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Sincerely Yours – Letters from the Archives : The Pering Letter

This begins a new series of posts inspired by one of my favorite blogs, Letters of Note, which I’ve followed for years. If you’re not familiar you should check it out, as well as Lists of Note.

The Archives new blog series Sincerely Yours will give us the opportunity to share the letters, telegrams, cards and sometimes just beautiful stationary that moved us, made us ask questions, laugh or even cry. Penned by the sometimes famous, but often quite ordinary, each post will feature a scan of the original item followed by a transcript and brief explanatory notes. It seemed fitting to kick off the series with what is probably our most eye-catching letter, most often referred to as simply “The Pering Letter.”

Cornelius Pering to S. Edwards, Esq., August 27, 1833

In 1832, Cornelius and Suzanna Hine Pering moved from the English town of Chard to the United States, finally settling in Bloomington in May of 1833 so that Cornelius could teach at the Monroe County Female Seminary. In the following letter to the Edwards family back in Chard, Cornelius and Suzanna offer their friends a detailed account of the local “government, customs, manners, and people,” including a description of the “New College” or Indiana College as Indiana University was known at the time. The letter is also rich with information about the colonization of America and the effects on the Native American population, farming practices, societal customs, as well as an interesting section on the grog shop temperance in Bloomington.  The letter features cross-hatching (i.e., correspondence written first horizontally and then vertically over the top) on both sides of two sheets of paper which was commonplace in England at the time to save on expensive postage. In addition, Cornelius, an artist, included detailed miniature watercolors featuring scenes from Bloomington and Indiana College.

Because of the length of the letter, sections of the following transcript have been cropped. You can read the letter in its entirety here and view detailed scans of the letter here.

Cornelius Pering letter to S. Edwards, Esq., August 27, 1833

Bloomington, August 27, 1833
Monroe County, Indiana,
U. S. North America.

My dear Sir:

You will consider no apologies requisite that your queries have not been answered at an earlier date, as it was understood (entre nous) that some time must first elapse, that after mature deliberation I might be the more competent to give you satisfactory replies. First impressions are often deceitful and will not bear the test of a rigid examination when there is no longer novelty to rec­ommend them. I am happy, however, to inform you of my increas­ing satisfaction with this our adopted country.

The more I see and know of its government, customs, manners, and people, the more am I convinced that it will one day be (if it is not at present) the most powerful, the most prosperous, and the most happy community in the world. Some parts of it, it is true, particularly here in the West, look rude and uncivilized to those accustomed to the splendor of European cities; but if we do not see the magnificence, we look in vain for the sights of wretchedness, the squalid misery, and perhaps destitution which everywhere excite the commiserations of the sympathetic. This, in the full sense of the word, is a “young country,” and those who are ignorant enough to expect that, in little more than half a century, it is equal in improve­ment to European countries that have been for ages progressing to their present high state of cultivation will be quickly undeceived. The inhabitants, however, have done more than the most sanguine could expect in that short space of time. Could a person have vis­ited England a century ago, and be now set down there, he would perceive little difference in the face of the country. Most of the inland towns are pretty much the same; the inhabitants, it is true, wear somewhat different dress, and the number and privations of the poor have fearfully increased with the luxuries and comforts of the opulent….

 Sixteen years ago, the spot on which I am now writing was Indian hunting-ground and an almost pathless wilderness, an illimitable forest; now the frontier settlements are four hundred miles west of this place. It is about sixty years ago that Colonel Boone and his daughter were the first white persons on the banks of the Kentucky River. That state now contains many handsome cities and towns, innumer­able fine farms, extensive manufactories, and beautiful country seats….

Canals and railroads are being made in every direction throughout this vast country, thus bringing the most distant parts into intimate relationship with each other. The employment of steam in naviga­tion introduced a new era in this country. Formerly flat boats only were employed on the Ohio River, which were propelled by poles with incredible toil; and a journey from Pittsburg to New Orleans, occupying three or four months, was a fearful undertaking. It is now an excursion of pleasure, and the passage is made in sixteen or eighteen days. There are nearly five hundred gigantic steamboats continually going up and down. I have seen more than thirty at once at Louisville, Kentucky….

The price of land varies everywhere according to location and other causes as it does in other countries. In the southern states it is from $20 to $100 per acre. The soil of the eastern states, it is said, was never half so rich as the western (and the farther emigrants have yet penetrated they say the richer it is), there being seldom more than seven or eight inches of soil, while here it is dark, black, rich mould to the depth of several feet.

The prairies too are rich but the soil is shallow, and when dug a foot and a half or so, a fine bed of sand is found. There is a large prairie about eighty miles from hence, on which no tree or shrub can grow and which looks bare as far as the eye can reach; and there are several in this and the adjoining state of Illinois. It is conjectured that the prairies are the beds of lakes which are now dried up, or that they have been more recently covered with water than other parts….

The emigration westward from the eastern states is almost as great every year as from Europe. Last year, when we came in, we traveled with many going westward and it is thought another state will soon be added to the Union, for an appeal from the territory has already been made to Congress for admission. There will then be twenty-six states, double the number when Independence was declared.

If the states go on increasing in the next century as they have in the past, population will compare favorably with other countries. In 1776 there were but 3,000,000; in 1830 when the last census was taken, there was found to be more than 13,000,000. This state, from the last returns, was found to be settling faster than any other in the Union; it contains over 348,000 inhabitants, and is divided into fifty-two counties.

Chippewa Indians and other tribes who lately held reservations here and also in the more western part of the state have sold out and are now removing west of the Missouri River. I have seen no In­dians since we left the state of New York.

Good farms, of 160 acres, may be bought here for about $1,000, half cleared. Land may be bought a few miles from here at $4 per acre and from that to $15 and $20…. There is generally very good sale for produce of lands, particu­larly near navigable streams. Vast quantities of produce are sent down the White and Wabash rivers in this state, and much is sold in Louisville and other places on the Ohio. When the Wabash and Erie Canal is completed a great deal will find its way to New York. Many who farm their own lands hire a hand or two for four or five months paying $7 a month or a third of the produce, finding horses and plows, and boarding the cropper, as such a person is called….

The price of produce varies much in different places and accord­ing to the season; it is now very low here in consequence of the abundant crops. There has not been such a plentiful season since the settlement of the state. Wheat is generally about $1 a bushel. Apples 25 cents per bushel or 37 ½ at Louisville. Oats generally .25 now 12 ½ cents. Barley 37 ½ . Indian corn 50 cents per barrel of five bushels. Beans are .75, potatoes .25, pears $1, and peaches .50 usually but sometimes .3754. We have bought green peas at the door this season at .12 ½ per peck.

Louisville has an excellent market for fish, flesh, fowl, and all sorts of vegetables. Beef, mutton, and pork are about 3 or 4 cents per pound; turkey 25 cents, and fowls $1 per dozen. Meat here is about 2 or 3 cents per pound and for fowls we have given but .75 per dozen and but 6 ¼ cents per dozen for eggs.

One of the farmer’s most profitable employments is rearing pigs, and this is done with the least possible trouble or inconvenience as they live almost entirely in the woods three-fourths of their time. Towards winter they come to the house to be fed when they can find no more acorns in the woods, and a few ears of Indian corn are thrown over the fence to them. Many farmers kill more than a hundred annually; the meat is well salted, and after remaining in pickle a short time is hung up in a “smokehouse” with which every farmer is provided, and when properly cured it is put in barrels and sold at $5 per hundred weight.

Sun-flowers are beginning to be much cultivated for the seed, which are excellent for food, when ground, for hogs, poultry, and horses; also from which an excellent vegetable oil is extracted. They yield from 80 to 100 bushels per acre. At Salem in this state, a short time since, I saw a specimen brought into the Forsey’s store by a man who had puzzled for months to construct a machine for taking off the husk of the sun-flower seed without breaking or injur­ing it, and he had succeeded to admiration.

Clothing is dearer here than in England, but likely to be cheaper from modification of the tariff and increasing manufactures. I see by the paper that a manufactory of cloth, lately established at Cin­cinnati, is turning out as good an article as any in Europe. Good broadcloth is about $6 a yard. Shoes are $1.50, boots $5 to $7; hats are dear, from $5 to $7. Tailors get a great deal for making a dress suit ($7 a coat). I think that is everywhere a good trade. House rent varies much in different towns; $150 is an average for a good house in a large place—Pittsburg, Louisville, or Lexington. I am renting a comfortable house here for $40, with large garden, stable, and field for cow….

The climate of the United States from Maine to Florida is, of course, unfortunately varied; the southern states produce everything peculiar to tropical climates; snow is seldom seen and ice is rarely formed on the rivers. In Georgia the inhabitants are able to make a breakfast of figs, which grow before their windows, and even load their tables with oranges, lemons, and other exquisite fruits that grow in their own gardens and groves. In the North the winters are long and severe. In this state we have not found it much unlike England; the last winter was milder than the generality of English winters, and the summer, with the exception of a few days, has not been much warmer, and many have said they have never known it so warm as it has been this season. We have had a great deal of fine clear weather, without that humid moisture and fog so peculiar to the English atmosphere. It is generally favorable to European constitutions and we hear of frequent instances of remarkable long­evity. It is said to be “unhealthy farther west” but that is a remark you may hear, go where you will. When a country is first settled up, or opened, it is said to be less favorable and the settlers more subject to fever and ague, but it soon becomes salubrious. This place is considered the most healthy in the state, which was the reason of the State College being located here. I have made you a little draw­ing of this edifice and a few other scenes which I thought would amuse and interest you.

Pering letter detail
Pering detail - College

The New College is the center picture, which is not yet finished in the interior; the building on the left is the one at present occupied. It will remind you more of Mr. Rister’s factory than the princely halls of Oxford and Cambridge, but I have no doubt as good scholars will be turned out from that humble edifice as from the more cele­brated seats of learning in England. The President and professors are men of great talent and would do honor to any university in the world. The President (Dr. Wylie) is one of the most eminent schol­ars in the United States; he occupies the chair of moral philosophy. There are several young men who will graduate this session. The students are from various states; we have some from Louisville, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Illinois, besides those of this state. They board in the town at from $1.25 to $2 per week. The admission fees are only $15 a year, which it is expected will be soon altogether dispensed with, as the College is richly en­dowed by the state. The President’s salary is $1,000 a year and a third of the tuition fees; each of the professors $800 and a third of the fees.

You will observe that the land has been recently cleared, and that the stumps of the trees are not yet entirely rotten. Trees are always cut down with the axe a foot or two from the ground and the stumps left to rot, which they do in eight or ten years. Some persons in clearing merely cut away the low brush-wood, where it exists, and deaden the trees by cutting a circle around them with the axe two or three inches deep; in a year or two the trees are quite dead and the first high wind blows them down, when they are rolled in a pile and burnt.

Pering detail - Courthouse

The upper view is in the center of this town; the middle building is the Courthouse where all the judicial business is transacted. On the left of it is the jail; on the right the clerk’s office and County Library. The white weatherboarded house on the right forms the angle of the street. A courthouse exists in every County Town and all that I have seen have been built in precisely the same manner; a square brick building with three windows above and one on each side below; a cupola and spire as high above the roof as that is from the ground. A parapet brick wall surrounds these buildings. Near the house which is occupied as a store is a rack, as it is called, to which persons coming in from the country fasten their horses….

On the left of the upper picture is a view on the Hudson, with the Catskill Mountains in the distance; on the right bank a country seat, many of which are to be seen, continually peeping through the trees, in sailing from New York to Albany.

The view on the right is a scene on the Ohio with its beautiful islands. You will observe that the land rises in ridges, or knobs they are called, and as yet completely covered with wood. There are deep ravines between them and here and there a few cottages may be seen and a clearing going on; but as mosquitoes are sometimes troublesome on the banks, settlers prefer the interior of the country.

Below this view and on the right of that of the college is a specimen of the poorest sort of a log house, with mud plastering between the logs, with clapboard roof and logs laid across to confine them. The chimney is constructed of split pieces of wood laid at right angles and daubed inside and out with mud. Opposite the door is a sign, but the space was too small to print “Whiskey, Gin, Brandy, and Rum for sale.” This is a grog shop, or doggery, “where a man can get drunk as a Chloe” for a twopence. It is of course disreput­able and where no respectable man would be seen. Such places were necessary appendages to every village in the country not long ago and persons might be often seen lying about outside, unable to stand or sit, the objects of pity and compassion, exciting the regret and disgust of the more temperate and reflecting part of the community. But temperance societies have effected astonishing (and as happy as surprising) revolution in public opinion….

The view opposite this is a “Temperance Inn” in this place, situ­ated a little way below it. It is too confined to admit the sign post, which is on the right of the little acacia tree. It is a log house weatherboarded.

The view below it is a tidy log building and will give you an idea of three-fourths of the country farmhouses in this state. Near it ought to be a small barn, or stable, and smokehouse which I could not get in. You will see a small specimen of fence most in use, at the sides and in front near the road. The chimney is of brick and always put up outside. When the house is built the logs are cut away the size of the fire-place and the chimney constructed.

The lower view is a residence of a Mr. Scott near Paris, Ken­tucky. It is a one-story brick house and introduced principally to acquaint you with the antipathy many Americans have to rooms up­stairs; “it is so fatiguing to go up and down,” they say, “and what is the use when there is plenty of space for rooms below?” That house contains nearly as splendid a drawing-room as I have ever seen; it is tastefully and handsomely furnished. The back buildings are occupied by negro tenants.

There is a very marked difference between the manners of the southern, or slave-holding, states, and the free states; they are more aristocratic. Their ancestors were chiefly English emigrants, a large portion of them belonging to the higher classes in England, who brought with them many of their native habits. These have been transmitted, and in all the southern states the planters resemble the English country gentlemen, living in like manner on large estates. They have their race course, their packs of hounds, their deer chase, and their fox-hunting with their same liberal and hospitable habits towards those who become their guests. Depending upon slaves to perform their labor, they differ from those who labor for them­selves. Possessing large estates and abundant fortunes they differ from those, who living where wealth is much distributed, have each a little and depend upon their ingenuity and industry to obtain more….

In my description of houses, I forgot to include frame houses, which are built by carpenters; they are put up in much the same way as private houses in England, only much stronger; the outside is afterwards weatherboarded and the inside plastered and stained or papered; the interior could not be known from brick or stone houses….

People are accustomed to assist each other gratuitously (on invi­tation) at corn-husking, log-rolling, and house-raising.

Newspapers in this country are abundant and cheap, one or more being published in almost every town, and all classes read them. We look generally with most pleasure and interest at the “Latest from Europe….”

Believe me ever yours most sincerely, with kind remembrance to Mrs. Edwards and our Chard acquaintances.

C. Pering.

P.S. I wrote to William Treasure a few weeks since; hope the letter will be safely received. This place is about 38^2 north latitude and 86 west longitude; 50 miles south of Indianapolis and 80 north of the Ohio River; nearly 6,000 miles from you.

Dear Mrs. Edwards:

As you kindly expressed a wish to hear from me, and Mr. Pering has left a space unoccupied, I feel much pleasure in complying with your kind request.

I did not find a journey to America so formidable an undertaking as I expected; we met with no controward circumstances by the way and were joyfully received by our friends. They expected us a month earlier and had written to New York to endeavor to ascertain if we had arrived, either fearing the ship had sunk or that we had died of cholera by the way. Happily their fears were groundless as we were merely detained at Zanesville in Ohio, waiting the rise of the Muskingum River, which, as there had been a long dry season, was then too low for boats to come up.

We arrived in Livonia in October last, and, situated as I was then, thought best to comply with the invitation of our friends to winter with them. In the month of February another little boy was added to our family. I was attended by a skillful medical man who resides half a mile from Mr. Pering’s mother. The babe was remarkably stout born and so continues and is very healthy.

Mr. Pering has two cousins residing in this place, who wrote repeatedly to him last winter requesting him to come to Bloomington, saying they thought he would do well here. Early in May last we came hither, and after staying three weeks with our cousins com­menced housekeeping. Mr. Pering has a very comfortable school­room and is pretty much engaged in teaching drawing, music, etc.

The houses here are built chiefly of brick. The inhabitants are sociable; indeed we have found them very friendly. A lady, one of our nearest neighbors, the day after we commenced housekeeping brought me a basket of cakes, preserves, and custards.

There is more visiting here than might be expected and the society is genteel and respectable. People, if they have a party when out of a girl, hire a free black woman who goes out to wait on the company at 12½ cents the evening; if she goes early in the afternoon and assists in preparations, she gets 25 cents. To parties that I have been here, there has invariably been neatly set out pound cake, a variety of other cakes, all sorts of preserves, custard, chicken, ham, tongue, tea, and coffee as in England.

Cholera has been fearfully destructive in many parts of the United States. Lately at Lexington in Kentucky, in the short space of three months, five hundred of the inhabitants fell victims, being a propor­tion of one in ten. This place has been happily exempt until about a fortnight since, when it broke out. The cases here have been numerous and there are still some down with it; but as yet there have not been more than eleven deaths. There is a board of health who appointed persons to go ’round every day to inquire the health of individuals, but they seem to hope now the worst is past, and have ceased making their daily visits.

Until the warm weather commenced, which was in May, I en­joyed my health in America as well as in England; but the heat makes me feel languid and I have been subject occasionally to bowel- complaint and headaches. It seems to me that there are four months successively as hot as the hottest weather in England, but when it is much warmer it does not last long at a time.

The difficulty of getting and securing servants is in my opinion the greatest objection to coming to America with a young family. I have had a great deal of trouble on this account. They will only hire by the week…. we have a cooking-stove which Mr. Pering purchased at Louisville. It cost $50 but I would not be without it for any money; it is such an abridge­ment of labor and has many belongings to it,—sauce-pans, broilers, steamers, and every convenience. If I had had such an one at Chard we could have cooked with half the trouble.

I put out my clothes to wash, for which I pay 37½ cents per week. I find soap and starch and it is brought home ironed as well as I could wish. I find it much more pleasant to have a young girl that will do as she is told, and put out my washing, than to have a woman grown who, though she undertakes to wash for the family, does in many respects just as she pleases and acknowledges no master or mis­tress. Mrs. Wylie, the wife of the president of the college, told me that in Pennsylvania, where they lived, they had no difficulty in get­ting help and girls knew their places. The reason that they are so independent here seems to be that they are not obliged to live out; most of their parents own a larger or smaller portion of land on which they can maintain their family. They subsist a good deal on Indian corn of which the Americans are very fond; it costs very lit­tle and can be cooked a variety of ways.

Boys are employed out of doors and the girls spin and weave the family clothing. There is no article of domestic use which I have not been able to obtain here, but mops and scouring brick; for the latter they substitute either ashes or pounded house-brick, neither of which does so well. They scrub the rooms with a long broom resem­bling our English carpet-broom.

Our home, though not large, is convenient. A free black woman, whom I hired to wash it before we entered it, said she would not go down on her hands and knees to scrub a room for the richest person in the land. There are about a dozen free colored persons in this town; they have an expeditious mode of getting a chicken ready for cooking. The fowl is just dipped once or twice in water nearly boil­ing and the feathers come off as easy as possible, which they throw away, the best goose feathers being but twenty-eight cents per pound.

Tree sugar which is made in this and neighboring places is 6 ¼ cents, cane sugar is 12½, loaf sugar 16 cents, dried hams and bacon 6¼, coffee 20 cents here or 15 cents at Louisville by the quantity and 1 cent per pound carriage hither. People here, after having ground their coffee for use, mix the white of an egg with it which fines it nicely.

The Americans have a method of keeping apples and peaches through the year; when ripe they pare, quarter, and core them, a large quantity at a time, and dry them, either in the sun or on a kiln; after which they will keep any length of time, and are very good stewed or in pies. They likewise make what is called here apple-butter by first boiling sweet cider ’til it is thick as molasses and then adding the apples which are boiled some time with the cider. It must be stirred continually of course; the apples must be previously pared and cored; when done it is almost as nice as pre­serves, and anyone would suppose it had been boiled with sugar….

Should our health be continued to us I shall not regret coming to America. There is not that anxiety about the future, either for ourselves or our families, as everyone who is industrious is sure to do well. People are very neighborly and in sickness make it a point of duty to render each other all possible assistance. All classes live well. They do not take more than three regular meals. Breakfast at six o’clock, dine at twelve, and sup at six.

We have good cabinet-makers here who make bedsteads and other furniture tastily. Wood is sold 75 cents per cord in this place. A cord is a pile of wood 8 feet long, 4 broad, and 4 high.

Miss Pering was married the last day in February. I would give you the particulars of an American wedding, having witnessed the ceremony, but my paper will not admit.

With kindest remembrance to Mr. Edwards, who, with yourself and family, we hope to hear are in good health.

I am yours truly,

S. Pering.

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