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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Boys of the Border

By James Hall (1793–1868)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1793. Died near Cincinnati, Ohio, 1868. The Romance of Western History. 1857.]

ABOUT four years after the death of Col. Linn, an incident occurred which is curiously illustrative of the vicissitudes of domestic life in the backwoods. Col. William Pope had built a house about five miles south of Louisville, and removed to it in the fall of 1784. There being no schools, he employed a teacher to instruct his own children at home, and for the same reason was induced to receive into his house the sons of some of his friends: among them were the two sons of Col. Linn, whose guardian he was.

In February, 1785, five of these boys, the two Linns, Brashear, Wells, and another, whose name is not recollected, went out one Saturday to hunt. The ages of these boys are not now known; they were little fellows, however, probably between the ages of nine and thirteen. They encamped for the night, near the bank of the Ohio, at a place where a wide scope of bottom-land was covered with heavy forest trees, and with ponds which were frequented by great numbers of swans, geese, and ducks. A snow fell during the night, and in the morning they found themselves surrounded by a party of Indians, who had lain near them in ambush, and who captured them. Brashear, being a very fleet runner, attempted to escape, but was overtaken, and secured with the rest. The elder Linn also attempted to run, but being stout and clumsy, and encumbered with some game which he had thrown over his shoulder, stumbled and fell, and was seized by a tawny warrior, who patted him on the back, and called him, in the Indian tongue, “the little fat bear:” while Brashear, on account of his agility, received the name of the “buck elk.”

There are many incidents of this kind in the legends of the border; and there is nothing in history more striking than the address and presence of mind displayed by children, under such circumstances. Their mode of life, and education, render them prematurely vigilant and courageous. Accustomed from the first dawn of reason to sudden alarms, to the continual pressure of some impending danger, and to narratives of encounters and surprises, stratagems, and violence, they become familiar with peril, habitually watchful, and fertile of expedient. The child is father to the man; the boy is a young backwoodsman, eager for adventure, and not stricken with helpless terror when suddenly involved in danger; for his eye has been accustomed from infancy to the weapons of war, and his ear to the many voices of the forest. “I was not born in the woods to be scared by an owl,” is one of the expressive proverbs of the West. When Scott, in one of the most beautiful of English poems, describes the courageous bearing of the heir of Branksome, as he turned to face the blood-hounds, the picture is not imaginary, but portrays, with true philosophy, the training of the son of a border chief:

  • “I ween you would have seen with joy
  • The bearing of the gallant boy,
  • When worthy of his noble sire,
  • His wet cheek glowed ’twixt fear and ire!
  • He faced the blood-hound manfully,
  • And held his little bat on high;
  • So fierce he struck, the dog, afraid,
  • At cautious distance hoarsely bayed;
  • But still in act to spring.”
  • Such was the nurture of these boys, who submitted to their fate with a manliness that would have been creditable to the elder Linn. The Indians, desiring to ascertain whether there was any unprotected house or settlement near, that might be pillaged, asked the boys where they came from? The guarded reply was, “From Louisville.” “You lie!” responded the savage; but the boys, mindful of their friends, even at a moment so distressing to themselves, kept their own counsel, and neither by word nor sign gave any indication that their assertion was not true. Their sagacity and firmness saved the family of Colonel Pope from destruction. The Indians retired with their young captives, who marched off with apparent indifference. Crossing the Ohio, they were taken to an Indian town in Northern Indiana, distant many days’ journey; and on the way won the favor of their new masters, by the patience with which they suffered captivity and fatigue, and the cheerful interest they appeared to take in the occurrences of the march.

    At the Indian village, the reception usually extended to prisoners awaited them. The women and children crowded around them with shouts of exultation, loaded them with reproaches, pelted them with dirt and stones, struck, pinched, and heaped indignities upon them. But the gallant little fellows were probably prepared for these and greater cruelties, and found them no worse than they expected. For a while they submitted bravely; but at length the Linn blood became heated, and the younger of the brothers, whose temper was quick, and who had frequently been cautioned by his companions to restrain his passions, losing all patience, singled out a tawny boy bigger than himself, who had struck him, and being left-handed, returned the blow, in a way so unexpected that his foe, unable to parry it, was knocked down. The warriors were delighted with an exploit so much to their taste, and applauded it with loud shouts and laughter. Another champion assailed the little hero, who, springing upon the juvenile savage, with the ferocity of a panther, dealt him blows, kicks, and scratches, with a vigor which surprised and delighted the spectators. The whole mass of boyhood became pugnacious, his companions joined with alacrity in the fight—Kentucky against the field—the heroic lads fought against odds, but displayed such prowess that they soon cleared the ring, and were rescued from further annoyance by their captors, who were particularly amused by the efficiency and odd effect of the left-handed blows of the younger Linn.

    Such fine boys soon became favorites; they had precisely the accomplishments to recommend them to the favor of the social circles of an aboriginal society. Bold and bright-eyed, muscular and healthy, equal to the Indian boys in all athletic sports, and superior to them in intelligence, they were readily adopted into the tribe, and domesticated in families. Wells, however, fell to the lot of an Indian belonging to some distant town, whither he was taken, and thus separated from his comrades, saw them no more. He remained with the Indians all his life; married a sister of the celebrated chief Little Turtle, and became the father of a family. The remainder of our narrative embraces only the adventures of the other four. They adapted themselves so completely to their new mode of life, and seemed so well satisfied with the employments and sports of the savage youth, with fishing and hunting, wrestling, racing, and riding the Indian ponies, that all suspicion in regard to them was quieted, and they were allowed to roam about unregarded. They were “biding their time:” with a watchfulness that never slept they sought an opportunity to make their escape.

    The hour of deliverance came at last. In the autumn of the year of their capture, the warriors set out upon their annual hunt, roaming far off from home, in parties, and leaving their village in the care of the old men, the women, and the children. The four boys found themselves one day, at a camp, at some distance from the village, engaged in fishing or some other employment, with no other companions but an old Indian and a squaw. A severe conflict of mind took place. The long-sought opportunity for escape was at hand; but they could regain their liberty only by the death of a woman and an old man, with whom they were associating as companions. To remain in captivity was not to be thought of; to be the captives especially of a race in hostility with their countrymen, whose scalps they must frequently see displayed in triumph—of a people they had been taught from infancy to fear and hate, and who had been the murderers of the father of two of them, was not to be tolerated. To leave their companions alive, was to insure an early discovery of their flight, and a pursuit which must probably result in their capture and death. All their scruples yielded to a stern necessity, the bold resolve was taken; they killed the man and woman, and directed their steps homeward.

    We know not by what instinct they were enabled to find their way through the trackless forest. Whether it was by that mysterious intelligence which conducts the irrational brute to a far distant home—whether it was the finger of that Providence that supplied understanding to the simple—or whether it was that they had already been taught to know the points of the compass, and to observe the landmarks which direct the footsteps of the experienced woodsman—so it was, that pursuing the nearest course, they struck for home through the wilderness. Travelling by night, and lying concealed during the day in coverts and hiding-places, living upon wild fruits and nuts, and upon such small game as could be taken with the least noise and the least delay, and practising all the cunning, the patience, and the self-denial of the savage warrior, they reached the bank of the Ohio River, directly opposite to Louisville, after a journey of three weeks. Having no means of crossing the river, which here, at the head of the falls, is wide and rapid, they endeavored to attract the attention of the people at Louisville by firing their guns; but the Indians having lately been very troublesome, those who heard these signals, not understanding them, were unwilling to cross the river to ascertain their meaning. The persevering boys then marched up the shore of the river nearly six miles, and at a place near what is now called the Six Mile Island, where the current is less impetuous than below, constructed a raft, with no tool to facilitate their labors but a knife. Even this frail and rough contrivance was not large enough to carry them all, and the elder Linn, who was an expert swimmer, plunged into the water, and pushed the clumsy craft before him, while his companions paddled with all their might, with poles. Thus they were wafted slowly and laboriously down and across the stream, until they were discovered from the town, and parties sent to their relief. About the same time, the Indians who had been pursuing them, reached the shore they had left, fired at them, and expressed their rage and disappointment by loud yells. Young Linn was nearly frozen by his immersion in the water, which, at that season, in the month of November, was very cold; but by the prompt and skilful remedies applied under the direction of his kind guardian, Col. Pope, who had been driven by the Indians from his residence in the woods, and was now living in Louisville, he was recovered.