An Iowa woman heads to the “wilds of Arkansas” in 1850

Two of St. John Cook's journals on top of large paper onto which the journals were recopied in larger handwriting, MS 314, Box 1 Folders 2 and 3.

Two of St. John Cook’s journals on top of large paper onto which the journals were recopied in larger handwriting, MS 314, Box 1 Folders 2 and 3.

I almost didn’t write this blog post. Instead, I was lost in the pages of Lucia St. John Cook’s journal, as she described her adventures traveling from Iowa to Arkansas in 1850 to teach school for five months. What was so fascinating about reading her journal? Perhaps it was her lively, intelligent, and opinionated way of writing (Sun. Went to meeting today, heard Mr. Banks preach from the text, Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth. A good subject but not very well handled. I have not the most exalted opinion of that man. He is literally only Mrs. Banks’ husband. — Louise A. Carson and Lucia St. John Cook Papers, MS 314, Box 1, Folder 3, all quotations punctuated for readability) .

Or perhaps it was her very human, very relatable internal debate about whether to return home after completing her five months in the south and her reluctance to abandon her friend, committed there for a year (Three weeks has passed very quickly yet is seems as though it had been two months since I saw Louise. Bless her heart. I wish she were not obliged to stay here a year. We would then go north when my five months were expired. As it is I do not know what to do. I am very anxious to go north but I do not like to leave her. I wish I had someone to tell me what is right and best. –ibid.).

Certainly, her journal also gives a glimpse into the particularities of living in a specific time and place in history.

Born Lucia Williams in 1830, this interesting diarist grew up in Illinois, where she married Rufus St. John in 1848 at the age of 18. They moved to Ohio, but Rufus died only two years later, at which point Lucia moved to Farmington, Iowa. Soon after, she and her friend Louise Carson, also from Farmington, headed south for a teaching adventure.

Lucia St. John (as she was then known) began her diary from 1850 with the following, “Started from Farmington Sept 25, for the wilds of Arkansas, rather a sad parting for I could not tell when we should meet again, if ever.

A close-up view of St. John Cook's small handwritten journal in pencil. (click for larger image)

A close-up view of St. John Cook’s small handwritten journal in faint pencil. (click for larger image)

She and her friend were heading into antebellum South, and they encountered slaves along their journey. Her observations of the women she met at this juncture and the language she uses to describe her experience reveal a woman very rooted in her own time and class. They indicate her own privilege as a white woman and make use of common stereotypes from that time of African Americans as childish and simple:

Of all the places I ever saw the one where we staid last night was the worst. There is no white woman there, nothing but negroes and an overseer. The negroes looked as though it was quite a treat to see a woman and I have no doubt it was. They are certainly true daughters of Eve for their curiosity is unbounden [sic]. Their astonishment at finding we were travelling [sic] without a gentleman was really ludicrous and many were their conjectures as to who we were. One old negro woman came into our room lighted her pipe and set herself down comfortably upon the floor and commenced asking questions, a perfect stream of them, the answers to which were however not always satisfactory. It was really quite amusing. (MS 314, Box 1, Folder 2).

One night on their journey, they were not able to find a house to stay in, so they had to camp out. She declares it “something entirely new and not altogether unpleasant.” Later, she goes on,

I am writing by the light of the moon, setting all alone while the rest of our party are camped all around me. It is just about midnight and all are asleep or trying to be but myself. The moon not being quite full does not give the most brilliant light in the world to write by but it is on the whole decidedly romantic. This is quite an episode in our lives and will not easily be forgotten. I am only sorry on Louisa’s account as she cannot put up with such hardship as well as I can, her health not being as good. (ibid)

Portrait of Louise Carson, St. John Cook's companion on her travels, whose health she worries about.

Portrait of Louise Carson, St. John Cook’s companion on her travels, whose health she worries about. Undated. MS 314, Box 1, Folder 9.

When they finally reached the end of their travels, St. John describes her first day of teaching school, on February 25, six months after leaving Farmington, Iowa: “Commenced my experience as teacher in Arkansas. Only seven scholars but probably shall have more soon. Wise ones prophesy that the school will not last a month. We shall see.” (ibid)

As she continued teaching, she discovered some differences between the North and the South:

How different the girls are educated in the south and in the north. Were I in the north I should not think of sweeping this schoolroom myself – the girls would do it, but here I should not think of asking them to do so for they would think I was going to make a servant of them. Surely it is true a northerner has no business in the south – the manners and customs of the people are so different that it is difficult to act and speak as you have been accustomed to without giving offence [sic]. I do not know but the freedom of manners with which I treat gentlemen sometimes shocks their sense of delicacy but I can’t help this. Oh this is a strange world. (ibid)

She writes more on the subject of gentlemen, including this later passage when two preachers come to call. Here she refers to Mary, a woman with whom she shared a house:

A couple of preachers staid here last night. M[ary] and I took them to be old married men and talked as gravely to them as could be but one of them took the trouble to tell Mary before he left that he was not yet married but wanted to be and that he was going to quit preaching and settle down on a farm. Pretty well. Molly, you won’t hear the last of that preacher soon. (MS 314, Box 1, Folder 3)

Can you see now why I had trouble pulling myself away long enough to write?

For more from Lucia St. John Cook, see the Louise A. Carson and Lucia St. John Cook Papers, MS 314. For other collections related to rural Iowa women see our collection guide for women.

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