Boone - the Early Years
Copyright© 2016 by Ernest Bywater
Kenneth ‘Ken’ Nichols has a good farm in Virginia, and is doing well. However, a very strong thunderstorm in the summer of 1848 changes everything for Ken and his family. Lightning starts a fire on the edge of the next property, but the strong wind blows toward Ken’s farm, and sets his crops on fire. Most of the good crops he started harvesting a few days before are now a blazing ruin. The whole family, and all of the neighbors, are out working to contain the fire to save what they can of the crops, but it’s too late for most of Ken’s crops before they can get ready to properly fight the fire. For five hours they fight the fire, grudgingly giving up the ground when the strong winds blow burning debris past them, and they have to pull back further, or risk being trapped and killed by the fire.
Into the night they continue to fight the blaze, with little effect on the fire. However, a couple of hours after sunset the wind dies down, and a heavy rain starts. The rain extinguishes the fire, and most of the people go home. Ken and his three oldest sons stay out in the rain walking the fields to make sure all of the fire is out before they go home for a meal.
The full extent of the damage is known the next day. One neighbor lost half of the field the fire started in, two others lost part of their first fields beside the Nichols farm when the fire spread sideways. But the bulk of the damage is to the Nichols farm with all the fields destroyed, except for the two fields already harvested and one field beside them. Not all is lost, but far more is lost than the farm can afford to lose. All they can get from the harvest will see them get through the winter, but they’ll not have grain to use for next year’s planting. Just when Ken was able to put a little aside from last year’s crops the fire destroys the farm.
The next day Ken and his family work hard to harvest what they’ve got left of their crop. When they finish the harvesting they work on the burnt out fields to plow the ashes under while hoping something will grow in what’s left of the season to provide some grazing or fodder for their few animals. Although the farm is mostly a crop farm they do have a few cattle as well as the horses and mules they use to work the farm.
While he works Ken thinks about his situation. To plant crops next year he’ll need seed, and to buy seed he’ll need to borrow money from the bank in Lexington, Virginia. Once he does that any other problem will likely see them lose the farm. It’s a bleak future he sees. Then he remembers a talk with Mr James, the owner of the mercantile store. Mr James spoke about the new lands being opened up in the west, and he said something about ‘free land’ for new settlers who go there. Ken didn’t think much of it at the time, but he now thinks it’s worth looking into.
On the Wednesday two weeks after the fire Ken is in town to get some supplies. When he pays for them from his small savings he asks, “Mister James, do you still have them newspaper articles about the land in the west you spoke about last month?”
Mr James smiles, and replies, “Yes, I do, Mister Nichols. I kept the articles aside when I used the rest of the papers. I’ll get them for you.”
A few minutes later Ken is reading about being able to claim six hundred and forty acres of land in the Oregon Territory just by going there. Reading further into the article he sees his eldest son can also claim the same amount of land. Between them they’ll have about triple the land they currently own and work. Another of the articles tells about the Oregon Trail with some of the problems in getting to the west from the east. From the article it’s clear the trip isn’t impossible, but you do have to be prepared for it, and ready to work hard to get there. It also makes it clear you need to leave early in the spring to make the trip with safety.
Ken thanks Mr James when he hands the articles back. That night Ken talks to his family about moving to Oregon. It’s a long evening of talking.
There’s very little to do on the farm now there’s no crops to harvest, so Ken and his boys get out the timber Ken has in the back of the barn to build extensions on the house and barn. The trees he cleared two years ago are properly dried out and seasoned to be of use, too. First is to cut the wood into the sizes needed to build some decent wagons strong enough to make the trip to Oregon. Ken was taught how to build wagons by his grandfather and father, so he knows what to do. He left where he grew up to become a farmer, because he wasn’t needed in the family wagon business run by his three oldest uncles and their sons.
Although the wagons aren’t exactly the Conestoga style they’re close enough to be called Conestoga Wagons. The wagons are the same basic shape and sizes, and they’re built in the same manner, but they’ve a few changes: a driver’s seat at the wagon’s front, they’re a little wider, have a hitch at the back to pull another wagon, while the more upright back has less of an angle on it, plus the four wheels are all the same size and are a lot wider than usual. When Ken finishes the two new wagons he works on the two farm wagons to make them stronger and more suited for the long journey. He attaches high arched bows to put a cover on each wagon, and he changes the tongues of the farm wagons to attach to the rear of the new wagons. This way he can have four wagons pulled by two slightly larger than normal mule teams. All four of the wagons are well caulked and tarred to make them as waterproof as they can be.
The last task to ready the wagons is to make the canvas covers for all four of them. Most people make a single canvas cover for each wagon, but Ken knows, from the articles he read, he needs to be ready for any weather that can occur. So he spends some of his savings to buy materials to make multi-layered covers for all of the wagons. A canvas layer is measured, cut to fit, and sewn together. Then a cover of cotton boiled in linseed oil is made of the same size, but with the seams at different points to the canvas cover. Last is another canvas cover of the same size with the seams in a third spot, and the three are sewn together along their edges. A set of front and back covers of overlapping sections are made in the same way for each wagon. Once placed on the wagons each wagon is very waterproof with flaps people can slip through when they need to, and the flaps have cords to tie them together against the weather.
While Ken and all his sons work on the wagons during the day in the evenings the whole family is involved in many talks about what to take. The plan is for the two large wagons to be loaded with the heavy items then left that way for the full length of the trip while the two light wagons will be loaded with their clothes, food, water, and other lighter items. Extra guns and munitions are the first items on the list of items to purchase, due to the many listed dangers on the trail. But first they finish making a list of everything they’re taking from the farm.
Once they work out what they’re taking they start to load the bulk of the gear they’re taking from the farm into the wagons. At that point Ken decides to make cover boards for the front and back of the new wagons, and the back of one of the converted farm wagons. By putting boards in they can stack things better and higher in the new wagons, they just have to make sure what goes up high isn’t heavy. They start by packing the farm equipment and tools into the lower part of the two new wagons, tie them down well, and pack around them with whatever they can to fill the gaps to minimize the chances of anything shifting. Winter is nearly over when that’s done, and now they need to wait until the weather improves before they pack any more of their gear and supplies.
While waiting for the weather to improve Ken visits his neighbors to sell most of his stock, and to buy other stock he needs for the journey, as well as asking if anyone wants to buy his farm. Deals are made, and soon all the stock he has left is sixteen mules with four horses. He only needs twelve mules at six for each wagon pair, but he thinks having two more mules for each wagon will make the work easier on them while giving him a few extras if there’s any trouble on the trail. The neighbor where the fire started buys the farm and remaining gear from him at a fair price.
Ken uses the money from the sale of the farm to start buying the extra things they’ll need for the journey, or at the other end of it. Most of the journey use items go into the back of the first farm wagon. Now the only things left to buy are the extra food items, then they can load the remaining furniture they’re taking, and the last of their personal gear.
Right near the end of winter there’s a sudden late heavy rain. Ken’s youngest son, six-year-old Boone, is caught out in it while away from the house. He gets home, dries off, and puts on clean dry clothes. The next day he isn’t feeling well, and that night he has a high fever. The following morning his mother, Martha, takes Boone in to see the doctor.
Not sure what the illness is the doctor advises bed rest and fluids until he’s better. When asked, he’s unable to say how long the fever will last, or even if Boone will survive the illness.
For the next three days Boone lies in his bed tossing and turning in the fever. While his grandmother, Mary White, tends to Boone the rest of the family is busy packing the furniture and other household items into the four wagons. When a wagon is fully loaded with everything in it and tied down the canvas cover is put on then tied down very tight as well.
A week after the rainstorm, and all is ready for them to leave, except Boone is still in a raging fever, and any movement hurts him. Ken and Mary are in a quandary, this is the day they have to leave to travel the Oregon Trail in good weather, but they can’t, due to Boone’s illness. The matter comes to a head when the doctor calls to see Boone.
After his examination the doctor tells the parents, “I don’t know what’s wrong with the boy. I’ve no idea how long the fever will last, or if he’ll live through it.” All who hear him are shocked, and saddened by the last part. “I’ve not heard of anyone being in a high fever this long, and living through it. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for him.”
After the doctor leaves Mary says, “Ken, you need to get the family on the road. Help me get my bags and Boone’s bag out of the wagon. I’ll stay and nurse him. Send me a letter to tell me where you end up, and we’ll be along after he recovers enough to travel. When you go through town buy me supplies for two weeks, and have someone bring them out to me.” They talk for a few minutes more, but end up doing as Mary tells them to. A little later Mary’s three bags and Boone’s single bag are sitting on the floor in the main room with two beds, two plates, two cups, two forks, two knives, two spoons, a skillet, a pot, a cooking spoon, and an ax.
Mary sees the family off, then she goes inside to sort things out. Both the remaining beds, the worst two of them, are set in front of the fire in the main room with their things beside them. The rest of the house is an empty shell, even the nice cook stove is packed on one of the wagons. Mary will have to do their cooking over the fire in the fireplace.
Four hours later Mr Davis, the new owner, arrives at the farm with the supplies from town for Mary and Boone bought by Ken. Mr Davis was buying his own supplies when Ken went through town, and told him about the situation, so Mr Davis brought the purchases for Mary out to her. He says, “Mary, I don’t need this house yet. But I will by the time spring ends, because I need to get it ready for my Jim and his Betty for their wedding in June. I’ll let you stay here until then.”
While taking the box of supplies from him Mary says, “Thank you, Mister Davis. One way or the other, we should be out of here well before then. By then Boone will either be dead, or he’ll have recovered enough for us to go somewhere else.”
“I know he isn’t contagious, or so the doctor said, but why didn’t you just load him up and take him in the wagon?”
“Every time he moves he screams in pain.” She walks over to lift the blanket covering the boy, and points at his legs, “See how his legs are all tied up in knots! Whatever is wrong with him makes it too painful to shift him, let alone ride in a wagon all day long.”
“Damn! Poor mite. I’ll have someone drop around to check with you every day or two. If you need them to go and get you supplies just tell them what you want, and give them the money. I can spare them for a few hours to get the supplies for you.”
“Thank you, Mister Davis. We should be right for the next two weeks. There should be enough here in what you brought, and there’s enough cut wood out the back to last that long. It should all be over, one way or the other, before we run out of either.” Mr Davis nods his agreement, and he takes his leave of the pair.
For several more days Boone lies in the bed with the high fever, and Mary spoons broth into him whenever she can. She keeps the pot on the side of the fire so she has it warm for him whenever she feels it’s safe to give him some. Mr Davis, or one of his workers, visits every other day to see how Mary and Boone are. Their supplies are almost finished when Mr Davis and his daughter-in-law to be arrive to look at the house. Betty soon has her future father-in-law going to town with the money and list of supplies Mary has ready, then the young woman asks Mary about the house. By the time Mr Davis is back Mary is hired by Betty to give the house a very thorough cleaning, and to help make some curtains for the windows from the cloth Betty will supply.
The days pass, and the fever finally breaks, then Boone’s health improves. Two weeks after the fever breaks he’s able to get up and move about well enough to help with scrubbing all the floors during the day, as part of the cleaning of the house. Of an evening he helps with the sewing of the curtains, after Mary teaches him how to sew properly.
During spring letters arrive from Martha telling Mary where they are, and how the journey has gone, so far. They receive a letter about every other week, at first. Then they get fewer with longer gaps, due to the distances between places where they can post letters.
The day before the wedding of Jim and Betty the house is ready with everything set up for them. Mary and Boone turn to look at the house for one last time. They’re sitting in a wagon on loan from Mr Davis to move their few things to the house they’ll be living in from now on. Mary has a job helping to cook and clean at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia, and part of the arrangement is to share a house with one of the other ladies who helps with the cooking and cleaning at VMI.
Boone’s health continues to improve after the fever passes, but he’s left with a mild limp, due to the damage done to his left leg muscles while he was in the fever. He exercises and works hard to build up his strength and stamina. At VMI he does work around the house they live in, like chopping firewood and helping to clean the house. When Boone gets older he does paid work running errands for the staff at VMI.
Life Moves On
Martha’s letters turn up at times, and, from the contents, Mary knows some letters have gone astray on their way east, due to Martha touching on things told in earlier letters not in the letters they received. At first the mail is forwarded to them by Betty. After Martha, Ken, and Boone’s five siblings get to Oregon, and choose land to settle on, they’re able to give Mary the address of the store in the nearest town as a place to send mail for them. So Mary sends them the new address for Boone and herself. Ken and Martha are able to claim land for themselves and both of their eldest sons when they reached Oregon. They’re lucky to be some of the last few to claim land under the old local system, because the system is reported to be changing soon. They now have three of the six hundred and forty acre claims to work. Working as a team they’re able to prove all three of the claims, and to obtain the full titles to all of the land.
It’s a few years before Mary declares Boone to be well enough to go on the trip to Oregon, but now neither wants to go. So they write to his parents with their decision to stay in Virginia. Both households send a letter each way every month or two, and they settle into their new lives on both sides of the continent.
Boone continues to grow healthier and stronger while learning a lot of things from Mary and Heidi, the other cook / cleaner they share the house with. Both the ladies teach Boone how to cook, make and mend clothes, and everything else they can think of, like speaking German.
One advantage of being at VMI is they let Boone read the books in the library, after Mary teaches him how to read. Whenever he has spare time from other tasks Boone is allowed to sit in the back of the classrooms to listen to what’s being taught. However, he’s to remain silent while in the classrooms and isn’t allowed to speak, nor to ask questions. Although he gets no formal recognition of what he learns he does learn a lot on a wide range of general subjects and the military training they give to the official students. Between the classes, the library reading, plus hearing what the students and staff talk about Boone gets to know the subjects well, since he’s there for many years - more than double the years of the cadets!
During the break between one scholastic year ending and the next one starting there are a few things to be done around the Institute to get ready. However, most of the work is in the two weeks just prior to the new school year, thus there are many weeks in the break when Boone has no work at VMI. Mary and Heidi still work to cook and clean for the staff who stay at the Institute, but Boone has no work and no pay at VMI.
From when he’s ten years of age Boone finds extra paid work at the horse ranch of Mr Gray. Some of the best horses in the state are raised at the ranch, many people say some of the best horses in the country. Much of the work Boone does is the same sort of fetch and carry of items he does at VMI. However, with Boone doing a lot of that work it means an adult doesn’t have to do it, so they can do something more demanding. The work conditions and the daily pay of a dollar are the same, but it’s still better than no pay at all; although he does have to live on the ranch while he works there. In later years Boone does some weekend work at the Gray Ranch when he’s not needed at VMI. So he earns more money at those times, and he can put more into his savings for the future.
The summer when Boone is twelve years old he’s working at the ranch when some new horses are delivered. One of them is a fourteen and a half hands high chestnut Morgan stallion. The horse looks to be a perfect example of the breed. However, once the horses are put into the corral beside the barn no one can get near the stallion. One by one all of the other new horses are brought out, shoes checked, and released into another field. But whenever anyone goes near the chestnut stallion the horse becomes wild and attacks them. So they leave him there by himself.
Everyone at the ranch is standing outside the fence looking at the Morgan horse when Mr Gray says, “I was warned this horse would be a handful, but they never said he’d be this hard to handle. They call him ‘Brownie.’ He’ll be a good stud horse, if we can tame him.”
Boone looks at the horse, glances over at the empty water trough in the corral, and asks, “Are you going to leave him in the corral for a while, Mister Gray?” Gray gives a nod yes, so Boone adds, “Then I best put water in the trough for him.” Boone turns, and walks away.
A minute later Boone is back with a bucket of water in each hand. He says, “Open the gate, please, Mister Jim.”
The ranch hand asked is nearest to the gate, so he opens it to let Boone into the corral while saying, “Aren’t you afraid Brownie will attack you, Boone? He’s had a go at everyone else.”
“Everyone else has tried to catch him. I’m just walking over to put water out for him. Also, I’m a lot smaller than you lot, and he’ll see me as less of a threat to him.”
Boone pours the water into the trough, and turns to get more. There once was a well and pump to feed this trough, but it dried up years ago, and there’s been no need to dig a new well, because they no longer keep any animals in this corral for long. This means Boone has a job to get the water from the well and pump on the other side of the barn, and to carry it here. When Boone gets to the gate he finds two full buckets of water waiting for him, one of the other hands brought them over. Boone hands over the empty buckets, picks up the full ones, and goes back to the trough to pour these two buckets into it. The horse stands on the other side of the corral watching Boone walk back and forth with the buckets.
It takes a lot of buckets of water to fill an empty trough, so Boone is still going back and forth ten minutes later when Brownie moves to the far end of the trough to have a drink. When Boone approaches him the horse watches Boone with wary eyes, but all Boone does is to pour the water in, turn around, and go back for the new buckets of water. For the next few trips the horse drinks while Boone goes back and forth with the buckets, but Boone doesn’t directly approach the horse at all.
After twenty minutes of bucket work Boone returns one pair to get the next two while asking, “Can someone please get me a wheelbarrow load of hay for the hayrack, and a large bucket of grain?” Two of the hands nod yes to him, turn, and walk toward the barn. A little later he returns with the two empty buckets to see a wheelbarrow of hay and a bucket of grain are just inside the gate, waiting for him. Boone puts the buckets down, walks to the barrow, lifts it by the handles, and pushes it over to the hayrack on the other side of the water trough, a little past the horse.
Brownie watches Boone while he takes a wide path around the horse to come up to the hayrack without getting close enough to scare the horse. A few minutes work has the hay in the rack ready for the horse to eat, then Boone takes the wheelbarrow back to the gate. When he turns to take the grain over to the hook on the wall Brownie is at the hayrack. Boone shrugs, picks up the bucket of grain, and slowly walks over to where he has to hang it. Brownie turns to face Boone when he gets to about ten feet from the horse. Boone speaks softly, and says, “I’ve only got some grain here for you. Let me hang this up and get out of the way.”
There’s only three feet between them when Boone hangs the bucket of grain on the large hook set in the wall. He turns, and walks away to get the full water buckets. For the next several minutes Boone is carrying water again. Once he has the trough full he asks for an apple, and when Mr Gray gives him one cut into quarters Boone places the apple bits on the trough end nearest to Brownie before he leaves the corral.
Over the next few days Boone spends a lot of time carting water and feed into the corral for Brownie. On the fourth day Boone is surprised to be nudged on the shoulder by Brownie so the horse can get at the hay Boone is putting in the rack. While shaking his head Boone walks away to get the grain to refill the grain bucket on the wall. Once he has the grain and the water refilled Boone goes back to putting hay in the rack while Brownie is still there eating the hay. At one point the horse stops to give Boone’s hand a good sniff, so Boone holds still for a moment.
While Brownie is checking Boone out Boone is giving Brownie a close look over. Boone decides to try something, so he goes to get an apple, cuts it into quarters, but instead of leaving it on the side of the trough the way he usually does he holds out his hand with an apple quarter on it. Brownie turns to look at Boone for a moment, snorts, reaches over, takes the apple, and eats it. After Boone feeds him all the bits of apple Boone says, “I’ll be back to check on you, Brownie.” The horse turns, looks at Boone, then nods his head up and down.
Mrs Gray is watching all this, and when Boone nears the gate she says, “It looks like you’ve tamed him, Boone.”
After letting out a long sigh Boone says, “No, Ma’am, I’ve not tamed him. But I have made friends with him. You can’t see it from here, but when I’m right up close to him I can see where some mangy cur has abused the heck out that fine horse. Scars on scars on scars. They’ve been at his flanks with large spurs and whips. No wonder he hates people!” Mrs Gray’s eyes go very wide. Boone adds, “I think you can still use him as a good stud stallion, but you’ll have to do it his way. Set up a good sized field with some open shelter without any doors, just three walls and a roof, but it’ll have to be large so he knows you can’t sneak up on him. It’ll have to have it’s own water supply, and a way to feed the hay and grain without going near him. That way he can be fed and watered, and he can take shelter from the weather. When a mare is ready bring her to his field, let her in, and collect her later. There’s no way you’ll be able to take him to a mare the way you do with the other stallions. Just leave them alone in his field, and he’ll get the job done for you.” Boone starts to turn away, then he turns back, “Also, whoever you have feeding him better not be all that big. I’m sure the only reason he accepts me is because I’m a lot smaller than those who abused him.”
The next day Olive Gray, a daughter of Mr Gray who’s a year younger than Boone, is helping him feed and water Brownie. Within a week Brownie is accepting apples from her and letting her near the rack while he’s at it. However, Brownie still won’t let either of them touch him, or reach toward him. All contact has to be started and made by Brownie.
Three weeks after Brownie arrived at the ranch Boone is given the task of moving him to his new field. It’s larger than most of the fields, because once he’s in it they won’t be moving him out of it. There’s a big barn without an end on it, with the open end facing the direction the wind rarely comes from. There’s also a small stream through the field.
Boone walks over with a cut up apple, and feeds Brownie the apple while saying, “Right, Brownie. I hope you’re feeling friendly today. I’ve got to get you shifted to better quarters, so please work with me on it.” Boone takes the grain bucket off the wall, turns, hangs the bucket over his right shoulder, and slowly walks to the gate. Olive opens the gate, and steps away from the gateway. The only other gate open is the one to the new field, and all other ways are blocked. Brownie stands and watches Boone for a moment, then slowly follows him out the gate.
It takes several slow minutes for the two to walk the two hundred feet out of one gate, into the other, and over to the shelter. Boone pours the grain into the grain trough beside the hayrack while Brownie watches him from outside the shelter. Boone walks out of the shelter, and points to the grain while saying, “There’s the grain, and hay for you. We can fill it from outside and not bother you. You can see the stream runs through the shelter and out into this nice large field you can run in. There’s not a thing for you to be afraid of here.”
Brownie watches while Boone moves out into the middle of the field before the horse goes in to have a look at the shelter, sniff everything, and taste the water. Brownie walks out, looks across the field, and races across to the far side before racing back. Brownie walks up to Boone, nudges his shoulder, and nods his head. Boone smiles, gets out an apple, cuts it up, and feeds it to Brownie while saying, “I’ve got other work to do, so I won’t be seeing you every day from now on. Olive will be looking after you, but I’ll visit when I can.” Boone walks out the gate, and shuts it behind him. Brownie comes over to the gate, and accepts some apple quarters from Olive before racing off across the field again.
Two days later Olive leads one of the in-season mares into the field, and leaves her there. Three days after that she collects the mare, and leaves another one for Brownie to visit with. Over the years Brownie sires many good horses for the Gray Ranch. Olive and Boone are the only people he’ll let anywhere near him.
Over the years Boone sees a lot of the Gray family, especially Olive and her next elder sister, Nellie, who’s a year older than Boone. Olive and Boone become very close friends, and he thinks about courting her, but they’re so far apart on the social ladder he doesn’t even ask if he can. He just enjoys the time they have together on the ranch. Often it’s time down at Brownie’s field. Boone also becomes good friends with Nellie Gray while doing other work around the ranch, and he has similar thoughts about her. Both are nice girls, and both have a good sense of humor very similar to his. Boone likes them both, and enjoys his time with them.
The paid work Boone does around the Virginia Military Institute is mostly running errands for the staff: collecting or delivering things from or to other parts of VMI, or to places in Lexington, Virginia. Thus he spends a lot of time with the staff, and he listens to what they have to say about current affairs. He also gets to read the newspapers the staff buy, read, and then leave on side tables. Thus Boone is well versed in the political and current affairs, much more so than most people his age.
In the late summer of 1859 Boone is working with some of the staff on a few tasks preparing the school for the incoming students due soon. While they work seventeen year old Boone listens to them discussing a range of topics of concern to many of them. A few days later he’s doing a task for a teacher from the state of Maine, and Boone asks him, “Excuse me, Sir, why are so many of the teachers arguing about the tariffs? I can see how low tariffs make things cheaper to buy, so why are some for higher tariffs and some are so much against them?”
The teacher smiles, and turns to Boone to say, “Boone, one of the things to keep in mind when people discuss political issues is where the person comes from, and another is to remember what their family does for a living. The tariffs apply to goods bought from overseas, and those sold to overseas. But the main issue is the goods shipped in. In Europe and Great Britain they’ve a thriving set of manufacturing industries that have been going for some time. They also have more people they can sell their goods to. This means the items are cheaper than those made in this country. A high tariff will result in increased sales of the local goods.”
“Oh, I get it! The people who make the goods locally want to sell them, and they’ve trouble selling them due to the cheaper foreign ones, while the people who buy them just want the lowest price possible. Now what about the goods going out?”
“Most of what we sell overseas are plantation crop products from the Southern States, cotton and tobacco being the two major ones. A tariff on them forces the overseas price up, and they’re harder to sell. The other aspect is the monies raised from the tariffs go to the federal government, not to the state governments. By restricting the tariffs they also starve the federal government of funds to do things, and they’ve a tighter control of it. So the whole thing comes down to profits for the sellers, low prices for the buyers, and control of funds for political activities.” Boone thinks for a moment, then nods his head in agreement. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of talk about politics around here, mostly with a slant toward the needs of the Southern States over those of the Northern States. Keep in the front of your mind most of the people saying that are from families dependent on the plantation profits for their fancy living and power. All things to do with politics comes down to two things. First is who has the power to do what, and make more money from it. The second is to do with those who make money, and how they can get more power out of it. Power equals money, and money equals power. They’ll talk about everything under the sun, but it all boils down to those two sets of actions.”
“I’m not sure I understand all that, Sir. How does it apply to the new states being accepted to the Union? That seems to be a big issue right now, and it has been an issue for as long as I can remember.”
“That’s a good question, Boone. It isn’t about having new states or their borders, as such. But it’s about the question of slavery, and how the new states may change the balance of power in the federal government. This is a very old issue that hasn’t been resolved. Without going into the issue of slavery being right or wrong, is there any doubt in your mind the large plantations are making a good profit because they use slaves?”
“No doubt, Sir. A few years back I wondered about it, because a couple of the young gentlemen were arguing it wasn’t profitable to work the land using slaves. They said it was cheaper to hire workers.”
“Yes, I remember that discussion. It came up in a couple of classes. I believe it was resolved along the lines of it not being economical to work a small farm with slaves, but when you get to a large labor intensive plantation using hundreds of people to do the work it becomes cheaper to use slaves than to hire people. I know some of the staff did the work and figuring to show it was so.”
“I never did fully understand the figuring they did on that, Sir. But I looked at how the cotton plantations use a much larger group of people to harvest the crop than my Pa did to bring in the wheat and corn. So I thought it came back to the number of workers, and how much it cost you to have them around.”
“That’s the major part of the issue about using slaves. Take the costs of a worker like a slave. You need clothes, housing, and food for them. However, when you buy clothes for a hundred people the cost for each set is a lot lower than if you buy only one set. Also, you can save more if they can’t argue about the low quality of the clothing being less than they want. Making a large stew to feed a hundred people will cost you about the same as what it costs to feed ten people a normal meal, and if you use poor quality food you save more. The same is true for housing as the cost of a big barracks housing fifty to a hundred people is about double the cost of a house for one person. For close to what you pay for six to ten paid people you can do the same for a hundred slaves. That’s why it makes sense for the plantation owners to use slaves, but not the small farmers. If the plantation owners have to pay for farm workers the costs to produce the cotton and tobacco will go up a lot, and they’ll make a lot less money from the crops. So they want things to stay the way they are.” Boone nods his agreement on seeing that aspect. “Now the bit about the new states comes down to the federal government making laws for or against slavery. There’s a lot of conflicting opinion on it. The only sure fact is in July seventeen eighty-seven the federal government made a law to exclude slavery in the Northwest Territory, but the law wasn’t binding on the states they would become. Since then a series of compromises has kept the number of states for slavery balanced with those against slavery. Now many claim it’s up to the people in the new states to say if they’ll allow slavery or not. If the balance goes too far against slavery the ones who have slaves are worried it will end with federal laws doing away with slavery, and it’ll cost the slave owners a lot of money.”
“Thank you, Sir. I now understand a lot more about why the new states coming into the Union is such an issue for some. What’s your understanding of the laws on slavery at the federal level, Sir?”
The teacher turns to Boone, and says, “This is strictly between you and me, Boone. It’s my belief the federal government doesn’t have the constitutional right to make laws for or against slavery for the country as a whole. The way the constitution and laws are written I’m sure they see it that way as well. The Northwest Territory Ordinance codified the right for the federal government to make laws on slavery for the federal territory, but not the states. They left the decision up to the states to do. At this point the decision for or against slavery is up to each state, and the federal government can’t do a thing about changing it within a state. Nor does anyone at the federal level want to go about upsetting the way things are. However, if some pro or anti-slavery people push things too far I expect others in the federal government will push back, and part of the push back will be to find a way to give them the power to make such laws in a way to make them binding on all of the states. The extremists on both sides of the question don’t agree with me. That’s why the concern about new states not being balanced. I don’t think they need to be balanced, but others worry what the outcomes will be if they aren’t balanced. However, the bigger issue, for some, is they wish to expand their plantations by obtaining large tracts of land in the new territories or states, and then set up to operate how they do here with lots of slaves. It’s this group that are the biggest concern for me. They insist no other state or federal government has the right to tell them not to own slaves, but they insist they have the right to tell the other states they have to permit them to have slaves within their state. That sort of blind holding to a single point of view without any give or acceptance of the other to have an opinion different to yours will only lead to major trouble. The same problem exists with those who have the exact opposite view on slavery.”
While they continue with the work they’re doing the two talk on the issues raised for a lot longer. Boone has a lot to think about when he goes home that night. He talks about the content of the discussion with both Mary and Heidi, but he doesn’t say who he talked with. He’s a bit surprised when both of the ladies not only agree with what he was told, but expand on it, a lot, from what they’ve seen during their long lives.
Some months later, on a cold snowy day in mid December 1859, Boone is stacking wood beside the fireplace in one of the rooms used by the teaching staff when the staff start a discussion about the recent calls for secession from some of the political leaders in the Southern States. One of the teachers claims it is possible for them to secede, because it has been done twice before in the War of Independence and again in 1786 when the Constitution of the USA replaced the Articles of Confederation.
One of the professors stands up, and says, “Before you go too far along this path of discussing secession you need to be fully aware of the two incidents you claim as a precedence. In the first case our ancestors declared their total independence from the government of the day due to not having any representation in the government, they boldly set out on a rebellion. Make no bones about that, Gentlemen, they rebelled against their lawful government of the day. They had just cause to do so, and won the ensuing war. But it was a bloody and costly war. Today we have representation in the government in Washington, so those are not valid reasons to go against the current government. After the rebellion the then colonial governments created a document they called the ‘Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States of... ‘ and then listed all of the colonies now states. That document was an agreement between the governments of the new states created from the former colonies. Keep that in mind, Gentlemen, an agreement between all of the colonial state governments. A new document was written, and each state government put it to the people of their state, in a convention, to choose to accept the new document and to be part of the new government body being created by the ‘Constitution of the United States of America.’ The state governments chose to leave one agreement and to put the other to their citizens.”
He’s interrupted by a younger member of staff saying, “And that’s why we can step away from this constitution to make a new one!”
The senior professor says, “You are wrong, Sir, very wrong. Go read the preamble, then think about how it was accepted. The citizens of each state had to vote to accept the new constitution, and they did so. In doing that they became part of a larger body than their state.”
Again he’s interrupted by a staff member. This one has a book open, and he’s reading from it, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.“ He emphasizes the first two phrases and the last phrase of what he reads out.
The senior professor says, “Exactly, Sir. We the people of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution. The people created the new government, not the thirteen states. The only way for the Union to be lawfully dissolved would be for every citizen to vote to have the Union dissolved, and that, Sir, is never likely to happen. Those in state governments may think their predecessors created the Union, but they didn’t, the people did. So make no mistake. This is not secession you’re talking about, but outright rebellion and treason, bloody war against your lawful government where you have representation. I suggest you read Article One, Section Ten of the Constitution on treason by a state, as well. Then keep all that in mind when you push for action to take place. Be clear about what you propose to have happen before you ask for it, Gentlemen.” Having emphasized the important points while saying what’s on his mind he turns, and leaves the room.
Boone finishes stacking the wood while he thinks on what he just heard. Adding this talk to the other talk on the territories gives him cause to worry about what lies ahead for his country, and himself. It’s good to be proud of your state, and to support it, but is it right to support your state when those in charge are doing something wrong? From what he heard said he knows some of the people at VMI believe they should support the state government in anything they do, while others feel they should support the side who’s right. But who is right? That’s the big question he can’t answer, and this is a tough question for anyone to wrestle with.
He has much to discuss with Mary and Heidi that night. None of them like the way things appear to be heading, so they start planning on how to escape any trouble that may arise in the near future.
A few days later Boone has an opportunity to speak with the teacher from Maine he likes, Mr Chambers, about the discussion the staff had on the Constitution. When Boone asks about it Mr Chambers says, “I knew you’d have more to ask about that loud discussion, Boone. I know this may not be easy for you to see, right now, but the current tensions have been growing for over a hundred years. They mostly revolve around two contentious issues that many of those in power choose not to address.”
When Boone frowns Mr Chambers adds, “The two issues are the sovereign rights of states to control and manage themselves, and slavery. At different times one or the other comes to the fore. In the seventeen seventies the issue of the colonial governments’ sovereign rights was the big issue, and it led to the revolution and independence from Great Britain. At that time those in power refused to deal with the issue of slavery because they felt it would have destroyed the fledgling nation. So the slavery issue has been sitting around gaining pressure since then. Every now and then it looks like it may blow out of control, and a major compromise is arranged to keep the lid on everyone’s tempers. Although the majority of the people who are pro-slavery or anti-slavery are happy to stay with the way things are now, many others on both sides of the slavery issue have been getting a lot more vocal and violent in pushing their cause. Both sides are recruiting people to push things along many fronts, which is why we have the events with non-resident voters and fights over state officials that happened in Kansas. The whole issue is on the way to getting out of hand. Those fearing federal laws against slavery are getting more and more desperate, and those fearing federal laws to expand slavery are also getting very desperate. Neither side wants any sort of compromise. They’ll only accept the total capitulation of the other side. In both cases it’s only a small percentage of the whole, but it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog, because it’s the most vocal and powerful of both groups who are providing the most push. With some pushing the right to own slaves as a State’s Rights issue, they’ll get a lot more support, and I see no good coming out of it. Just a violent future.”
They talk a bit longer before Boone leaves. Over their dinner that night Boone also has a lot to talk about with Heidi and Mary.