Fanny’s Forgotten Journal: Secrets of an 1860s Pioneer Girl in Elk Rapids, Michigan

In 1861 a teenage girl living in Elk Rapids began a journal “to see in the balance whether I have happiness or grief.” In the end, she found both—and a life of her own.

This Traverse Classic was featured in the January 2001 issue of Traverse Magazine. Subscribe here.

Elk Rapids was a handful of wooden buildings clustered around a sawmill when 16-year-old Fanny Slawson dipped pen to ink, etching her dark introspection into a small brown journal. Imagine the teenage Fanny on a spring day in 1861—the dawn of the Civil War—stealing into a corner of the attic of the Wayward Inn where she worked, snatching a few moments to write. Perhaps her hand trembled—at any moment she might be discovered by her wealthy employers and scolded, or worse, whipped for wasting time.

Though Fanny’s passages reveal her fragility, they also reveal a rebellious spirit that compelled her to write regardless of the consequences. She added to her journal sporadically until New Year’s Day, 1865, leaving behind a rare treasure. While many historic journals chronicle the mundane—the weather, boats in and out, shipments of potatoes—Fanny explores her emotions. Fanny’s view of life in the Northwoods emerges as one of melancholy, hardship, early deaths, and loneliness. Rarer still, Fanny gives us a woman’s perspective from one young and bright enough to hope for more than her confined world offered.

Rich and emotive as her writing is, Fanny’s journal lacks context. How did she come to live and work at the Wayward Inn? Who are the characters who roam her passages? Many of those answers live within the walls of the Elk Rapids Historical Museum.

Elk Rapids, as it looked in Fanny’s lifetime. That is likely the bridge where Fanny used to slip off to talk with friend Add Craw // Photo courtesy of the Grand Traverse Heritage Society (now the Traverse Area Historical Society).

First meet Fanny’s employer, Mr. Noble—a silhouette in the journal, but a giant of Elk Rapids’ history. He is Henry Noble, known as H.H., managing partner of the firm Dexter & Noble, owners of the local sawmill. The company is young in 1861, but Noble and his partner Wirt Dexter eventually parlayed it into a lumber empire that stretched from Elk Rapids to Charlevoix by the end of the decade.

Likewise, Fanny’s friends Fannie and Jimmy Wadsworth are from a prominent Elk Rapids’ family. Their father Abram founded the town when he built a sawmill at the mouth of the Elk River in 1850. Sadly, Abram’s oldest child is the Lizzie Turrill whose death from consumption Fanny describes in the journal.

And what of the lumbermen she writes of so fondly? They come and go from the woods, enlivening her spirit with their rambunctiousness. Photos of grubby Dexter & Noble lumbermen line the walls of the museum, but which ones danced with Fanny? Which photo shows her secret admirer and friend, Add Craw? We don’t know, but this we do: Adherbal Craw was head sawyer at the Dexter & Noble mill, and local Indians called the Scotsman “Big Beard.”

And finally, among the tintypes of Elk Rapids’ pioneers, there is William Slawson, civil engineer and Fanny’s father. Slawson donned the serious expression of his day for his portrait, but those eyes also tell the story of a failed husband and father.

When Slawson moved his family to Elk Rapids in the 1850s, his future perhaps looked bright. After all, he’d recently helped lay out the city of Grand Rapids. But his fortune changed when he sailed his family up the coast in search of a new home. After choosing Elk Rapids, he built a beehive-shaped house that was entered by climbing a ladder up to a hole in the roof—so designed, he said, to keep wild animals out. More likely, however, the queer structure functioned as fodder for small-town gossip and ridicule.

Fanny’s mother left the family when Fanny was a teenager and her two brothers were grown. William Slawson went back to surveying, work that took him away for long periods and forced Fanny to take her position with the Nobles.

Fanny’s eccentric father, William Slawson, was a successful surveyor, but an indifferent parent. His long absences forced Fanny to forge her own way in life. // Photo courtesy of Traverse Area Historical Society. 

For all the clues about Fanny’s world, there remain unanswered questions—such as where her mother went or if she ever saw her again. Equally puzzling are the passages where Fanny refers to eating coal. Apparently, coal was once used as a home remedy for various ailments. Or perhaps Fanny was ingesting coal tar, a derivative of coal also used for medicinal purposes. Either way, why a young girl would make a habit of it remains a mystery.

But Fanny never meant for anyone to read her journal, so perhaps it is only just that some mysteries remain. The following are excerpts:

April 8 [1861]

I am sixteen years old today. Mrs. Noble made me a present…a calico dress and Congress garters and I did not get whipped, very lucky.

July 18

I had my lessons—not very good. I almost wish I was dead if only I could fall off the barn (by accident of course) what a blessing to the world. I want to see mother. I must have a composition for Friday. I had rather be whipped…Mrs. Cross died Friday. She leaves a family of five children, the youngest not a week old. Mrs. Corwin has taken it for hers…O God take this longing from my heart it will never leave me, tho thou dost command it. Mother if I could only forgive you I should be almost happy.

The 10 December…

The last of the men went in the woods Sunday, 9 days ago. I am getting 10 shilling and an extra amount of scolding sickness and work this week…Had chickens for dinner today. This is so extraordinary I thought I would notice it…This coal is wearing my heart out, but if I do die I shall be remembered on account of my ugliness. I shall be buried in that broad ocean whose waves I have so often wished to [ride] upon.

Sawyers (like Fanny’s husband, Add Craw) spent their winters in the woods felling trees and skidding logs to the mill in Elk Rapids. // Photo courtesy of Elk Rapids Area Historical Society.

It is the last of July 1862.

Two officers are here and the boys are going to enlist. It is so lonely tonight for Jimmy Wadsworth went away today. He is going to be gone three years in regular service. When will this terrible war cease? Almost every friend I have got is gone. Some of them are now sleeping that last long sleep from which none but the Great Ruler shall bid them arise. Jimmy was singing the John Brown song—it sounds as mournful as a dirge. Poor boy he can hardly keep his spirits up but he is gone now and I pray O God be with him and with every mother’s son that is now struggling for liberty…How weary I feel of life. I am 17 now and I feel as if I were 50…Add Craw asked me to go to the dance last night but Mr. Noble thought it would not be a good dance so I did not go. I am so sorry for the boys were going away and they thought we slighted them, but I must stop for it is bed time and I am tired and heartsick.

Sept 21

The boys came in here to spend the afternoon and evening with us for it was the Sabbath and there was no preaching here. In the evening we went out on the bridge and sat there until ten o’clock. Then I heard something that surprised me and made me more happy than I have been since I was a small child. This is a day that will be remembered as long as I live pleasant.

November 10th

This is washing day and I feel very tired. The new minister Mr. Warren commenced to preach here yesterday. He is a Congregationalist [and] every one likes him very much. How I do wish to travel. Mrs. Barker has gone to California and so has every body else…I mean to get outside just as soon as I can and run away where I never will see a familiar face again as long as I live. I want to dress in men’s clothes and join a band of guerillas and dash through bloodshed…anything that is exciting. I don’t care what it is—anything but a woman’s boring life for me…Why was I born with such thoughts and not be a man? I love to think of traveling or dying anything for a change…Mother is thousands of miles away from here, father might as well be for he never comes to see me and my brothers are perfectly indifferent to me… I am going to try to go to school this winter. Maybe if I learn I can get a chance to travel in the spring…I will get a chance to run away…go on some vessel bound for some foreign port and never come home for that word sounds so empty…I dreamed last night that I bought a black crepe comforter I wonder if I will not be wearing one in reality pretty soon. I feel so sick that it is very likely that I shall for I have eaten more coal than usual…

December 8th 

We have had a hard day’s work for it is washing day. Add came down Saturday and went home today…Add brought me a book to read entitled Jane Eyre. It is very interesting…I got a letter from mother a few days ago.

December 25th 

I had a present of a black silk apron two pairs of stockings and a black velvet bow.

Dec 29

Add and Tip came out of the woods to make arrangements for a New Years ball. The last day of the old year was very pleasant. There was a warm south blowing and I went home with Henrietta and in the afternoon Add and Fanny Wadsworth came and stayed with Henrietta and I till school was out. Oh how happy I am these days.

January 30th Friday.

 The snow is about two feet deep now; it is almost the first we have had…There was a spelling school last night. Jed and I spelled the school down.

Sunday February 1st

…How I do wish I could have the west end of the attic partitioned off from the rest so I could take books and go and shut myself up there for I hate everybody.

Thursday February 10th

…Dear old journal you are too dear a friend to keep anything from you. I will give you all my confidence. I have only one other friend besides you and I think that he is as true as you are. How different I am now from what I was two years ago. I do not know what I would do if I did not have one true friend. I am very happy this week. It is not a noisy happiness but one that is lasting and sincere!

Thursday February 26th

I have given up all my studies for arithmetic for I mean to understand it if there is any such thing. I went up to Uncle Johnson’s last Saturday and the next day we went to Captain Samual’s. We had a ride of about 16 miles. I enjoyed it very much until I got home when I found that the boys from the camp had been there and gone again so that I was just about ten minutes too late to see them. I have been just about ten minutes too late all my lifetime. I wonder if I will be that much too late in the future—ten minutes too late to save my soul.

Monday March 2nd

Add was down from the Camp today. He went to school with me and there he proved himself such a friend as he said he would be. He told me something that I little expected to hear and offered me his help. I am so thankful that I do not stand alone. I have found one true friend and I shall keep him as long as I can for it is not often we find a generous noble hearted friend.   

Sunday March 8th

Everyone has gone to church but me…I heard Mrs. Noble coming and I knew that she would make me go, so I ran away and hid till she went to church and then I came out of my hiding place half froze to death…I cannot worship in church but in the woods where there is no one on earth. I can pour my whole soul out to God, I can worship him in “Spirit and in truth.” It seems as if I was lifted above the earth when I am alone in the woods. Alone with God there I can sing in the fullness of my heart with no curious ears to catch what I say and sneer at me about it afterwards. I hope I can be where I can be in the woods or on the water this summer. I should love to be a sailor for then I could have change every day of my life instead of washing dishes from morning until night.

April 23d Thursday

Yesterday was a day full of clouds and sunshine—it is a day that I shall remember as long as I live and I hope always with pleasure. I left home to begin a different life. I have always been wild and careless looking out for myself and my own pleasure but now I have some one to care for and to care for me. Add and I came over to Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Warren married us in the evening…there was but a very few there, all was quiet and pleasant just as it should be for Mrs. Smith has not been dead very long. Mrs. Noble was anxious to have me married at home and have a party but I think it was just as pleasant. 

May 23 Saturday.

Mrs. Turrill is dying with consumption. She came here last Monday with her father and sister. She has three children and she will leave them soon I think. Consumption is such a strange disease sometimes presenting such a favorable appearance that we almost think there is hope, then again so painful that we make up our minds to give them up. 

24th

Lizzie Turrill is dead. She died last night at 1/4 to nine. She seemed to fall asleep like a tired child. The hymn to be sung at her funeral is Go To Thy Rest In Peace. Mr. Dougherty is to preach her sermon.

Thursday July 16th

Fannie Wadsworth and Leroy Warren were married at the residence of the Rev. Peter Dougherty and by him. Her dress was blue silk. They had a very pleasant day for going over there…

Add bought the Van Wormers farm consisting of 142 acres. There is 18 acres of it chopped, a house and two barns on it and a well. He also bought the crops. There is 20 bushels of wheat 100 lb. of potatoes and a lot of corn. There is also a good rail fence around it.

Saturday 15th August

Father came here about nine o’clock this evening. This is the first I have heard of him since last fall.

Tuesday September 8th

Moved on our farm. Add hired Mr. Vicars’ boat but we did not get started till afternoon. Landed at W Johnson’s about dusk. Stayed there all night. What a queer couple they are. He weighs about 90 pounds and she about 250. I like her looks very well. The next morning Add hired their team and moved one load of things to the house but they needed their team so that we did not get our things till two days afterwards. I like to think of those two days when we sat on the floor and ate our meals off one of the trunks. The second day after we got our things I smashed the looking glass. How I love to live here alone with Add…Oh the blackberries are so thick up here we go out evenings and pick a bowl full to eat with our bread and milk…

And so Fanny’s Journal closes on a happy note. Out on the fringes of wilderness, the Craws developed a close relationship with the Indians in Kewadin—who called Fanny Flying Cloud for the way her long dark hair floated behind her as she worked. The Craws offered their farm as a rest stop for Indians en route to their hunting and fishing grounds in the north. The Indians repaid the Craws for their hospitality with game and berries.

A year after their marriage, the couple had a son, Mark. (Two more children followed, both boys who died in infancy.) Young Mark, it was said, never wore a pair of shoes until he was 5—only moccasins made by the family’s Indian neighbors. Eventually, the Craws moved to Traverse City. Add died in 1887. In 1900 Mark became the Grand Traverse County conservation officer, a position he held until 1946. His long tenure made him a legend to several generations of outdoorsmen.

His mother died in 1914. In her obituary, Fanny was remembered: “as a friend to bird and beast…No animal in distress ever came to her without being given relief.”