Well, here we are in March, also known as Women’s History Month. In honor of the month’s designation, I started looking back through our collection of manuscripts and diaries down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego and among other treasures came across the account Isabella Harkness left of her family’s early travels from her native Scotland to the Midwestern prairies in northern Illinois.
Isabella Harkness, the oldest of 10 children, was born 18 May 1825 in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scotland to Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness. When she was 15, the Harkness family immigrated from Scotland to New York State, settling near Lake Champlain. In 1846, the family moved to Crown Point, N.Y. on Lake Champlain.
Looking for a better life, Andrew Harkness moved his family west to Kendall County, Illinois between 1849 and 1850. Andrew and Janette and their living children all went in 1849 except daughters Isabella and Margaret, and one son, James, who stayed behind at Crown Point.
In 1850, the three adult siblings still living in New York moved west to Illinois to join the family.
Isabella’s short handwritten journal includes a brief account of the family’s move from Scotland to the United States, and a longer, day-by-day diary of the Harkness siblings’ 16-day trip from Crown Point up Lake Champlain by steamboat, on by rail to the Erie Canal, and then to Buffalo by canal boat. At Buffalo, they boarded a steam packet for Chicago. They then traveled west by horse and wagon, arriving at the Harkness farm in Kendall County on 21 May 1850.
Isabella worked as a domestic “hired girl” for two farm families during 1851, the account of which is found in her 1851 diary, a copy of which is also in the collections of the Little White School Museum at Oswego. On 4 March 1852 she married John Dunn, a native of England, born 18 May 1825 in Bowden, Roxburghshire. They bought what is now known as the Ament farm in 1854 where Isabella, despite getting a somewhat late start in life for her family, bore nine children.
John Dunn died on 21 December 1901, and Isabella followed on 11 April 1915. They are buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Yorkville, Illinois.
Here is Isabella’s story. I have only changed it by adding punctuation and capitalizing words at the beginning of sentences; otherwise, this is Isabella’s story just as she wrote it:
I was born in 1825, May 18 about 45 miles south from Edinburgh in Scotland. There being a large family of us, I was the oldest, and Father thought that by removing to America he would be better able to provide for us, so on the 1st of April 1840, we embarked for America. On the 27th of the same month we landed at New York
We settled in the Northern part of the State of NY in the bosom of a wild American forest. It was but very thinly settled our house being 8 miles from any other house. We lived there 6 years. Then we moved to Crown point on Lake Champlain, and there we buried a brother aged 3 years and 7 months, and a Sister 5 years and 4 months. They both died in 1847. In 1849 the family all left Crown Point excepting a brother & Sister & myself to go to Illinois. From that time I lived in a respected family to do house work and sewing until May 1850 when I also started for the West.
A journey from the State of NY to Ills
The time has now arrived that I must leave Crown Point and go to that far distant West. I have bid my acquaintances and associates farewell perhaps for ever. I have looked for the last time at the Brick Church that stands on the green, where I have sat and listened with deep interest to the good and solemn voice of our dear Minister Mr. Herrick.
I have been into the graveyard and looked at the two graves of our departed Brother and Sister and picked a few of the remaining rose leaves that grow by the side of their graves. There was nothing but silence there. I took the last lingering look hoping to meet them in a better and brighter worked above where we shall meet to part no more.
Monday May 6th 1850
I went down to the Lake accompanied by James and Margaret. It was about 10 o’clock. We waited until 2 and the boat did not come. We went to Mr. Hammonds. We was very tired. After we eat some dinner we went and lay down and slept about 2 hours, and felt quite rested. We did not go to bed again that night. About 12 o’clock we called up Mr. H. and James. We made some tea and felt quite refreshed.
We went down to the Lake about 1 o’clock in the morning and went on to the Burlington. The boat was very much crowded. We got to Whitehall about 7 in the morning and stopped a little while at the Phoenix Hotel. We went on to the [railroad] cars at half past 7 and had a very pleasant ride. The seats were cushioned and made very comfortable. We got to Schnectady [Schenectady] about 2 in the afternoon and went to Fowler’s Hotel and took dinner. We stayed their all day as the Canal Boat was not ready. Margaret & James went out a shopping and bought a few articles.
We went on to the Canal Boat called William H. Edda, and took Breakfast. The boat started at 1 o’clock. It was very pleasant. I went up on deck and looked all around and saw a great many new places. We was very much [unreadable]. We got along very well. At night there was 18 berths put up for the Ladies. I believe they were all filled.
We are still on the Canal boat. It is very cold and rainy and the wind blows. It is very unpleasant.
This morning when we got up we had got to Utica. We hurried off from the boat as they wanted to weigh it. It is still very cold. It snowed some. About 3 o’clock we got to Rome.
It is quite pleasant today. About noon we got to Syracuse and saw where they make salt.
It does not seem much like Sunday. Every thing is going on just as any other day. We have come through Clyde, Lyons, Newark. Margaret and myself and 2 or 3 others got off and walked about 2 miles and then we came to Palmyra. We closed the day in singing some hymns.
It is very pleasant and warm to day. I have been up on deck most all day. We have come through Rochester. It is a very large and beautiful place. We crossed the Aqueduct over the Genesee river. In the after noon we came through Brockport. How pleasant it is to see the peach trees all in blossom.
It is very pleasant again this morning. There was a little girl about 2 years old fell over-board. The Agent jumped over and got her out. She was not hurt but wet and frightened. We have come through Medina and Middleport and Rynels Basin. How pleasant it is to see the trees looking green and some of them white with the blossoms. About sun-down we got to Lockport where went through 5 locks all close together.
This morning when we got up we had got to Buffalo. We went to the Merchants Hotel and took breakfast. It is a very large building. There is winding stairs goes clear up to the top of the house
I went out and walked up and down several streets until I blistered my feet. We went on to the Steam Boat in the morning. It was called the Key Stone State. It was the largest and most splendid boat I had seen in a great while. We had a cabin passage and every thing as comfortable as we could wish for.
It is very pleasant this morning. There is no wind and the boat goes very smooth.
Last night we had a hard storm and several of the windows are broken. In the forenoon we was on the river St. Clair, in the afternoon we got on to Lake Huron, The lake began to be very rough. A great many of the passengers were sea sick. James & Margaret were both sick. I did not feel sick at all.
This morning the lake is still rough. I feel a little sea sick to day. This after noon we came to Machinak [Mackinac] where they catch a great many fish.
we are now on lake Michigan. in the afternoon we got to Millwakie [Milwaukee] and all the families that came with us all the way left us here. But we have formed new acquaintances but still they are strangers to us. After they had all left the boat, it was so much lighter and the wind blew and tossed it up and down. The lake was very rough, so much so that the piano, and tables, and sofa, were moved out of there places. They had to fasten them to keep them from being broken to pieces. We was all sea-sick and glad to lie down on the carpet.
We had got all most to Chicago. We could not eat much breakfast. The Lake was still rough. We are glad now the boat has got to Chicago. We soon got a man to carry us to Mr. Wrights. They had been expecting us, and received us very kindly. In the afternoon we went out and called on a few of our acquaintances that had left Crown Point a few years before.
We are now about 50 miles from our new home. We had to travel the rest of the way in a wagon. The roads were very dusty. When we got to Naperville we stopped at the New York house and took dinner. The road seemed very long to us. When we came within a few miles of the place we saw some children that appeared to be coming from school. We asked them who was there teacher as we knew that Sarah was teaching. They said her name was Harkness and that she boarded at the next house. She did not know us at first but soon found out and got into the wagon and road home with us.
When we got in sight of the house we saw Betsy with a pail in her hand watering her flower beds. She threw the pail and ran to meet us. She was like to tears and all to pieces. Christina was also glad to see us, and little Mary said now the “dils have tum” they all appeared to be happy and enjoying good health.