1849 – H.H. Winchester – Iowa Travel Guide.

Back in the earliest days of the Hawkeye State, there were a few individuals who did us one great favor when they recorded for us their thoughts about this beautiful place our Native American friends called Iowa – This Is The Place! As we’ve discussed elsewhere, Lieutenant Albert Lea‘s 1846 book – Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase – truly got Easterners excited about this new land west of the Mississippi River. And in 1841, John B. Newhall‘s Sketches of Iowa, or The Emigrant’s Guide, only added to the ‘Go West-Young Man-Go West’ fever that brought so many new settlers to Iowa.

Yet, here in Johnson County, there were several lessor-known individuals who took the time to record in their private diaries and/or personal letters, amazing descriptions of Iowa as it was in the late 1830’s and 1840’s, before thousands of pioneers came our way in the 1850’s. In another post, we’ve shared some amazing stories from Johnson County pioneer Cyrus Sander‘s 1839 diary. And here, on this page, we’d like to do the same, using two letters written by another Johnson County pioneer – the lessor-known Hubbard Harrington (H.H.) Winchester.

H.H. Winchester – who was born in February, 1796 – first came here to Iowa in 1838, exploring this new land that was located nearly 1,200 miles from his beautiful home in Vermont. You see, the Winchesters were from Windham County (see below) in the southeastern corner of the Green Mountain State.

In 1905, Iowa City historian – Gilbert R. Irish – in one of his many articles on Johnson County history, published in The Iowa Citizen the contents of a letter written by the long-time Iowa Citian – H.H. Winchester – on January 7, 1839.

This letter of H.H. Winchester (below) was published in The Iowa Citizen on January 11, 1905. Winchester wrote this letter after returning from his first trip to Iowa in the fall of 1838 – just as Iowa had become a U.S. Territory. Winchester traveled 3,000+ miles over a three month & twelve day period, had chosen his first piece of Iowa land on the Wapsinonoc Creek in Muscatine County, walked to Dubuque to register and pay for it, and then, returned back home to Marlboro, Vermont. This letter (below) was written on January 7. 1839 – just about one month before H.H.’s 43rd birthday. Enjoy!
In this January 1839 letter, H.H. speaks of Iowa in ways we’ll find him writing in his March 1849 letter we’ll share with you later…

I think the Territory of Iowa, all things considered, the most desirable place I have ever seen. It is a beautiful rolling country, alternate prairie and timber, abounding with delightful streams of pure water and the whole extent of its eastern border washed by the great Mississippi, affording facilities for transporting the productions of the country to any part of the world.

Which brings us, now, to Winchester’s second letter – a rare 1849 postal cover & 4-page letter written ten years after his first.

Hubbard Harrington Winchester married Lydia R. Buel (b-1794) in Marlboro, Vermont in 1817, and before bringing their family to Iowa in 1839, they had nine children: Vienna (1819-1820), Cyaxaras (1820-1821), Cyaxaras Cyprian (1821-1854), Vienna Veazie (1824-1908), Beta Attebella (1826-1842), Samuel Chandler (1828-1843), Catherine (Katie) Clisbee (1831-1888), Ann Elizabeth (1835-1842), and Peyton Hubbard (1837-1849). As you can see, with two children dying very early in life, and only three children living past age 20, H.H. & Lydia had many sorrows as they raised their large family. Sadly, that was not uncommon for families in these early days.

In Vermont, before leaving for Iowa, H.H. was elected to several terms in the Vermont Legislature, and after moving to Iowa, he was encouraged to run for public office, but refused – happy to be a simple businessman/farmer, working alongside his Universalist church leaders, who built one of the earliest churches in Iowa City (1843) – located on the southeast corner of Iowa Avenue & Dubuque Street (see maps above from 1854 & 1868).

We are not certain when the Winchester family moved from Muscatine County to Johnson County, but by 1843, we do find records indicating that H.H. bought out Mrs. A.W. Scharitt and The Washington House – an early hotel/inn on Washington Street in Iowa City – renaming it – no surprise here! – The Vermont House.

It appears that H.H. didn’t oversee The Vermont House for too long, since by 1846, the Wincesters moved to the west side of the Iowa River, farming eighty acres in Clear Creek Township (see maps below).

And it’s from Clear Creek, where H.H. wrote his 4-page letter to his family friend – Mary Clisbee – who lived back in the Vermont homeland of Windham County.

Welcome to Windham County, Vermont – the Winchester family lived in Marlboro (above left), while their family friend – Mary Chisbee – lived in nearby Green River, Vermont (above right).
(JP-076) This rare postal cover & 4-page letter was written by H.H. Winchester primarily on Monday, March 12th & then added to, once again, on Sunday March 18th, 1849. Written from his farm in Clear Creek Township of Johnson County, it was postmarked in Iowa City on Friday, March 23rd. Keep in mind that in 1849, crossing the Iowa River was not easily completed. Throughout the 1840’s, there were a couple of ferry services available, but from what Winchester’s letter states, the spring floods of 1849 made it next to impossible to get from his farm near Clear Creek into Iowa City – a distance of only 5 miles. Once postmarked in Iowa City, the letter was on its way to family friend – Ms. Mary Clisbee in Green River, Vermont.

So now, here’s the contents of H.H. Winchester’s 4-page letter. We’ve added some punctuation and a few other editing item’s for easier reading – plus we’ll add some commentary along the way. Enjoy!

Clear Creek – March 12th 1849

Keep in mind that this letter is written ten years after H.H. first brought his family to Iowa. They now live on 80 acres of farm land in Johnson County – Clear Creek Township – located 5 miles from Capitol Square – on the west side of the Iowa River.

Dear friend Mary. We received your very acceptable letter of Jan 7th in due time and should have answered it immediately, but we have been in such a bother ever since. I really have had little time to write, and when I had time, I lacked the inclination, for be it known, I never write only when the spirit moves, for it is too hard work to write letters by main strength; but when I feel in the spirit of writing, I can very soon fill a sheet with worthless stuff – such as you will find this, no doubt.

Mary Clisbee was born in 1811, the oldest of three children born to Solomon & Esther Clisbee of Windmam County in Vermont. As best we know, Mary remained single, for the entirety of her 96 years. Below are a couple of her obituaries from back home.

But I suppose I have excited your curiosity to know what has happened! Don’t be alarmed, nothing has occurred, only we have had an uncommonly severe winter, the second we have had since we have been in this country. The other was in ’42. All the others have been mild, like pleasant fall, and much of them spring-like more than winter weather. But this season cold weather set in early, with two feet of snow by about the middle of December and there it remained “status quo” as lawyers say, as dry as ashes and as cold as the essence of frost for two months.

The Iowa winter of 1849 was particularly bad. One family record indicates from November in 1848 to May in 1849, snow covered the ground at an average depth of three feet, and for weeks the temperature remained twenty degrees below zero. Unprepared for this intense cold, many Iowa farmers lost much livestock. Fuel was scarce and difficult to obtain, while journeys to the mill were tedious and burdensome.

For accommodation’s sake, I was teaching school, and now you can readily conceive that to take care of 20 cattle, 40 hogs, 2 horses and a few sheep, walk ¾ of a mile and keep school 6 hours every day except Saturdays, and haul and chop my wood into the bargain, was enough to keep a man busy! However, I have lived through it, never felt better in my life. The snow is now pretty well off, and as a consequence we have a second edition of Noah’s flood, “revised and enlarged by the Author.”

H.H. had a full schedule – to say the least. But, there is hope in his voice as spring seems to, finally, be coming to Iowa. Yet historical records show that because of the depth of the melting snow cover, the spring floods of 1849 were massive. More on that later.

The “official” government records for Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1839-1842 – Johnson County, Iowa

You informed (us that) you wrote a long letter which we did not receive. Such accidents sometimes occur, though not often. You need not be discouraged, for I may safely say we have as good regular mail facilities in Iowa as in Vermont. So, send on your letters by cart loads; we shall be quite sure to get them.

Mail service into Iowa City/Johnson County was sketchy over the first several years (1839-1842), but by 1849, the stagecoach routes into Iowa’s capital city were fairly well established, making communication by letter a painless process. Read more here. The one problem that slowed things up, as we mentioned earlier, is that the only crossing of the Iowa River was by ferry. The first bridge was not constructed until 1854. Read more here.

I have no room for detail, but I must say a few things about this country in a very concise way. We have, then, a delightful country, diversified with hills (not mountains) and plains, groves and prairies, abounding with navigable rivers, and countless lesser streams of pure water, with a soil, as a general thing, richer than any choice spot in your garden. A community as enterprising, intelligent and virtuous as any state in the Union.

It’s obvious, that despite the tough winters, Winchester loved living in Iowa. H.H. continues…

Ample provision is made for common schools, which will soon render them free to every child in the state. Colleges and seminaries well endowed. Preachers in abundance & preaching occasionally in every neighborhood. Good physicians, lawyers & merchants of every craft. Have excellent neighbors and good society.

In 1849, Iowa City, as the state’s capital, was growing quickly and many of the services found in cities back East were springing up here quickly. Read more here.

(We) Raise an overflowing abundance of everything (fruit excepted) adapted to this climate, and the crowning excellence of all is, it is a healthy country. This you may doubt, but I do not. I never knew it healthier in Vermont for the same length of time than it has been here for the last two years. Doctors are the only ones who have any reason to complain. We can hardly say we have been unwell for more than two years.

“A Distant View of Iowa City” (from the north) as sketched by George H. Yewell (1855).

We have, we think, a very pleasant and pretty place, situated on Clear Creek, 5 miles west of Iowa City; can stand in the door and see the State House and some of the principal buildings in town. Have 80 acres under improvement, which is quite enough for my present self, as Peyton is not quite a man, yet though he comes pretty near to it.

As you can see from this listing, Peyton – the youngest Winchester, was born in 1837, two years before the family moved to Iowa. Now, here in March 1849, Peyton is almost age 12. Sadly, he will only live a few more months, dying in July – a devastating tragedy for the Winchesters, without a doubt.

(We) have 100 apple trees out and some 200 peaches – apples haven’t yet fruited though some have blossomed, but we had last fall about two bushels of peaches for the first time, lots large enough to bear this season if the cold winter has not killed the fruit.

When we speak of improvements we mean plowing, as we have thousands of acres of grassland without improving. We have 12 cows, and ten ewes this season. The two last seasons, our butter brought 12½ cents per pound, cheese 8 cents when green, and 10 in the fall. We raise 40 acres of corn the most we sell to small grain. Wheat is worth 40 to 50 cents per bushel. We sold 65 hundred of pork at $2.00 per hundred. Grain and pork you see are low, but we raise it easy. Dairy is high and cost nothing for pasture and, ordinarily, but little to winter ewes. It is a great country for chickens and eggs. They are so abundant, we care little about them. Deer and wild turkeys are plenty. We live at the edge of the timber and it is no uncommon thing for large flocks of the latter to come within a few feet of the door among our tame ones. Peyton shot a fine one last fall through a little hole in the window. Almost daily we see them going to and from the fields. Hunters at one time this winter had fine sport with the deer while the snow was deep with a sharp crust that would not quite bear (them). They took them by dozens.

An extensive overview is given here (above) of what farming in the new state of Iowa was like in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s. My Boller Family came – as farmers – to Johnson County in 1853, and it’s so insightful to read accounts such as this one.

This state is improving fast, but how it will be for the year to come I cannot say as the gold fever prevails to an alarming degree, and Iowa bids fair to furnish its quota of gold diggers for California. The devil once said “all that a man hath will he give for his life” and I may add his life for gold.

Ah yes, the 1849 Gold Rush had begun. Iowa City historian Irving Weber called it “Gold Fever” where hundreds of Iowa pioneers left everything they had built up to this point to head west to California with the hopes of striking it rich in the west. One of Iowa City’s earliest settlers – Chauncey Swan went west with a large team – only to die upon his return trip in 1852.

Iowa City is improving gradually. There are 6 large brick churches and one of stone, two large taverns besides several boarding houses, some 12 or 15 stores of all descriptions, two printing establishments, an Academy and the State University. A vast amount of produce is brought in by the merchants particularly wheat & pork. One man bought and packed 25 hundred hogs & others 2000.

But now a word or two about family matters. You think the years must be longer here; the reverse, I think, is true at any rate with all the exertions I can make, I cannot do half what I wish, let alone going to Vermont. I should really like to see that mountainous region once more, and still more delighted to see the old friends & acquaintances. And my kindred aside, I can think of no one among the cherished recollections of “Auld Lang Sine” that a visit would afford me more real satisfaction, than at your house. I should like to drop in & chat with Uncle Sol & that good “mother in Israel” and all of you. But, whether we ever shall, I cannot say. We are getting old and it seems difficult to leave home so long. I could wish you were all here – well settled, and I am sure you would never desire to go back to stay.

In March 1849, H.H. Winchester was 53, and his wife, Lydia, was 54, and while that sounds young to us, in that time, living past your 50’s was unusual. So, “getting old” was probably a good excuse in not venturing out on that 1,500 mile journey back to Vermont.

28-year-old Cyaxaras (Clifton) Winchester has gone off to Cincinnati to make a living.

And now Mary, though I have addressed this to you, I mean it for all. It is so long since I have written you, I wanted to say so much – I could say nothing I wished to – and now, when you get this, let us have your long letter & we will pay you with interest, so far as length is concerned. I will just say Cyax is a printer, has been in Cincinnati, Ohio nearly two years, in company with others, is now publishing a daily paper there.

As you can read below, Cyaxaras C. – who also goes as Clifton – the Winchester’s oldest surviving son, has moved back East to Cincinnati, and was doing well in the big city. Again, it’s sad to know that he, too, will die suddenly within five years – May 1854 – from consumption.

V is well and has two very fine boys, so Grand-pa thinks.

V is the Winchester’s oldest surviving daughter, and as you can see from the report (above), she will go on to have five children and live the longest of all of the Winchester children.

Where is Betsy? And how is she? Let us have a full history of everything when you write. Remember me to Chas. All send love to all.

H.H. ends his letter by asking about friends and family back home in Vermont. But wait! The letter isn’t done! There’s still more room on the paper!

Sunday 18th. We have been shut in by high water, so we could not get to the Post Office. Streams have been higher probably than ever before, since the country was settled.

The melting snow has obviously caused havoc in getting across the Iowa River. So, on Sunday – six days after H.H. thought the letter was done – there’s time & a bit more room on the paper for a few more thoughts! And we’re so glad there was. Look at this beautiful ending to this family letter – the joys of springtime in Iowa!

The dry land begins to appear. It is delightful spring weather now. Birds singing, the air swarms with wild geese, ducks, swans, brants (geese), cranes, and pigeons and the prairies are alive with chickens and the air resounds with their continued “boo hoo hoop”. Morning and evening, you would think bedlam was turned loose upon us. O Mary! You would be captivated could you be here now a month or two, and hear our music and see our prairies and wild flowerbeds.

But adieu, H.H. Winchester

So, there you have it. Four pages – and one great letter back home.

Lydia R. Winchester passed away on December 15, 1869, at age 75, and Hubbard H. Winchester died on December 7, 1876, at age 80. Both are buried at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. Godspeed!

DYK-March 6, 2023

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Windham County, Vermont, Wikipedia

Windham County, Vermont 1911 Map, My Genealogy Hound

H.H. Winchester’s Letter – Trip To Iowa, Gilbert R. Irish, The Iowa Citizen, January 11, 1905, p 3

The history of the Universalist Church in Iowa,1843-1943, Elva Louise Tucker, Iowa Research Online, 1944, pp 49-61

The Vermont House, The Iowa Capital Reporter, April 22, 1843, p 3

The Vermont House, The Iowa Capital Reporter, November 9, 1843, p 4

Clear Creek Township, Johnson County, Iowa, Wikipedia

Map of Clear Creek Township, University of Iowa Digital Library

Clear Creek Township, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 704-705

Mary Clisbee, Find-A-Grave

Lydia R. Buel Winchester, Find-A-Grave

In Memoriam, The Daily Press, December 11, 1876, p 4

Hubbard Harrington Winchester, Find-A-Grave

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