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Lakeshore Relics by Contance Fenimore Woolson

 

We were sitting on the sand looking off over the blue water veiled with the soft haze of Indian summer. A point covered with pine trees stretched boldly out into the lake, its rocky cliffs rising perpendicularly eighty feet above the beach, a sheer precipice from whose summit a pebble dropped would strike the water below. On the west a stream came rippling over the stones between bluffs high and massive enough for a deep rapid river—bluffs of wild majesty worn into varied outlines, as though a mighty torrent had once surged between them, forcing the very rocks to crumble before its headlong career. But now only a gentle stream wandered through the broad bed, here shallow over the sand, there darkling in a still pool, now making a green willow-shaded island, and now a deep rock-bordered channel, doing its best with the various graceful devices of a happy little stream to compensate for the absence of the river, to whose former existence the cliffs bore silent witness and the pines testified in sighing lamentations all the day long. On the east the lake swept inland in a gradual curve to the piers and wharves of a city with a cloud of smoke hanging above its spires, and then outward again to a wooded point twelve miles away, the eastern boundary of the bay. Looking north, we could see only water, apparently as deep as the ocean: no land was visible on the Canadian horizon, no island to break the harmony—nothing but vessels sailing gayly toward the east or tacking patiently toward the west, some distinct and snowy, others dark in the distance, and all with the graceful rigging peculiar to the lake-craft. Although November was far advanced, the warm sunshine and soft breeze gave no indications of approaching winter: the leaves had fallen from the trees and lay in brilliant heaps upon the ground, and children running through the groves waded in their glowing masses and tossed them high in the air with many a shout and half-finished song. The bare branches basked motionless in the hazy warmth, and the brown and empty farm-lands expanded their broad breasts to the heat, the care of the crops well over, the last sheaf safely housed and their labors ended. Nature works hard in these Western fields, conquering them from the forest, redeeming them from the swamp and tending the delicate grain amid the rank growth of prairie-grass; but when the last load is driven home and the last leaf has fallen, then she rests, and the hazy atmosphere and peculiar stillness mark her repose. Indian summer! what is it? It is Nature's dolce far niente, her one holiday. Wise will he be who, working with her through the dreary winter, the budding spring, yes, and even the sultry summer, earns the right to rest with her in Indian summer, the vacation of the year.

We had come from the East to visit friends at the West, from a venerable village on the Atlantic Ocean to a new city on the Western lake-shore; and although we acknowledged that the country was advancing with the strides of a giant, we also maintained that the charm of old associations, the mystery of the past, the interest of stirring events, were all wanting, and therefore the West, prosperous as it was, could not be compared to the rock-bound coasts of New England or the beautiful shores of New York Bay, so filled with legends and adventures, memories of the past, battles and shipwrecks, all dating back before the first axe resounded in the Western wilderness. Everything here was new. There were no houses with the marks of Revolutionary bullets, no families of unbroken aristocratic descent from over the ocean, no traditions of Colonial times, no stories of danger, no interesting relics: a few tales of pioneer life, a few encounters with the Indians, composed the annals of the town; and the prosaic reality of its life was as new and glaring as the white paint on its houses.

These thoughts we expressed to Uncle John as he joined us on the beach, bringing the baskets containing our picnic dinner: over the sandwiches, cakes and native Catawba we dilated upon the subject, and invited him to visit us at Winthrop, where the very atmosphere was redolent with old associations and the beach a treasure-house of strange relics. Our quiet uncle smiled as we talked, and when we had finished our lunch and climbed the cliff he took us to a pleasant stone house and introduced us to its owner, a silver-haired gentleman of the old school, whose personal appearance and courtly manners filled us with admiration and respect. Living thus quietly on the lake-shore, this man of learning and science had spent many years absorbed in natural history and its kindred pursuits, in close communion with Nature, loved by his neighbors and honored by the naturalists of the whole country for his persevering industry and valuable discoveries. Surrounded by his birds, bees and flowers, the beautiful old man received us with kindly courtesy, and from him we heard a story of the past, authenticated by records and old letters, and illustrated by relics found on the beach below, washed up by the waves or exposed to view by the shifting of the sands. Deeply interested in the narrative, we yet found it hard to believe that the peaceful hazy lake and the little stream rippling over the bar had ever been the scene of the raging tempest, desolation and death described in the story. But as we drove homeward in the evening the sun went down in a lurid cloud, and a wind came driving up from the east, whirling the dry leaves in circles and blowing the dust in eddies at the corners of the streets. All night it raged over land and water, increasing to a gale as the pale dawn broke, lashing the lake into a sheet of foam, and growing colder and colder as the flying watery clouds obscured the sun and the dismal day waxed and waned. With our faces pressed against the window-panes we watched the fresh-water sea in its fury. Out in the offing several vessels were scudding under bare poles, and a steamer trying to make the harbor was blown over almost horizontally in the water before she reached the piers. Darkness fell and the wind howled over the city, changing to the north and bringing a storm of sleet and snow in its train, so that the ground was white when daylight broke, and the air so thick with the stinging hail that we could not see the lake. Anxiously we waited, but in vain: our thoughts were with the sailors out on the raging waters. Not until twilight did the atmosphere grow clear; and as an angry gleam of sunshine shot from under the heavy bank of clouds, we saw two schooners, one near the shore, the other out on the horizon, driving before the gale.

"Are they in danger, Uncle John?" we asked.

"Yes, I should say so, although I am no sailor."

"Why do not the tugs go out to help them?"

"Each one for himself, my two little nieces. The tugs could do nothing in such a sea."

Another night came, and after its long hours had passed the sky grew clearer and the gale abated: there was still a high wind and the dark lake looked threatening, but the worst was over, at least for the time. One of the schooners had disappeared, but the other was coming in under a rag of a sail, plunging and almost unmanageable. As she neared the shore a tug ventured out, and succeeded in reaching her safely, but close to the end of the pier a furious gust broke the fastenings and threw the vessel up on the stone foundation of an old wharf at the western side of the entrance, where she pounded to pieces in a few moments. The crew made desperate efforts to escape, and we could see their black forms clinging to the spars and the logs of the wharf between the waves. All possible aid was given, and all but one were saved: he, poor fellow! was washed out to sea and lost.

"A cruel lake!" exclaimed Ada. "Who would suppose that such a comparatively small body of water could rival the great ocean in danger?"

"In a storm navigation is more dangerous on our Western lakes than on the ocean," said Uncle John: "there is not space enough for safety, and the short waves and narrow channels require more skill than the broad sweep of the ocean. There is always a lee shore near, and you cannot run away from it, as you can at sea."

At noon the wind had somewhat subsided, and a faint sunshine gleamed through the ragged clouds. Driving out to the scene of our picnic a few days before, we stood on the edge of the cliff and watched the great waves come rolling in and dash against the rocks sixty feet in the air, so that our faces were wet with their spray. The little river was white with surf rushing in over the bar: not a leaf remained on the bare ground, the naked trees tossed their arms wildly to and fro, and the pines were coated with ice. A short distance to the west a boy pointed out some timbers floating in the surf. "Them's the schooner that come ashore last night," he explained. "This here beach is a bad place in a storm. The crew's all drownded: guess the bodies will be coming ashore in a few days." We turned away with a shudder. The story of the silver-haired professor came vividly back to our minds. We relate it in almost his own words, as it forms part of the unwritten history of ante-Revolutionary times, but vaguely known and appreciated by this busy generation.

In the spring of 1763 the great conspiracy of the North-western Indians, headed by Pontiac, the celebrated chief, made its first demonstration against the whites. By the influence and wisdom of Pontiac the attack was simultaneous upon every fort and post in the West, and the result successful for the conqueror and disastrous for the conquered. Had the Indians possessed many chiefs endowed with the energy and prudence of this remarkable red man, their history would not be merely a monotonous repetition of defeat and extermination. But it was not to be: the stars in their courses fought against Sisera. After the massacre, the British, awakened to the power of their savage foes, endeavored to send troops across the country to the relief of the garrisons at Forts Pitt and Detroit, the only posts which had escaped destruction; and in the fall of the same year a number of batteaux loaded with troops and supplies started from Albany, by way of the Mohawk, and after stopping at the fort on the Niagara River, entered Lake Erie, intending to coast along the southern shore to Detroit. One can easily imagine the scene. Six hundred regulars with their officers, a train of artillery and supplies, and the boatmen, who were probably the hardy, merry voyageurs, sailing over the placid lake covered with the purple haze of the Indian summer, camping on the beach at night, their fires shining through the silent forest where now towns and cities dot the shore. They passed the mouth of the Cuyahoga in safety, and steered northward to clear the bold headland covered with evergreens known as the Point-aux-Pins, when suddenly a gale came upon them, darkness fell, and, tossing on the furious waves, they knew not where to steer, even if their frail boats had not become unmanageable in the storm. Separated from each other, shipping water at every plunge, they drifted toward the shore, and finding the mouth of Rocky River close upon them, they made a desperate effort to enter, hoping to find a harbor where they could obtain shelter. The channel is very narrow, and but few of the boats succeeded in entering, the rest being cast upon the rocks, engulfed in the surf or stranded on the bar, where the waves soon tore them to pieces. In the darkness, amid the roaring of the winds and waters, the survivors rushed wildly to and fro, seeking to climb the perpendicular rock wet with spray, and falling headlong in the seething waves below. The only route to the plateau above was through a ravine within the point, and when the stormy morning broke, through this gully the dispirited soldiers climbed to the summit of the cliff, and, making a fire, dried their clothing and cooked a scanty meal. Here they remained during the storm, probably for three days, crowded within a circle of boulders, and relieving each other in the watch on the beach as the bodies of their drowned comrades came ashore—seventy men and three officers, Lieutenant Davidson, Lieutenant Paynter, and the surgeon, Dr. Williams of the Eightieth Regiment. When the storm ceased, the dead were buried, the remaining boats repaired, and the forlorn band started back down the lake, unable to render any assistance to the besieged garrison at Detroit on account of the loss of their ammunition and arms.

In the fall of the next year, 1764, General Bradstreet with three thousand men opened a campaign against the Indians on Lake Erie, and after various successes and defeats started in batteaux from Sandusky Bay to coast down the lake, his forces consisting of British regulars, provincials and a large body of Indian allies. It is probable that the beautiful autumn weather peculiar to the Western lakes deceived him as it had deceived Major Wilkins in the preceding year, for when a sudden gale overtook him, surprised and confused, he ran the boats ashore on an open beach, where twenty-five were broken into fragments by the surf, and six cannon, together with most of the ammunition and baggage, were lost. This open beach was within a mile of the scene of the previous year's disaster. As before, the storm continued three days, and many of the men were lost, swept away by the waves and overcome with hunger and fatigue. When the skies cleared, Bradstreet reviewed his diminished forces, and after burying the remaining cannon and ammunition, started onward with the regulars in the batteaux which had escaped the storm, leaving the provincials and Indians to make their way by land, on foot and without provisions, four hundred miles through the forest as best they could. These provincials came from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, and were commanded by Major Israel Putnam, afterward major-general in the United States army. The story of their terrible journey is unwritten, but it is known that many died of slow starvation and fatigue along the route, which led through swamps and thickets, with deep rivers barring their path; and not until the last of December did they reach the forts, after having been twelve weeks in the wilderness. The number of those who perished in the wreck or died on the journey is not recorded, but it was so large as to occasion petitions to the government—an unusual proceeding at that early date.

These are the narratives as compiled from authorities most vague and diverse, and yet, when taken together, most indisputable. At that time, before the Revolution, when, save a narrow belt on the Atlantic coast, the whole country was a forest, authentic news was rare, and records carelessly kept, if kept at all. Soldiers marching hundreds of miles through a wilderness had no time to compose elaborate journals, and had something else to think of than the curiosity of posterity. When a man lives in a state of uncertainty as to his scalp, we cannot expect from him systematic habits of writing; and therefore we are compelled to call upon the earth and sea for information concerning these early adventures. Generously have they responded, producing silent witnesses who tell the tale of disaster with a melancholy fidelity more real than the printed page.

From time to time after heavy storms portions of the old batteaux have been thrown up on the Rocky River beach. One of these fragments was a bow-stem chafed and water-soaked, the iron ring-bolt secured by a nut—both covered with rust. From its appearance it had evidently been for a long time buried in the sand. In ploughing a field on the bottom-lands the nails, rudder-hangings, bow-ring and other irons of a boat were discovered, together with a heap of ashes: having been cast high and dry upon the shore by the waves, no doubt this batteau was burned to keep it from falling into the enemy's hands.

In 1842, during a severe gale, the sand-bar shifted its position at the mouth of the river, and from the quantity of gun-flints, brass musket-guards, musket-barrels and bayonets washed ashore it became evident that one of the submerged boats had been uncovered and broken up, after having been in the sand nearly a century.

The beach beyond Rock River, although a good fishing-ground, has been abandoned on account of the hidden obstacles which cut and break the nets: these are without doubt portions of Bradstreet's batteaux; and concealed in the same locality are probably some of the cannon, as six-pound cannon balls have been discovered there. Along this beach many relics have been found, and every storm washes up new ones: bayonets, muskets and bullets are to be seen in most of the houses of the neighborhood, preserved as curiosities. Silver teaspoons have been found in several places: they are of antique design, heavily moulded, and engraved with various initials. No doubt they belonged to the British officers. An ancient and elaborately finished sword was discovered on the beach, with the hilt terminating in a lion's head of solid silver: the guard was also of silver.

On the land, traces of the soldiers are numerous. In one of the ravines leading up from the narrow beach a bayonet was found firmly thrust into the clay about six feet from the bottom, which had evidently been used as a fixture by which the soldiers drew themselves up to the top of the bank; and on the plateau a circle of boulders with the ashes of a fire was found in ploughing, together with a case-knife. Near by the blade of a surgeon's amputating knife was discovered in the soil; and this relic, perhaps the most indisputable one yet found, probably belonged to Surgeon Williams of Wilkins's expedition, lost on the point in 1763.

A mound not far from the locality of the camp-fire had long been avoided by the settlers on account of the human bones within it. Recent investigations have shown it to be composed of skeletons arranged in tiers, with earth thrown over the whole, and the skulls have been identified as those of Anglo-Saxons, with a few Indian skulls mixed among them. Here, then, the survivors buried their dead comrades, English soldiers left behind, cold and still, on the shores of the Western lake. No doubt as the boats started from the point there were some who looked back at the new mound with sad regret for such a burial-place. But what difference will it make when the earth and sea give up their dead? He who made us will keep us in safety, no matter where we lie.

The route of the provincials and Indians left by Bradstreet to find their way by land is marked by various objects dropped at the start or soon after. A stack of bayonets covered with soil and rubbish was found piled systematically at the foot of a tree, forgotten perhaps, or else left behind as too heavy for the long journey. A musket barrel was also found enclosed in a fork of a tree by the growth of the wood: it had been placed in an inclined position, and had remained undisturbed until the tree had completely enveloped it. A number of gun-flints, a peck or more, were ploughed up on the high ground back of the lake, also a sword and bayonets. Farther on, French and English coins bearing the date of 1714 were found, and in another locality a silver teaspoon and some pennies of 1749: these articles were probably thrown down in discarded clothing or knapsacks.

Every year discoveries are made of articles thrown up by the waves, washed out of the cliffs or ploughed up in the fields. Many of these relics are in the possession of the silver-haired professor, who has studied the localities and invested the point with a legendary interest rare in this busy West. When we recall the early date of these expeditions, the great loss of life, the tragic scenes on the shore, and the terrible journey of the provincials through the forest, we must feel that the story with its silent illustrations is as worthy of a place in American history as many other events of less interest, whose minutest details have been described over and over again in the current literature of the day.

In the words of the venerable professor: "The correctness of my conclusions will be confirmed by an examination of the peculiar and dangerous character of these localities during a storm, and of the manner in which these vestiges must have been lost; and a more complete comprehension of the terrific scenes attendant on those disasters would thereby be gained, together with a full conception of the horrors of the catastrophe. Few of the present generation know that either of these events have occurred: fewer still are aware of the pecuniary loss and human suffering they involved."

Constance Fenimore Woolson.