Travels with Philander

Kenyon's indefatigable founder left a lively record of his pilgrimages and peregrinations

P hilander Chase imbibed the pioneering spirit with his mother's milk. Years before Chase's birth, the family moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. The French and Indian War had not yet ended, and the woods of northern New Hampshire were dangerous. Dudley Chase left his wife and children at Fort No. 4 on the Connecticut River, the last outpost where they would be safe from attack. He then went on with a group of men to clear trees, plant crops, and build shelters in the wilderness. But this plan did not suit Mrs. Chase for long. The first boat that returned to the fort to collect provisions pushed off again with a very determined Mrs. Chase, and seven young children, on board. She knew there would be no shelter in the woods to receive them, but Mrs. Chase would take her children and endure any storm. God, she said, would provide.

Chase proudly tells this story in the early pages of his Reminiscences. He couldn't possibly have remembered the event itself, but the telling and retelling of the tale was no doubt a regular event during his childhood. Elements of the story echo throughout Chase's memoirs, in the phrase "God will provide" and in the parallels that unfold in Chase's own travels.

In 1805, Philander Chase was a man of thirty, with a young family of his own. The land around him in eastern New York had been tamed by fields, roads, and villages. But he had found a quite different way to be a pioneer: he was one of only a handful of clergymen who were building a following for the Episcopal Church in that state. By maintaining two parishes and a school, he managed to make living. But his wife was ill, and she was advised to move to a warmer climate for her health. With the Louisiana Purchase two years before, there was new scope for the Episcopal Church. A group in New Orleans needed a minister to organize the first Protestant church in Louisiana; the bishop of New York appointed Chase.

Chase went ahead to make sure of the arrangements for himself and his family. The sea journey, which took him down the Atlantic coast, around the Florida peninsula, and then to the mouth of the Mississippi River, lasted a tedious and unpleasant twenty-four days. The minister did not take easily to travel at sea, but he had little choice. Six months later, leaving his newly organized congregation behind, he sailed away again, going north to collect his family. When at last all was ready for their removal, they arrived at the dock and found that the selected ship had already cleared customs; none of their goods could be loaded on her. It was decided that people and baggage would travel separately. Chase carried his very ill wife on board the brig Friendship; their goods would follow on the next ship to sail, the Polly Eliza.

This voyage was, at first, no more pleasant than the previous two. "The wind increasing, the writer was prostrated with sea-sickness, and remained during the storm of nearly two days insensible of everything." And how was his wife? "Up and doing well on ham, and mustard, and crackers!" Apparently benefiting from the sea air, the invalid cheered and comforted those around her. When the high winds had passed, the rest of the voyage progressed with a serenity that Chase compared to Paradise.

The Chases landed at New Orleans and took up residence at the home of a friend, expecting any day the delivery of furniture, library, and the rest of their baggage. They had set sail in the autumn; it was not until March that they learned that the Polly Eliza had not fared so well in the high seas but had, with all their worldly goods aboard, suffered shipwreck.

Perilous travel was often a necessity in the early 1800s, but even a holiday trip could spiral into disaster. While living in Louisiana, Chase decided to visit, for the pleasure of it, a wilderness area not far from New Orleans. The excursion went awry when one of the party insisted on showing the others a short cut. They became ever more lost, even as the self-appointed guide grew ever less willing to admit it. He bullied his two companions about for a day and a half. They were, by then, in a pathetic state, tired, hungry, torn by briars, and wet with rain. As they paused to rest, Chase worked out in his mind the direction they must go in order to reach a river and find safety--a direction precisely opposite to that proposed by the guide. He had to overcome the utter dejection of one companion, and the pride of the other, but after a heated discussion, whose words Chase would not commit to paper, he prevailed. His calculations proved true enough, and on the third day the party arrived at the river. In his later years, Chase could have perhaps found his way effortlessly in a trackless wilderness. But he was not yet that man. He was still very much a man of the cloth, not of the soil.

Chase never forgave himself for his folly. And he felt it was his duty to include the painful episode in his Reminiscences, for it showed "the undeserved mercy of God, in watching over him for good, and extricating him from difficulties, even when not in the pursuit of his bounden duties."

The minister spent six years in Louisiana, before returning to New England for the sake of his sons' education. For the next six years, he served as rector of Christ Church in Hartford, Connecticut. "Of the time I spent in this lovely city I can never speak in ordinary terms," writes Chase. "It is to my remembrance as a dream of more than terrestrial delight." But life in Hartford was too happy, too peaceful. He continues, "God, who would train his servants more by the reality of suffering than by ideal and transitory bliss, saw fit to direct my thoughts to other and more perilous duties." The idea of a mission to Ohio was entirely his own. With no missionary society or patron to back him, he set out alone, in the month of March 1817. What he might lack, God would provide.

Chase's plan was to travel overland to Buffalo, a journey he estimated at four hundred miles; then he would travel on the ice of Lake Erie until he reached Ohio's shores. For more than half of the inland trip, he crossed snow-covered territory in a coach set on runners. He was saddened by thoughts of the family he left behind but not much discomfited by the journey. However, when the snow gave out and he was required to transfer to a stagecoach on wheels, Chase began to suffer terribly. Years of living in a southern climate, followed by his sedentary life in Connecticut, had resulted in a liver complaint. The violent shaking of the carriage, especially as it crossed log bridges, caused him tremendous pain. The pain worked on his mind until he began to think he saw in it "a death-blow to the whole enterprise before him."

While this portion of the journey was the most agonizing physically, Chase's arrival in Buffalo was not the end of his difficulties. The ice on Lake Erie was so weakened by the oncoming spring that no coaches would risk a journey on it. Travel on the land along the shore was hindered by the many unbridged streams and rivers. Chase was advised to wait four weeks for the lake waters to open up, then proceed by ship. But he was ever his mother's son. If any man with a sleigh could be found and persuaded to risk the trip, Chase would forge ahead.

Chase's determination gave heart to another would-be traveler, Mr. Hibbard. First they found a farmer who agreed to carry them twelve miles further on the ice. Though settlements along the shore were growing thin, the two had no trouble in finding another man to carry them twenty-five miles ahead, to Cattaraugus Creek. They moved swiftly across the ice and, before dusk, saw the creek ahead. Alas, the creek was free of ice and was pouring its waters onto the ice of Lake Erie. The houses they had hoped to reach lay on the far bank of the creek, but it was impossible to cross the stream, which was overflowing its banks in the spring thaw. Their driver proposed to deposit them on the near bank and turn back, as soon as possible, to hurry homeward: "I have brought you to Cattaraugus Creek, and I want my money." The travelers appealed to the driver's honor; he would not have met his obligation until he took them far out onto the ice, to skirt around the area weakened by the creek's waters, then back again to reach the opposite shore. When honor failed as a prod, they resorted to their pocketbooks, with more success. "It was terrific to the feelings, if not in the eye of reason, to hear the water pour over the runners of the sleigh as we crossed this muddy stream, in a dark night, so far out from shore," writes Chase.

Few of us would have found ourselves, the following morning, setting out again on the ice. But Chase had found a means of progress, and, in fact, he enjoyed the bright daylight and the sight of bald eagles snatching newly thawed fish from the ice. Thus passed the morning; for the afternoon, they must find yet another willing driver. They found him, in the person of a new settler who was desperate for the money the dangerous trip would earn him. His horses seemed happy enough to trot out onto the ice, but to the men, the danger soon became clear. "The cracks in the ice became more and more visible, and continued to increase in width, as we drove rapidly along. Nothing, however, was said. The horses having trotted without injury over the small cracks, became soon accustomed to leap over the wide ones; but none were so wide as to let in the runners lengthwise, and we blessed God silently, though heartily, for every successful leap." At last the house that was their destination came into view, and Chase broke the long silence.

"I will go no further on the ice," said the writer.

"I am glad to hear you say so," said Mr. Hibbard, "for my heart has been in my mouth all the way."

"Why did not you speak, if you had objected to this mode of traveling?" said the writer.

"Because," said he, "I was ashamed not to possess as much courage as a minister."

Progress now came in very small steps. The two continued through Pennsylvania, mostly on foot, while their baggage went ahead on horseback, wagon, or whatever conveyance could be found. At long last, they crossed into Ohio. The men separated, and Chase turned immediately to his missionary labors.

Chase moved slowly from town to town, preaching to whatever congregation could be gathered. He stayed with families, such as the Griswolds, early settlers who "had suffered exceedingly, but now began to live with some comfort in temporal things." Still, roads between settlements were very rough. The settlers helped the minister on his way, but Chase found that what they so generously offered, from limited means, was sometimes a mixed blessing. Such was the case of the "stiff-kneed mare." On her back the ten-mile trip over rutted, frozen mud would be slow, but at least her rider would stay dry over the many streams that must be crossed; Chase accepted the loan gratefully.

Less than two miles into this journey, the mare stumbled over a log and fell, pinning her leg under the log and Chase's leg under her. He was able to free his own bruised leg without much effort, but freeing the horse required thought as well as muscle. Remembering Archimedes, Chase borrowed a rail from a fence and attempted to set up a lever. But alas, "if he stood far enough back to raise the log by bearing on the outer end of the lever, he was not near enough to put a block under the log so as to keep what was gained." Chase hopped back and forth in repeated attempts, smiling to himself at the picture he made, even as he felt for the poor horse's agony. At last the beast was freed, and Chase deposited her at the nearest house. The minister was glad to find well-frozen ground, with smooth courses of ice, as he hobbled on. Even so, his wounded leg was so swollen at journey's end that he had no hope of removing his boot until the following day.

It seems that all we need, to document fully the dangers of travel in its various modes, would be a tale of a risky river passage or perhaps a spectacular stagecoach crash. Chase obliges us with both. The flooding Scioto River was ventured, because bad road conditions had rendered all available horses lame, and Chase, the bishop of Ohio, had important appointments to keep. The "Orleans Ark" was due to sail in a few days--if the river's condition allowed. Such a delay was, to a man of Chase's character, merely an invitation to attempt what no one else would dare. And so he set about finding a skiff and a man to row it from Chillicothe to Portsmouth.

Anxious friends opposed Chase's plan, but he succeeded in arranging for his journey. Chase clearly feels their concerns were rather silly, as he describes the procession that accompanied him to the pier. "Do imagine to yourself how this company looked and bore themselves along in 'attending the Bishop to the skiff,' as they approached the awful shores of the Scioto River at its highest flood, on one of the coldest mornings known in November. See them, with eager gaze, fix their eyes on the Bishop as he leaped into the frail bark, pushed off by the waterman into the rapid current, full of flood-wood." They surely thought they had seen the last of him when the skiff moved out of sight. But Chase enjoyed a pleasant, if cold, voyage, "over the dam without capsizing," past flocks of surprised ducks and geese, and on to Piketon, where they docked for the night. Next morning they were off again, arriving at Portsmouth by mid-day, "in safety," as Chase wrote to his wife, "though nearly perished with the cold."

He was not so lucky in the stagecoach crash. Chase had been away from home for some months. His last stop was in Washington, where he petitioned Congress for a grant of land. Income from the land would pay for improvements and expansion at Gambier, where, by 1829, the rooms in Old Kenyon were full. Chase left Washington in exasperation when the petition slid into a whirlpool of politics. He was impatient to get home when a mishap laid him up for weeks. A newspaper account vividly described the incident:

SERIOUS ACCIDENT.--On Wednesday night last, as the western stage was leaving town, in consequence of excessive darkness, it was precipitated off the banks of the turnpike and dashed to pieces, the horses running off with the fore carriage wheels. Bishop Chase, of Ohio, was seriously injured, some of his ribs broken, and his left arm dislocated. . . . The stage was much crowded with passengers, but none of the others were materially injured.

The others were not much injured, Chase writes, because they all fell on him. His recuperation was slow and painful. "Every day serves to discover some additional wound which my poor frame received," he wrote to his wife. But within a few weeks his good humor returned. He wrote to his brother, Senator Dudley Chase, "Oh, that they [in Congress] would cease their strife, and think on things which make for peace! If God should break their ribs, and dislocate their joints, as he has mine, perhaps they would think and speak more t the purpose than they have done of late, and this you may in welcome tell them from me." And so he went on for some pages and, in closing, declared he was much pleased with himself for managing, despite his injuries, to write at such length.

His pioneer spirit served Chase well. Though not entirely immune to despair, he never gave in to it for long. Once, during a rough voyage at sea, Chase wrote to his wife, "We have had a long and stormy passage, emblematical of my whole life." He had behind him nearly fifty years of toil and trouble. The irony is that his greatest trials were yet to come; the Bishop's plan to build a college was but newly hatched. Philander Chase had barely pushed off from shore.

Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group. She and her husband, Kenyon President Robert A. Oden Jr., live in Cromwell House on the College campus.

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