Bygone Days

Pig's Eye

by Joel Van Valin

Letter, Mr. Russel Hallbury to Miss Eustacia Hallbury

May 1836

Dear Bubble--

    I'm scribbling this to you from the deck of the steamboat "Palmyra", three days upriver from St. Louis and, at the present instant, loitering upon a sand bar. They are loading the wood and trunks on a barge now, to make us lighter so that we may float off it ... as happens quite frequently going up the Miss, they say. Slow going, but a pleasant way to travel all in all, and she's a wild beauty of a girl, this Miss. (Yes, Bubs, I'm droll as ever!) In all truth, how difficult it is to imagine the smoke and noisesomeness of Boston from the green vistas afforded this crystalline river. The water is so pure you might gaze clear to the bottom even in middle depths; there is a good quantity of trout and other fish and we set lines out the back of the steamer in the lazy afternoon. The "we" in this case being myself and a Mr. Charboux, gentleman of New Orleans, with whom I am on cozy terms. On "the fashionable tour" you know, but he is only going up as far as Prairie du Chien. We have a gay time playing whist for coppers, with a missionary--Mr. Papst--and a Mr. Darlington, a soldier who drinks astonishingly, surpassing even Winston and Chummy at the Club. My regards to W by-the-by--is it true he has asked you to the Maygreen ball? (Off sand bar now...)

    Here, sweetest Bubs, you must allow me to interject some lines of business for Father ... in my last letter I told him of my dealings with Mr. Astor's office in St. Louis. His letter seems to open all doors in this country, and I am of half a mind this wild scheme of wilderness trading may hold some prospect, and this Miss could be my springboard to fortune as was the Ohio valley to Father. I'm to meet a man named Fairibault at Fort Snelling who, if luck holds, will be willing to take me on as a full trader.

    There Bubs, business finished. On to some descriptions of the country, of which I know you to be so keen. The banks are in most places steep & rocky with limestone and wooded deep with pine & oak. Deer can be seen occasionally on the shores and eagles, with white heads, soar aloft--able fishermen, they. From time to time the bluffs descend and we can see off into the limitless prairies that lie beyond the woods...sure you would die to be here with your paints and easel, Bubs! Two days ago we passed an Indian village of some sort, a Sioux habitation (so the pilot says), but not much seemed to be going on, only a pair of children leading a pony to drink at the river. And yesterday we witnessed a small band of women with their children, up on the bank, scattering seed of some kind. The pilot and most others here on the "Palmyra" consider these Indians to be the most indolent of people, but at my first glimpse they seemed ruggedly industrious--nay, idyllic--and brought to mind certain passages from Rousseau, who made such an impression on my last year. The children of nature, etc.

    Will break for now. Respects to Father, and please inform Auntie A that "Russel the Rake" is quite behaving (and keep the above about the whist and drinking mum--that's my Bubs!). And of course my deepest love to you.

Your affectionate brother,


Some days later

    As I hadn't the chance to post this letter in Prairie du Chien (we stopped there only briefly, for wood) I shall add a postscript. Your latest arrived sweet Bubs, your antics at Mrs. Lilymore's dance had me positively roaring!

    I do wish you were here--you would find this the perfect Eden. But wait--I have not described where "here" is. Fort Snelling overlooks a majestic valley and the confluence of two great rivers, the Miss & the Minnesota, and is the end of the line for steamboats, the falls of St. Anthony a few miles upriver preventing traffic beyond. The Indian agent, Major Taliaferro, made us very welcome. He is a good sort, in all respects O.K. (as we used to say at the Club). I have not met the commander, Col. Davenport, yet, as he is new and just getting things together. After a heavy but coarse meal of saltpork, biscuit, and wild rice which grows hereabouts, I am free to walk about. The fort is the single outpost of civilization in this area, and is visited by all sorts, traders and Indians and half-breeds and voyageurs. This is the wildest place I have ever seen, and the most picturesque, and were it not for the mosquitoes I would call it paradise.

P.S. Concerning Winston--he is a splendid fellow and am glad to hear you have genuine regard for him, & that he fancies you, but do be careful, dear Bubs, he is known at the Club as something of a swell, & there were several rumours concerning amorous liaisons, etc., need I say more?


Letter, Mr. Russel Hallbury to Miss Eustacia Hallbury

May 1836

    I have been witness to so many impressions in the last few days, my dear Bubble, there's nothing for it but to write and send a second missive following after the first. Col. Davenport is thundering here at the fort and I, though perfectly innocent, was the cloud which precipitated the storm. I mentioned to him, in passing, that he should whet his lips with a bit of the excellent whiskey we brought up with us on the "Palmyra". What whiskey? he asks me, and I reply, Why, the several barrels that were tucked in the hold. Then he cursed and said that the fort had ordered no whiskey. The blackguards! he cried. The smuggling jackanapes!

    I then in my mind returned to the night we arrived ... we had stopped at the bend in the river just before the fort came into view, at a trading post it seemed, though for the darkness I could not make out even the bank. A man named Parrant, an old grizzled toothless fellow with one eye red and all askew, hopped on deck and discoursed with our pilot. I could see others, henchmen of his, moving things from below onto a boat--it must have been the whiskey, I have since conjectured--and he laughed and slapped the pilot on the back.

    Major Taliaferro was quite incensed. Whiskey, he confided to me, was the worst thing possible for your Indians, for they have a special weakness for it, and will trade ridiculous quantities of furs to obtain the distilled spirit. Our government has firm laws forbidding the trade of whiskey, so as not to lead the natives into total dissipation...but the traders manage to smuggle it in for very lucrative profits. This Parrant, or "Pig's Eye" as he is known in these parts, is, according to the Major, the crookedest of men, a whiskey moonshiner and swindler of infamous character. His post is, as I said, just downriver, a place called Fountain Cave; yet, being on the opposite bank, is beyond the jurisdiction of the fort.

    Apart from this unfortunate episode, my time here has been pleasant. A French scientist, one M. Nicollet, arrived the day before yesterday. He has put together an expedition to find the source of the mighty Miss, and is very keen. I parleyed with him en français and he was much impressed with me, and even offered me a place in his company. But I have come to know, from what I witnessed coming up the river and also from the stories of the voyageurs, the hardship of this country, and so I demurred. I shall cast my lot in the wilds soon enough, I trust, for yesterday I had an interview with Mr. Fairibault, and he was agreeable to taking me on with the American Fur Company, but there are no official plans drawn up yet. I feel that I am drifting, as I sometimes did back home--but here it is a pleasant sensation, an easy rolling with the hour and day, as the river rolls past tree and forest ... such is the beauty of this place, it is not unlike the sensation of falling in love. Major Taliaferro has bid me to dine tonight, so adieu for now, my sweet Bubs, and hello to Father.

Your dearest


Letter, Mr. Russel Hallbury to Miss Eustacia Hallbury

June 1836

Sister dearest--

    My residence is still Fort Snelling, though how much longer I do not know. I am to set out for a post some three days into the forest north of here, in the company of a Chippewa guide named Chagobay or Shakopi or some such thing. I must admit some apprehension, heightened by the arrival of fifty or so Sioux warriors who encamped at the fort yesterday. They wore face paint, were fully armed, and arrived to the somber beats of a deep drum; I shall never forget those visages, as I beheld them from the walls, stone-faced and, but for the drum, quiet as the grave. Then they all took up a cry that made my heart shudder. Major Taliaferro, however, seemed entirely unfazed at the performance, for he went out and greeted the party warmly, inviting the principals among them into his offices, where he made them gifts of high wine and flintlocks with great ceremony.

    He had the good graces to invite me to join them and introduced me to some of the warriors, Little Crow and Wabasha and others I cannot recollect. And then there was an official welcoming ceremony in the great hall of the fort, with its glass windows and high stone walls with hangings which no doubt impressed the native visitors deeply. And it is obvious that Major Taliaferro is held in great esteem by them, for he smoked the peace pipes with the old chiefs, and, as far as I could make out, was dispensing advice to them on any number of things.

    Later the Indians, at the Major's request, put on a show for us--a beggar-dance it was called--a strange and disturbing performance which yet awakened something within me, made me thank my lucky stars for being at this particular place in this particular time, and ... oh, but I can't explain it, Eustacia--this feeling of being at the edge of something very vast, like the fountain of the Miss which that Nicollet fellow is seeking. I must revise my first impression of these Indians as "children of nature" à la Rousseau--the young men are warlike, the old men sage, the women strong-minded, and the whole controlled by strong families or clans. They are, in fact, very much akin to our ancestors of the Middle Ages.

    Just yesterday we had a delightful excursion. Some few miles upriver are the falls of Saint Anthony, very pretty and spirited, though they fall only a few scant feet. A soldier, one Sergeant Hawkins, led me on to the bravado performance of walking a narrow plank across the falls to a small island in the river; but once we were there it was very pleasant, and we had a picnic by the water's edge, where a faint rainbow seemed to constantly hover a few feet off.

    My last words are for you, dear sister. About the engagement--if your feelings are as you expressed in your last, then I must take your side; yet I would council you to leave Father alone awhile and let his temper cool. As for Winston--but would it be wrong of me to suggest some time apart from him as well, to insure that your mutual affections do not cool?

Your constant brother,


Letter, Mr. Russel Hallbury to Miss Eustacia Hallbury

August 1836

Eustacia dear--

    It seems passing strange that we parted but five months ago, for all the things I have seen. I write to you, dear sister, leaning against the wall of upright wooden pikes that fence in the trading post--not much bigger than a carriage house back home-- where I live now and ply the fur trade. There is naught else here but a hitching post, a storehouse and, outside the wall a fire pit for drying and curing meat and stripping furs. Chagobay has stayed on as my chief hunter, and there is a frenchman, LeParr, and a half-Indian by the name of Mendas--but they are all three off most of the time on trading missions. Now and then a group of Chippewa appear, their coming silent as deer, and present to me the carcasses or pelts of beaver, bear, fox, deer, rabbit and other mammals; I treat them to a glass of strong wine, we smoke a pipe, and strike a deal for the next year, so many pelts for a few pots and pans, scissors, saws, a gun perhaps, and of course the spirits. I am very stingy with the alcohol, as it is against statute and never fails to produce fights and stabbings amongst the Indians...but when I deny them their kegs of wine and whiskey they threaten to storm the fort; it is a delicate balance, to be sure.

    It is queer, though, how I have taken to this life, simple and repetitive as it is. I see very few people, but those I do see I wholly respond to, I celebrate their company. At times, indeed, I am quite beside myself with loneliness; then I make a day's journey and visit one of the small Indian settlements; they are in their summer camps now, so it is only the old men with the women and children. I sleep in a tent or under the stars and tell them (I am catching a little of their Algonkian language now) about ships and factories and all of the bustle of Boston town. They do not quite believe me, I think.

    I have gotten to know a few of the natives on friendly terms, and one in particular, Kisketawak, a quiet, thoughtful fellow, a member of the very illustrious Medicine Society. The other day while smoking a pipe he asked me why, if Boston held such miraculous treasures, I left there, and I replied that it was for advancement at first, but that now I had come to favor the simple life of the plains. But Kisketawak shook his head and told me, Wait until Winter comes, and he described all of the illnesses and lean diet of that season. After talking to him it struck me that if the best elements of the two systems--the writing and physic and other knowledge of the White Man, and the Indian's natural and unfettered mode of life--were combined, it might not be too much to think that Rousseau's ideal world would be delivered to us. Perhaps indeed that shall be the history of this territory: a great and triumphant mingling of two cultures, as happened with the Saxons and Normans of old. Father no doubt would sneer at all this as fanciful dreaming, but one thing is certain--it has made a new man of me. My love to him and to you all,

Your devoted,



    I have just received your last missive. Imagine--my dear little Bubs, married! I felt confident that Father would come 'round in the end. I am sure your two months in Geneva will be lovely, and my blessings on you both.

Letter, Mr. Russel Hallbury to Mrs. Eustacia Winston

October 1836

My dearest Eustacia--

    I arrived at Fort Snelling yesterday, and your letter welcomed me more than any friend could have. So you are a wife! I am glad that you have found domesticity joyful ... it is a pity that you could not take the voyage this year, but they say spring is the season for Italian scenery. And perhaps you may yearn for a wilder land, and adventure out here to visit your poor threadbare brother?

    No, but I jest. I am in very good spirits at the moment. Living in nature is well and good, but there is nothing quite like Civilization, after all. This fort, which I first beheld as a tepid backwater, now seems a veritable London to me. I find I can talk all night with the soldiers and traders here and still have no wish to part company. Why, last night Sergeant Hawkins and I saw the dawn together, along with an immigrant named McClair. The latter is a refugee of sorts, come down from a failed colony on the Red River up north. It was to be an idyllic settlement based on the virtues of Christianity, but they were not able to make a go of it, and several of the colonists, McClair amongst them, now live in the shadow of the fort.

    The whiskey proved a lubricant to my tongue, and at length I unfolded my newly minted ideas about the future tableau of the plains--how the enlightenment of Europe, combined with the natural bounties of this land, would produce a veritable Eden, whose inhabitants would live simply and happily, with neither the sickness and famine of the native life nor the vices of our cities. McClair, still bitter from his own experiences, was of the opinion that the White Man could never really tame these wild regions, and were best to withdraw all together. To this Hawkins snorted, and put forth his prediction: that sooner or later we would exterminate the Indian here, as we had back east, and the lands of the Mississippi would be put under the plow and axe, and be, in time, another Massachusetts, with teeming cities and quiet farms.

    You trappers, he said, you fur traders, your days is through. The pioneers is coming, and they ain't having none of them Sioux warriors around, nor the Chippewas neither. In twenty years, this'll all be settled. Leastway, that's what Pig's Eye's been sayin'.

    And then McClair said that he and some others were thinking of joining Pig's Eye's little settlement near Fountain Cave, if Col. Davenport makes good on his threats to expel them from here.

    For some reason the name of that irascible bootlegger raised my ire, though I was, quite possibly, swigging some of his handiwork. He seems to represent everything that is worst and lowest from our world; and yet the majority of the white men here on the frontier seem to be his sort.

Some days later

    Eustacia--fortune seems to have struck me, as if out of the blue...yet I hesitate to embrace it. I have just received Father's note about Mr. Taft's invitation to join his firm. I do not doubt that it is a splendid position, and that Mr. Taft, hearing of my hard work and experiences out here, has offered me the chance of my career. And I would see you again, my dearest Bubs, and Father. Yet the idea of returning to Boston, with its belching factories and stale tea parties, is repugnant to me. Well, I shall go for a long walk now, and think it over.

The next day

    After a talk with Mr. Fairibault, about my prospects here (which do not seem as bright as I had thought them, for though I have procured an ungodly number of furs, he does not think it enough of a profit) I have made my decision. I will take the next steamboat, and, God willing, step through our porter's lodge at home by Christmas. I feel all jumbled up inside, as though a rug were pulled out from under me. I wish ... but there is even less profit from beautiful dreams than from furs. I must see to my trunk, for a boat should be up from Prairie du Chien any day.

Yours in haste,


Letter, Mr. Russel Hallbury to Mrs. Eustacia Winston

June 1851

    Greetings sister, and I hope this letter finds you well and settled in. Your cottage in Savoy, as you described it in your last epistle, sounds wonderfully cozy, and I am glad Maud is with you now. I should have written sooner, but there is a very great case on now, and since Mr. Taft has made me a full partner, much is expected of me. I shall arrange the $100 as soon as I can, but I must insist you learn, my dear, some economy. I do not know what Father would say, if he were alive. Yet I cannot be too hard on you, knowing the life you leave behind, and that until now you have not experienced the world on your own.

    I have spoken to Winston, and he is still adamantly opposed to a reconciliation. I believe he was drunk when I passed him on the street; certainly he seemed melancholy and out of sorts. I fear he is close to being penniless--but he called the misery upon himself, so I cannot find it in me to be charitable.

    Thalia is in good spirits, and the children as well, though they do miss their "Auntie Bubs" very much. Your old friend Dorothy also gives her salutations, and says another child is due in September. I met her last night, at Nesbitt's ball; and also an interesting young man, one Mr. Garner, who was at my whist table. He is just back from the upper Mississippi, and in talking with him I was brought back nostalgically to my own time in that wilderness. However, he says that it is much changed now, the fur trade has vanished, the Indians driven out, and the land around Fort Snelling is settled. Nor is the fort the major luminary now--a town called Saint Anthony has sprung up above the falls, and old Pig's Eye's settlement has become the bustling town of St. Paul. There are stores and houses, merchants and bankers, priests and prostitutes--all the accoutrements of the "civilized" world. There is even talk of making the territory a state.

    Mr. Garner's news must have put a strange current in my mind, for that night I dreamed I was back in my trader's cabin. The door was open, and beyond I could see the verdant green of untrammeled woodlands, from whence came bird song, the shy rustling of some deer, the bubbling of a brook. But then the door was darkened by a hulking, deformed figure. It was Pig's Eye, and he was in a drunken rage, thrashing about and shouting, with his rotted breath, words in some foul language.

Peace be with you sister. Your constant,


The End

Pig's Eye © 2002 by Joel Van Valin

Joel Van Valin is a technical writer and the editor of the literary journal Whistling Shade. His first novel, The Flower of Clear Burning, will be published by NovelBooks, Inc. this fall. He lives in Saint Paul, or Pig's Eye, as it was once called, until its citizens decided their town needed a more respectable name.

Back to Bygone Days
[Back to Bygone Days]
Graphics Copyright 2001, 2003-2004 Kim & Pat Murphy
Initial Markup Design by Pat Murphy