Stuff Happens – on a sleigh ride!

In Jonathan and Mary Clark’s era, if you needed to get somewhere during the winter—for business or for pleasure—you probably rode in a a horse-drawn sleigh. Travel in a sleigh could be fun, even exhilarating, but was not without its perils, most of which came from inadequately maintained roads and trails:

Bennett, W. J. , Engraver, and George Harvey. Winter. No. 5., Impeded Travelers in a Pine Forest, Upper Canada / engraved from the original painting by G. Harvey A.N.A., New York, 1841. Color aquatint. Library of Congress. Click to open larger image in new window.

Don’t forget your axe!

It’s always possible that a road through the woods might be blocked by fallen limbs, or even whole trees, as in today’s image. What to do? Take out your axe, climb up onto the toppled tree trunk, and start chopping.

Ibid. (detail), Click to open larger image in new window.

This 1841 lithograph depicts a mixed pine and hardwood forest in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), but such a forest would have looked very familiar to the Clarks and their early Mequon neighbors. There was a lot of tall, densely-packed timber, just like this, in old Washington County, especially in the eastern sections that later split from Washington County to become Ozaukee County.

Watch out for stumps in the snow

As I wrote in an earlier post, many of Wisconsin’s first roads, including the few federal roads—from the 1830s through the 1840s and beyond—were merely “blazed” or “grubbed out”:

To “blaze” a trail or road meant to simply mark the route by making blazes, usually axe cuts in the bark of trees along the route. The phases of road construction [were, in the early days,] surveying and blazing (marking) the route, followed by grubbing out, which involved cutting major trees and clearing most brush, but usually leaving short tree stumps along the way. “Cutting” a road is sometimes synonymous with “grubbing out,” or may mean a more thorough clearing of the route […]

Clark House Historian, The county’s earliest federal roads (plural)

In spring, summer, or fall, a wagon or ox-cart driver could usually thread his or her way through the knee-high stumps that were left in roads that were merely grubbed-out. But once the snow fell in winter, the stumps were buried, waiting to overturn the unsuspecting sleigh driver. Early Wisconsin pioneer and memoirist Elizabeth Therese Baird (1810-1890) wrote of a sleighing pleasure trip she took with her husband and another couple, traveling from Green Bay to Stockbridge, Portage, Janesville, Racine, and Milwaukee, before returning home to Green Bay:

A trip across the territory was made by Mr. and Mrs. William Bruce and my husband and myself in February, 1842. We encountered deep snow throughout our entire journey, but the sleighing was generally good. […] We took the military road, which was uniformly good. Snow had fallen the night before and covered all of the bad places, so of course we plunged into them in an alarming way. […] the way that followed was good, but one was never sure of missing the stumps. We were now in the Stockbridge settlement, where the log houses were rather near together for farms. There were many stumps in the very streets of Stockbridge, and as they were covered with snow it was an easy thing to hit one. One of them upset us at Fowler’s very gate. […]

The next morning we again took an early start—so early that the stumps in the road were no more visible than the night previous. We had driven but a few rods when again we upset. I was thrown against a stump and one arm was hurt, though no bones were broken. The pain from the injury, however, was severe. […]

Baird, Elizabeth T, and State Historical Society Of Wisconsin. “Reminiscences of life in territorial Wisconsin.” Madison: Democrat Printing Company, State Printers, 1900, p 252-254. Library of Congress

And there was bad driving in winter, too

Our December, 2021, post Stuff happens noted that bad driving is not limited to our 21st-century automobiles; nineteenth-century carriage drivers could be just as irresponsible. And other 19th-century sources show that bad driving was not limited to the warm, carriage-driving months. Wintertime sleigh drivers could be just as reckless as anyone else:

Homer, Winslow (1836-1910), The Sleighing Season – The Upset, from Harper’s Weekly, January 14, 1860, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Ray Austrian Collection, gift of Beatrice L. Austrian, Caryl A. Austrian and James A. Austrian. CCo, public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

Admittedly, I suspect this type of accident was pretty rare in along the quieter, rural roads of mid-1800s Mequon. But it’s not impossible that Mary Clark and her children witnessed something like this “upset” during their winters in Milwaukee during the 1860s and ’70s.

Coming up…

I may have a bit more to say about winter travel and vehicles, and then I’ve got a whole bunch of other Clark-related topics to write about. Some will add to previous, unfinished, research threads, and others will be new to the blog.

Until next time, be well and—whether you are driving a sleigh, a snowmobile, or the latest all-wheel-drive SUV—watch out for that icy patch in the road and, of course, “the other guy.”

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