DAVENPORT PAST AND PRESENT
CAPT. JAMES MAY.
James May was born on the 1st of October, 1804, in Cape Girardeau county, Missouri. His father and mother went from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1803, and, with some of their relatives, were among the "early settlers" of the now Great North West. The history of the family from the year 1798, when the Grand-father of the present James May was forced to leave Ireland, with his family, in consequence of his active participation in the cause of civil and religious liberty in his native country, with the incidents of their frontier lives in the North-west, and Texas, where some of them emigrated many years since, would make an interesting volume.
The father and family of Capt. May left St. Genevieve on a keel boat, bound for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Spring of 1807. The crew of the keel boat, from sickness and fatigue, became unable to work the boat to Louisville. Alexander May (the father of Capt. May,) was obliged to work hard for several days to reach that point. At Louisville, the Patroon (or Captain,) of the keel boat abandoned the trip to Pittsburgh, and Mr. May was left there with his family and effects. No boat was to be obtained that was going up the River, but he determined to proceed, and for this purpose procured the best thing availabe - which was an old oak skiff. In this he placed his family, some six hundred pounds of lead, cooking utensils, &c., and started from Louisville up the River. His progress to Pittsburgh - a distance of six hundred miles - evinced that he was a man as well of nerve as of immense physical endurance. With only the help of one man for three days on the rout, he rowed the boat alone the entire distance, receiving only such assistance as his wife could render by steering the boat. The Grand-mother cared for one child, Mrs. May for the youngest with one arm, while acting as helms-woman with the other. Mr. May's hands were so contracted from the length of time they had been closed about the oars, that for years he could not straighten them, and they were so calloused that he could, without pain, hold red-hot coals in them. There was more heroism in this long journey than is visible at the first glance.
Capt. May commenced flat-boating on the Ohio in 1822, and continued in this business until 1827, when he obtained the mastership of the steamboat Shamrock; and made the first voyage on her from Pittsburgh to Galena, which was the first business trip ever made on the Upper Mississippi, by a steam-boat - that is, from St. Louis to Galena. Steamboats had before ascended with military troops and stores, but had always after returned to their trade at other points.
Capt. May continued on the Upper Mississippi, as Master of a steamboat, unil 1834, or a period of seven years. During this time he saw much of Indian and other life, and was personally cognizant of many scenes connected with Black Hawk, Keokuk, and the war of 1832. He brought Gen. Gaines and suite to Rock Island in 1831, at the time of the memorable interview between that officer and Black Hawk. We give an account of the affair in Capt. May's own words:
"A few hours after our arrival at Fort Armstrong, Gen. Gaines concluded to send for the Chiefs and Braves of the Band to hold a council with them, and diesired me to remain with the Boat until the council could be held, which was appointed to be the next day.
"Black Hawk, with a considerable number of Chiefs and Braves, came to the council chamber, which was a log building some distance form the Fort. The Indians were all armed, each with various implements, in full preparation for war. They made bold and defiant demonstrations in the council chamber, and used even impertinent language to Gen. Gaines and his officers. (I stood by the side of an Indian trader, who interpreted to me.) Every officer and white man in the chamber knew there was imminent danger, as the Indians were all efficiently armed, and not an officer or white man in the room had a weapon.
"Mr. Antoine LeClaire was the interpreter, and did his duty on that occasion most admirably. His judicious, cautious, and conciliatory management on that day, was, I believe, the means of saving the lives of many officers and men, as well as his own life. He, as well as all who were witnesses of the council, saw the imminent danger."
On the trip down to St. Louis, (before bringing up Gen. Gaines,) Keokuk, and several other chiefs, accompanied by an interpreter, were passengers with Capt. May. They stopped at Yellow Banks, where Black Hawk and his Band were encamped. At the solicitation of Capt. May, and others, Keokuk landed, and made the disaffected party a most eloquent speech, advising them to avoid strife with the whites, and to quietly remove west of the Mississippi. It is needless to add that his advice was unheeded.
Keokuk was a passenger with Capt. May on another occasion. Having experienced much difficulty, at various times, in crossing the Upper and Lower Rapids, Capt. May had become impressed with the idea that, in course of time, towns must be built at the head and foot of each Rapids - in fact it may, in justice to him, be claimed that he was the first to suggest the location of towns on the spots now occupied by the important cities of Davenport and LeClaire. On this occasion he strenuously urged upon Keokuk the importance of reserving to his nation a portion of land thirty or forty miles square in this vicinity, when the land was purchased by Government. Keokuk seems to have disregarded his advice, however much it may have impressed him at the time.
As an illustration of Indian ingenuity, he relates that when near the mouth of Iowa River in 1831, they noticed that the surface of the Mississippi was covered with floating leaves. An Indian trader on board explained the curiosity by stating that Indians somewhere above had been ferrying their horses over the river. This was the case, for when they arrived at New Boston they found several hundred Indians and horses that had but just finished crossing. Their ferry-boats were constructed by placing half a dozen canoes side by side, six inches or a foot apart. Poles were then laid traversely across the canoes, and the whole well covered with leaves. This made a perfectly safe, and most ingenious craft.
After leaving the River in 1834, Capt. May entered in business in with John Andor, of Pittsburgh, under the firm of May & Andor. They carried on an extensive Grocery, Commission, Receiving, and Forwarding, as well as Steamboat Buliding business. During this connection, Capt. May superintended the building of over fifty steamboats, and more than twice as may barges, and other boats.
He was one of the original proprietors of Davenport - although not until 1847 a resident of the place. He owns largely, both here and at LeClaire, having purchased in full faith of the vast improvement which time would evolve in both places. He is now one of our wealthiest inhabitants. He is a thorough believer in the West - labors hard for its interests with tongue and pen. His nature is kind, genial, and pacific - as a superior business man, the past can amply witness.
We cannot better conclude our hasty sketch, than by giving an extract from a note sent us in reply to one soliciting the leading circumstances of his life:
"I have made many visits to this country since the year 1827, and have had familiar acquaintance with many thousands of the inhabitants during the past thirty years, and have watched with interest the progress of improvement on and near the Mississippi River. Year after year the progress seemed wonderful. Indeed, the immense increase of population, with the vast evidences of enterprise, skill, perseverance, talent, and capital, scattered over the land within the past twelve years, seems to me now more like magic than reality. Then, again, when I philosophise, in my rude way, I feel persuaded that even this wonderfully rapid and apparently magic progress cannot for many years be retarded, or if tempoarily obstructed, the suspension must be of short duration, and the progress be the more rapid and permanent thereafter. This point, and say a distance of twenty miles above, is certainly the most attractive point to be found from St. Anthony Falls to the mouth of the Mississippi. I feel safe, in the assertion, that there are very few spots on the face of this earth that has many more natural advantages, in the same space, than has been conferred by Providence on this twenty miles square. The salubrity of the climate, depth and fertility of soil, contiguity to markets and facility for transportation and importation, are blessings pertaining peculiarly to this location on the Father of Waters.
Besides the enjoyment of all these in an eminent degree, we have tributary to this point, or on the tract, an excellent quality, and almost inexhaustable quantity, of timber, stone, stone coal, lime sand, (of superior quality for glass making,) lead, iron, &c., thus we have facilities to procure all elements and implements for manufactures on an extensive scale. The Valley of the Mississippi and tributaries, with the Rail and other roads, concentrating at this point, make this one of the most desirable points for judicious investment, for extensive operations in manufacturing establishments, that can be found in the United States.
We have, at this point, the Rapids, which are, in a low and moderate stage of the River an impediment to Navigation, which is an advantage, as it makes an anchorage, and a portio of the year, a ierminus at two points - Davenport and LeClaire. On this tract, consequently, those two points must, in a few years, grow to be great Commercial, Manufacturing, and Produce Depots; and with the obvious advantages presented in the intervening space, on the margin of the River, from Davenport to LeClaire, ere many years it will wear more the aspect of a Manufacturing Town than a "country place."
One fact more having bearing upon Capt. May may be added in regard to that portion of a man's character which induces him to tenaciously adhere to what he believes to be the true faith, whether religious or political. Capt. May says:
"Myself and Mr. John Andoe were in the Financial Storm of 1837, as well as for some time before and after that date, and were the only Wholesale Grocers and Commission Merchants in the city of Pittsburgh who were Anti-United States Bank Democrats, and am proud to say that we both still adhere to the same political faith."