Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Toast to Illinois' Early Settlers!

When Kate was writing Ruth by Lake and Prairie, she read all the accounts by the settlers she could get her hands on. Ruth's brother, Robert Nelson Murray, lived to be an old man, outlasting most of his contemporaries. About 50 years after the founding of Naperville, The Inter-Ocean, a Chicago newspaper, sent a reporter to interview Mr. Murray.

They found him sitting outside the general store on an old box, whittling. He was not yet 70 years old, and while some folks did live into their 80's, they were the exception rather than the rule. Illness, accidents, childbirth and hard work took their toll.

The reporter apparently was amused by Murray's "countrified" ways and his tales of the old days. It makes for a delightful interview and a very important resource for the researcher.

One of Murray's stories is about voting for Andrew Jackson in the 1832 Presidential election. Murray says he was eighteen at the time, and while the majority of the settlers voted for Henry Clay, "there were twelve other fellows who liked whiskey and black strap just as I did."

That's the kind of off-hand comment that authors love because it highlights a little domestic detail that can add realistic depth to a story.

Kate did a little extra research on the drinking habits of early Americans. Rum was actually the favored spirit in the original colonies, and was made in America from imported sugar cane, but after the American Revolution disrupted trade with the Caribbean, whiskey became more common. There were plenty of Scottish and Irish immigrants around who were distilling whiskey from excess grain.

Early Americans drank alcohol all day long. In many cases, it was healthier. Polluted water caused illnesses like cholera and even safe water often needed to stand to let the mud settle out. Milk could kill you, as it did Abraham Lincoln's mother, if your cow was eating poisonous plants.

Wine-making was not successful in the colonies and beer spoiled too quickly to transport it to far-flung settlements, so hard liquor was most common. Old recipes exist to make whiskey toddies and flips and other drinks -- like Mr. Murray's whiskey and black strap.

Black strap is a type of molasses that is created from the third boiling of sugar cane. After each boiling, more sugar crystals are formed, and the syrup that's left behind gains more of a "burnt" taste and color. That's why black strap is black compared to the earlier "golden" molasses.

In Ruth by Lake and Prairie, whiskey and black strap is passed around by the men during their Fourth of July celebrations on the schooner. In the pursuit of research, Kate admits that she did try a whiskey and black strap herself.

Let's just say it must be an acquired taste!

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