Saturday, February 25, 2017

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents: Alone In The Wilderness She Founded A Settlement

Among the chapters of accident and casualty which make up the respective diaries of the families who left their eastern homes after the Revolution and joined the ranks of the Western immigrants there is none more interesting than that of Mrs. Jameson. She was the child of wealthy parents, and had been reared in luxury in the city of New York. Soon after peace was declared she was married to Edward Jameson, a brave soldier in the war, who had nothing but his stout arms and intrepid heart to battle with the difficulties of life. Her father, dying soon after, his estate was discovered to have been greatly lessened by the depreciation in value which the war had produced. Gathering together the remains of what was once a large fortune, the couple purchased the usual outfit of the emigrants of that period and set out to seek their fortunes in the West.

All went well with them until they reached the Alleghany River, which they undertook to cross on a raft. It was the month of May; the river had been swollen by rains, and when they reached the middle of the stream, the part of the raft on which Mr. Jameson sat became detached, the logs separated, and he sank to rise no more. The other section of the raft, containing Mrs. Jameson, her babe of eight months, and a chest of clothing and household gear, floated down-stream at the mercy of the rapid current.

Bracing herself against the shock, Mrs. Jameson managed to paddle to the side of the river from which she had just before started. She was landed nearly a mile below the point where had been left the cattle, and also the ox-cart in which their journey had been hitherto performed, and which her husband expected to carry over the river on the raft, returning for them as soon as his wife and babe had been safely landed on the western bank. The desolate mother succeeded in mooring the remains of the raft to the shore; then clasping her babe to her bosom, followed the bank of the river till she reached the oxen and cart, which she drove down to the place where she landed, and by great exertions succeeded in hauling the chest upon the bank. Her strength was now exhausted, and, lying down in the bottom of the cart, she gave way to grief and despair.

Her situation may be easily imagined: alone in the forest, thirty miles from the nearest settlement, her husband torn from her in a moment, and her babe smiling as though he would console his mother for her terrible loss. In her sad condition self-preservation would have been too feeble a motive to impel her to make any further effort to save herself; but maternal love—the strongest instinct in a woman's heart—buoyed her up and stimulated her to unwonted exertions.

The spot where she found herself was a dense forest, stretching back to a rocky ledge on the east, and terminated on the north by an alluvial meadow nearly bare of trees. Along the banks of the river was a thick line of high bushes and saplings, which served as a screen against the observations of savages passing up and down the river in their canoes. The woods were just bursting into leaf; the spring-flowers filled the air with odor, and chequered the green foliage and grass; the whole scene was full of vernal freshness, life, and beauty. The track which the Jamesons had followed was about midway between the northern and southern routes generally pursued by emigrants, and it was quite unlikely that others would cross the river at that point. The dense jungle that skirted the river bank was an impediment in the way of reaching the settlements lower down, and there was danger of being lost in the woods if the unfortunate woman should start alone.

"On this spot," she said, "I must remain till some one comes to my help."

The first two years of her married life had been spent on a farm in Westchester County, New York, where she had acquired some knowledge of farming and woodcraft, by assisting her husband in his labors, or by accompanying him while hunting and fishing. She was strong and healthy; and quite, unlike her delicate sisters of modern days, her lithe frame was hardened by exercise in the open air, and her face was tinged by the kisses of the sun.

Slowly recovering from the terrible anguish of her loss, she cast about for shelter and sustenance. The woods were swarming with game, both large and small, from the deer to the rabbit, and from the wild turkey to the quail. The brooks were alive with trout. The meadow was well suited for Indian corn, wheat, rye, or potatoes. The forest was full of trees of every description. To utilize all these raw materials was her study.

A rude hut, built of boughs interlaced, and covered thickly with leaves and dry swamp grass, was her first work. This was her kitchen. The cart, which was covered with canvas, was her sleeping-room. A shotgun, which she had learned the use of, enabled her to keep herself supplied with game. She examined her store of provisions, consisting of pork, flour, and Indian meal, and made an estimate that they would last eight months, with prudent use. The oxen she tethered at first, but afterwards tied the horns to one of their fore feet, and let them roam. The two cows having calved soon after, she kept them near at hand by making a pen for the calves, who by their bleating called their mothers from the pastures on the banks of the river. In the meadow she planted half an acre of corn and potatoes, which soon promised an amazing crop.

Thus two months passed away. In her solitary and sad condition she was cheered by the daily hope that white settlers would cross her track or see her as they passed up and down the river. She often thought of trying to reach a settlement, but dreaded the dangers and difficulties of the way. Like the doe which hides her fawn in the secret covert, this young mother deemed herself and her babe safer in this solitude than in trying unknown perils, even with the chance of falling in with friends. She therefore contented herself with her lot, and when the toils of the day were over, she would sit on the bank and watch for voyagers on the river. Once she heard voices in the night on the river, and going to the bank she strained her eyes to gaze through the darkness and catch sight of the voyagers; she dared not hail them for fear they might be Indians, and soon the voices grew fainter in the distance, and she heard them no more. Again, while sitting in a clump of bushes on the bank one day, she saw with horror six canoes with Indians, apparently directing their course to the spot where she sat. They were hideously streaked with war-paint, and came so near that she could see the scalping knives in their girdles. Turning their course as they approached the eastern shore they silently paddled down stream, scanning the hanks sharply as they floated past. Fortunately they saw nothing to attract their attention; the cart and hut being concealed by the dense bushes, and there being no fire burning.

Fearing molestation from the Indians, she now moved her camp a hundred rods back, near a rocky ledge, from the base of which flowed a spring of pure water. Here, by rolling stones in a circle, she made an enclosure for her cattle at night, and within in it built a log cabin of rather frail construction; another two weeks was consumed in these labors, and it was now the middle of August.

At night she was at first much alarmed by the howling of wolves, who came sniffing round the cart where she slept. Once a large grey wolf put its paws upon the cart and poked its nose under the canvas covering, but a smart blow on the snout drove it yelping away. None of the cattle were attacked, owing to the bold front showed to these midnight intruders. The wolf is one of the most cowardly of wild beasts, and will rarely attack a human being, or even an ox, unless pressed by hunger, and in the winter. Often she caught glimpses of huge black bears in the swamps, while she was in pursuit of wild turkeys or other game; but these creatures never attacked her, and she gave them a wide berth.

One hot day in August she was gathering berries on the rocky ledge beside which her house was situated, when seeing a clump of bushes heavily loaded with the finest blackberries, she laid her babe upon the ground, and climbing up, soon filled her basket with the luscious fruit. As she descended she saw her babe sitting upright and gazing with fixed eyeballs at some object near by; though what it was she could not clearly make out, on account of an intervening shrub. Hastening down, a sight met her eyes that froze her blood. An enormous rattlesnake was coiled within three feet of her child, and with its head erect and its forked tongue vibrating, its burning eyes were fixed upon those of the child, which sat motionless as a statue, apparently fascinated by the deadly gaze of the serpent.

Seizing a stick of dry wood she dealt the reptile a blow, but the stick being decayed and brittle, inflicted little injury on the serpent, and only caused it to turn itself towards Mrs. Jameson, and fix its keen and beautiful, but malignant eyes, steadily upon her. The witchery of the serpent's eyes so irresistibly rooted her to the ground, that for a moment she did not wish to remove from her formidable opponent.

The huge reptile gradually and slowly uncoiled its body; all the while steadily keeping its eye fixed on its intended victim. Mrs. Jameson could only cry, being unable to move, "Oh God! preserve me! save me, heavenly Father!" The child, after the snake's charm was broken, crept to her mother and buried its little head in her lap.
We continue the story in Mrs. Jameson's own words:—

"The snake now began to writhe its body down a fissure in the rock, keeping its head elevated more than a foot from the ground. Its rattle made very little noise. It every moment darted out its forked tongue, its eyes became reddish and inflamed, and it moved rather quicker than at first. It was now within two yards of me. By some means I had dissipated the charm, and, roused by a sense of my awful danger, determined to stand on the defensive. To run away from it, I knew would be impracticable, as the snake would instantly dart its whole body after me. I therefore resolutely stood up, and put a strong glove on my right hand, which I happened to have with me. I stretched out my arm; the snake approached slowly and cautiously towards me, darting out its tongue still more frequently. I could now only recommend myself fervently to the protection of Heaven. The snake, when about a yard distant, made a violent spring. I quickly caught it in my right hand, directly under its head; it lashed its body on the ground, at the same time rattling loudly. I watched an opportunity, and suddenly holding the animal's head, while for a moment it drew in its forked tongue, with my left hand I, by a violent contraction of all the muscles in my hand, contrived to close up effectually its jaws!

"Much was now done, but much more was to be done. I had avoided much danger, but I was still in very perilous circumstances. If I moved my right hand from its neck for a moment, the snake, by avoiding suffocation, could easily muster sufficient power to force its head out of my hand; and if I withdrew my hand from its jaws, I should be fatally in the power of its most dreaded fangs. I retained, therefore, my hold with both my hands; I drew its body between my feet, in order to aid the compression and hasten suffocation. Suddenly, the snake, which had remained quiescent for a few moments, brought up its tail, hit me violently on the head, and then darted its body several times very tightly around my waist. Now was the very acme of my danger. Thinking, therefore, that I had sufficient power over its body, I removed my right hand from its neck, and in an instant drew my hunting-knife. The snake, writhing furiously again, darted at me; but, striking its body with the edge of the knife, I made a deep cut, and before it could recover its coil, I caught it again by the neck; bending its head on my knee, and again recommending myself fervently to Heaven, I cut its head from its body, throwing the head to a great distance. The blood spouted violently in my face; the snake compressed its body still tighter, and I thought I should be suffocated on the spot, and laid myself down. The snake again rattled its tail and lashed my feet with it. Gradually, however, the creature relaxed its hold, its coils fell slack around me, and untwisting it and throwing it from me as far as I was able, I sank down and swooned upon the bank.

"When consciousness returned, the scene appeared like a terrible dream, till I saw the dead body of my reptile foe and my babe crying violently and nestling in my bosom. The ledge near which my cabin was built was infested with rattlesnakes, and the one I had slain seemed to be the patriarch of a numerous family. From that day I vowed vengeance against the whole tribe of reptiles. These creatures were in the habit of coming down to the spring to drink, and I sometimes killed four or five in a day. Before the summer was over I made an end of the whole family."

In September, two households of emigrants floating down the river on a flatboat, caught sight of Mrs. Jameson as she made a signal to them from the bank, and coming to land were pleased with the country, and were persuaded to settle there. The little community was now swelled to fifteen, including four women and six children. The colony thrived, received accessions from the East, and, surviving all casualties, grew at last into a populous town. Mrs. Jameson was married again to a stalwart backwoodsman and became the mother of a large family. She was always known as the "Mother of the Alleghany Settlement."

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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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