1836: George Lemuel Potter to John Hustis

How George L. Potter might have looked

How George L. Potter might have looked

This letter was written by 24 year-old George Lemuel Potter (1812-1877), the son of Samuel and Jemima (Scovil) Potter of New Haven, Connecticut. “He studied law, immediately after graduating, in the Yale Law School, and in the spring of 1837 entered on his profession in Natchez, Mississippi. In the spring of 1842, he removed to Jackson, the capital, where he gained a large practice and became one of the leading lawyers of the State. On Febreuary 5, 1877, while attending court in Lexington, Mississippi, he died suddenly of an apoplectic stroke. Potter was married, in the autumn of 1845, to Cynthia Ann, daughter of Judge Mayes, formerly of Louisville, Kentucky, who died some years before him.”

Potter wrote the letter to his friend, John Hustis (1810-1907), the son of Joseph Hustis (1774-18xx) and Elizabeth Knapp (1783-18xx) of Phillipstown, New York. Hustis studied law a year in the Yale Law School, then in the office of Jeremiah Hine of Carmel, N.Y., and was admitted to the bar in 1836 in New York City. He began practice in the city of Albany, but in 1837 went directly to Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory, where he engaged in the real estate business, and in 1840 erected the first brick block in that place. Between 1840 and 1844, John Hustis of “Milwaukee” purchased no fewer than sixty plots of government land in various counties in Wisconsin. In 1851 he removed with his family to Hustisford, a village on the Rock River, about forty-five miles northwest of Milwaukee, laid out by him and bearing his name. In 1837 he had encamped there, sixteen miles from any cabin, bought a claim, and built a house. In 1846 he built a dam across the river and erected a sawmill, and five years later a flour mill. In 1868 he returned with his family to Milwaukee, but continued to spend a large part of his time in Hustisford, and later made his home entirely at the latter place. [Source: Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale University, June 1908.]

From this letter we learn that Potter practiced law in Indiana before heading south to Natchez, providing him first-hand knowledge of the people, society, places, and prospects for employment in the legal profession in the “West.” In response to questions, Potter shares with Hustis his experiences as a frontier lawyer and offers his suggestions for employment in Indiana, Illinois, or in Wisconsin Territory. Though somewhat bawdy, if not downright vulgar, Potter provides an interesting glimpse of society in the “Old Northwest” during the 1830s.

Addressed to John Hustis, Esq., Carmel, New York

New Haven [Connecticut]
September 9th 1836

John Hustis, Esqr.
Dear Sir,

I received your letter on Friday last when I was about to leave the city. This has occasioned some delay to acknowledge the arrival of your epistle and will, I trust, excuse the late date of this. But if impatience and anxiety for the incoming of this precious document shall have produced an aggregation of your corpuscular evil humors whereby you have become a controverter of Placidian and so “kind a’ like a meat axe” that you would give a “decided cut” to the poor devil who you opine has neglected you, why then take my heartfelt liven feeling sympathy for your afflicted condition and moreover, “take Bandseth’s Pills.” Yes, dear John, dispel the evil that is in thee. Send it in a flood of “ichor” to the devil and perchance some way in future time when he shall read your cases in the books, will again molversate the “exquisite lines” of Byron. The couplet would be a match for the following, which under its mere signification may be supposed to have originated thus.

You know that we are poor mortals but more especially the ladies are all the hand servants of Colus [and] that we are in fact mere generators — quivers & bags of wind — for the use & convenience for his highness — the lord of “wind Gas.” It is moreover within the range of your exertions  that he has supplied us with the means for a perpetual renewal and renovation of wind among which are beans, chestnuts, &c. — so that we may munch and fart at the same time. Thus is pleasure & profit united. Well, a certain beautiful lady chanced on a time to offer up this safety flue of the body a delicately scented volume of gases as incense to the guardian of the winds. Now be it further known to you that where ladies are concerned, even “small matters make a noise” and this act of offering did not escape the notice of one of her admirers, and he at once perceived by means of his delicate nasal organization, & by the great confusion of the lady the full force & effect of the incident. To ally her apprehension & perhaps to convey a compliment, he slyly whispered in her ear, “Thus is the flower to Beauty given. Returned in incense back to heaven.”

I was horrified just now by the grip of a northeaster. I manage to keep my nose warm & to thaw my fingers by a cigar, but the fingers are still half frozen — ergo this scrawling. Indeed, it has been so cold that we have burned the large blind factory & planing establishment ¹ near the canal — loss 25,000 — but you have not escaped the chill for I see by the papers that William H. Russell ² traveling in New York became of a sudden so still (& undoubtedly from cold, John) that he was compelled to marry to allay the symptoms. John, if you are affected, marry by all means. A little friction may produce a temporary relief. But matrimony alone will touch the root of the disorder. Besides friction against even the frail maiden may bring out the latent heat even as from two dry branches rubbed together and, of a sudden, you may find yourself burned. But you are a modest man and may find some difficulty in popping the question. Let me advise you to adopt the practice of a ranger in the Black Hawk War. He met a squaw but found great difficulty in making known his necessities. At last he placed a dollar in his open palm & she rolled up her eyes most sagaciously. He then exhibited his organ of generation and the sqaw took directly for said that ranger, “That is my grand interpreter. It speaks all languages.” By this art of laconics a whole volume is made known in a moment. How many letters & intercommunications would it require before two fashionable lovers could arrive at the same result? Yet this mode declares all that can be said — the dollar & the member say most plainly, take my person & my fortune.

But I forget, as Peacock used to say — who the deuce was Peacock? “I forget” that you wished a commentary on the Peacock aforesaid with illustrations drawn from the West. And I had forgotten that of bawdy stories, I could tell you nothing new. Well, here goes for a flaming description of the West, by which perchance yourself — root trunk & branches — may become dried so that you need not go to the West a complete greenhorn. For shure, John (to use that expression when you are one of the initiated — the bosom companion of the wild Irish) of 2 story corner back. You seem to think that the West is “not what it is cracked up to be.” Now I don’t know what you mean by “cracked,” but if you mean to insinuate anything, I can tell you we have all kinds of cracks at the West from the crack of the hunter’s rifle down to the cracks of the full-fed, round-hipped, cherry cheeked maidens, and our gals are all maids till they are married & “whether or no.”

But to your queries, for general information, but particularly of law & the land system, you will find “Peck’s Guide to Emigrants” a useful work. Although not quite what it is cracked up to be, it will answer your end. It is somewhat like [John] Bunyan’s “[Pilgrim’s] Progress” which teaches a way — if not the way — to heaven. I was quite surprised to find the population possessing so much of the Southern character. I had supposed the West to be the promised land of the Yankees, but I found the heathen in possession. And though their “day has not yet to come,” there is still a “spoil” for the favored people — go and possess. Emigrants from the South constitute by far the greater number and is a natural consequence of slavery. The poor cannot compete with slave labor. The land is possessed by large holders, the laboring white degraded, and therefore compelled to exile himself. So the character of the people is Southern. When Eastern people come in, they adopt the habits of the settlers. By the way, is it not true that we of the North become assimilated and domesticated among strangers the more readily than any other people? We seem to lose all our characteristics except a peculiar squinting toward No. 1. Alas! We are too much like the pedlar’s bull that was in one town Devonshire, in the next Durham, and in others something else, but always “worth a thundering price.”

The western people are frank — liberal (or rather profuse) and social. They are bold & open from this pride of “Old Virgin–y” (as they say) independence, liberal for their abundance is cheaply obtained and to part with it is a small sacrifice. [They are] social, fond of fun & whiskey — moreover indolent & fond of speeches & of course given to litigation. As a mass, they lack enterprise — so much the better for you. There are, however, a few shrew & knavish men who are watchful for strangers. Beware lest they take you in. You will not, of course, expect much refinement or much moral or mental culture. And yet you will find the ladies literary, producing three or more at a litter. You must treat all as old acquaintances for they consider all men as such. You may enquire the distance to a place. They will answer “26 miles, ain’t your name Hustis?” Do not hesitate to call on any brothership whose shingle you chance to see. Should you remain for any time and not call, they will consider it as a slight. You will enjoy few of the refinements of polished societies but you will have invitations of all their balls, parties &c. all in character with the country, and amusements peculiar to that region. Among these are barbecues, hunting parties & other sports, even to “gander pulling.” You will find literary associations in many places and in all audiences of rapid improvements.

But on the other hand you will find yourself in a society in a state of rapid transition. Today you are in a wilderness; around you are a few log cabins tenanted by a backwood’s population. The traveller & the circuit lawyer make hovels their hotels. They snore away on the puncheon floor while the fowls of the air snooze on the rafters above. Men, women, and children, lawyers and barndoor fowl form one complete hotchpotch (by the way, it is a rule in such cases that you shut your eyes & begin to snore instantly when in bed for the ladies of the family occupy the bed beside you and it is too troublesome to blow out the candle. Let me caution you again — cover your head or at least your nose, or you may find it beneath some smock as the fair ones disrobe in the narrow passage between your beds. In that country, never undertake a “sentimental journey.” Moreover, always wear drawers —  “Cause vy?” — a fellow was disrobing in the presence of a young miss of 19 who sat with her eyes intently fixed on her work & just as he had blessed his stars that the maid had so little curiosity, she exclaimed, “Mr., I say Mr., you ought to wear drawers. See how your thigh is chaffed by the saddle.” [Also,] don’t lodge where  the chickens are domesticated. “Vy?” Because some lawyers on the circuit were compelled to lodge in a mean cabin — mean for that country. They arranged themselves after much trouble — one on a deer skin, another on a bear’s, and a third with no skin save his own. But they were weary and used to such things and were soon snoring away in chorus. At length, the drowsy senses of one were awakened by indications of a shower. Patter, patter, it came down in his face & over his body. He removed to another quarter but still shower came down, — pat, pat. He groaned in agony for his situation was anything but pleasant and if it rained hard he would be unable to reach the county seat where he was to argue an important case the next day at 2 o’clock & thus he might lose his fees. His exclamation and the noise of the shower awoke his fellow travelers who bestowed hearty maledictions on him for disturbing their repose. He only replied, “I am soaked, O Lord. I’m wet to the skin. ” They were sufficiently awake to their own condition now & one after another joined chorus, “So am I, so am I” They rolled one way & then the other but down it came, drop, drop. The roof seemed a perfect seine. Curses & groans were intermingled. At least one threw up his eyes in despair & opened wide his mouth to give egress to a mighty oath when came a drop plump into his mouth. Then it was gag-gag-spit-spit turd. I swear (cock-a-doodle do from above) nothing but the damned chickens after all.

But console yourself, for these sufferings, in a few years, you will find there a rich, populous & polished community. Litigation will increase in an equal rate with the wealth & population & how rapid must be this increase. Crowds are coming in daily. I have slept in a room 16 feet by 18 with 26 men, women & miss. Lands will be enhanced in value a hundred fold. Towns & villages are springing up daily — all affording chances for speculations. Your income for a few years may be small, but small as it may be, it will — if judiciously invested — return to you in a few years a sum equal to the receipts of most lawyers in our cities during the same time.

I prefer Indiana to Illinois or Missouri. It has greater natural advantages — more enterprise & a noble public spirit — which has devised a system of internal improvements more extensive than those of any state in the union. Population of Indiana (1830) was 341,500 (now 700,000). Illinois (1830) was 157,500. Missouri (1830) was 140,500. In Indiana, Illinois & I think in Missouri & Kentucky, you are admitted to an examination for the bar at once. As to “particular sections” — the new counties (in north of Indiana & Illinois, see map) afford the best chances for speculation in wild lands & perhaps in town lots for the speculating fever is highest in the north. Law business is pretty good & increasing, & little competition. In many counties, [there are] no lawyers. The bounty lands west of the Illinois [River] are said to be of good quality, healthy, rapidly settling, & most of them to be litigated. The like is said of the Chariton Bounty Lands on the Chariton in Missouri. Marion County, Missouri, is much talked of here. The Rock River country — Wisconsin Territory — is filling or full of squatters, the lands not yet in market. Milwaukee is a fine place for speculation, but board will be high there for some years, lawyers will be abundant, & doubtless much law business.

Inter nos — Dubuque is a fine site for a large town; population 1200, stores 27, backcountry fertile, lead miners inexhaustible. Population west of Mississippi River 12,000 — about ½ in the whole territory, but three years have elapsed since the first settlers crossed the river. Dubuque owes its importance to the neighboring mineral region. It has grown from the mines but it cannot go down for the mineral is inexhaustible. Dubuque, a few years since, had a population of 500 — mostly miners. Now it is a farm. Money is said to be more abundant in the mining region than in any other part of the West. In many instances, the miners receive $40 & $50 per day. Some strike upon a fortune at once. As proof of their wealth & liberality of the citizens of Dubuque, it is stated that $7,000 were raised there at short notice for the erection of a church. Dubuque is tolerably healthy. Last winter I was informed by a gentleman from there that there was no lawyer west of the river. Legal advice is sought at Galena — 40 miles distant. There is much litigation owing to the great value of some mineral localities. Many persons claim to be the discoverers. Dubuque is 360 miles above St. Louis — boats now often. No lands have been sold west of the river. On this side you will find enough in Illinois or Wisconsin.

The climate in Wisconsin is milder than the north of Ohio or Indiana — the spring 2 weeks earlier than at Lafayette, Indiana. This is accounted for by its situation with regard to the lakes. Landon affirmed that winters at Detroit are not so cold as here. At Dubuque you are without female society & exposed to border wars. If you have any lofty political aspirations & wish to become great at once, why the territory is the place for you. I have thought much of Dubuque as a locale should I conclude to settle in the West instead of going south. My objections would be  to the no society & the border & remote situation of the place. If my information is correct —  I think it is — I know of no better place in the West for a lawyer.

With regard to Indiana & Illinois, the northern parts of those states are the most fertile. Most of the Yankees go there and there is more enterprise & many good farmers. Western Illinois, around Jacksonville, Springfield, & Rushville, are many fine settlements — fine farmers — many Yankees. But there are some fine towns of the Ohio, Lafayette (Tippicanoe County), head of navigation on the Wabash, Erie & Wabash Canal, & railroad from Madison (on the Ohio) pass thro’ this place. There is a railroad to be contracted soon from this to Danville, Illinois (stock taken, I think), town 6 years old, population 2,000, 6 or 8 lawyers, healthy, fine country around. Laporte (Laporte County) [is] 30 miles from Michigan City, in new county, fine country, population 600 going ahead, 4 or 5 lawyers. Crawfordsville (Montgomery County) population 1500, site of college, very healthy, in fine rich, rolling country, railroad to Lafayette passes thro’, has a bank, 7 lawyers. Couvington (Fountain County) — a small place with 5 lawyers, good business. Newport (Vermillion County, Indiana) is quite small, 3 lawyers, average cases on the docket 80. Terre Haute has a bank, on Harrison Prairie, most beautiful place in the West, population 2,000, 8 lawyers, cases a few less than at Vincennes, so says the circuit judge. Evansville (Vanderburgh County) on the Ohio, termination of railroad to Vincennes & central canal to Ft. Wayne in north of state, population 800, I should suppose. Fine buildings, improving fast, supposed that it will be the great point on the Ohio. 3 lawyers, has a bank. Vincennes, a bank, population 2200, lawyers 3. Law business dull — few lawyers in the circuit of 6 counties. 25  stores, 4 churches, a large steam factory for cotton thread, steam saw mills & grist mills. Terminus of railroad to Evansville and macadamized road to Louisville. Great stage thoroughfare to St. Louis. New Albany, opposite Louisville, some wholsale houses, population 5 years ago 2500. 6 or 7 lawyers, best society in the state, recommended to me by Judge Kinney as the best place he knew of for a lawyer. Said he thought of resigning & going there. Madison (Jefferson County) on Ohio [River], population 3,000. Terminus of railroad to Lafayette. Many wholesale houses. Indianapolis, canal to [Fort] Wayne & railroad to Lafayette intersect here.  H. Ellsworth ³ goes to that place. Supreme Court sits here. Bloomington (Monroe County) has a flourishing college. South Hanover in Jefferson [County] has a college. All these except the last are county seats. Here the lawyers congregate, few residing out of county seats.

In Illinois are Springfield in Sangamon, richest county & most populous in state. Jacksonville (Morgan County) seat of a college. Where J. Turner is. Most Yankee-like village in Illinois & flourishing. Rushville (in Schuyler), Quincy (in Adams), Vabdalia, Galena (in Jo Davies) and Alton (in Madison) — a great point; terminus of railroad to north of state, posses the upper land trade which formerly went to St. Louis. The largest town in the state except Chicago & going ahead. Danville (in Vermillion) — flourishing. These are spoken of as the principal places in Illinois. They are said to have much law business & more lawyers. The point on the Maumee [River] where the ERie & Wabash Canal terminates will be the site of a great town. Cook is there or rather a Toledo – speculation runs wild there.

The whole west is unhealthy if compared with New England. Diseases mostly bilious. They prevail in the north & south — perhaps to a greater extent in the south. Milk sickness is unknown at Vincennes. It is settled that it originates from a poisonous plant eaten by cattle. The flesh and milk of cattle affected are poisonous. Dogs eating of the flesh of cattle that have died if it, [will] die. In all cases where the disease has appeared, it can be traced to diseased kind. Eat neither meat, butter, or cheese & you need fear nothing from milk sickness. Many cases of ague & fever occur, but if you carefully avoid exposure to rains, chills & ____, you will probably escape. I have been drenched day after day, slept on a soft plank in my cloak in January with no fire, had wey feet & yet I was not sick a day. In some cases, diseases are confined to the water courses; in others to the interior. Vincennes is, I think, quite as healthy as Terre Haute. They are rival towns & Vincennes has ben much decried by those interested in Terre Haute.

Board in large town is from two or three dollars, room included. In villages (county seats) from 75 cents to $1.75. Law fees rather liberal. On a justice case I have known $25 asked, but the court was 20 miles distant. A leading lawyer at Vincennes avows that he has & can make $3,000 a year by his practice. This is probably exaggeration. His expenses would be heavy.

I give here a list of Hitchcock’s — some of the book given will not of course be necessary. Kent’s Com. Revue Domestic relations. Story’s Bailment, Goulds’ Pleading Angel, and Ames’ on Corporations. Ingraham on Insolvency. Chitty on Bills, On Insurance, Philips. Fonblanque’ Equite (late edition), Maddock’s Chancery. Equity Draftsmen — or some late book Equity forms. Sargeant’s Constiutional Law, Rawles on the Constitution, Gidds or Archbold’s Forms. Williams’ Executors, Shephard’s Touchstone (author’s edition), Coke on Lit., Eden on Injunctions, Gow or Collier on Partnerships, Russel on Crimes, ARchbold on Criminal Pleading, Angel on Watercourses. Paley’s Agency, Roberts’ Frauds & Fraudulent Conveyances. Caldwell’s Arbitrations, Clancy’s Rights of Married Women, Petersdorff’s Abridgement or the Reporters Abridged. Begin with the modern & go back as your means allow. Chitty’s Equity Digest, or the Equity Reports Digested. Johnson’s ^ Cowen’s Digest, Wheaton’s Digest or the reports of these digested. Dutton (Com) Dig. Blackstone. Cruise Swift, Chitty, Selwyn, Starkie. The New York Reports are high — indeed, the highest authorities at the West. Kentucky reports [are] much quoted. Not many Englist Reports in the state.

You will find useful Laws U Stats & Reports, U. S. or Digest of them. Acts Relating to lands in 1 Vol. Indiana Rep. (Blackford) 2 or 3 Vols. Kentucky Rep. 5 or 6 Vols. — These two last you can get at the West. Selwys will do on Insurance & on Bills. For forms, Chitty’s forms is the latest 3 large vols. — for Civil actions only, I think — Criminal Law — such books as would be necessary here. So of books in contracts — real & personal property — & domestic relations, a few good books will serve you for a time. Digest may do in place of reports. Of course you will seek late editions. You may want some English Chancery Report, but you can best determine.

Of places in Indiana, New Albany is perhaps as good as any. [It] affords means of acquaintance with Louisville if you should wish to locate there after a time. Next Vincennes, then Newport, Crawfordsville & Lafayette. I shall be in Indiana a year or more if I do not settle. I have 60 odd volumes of law books — shall purchase more. I may not practice much but I should like to take up quarters with you if you are so disposed and we can fix upon any point. Morgan has been here — well & gone. Letter from Marshall expects office of prosecuting attorney. Wants a wife &c, advises me to marry. Won’t do anything of the kind. Let me hear from you soon.

Yours, — Geo. L. Potter

¹ The Newark Daily Advertiser of 14 September 1836 reported that, “The sash and blind factory of Messrs. Atwater, Barlow & Hine, situated in Artizan Street, New Haven, was destroyed by fire on Wednesday morning last, causing a loss of $25,000, not one cent of which was in sured. The carriage manufactory of Mr. Moses Perkins, the brass foundry of Mr. Harvey Bradley, and the machine shop of Mr. Theldon were more or less injured.”

William Huntington Russell

William Huntington Russell

² William Huntington Russell (1809-1885) was married to Mary E. Hubbard on 29 August 1836. He was an American businessman, educator, and politician. He was the founder of the Yale University secret society Skull and Bones. Russell had planned on entering the ministry, but his financial problems forced him to obtain an immediate income through teaching. In September 1836, he opened a private prep school for boys in a small dwelling house. The school would become known as the New Haven Collegiate and Commercial Institute. To begin with, the school was only attended by a small number of boys, but by the time of Russell’s death the school had become well known and had graduated around 4,000 boys. In about 1840, Russell introduced a very thorough military drill and discipline into his school. He foresaw a Civil War in the future, and wanted to make sure his boys were prepared to fight for the Union. His students were so well schooled in military affairs that on the outbreak of Civil War some were enlisted as drill instructors. He not only gave his students to the Union army, but also his own services. Governor Buckingham realized that Russell was one of the most knowledgeable men in military affairs. For this reason, Russell was hired to organize the Connecticut militia. He was later made a major-general by act of the legislature. From 1846 to 1847, Russell served as a Whig in the Connecticut state legislature. Upon the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, he became active as one of the leaders of the movement which resulted in the organization of the Republican Party. He was a strong abolitionist and a friend of John Brown. Russell was named as a trustee in the will of John Brown. He was also the Connecticut representative on the National Kansas Committee.

³ Henry W. Ellsworth (1814-1864) was an American attorney, author, poet, and diplomat who served as Minister to Sweden.  He graduated from Yale University in 1834, graduated from the New Haven Law School, and became an attorney in Lafayette, Indiana. In 1844 he was a Democratic Presidential elector from Indiana. In 1845 he was appointed by President James K Polk as Minister to Sweden and Norway, and he remained until 1849.


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