A Beautiful Place: A Letter about Davenport of July 1842

This newsy July 1842 letter addressed to “Aunt” Elizabeth B. Langdon from Ellen Harris describes her ten-day journey along the Ohio River, then to the mighty Mississippi River as Ellen, husband William, her mother, and perhaps other family made their way from Cincinnati, Ohio to their new Davenport, Iowa home.

“When we left the Ohio river it was night but we all got up to see the meeting of two mighty rivers the effect was quite sublime seen by the light of moon just rising – it is as a place where three ways meet__ On entering the Mississippi the scene changed to bold and rocky shores on Sunday we passed some magnificent rocks (at least to my unpracticed eye) some that appeared to rise perpendicular to the height of 150 to 200 feet some with snug cottages perched upon the utmost summit and the majestic river washed the base-others with tall shot towers on their top looking as if the wind might prove too powerful although built of solid rock-on the same day we passed an Island composed of rock rearing its head high in the midst of the waters we also passed his Satanic majesty’s tea-table and bake-oven and several other curiosities equally as well named.”

Quote from the Letter of Ellen Harris.

 “Satanic majesty’s tea table and bake oven” were unfamiliar landmarks to me. No luck with the tea table, but a bit of digging revealed that below St. Louis on the Mississippi there is a spot called Devil’s Bake Oven, and nearby is an island that may be the one she describes as “composed of rock rearing its head high”. It is called Tower Rock.

Tower Rock is a small, rocky limestone island on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. Growing from the top of the rock is a small forest of beech, pine, oak, and hickory. The rock has long been feared by riverboat captains because of the rapid current that swirls at its base, but when water levels drop, the island is easily accessed by walking over the dry limestone riverbed. Tower Rock was used as a navigational point for early explorers. It was visited by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with Lewis writing about this location in his journal over 200 years ago.

Well, Ellen Harris wrote about it 180 years ago, just 20 years later. We have proof!

Tower Rock, View on the Mississippi – Karl Bodmer (1839)

Mrs. Harris then moves on to her present life in Davenport sharing descriptions of the burgeoning city, its surroundings, neighbors, and daily affairs.  The family was living in a house with nine rooms at Third and Main Streets.

Mrs. Harris goes on to mention the healthy environment, Methodist religious affairs and describes a picnic held on the island providing an extraordinary historic primary source description of Davenport, Iowa in 1842. The letter is folded carefully and sealed with a spot of wax that has long since peeled off, leaving only a red stain. Perhaps another of the city’s proprietors, Antoine LeClaire, (Davenport’s postmaster) carried the letter for Ellen Harris to be mailed.

The couple seems to have left Scott County in about 1858, moving to Adair County, Iowa, then Vincennes, Indiana. Both Ellen’s parents, Joseph and Mary Woodward, and brother, Benjamin Beckwith Woodward, settled in Davenport as well.

We hope you will explore this and the many other primary source materials available to you in the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center very soon.


Accession 2018-18.0067 Ellen Harris correspondence

Historical Maps Book:  A State-by-State Atlas of U.S. History, 1790-1900 by Dolan

John Caspar Wild:  painter and printmaker of nineteenth-century urban America by Reps




(posted by Karen)

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