transport them here, that they might behold with me the wonderful works of nature. We are fast approaching the lowlands. From Pittsburgh thus far, there has been a constant succession of hills and vales; but in a few hours a vast extent of level country will open to our view. We are come to the lowlands. The contrast is great; not a mountain or hill now meets the eye. This is a pleasant way of traveling — every thing goes on as regular as if at housekeeping. Oar cook prepares his food well, and does the laundry work admirably. We drink the river water ; it tastes very well, but I do not like to think of the dirt that is thrown into it. Last night we had a recruit added to our number, in the shape of a bit of female mortality born in a tent on the banks of the Wabash, which river we are now ascending. Our progress is slow and very difficult, the current, which is against us, being very strong. We could go as far in two days with the current in our favor, as we can in twelve with it setting against us. To add to our difficulties, the River Wabash is full of snags, sawyers, and sand-bars, and the night air is so damp that if exposed to it we are in danger of fever and ague. And here I must record a furious account of an attack of that disease which I heard from a western settler: ‘ You see, ma’am, ^ said he, “we had just got moved into our new house, when I was took down with that pesky ague. First came the chills, and I shook so hard that all the plasterin’ fell off my walls ; next the fever riz, and made my room so hot that the lathes cetched afire, and I should have been burnt to death hadn’t the sweatin^ turn come on so powerful as to drench the room with water, and quinch the flames.’

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