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4: The Block House, and on the Indian Trail

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The axe and the gun, the one to conquer the forces of wild nature, the other to battle against savage man and beast—these were the twin weapons that the pioneer always kept beside him, whether on the march or during a halt. In defensive warfare the axe was scarcely less potent than the gun, for with its keen edge the great logs were hewed which formed the block-house, and the tall saplings shaped, which were driven into the earth to make the stockade. We know too that woman could handle the gun and ply the axe when required so to do.

In one of our historical galleries there was exhibited not long since a painting representing a party of Indians attacking a block-house in a New England settlement. The house is a structure framed, and built of enormous logs, hexagonal in shape, the upper stories over-hanging those beneath, and pierced with loopholes. There is a thick parapet on the roof, behind which are collected the children of the settlement guarded by women, old and young, some of whom are firing over the parapet at the yelling fiends who have just emerged from their forest-ambush. A glimpse of the interior of the block-house shows us women engaged in casting bullets and loading fire-arms which they are handing to the men. In the background a brave girl is returning swiftly to the garrison, with buckets of water which she has drawn from the spring, a few rods away from the house. A crouching savage has leveled his gun at her, and she evidently knows the danger she is in, but moves steadily forward without spilling a drop of her precious burden.

The block-house is surrounded by the primeval forest, which is alive with savages. Some are shaking at the defenders of the block-house fresh scalps, evidently just torn from the heads of men and women who have been overtaken and tomahawked before they could reach their forest-citadel: others have fired the stack of corn. A large fire has been kindled in the woods and a score of savages are wrapping dry grass around the ends of long poles, with which to fire the wooden walls of the block-house.

Thirty or forty men women and children in a wooden fort, a hundred miles, perhaps, from any settlement, and surrounded by five times their number of Pequots or Wampanoags thirsting for their blood! This is indeed a faithful picture of one of the frequent episodes of colonial life in New England!

Every new settlement was brought face to face with such dangers as we have described. The red-man and the white man were next door neighbors. The smokes of the wigwam and the cabin mingled as they rose to the sky. From the first there was more or less antagonism. Life among the white settlers was a kind of picket-service in which woman shared.

At times, as for example in the wars with the Pequots and King Philip, there was safety nowhere. Men went armed to the field, to meeting, and to bring home their brides from their father's house where they had married them. Women with muskets at their side lulled their babes to sleep. Like the tiger of the jungles, the savage lay in ambush for the women and children: he knew he could strike the infant colony best by thus desolating the homes.

The captivities of Mrs. Williams and her children, of Mrs. Shute, of Mrs. Johnson, of Mrs. Howe, and of many other matrons; as well as of unmarried women, are well-conned incidents of New England colonial history. The story of Mrs. Dustin's exploit and escape reads like a romance. "At night," to use the concise language of Mr. Bancroft, "while the household slumbers, the captives, each with a tomahawk, strike vigorously, and fleetly, and with division of labor,—and of the twelve sleepers, ten lie dead; of one squaw the wound was not mortal; one child was spared from design. The love of glory next asserted its power; and the gun and tomahawk of the murderer of her infant, and a bag heaped full of scalps were choicely kept as trophies of the heroine. The streams are the guides which God has set for the stranger in the wilderness: in a bark canoe the three descend the Merrimac to the English settlement, astonishing their friends by their escape and filling the land with wonder at their successful daring."

The details of Mrs. Rowlandson's sufferings after her capture at Lancaster, Mass., in 1676, are almost too painful to dwell upon. When the Indians began their march the day after the destruction of that place, Mrs. Rowlandson carried her infant till her strength failed and she fell. Toward night it began to snow; and gathering a few sticks, she made a fire. Sitting beside it on the snow, she held her child in her arms, through the long and dismal night. For three or four days she had no sustenance but water; nor did her child share any better for nine days. During this time it was constantly in her arms or lap. At the end of that period, the frost of death crept into its eyes, and she was forced to relinquish it to be disposed of by the unfeeling sextons of the forest.

She went through almost every suffering but death. She was beaten, kicked, turned out of doors, refused food, insulted in the grossest manner, and at times almost starved. Nothing but experience can enable us to conceive what must be the hunger of a person by whom the discovery of six acorns and two chestnuts was regarded as a rich prize. At times, in order to make her miserable, they announced to her the death of her husband and her children.

On various occasions they threatened to kill her. Occasionally, but for short intervals only, she was permitted to see her children, and suffered her own anguish over again in their miseries. She was obliged, while hardly able to walk, to carry a heavy burden, over hills, and through rivers, swamps, and marshes; and in the most inclement seasons. These evils were repeated daily; and, to crown them all, she was daily saluted with the most barbarous and insolent accounts of the burning and slaughter, the tortures and agonies, inflicted by them upon her countrymen. It is to be remembered that Mrs. Rowlandson was tenderly and delicately educated, and ill fitted to encounter such distresses; and yet she bore them all with a fortitude truly wonderful.

Instances too there were, where a single woman infused her own dauntless spirit into a whole garrison, and prevented them from abandoning their post. Mrs. Heard, "a widow of good estate a mother of many children, and a daughter of Mr. Hull, a revered minister formerly settled in Piscataqua," having escaped from captivity among the Indians, about 1689, returned to one of the garrisons on the extreme frontier of New Hampshire. By her presence and courage this out-post was maintained for ten years and during the whole war, though frequently assaulted by savages. It is stated that if she had left the garrison and retired to Portsmouth, as she was solicited to do by her friends, the out-post would have been abandoned, greatly to the damage of the surrounding country.

Long after the New England colonies rested in comparative security from the attacks of the aboriginal tribes, the warfare was continued in the Middle, Southern, and Western States, and even at this hour, sitting in our peaceful homes we read in the journals of the day reports of Indian atrocities perpetrated against the families of the pioneers on our extreme western frontier.

Our whole history from the earliest times to the present, is full of instances of woman's noble achievements. East, west, north, south, wherever we wander, we tread the soil which has been wearily trodden by her feet as a pioneer, moistened by her tears as a captive, or by her blood as a martyr in the cause of civilization on this western continent.

The sorrows of maidens, wives, and mothers in the border wars of our colonial times, have furnished themes for the poet, the artist, and the novelist, but the reality of these scenes as described in the simple words of the local historians, often exceeds the most vivid dress in which imagination can clothe it.

One of the most deeply rooted traits of woman's nature is sympathy, and the outflow of that emotion into action is as natural as the emotion itself. When a woman witnesses the sufferings of others it is instinctive with her to try and relieve them, and to be thwarted in the exercise of this faculty is to her a positive pain.

We may judge from this of what her feelings must have been when she saw, as she often did, those who were dearest to her put to torture and death without being permitted to rescue them or even alleviate their agonies.

Such was the position in which Mrs. Waldron was placed, on the northern border, during the French and Indian war of the last century. She and her husband occupied a small block-house which they had built a few miles from Cherry Valley, New York, and here she was doomed to suffer all that a wife could, in witnessing the terrible fate of her husband and being at the same time powerless to rescue him.

"One fatal evening," to use the quaint words of our heroine, "I was all alone in the house, when I was of a sudden surprised with the fearful war-whoop and a tremendous attack upon the door and the palisades around. I flew to the upper window and seizing my husband's gun, which I had learned to use expertly, I leveled the barrel on the window-sill and took aim at the foremost savage. Knowing their cruelty and merciless disposition, and wishing to obtain some favor, I desisted from firing; but how vain and fruitless are the efforts of one woman against the united force of so many, and of such merciless monsters as I had here to deal with! One of them that could speak a little English, threatened me in return, 'that if I did not come out, they would burn me alive in the house.' My terror and distraction at hearing this is not to be expressed by words nor easily imagined by any person unless in the same condition. Distracted as I was in such deplorable circumstances, I chose to rely on the uncertainty of their protection, rather than meet with certain death in the house; and accordingly went out with my gun in my hand, scarcely knowing what I did. Immediately on my approach, they rushed on me like so many tigers, and instantly disarmed me. Having me thus in their power, the merciless villians bound me to a tree near the door.

"While our house and barns were burning, sad to relate, my husband just then came through the woods, and being spied by the barbarians, they gave chase and soon overtook him. Alas! for what a fate was he reserved! Digging a deep pit, they tied his arms to his side and put him into it and then rammed and beat the earth all around his body up to his neck, his head only appearing above ground. They then scalped him and kindled a slow fire near his head.

"I broke my bonds, and running to him kissed his poor bleeding face, and threw myself at the feet of his barbarous tormentors, begging them to spare his life. Deaf to all my tears and entreaties and to the piercing shrieks of my unfortunate husband, they dragged me away and bound me more firmly to the tree, smiting my face with the dripping scalp and laughing at my agonies.

"Thank God! I then lost all consciousness of the dreadful scene; and when I regained my senses the monsters had fled after cutting off the head of the poor victim of their cruel rage."

When the British formed an unholy alliance with the Indians during the Revolutionary War and turned the tomahawk and scalping knife against their kinsmen, the beautiful valley of Wyoming became a dark and bloody battle-ground. The organization and disciplined valor of the white man, leagued with the cunning and ferocity of the red man, was a combination which met the patriots at every step in those then remote settlements, and spread rapine, fire, and murder over that lovely region.

The sufferings of the captive women, the dreadful scenes they witnessed, and the fortitude and courage they displayed, have been rescued from tradition and embodied in a permanent record by more than one historian. The names of Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Myers, Mrs. Marcy, Mrs. Franklin, and a host of others, are inseparably associated with the household legends of the Wyoming Valley.

Miss Cook, after witnessing the barbarous murder and mutilation of a beautiful girl, whose rosy cheeks were gashed and whose silken tresses were torn from her head with the scalping knife, was threatened with instant death unless she would assist in dressing a bundle of fresh, reeking scalps cut from the heads of her friends and relatives. As she handled the gory trophies, expecting every moment that her own locks would be added to the ghastly heap, she saw something in each of those sad mementos that reminded her of those who were near and dear to her. At last she lifted one which she thought was her mother's; she gazed at the long tresses sprinkled with gray and called to mind how often she had combed and caressed them in happier hours: shuddering through her whole frame, the wretched girl burst into a passion of tears. The ruthless savage who stood guard over her with brandished tomahawk immediately forced her to resume and complete her horrible task.

In estimating the heroism of American women displayed in their conflicts with the aborigines, we must take into account her natural repugnance to repulsive and horrid spectacles. The North American savage streaked with war-paint, a bunch of reeking scalps at his girdle, his snaky eyes gleaming with malignity, was a direful sight for even a hardened frontiers-man; how much more, then, to his impressionable and delicate wife and daughter. The very appearance of the savage suggested thoughts of the tomahawk, the scalping knife, the butchered relations, the desolated homestead. Nothing can better illustrate the hardihood of these bold spirited women than the fact that they showed themselves not seldom superior to these feelings of dread and abhorrence, daring even in the midst of scenes of blood to denounce personally and to their face the treachery and cruelty of their foes.(1)

In the year 1763 a party of Shawnees visited the Block-House at Big Levels, Virginia, and after being hospitably entertained by the inhabitants, turned treacherously upon them and massacred every white man in the house. The women and children were carried away as captives, including Mrs. Glendenning, the late wife, and now the widow of one of the leading settlers. Notwithstanding the dreadful scenes through which she had passed, Mrs. Glendenning was not intimidated. Her husband and friends had been butchered before her eyes; but though possessed of keen sensibilities, her spirit was undaunted by the awful spectacle. Filled with indignation at the treachery and cruelty of the Indians, she loudly denounced them, and tauntingly told them that they lacked the hearts of great warriors who met their foes in fair and open conflict. The savages were astounded at her audacity; they tried to frighten her into silence by flapping the bloody scalp of her husband in her face and by flourishing their tomahawks above her head. The intrepid woman still continued to express her indignation and detestation. The savages, admiring her courage, refrained from inflicting any injury upon her. She soon after managed to effect her escape and returned to her desolate home, where she gave decent interment to the mangled remains of her husband. During all the trying scenes of the massacre and captivity Mrs. Glendenning proved herself worthy of being ranked with the bravest women of our Colonial history.

The region watered by the upper Ohio and its tributary streams was for fifty years the battle-ground where the French and their Indian allies, and afterwards the Indians alone, strove to drive back the Anglo-Saxon race as it moved westward. The country there was rich and beautiful, but what made its possession especially desirable was the fact that it was the strategic key to the great West. The French, understanding its importance, established their fortresses and trading-posts as bulwarks against the army of English settlers advancing from the East, and also instructed their savage allies in the art of war.

The Indian tribes in that region were warlike and powerful, and for some years it seemed as if the country would be effectually barred against the access of the Eastern pioneer. But the same school that reared and trained the daughters and grand-daughters of the Pilgrims, and of the settlers of Jamestown, and fitted them to cope with the perils and hardships of the wilderness, and to battle with hostile aboriginal tribes, also fitted their descendants for new struggles on a wider field and against more desperate odds. The courage and fortitude of men and women alike rose to the occasion, and in those scenes of danger and carnage, the presence of mind displayed by women especially, have been frequent themes of panegyric by the border annalists.(2)

The scene wherein Miss Elizabeth Zane, one of these heroines, played so conspicuous a part, was at Fort Henry, near the present city of Wheeling, Virginia, in the latter part of November, 1782. Of the forty-two men who originally composed the garrisons, nearly all had been drawn into an ambush and slaughtered. The Indians, to the number of several hundred, surrounded the garrison which numbered no more than twelve men and boys.

A brisk fire upon the fort was kept up for six hours by the savages, who at times rushed close up to the palisades and received the reward of their temerity from the rifles of the frontiersmen. In the afternoon the stock of powder was nearly exhausted. There was a keg in a house ten or twelve rods from the gate of the fort, and the question arose, who shall attempt to seize this prize? Strange to say, every soldier proffered his services, and there was an ardent contention among them for the honor. In the weak state of the garrison, Colonel Shepard, the commander, deemed it advisable that only one person could be spared; and in the midst of the confusion, before any one could be designated, Elizabeth Zane interrupted the debate, saying that her life, was not so important at that time as any one of the soldiers, and claiming the privilege of performing the contested services. The Colonel would not at first listen to her proposal, but she was so resolute, so persevering in her plea, and her argument was so powerful, that he finally suffered the gate to be opened, and she passed out. The Indians saw her before she reached her brother's house, where the keg was deposited; but for some cause unknown, they did not molest her until she reappeared with the article under her arm. Probably, divining the nature of her burden, they discharged a volley as she was running towards the gate, but the whizzing balls only gave agility to her feet, and herself and the prize were quickly safe within the gate.

The successful issue of this perilous enterprise infused new spirit into the garrison; re-enforcements soon reached them, the assailants were forced to beat a precipitate retreat, and Fort Henry and the whole frontier was saved, thanks to the heroism of Elizabeth Zane!(3)

The heroines of Bryant's Station deserve a place on the roll of honor, beside the name of the preserver of Fort Henry, since like her their courage preserved a garrison from destruction. We condense the story from the several sources from which it has come down to us.

The station, consisting of about forty cabins ranged in parallel lines, stood upon a gentle rise on the southern banks of the Elkhorn, near Lexington, Kentucky. One morning in August, 1782, an army of six hundred Indians appeared before it as suddenly as if they had risen out of the earth. One hundred picked warriors made a feint on one side of the fort, trying to entice the men out from behind the stockade, while the remainder were concealed in ambush near the spring with which the garrison was supplied with water. The most experienced of the defenders understood the tactics of their wily foes, and shrewdly guessed that an ambuscade had been prepared in order to cut off the garrison from access to the spring. The water in the station was already exhausted, and unless a fresh supply could be obtained the most dreadful sufferings were apprehended. It was thought probable that the Indians in ambush would not unmask themselves until they saw indications that the party on the opposite side of the fort had succeeded in enticing the soldiers to an open engagement.


Acting upon this impression, and yielding to the urgent necessity of the case, they summoned all the women, without exception, and explaining to them the circumstances in which they were placed, and the improbability that any injury would be done them, until the firing had been returned from the opposite side of the fort, they urged them to go in a body to the spring, and each to bring up a bucket full of water. Some, as was natural, had no relish for the undertaking; they observed they were not bulletproof, and asked why the men could not bring the water as well as themselves; adding that the Indians made no distinction between male and female scalps.

To this it was answered, that women were in the habit of bringing water every morning to the fort, and that if the Indians saw them engaged as usual, it would induce them to believe that their ambuscade was undiscovered, and that they would not unmask themselves for the sake of firing at a few women, when they hoped, by remaining concealed a few moments longer to obtain complete possession of the fort; that if men should go down to the spring, the Indians would immediately suspect that something was wrong, would despair of succeeding by ambuscade, and would instantly rush upon them, follow them into the fort, or shoot them down at the spring. The decision was soon made.

A few of the boldest declared their readiness to brave the danger, and the younger and more timid rallying in the rear of these veterans, they all marched down in a body to the spring, within point blank shot of more than five hundred Indian warriors! Some of the girls could not help betraying symptoms of terror, but the married women, in general, moved with a steadiness and composure which completely deceived the Indians. Not a shot was fired. The party were permitted to fill their buckets, one after another, without interruption, and although their steps became quicker and quicker, on their return, and when near the gate of the fort, degenerated into a rather un-military celerity, attended with some little crowding in passing the gate, yet only a small portion of the water was spilled. The brave water carriers were received with open arms and loud cheers by the garrison, who hailed them as their preservers, and the Indians shortly after retired, baffled and cursing themselves for being outwitted by the "white squaws."

The annals of the border-wars in the region of which we have been speaking abound in stories where women have been the victors in hand-to-hand fights with savages. In all these combats we may note the spirit that inspired those brave women with such wonderful strength and courage, transforming them, from gentle matrons into brave soldiers. It was love for their children, their husbands, their kindred, or their homes rather than the selfish instinct of self-preservation which impelled Mrs. Porter, the two Mrs. Cooks, Mrs. Merrill, and Mrs. Bozarth to perform those feats of prowess and daring which will make their names live for ever in the thrilling story of border-warfare.

The scene where Mrs. Porter acted her amazing part was in Huntingdon county, Pennsylvania, and the time was during the terrible war instigated by the great Pontiac. While sitting by the window of her cabin, awaiting the return of her husband, who had gone to the mill, she caught sight of an Indian approaching the door. Taking her husband's sword from the wall where it hung, she planted herself behind the door; and when the Indian entered she struck with all her might, splitting his skull and stretching him a corpse upon the floor. Another savage entered and met the same fate. A third seeing the slaughter of his companions prudently retired.

Dropping the bloody weapon, she next seized the loaded gun which stood beside her and retreated to the upper story looking for an opportunity to shoot the savage from the port-holes. The Indian pursued her and as he set foot upon the upper floor received the contents of her gun full in the chest and fell dead in his tracks. Cautiously reconnoitering in all directions and seeing the field clear she fled swiftly toward the mill and meeting her husband, both rode to a neighboring block-house where they found refuge and aid. The next morning it was discovered that other Indians had burned their cabin, partly out of revenge and partly to conceal their discomfiture by a woman. The bones of the three savages found among the ashes were ghastly trophies of Mrs. Porter's extraordinary achievement.

In Nelson county, Kentucky, on a midsummer night, in 1787, just before the gray light of morning, John Merrill, attracted by the barking of his dog, went to the door of his cabin to reconnoiter. Scarcely had he left the threshold, when he received the fire of six or seven Indians, by which his arm and thigh were both broken. He managed to crawl inside the cabin and shouted to his wife to shut the door. Scarcely had she succeeded in doing so when the tomahawks of the enemy were hewing a breach into the apartment.(5)

Mrs. Merrill, with Amazonian courage and strength, grasped a large axe and killed, or badly wounded, four of the enemy in succession as they attempted to force their way into the cabin.

The Indians then ascended the roof and attempted to enter by way of the chimney, but here, again, they were met by the same determined enemy. Mrs. Merrill seized the only feather-bed which the cabin afforded, and hastily ripping it open, poured its contents upon the fire. A furious blaze and stifling smoke ascended the chimney, and quickly brought down two of the enemy, who lay for a few moments at the mercy of the lady. Seizing the axe, she despatched them, and was instantly summoned to the door, where the only remaining savage appeared, endeavoring to effect an entrance, while Mrs. Merrill was engaged at the chimney. He soon received a gash in the cheek which compelled him with a loud yell to relinquish his purpose, and return hastily to Chillicothe, where, from the report of a prisoner, he gave an exaggerated account of the fierceness, strength, and courage of the "Long knife squaw!"

The wives of Jesse and Hosea Cook, the "heroines of Innis station" (Kentucky), as they have been styled, are shining examples of a firmness of spirit which sorrow could not blench nor tears dim.

While the brothers Cook were peacefully engaged in the avocations of the farm beside their cabins, in April, 1792, little dreaming of the proximity of the savages, a sharp crack of rifles was heard and they both lay weltering in their blood. The elder fell dead, the younger was barely able to reach his cabin.

The two Mrs. Cooks with three children were instantly collected in the house and the door made fast. The thickness of the door resisted the hail of rifle-balls which fell upon it, and the Indians tried in vain to cut through it with their tomahawks.

While the assault was being made on the outside of the cabin, within was heart-rending sorrow mingled with fearless determination and high resolve. The younger Cook while the door was being barred breathed his last in the arms of his wife, and the two Mrs. Cooks, thus sadly bereaved of their partners, were left the sole defenders of the cabin and the three children.

There was a rifle in the house but no balls could be found. In this extremity one of the women took a musket-ball and placing it between her teeth bit it into pieces. Her eyes streaming with tears, she loaded the rifle and took her position at an aperture from which she could watch the motions of the savages. She dried her tears and thought of vengeance on her husband's murderers and of saving the innocent babes which she was guarding.

After the failure of the Indians to break down the door, one of them seated himself upon a log, apprehending no danger from the "white squaws" who, he knew, were the only defenders of the cabin. A ball sped from the rifle in the hands of Mrs. Cook, and with a loud yell the savage bounded into the air and fell dead.

The Indians, infuriated at the death of their comrade, threatened, in broken English, the direst vengeance on the inmates of the cabin. A half dozen of the yelling fiends instantly climbed to the roof of the cabin and kindled a fire upon the dry boards around the chimney. As the flames began to take effect the destruction of the cabin and the doom of the unfortunate inmates seemed certain.

But the self-possession and intrepidity of the brave women were equal to the occasion. While one stood in the loft the other handed her water with which she extinguished the fire. Again and again the roof was fired, and as often extinguished. When the water was exhausted, the dauntless pair held the flames at bay by breaking eggs upon them. The Indians, at length fatigued by the obstinacy and valor of the brave defenders, threw the body of their comrade into the creek and precipitately fled.

The exploits of Mrs. Bozarth in defending her home and family against superior numbers, has scarcely been paralleled in ancient or modern history. Relying upon her firmness and courage, two or three families had gathered themselves for safety at her house, on the Pennsylvania border, in the spring of 1779. The forest swarmed with savages, who soon made their appearance near the stockade, severely wounding one of the only two men in the house. (6)

The Indian who had shot him, springing over his prostrate body, engaged with the other white man in a struggle which ended in his discomfiture. A knife was wanting to dispatch the savage who lay writhing beneath his antagonist. Mrs. Bozarth seized an axe and with one blow clove the Indian's skull. Another entered and shot the white man dead. Mrs. Bozarth, with unflinching boldness, turned to this new foe and gave him several cuts with the axe, one of which laid bare his entrails. In response to his cries for help, his comrades, who had been killing some children out of doors, came rushing to his relief. The head of one of them was cut in twain by the axe of Mrs. Bozarth, and the others made a speedy retreat through the door. Rendered furious by the desperate resistance they had met, the Indians now besieged the house, and for several days they employed all their arts to enter and slay the weak garrison. But all their efforts were futile. Mrs. Bozarth and her wounded companion employed themselves so vigorously and vigilantly that the enemy were completely baffled. At length a party of white men arrived, put the Indians to flight, and relieved Mrs. Bozarth from her perilous situation.


(1) DeHass

(2) DeHass

(3) McClung's Sketches of Western Adventure

(4): McClung's Sketches of Western Adventure

(5): McClung's Sketches of Western Adventure

(6) Doddridge's Notes

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