Washington Marlatt’s Travel Book

The following is the last in a trilogy of personal papers authored by Washington Marlatt (1829-1909) that were offered to me for transcription by the kindness of Sally Nield, his descendant, who yet holds the originals. Readers who are not from Kansas may not recognize Marlatt’s name and so to familiarize yourself with his career, I would refer you to William E. Connelley’s 1918 publication entitled, “A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans,” that contains a lengthy biography of Marlatt. He is best known for having served as the first Principal of Blue Mont College, the forerunner of what is now Kansas State University in Manhattan, though his contributions to the religious, civic, and social fabric of the 34th State in the Union are numerous.

The previous two pieces penned by Marlatt (already transcribed & posted) include:

This final document, a travel diary, has similarly never been published—until now, one hundred and seventy-one years after it was written. In May 1848, Washington traveled with his father and possibly one or two others, from Greencastle, Indiana, where he had been attending Asbury College, to the northwestern region of Illinois. The journey took them through the heartland of the Illinois prairie to the Mississippi River. He recorded his observations of the land and its inhabitants as he found them along the way.

Washington Marlatt was a contemporary of Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) and a host of other American or World Travelers before him who found pleasure, popularity, and a means of support publishing books on their excursions to far away places. To impressionable young men with yet limited means for travel, “travel books”—as they were generically termed—were best sellers. College students in particular found them fascinating and often emulated their style. A distant ancestor of mine named Ralph Leland Goodrich (1836-1897) who wrote “Views in the South,” an 1859 travel book, adroitly captured the art of being “a good traveler” when he wrote: “The true traveler is a practical philosopher, a person of such patience and easy temper that would do honor to the ancient Hebrew. He must judge of things as he sees them to be, for by these means only does he arrive at absolute knowledge. There are many facts which escape the incautious eye of the railroad traveler & often a less accurate observer—when he has the means of observation—will learn that which escapes the former. He must be an accurate observer of the life and manners of the people wherever he is, & he must believe them to be as he sees them, how[ever] poetical [or] so ever fancy [others] may have depicted them. I quietly observe what passes around me, noting what seems to be an anomaly in society or what is picturesque in nature, and treasure them up in the store-house of memory for after working.”

Washington Marlatt’s travel book deserves to be published, not so much perhaps for its literary value—though there are passages worthy of Bayard Taylor’s pen within it—but for the observations he records of the natural scenery in Illinois before the wildlife was displaced and all the land was transformed from tall grass prairie into a grid of farms bisected only by railroads and byways. Highlights of his journey include witnessing a prairie fire that he characterized as “a sight awfully sublime.”  In graphic detail he records that as the fire approached nearer, “it seemed to increase in beauty and grandeur, coming up like a fierce wave of the sea whose top is lashed in fury by the driving tempest. It seemed as if dyed in blood. The flames as if eager to seize, followed the course of the ravines and climbing with rapid strides the towering cliffs till having reached the level plain it swept across it with the velocity of the winds, while the roar of the devouring element resembled naught we had ever heard.” The travel book also includes the exhilaration of seeing a Mississippi steamboat—a novelty yet as rare as seeing an elephant to him: “The wreathes of curling smoke in the distance and the regular booh! booh!! told the near approach of a steamboat. We hastened immediately to the river bank that we also might get a snatch at the elephant, when we beheld the “floating palace” moving slowly up to the landing. There was congregated on the sand almost the entire population of the village.”

Regrettably, Washington Marlatt’s Travel Book abruptly ends on May 19, 1848 after only 12 days during which time he had traveled over 250 miles. Whether his journey took him to Rock Island, Dubuque, and Galena, we’ll never know and sadly be deprived of reading more of his captivating sojourn into the land of the “Suckers,” as the residents of Illinois were often called in the mid-19th Century.

—Will Griffing, October 2019