Page images
PDF
EPUB

course, can do so better than a greenhorn, and there are some helps furnished by nature herself. To follow the direction of the streams is good advice, provided you know where they are running to. Some of the counsels found in books are quite absurd. For instance, it is often stated that in the absence of sunshine one can tell the points of the compass by the lichens and mosses on the tree trunks, which are always thickest on the side of the prevailing winds. What good do the points of the compass do one who does not know in what direction his destination lies? Besides, this sign may be true of trees in exposed situations, but not of those in the sheltered depths of the forest. At any rate, to be lost in the woods is a sensation which no one that has once had it even for a short time will want to repeat. One often hears the statement that nobody was ever lost for more than twentyfour hours without suffering a derangement of mind, and I believe there is a certain amount of truth in it. The oppressive sense of utter loneliness, the fear of hunger, and the actual suffering from hunger and fatigue may undoubtedly exert a destructive influence on all but the strongest minds. Nor are actual dangers entirely absent. As a general thing our American forests, at least on the east side of the Mississippi, are not infested by animals fiercer than the black bear, who is very careful not to get into trouble with a human being. Yet there are even recent cases of people, especially children, being attacked by wolves. Some eight or ten years ago, for instance, the children of a settler living a few miles from a town in Central Wisconsin, a little girl of eight and a brother two years younger, went picking raspberries. When they had not returned by nightfall, the parents became anxious and summoned the neighbors to help search for them. But no trace was found. The next morning the people of the village were notified. At once the sawmill was shut down and the whole male population went to the woods to continue the search, while the women were busy providing food for the searchers. All efforts were vain. A band of tramping Winnebago Indians who happened to be in the neighborhood were arrested by the sheriff on suspicion of having stolen the little ones, but of course there was no evidence of this. Several months later a woodsman found the remains of the unfortunate children in the densest tangle of a windfall, with the clear traces that wild animals, probably wolves, had attacked and partially devoured them.

Let us return to the early settlements of the western forest. The lack of transportation facilities was the chief reason why for nearly a generation after emigration into this section had begun in earnest, the condition of the settlers remained that of backwoodsmen rather than farmers. They were still directly dependent on the forest for nearly all the necessities of life, and the forest still impressed its indelible stamp on their character, while they produced but little change in the conditions under which the woods had existed for countless ages. The change came with the advent of that great revolutionizer of economic and social conditions, the railway.

The steamboats which came several decades before the railroad had not by any means changed the conditions of western settlement to the extent one might expect at first glance. They made migration from the Alleghanies to the remotest portions of the Mississippi Valley a great deal more easy, and therefore were an immense stimulus to increase of population. But they were rather calculated to restrict settlement still more to narrow strips along the river valleys than had been the case in the old days of canoes and flatboats. In the prairie regions, of course, locomotion was comparatively easy. This, together with the easier mode of clearing such lands for agriculture, gave those sections a great advantage over the heavily timbered portions. So it came about that those parts of the Middle West which were continuously wooded, in the same manner as the East had been originally, did not come under the influence of the various waves of settlement until railroads began to be built through them, and here true backwoods conditions lingered long after a new era had begun in the prairie sections. To-day, the last trace of the backwoodsman is found on the mountainous portions of the South, such as Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, or parts of Arkansas. But like all remnants of the types of former epochs, it is a degenerate relic. The latter-day backwoodsman has the poverty, the ignorance, the lack of civilized ways which we found in his predecessor, to an exaggerated degree. But he lacks the spirit of adventure, the state-building genius, which made the old generation so important a factor in our national life, and above all the energy which enabled the men of 1812 to lay the foundations for an enduring civilization. The railway, which gave his predecessor an opportunity to grow, is reaching him also, and the question is: Will he be able to seize the chances offered, or will he disappear from the face of the earth?

Since the building of railways through the forest began, the dominion of man over nature has been established there, as it has been on the prairies and the plain. Settlement now invariably follows the railway lines, forming a strip extending a few miles on either side of them. The conditions under which newcomers now make their homes in the forest are very much easier, indeed, than they used to be in the old days. Scores of things which the backwoodsman had to provide for himself as best he could, the modern settler buys at cheap rates in the railway town: windows, doors, sawed lumber of all kinds, hardware, furniture—no less than clothes and a hundred luxuries which his predecessor never dreamt of having. The modern settler is a link in the great chain of world-wide commerce, where the backwoodsman was an isolated being, having to produce almost all he needed with his own hands.

While thus the immediate dependence of the settler upon the forest has greatly declined, indirectly the forest is perhaps of just as much importance to him as it ever was. Certain it is that at no time in our history has the forest been of so much importance to us as a nation. The immense increase in the business of lumbering dates also from the time of the advent of railroads. The lumber industry, in all the forest region where settlement has gone forward during the present generation, has been the main support of the settler. Making a farm out of the primeval forest is slow work. On the prairie you have but to break the sod, and can get a crop for sale the very first season. In the woods you cannot expect to raise field-crops for sale till after a number of years. Therefore the forest settler would have had no money wherewith to buy the commodities brought within his reach by the railway, and would have had to go on in the old backwoods life, if it had not been for the wages earned in the lumber industry.

As long as practically all the settled portions of the United States were in the close neighborhood of extensive forests, there was little trade in lumber within the country. A few small sawmills provided all that was needed for home consumption in each neighborhood. The country people lived to a great extent in log houses of their own fashioning and considered sawed lumber as a luxury beyond their reach. Only along the seacoast, especially in Maine, New York, and New Hampshire, was

« PreviousContinue »