OLD HEARTH STONES, AND THE TALES THEY TELL

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1876 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 1 ...Visiting the Site of the Copus Massacre

 

‘I wish Tom and I could afford to make a bridal tour," said a charming girl-friend to me the very morning after her marriage, "but he is poor, and I am poor, so we have concluded to go right on with our respective employment — he will build houses and I will teach school, and we will conduct our business affairs in a quiet, careful, matter-of-fact way, just as though we were not married yet."

 

"But, Annie, what will folks say? No cards, and no trip, and no fuss at all," said I, drawing my brows in a disappointed, thoughtful way. "Seems, as if there should be some kind of a demonstration, if Tom were only to take you down to Tucker's Hollow to see the stable in which old Billy McCutcheon hanged himself."

At this we both laughed heartily.

 

"Now, if you were in my place," said Annie, with a roguish sparkle in her sunny, brown eyes, "you'd improve this rare occasion by visiting some old cave that had once been the stronghold of a band of robbers, or counterfeiters, or the site of an old cabin whose inmates had been murdered, or a pond in which a luckless spinster had drowned herself, now wouldn't you?"

 

"Why, Annie! Annie !" said I, " I have it now; strange I didn't think of it before 1 Don't your affectionate Tom keep a horse and carriage and isn't the turn-out at your disposal any day?" . "Yes, but what of that?" said she, laughing.

"Why," I replied, "let's you and I take a small bridal tour instead of you and Tom. I have always wanted to visit the place where the Copus and Seymour families were killed by the Indians, long ago in the first settlement of this country. Now, you are a capital driver, Annie; come take me and we'll have such a nice day all by our two dear selves."

 

And that was the way it came about. That long day in the gorgeous October time, among the hills a-flame with golden tints, and scarlet, and yellow, and brown, and blazing crimson, was one of the gala days of my girlhood. We drove all those beautiful miles, up and down hills, in brookside valleys, among the sweet-smelling, silent maples, that looked like giant torches, down into fairy dells, moss-framed ravines, and along winding roads thickly sown with softly failing leaves, and  two dear friends just alone with ourselves and nil this magnificent autumn beauty.

We both said, then, and in after years, that no couple ever enjoyed a bridal tour as we did ours that day.

 

We found the Copus place and stopped there. A very neat little white cottage, nestling at the foot of one of the wildest hills I had ever seen. A noisy fountain poured out its crystal stream near the cottage porch, a flower garden crept close up outside the house, and an old, old orchard of Johnny Appleseed's planting threw its cool shade over the back-yard and the plat of carefully tended grass and shrubbery.

 

It was a beautiful place, and yet to me it was as solemn and sacred as a cemetery. I felt like stepping softly and with bared head and low voice. It almost seemed to me that a wily savage was skulking behind those old girdled bare trees on that steep hillside. I imagined I could see their top-knots of feathers and rude adornments as they slyly peered round the trees preparatory to taking aim.

 

We went into the cottage and were met by a sad-faced woman, who was doing up her morning's work with a wet-eyed baby sitting on her hip like a clinging chimneyswallow that had fallen from its out-grown nest. I took the little one a moment "to spell" the mother, and introduced my friend and myself.

 

"Why, lawful sakes!" said she, beaming out into a smile, "you're kin to my man, if you're Rozelly; I've hearn him talk about Cozint Sally's children this many a year, so I have. You are just as near cozint to my man as there's any need of. Lawful sakes! 'pears like I can see a resemblance. Sure enough! the same black eyebrows and a kind of a pert look about the nose and upper lip."

 

And before I had time to shake the wrinkles out of my duster, the woman had stepped out on the piazza and blown the little tin horn that hung on its smooth peg beside the door, and a swarthy, jolly, noisy, good man had come in from the cornfield, and was shaking me most cordially.

 

Our horse was stabled in spite of our entreaties to the contrary, and in less than half an hour a couple of fat hens lay prone and dead upon their backs with their yellow legs sticking up in the air, while near them, on a low bench, stood a peck of sweet potatoes, fresh from the soft, sandy soil at the base of the old hill.

 

Annie and I climbed the hill and looked abroad upon the finest stretch of landscape in all the country round. Why, the very rocks on the top of that hill were cushioned with deep dark emerald mosses until they were soft enough for an invalid to recline upon.

 

If I ever walk under the palms in Heaven with my friend, I anticipate the same blessed companionship that we two enjoyed that long-ago day up on the breezy heights in that delightfully balmy, secluded, sylvan spot. Everything combined together to render our tour an exquisitely charming oner.

 

At the dinner-table we met an elderly man who had been specialty invit«d, or, rather, brought there with a genial and generous forthwith summons — one of the members of the original Copus family. He was my ideal of a man reared in the backwoods in those days in which the "times tried men's souls." He was very candid and ingenuous and his manners were pleasant and his conversation entertaining.

 

I said: "Come and show me where the old cabin stood; let me stand upon its site while you tell me the story that to you is an old, old story."

 

We went out a few steps beyond the fountain, and the old man said: "You see down in among the flags and sedge grass and wild balsam yon heap — well, there's the old hath stuns, the last relicts of our cabin, the very hath on which my father fell killed by the pesky Indians."

 

I picked out my way along the fountain brook, stepping on clumps of grass with firmly knotted roots, on stones and hummocks, until I was near enough to leap over the swampy ground and alight on the pile of hearth stones. A few broad stones lay with the half-smooth surface upturned, but the wild meadow grass, and nettles, and flags, and buckwheat vines overran the heap and made it appear almost like a rudely-tended grave.

 

I have told you that no tragical, or mournful, or touching poem reaches my heart and takes hold on the impressible part of my nature like the heap of hearth stones, relics of a once happy and prosperous home.

 

As I stood upon them they seemed like tablets written all over with the tales of other days, almost like huge folios waiting to be read.

 

And this was the story the old man told me, but it is shorn of its interest and the exceeding pathos that pervaded it because I cannot give it in his peculiarly simple, natural, touching style. You can imagine the tall old man with bronzed face and gray eyes, that, as his story increased in interest, turned steel-gray, and violet, and sometimes black, with his slouch hat pushed back from his bold brow, his horny hands twitching and working convulsively, and his every motion the very perfection of an eloquence that was stronger than language.

 

His parents, with a family of seven children, moved there in the year 1809, from Green County, Pennsylvania. They lived in peace with the Indians for a period of nearly three years, during that time Mr. Copus visited their villages frequently and on several occasions preached to them.

 

This was during the war between Great Britain and the United States, and many of the tribes were rising up against the whites and showing signs of hostility. An officer called upon Mr. Copus and conferred with him as to the feasibility of securing those Indians inhabiting the village near him, or persuading them to throw themselves under the protection of the government, and wanted Mr. Copus to use his influence in a peaceable manner to press upon them a surrender, and their rights, lives and property should be protected.

 

After a time they gave up, their property was invoiced, and they placed themselves under the protection of the officer and his soldiers and commenced their line of march for some place in the western part of the State.

This was all done in good faith by both parties, but before the poor Indians were out of sight of their beautiful village and grounds, the soldiers who were left in charge of their property set fire to the wigwams and devastated the homes they loved so well.

 

The poor, trusting creatures looked back and saw the smoke, and a spirit of vengeance and bitterness took possession of their hearts, and they inwardly vowed revenge.

 

A few days afterward, an occasional Indian was seen skulking about in the woods near the Copus place. The family were somewhat alarmed because they knew the Indians were distant from them, and if all was well there would be no prowling, but the usual freedom of intercourse. Mr. Copus became uneasy and sent word to the nearest block-house for a small detachment of soldiers to be detailed and stationed there. One night a few soldiers were there, and as the weather was sultry they proposed sleeping in the barn, which was a short distance from the house. To this Mr. Copus demurred — a presentiment hung over him like a cloud of impending danger, but the boys only laughed at his fears and proceeded to sleep in the barn. Very early in the morning they rose and came down to the fountain to wash. To this their host objected, but without avail. They leaned their rifles up against the side of the cabin, and while washing the mingled yells of forty-live painted savages broke in upon the ears of the soldiers. They heard the terrific yells and seeing the cabin surrounded by the Indians, they attempted to escape. Two were caught and murdered on the spot, the third being fleet of foot distanced his pursuers, who, finding it impossible to overtake him, fired upon him, one ball passing through his bowels and the other through his foot. He ran about half a mile, and was found, eight weeks afterward, his body resting against a tree and his handkerchief stuffed into the cruel wound.

 

The fourth man, like an infuriated tiger, rushed past the savages and escaped into the house with a bullet in his thigh.

 

On hearing the alarm, Mr. Copus sprang from his bed, seized his rifle and partially opened the door just as the wounded soldier entered. At that instant a rifle ball passed through the centre of his bosom, and staggering backward, he fell upon the broad hearth, crying out, "I am a dead man, but fight like heroes and save yourselves and my family." His frightened wife and daughter helped him upon the bed, and in a few minutes he breathed his last.

 

The rifle of the dead man had been discharged, and as a dead Indian lay across the fence before the door, it was supposed that they fired simultaneously and fatally.

 

Several balls had penetrated the door, and the remaining soldiers inside tore up the puncheon floor and piled it against the door. The firing was now incessant. With every volley that was poured in upon the cabin came more than forty yells, but the savages were compelled by the returning fire to keep at a little distance. The distracted mother and little children were all up in the loft crouching down in anxious fear and horror. Only one of the family was touched by a bullet — a small girl was shot in the leg. One of the soldiers had an arm broken by a ball while he was taking out a chinking in the wall that he might fire through.

The battle lasted from early dawn till ten in the forenoon, when the Indians, finding that they could not succeed, raised a deafening yell, gathered up their dead and wounded — nine in number — and retreated from the plucky little cabin.

 

A flock of sheep stood huddled together in a scared way on the top of the steep bluff among the rooks. The Indians fired upon them, and they came tumbling down to the very foot of the hill.

 

One dead savage lay so near the cabin door that his companions did not succeed in getting his body. The poor soldier who was wounded came hopping out, and in his rage he cut off the Indian's legs and threw them on top of the cabin roof, saying, when they were dry they would make prime whetstones.

 

In a few hours one of the men went to the nearest block-house, and came back with a detachment of soldiers, who guarded the poor widow and little ones, and escorted them to the block-house as the only place of safety.

The dead bodies of the father and the soldier were hurriedly buried in a shallow grave out in the orchard, where their dust remains to this day. The family removed to one of the southern counties in the State, and lived there three or four years, and when they returned to the ill-fated cabin the poignancy of their sorrow was healed, and they began life in the wilderness anew.

 

This was the story in brief that the sturdy old backwoodsman told me that golden October day as I stood on the heap of old hearthstones, with the fountain rill tinkling musically among the flags and meadow grasses beside me.

 

I borrowed the old man's jack-knife, redolent with tobacco, and climbed half way up the side of the hill, and cut from an old gray girdled gum tree some of the rough, knobby bark, which I gave the bride Annie for a keepsake. Behind that tree one of the savages was hidden during the carnage, and his head was observed peering round slyly, but he peeped once too often, for it made a splendid mark for a rifle shot. The old man said when that Indian was shot his body seemed to spring ten feet into the air, and he came down like a chimney in a gale.

 

Oh, as I stood spell-bound listening to that terrible narrative, I envied that old man his colorful gift of word-painting! What were good grammar, well-selected words, fine expression, or any of these so-called necessary requirements, compared to his marvellous skill and nicety of description! His diction was so natural, and easy, and life-like, and charming.

 

Years later, it was my good fortune to make the acquaintance of the wife of the murdered man, and of the daughter who was wounded, then a mere babe. Women don't like to have their little tea-table talks made public; these noble and lovable women so shrank from publicity, that I do not dare uncover that one beautiful and carefully treasured memory — my visit in that lowly cottage among the grapevines, purple with luscious clusters; a nest of a cot among the flowers of their own tender planting. A beautiful memory is that.

 

In another ripe October time I stood again in the white cottage, and listened to the lullaby of the fountain whose tragic association has given it a place in the history of pioneer life in my own State; and this time I stood beside the death-bed of the old man whose story I have so imperfectly related. I stepped softly into the quiet bed-room; bis eyes were closed, and the pallor of death overspread his face, which had grown strangely fine and clearly cut and beautiful. Suddenly his eyes opened, and his little laugh of greeting had no ring or music in it, but he reached out his thin hand with a "Why, sis, did you come? You don't know how glad the poor old man is to see you again! I remember you, child. I told you all about the fight with the Indians, didn't I? And how they killed my father; shot 'im down in a trice, an' he fell on the hath stuns, and mother and Hanner took 'im up. Well — well — well — sis, we've other foes to fight that are wuss 'an the Indians. There's one old fite that can't be sarcumvented nohow, an' that is Death. Well — well."

 

My heart was touched with pity as I looked upon that old white face among the white pillows, and I laid a kiss reverently upon it as I turned away to see it on earth no more forever.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com