There was but one small log cabin on the site of the old town of Edwardsville, and that having no person in it when I passed, and seeing no marks showing the town had been laid out, I passed on the road over the site without knowing I had done so. At the creek at the north end of the intended county town was a small mill which together with its dam was in such a dilapidated state as not to admit of its being then used. I passed on through Ratton's prairie, where then resided several families, to the banks of the Mississippi river, where there was a small improvement made at the outlet of a riverlet on the south of where Alton was afterwards located. I was told that there were then but four or five families residing to the north of that. (Edward Coles to Senator W.C. Flagg, 1861 )


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Coles left his post in Washington in mid-March 1815. From March 22 to May 20 he remained at Enniscorthy, preparing for his journey west. His friends and family all opposed his going, and he seems to have endured a great deal of pressure to remain.

All of your old friends here cannot refrain from hoping you will determine to come back to us and stay with Mr. Madison his constitutional term , Tench Ringgold writes. Even little Mary [Swann] has expressed this wish to me, and you can't withstand it. And Isaac writes to cousin Walter Coles that Edward is still bent on his journey to Ohio with a view to permanent settlement there, from which all our efforts have been unable to divert him.

Edward himself is in turmoil, but the momentum of his trip pushes him along. My objections and abhorrence of slavery on the one hand, he writes to a friend, Robert Madison, and my partiality for my relations and friends and my native state on the other, still continue to perplex and disturb me. And the habits I have acquired, by the life I have led for the last 5 or 6 years, together with my enfeebled, my diseased constitution, present no small difficulty to my emigrating to the wilderness of the west, and into a society so differently organized from that in which I have been brought up. Yet my feelings on the subject of slavery are so strong that I feel as if nothing could induce me even to remain among them, except the hope of being in some degree instrumental in ameliorating their condition. But as I cannot harbor this pleasing hope . . . I am preparing to set out for the country north of the river Ohio in June, for the purpose of selecting a spot for my residence; though I could most willingly give up this idea, and indeed make any sacrifice, if I thought I could be in the slightest degree instrumental in liberating these poor blacks, or by my precept or example ameliorate their condition.

Even this friend is against Coles' plan, suggesting that he remain in Virginia and asking for the details of Jefferson's plan for the gradual emancipation and deportation of blacks. We can, in fact, find no friend or advisor who gave Coles any encouragement; all opposed him, and urged him for various reasons to remain where he was.

Despite universal disapproval, Coles pushed on. On May 30 he went to Richmond with Walter and Tucker, returning June 13 with money to invest in western land. And on June 20 he left Enniscorthy for Ohio via the Virginia springs, taking with him a slave named Ralph Crawford, a mulatto man of more than ordinary capacity and of unusually good manners, who had been brought up a coachman and had been accustomed to travel about a good deal with my father and brothers. His purpose for bringing Ralph, he says in 1844, was to show him the country to which I contemplated taking him and his associates, that he might inform them of its character, and also for the purpose of waiting on me. It is unlikely, however, that Coles informed Ralph of his larger purpose since he had promised his family that he wouldn't tell his slaves of his plans for them until he had taken them out of the state.

Coles' letters home on this trip west give a vivid picture of the frontier. He traveled through Ohio , Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, then down the Mississippi in a keelboat to New Orleans. What he saw was a gigantic real estate boom, with all of the greed, corruption, chaos, and waste that the prospect of easy money brings. He saw a west dominated not by backwoodsmen but by real estate speculators, squatters, unscrupulous agents, boosters, instant millionaires. Indians were made drunk enough to sign away hundreds of thousands of acres often not even occupied by their tribes; then the speculators moved in to spin the wilderness into gold. With amazing rapidity new frontier became old frontier, then settled, then crowded. In 1815 the area around Edwardsville , Illinois was true frontier--a wilderness penetrated by only a few isolated families, beyond which stretched a naked immensity. By 1818 it was a large town of sixty or seventy houses--some brick--with a bank, a courthouse, a jail, a land office, a hotel. By 1824 there wasn't an Indian left in sight. Several thousand people lived in Edwardsville and its environs. The town had two newspapers, several churches, a school, a debating society. In less than ten years it had gone from frontier to rural hub.

In 1815 Ohio was what Illinois would become nine or ten years later. The boom had just reached its peak; the wave was rushing westward, and Ohio was just about to slide down the other side.

The effects of the war upon this state have been much greater than I had imagined , Coles writes to Madison from Cincinnati, and have produced changes that I could scarcely have conceived it possible could have been effected in so short a space of time. Since I was here six years ago everything has risen in a most extraordinary degree. Money from having been scarce has become extremely abundant, and altho' the population has been much condensed, yet labour of all kinds has risen to an extravagant price. In whole sections of country lands have risen 300 percent--towns have sprung up containing now 1000 and 1500 inhabitants where there stood an almost trackless forest; in other places log villages have been metamorphosed into brick towns; and in a word the country generally has been opened and improved in a most astonishing way.

Columbus, the future state capital , Edward writes John, presents the most remarkable instance of the rapid growth of a town of any I have ever seen. When it was selected and laid out 3 years ago as the seat of govt. it was an almost impervious forest, and there is now an apparent struggle between the trees and the houses for the territory; the former not receding but as they are pressed off by the actual occupance of the latter . . . altho it is but three years since the first stick was cut off of it, it now contains between 7 & 800 inhabitants.

The men managing the boom are typified by a Mr. Kilbourn, of the small frontier village of Worthington, Ohio. Kilbourn, Coles writes, is the chief of the village, and a kind of jack of all trades; for he is a clergyman (and of my Uncle's church, too), a Major of Militia, a Congressman, a Justice of the Peace, the chief director of a large manufacturing company, a merchant, a farmer, a Tavern Keeper, a land speculator . . .

Coles traveled with Mr. Kilbourn through Columbus and up to Worthington, where he was put up at Mr. Kilbourn's hotel. Staying a second night at Mr. Kilbourn's insistence, he was surprised to find the next morning a bill for meals and lodging. A real Yankee, Coles called his stingy host.

Just across the river from Cincinnati, in Kentucky, Coles spent a week as the guest of General James Taylor, attending grand dinner parties and hearing tales of instant wealth. Taylor, Coles writes, is said to be worth over a million dollars, and others have made $100,000 to $500,000. But the price of land in Ohio has peaked, he says; there is too much cheaper land immediately to the west for the boom to remain long in one place. If the price of land does not fall soon, Coles writes Madison, Ohio will soon become a considerable emigrating state, for men will not hold an acre of Scioto or Miami land when they can exchange it for 15 or 20 acres of especially good land on the Wabash, with the additional advantage of good range for their stock. Thus the boom rushed westward, like a wave cresting quickly and then falling, enriching those who got there early, before the rise, and ruining those who jumped in too late. I conceive it a very unfavourable period to purchase land, Coles concludes despondently, even if I had decided that I could be happy so far removed from all my friends and in a country and in a society so different from that I have been brought up in.

But Coles is dissatisfied with Ohio for other reasons. I may safely say I have scarcely found five miles together in any part of the state when I could go out [for] a walk from the depth of the mud, he complains, which in many places was so deep as to be impassable even for the largest and strongest horse. Such roads through so flat and marshy a country, present to the eye of a mountaineer no very pleasing prospect, either of comfort or of health . . . the most fertile parts of Ohio are too level and wet to afford good water, good health, good roads, or good anything else except the most abundant crops of vegetation and musketeers.

Moving west through Indiana and Illinois to Missouri, Coles finds flocks of schemers, crooks, ruthless land grabbers, and frauds grazing on the lush pastures of Federal largesse. The two types of vultures that swoop down upon the land, Coles writes Madison from St. Louis, are squatters and speculators. Squatters race to any section of land newly opened up to settlement by treaty with the Indians, hurriedly cut down a few trees, throw up a crude shelter, then claim that they have been living there for years, which entitles them to purchase the land at two dollars an acre instead of the much higher market value that the Federal government could have gotten for it. The speculators swarm around people who have for various reasons have received land from the Federal government--soldiers just discharged from the army, for example, or victims of the New Madrid earthquake--and by getting them drunk or tricking them into signing papers, cheat them out of their land. The result is that the land that the government wanted to make available cheaply to large numbers of poor and deserving citizens is being gobbled up by a few rapacious schemers.

In the Missouri lead mines the sad story is the same. Squatters and speculators force their miner tenants to pay royalties to them instead of to the government. Thus, instead of an estimated $170,000 in royalties at the rate of $3 per thousand pounds of smelted ore, in the last eleven years the government has collected $2,300 from one solitary honest tenant. The secretary of the Missouri territory has no power to enforce government leases, which in any case run for only one year, discouraging responsible investment in the mines. Miners surface mine and then leave without paying royalties. Water collects in the holes and then seeps down, making deep mining at the site expensive and difficult. Thus not only is the government being defrauded, but the mines are being ruined. Coles suggests that the government leases run five to seven years to encourage the necessary investments, and that an agent be hired to enforce the leases.

In another letter Coles describes an ambitious scheme to cheat discharged soldiers of their military bounty lands. As partial payment for service in the War of 1812, the government granted each soldier land in the west--generally land far from any roads or improvements. In order to protect the soldiers from speculators who would get them drunk on the day of their discharge and buy their lands for next to nothing, Congress passed a law which withheld from the soldiers the right to sell the land until they had received warrents from the government for that purpose. The speculators, Coles reports, have now gotten around that provision by getting their drunk or confused victims to sign a power of attorney that would permit a speculator to sign away a soldier's land for him once his warrant had arrived.

I was told by the person from whom I received this Power of Attorney, Coles writes, that a company has been formed in the Western Country with a capital of $75,000, with the view of purchasing soldiers' lands; to effect which they or their agents have attended all garrisons and other places where soldiers have been disbanded, and have availed themselves of the soldiers' distress, ignorance, or drunkenness, to filch from them their lands, which they have done to a considerable amount.

A Mr. Easton of St. Louis, the local representative in Congress, is a member of the company and has employed a sergeant of the Army to induce soldiers to part with their lands. The sergeant was under a penalty of $1000 not to divulge the secret of the power of attorney, but he gave a copy of it to Coles.

A grave disappointment to Coles was the price of land in the west. Land was cheap, to be sure, on the true frontier--in Edwardsville, for instance, where only a few isolated cabins spotted the wilderness. In Ohio and Indiana, however, where there was at least a modicum of social activity, the price had jumped so high so quickly that land in Virginia was no more expensive. Coles was caught in a conflict of circumstances: the two conditions he required--cheap land and sufficient social intercourse to sustain his lonely bachelorhood--did not coexist. The life of a hermit did not appeal to him, yet as a bachelor in a wilderness inhabited by a few scattered families he would be forced to exist almost totally alone. The consequence is that he chose for the time being to invest in land on the frontier, but not to live there.

In his autobiographical writing, Coles presents a different picture from the one seen in his letters and account books. Continued warfare with the Indians , Coles says in 1844, prevented my seeing much of Illinois; but I saw enough to satisfy me it was the most desirable part of the Western country which I had seen; and having decided to make it my future home, I purchased a tract of land, and having sent my servant on one of my horses back to Virginia, I set out, just before the setting in of winter, on board a Keel Boat to New Orleans to see the outlet and lower country of the great river, near the banks of which I intended to spend my life; and from thence make a visit to a sister, who was residing as a plantation wife in South Carolina, and so on to Virginia, to complete my arrangements for removing with my Negroes to Illinois.

The clear implication of this passage is that Coles bought land in Illinois with the intention of settling there. The facts are that Coles bought no land in Illinois and during most of this trip west was confused and depressed about his future.

On September 11, before going as far as Illinois, he writes John that he still plans to explore frontier settlements further west, but thus far the western country is not what he had hoped. I think of going as far as Vincennes and see the country on the Wabash; from thence, being only a few days' journey to St. Louis, I may probably go there; if so, and I should not see any country I like better than that I have already seen I may possibly decide to go down the river to Orleans, and there spend a good part of the winter, and then go round to visit Rebecca [the sister who lived in South Carolina] and thence home in the spring. This, however, I have not by any means decided on. On the contrary, I hope I may yet find a country with which I may be so pleased as to determine to live in it, and set about settling myself immediately. This I should much prefer to any other course.

Yet this is not the course he took. What Coles did is what he told John he would do if he did not see any country he liked--go downriver to spend the winter in New Orleans, then to South Carolina, and then back home in the spring.

Coles did invest in land on this trip, but not in Illinois. On November 9, 1815, he paid the widow Dubreuil $3,000 for 6002 and 1/2 acres on the Lincoln and Pike county line in Missouri. Five years later he sold half of it at a handsome profit to Isaac, who turned it into a slave plantation that he called El Prado. The rest Coles held until the 1830's, when he sold it, again for a good price. Clearly, he bought this land in a slave state only for speculation. There is no record , either in his carefully kept account book or in later tax records, of any purchase of land in Illinois in 1815 or 1816.

The dream of settling in the west had, for the moment, failed, and nothing had materialized to replace it. I must frankly confess I have seen no country yet I should like to make my residence, Coles had written John earlier from Kentucky, though expressing sentiments that seem to apply to his entire trip. And single as I am, I very much fear I cannot bring myself to a conclusion to reside, unless under very favorable circumstances, in any of the frontier settlements--and as to the thick settled parts of this Western country the lands are all things considered much higher than in Va. I have not been able to find any country N.W. of the Ohio River which was healthy, fertile, and well-watered--but yet to return to Va. I know not where to settle myself, or even if I give over my western views I know not what to do with myself.

It was in this state--not knowing what to do with himself--that Coles sailed down the Mississippi to New Orleans, arriving on January 1, 1816. There he got violently ill with diarrhea and left several weeks earlier than he had intended, on January 25. He sailed to South Carolina , where he visited a few days with his sister Rebecca, pregnant with her fourth child , then went with her husband, an immensely wealthy planter named Singleton, to the Charleston races, where he remained some eight to ten days. He did not get back to Enniscorthy until April 21 , three days before his sister Emily's marriage to John Rutherfoord, a Richmond lawyer.

What was on his mind can only be surmised. We have letters to him from various friends, but not his letters to them.

Nicholas Biddle, for one , seems convinced that Coles had definitely decided not to settle in the west. I was rejoiced to hear from Mrs. Madison that you had renounced your project of settling in Ohio and were now on your way thro' the Carolinas, he writes. She added something about you which pleased me less--that you had been buying a great deal of land somewhere. It's OK if you make an immense fortune out of it, Biddle says--just don't settle on it. . . . I hope you will renounce all intention of making yourself a woodsman, he closes, but come into some civilized part of the world, get married, and live comfortably like your neighbors.

Payne Todd has heard something from Coles that prompts him, after begging Coles to return to his position as secretary to Madison, to write that he has not yet been able to see Monroe about Coles' "inclination." Since Monroe is secretary of state, it seems likely that Coles' inclination is to go abroad in some diplomatic role. If so, circumstances worked out nicely for all concerned. For just at this time a need arose to send a special ambassador to Russia--and Coles was the perfect person for the job.

Circumstances have arisen , Madison writes Coles from Montpelier on July 7, 1816, which make it expedient to forward communications to St. Petersburg by a special hand. Would the trip be agreeable to you? You probably know the allowance usual on such occasions. It is I believe $6 a day, the outward and return passage provided by the public, the expenses on shore borne by the party himself. Unless a direct opportunity can be promptly found, it is probable that the course will be via England. Should you think favorably of the proposition, it may be well to ascertain by letter to Mr. Monroe, who is still at Washington, all the particulars, which may be interesting to you, among others the precise amount of the allowance, and the probable time when your departure will be required. Whether your decision be in the affirmative or negative, be so good as to let me know it as soon as you can.

On July 11 Coles replied from Richmond , where Payne Todd, the bearer of Madison's letter, has found him. I have just had the pleasure to receive your letter of the 7th, Coles writes, and hasten agreeably to your request, to inform you of my decision in relation to the proposed trip to St. Petersburg.

Having nothing at this time to engage my attention at home, he continues, and being desirous of seeing Europe, I have no objection to availing myself of this occasion to do so, and am ready to set out as soon as I may receive the directions of the Government. I have this moment written to Mr. Monroe informing him of the contents of your letter, and of my readiness to depart whenever I may be required. I have requested him to direct to me in Albemarle, where I shall be in a few days.

If we are to believe Coles' 1844 autobiography, Coles agreed to go to Russia with great reluctance. The reason he returned to Virginia from the west, he says, was to complete my arrangements for removing with my Negroes to Illinois . . . A few days after I reached my Mother's, he goes on, I received a letter from President Madison, informing me of an awkward difficulty with the Emperor of Russia, who had threatened to expell or imprison our Consul at St. Petersburg, then acting in the absence of a Minister as our Charge d'Affairs, and his fear that Mr. Pinckney [the newly appointed minister], then detained by public business in Naples, would meet with serious difficulty, if not be prevented from continuing his land journey to St. Petersburg, and in this state of things, his desire for me to proceed immediately to Russia, on board of a ship of war, to make the proper explanations, and to open the way for the reception of Mr. Pinckney, who having been appointed the regular Minister, no other one could then be appointed, and that he wished me to go in the character of his Secretary. The fact of my having resigned that station the year before would make, he said, no difference, as I had so long filled it; and as his object was to send me, as of his household, as being the most confidential and proper person to send, situated as he was, and with the objects he had in view. I declined going, assigning as a reason my anxiety to make the necessary arrangements for removing to Illinois. He again wrote me, renewing his request, and referring me to his Secretary [Payne Todd], who brought me his letter, for further reasons for his anxiety for me to go; which I agreed then to do . . .

However, it is clear from both Madison's letter of offer and Coles' immediate and enthusiastic reply that Coles went to Russia because he was at loose ends, his western trip having ended in confusion, just as six and a half years earlier he had gone to Washington as Madison's secretary unsure of what he eventually wanted to do.

Both times the young man was induced by a tempting offer to put aside his vague plans. Both times he had just returned from a disappointing trip west. Both times Providence had supplied his anxious relatives and friends with an opportunity to change the headstrong young man's course: the first time, Isaac's horsewhipping of a Congressman in the Capitol; this time, the alleged rape of a twelve-year-old servant girl by the Russian consul general. Both times Coles was the perfect person for the position he was offered. Yet both times it seems likely that the position was offered at least partially with a view of weaning Coles away from his idealistic dream.

This second time, however, Coles seems much more ready to put off his plan to free his slaves. There is even a hint in Payne Todd's letter to him that he had requested a diplomatic post. It seems that after seeing the reality of the frontier, Coles was not ready to resign himself to it and needed time to reorganize his thoughts about his future. In the meantime, of course, his slaves continued to be hired out at Rockfish, and he continued to be the beneficiary of their enforced labor.

Edward Coles

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