Ham, eggs, and corn cake: a Nebraska Territory diary

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    Three years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act embroiled the plains states in a struggle that presaged the war to come, the irrepressible Erastus F. Beadle left his home in Buffalo, New York, and set out for the territories to see about some land. Specifically, Beadle had a stake in the Sulphur Springs Land Company, an enterprise that proposed to build the community of Saratoga just north of Omaha for prospective settlers, who were arriving by the boatload.

    In diary pages and letters home, Beadle noted his impressions--the details, anecdotes, and characters that filled his days--and in doing so, left a remarkable record of a bygone way of life in the American West. Beginning with his three-month journey westward, Beadle takes us from the hardships and amusements of travel on the "Big Muddy" to the magnificent sight of a prairie fire at night, from the political propaganda abroad in the "slavery stronghold" of Kansas to the realities of doing business on the Nebraska frontier.

    Whether describing roads or water routes, mishaps or accommodations, finances, politics, or daily life, Beadle writes with an immediacy and character that make his diary as entertaining as it is informative--a living, intimate chapter of American history. This is a wonderful first person account that provides an intimate record of a period of American history. He meets several individuals as he wends his way to Omaha who live or lived in "Bloody Kansas," a region seething with discord between slavery and anti-slavery forces.

    One woman Beadle encounters on a steamboat actually fled from the carnage at Lawrence. When offered a job in Kansas, Beadle politely turns it down--probably due in part to the political problems in that state--even though the salary is quite large.

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    He also meets a man who claimed to have married the widow of William Morgan, the person supposedly murdered by Freemasons in New York back in the s, an event that touched off massive anti-Masonic outrages. When in Omaha, Beadle meets several Indians and laments the difficult conditions faced by Native Americans in the face of enormous white immigration into the region. Erastus Beadle's job in Omaha was with the Sulphur Springs Land Company, an organization set up to develop a city just outside of Omaha called Saratoga. The boosters in this company envisioned a place with a grand hotel, bustling streets, and hundreds of occupied homes.

    Saratoga eventually failed due to an economic bust in the late s that caused bank failures and declining property values. When Beadle was there, however, the place was booming. He sold plots, surveyed, helped bring in supplies, and did whatever else was needed to bring Saratoga to fruition. At some point, Beadle tired of his job, resigned his post, and acquired a huge tract of land he subsequently named Rock Brook Farm near Center Street here in Omaha; predictably, a shopping center sits there now.

    The lure of farming a large plot of land wasn't enough to hold his attention, and he returned to his home state of New York and his family. Many of Beadle's observations alternate between levity and misfortune. The conditions he describes concerning steamboat travel up the Missouri River are often humorous, as people jockey for sleeping space in cramped quarters or dine on atrocious foods.

    What really takes the cake are his complaints about Omaha's weather. Anyone who lives here will read this account and know not a lot has changed since the s.

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    - Ham, Eggs, and Corn Cake: A Nebraska Territory Diary by Erastus F. Beadle

    Beadle describes, for example, frigid conditions towards the end of April that left ice two inches thick in his water basin. The appearance of snow in the same month is a source of profound mystery to the writer, as is the reality of a frigid, windy day followed by heat and humidity the next. Welcome to Nebraska, Mr. Closely associated with his gripes about the inclement conditions are complaints about his medical condition. The writer, like most people living in the nineteenth century, worries endlessly about the most mundane coughs, sneezes, or rashes.

    Repeatedly, Beadle describes in detail how someone he has met either is sick or suddenly dies after a sickness. His own coughing fits that appear after arriving in Omaha worry him, as do the emergence of bodily aches and painful boils. The knowledge after the fact that someone he traveled with on a steamboat had smallpox sends him into fits. Historians of Nebraska or other Midwestern states should probably read it, students in the area could use it for papers, or residents of Omaha might like to read it just to see what certain parts of the city once looked like.

    I found it a quick read, full of intriguing information and memorable anecdotes. I would like to say that traveling to Omaha is a lot easier that last time I checked. We just upgraded from stagecoaches to automobiles a few years ago, and we hardly travel by steamboat anymore since we heard about those flying chariot thingies a few months back.

    Seriously, give it a shot if you like nineteenth century travelogues.

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    November 25, - Published on Amazon.