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Henry Riley
The Puddleford Papers: or, Humors of the West

The Puddleford Papers: or, Humors of the West
Henry Riley

Riley Henry Hiram

The Puddleford Papers; Or, Humors of the West


Everybody who writes a book, is expected to introduce it with a preface; to hang out a sign, the more captivating the better, informing the public what kind of entertainment may be expected within. I am very sorry that I am obliged to say that many a one has been wofully deceived by these outside proclamations, and some one may be again.

I am unable to apologize to the public for inflicting this work upon it. It was not through "the entreaty of friends" that it was written. It is not the "outpourings of a delicate constitution." (I weigh one hundred and sixty pounds.) I was not driven into it "by a predestination to write, which was beyond my control." It is not "offered for the benefit of a few near relatives, who have insisted upon seeing it in print;" nor do I expect the public will tolerate it simply out of regard to my feelings, if their own feelings are not enlisted in its favor.

The book is filled with portraits of Puddleford and the Puddlefordians. The reader may never have seen the portrait of a genuine Puddlefordian. Bless me, how much that man has lost! If the reader does not like the painting after he has seen it, I cannot help it; it may be the fault of the original, or it may be from a want of skill in the painter.

Like the carrier-pigeon, let it go, to return with glad tidings, or none at all.


Many years have passed since Puddleford was first published. In the meanwhile the world has turned round and round, and so has Puddleford. The book, too, has been growing in size, from time to time, and some new "matter" has been now introduced.

The object of the book was not merely humor. It was hoped by the author that the reader would discover an undercurrent, showing strong points of human nature in the rough, and how at last the rugged rock becomes rounded and polished into the smooth stone – the iron cleaver turned into the tempered sword. How stern, honest men, who are driven to grapple and struggle with the hardships of a new country, meet and dispose of them in an irregular and home-made way, by striking at the root of the question, disregarding mere form. How the foundation of law, religion, and order is laid in strength, if not in beauty. How other generations build thereon the temple with its pillars and spire.

I cannot attempt to describe the Puddleford of to-day. Ike Turtle is old and gray, but his children hold high positions in society and state. Some of them have Ike's thorny, sharp genius, but toned down by education and cultivation into method and power. Squire Longbow totters around on his staff, tries over his old cases with anybody who will listen to him, repeats his decisions of fifteen years ago, quotes Ike's jokes, and sums up all the testimony for the fortieth time to his weary listeners. Aunt Sonora has gone to her reward. Other courts are held in Puddleford now. Technicalities are observed. Law is law. How much more justice is administered, it is not for me to say.

The book is once more before the public. The public have received it in the past quite as well as it deserved, perhaps. Its future is now committed to the public again.

    H. H. R.
    September 8, 1874.


Puddleford. – Eagle Tavern. – Mr. and Mrs. Bulliphant. – May Morning. – Birds. – Venison Styles. – General Character of Society. – The Colonel. – Venison Styles' Cabin.

The township of Puddleford was located in the far west, and was, and is, unknown, I presume, to a large portion of my readers. It has never been considered of sufficient importance by atlas-makers to be designated by them; and yet men, women, and children live and die in Puddleford. Its population helps make up the census of the United States every ten years; it helps make governors, congressmen, presidents. Puddleford does, and fails to do, a great many things, just like the "rest of mankind," and yet who knows and cares anything about Puddleford?

Puddleford was well enough as a township of land, and beautiful was its scenery. It was spotted with bright, clear lakes, reflecting the trees that stooped over them; and straight through its centre flowed a majestic river, guarded by hills on either side. The village of Puddleford (there was a village of Puddleford, too) stood huddled in a gorge that opened up from the river; and through it, day and night, a little brook ran tinkling along, making music around the "settlement." The houses in Puddleford were very shabby indeed; I am very sorry to be compelled to make that fact public, but they were very shabby. Some were built of logs, and some of boards, and some were never exactly built at all, but came together through a combination of circumstances which the "oldest inhabitant" has never been able to explain. The log-houses were just like log-houses in every place else; for no person has yet been found with impudence enough to suggest an improvement. A pile of logs, laid up and packed in mud; a mammoth fireplace, with a chimney-throat as large; a lower story and a garret, connected in one corner by a ladder, called "Jacob's ladder," are its essentials. A few very ambitious persons in Puddleford had, it is true, attempted to build frame-houses, but there was never one entirely finished yet. Some of them had erected a frame only, when, their purses having failed, the enterprise was left at the mercy of the storms. Others had covered their frames; and one citizen, old Squire Longbow, had actually finished off two rooms; and this, in connection with the office of justice of the peace, gave him a standing and influence in the settlement almost omnipotent.

The reader discovers, of course, that Puddleford was a very miscellaneous-looking place. It appeared unfinished, and ever likely to be. It did really seem that the houses, and cabins, and sheds, and pig-sties, had been sown up and down the gorge, as their owners sowed wheat. The only harmony about the place was the harmony of confusion.

Puddleford had a population made up of all sorts of people, who had been, from a variety of causes, thrown together just there; and every person owned a number of dogs, so that it was very difficult to determine which were numerically the strongest, the inhabitants or the dogs. There were great droves of cows owned, too, which were in the habit of congregating every morning, and marching some miles to a distant marsh to feed to the jingle of the bells they wore on their necks.

There was one public house at Puddleford. It was built of logs, with a long stoop running along its whole front, supported by trunks of trees roughly cut from the woods, and bark and knots were preserved in the full strength and simplicity of nature. Its bar-room was the resort of all the leading men of Puddleford, besides several ragged boys and these self-same dogs. It stood in the centre of the village, and announced itself to the public through a sign, upon which were painted a cock crowing and a spread eagle. The bar was fenced off in one corner of the room, and was supplied with three bottles of whiskey, called, according to their color, brandy, rum, and gin; but fly-tracks and dust had so completely covered them, that the kind of liquor was determined by the pledge of the landlord, that always passed current. There were also about a dozen mouldy crackers laid away on the shelf in a discarded cigar-box, intended more particularly for the travelling public. The walls of the bar-room were illuminated by a large menagerie advertisement, which was the only real display of the fine arts that ever entered the place. Upon a table, near the centre of the room, stood a backgammon and checker-board, which were in use from the rising sun to midnight. Pipes, crusted thick with soot, lay scattered about on the window-stools and chimney-shelf – old stubs that had seen service – and all over the floor rolled great quids of tobacco, ancient and modern, the creatures of yesterday and years ago; for the floor of the "Eagle Tavern" – such it was called – of Puddleford was never profaned by a broom, nor its windows with water. He who attempted to look out would have supposed there was an eternal fog in the streets.

The ladies' parlor, belonging to the Eagle Tavern of Puddleford, was a very choice spot, and had been fitted up without regard to expense. Its floor was covered with a faded rag-carpet, and its walls were enlivened with a shilling print, showing forth Noah's Ark, and the animals entering therein. Any person who had an eye for the practical, could see just how Noah loaded his craft, as the picture brought out clearly a long plank thrown ashore, up which the animals were climbing. I have often thought that I never saw it rain so tremendously as it did in that picture. Near by hung a six-penny likeness of Washington, somewhat defaced, as some irreverent Puddleford boy had run his finger through the old general's eye, which detracted very much from the dignity of his expression. He looked rather funny with one eye cocked; and he felt, I presume – that is, if pictures can feel – just as funny as he looked.

One advantage which the lodging-rooms of this tavern possessed ought not to be overlooked. They were lit up by the everlasting stars, and the tired traveller could go to sleep by the dancing rays that shot down through the crevices of the roof above.

"Old Stub Bulliphant," as he was called, was, and had been for years, landlord of the "Eagle." He was about five feet high, and nearly as many in circumference. His eyes were of no particular color, although they were once. His eye-lashes had been scorched off by alcoholic fire; and nature, to keep up appearances, in a fit of desperation, substituted in their stead a binding of red, which looked like two little rainbows hanging upon a storm, for a rheumy water was continually running between them. His nose was very red, and his face was always in blossom, winter and summer. A pair of tow breeches and a red flannel shirt composed his wardrobe two thirds of the year. The truth is, the old fellow drank, and always drank, and he became, finally, preserved in spirits.

Puddleford was not destitute of a church, not by any means. The "log-chapel," when I first became acquainted with the place, was an ancient building. It was erected at a period almost as early as the tavern – not quite – temporal wants pressing the early settlers closer than spiritual.

This, precious reader, is a skeleton view of Puddleford, as it existed when I first knew it. Just out of this village, some time during the last ten years, I took possession of a large tract of land, called "Burr-oak Opening," that is, a wide, sweeping plain, thinly clad with burr-oaks. Few sights in nature are more beautiful. The eye roams over these parks unobstructed by undergrowth, the trees above, and the sleeping shadows on the grass below.

The first time I looked upon this future home of mine, it lay calm and bright, bathed in the warm sun of a May morning, and filled with birds. The buds were just breaking into leaf, and the air was sweet with the wildwood fragrance of spring. Piles of mosses, soft as velvet, were scattered about. Wild violets, grouped in clusters, the white and red lupin, the mountain pink, and thousands of other tiny flowers, bright as sparks of fire, mingled in confusion. It was alive with birds; the brown thrasher, the robin, the blue-jay, poured forth their music to the very top of their lungs. The thrasher, with his brown dress and very quizzical look, absolutely revelled in a luxury of melody. He mocked all the birds about him. Now he was as good a blue-jay as blue-jay himself, and screamed as loud; but suddenly bouncing around on a limb, and slowly stretching out his wings, he died away in a most pathetic strain; then, darting into another tree, and turning his saucy eye inquisitively down, he rattled off a chorus or two, that I might know he was not so sad a fellow after all. Now, his soft, flute-like notes fairly melted in his throat; then he drew out a long, violin strain the whole length of his bow; then a blast on his trumpet roused all the birds. He was "everything by turns, and nothing long." After completing his performance, away he went, and his place, in a moment almost, was occupied by another, repeating the medley, for the whole wood was alive with them.

Scores of blue-jays, in the tops of the trees, were picking away at the tender buds. The robin, that household bird, first loved by our children, was also here. Sitting alone and apart, in a reverie, and blowing occasionally his mellow pipe, he seemed to exist only for his own comfort, and to forget that he was one of the choristers of the wood. Woodpeckers were flitting hither and thither; troops of quails whistled in the distance; the oriole streamed out his bright light through the green branches; there was a winnowing of wings, a dashing of leaves, as birds came rushing in and out. It was their festival.

This scene was heightened by the appearance of a hunter. He was a noble specimen of the physical man. Tall, brawny – a giant in strength – his form loomed up in the distance. He was attired with a red flannel "wamus," a leathern belt girt around his waist, deer-skin leggins and moccasons, and a white felt hat that ran up to a peak. His rifle and shot-pouch were slung around him, and a few fox-squirrels hung dangling on his belt. His whole figure exhibited a harmony of proportion, a majesty of combination, sometimes seen in Roman statues. As I approached him, his face fairly beamed with rustic intelligence and good nature, and the old man grasped me by the hand, and shook it as heartily as if he had known me a thousand years.

"So you are the person," said Venison Styles, – for such I afterwards learned was the name he went by in the neighborhood, – "so you are the person that's come in here to settle, I s'pose – to cut down the trees and plough up this ere ground." I told him I was. "Well," said he, "so it goes; I have moved and moved, and I can't keep out of the way of these ploughs and axes. It was just as much as the deer, and beaver, and otter, could do, to stand them government surveyors that went tramping around among 'em, just as though they were going to be sold out wher-or-no. And then," continued Styles, growing warmer, "they tried to form a thing they called a school de-strict about my ears; and then came a church, and they put a little bell on it, and that scart out the game. Game can't stand church-bells, stranger, they can't; they clears right out."

I tried to soothe the old man's feelings, and among other things, advised him to give up his hunting and fishing, and settle down, and till the soil for a living.

"What on airth does anybody want to till the soil for?" replied Styles. "What does the soil want tilling for? Warn't the airth made right in the first place? The woods were filled with beast and bird, warn't they? and the whole face of natur covered with grass and wild fruits? and streams and lakes were scattered everywhere? Ain't there enough to eat, and drink, and wear, growing nat'ral in the woods? and what else does anybody want, stranger?"

"Yes, but you are growing old, and your sight is dim, my friend," said I.

"Old! dim! eyes bad! no! no! Venison Styles is good for twenty years yet. I don't take physic. There ain't no more use of taking such stuff, than there is of giving it to my dogs. 'Tain't nat'ral to take it, not no how. All a man wants in sickness is a little saxafax-tea, or something warmin' of that sort. Children are all spi'lt nowadays. Their heads and inards are crammed with physic and larning, and they ain't good for nothing. For my part, I hate physic, books, newspapers, and even the mail-carrier. None of my folks were troubled with larning; for, as near as I can tell, the old man (his father) died hunting game and furs down on the 'Hios, when it 'twas all woods there, and I never know'd of his writing or reading any."

"Well, Venison," said I, "how long have you been around in these parts?"

"Not mor-nor four or five years, or so about," answered Styles. "The game and I have kept running westard and westard, from civilization, as they call it, till I have travelled nigh on a thousand miles, or so. I used to hunt and trap way down on Erie, before them steamboats came a-snorting up, but when they came, they scart all the deer and everything out of the woods and streams; and then I left, too. This rifle," continued Styles, "this rifle has been along with me for forty years. I have eat and slept with it. I have worn out mor-nor twenty dogs – fairly worn 'em out, and buried every one with a tear; and byme-by old Venison himself will go, but he is good on the track yet."

I assented to much that was said by old Styles, and growing warmer the more interest I took in him, he rattled on about civilization – its effects, &c., &c.; and, finally, looking into a tree, where a cluster of spring birds were singing, he turned to me, and pointing upward – "Do you hear that?" he exclaimed; "that music was made when the world was – them throats warn't tuned by any singing-master; they always keep in order. If men would only jist let natur alone, we could get along well enough. 'Tain't right to make any additions to natur. 'Tain't right to invent music, nor to mock the birds, nor cut down the woods, nor dam up the streams. It's all agin natur, the whole on't. The birds can't be improved on, and the streams and woods belong to the fish and game. They are their houses as much as my house is my house. I always hated a saw-mill," continued Styles; "its very sound makes me mad. I never know'd a deer to stay within hearing of one. They roar away just as though they were going to tear down the whole forest, and pile it up into boards. I always try to keep out of their way." But I cannot give all the conversation of this eccentric genius of the forest, with me. He was one of a class of men who are hurried along by immigration, like clouds before the tempest. When the rays of improvement warmed Styles, he had pushed farther back into the shade. He was a connecting link between barbarism and civilization. One half of him was lit up with the light of the sturdy pioneers, who crowded in upon him from the east, and the other half stood dark and gloomy in savage solemnity. With all his antipathy to the society of the whites, he was their stanch friend, and in many ways was of great service. He became, as we shall see, one of my pleasantest companions, and I cannot help now declaring, that few men have taken such strong hold upon my affections as this same Venison Styles.

The old man shouldered his rifle, and inviting me to "drop into his cabin, up the creek," bid me "good morning, stranger."

Reader, such was the scene presented to my eye the day I first looked upon the piece of wild land upon which I finally settled and improved. I had just arrived from an eastern village, where I was born, and "brought up," as the phrase is. A somewhat broken fortune and breaking health had driven me from it, with a moderate family, to seek a spot elsewhere; and I resolved to try the Great West, that paradise (if the word of people who never saw it is to be taken) where the surplus population of a portion of the world have found a home.

The change was great. But great as it was, I resolved to endure it. So, at it I went. I procured "help," girdled the trees, put a breaking team of twelve yoke of cattle on the ground, tore it up, fenced the land, raised a log-house, and in the fall I had a crop of wheat growing, the withered oak trees standing guard over it. My family, consisting of a wife and three children, a boy of eight, and two girls of twelve and ten, were removed to their new quarters, and I had thus fairly begun the world again, and all things were as new about me as if I had just been born into it.

During the summer, I had an opportunity of studying the general character of the inhabitants of Puddleford, and its surrounding country population. Like most western settlements, it was made up of all kinds of materials, all sorts of folks, holding every opinion. More than a dozen states had contributed to make up its people. Society was exceedingly miscellaneous. The keen Yankee, the obstinate Pennsylvanian, and the reckless Southerner were there. Each one of these persons had brought along with him his early habits and associations – his own views of business, law, and religion. When thrown together on public questions, this composition boiled up like a mixture of salts and soda. Factions, of course, were formed among those whose early education and habits were congenial; divisions were created, and a war of prejudice and opinion went on from month to month, and year to year. The New England Yankee stood about ten years ahead of the Pennsylvania German in all his ideas of progress, while the latter stood back, dogged and sullen, attached to the customs of his fathers. Another general feature consisted in this, that there was no permanency to society. The inhabitants were constantly changing, pouring out and in, like the waters of a river, so that a complete revolution took place every four or five years. Everybody who remained in Puddleford expected to remove somewhere else very soon. They were merely sojourners, not residents. There was no attachment to, or veneration for, the past of Puddleford, because Puddleford had no past. The ties of memory reached to older states. There stood the church that sheltered the infant years of Puddleford's population, and there swung the bell that tolled their fathers and fathers' fathers to the tomb. There was the long line of graves, running back a hundred years, where the sister of yesterday, and the ancestor whose virtues were only known through tradition, were buried. There tottered the old homestead which had passed through the family for generations, filled with heirlooms that had become sacred. The school-house was there, where the village boys shouted together. Looking back from a new country, where all is confusion, to an old one, where figures have the stability of a painting, objects which were once trivial start out upon the canvas in bolder relief. The venerable, gray-headed pastor, who appeared regularly in the village pulpit for half a century, to impart the word of life, rises in the memory, and stands fixed there, like a statue. The quaint cut of his coat, the neat tie of his neckcloth, the spectacles resting on the tip of his nose, his hums and haws, his eye of reproof, his gestures of vengeance, are now living things – are preaching still. We see again the changing crowd, that year after year went in and out of that holy place; the spot where the old deacon sat, his head resting on a pillar, his tranquil face turned upward, his mouth open, enjoying a doze as he listened to the sermon. We recollect the gay bridal, the solemn funeral, the buoyant face of the one, the still, cold one of the other. We even remember the lame old sexton, who rang the bell and went limping up to the burying-ground, with a spade upon his shoulder. Even he, of no consequence when seen every day, is transformed by distance, and mellowed by memory, into a real being. And then there are the hills, and streams, and waterfalls, that shed their music through our boyish souls, until they became a part of our very existence. No man ever lived who entirely forgot these things, suppressed though they might be by the cares and anxieties of maturer years. And no circumstance so likely to bring them all up, glowing afresh, as a removal to a new country. Of course, no one was attached to Puddleford, as a locality, any more than the wandering Arab is attached to the particular spot where he pitches his tent and feeds his camels.

Another general feature seemed to be the strange character of a large part of the population. Puddleford was filled with bankrupts, who had fled from their eastern creditors, anxious for peace of mind and bread enough to eat. Like decayed vessels, that had been tempest-tossed and finally condemned, these hulks seemed to be lying up in ordinary in the wilderness. Puddleford was to that class a kind of hospital. This man, upon inquiry, I found had rolled in luxury, but a turn in flour one day blew him sky-high. Another failed on a land speculation. Another bought more goods than he paid for. Another had been mixed up in a fraud. Another had been actually guilty of crime. The farming community were generally free from these charges; but Puddleford proper was not.

The "Colonel," as we called him, was a fair specimen of the bankrupt class. He was one of those unfortunate beings who was well enough started in the world; but after having been tossed and buffeted around by his own extravagance, he was finally driven into the forest. He was educated, polished, proud, and poor. He had sunk two or three fortunes, earned by somebody else, chasing pleasure around the world. His reputation having become soiled, and his pockets emptied, he concluded – to use his own language – to "hide himself from his enemies and die a kind of civil death." "Men," said the Colonel, "are naturally robbers, and it is safer to run than fight with them." I have heard him declare, in a jocose way, that he was the most "injured man living; for the whole human family," he said, "set to and picked his pockets, and now the public ought to support him." He said, "he couldn't see why the government didn't pass laws for the relief of cases like his; for a government is good for nothing that fails to support its people. Starvation in a republic would be a disgrace, and ought not to be permitted." The Colonel said "there was no use in fighting destiny – no one man can do it – and it was his destiny to be poor." He said he "had no place to remove to, and that he couldn't get there if he had;" that he was "like an old pump that needs a pail of water thrown in every time it is used to set it a-going."

The Colonel resided in the village of Puddleford. His family was composed of a wife and two daughters, a couple of dashing girls, who looked like birds of fine plumage that had been driven by a storm beyond their latitude. His household furniture was made up of the fag-ends of this and that, which had somehow escaped a half a dozen sheriff's sales. His family wardrobe had been rescued in the same way, and contained all the fashions of the last twenty-five years. Here and there were scattered some plain articles of western manufacture, by way of contrast. Three shilling chairs stood on a faded Brussels carpet; an unpainted white-wood table supported a silver tea-set; thus, the faded splendor of the past contrasted with the rustic simplicity of the present. One thing I must not overlook: the Colonel had an old tattered carriage that had followed him through good and evil report, his ups and downs of life. I have often been amused to see it roll along with a melancholy air of superiority, putting on the face of a good man in affliction. It was drawn by two diminutive Indian ponies, who would turn and look wildly at the antiquated thing, as if apprehensive of danger.

The Colonel kept an office, and pretended to act as a kind of land agent, and agent for insurance companies, and so on. He was never known to pay a debt; it being against his principles, as he used to say: besides, he said "his note would last a man ten times as long as the money; and they were not very uncurrent neither; for the justice of the peace at Puddleford had taken a very great many of them, and passed his judgment upon them for their full face."

But I will not go into particulars with the Puddlefordians at present. During the summer my acquaintance with Venison Styles had ripened into a deeper affection for the old hunter. I accepted his invitation to visit him, and found him sheltered in the depths of the forest, and nestled in a valley, his hut, overshadowed by great trees, which were filled with birds pouring forth their songs. A little brook tinkled down the slope by his hut, singing all kinds of woodland tunes, as the breeze swelled and died along its banks. The squirrels were chatting their nonsense, and the rolling drum of the partridge was heard almost at his very door.

Venison was a hunter, a fisher, and a trapper. The inside walls of his cabin were hung about with rifles, shot-guns, and fishing-rods, which had been accumulating for years. Deer-horns and skins lay scattered here and there, the trophies of the chase. Seines for lakes, and scoop-nets for smaller streams, were drying outside upon the trees.

Venison kept around him a brood of lazy, lounging, good-for-nothing boys, of all ages, about half-clothed, who followed the business of their father. This young stock were growing up as he had grown, to occupy somewhere their father's position, and lead his life. They lived just as well as the hounds, for all stood on an equality in the family. These ragamuffins were perfect masters of natural history. There was not an instinct or peculiarity belonging to the denizens of the woods and streams which they did not perfectly understand. They seemed to have penetrated the secrecy of animal life, and fathomed it throughout. Birds, and beasts, and fish were completely within their power; and there was a kind of matter-of-course success with them in their capture that was absolutely provoking to a civilized hunter.

It was of no importance where Venison Styles' boys made their home, or under what particular roof. Their home was mainly a depot for their fishing-tackles, guns, and game. They roamed away weeks at a time, fifty miles off, up this stream and that, over many a lake, and camped out nights, feeding upon their plunder; and Venison felt no more concern about them than he did about the deer, who indeed were not much wilder than they. They were as hard as flints, sharp on the chase, happy in their wild, wayward-life, and generally managed to trap and kill just enough to be self-supporting, and keep soul and body together.

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