Start with a coach lumbering westward over country roads and its occupants singing. The year is 1832, in mid-October. “After a week in Philadelphia,” one of those travelers would recall some seventy years later, “we chartered a big, old-fashioned stage, with four great horses, for Wheeling, Virginia, and spent a week or more on the way, crossing the Alleghenies, before ever a railroad was thought of, and enjoyed every minute of the way. At least we children did, with brother George on the box shouting out the stories he got from the various drivers, and leading us all in singing hymns and songs.” Fully alive and fresh from Yale at age twenty-three, George was keeping busy in the breeze topside, chatting with the stage driver, urging papers of religious uplift on chance passersby, and leading his family below in song, up to nine voices in their chorus all together.
Another of the number, twenty-one-year-old Harriet Elizabeth Beecher, described the same scene with the journey still in progress: the “obliging driver, good roads, good spirits, good dinner, fine scenery, and now and then some ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,’ for with George on board you may be sure of music of some kind.” She, too, spoke of her older brother’s distributing his tracts along the highway, “peppering the land with moral influence”; and after they had stopped for the evening at a village inn, Harriet took care to account for the party present one by one. She was writing back home and wanted her sister’s family in Hartford to picture the scene.
See them, then, gathered in the front parlor of a Pennsylvania tavern. Father is opposite, seated at the table reading. Kate is writing a letter to that married sister who has chosen to stay behind in her settled life in Connecticut. Young Thomas, eight years old, sits beside his father making an entry in a journal of his own; and, wrote Harriet, ten-year-old Isabella—who will recall this odyssey after three-quarters of a century—“has her little record” too. George meanwhile stands ready to begin his contribution to the letter that Kate is composing, while, unmentioned, Aunt Esther, along with Harriet’s stepmother and the youngest, James at four, may have been off in their bedchamber resting, all of them after a day’s travel stopped at the village of Dowington, some thirty miles beyond Philadelphia.
They were bound for a new life together in the Queen City of the West, still many days ahead at the end of a long road. Father was fifty-seven. Thus advanced in age, the indomitable Lyman Beecher had picked up these of his family who wanted to come and was setting out to begin life anew in Cincinnati. Earlier, he and Kate—his eldest daughter, Catharine—had scouted out the lay of the land, venturing west this past spring of 1832, and had liked what they saw. “I know of no place in the world,” Catharine had written, well pleased, from the scene, “where there is so fair a prospect of finding every thing that makes social and domestic life pleasant.” Already a couple of relatives from back east were established with their families in the thriving riverport of 30,000 people. “Indeed,” Catharine had reassured her correspondent at home, Cincinnati “is a New England city in all its habits, and its inhabitants are more than half from New England.” As for Father, “I never saw,” she went on, “such a field of usefulness and influence as is offered to him here.”
All his adult life Catharine’s father had made himself useful, first as the minister in a remote Long Island village during ten years at the start of the century; next for sixteen years as the minister of Litchfield, a prosperous town in western Connecticut; then over these past six years as minister of the Hanover Street Church in Boston’s North End. But now, toward the end of his sixth decade, the nationally known Reverend Lyman Beecher had been offered a new, wonderful opportunity to serve both God and his country. For some time he had been thinking about the West in any case—“If we gain the West, all is safe,” he assured Catharine in 1830; “if we lose it, all is lost”—when word reached him of a new seminary being established in Cincinnati, Ohio. A benefactor out there had donated sixty acres of land two miles beyond the city on which to erect the Lane Theological Seminary, and $70,000 had been pledged for buildings and staff, provided that the celebrated Dr. Beecher could be persuaded to come from Boston to teach in and serve as president of the institution; “as he is the most prominent, popular, and powerful preacher in the nation, he would immediately give character, elevation, and success to our seminary, draw together young men from every part of our country, secure the confidence and co-operation of the ministers and churches both east and west of the Alleghany Mountains, and awaken a general interest in the old states in behalf of the West.”
Dr. Beecher learned of the trustees’ hopes to his enormous joy. “I had felt and thought, and labored a great deal about raising up ministers”—what work could be more useful than that?—“and,” he remarked of the invitation later, “the idea that I might be called to teach the best mode of preaching to the young ministry of the broad West flashed through my mind like lightning. I went home, and ran in, and found Esther alone in the sitting-room.” Esther was his maiden half sister, who lived with the family. “I was in such a state of emotion and excitement I could not speak, and she was frightened. At last I told her. It was the greatest thought that ever entered my soul; it filled it, and displaced every thing else.”
During these early years of the nineteenth century, the rapidly changing West was creating abundant work for the likes of a devout evangelical such as Lyman Beecher. Catholics, newly arriving, appeared to threaten all that vast region; the Mississippi Valley must be saved for the old faith, for Beecher’s brand of Protestantism. Cincinnati, for instance, founded along the Ohio River in 1788, had already become home to a congregation of some 100 Roman Catholics in scarcely three decades, by 1819; and in the single, more recent year of 1829, the swelling band of German and Irish proselytizers had managed to lure 150 Protestants of the river town over to popery, to that gaudy theological despotism whose laity were not even allowed to read the Bible, whose doctrines of celibacy and distaste for the flesh seemed at war with the family, whose allegiance ultimately was paid to a potentate in far-off Rome. A vast number of Americans viewed all this as a matter of the gravest concern. Dr. Beecher’s “great motive in going to Cincinnati,” his daughter Harriet would later flatly aver, “was to oppose the influence of the Roman Catholic church in everyway.” For Beecher was a Protestant evangelical, and thus his job, his duty, his life’s work was the saving of souls; on those terms he would wage battle against the Catholics out west, proselytizing for his own faith with a vigor that surpassed their own.
He was elected president of Lane Theological Seminary on October 22, 1830. Ecclesiastical matters detained him in Boston (Hanover Church had burned down, and a new church was being built on Bowdoin Street); but with his eldest daughter Catharine, then in her early thirties, he went west at last, for the first time, in April 1832, to look over the terrain. What the two found delighted them both. “I never saw a place so capable of being rendered a paradise by the improvements of taste as the environs of this city,” Catharine wrote after visiting Walnut Hills, site of the struggling school—“so elevated and cool,” she jested, “that people have to leave there to be sick.” The seminary was located on a hill that was picturesque enough, even if only a couple of bare buildings had so far been erected alongside the forest, and although city and river were hidden from view. Soon the Beechers had chosen the spot among woodlands “where our house shall stand in case we decide to come.”
They did decide in favor of making the tremendous move, so that in early October 1832, various members of the family were congregating in New York City: the patriarch with his second wife, his three young children by her, and his half sister down from Boston; the grown Catharine by his first wife over from Hartford; and his son George from New Haven and Yale, determined to finish his ministerial studies out west at Lane. “Well, my dear,” another emigrating daughter, Harriet, wrote from New York on October 6, 1832, “the great sheet is out and the letter is begun.” Through their varied lifetimes, these Beechers would each abundantly demonstrate a facility with language, but Harriet wrote perhaps most easily of all, and she would be the one to make entries over the great sheet of this present letter, recording events of the journey from here to Cincinnati, transmitting the whole back to Hartford once the party had arrived.
The travelers assembling in New York were apportioned among homes of Christian well-wishers. “I don’t know, I’m sure, as we shall ever get to Pittsburgh,” Harriet confided to her sister back home. “Father is staying here begging money for the Biblical Literature professorship; the incumbent is to be C. Stowe. Last night we had a call from Arthur Tappan and Mr. Eastman.” The rich merchant Tappan was a benefactor of Lane; part of the delay in New York was to allow Dr. Beecher, when not preaching at churches and theaters, to solicit money from such wealthy people directly. He persuaded the landowner Stephen Van Rensselaer, for instance, to subscribe $1,000 for the new seminary on the spot. “Father has been this morning in high spirits,” Harriet reported. “He is all in his own element—dipping into books—consulting authorities for his oration—going around here, there, and everywhere—begging, borrowing, and spoiling the Egyptians—delighted with past success and confident for the future.” The argument to be advanced in support of the Lane enterprise went like this: “Cincinnati, now at the heart of four millions, and in twenty years to be at the heart of twelve millions, is the most important point in our nation for a great central theological institution of the first character.” That was how the emissary Franklin Vail, trustee of Lane, had put the matter when traveling east to recruit Dr. Beecher; and “the good of the Church, the awakening of the East in behalf of the West,” Vail had insisted besides, “loudly demanded that one of their best generals should occupy the very seat of Western warfare while the enemy was coming in like a flood.” The general to stanch that flood of papists and infidels was precisely this same exuberant Congregational pastor, summoned down from Boston to solicit New York money before resuming his journey west with a part of his numerous progeny.
“Well, we did get away from New York at last,” Harriet in Philadelphia was able to add to her letter two weeks later, “but it was through much tribulation.” They had traveled the second leg of the journey by water. New York truckmen delivered the family baggage to the wrong wharf, however, “and, after waiting and waiting on board the boat, we were obliged to start without it, George remaining to look it up.” By the time of their arrival in Philadelphia, with the weather turned dull and drizzly, the travelers had grown disconsolate, “poor Aunt Esther in dismay—not a clean cap to put on—mother in like state—all of us destitute. We went half to Dr. Skinner’s and half to Mrs. Elmes’s—mother, Aunt Esther, father, and James to the former; Kate, Bella, and myself to Mr. Elmes’s. They are rich, hospitable folks, and act the part of Gaius in apostolic times.”
Gaius played host “to me and to the whole church,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 16:23. As for the misguided trunks, they caught up with the Beechers next morning. “Father stood and saw them all brought into Dr. Skinner’s entry, and then he swung his hat and gave a ‘hurrah,’ as any man would whose wife had not had a clean cap or ruffle for a week.” Philadelphia newspapers meanwhile were noting the presence in their city of so remarkable a group: “‘this distinguished brother, with his large family, having torn themselves from the endearing scenes of their home,’ etc., etc., ‘were going, like Jacob,’ etc.—a very scriptural and appropriate flourish,” Harriet adjudged the allusion, to a reverent Old Testament emigre who had led his own large family into Egypt. “A number of the pious people of this city,” she added, “are coming here this evening to hold a prayer-meeting with reference to the journey and its object,” intent upon sending the Beechers on their way well blessed.
Thus in their great carriage the party rumbled overland next day toward Dowington, toward Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and, after many more days than anticipated, up into the Alleghenies and down to Wheeling on the Ohio River. Brother George explained the late delay in their progress. “We had poor horses in crossing the mountains. Our average rate for the last four days to Wheeling was forty-four miles. The journey which takes the mail-stage forty-eight hours, took us eight days.” Moreover, having reached the Ohio River at last, at Wheeling (still in Virginia in those antebellum years), the Beechers were advised to linger. They had meant to push on at once by riverboat, but Asian cholera had broken out at their destination. For months the disease had been anticipated with dread, newspapers full of its horrors in Europe, then in England, then relentlessly over the Atlantic to New York and inland. Now the mysterious cholera, with its spectacular symptoms that led so often and promptly to death, had reached Cincinnati and was running a dreadful course there, in this first of its several outbreaks as a scourge of nineteenth-century America.
So the Beechers delayed for a week at Wheeling, where Dr. Beecher improved his hours preaching with great success eleven times, before setting out with his family in the chartered stage overland once more as far as Granville, Ohio. There George himself preached five times, his father four. “The interest was increasingly deep and solemn each day,” the younger man was pleased to notice, “and when we left there were forty-five cases of conversion in the town, besides those from the surrounding towns. The people were astonished at the doctrine, said they never saw the truth so plain in their lives.”
In that fruitful manner these Beechers concluded their ebullient journey westward, from Granville over corduroy roads to Columbus and on from there finally to Cincinnati, which they reached safely on Wednesday, November 14, 1832, delighted to discover that their furniture had arrived the day before.
Lyman Beecher would bring to these new responsibilities the zeal with which he had undertaken earlier pastoral tasks in East Hampton, at Litchfield, and in Boston. “All at the West is on a great scale, and the minds and the views of the people correspond with these relative proportions,” he exulted with characteristic spirit. “The West is a young empire of mind and power and wealth and free institutions, rushing up to a giant manhood, with a rapidity and a power never before witnessed below the sun.” Likewise his family, looking back on the same early times at Walnut Hills, would recall an intense enthusiasm, remembering their then new household—a rambling brick home at the edge of the primeval forest—as “replete with moral oxygen—full charged with intellectual electricity.” The Beechers insisted years later that theirs had been a glorious life out there while it lasted, although what Harriet set down soon after the arrival sounds often more beclouded. For at the time, she wrote back east of feeling depressed in these new surroundings, of feeling homesick, of lamenting a persisting tendency to withdraw into herself. “I am trying,” Harriet Beecher explained wistfully from Cincinnati early on, “to cultivate a general spirit of kindliness towards everybody, instead of shrinking into a corner to notice how other people behave. I am holding out my hand to the right and to the left, and forming casual or incidental acquaintances with all who will be acquainted with me.”
Shrinking into a corner, watching how others behave: by nature this seventh of the Beecher offspring was reserved, observing. Only with difficulty did the brilliant young woman make friends, and thus her true friends were few. Georgiana May back in Hartford was one such. To Georgiana, Harriet wrote candidly, in the spring of 1833, of ill health and low spirits since coming to Cincinnati. Her new surroundings appeared somehow less substantial than the old. “About half of my time I am scarcely alive, and a great part of the rest the slave and sport of morbid feeling and unreasonable prejudice.” But why, surrounded by family and with so much to sustain her, was she not more content with her lot? Harriet’s few close friends were back east, and to the closest of them she wrote on another occasion, in an undated letter of the period, of having returned from a little party of twelve or so after talking all evening. “When I came to my cold, lonely room,” she wrote to the absent Georgiana May, “there was your letter lying on the dressing-table. It touched me with a sort of painful pleasure, for it seems to me uncertain, improbable, that I shall ever return and find you as I have found your letter.” In the new silence, what had made Harriet Beecher’s room appear so lonely, so cold was her sense of leaving New England for good. Born and reared in Litchfield, at home as well in Boston and Hartford, deeply attached to her native region and yearning for her few and dearest friends there—: “Oh, my dear Georgy,” the emigrant burst out with unrestrained candor, “it is scarcely well to love friends thus. The greater part that I see cannot move me deeply. They are present, and I enjoy them; they pass, and I forget them. But those that I love differently; those that I love, and oh, how much that word means! I feel sadly about them. They may change; they must die; they are separated from me, and I ask myself why should I wish to love with all the pains and penalties of such conditions?” Even to this dear friend Harriet hesitated about expressing such a feeling, pausing because “so much has been said of it by the sentimental, who talk what they could not have felt. But,” she pressed on, “it is so deeply, sincerely so in me, that sometimes it will overflow.”