© 2011 Peggy Mershon Contact at email@example.com
No. 11.... Log School, Blockhouse and Indian Village
The old school-house. I stood on its site today. Fifty-nine years ago one could follow the path through the thickets of hazels, crabapple and plum trees, and soon come to the new, low-roofed little institution of learning, but to-day you search among fertile fields vainly, and you close your eyes and endeavor to determine the location by the bend in the creek, by the range of hills, the spring, the grove, the road along the bank of the stream, the warehouse and the great walnut and wild cherry trees. You open your eyes and they are sparkling bright with the thought that now you can locate it precisely.
Ah, me! You forget the mill-dam that raised the water until it covered the wayside spring, and rendered impassable the beautiful river road that wound in and out of the woods, and, now in sunshine, now in shadow, made you think that road veritable poetry. Only bare pastures to-day, with a margin of black swamp and stagnant waters.
The picturesque river road is obliterated, not a sign remaining save in your memory. The great walnut trees, and the fruitful wild cherry, that, to your childish imagination, seemed to reach to the fleecy clouds, are gone, and not even a stump remains to mark the spot.
You smile, I know why; I know what you are thinking of, but I don't put my arm up over my face at sound of your merry laughter, as I did when you were my boy-playmate and teased me for telling my mother that Louis Carrol's eyes were sunken into his head fourteen inches, when he was sick from eating too many wild cherries from the big tree near the school-house.
The old warehouse that stood among the alders, looking gloomy as a Bastile, is gone long ago, the grove is no longer there a great bower of jubilant bird-song, and the range of hills where poor, plucky 'Diar Smith once raised cucumbers for the New Orleans market, bore a second growth of timber since, but now the smoothly-shaven hills are gulden with waving grain, and soon the reapers' humming song will go up from among the yellow sheaves.
I went alone to-day and found the site and stood upon it. Here had been the wide, old, cavernous fireplace, there the door, there the two long greased paper windows, here was the corner where they put their dinner baskets, there the row of pegs for sunbonnets, and there for hats. The great thorntree, white with blossoms, stood there, and the delightfully fragrant crab-apple trees grew there, and here grow the pretty but poisonous and prickly vine, with its clusters of purple-black berries.
When I came home I said: "Father, I was on the site of the old log school-house to-day, but there is no vestige of it now, save that one can detect little fragments of slate and slate pencils, and broken bits of delf, and such things on the spot where it stood. Can you remember in what year it was built?"
"Oh, yes; it was in 1816. I was at the raising and remember it well. Whisky flowed as free as water that day. I can see old-then Jones, sitting on a stump, singing in a fuddled way, when he wanted the jug passed to him:
"' We had a black hen that had a white foot.
She ruffled her feathers to keep her eggs warm,
"This little ditty was very common on such occasions, and it was generally sung with spirit. We thought it was right to the point, too, but now-a-days it would seem like going a great ways round just to ask for the grog in such style as that. Then there was another verse that we thought very pithy and cute:
"'What's become of the little brown man
"Our first teacher was John Smith, but, poor fellow, he didn't turn out well. He left his wife and children and ran away with one of Dawson's girls, Betsey I think it was, and I suppose they're living together yet. His wife and children went back to Washington County, Pennsylvania. There used to be a great many elopements in early days; I'm sure I can't see why it was, but, really, thirty were common. I often think about the day that Smith's school closed. The boys and girls were all so anxious to know when it would be so they could dress up, but John never told any one except Betsey Dawson, and she didn't know of it until the night before. The first intimation we had of it was when Bet came blowing into school that bitter cold morning in February, wearing a white dimity dress that had been her mother's. She had on a wide blue ribbon, I remember, put around her neck, crossed in front on her bosom, and carried round under her arms and tied behind. Her hair was looped together in some sort of queer braids and pressed down flat against the sides of her face. A little blue camlet cape with red fringe was pinned over her shoulders and fastened at the throat with a red bombazine rosette. All the other girls were angry and jealous and felt envious of Betsey's good looks. Oh, Bet did flirt about amazingly that day! No one seemed to think then that her white dimity was out of season.
"The teacher gave a treat that day; butternuts and whisky. I remember well how he sat out on the fence with us boys; we were all in a row, and the fence must have been nine rails high, but we managed to sit on it like a chattering flock of rooks, and we passed the bottle around, each one taking a drink and giving it to his next neighbor.
"Aftcrwhile we began to drop down like ripe apples, and though the ground was covered with snow, and the winds blew bitter cold, we preferred to sit on the ground. It was cozier than up on the fence.
"After supper, Smith and a few of the boys met at the tavern and caroused around until nearly morning. I was with them, for I was young then, and thought that whatever the schoolmaster did was right. We had a great deal of fun. I remember of buying liquor and pouring it on the boys, and of sliding in the puddles on the smoothest puncheon, and pouring it into their pockets. The teacher laid aside his dignity, and led off in all manner of ran and foolishness. Just then we thought he was a capital follow."
"Did you have good teachers in those early days?" I asked.
"Well, yes, as Jenks would say, 'fair to middling.' Be sure, some of them had not good habits; some were addicted to swearing; some would knock down with a billet of wood or a slate; some would smoke in school nearly all day; but often they were good men, and some of them became eminent and useful. One of our teachers, poor fellow, met with a terrible sorrow. He kept some dry goods and groceries and such like at his home in the country; it was a matter of convenience to him and to the neighborhood that he dealt in such articles of merchandise. He had a wife and two beautiful children. One day, when the little ones happened to be alone, they played with fire, and a keg of powder exploded, and their little bodies were blown to atoms and hurled through the roof of the house. The shock was felt for miles, and the sound was heard away off where the family had never been known. It was a very severe affliction for the poor husband and father. I never pass that spot — which is now in Benny McGuire's orchard — without the whole scene coming up before me vividly and painfully.
"Another teacher in early days was William Maxwell Adolphus Johnson, an old man, who was an inveterate story reader, and, strange to say, he remembered every tale so well that he could relate them charmingly. Only a few years ago I came upon a story in manuscript that he had copied from memory for the benefit of persons of his acquaintance who were similarly inclined. It was an old love story, written in the stiff, precise style of Evalina and Miss Burney's other books; you remember them."
"What did you do before you had any schoolhouse?" I inquired.
"Oh, well somebody taught in somebody's house three months in a year; and then when we had no school, why we met once a week some place or other and read pieces, and wrote on little slips of paper and compared them; and we studied arithmetic, and talked about geography, and kept learning a little something all the time. Three or four of the oldest men in the neighborhood looked after the education of the young people in a general way. You see at that time two or three of our men tilled with honor our highest county offices. And I often think of the responsibility that rested on them just because they were the leading men in the neighborhood. If a cow was choked on a turnip, a boy bestrode a horse and went like lightning for the judge or the associate judge; if a yoke of oxen were bewitched and refused to move, the owner scratched his head a minute or two, then sent a boy post-haste for one of the judges; if a man and his wife quarrelled, and she left his bed and board, the irate husband struck a beeline for the judge's cabin ; or if two neighbors disagreed, and a knave lane was likely to be the result, one or both of them referred the knotty case to the superior judgment of the judge.
"I remember when Richard Conine was at work on the road with his father and the supervisors, six miles distant from home, a tree fell aslant and broke one of poor Dicky's legs. The men made a comfortable resting place for him up against a rock, and then started another boy off to borrow an old gray mare that belonged to the associate judge. He had to walk five miles through a dense woods, and it was late when he returned, and poor Dickey was suffering extremely. His father mounted old gray and took his son on behind him. His leg hung dangling, and he could hear the broken bones grating, the while it pained him intensely. As usual in extreme cases, the two leading men of the neighborhood, the judges, were on hand with some old barrel staves, and some strips of muslin, and a cup of strong vinegar. The nearest physician lived twenty miles away, and the family were poor, and the judges were willing, and as capable as they could well be. The broken leg was mended, and in a few weeks Dicky was able to get out doors on crutches and hobble down to the pen to see the young pigs. But before he reached the house he fell and broke it over again, and again were the judges sent for, and the unskillful performance gone over the second time. Then, before he wholly recovered, the pioneers had to flee to block-houses for safety and refuge from the Indians, and there, within its dreary, bleak, lonesome walls, Dicky's young mother died, with no physician near to save or help — none but the two ministering judges, hardy and sympathizing men and weeping women. Her little baby lived and grew to be a beautiful, sad-eyed woman. You see Dicky's mother died in 1812, and was the second one buried in our graveyard."
"Well, if you poor pioneers were huddled together in the fort or block-house, I should think you would have been afraid to have ventured out on account of the Indians," I said.
"Oh, we went armed; the men carried their muskets and we 003's carried sticks just the same as we would have carried fire-arms. We walked straight, and kept step, and did just as our fathers did.
"When Mrs. Conine was buried, there was no road or path to the new burying-ground, and the coffin, a very rude, rough sort of a box, was made by the men in the fort. It was nailed together by nails that our blacksmith made a little like horseshoe nails, they were clinched on the inside. The coffin was carried on the shoulders of two men. We didn't form much of a procession, we couldn't for the thickets of low brush and brambles made the way almost impassable. I remember that while we stood about the lonely grave, men were posted as sentinels a few steps distant, for we did not know what minute the Indians might attack us. Two families had been murdered a few weeks before, about seven miles west of us."
"Was there no burial service whatever on that occasion?" I inquired.
"Oh, yes; one of the judges offered a prayer, but we did not dare sing a hymn, it would not have been safe. An Indian trail lay within hearing distance of the grave. The Indians never did attack us, however.
"Ha, ha! I often have to laugh yet, after all these long-gone years, when I recall some of the incidents that transpired while we neighbors lived together in the block-house.
"We had military drill frequently; there were no regular soldiers with us, so that it was merely a parade of the militia. All the men and boys would assemble in the dusk of the evening in the vicinity of the fort near the apprehended point of attack. Such as had real rifles and muskets, shouldered them, and we boys substituted wooden or Quaker guns, and some of us used mullein stalks. My daddy would call the roll and the men would respond for themselves and for us boys who had not manly voices, and they would answer to the names of a multitude of mythical men besides, thus leaving the impression upon the minds of the concealed foe, if such were in sight and hearing, that an immense force were defending the block-house. I used to be so amused at some of the names daddy would call, odd names that he manufactured impromptu, and sometimes the dear familiar names of our old neighbors in the East.
"I remember that our mammas were annoyed and concerned about two of the girls who were such romps and so fearless that they would almost have made faces at the Indians had they been in sight. These girls would slip out and both of them mount the judge's old horse, without a saddle, and then they would ride up and down a steep knoll near the fort, and trot the old horse up and down the creek until they were splashed from head to foot.
"Those were serious times, and yet a little fun would bubble out occasionally. We were never molested by the Indians, however. One morning, I saw a moccasin track beside the fort, in the soft, black loam, and found a little silver brooch lying near it. The Indians often wore such little ornaments dangling about them. I kept it for many years to fasten the collar of my tow-linen shirt."
"Were any of the dusky girls kind of pretty, did you think?" said I.
"Oh, some of them, especially those of mixed blood, were really attractive!" said father, his eyes growing very blue and bright. "There was Sally Williams, a half-breed, that girl could have married any young man she pleased! Oh, her eyes were like stars, she could run like a deer, she was as quick as a steel-trap, and her complexion, though dark, was so clear and rosy and healthful! Sally could have had her pick and choice from our young men if she'd wanted. She was the prettiest girl on horseback that I ever saw, and she could ride like the wind. She always sat so easy and graceful, and all her movements were so natural and pretty. There was Dick Conine and John Oliver, who were both dead in love with that Indian girl. They never got tired watching her, and she was just as modest and blushed as readily as any pretty white girl would have done. I always thought when Dick married his Peggy that he hadn't a whole heart to give her."
"Wore you acquainted with any of the young Indians? Wasn't you friends with any of the brown boys and girls?" said I, smiling over his enthusiastic description of pretty Sally Williams.
"No, I never felt drawn toward any of them," was the reply; "I couldn't make them seem like my kind of folks. In the spring of 1811, some of us boys and girls went to a great Indian festival held at Greentown, one of their villages about two miles west of us. The village stood on the bank of the creek and contained probably two hundred inhabitants. There were sixty or eighty little cabins, or wigwams and bark shanties, all standing in order and regular line like dwellings in a city.
"All the Indians for miles around were there. The meeting was held in their council-house, a spacious building, sixty or seventy feet long. In the centre a temporary altar was erected, and upon this a large fire was kindled which burned with a lurid brilliancy. Around this fire the principal speakers performed their solemn marches, speaking and singing alternately, while the rest of the audience were arranged in rows, two or three deep, around the walls, inside of the house.
"During the performance the audience kept up a kind of grunting exercise accompanied by a variety of gesticulations and singular contortions of the countenance, indicating that the occasion was one of solemn interest. Frequently some one would cast a piece of fresh meat into the fire, on which a general pow-wow would be heard for a few moments. The dress of the prominent chiefs was singularly fantastic, being ornamented with various colors arranged in such a manner as to produce a striking effect. Deers' hoofs were also attached to their leggings and made a rattling noise as they moved around the fire.
"I remember one old chief, who was stricken in years, Captain Pipe. He was tall and graceful and quick, and his keen black eyes told of the fire and ardor of other years.
"This meeting must have been one of no ordinary importance, for a profound solemnity characterized their devotions, and during some particular parts of the ceremonies the whole Indian audience were moved to tears.
"These ceremonies lasted about two hours, then there was a general shaking of hands, illiciting the utmost good feeling among the worshippers. After all was over, the Indians, to show their respect to their white visitors, gave each of us a piece of meat which had been boiled without washing or cleansing, and not even seasoned with salt. We pretended to eat, but embraced the first opportunity of throwing the pieces away slyly. One of the girls, a frolicsome daughter of the judges, received for her delectation a bear's foot. She was one of the girls who would ride so fearlessly while we were all living in the fort. I could see that her shoulders shook with the pent-up laughter.
"Before we started home, the stalwart braves and their Wyandotte and Delaware visitors were jubilant out on the beautiful greensward, jumping, pitching horse-shoes, running races, and pulling each other up from a sitting posture on the ground."
One Saturday afternoon last summer, when we were all at home, I proposed that we would ride out and look at the old Indian village, and get father to locate places of interest. It is now sixty-three years since the poor broken tribes left that spot which was so dear to them — left the graves of their dead and their familiar hunting-grounds, and sought a home on a Western reservation. That beautiful place has been cultivated ever since — the village green — the plough has turned over and over the rich old soil, and yet after all we picked up from that smooth, fallow field several relics. One of the boys found an old battered, smashed, brass shell; another the snow-white tooth of a bear; another a peculiarly-shaped stone that was used in pounding corn, and another stone implement used in dressing skins. Father picked a bullet out of an old tree that was peppered full of bullet-holes. We presumed that it had been a target at which they fired for amusement. I found several darts of different shapes. The old graves could be distinctly traced yet. The woods, in which was the burial ground, has never been molested, although sacreligious hands have rifled many of the graves.
More than twenty-five years ago, a bright-eyed, chirupping little schoolma’m found in the house of a decamped physician a quantity of Indian bones, and the innocent little witch asked me in all sincerity if I didn’t want them to put in my cabinet of curiosities.
50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST
A series of articles that appeared
in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine