By William Worthington Fowler in 1877
Of all the tens of thousands of devoted women who have accompanied the grand army of pioneers into the wilderness, not but one has been either a soldier to fight, or a laborer to toil, or a ministering angel to soothe the pains and relieve the sore wants of her companions. Not seldom has she acted worthily in all these several capacities, fighting, toiling, and ministering by turns. If a diary of the events of their pioneer-lives had been kept by each of these brave and faithful women, what a record of toil and warfare and suffering it would present. How many different types of the female character in different spheres of action it would show — the self-sacrificing mother, the tender and devoted wife, the benevolent matron, the heroine who blenched not in battle! Unnumbered thousands have passed beautiful, strenuous, and brave lives far from the scenes of civilization, and gone down to their graves leaving only local, feeble voices, if any, to celebrate their praises, and today we know not the place of their sepulcher. Others have had their memories embalmed by the pens of faithful biographers, and a few also have left diaries containing a record of the wonderful vicissitudes of their lives.
Woman’s experience of life in the wilderness is never better told than in her own words. More impressible than man, to passing events; more susceptible to pain and pleasure; enjoying and sorrowing more keenly than her sterner and rougher mate, she possesses often a peculiarly graphic power in expressing her own thoughts and feelings, and also in delineating the scenes through which she passes.
A woman’s diary of frontier-life, therefore, possesses an intrinsic value because it is a faithful story and at the same time one of surpassing interest, in consequence of her personal and active participation in the toils, sufferings, and dangers incident to such a life.
Mrs. Williamson of Pennsylvania
Such a diary is that of Mrs. Williamson which, in the quaint style of the olden time, relates her thrilling experience in the wilds of Pennsylvania. We see her first as an affectionate, motherless girl accompanying her father to the frontier, assisting him to prepare a home for his old age in the depths of the forest and enduring with cheerful resolution the manifold hardships and trials of pioneer life, and finally closing her aged parent’s eyes in death. Then we see her as a wife, the partner of her husband’s cares and labors, and as a mother, the faithful guardian of her sons; and again as a widow, her husband having been torn from her arms and butchered by a band of ruthless Indians. After her sons had grown to be sturdy men and had left her to make homes for themselves, she shows herself the strong and self-reliant matron of 50 still keeping her outpost on the border, and cultivating her clearing with the assistance of two black men. At last, after a life of toil and danger, she is attacked by a band of Indians and defends her home so bravely that after making her their captive they spared her life and in admiration of her courage, adopt her into their tribe. She dissembles her reluctance, humors her Indian captors, and forces herself to accompany them on their bloody expeditions wherein she saves many lives and mitigates the sufferings of her fellow captives.
The narrative of the escape we give in her own quaint words:
“One night the Indians, very greatly fatigued with their day’s excursion, composed themselves to rest as usual. Observing them to be asleep, I tried various ways to see whether it was a scheme to prove my intentions or not, but, after making a noise, and walking about, sometimes touching them with my feet, I found there was no fallacy. My heart then exulted with joy at seeing a time come that I might, in all probability be delivered from my captivity; but this joy was soon dampened by the dread of being discovered by them, or taken by any straggling parties; to prevent which, I resolved, if possible, to get one of their guns, and, if discovered, to die in my defense, rather than be taken. For that purpose I made various efforts to get one from under their heads (where they always secured them) but in vain.
“Frustrated in this my first essay towards regaining my liberty, I dreaded the thought of carrying my design into execution: yet, after a little consideration, and trusting myself to the divine protection, I set forward, naked and defenseless as I was; a rash and dangerous enterprise! Such was my terror, however, that in going from them, I halted and paused every four or five yards, looking fearfully toward the spot where I had left them, lest they should awake and miss me; but when I was about two hundred yards from them, I mended my pace, and made as much haste as I could to the foot of the mountains; when on sudden I was struck with the greatest terror and amaze, at hearing the wood-cry, as it is called, they make when any accident happens them. However, fear hastened my steps, and though they dispersed, not one happened to hit upon the track I had taken. When I had run near five miles, I met with a hollow tree, in which I concealed myself till the evening of the next day when I renewed my flight, and next night slept in a canebrake. The next morning I crossed a brook and got more leisurely along, retiming thanks to Providence, in my heart, for my happy escape, and praying for future protection. The third day, in the morning, I perceived two Indians armed, at a short distance, which I verily believed were in pursuit of me, by their alternately climbing into the highest trees, no doubt to look over the country to discover me.
This retarded my flight for that day; but at night I resumed my travels, frightened and trembling at every bush I passed, thinking each shrub that I touched, a savage concealed to take me. It was moonlight nights till near morning, which favored my escape. But how shall I describe the fear, terror, and shock that I felt on the fourth night, when, by the rustling I made among the leaves, a party of Indians, that lay around a small fire, nearly out, which I did not perceive, started from the ground, and seizing their arms, ran from the fire among the woods. Whether to move forward or to rest where I was, I knew not, so distracted was my imagination. In this melancholy state, revolving in my thoughts the now inevitable fate I thought waited on me, to my great astonishment and joy, I was relieved by a parcel of swine that made towards the place where I guessed the savages to be; who, on seeing the hogs, conjectured that their alarm had been occasioned by them, and directly returned to the fire, and lay down to sleep as before. As soon as I perceived my enemies so disposed of, with more cautious step and silent tread, I pursued my course, sweating (though the air was very cold) with the fear I had just been relieved from. Bruised, cut, mangled and terrified as I was, I still, through divine assistance, was enabled to pursue my journey until the break of day, when, thinking myself far off from any of those miscreants I so much dreaded, I lay down under a great log, and slept undisturbed until about noon, when, getting up, I reached the summit of a great hill with some difficulty; and looking out if I could spy any inhabitants of white people, to my unutterable joy I saw some, which I guessed to be about ten miles distance. This pleasure was in some measure abated, by my not being able to get among them that night; therefore, when evening approached I again recommended myself to the Almighty and composed my weary mangled limbs to rest. In the morning I continued my journey towards the nearest cleared lands I had seen the day before, and about four o’clock in the afternoon I arrived at the house of John Bell.”
Mrs. Daviess of Kentucky
Mrs. Daviess was another of these women who, like Mrs. Williamson, was a born heroine, of whom there were many who acted a conspicuous part in the territorial history of Kentucky. Large and splendidly formed, she possessed the strength of a man with the gentle loveliness of the true woman. In the hour of peril, and such hours were frequent with her, she was firm, cool, and fertile of resource; her whole life, of which we give only a few episodes, was one continuous succession of brave and noble deeds. Both she and Mrs. Williamson appear to have been real instances of the poet’s ideal:
“A perfect woman nobly planned
To warn, to comfort, and command.”
Her husband, Samuel Daviess, was an early settler at Gilmer’s Lick, in Lincoln County, Kentucky. In August 1782, while a few rods from his house, he was attacked early one morning by an Indian, and attempting to get within doors he found that his house was already occupied by the other Indians. He succeeded in making his escape to his brother’s station, five miles off, and giving the alarm was soon on his way back to his cabin in company with five stout, well-armed men.
Meanwhile, the Indians, four in number, who had entered the house while the fifth was in pursuit of Mr. Daviess, roused Mrs. Daviess and the children from their beds and gave them to understand that they must go with them as prisoners. Mrs. Daviess occupied as long a time as possible in dressing, hoping that some relief would come. She also delayed the Indians nearly two hours by showing them one article of clothing and then another, explaining their uses and expatiating on their value.
While this was going on the Indian who had been in pursuit of her husband returned with his hands stained with pokeberries, waving his tomahawk with violent gestures as if to convey the belief that he had killed Mr. Daviess. The keen-eyed wife soon discovered the deception and was satisfied that her husband had escaped uninjured.
After plundering the house, the Indians started to depart, taking Mrs. Daviess and her seven children with them. as some of the children were too young to travel as rapidly as the Indians wished, and discovering, as she believed, their intention to kill them, she made the two oldest boys carry the two youngest on their backs.
In order to leave not rail behind them, the Indians traveled with the greatest caution, not permitting their captives to break a twig or weed as they passed along, and to expedite Mrs. Daviess’ movements one of them reached down and cut off with his knife a few inches of her dress.
Mrs. Daviess was accustomed to handling a gun and was a good shot, like many other women on the frontier. She contemplated as a last resort that, if not rescued in the course of the day, when night came and the Indians had fallen asleep, she would deliver herself and her children by killing as many of the Indians as she could, believing that in a night attack the rest would fly panic-stricken.
Mr. Daviess and his companions reached the house and finding it empty, succeeded in striking the trail of the Indians and hastened in pursuit. They had gone but a few miles before they overtook them. Two Indian spies in the rear first discovered the pursuers, and running on overtook the others and knocked down and scalped the oldest boy, but did not kill him. The pursuers fired at the Indians but missed. The latter became alarmed and confused, and Mrs. Daviess taking advantage of this circumstance jumped into a skink-hole with her infant in her arms. The Indians fled and every child was saved.
Kentucky in its early days, like most new countries, was occasionally troubled with men of abandoned character, who lived by stealing the property of others, and after committing their depredations, retired to their hiding places, thereby eluding the operation of the law. One of these marauders, a man of desperate character, who had committed extensive thefts from Mr. Daviess, as well as from his neighbors, was pursued by Daviess and a party whose property he had taken, in order to bring him to justice.
While the party was in pursuit, the suspected individual, not knowing that anyone was pursuing him, came to the house of Daviess, armed with his gun and tomahawk, — no person being at home but Mrs. Daviess and her children. After he had stepped into the house, Mrs. Daviess asked him if he would drink something; and having set a bottle of whiskey upon the table, requested him to help himself. The fellow not suspecting any danger, set his gun by the door, and while he was drinking Mrs. Daviess picked it up, and placing herself in the doorway had the weapon cocked and leveled upon him by the time he turned around, and in a peremptory manner ordered him to take a seat or she would shoot him. Struck with terror and alarm, he asked what he had done. She told him he had stolen her husband’s property and that she intended to take care of him herself. In that condition, she held him, prisoner, until the party of men returned and took him into their possession.
These are only a few out of many similar acts that show the character of Mrs. Daviess. She became noted all through the frontier settlements of that region during the troublous times in which she lived, not only for her courage and daring but for her shrewdness in circumventing the stratagems of the wily Indians by whom her family was surrounded. Her oldest boy inherited his mother’s character and promised to be one of the most famous Indian fighters of his day when he met his death at the hands of his Indian foes in early manhood.
If Mrs. Williamson and Mrs. Daviess were representative women in the more stormy and rugged scenes of frontier life, Mrs. Elizabeth Estaugh may stand as a true type of the gentle and benevolent matron, brightening her forest home by her kindly presence, and making her influence felt in a thousand ways for good among her neighbors in the lonely hamlet where she chose to live.