Taking a Walk in Some Really Old Hunting Boots

Below is a description written by my summer student assistant, Melissa Dickey, on her experience transcribing a recently acquired hunting journal (MS 647). In the near future there will be a post letting everyone know the links for the transcription, journal, and finding aid.

Section of the journal in which the author describes a prairie fire (page 38).

Over the past few weeks, I have been able to take a walk in someone else’s shoes, or more accurately, their hunting boots. I have been transcribing a journal detailing a hunting trip across northern Iowa. The journal is unsigned so we don’t know the name of the author and it is only dated with the month and day, but by looking up those dates we’ve found that the first entry, Wednesday, March 29, was most likely written in 1871. The journal contains various records of goods bought and sold before the actual entries begin and by comparing the two styles of handwriting, it seems that these preliminary records were kept by someone other than the author of the entries, possibly his wife.

Other than the author, one additional companion, known as Friend H. or sometimes simply “H”, seems to have stayed for the whole trip. The author’s dog, Old Bull, is also mentioned occasionally.  The group started out from Charles City, Iowa, toward Emmetsburg, Iowa, on a hunting trip. It may interest some of you that this year’s RAGBRAI route follows part of the route that the hunting party took from Charles City to Clear Lake and Algona. Here is an excerpt of their arrival in Clear Lake:

nothing before us but once vast Prairie seeming as it were out of sight of land occasionally getting a shot at a [chicken?] or duck and now and then [obliging] a gofer to take his hole in a hurry an hour or two past Swift away, and we found ourselves in sight of the little town of Clear L. where we met som as we passed down Maine street of the T. who should we see but Old [Fur?] and the Elder Stand on the steps waiting our return Soon we were mingled our spot for dinner was found the Horses watered and fed and our dinner spred upon the ground together with a [steeming] frypan full of hot pork stake which I had procurd from a B. shop in town

Most of Iowa in 1871 was, as the author describes, vast prairie with a variety of wildlife and game. The author mentions many animals including gophers, prairie chickens, ducks, cranes, and pelicans (which migrate as far north as Iowa). The hunting party relied on most of these, as well as the occasional fish and muskrat, for food. Wolves are also mentioned, the author notes:

sines grew stronger of the fierce animal till now and then a fierce bark could be heard… morning at length came again and we found that our dog was still alive

The whole process of transcribing was new to me, so I spent some time researching the do’s and don’ts. A pretty obvious rule is to not correct any spelling or grammar mistakes, and believe me, there were plenty in this journal. For a grammar stickler like me, it was hard to resist the urge to hit “spell-check.” Getting used to the author’s unique penmanship also took some time, and I caught many of my early mistakes and mistranslations by occasionally rereading the journal and comparing words. The author almost never crosses his lowercase “t’s”, which sometimes led to a wrong translation if I mistook the letter for an “L”. Also, whenever a word ended with the letter “n”, instead of forming the letter, the author carries his pen stroke out in a straight line from the previous letter.

Page from the atlas used to locate Lime Creek.  From: Atlas of Cerro Gordo County Iowa. Chicago, IL: Anderson Publishing Company, 1912.

Having only lived in Iowa for a couple of years, I was not familiar with some of the towns and geographical locations mentioned in the journal. One in particular, Lime Creek, I had to double check on, so a co-worker and I looked in an Iowa atlas from the 1870’s, to confirm the name of the creek. It was also helpful to use geographical information to pinpoint where exactly the hunting party was when the author didn’t mention their location, or as was more often the case, overestimated their distance from a town or river. Speaking of distance, while transcribing this journal I noticed that the author kept saying things like “we are twenty rods distant of the town” and at first I thought I was mistranslating again, but after some fun on Google, I found out that a rod was a common measure of distance from the 17th century onward and was equal to 16.5 feet, or the length of a perch or pole, which were also common units of measure in old English.

Transcribing can be really fun and rewarding; especially when you finally finish a page you’ve spent a lot of time on. In the case of this hunting journal, it was a nice break from my usual work and a chance to step back more than a hundred years in time and take a walk in someone else’s hunting boots.

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