Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Present Mrs. Pentry: Hunter and Frontier Heroine

In the year 1672 a small party of hunters arrived at the mouth of the Kennebec in two canoes. The larger one of the canoes was paddled up stream by three men, the other was propelled swiftly forward by a man and a woman. Both were dressed in hunters' costume; the woman in a close-fitting tunic of deerskin reaching to the knees, with leggins to match, and the man in hunting-shirt and trowsers of the same material. Edward Pentry, for this was the name of the man, was a stalwart Cornishman who had spent ten years in hunting and exploring the American wilderness. Mrs. Pentry, his wife, was of French extraction, and had passed most of her life in the settlements in Canada, where she had met her adventurous husband on one of his hunting expeditions. She was of manly stature and strength, and like her husband, was a splendid shot and skillful fisher. Both were passionately fond of forest life, and perfectly fearless of its dangers, whether from savage man or beast.

It was their purpose to explore thoroughly the region watered by the upper Kennebec, and to establish a trading-post which would serve as the headquarters of fur-traders, and ultimately open the country for settlement. Their outfit was extremely simple: guns, traps, axes, fishing-gear, powder, and bullets, &c., with an assorted cargo of such trinkets and other articles as the Indians desired in return for peltry.

In three weeks they reached the head-waters of the Kennebec, at Moosehead Lake. There they built a large cabin, divided into two compartments, one of which was occupied by three of the men, the other by Mr. and Mrs. Pentry. All of the party were versed in the Indian dialect of the region, and as Mrs. Pentry could speak French, no trouble was anticipated from the Indians, who in that part of the country were generally friendly to the

The labors of the men in felling trees and shaping logs for the cabin, as well as in framing the structure, were shared in by Mrs. Pentry, who in addition did all the necessary cooking and other culinary offices. They decided to explore the surrounding country for the purpose of discovering the lay of the land and the haunts of game. No signs of any Indians had yet been seen, and it was thought best that the four men should start, each in a different direction, and having explored the neighboring region return to the cabin at night, Mrs. Pentry meanwhile being left alone—a situation which she did not in the least dread. Accordingly, early in the morning, after eating a hunter's breakfast of salt pork, fried fish, and parched corn, the quartette selected their several routes, and started, taking good care to mark their trail as they went, that they could the more readily find the way back.

It was agreed that they should return by sunset, which would give them twelve good hours for exploration, as it was the month of July, and the days were long. After their departure Mrs. P. put things to rights about the house, and barring the door against intruders, whether biped or quadruped, took her gun and fishing-tackle and went out for a little sport in the woods.

The cabin stood on the border of Moosehead Lake. Unloosing the canoes, she embarked in one, and towing the other behind her, rowed across a part of the lake which jutted in shore to the southwest; she soon reached a dense piece of woods which skirted the lake, and there mooring her canoe, watched for the deer which came down to that place to drink. A fat buck before long made his appearance, and as he bent down his head to quaff the water, a brace of buck-shot planted behind his left foreleg laid him low, and his carcass was speedily deposited in the canoe.

The sun was now well up, and as Mrs. P. had provided for the wants of the party by her lucky shot, and no more deer made their appearance, she lay down in the bottom of the boat, and soon fell fast asleep. Hunters and soldiers should be light sleepers, as was Mrs. Pentry upon this occasion.

How long she slept she never exactly knew, but she was awakened by a splash; lifting her head above the edge of the boat, she saw nothing but a muddy spot on the water some thirty feet away, near the shore. This was a suspicious sign. Looking more closely, she saw a slight motion beneath the lily-pads, which covered closely, like a broad green carpet, the surface of the lake. Her hand was on her gun, and as she leveled the barrel towards the turbid spot, she saw a head suddenly lifted, and at the same moment a huge Indian sprang from the water and struggled up through the dense undergrowth that lined the edge of the lake.

It was a sudden impulse rather than a thought, which made Mrs. P. level the gun at his broad back and pull the trigger. The Indian leaped into the air, and fell back in the water dead, with half a dozen buck-shot through his heart. At the same moment she felt a strong grasp on her shoulder, and heard a deep guttural "ugh!" Turning her head she saw the malignant face of another Indian standing waist-deep in the water, with one hand on the boat which he was dragging towards the shore.

A swift side-blow from the gun-barrel, and he tumbled into the water; before he could recover, the brave woman had snatched the paddle, and sent the canoe spinning out into the lake. Then dropping the paddle and seizing her gun she dashed in a heavy charge of powder, dropped a dozen buck-shot down the muzzle, rammed in some dry grass, primed the pan, and leveled it again at the savage, who having recovered from the blow, was floundering towards the shore, turning and shaking his tomahawk at her, meanwhile, with a ferocious grin. Again the report of her gun awakened the forest echoes, and before the echoes had died away, the savage's corpse was floating on the water.

She dared not immediately approach the shore, fearing that other savages might be lying in ambush; but after closely scrutinizing the bushes, she saw no signs of others, besides the two whom she had shot. She then cut long strips of raw hide from the dead buck, and towing the bodies of the Indians far out into the lake sunk them with the stones that served to anchor the canoes. Returning to the shore, she took their guns which lay upon the shelving bank, and rapidly paddled the canoe homeward.

It was now high noon. She reached the cabin, entered, and sat down to rest. She supposed that the savages she had just, killed were stragglers from a war-party who had lagged behind their comrades, and attracted by the sound made by her gun when she shot the buck, had come to see what it was. The thought that a larger body might be in the vicinity, and that they would capture and perhaps kill her beloved husband and his companions, was a torture to her. She sat a few moments to collect her thoughts and resolve what course to pursue.

Her resolution was soon taken. She could not sit longer there, while her husband and friends were exposed to danger or death. Again she entered the canoe and paddled across the arm of the lake to the spot where the waters were still stained with the blood of the Indians. Hastily effacing this bloody trace, she moored the canoes and followed the trail of the savages for four miles to the northwest. There she found in a ravine the embers of a fire, where, from appearances as many as twenty redskins had spent the preceding night. Their trail led to the northwest, and by certain signs known to hunters, she inferred that they had started at day-break and were now far on their way northward.

When her four male associates selected their respective routes in the morning, her husband had, she now remembered, selected one which led directly in the trail of the Indian war-party, and by good calculation he would have been about six miles in their rear. Not being joined by the two savages whose bodies lay at the bottom of the lake, what was more likely than that they would send back a detachment to look after the safety of their missing comrades?

The first thing to be done was to strike her husband's trail and then follow it till she overtook him or met him returning. Swiftly, and yet cautiously, she struck out into the forest in a direction at right angles with the Indian camp. Being clad in trousers of deer skin and a short tunic and moccasins of the same material, she made her way through the woods as easily as a man, and fortunately in a few moments discovered a trail which she concluded was that of her husband. Her opinion was soon verified by finding a piece of leather which she recognized as part of his accoutrements. For two hours she strode swiftly on through the forest, treading literally in her husband's tracks.

The sun was now three hours above the western horizon; so taking her seat upon a fallen tree, she waited, expecting to see him soon returning on his trail, when she heard faintly in the distance the report of a gun; a moment after, another and still another report followed in quick succession. Guided by the sound she hurried through the tangled thicket from which she soon emerged into a grove of tall pine trees, and in the distance saw two Indians with their backs turned toward her and shielding themselves from some one in front by standing behind large trees. Without being seen by them she stole up and sheltered herself in a similar manner, while her eye ranged the forest in search of her husband who she feared was under the fire of the red-skins.

At length she descried the object of their hostility behind the trunk of a fallen tree. It was clearly a white man who crouched there, and he seemed to be wounded. She immediately took aim at the nearest Indian and sent two bullets through his lungs. The other Indian at the same instant had fired at the white man and then sprang forward to finish him with his tomahawk. Mrs. Pentry flew to the rescue and just as the savage lifted his arm to brain his foe, she drove her hunting knife to the haft into his spine.

Her husband lay prostrate before her and senseless with loss of blood from a bullet-wound in the right shoulder. Staunching the flow of blood with styptics which she gathered among the forest shrubs, she brought water and the wounded man soon revived. After a slow and weary march she brought him back to the cabin, carrying him part of the way upon her shoulders. Under her careful nursing he at length recovered his strength though he always carried the bullet in his shoulder. It appears he had met three Indians who told him they were in search of their two missing companions. One of them afterwards treacherously shot him from behind through the shoulder, and in return Pentry sent a ball through his heart. Then becoming weak from loss of blood he could only point his gun-barrel at the remaining Indians, and this was his situation when his wife came up and saved his life.
After receiving such an admonition it is natural to suppose the whole party were content to remain near their forest home for a season, extending their rambles only far enough to enable them to procure game and fish for their table; and this was not far, for the lake was alive with fish; and wild turkeys, deer, and other game could be shot sometimes even from the cabin door.

The party were also deterred by this experience from attempting to drive any trade with the Indians until the following spring, when they expected to be joined by a large party of hunters.

The summer soon passed away, and the cold nights of September and October admonished our hardy pioneers that they must prepare for a rigorous winter. Mrs. Pentry made winter clothing for the men and for herself out of the skins of animals which they had shot, and snow-shoes from the sinews of deer stretched on a frame composed of strips of hard wood. She also felled trees for fuel and lined the walls of the cabin with deer and bear skins; she was the most skilful mechanic of the party, and having fitted runners of hickory to one of the boats she rigged a sail of soft skins sewed together, and once in November, after the river was frozen, and when the wind blew strongly from the northwest, the whole party undertook to reach the mouth of the river by sailing down in their boat upon the ice. A boat of this kind, when the ice is smooth and the wind strong, will make fifteen miles an hour.

They were interrupted frequently in their course by the falls and rapids, making portages necessary; nevertheless in three days and two nights they reached the mouth of the river.

Here they bartered their pelts for powder, bullets, and various other articles most needed by frontiersmen, and catching a southeast wind started on their return. In a few hours they had made seventy miles, and at night, as the sky threatened snow, they prepared a shelter in a hollow in the bank of the river. Before morning a snow-storm had covered the river-ice and blocked their passage. For three days, the snow fell continuously. They were therefore forced to abandon all hopes of reaching their cabin at the head-waters of the Kennebec. The hollow or cave in the bank where they were sheltered they covered with saplings and branches cut from the bluff, and banked up the snow round it. Their supply of food was soon exhausted, but by cutting holes in the ice they caught fish for their subsistence.

The depth of the snow prevented them from going far from their place of shelter, and the nights were bitter cold. The ice on the river was two feet in thickness; and one day, in cutting through it to fish, their only axe was broken. No worse calamity could have befallen them, since they were now unable to cut fuel or to procure fish. Mr. Pentry, who was still suffering from the effects of his wound, contracted a cold which settled in his lame shoulder, and he was obliged to stay in doors, carefully nursed and tended by his devoted wife. The privations endured by these unfortunates are scarcely to be paralleled. Short of food, ill-supplied with clothing, and exposed to the howling severity of the climate, the escape of any one of the number appears almost a miracle.

A number of bear-skins, removed from the boat to the cave, served them for bedding. Some days, when there was nothing to eat and no means of making a fire, they passed the whole time huddled up in the skins. Daily they became weaker and less capable of exertion. Wading through the snow up to the waist, they were able now and then to shoot enough small game to barely keep them alive.

After the lapse of a fortnight there came a thaw, succeeded by a cold rain, which froze as it fell. The snow became crusted over, to the depth of two inches, with ice that was strong enough to bear their weight. They extricated their ice-boat and prepared for departure. One of the party had gone out that morning on the crust, hoping to secure some larger game to stock their larder before starting; the rest awaited his return for two hours, and then, fearing some casualty had happened to him, followed his trail for half a mile from the river and found him engaged in a desperate struggle with a large black she-bear which he had wounded.

The ferocious animal immediately left its prey and rushed at Mrs. Pentry with open mouth, seizing her left arm in its jaws, crunched it, and then, rising on its hind legs, gave her a terrible hug. The rest of the party dared not fire, for fear of hitting the woman. Twice she drove her hunting knife into the beast's vitals and it fell on the crust, breaking through into the snow beneath, where the two rolled over in a death-struggle. The heroic woman at length arose victorious, and the carcass of the bear was dragged forth, skinned, and cut up. A fire was speedily kindled, Mrs. Pentry's wounds were dressed, and after refreshing themselves with a hearty meal of bearsteak, the remainder of the meat was packed in the boat.

The party then embarked, and by the aid of a stiff easterly breeze, were enabled, in three days, to reach their cabin on the head-waters of the Kennebec. The explorations made along the Kennebec by Mrs. Pentry and her companions attracted thither an adventurous class of settlers, and ultimately led to the important settlements on the line of that river.

The remainder of Mrs. Pentry's life was spent mainly on the northern frontier. She literally lived and died in the woods, reaching the advanced age of ninety-six years, and seeing three generation of her descendants grow up around her. Possessing the strength and courage of a man, she had also all a woman's kindness, and appears to have been an estimable person in all the relations of life—a good wife and mother, a warm friend, and a generous neighbor. In fact, she was a representative woman of the times in which she lived.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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