Lady of the House

by Kathleen Franks

~

We had a ladies’ sewing circle back in Connecticut when we lived in civilized society. How I miss those delicate days of dining on a table draped in fine Irish linen with my grandmother’s china placed properly among the silver. Those were the times when a woman could pour her creative spirit into the art of homemaking and rear her children to become true ladies and gentlemen.

Everything changed around the turn of the century, when some of our menfolk got the notion that we should pull up stakes and head westward. The lure of becoming masters of a land vast and mysterious, a chance to mark a virgin territory and shape it as they wished, appealed to their need for conquest. Most of us women were perfectly content to stay in Connecticut. We saw no need to risk our lives for an uncertain future.

It was Mr. David Hudson who got this whole thing started. He spent many an evening in the homes of our townspeople sparking in them the same fever that he had – I swear, it was contagious, mainly to the men, but nonetheless, before long Mr. Hudson had recruited a group of 45 unsuspecting souls. My brother Joel Gaylord was one so persuaded. He talked me into going along saying that the group would need a woman who had her wits about her. He also said something about my cooking being the best of any woman in all of Connecticut and how he wouldn’t be able to survive without it. I knew he was just shining me on, but on the other hand, every word he said was true.

There was one woman in Goshen who didn’t need to be sold on the idea. Eunice Oviatt, Heman’s wife,  actually got excited at the prospect. She immediately immersed herself into a collection of books on such topics as, “How to Live off the Land” , “Hunting for Sport – Killing for Survival”, “Edible Plants and their Medicinal Uses” and the most shocking title of all (cover your children’s ears, please) – “Sex in a One Room Cabin”. That one made me question Eunice’s sense of decency as a God-fearing woman!

In February of the year 1800, we began our journey to “New Connecticut” which some of us had named the god-forsaken place in hopes that it would become a copy of our beloved home. On the map it was named, “The Western Reserve”. There were more than 45 in the group that left that day. David Hudson, his wife and six children were in the lead. We stopped in Bloomfield, NY less than a month from our start. Winter weather would not allow a continuance of our journey. Don’t ask me why our menfolk thought it wise to even begin such an endeavor in the dead of winter! Hare-brained fools, is what I thought they were. I had said so before we left, but was told that February was in fact, the best time to venture out and that I should not be worrying my “pretty little head over such matters”.

In Bloomfield, we purchased four boats and repaired the old one that Mr. Hudson had taken on his previous trip. They were open boats, which I thought were not at all suitable for what lay ahead, but then, my opinions were of no account. They named the boats, “Sloth”, captained by David Hudson; “Lion”, captained by my brother, Joel Gaylord; “Beaver”, captained by Samuel Bishop; “Loon”, captained by Joseph Darrow; and “Duck”, captained by William McKinley”. They appointed Sam Bishop’s son, Reuben, only thirteen years of age, to be the steersman of the “Duck”. Needless to say, I was appalled at their lack of good judgment in placing a mere child at the helm! By then, however, I was keeping my opinions to myself.

We left Bloomfield on April 24th in better weather, but still, I worried that the spring rains would be a problem, and I was right, as usual, which I will tell you about in a minute. From Bloomfield we started out at Wood Creek to Oneida Lake which took us up the Oswego River. From there we traveled to Lake Ontario, and up to the Falls where we carried the fleet on our wagons to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. We spent our first night down river at the Pinery which is now Northfield. During the night a torrential rainstorm filled the Cuyahoga over its banks which flooded our camp. If ever I wanted to say, I told you so, it was then, but I held my tongue.

On the 28th of May we reached our landing place at Brandywine Creek. We set up camp for an extra day or so while the men made wooden sleds that we used to pull our goods to our destination. Elijah Noble, Joseph Bishop, David Bishop and Lumen Bishop had been driving the cattle and hogs through the wilderness while we had taken the river route. They arrived right around the same time as our fleet.

Almost immediately, Heman Oviatt and my brother set up a shanty on the bank of the creek south of the center and planted four acres of spring wheat. Grass didn’t grow under their feet!

The first Sabbath was in three days. We had planned to meet in the village clearing using the tree stumps for seats, but mother nature had a different agenda. A relentless rainstorm began in the night. It was still pummeling us when morning came. Never one to give up, David Hudson directed the rest of the men to drag one of the wagons to the center of the clearing and flip it over, resting one end on a couple of stumps for an entrance. Voila! An instant church! We scurried inside for a service we will never forget. Deacon Hudson provided a rousing sermon on the courage and determination of the Israelites in their forty years wandering in the wilderness. We all felt so encouraged. And from that day forward it has been said that the town of Hudson has never seen a Sabbath without a church service!

The next day, we gathered for a public thanksgiving. Many pats on the backs were given to those men who so valiantly led our party, but I was totally surprised when the men raised their glasses to the brave and unflappable women who accompanied them. Mrs. Hudson was given the news that hers would be the first house built in our town. Mrs. Noble, who fearlessly traveled with their infant son, was given a breathtakingly beautiful strand of pearls by her husband, Elijah. He actually got down on bended knee to express his appreciation for her fortitude, as he quoted the scripture in Proverbs that says a good wife is hard to find and as rare as the finest of pearls! Then he promised that in their new home they would have a grand house-warming where he would get her a new dress to wear with her pearls.

Sam Bishop, not to be outdone by the other husbands, reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a tiny little box wrapped in gold leaf. With misty eyes he passed it to the trembling hand of his wife who gingerly opened it so as not to disturb the wrapping. Inside was a black velvet box which contained the most sparkly pair of diamond and ruby earrings that any of us had ever seen! Lizzy fell into Sam’s embrace while we burst out in spontaneous applause.

Heman Oviatt, not one to stand on ceremony and knowing his wife would neither, told us to hold our horses for a minute while he got something out of the wagon. He came back with a long leather case trimmed in brass. “Eunice, my love, open this case and see what I have saved for you.”

Eunice turned the key, lifted the lid and gasped with glee, “Oh, Heman, just what I’ve always wanted!”

Inside were two rifles and one pistol that Heman’s father, Benjamin Oviatt, had used as a minute man in the Connecticut revolutionary militia. A better gift could not be had for Eunice, as I mentioned earlier, she had been preparing for her life in the wilds of the Western Reserve by educating herself. Beyond books, Eunice had spent day after day in target practice with an old 22 that she had bought from the blacksmith in Goshen. Her father-in-law’s gun collection would be most prized.

But when they turned to me and said, “Miss Ruth Gaylord, for your great bravery in coming as a maiden woman on such a journey, we are apportioning as bounty for your trouble, 40 acres of land at any location of your choosing.” Well, I was at a loss for words, as you can imagine, but managed to give a small speech of gratitude.

That day, in the calm of our companionship, the challenges that lay before us were hidden in the glow of our naivety.

Next Porch

“See How Stout I Am!”

As time went on our group used their skills to fell trees, build simple shelters, plant gardens and the like. Dr. Moses Thompson established his medical practice shortly. Mosquitoes were the first health hazard we had to deal with and Dr. Thompson relieved our suffering. He also instructed us to take a spoonful of quinine after every meal to stave off any stomach ailments.

There’s a story about Dr. Thompson that I need to share with you before I forget. After about six months in the settlement, Moses had run out of medicine and feeling rather homesick for his family in Goshen, he announced that he would be leaving. When David Hudson heard that our only doctor was leaving, he offered to give him $50 for medicine and other supplies. In those days, $50 was a substantial sum. It would have bought enough medicine to take care of our small settlement for quite some time. Well, Moses thought about the offer for a few days. On Monday morning he announced that he would be happy to serve as our official doctor. Mr. Hudson reached into his pocket and pulled out the agreed upon sum and the deal was done. Not having a wagon for the journey back to Goshen, nor even a horse, Dr. Thompson set out on foot. Word came back that he made the 600 mile trip in just eleven and a half days! That sounded like a tall tale if I ever heard one. I got out my paper and pencil to do the calculations. He would have had to walk an average of 18 hours per day to accomplish such a feat. History proved this to be the case and I had to eat my words. Interestingly, he took his time on the return trip to Hudson. With wagons of supplies and his family in tow, it took over four months to make the overland journey.

~

Back in Connecticut I had heard the wild tales of ferocious animals and equally fearsome savage Indians that roamed the Western Reserve. Looking back on those early days, I’d have to say that the animals were much more of a threat than the Indians. I say this for two reasons: 1) The local chief, Ogontz, had been educated by the French missionaries some years before, and hence had a measure of civility about him which he transferred to the tribes; 2) and then there was Eunice Oviatt who immersed herself in the native tribal customs and language soon after our arrival. Word spread quickly among the Indians of this white woman who had taken the time to learn of their culture.

Eunice wasn’t the only one who felt the need to commune with the natives. David Hudson set the example right from the start. He made it clear that we should respect the Indians and find ways to share the land instead of ripping it from them. On his earlier visit to the Reserve, he had provided assistance to the Indians whenever he could and assigned them dignity by asking for their instruction in the best way to manage the land. Most everyone in our settlement concurred with Mr. Hudson.

In these early days, the Indians often brought venison, fowl and fish for our village, knowing that we had so very little to eat. One early settler wrote in his diary, “they are more numerous than the white people but are very friendly, and I believe are a benefit rather than an injury though some persons seem disposed to quarrel with them. I, for one, have never had any problems of any sort and on the contrary find them to be of generous spirit and good heart.”

Eunice Oviatt developed relationships with the Indians that went beyond mere acquaintance and proved to be of greater value. They taught her which of the native plants were useful, and which ones to avoid. She asked for hunting lessons. At first they thought that any white woman would be too weak to learn how to hunt, but after they got to know Eunice, their doubts were removed! Soon Eunice was stalking the woods for all sorts of game, coming home with pheasants hanging from her belt, rabbits slung in her pack and a deer dragged behind on her sled.

Wolves and bears abounded along with stories of attacks. Most were believable, after all, we were in this wilderness together and knew of the presence of such animals. There were a few stories, though, that I found hard to believe.

Elijah Noble had been for a visit to Colonel John Oviatt’s house one fine spring day. Not a minute after Elijah  left, John heard an ear-shattering scream! It was loud enough for the rest of the town to hear. Being former minute men, the town fathers were ever-ready to spring into action. Immediately they ran with guns in tow toward John Oviatt’s place. Not more than than a hundred yards from John’s house they came upon Elijah Noble in the tight embrace of a towering brown bear! With the sudden shots of their rifles, the bear let go and ran back to the woods where the men could see her cub waiting by a large sycamore.

Elijah was none worse for the wear and after giving him a once-over, the men all broke out in hysterics, falling onto each other in laughter. They weren’t sure if the mama bear was hugging Elijah in the delirium of spring fever or if she was just looking for a papa for her cub!

The stories of wolves weren’t as light-hearted. Gov. Huntington left on horseback one evening from Tinker’s Creek about ten miles north of Hudson headed for David Hudson’s house. No sooner than he got started on the old Indian trail then a pack of wolves came after him, snapping at his feet! He beat them off with the butt of his whip for some distance till it was worn out. He grabbed his umbrella from his pack and beat the wolves back for what seemed like the whole night. When the umbrella wound up in shreds he thought he was a goner until he saw in the darkness the dim light of John’s lamp. His horse must have sensed that they were near safety for he took off in a sprint and made it to John’s doorstep exhausted, but safe, for the wolves had given up when the horse took off. It was past midnight. John opened the door, surprised to see the Governor on his porch with his face still washed with fear and his pant legs shredded up to his knee. The horse had suffered deep gashes to his hindquarters. They stitched up the horse’s wounds under the light of the oil lamp, faint, but good enough to get the job done. With the horse in the barn, the Governor and the Colonel sat on the porch, sipping good whiskey and counting their lucky stars.

Eunice had her share of wolf chases and bear encounters to tell, as you can imagine being a woman of the woods like she was, but by far the best story happened one night when Heman was in Warren for jury duty. Not one wild animal is part of the tale, but the fortitude that Eunice showed that night would have scared off any self-respecting bear.

I had been at Eunice’s house that afternoon, helping with the children. She sure had her hands full in those days – three little ones under the age of five. Sophronia, her eight-year-old daughter and Tom, the twelve-year-old helped as best they could. Ethel, the oldest daughter helped with the cooking. I usually stopped by once or twice a week to help with the washing and ironing.

Eloida Lindley and Miss Polly Kellogg had paid Eunice a visit that day, also. The four of us decided to have dinner together. As we were washing the dishes and singing songs with the children, there was a sharp knocking at the door. Eunice opened it to find two young Indians so drunk that they could hardly keep from falling on each other. They asked if they could spend the night. Eunice spoke with them in their native language. We had no idea what she was saying but it looked like she was telling them to leave. After much back and forth, Eunice stepped back and let them in, but not without first having them hand over their tomahawks, guns and knives. She put them behind the bed by the pantry. Eloida seemed a bit nervous. She said that it was getting late and that she had best get home, which wasn’t more than a half mile from Eunice. Not long after she left, there was another knock at the door. It was Lumen Bishop, whom Eloida had sent. He mumbled something as he stepped inside that they might need to have a man around the house that night.

The taller of the two Indians, didn’t take too well to having this white man show up, clearly with the purpose of “protecting” the ladies. He took offense that anyone would think that they would do any harm to Eunice or her friends. All the neighboring tribes knew Eunice. She could speak the three local tribal languages fluently: Chippeway, Seneca and Delaware. This endeared her to them and invoked their friendship. Many a time Eunice had gone to their villages to help nurse the sick. In turn, they had brought native remedies for her family. She shared the bounty of her garden and always gave something of her most recent hunt to any in the tribes who were in need. There were many occasions when the young warriors had been sent to protect Eunice, her family and her village from neighboring threats, both man and beast.

Why, one time when one of them had been falsely accused of a crime, Eunice got on her horse and rode all the way to Warren to defend this Indian in court! Of course, she won his case. Eunice was their hero.

So this Indian, drunk as he was, had real cause for offense. Eunice took him aside to reassure him that this was not the case. Eloida had not acted in prudence by sending the white man. Eunice turned to Lumen and asked him to leave. He resisted her request, not being fully aware of Eunice’s relationship with the Indians, but Eunice repeated herself in no uncertain terms and Lumen quietly left.

However, shortly afterward, trouble set in. Eunice’s two-year-old began to fuss about bedtime. His continual crying disturbed the larger of the two Indians who grabbed the child by his ankles and threatened to slam his brains out against the hearth! As he started to swing the baby toward the chimney, Eunice caught the little guy and snatched him from the Indian’s grip, with a stern look of disapproval. She handed Eli to Sophronia who took him upstairs to bed.

Still enraged by the white man’s intrusion, the same Indian went outside to snatch the ax away from Tom who was chopping wood for the night fire. Eunice suspected that the Indian had gone out there to vent his anger, so she followed close behind just in time to wrestle the ax from the Indian as he raised it to chop off Tom’s head! She ran inside and emerged with a large kettle of boiling water.

“See how stout I am! I can handle a half dozen just as you. I will tie you to the post if you don’t behave yourself! Now get inside and get to bed!”

Without so much as a grunt of protest, the drunk Indian marched himself inside and laid down on the bed next to the pantry. Eunice went upstairs to read her children a bedtime story. No sooner had she started then a gunshot cracked the peace of the moment.

“Who’s got a gun?” she yelled downstairs, “You best put it up right quick before I have to come down there.”

Eunice then settled back to finish reading to her children. She tucked them in with a hug and a kiss goodnight and headed back downstairs. Sophronia, being the most curious of her siblings, crept out of bed to peek through the crack in the floor which was a good two inches across. She saw one of the Indians taking a handful of hot coals from the fire and tossing them to the other as they danced around the room whooping war cries. Then they teased Miss Kellogg with threats of scalping her. At that point, Eunice sent her oldest daughter, Ethel, to get the rope that hung behind the back door. Eunice then set out to tie up the loudest of the two Indians. He tried to fight her off, but too drunk to keep his balance, fell face forward across the bed at which time Eunice swiftly wrapped his hands and feet together like he was some young bull calf. The younger of the two, seeing how the larger one didn’t stand a chance, sat down on the hearth promising to stay quiet.

Since the rope was stiff from lack of use, the Indian was able to loosen his bounds before too long. He sprang up, ready to fight again. By this time, Eunice was getting pretty tired of their antics.

“Ethel, get me the flax,” she ordered with an irritated tone. She twisted a strand in no time and tied up the Indian’s hands and sat him down on the hearth next to the quiet one. As soon as she turned her back, the foolish Indian jumped up and started dancing around the room shrieking war cries. Eunice pushed him down to the floor and tied his feet, but that didn’t keep his mouth shut. He continued his war whoops. Eunice spun around, snatched a large potato out of the bin and crammed it into the loud Indian’s mouth! I’ll never forget the younger one’s face at that point. His jaw dropped and his eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets!

After things calmed down and the rest of us could finally get some rest, Eunice felt sorry for the potato-faced Indian and took it out, whereupon he asked if she would please untie him so he could get to sleep, also. Soon after, the Indian crawled over to the bed where Eunice and Miss Kellogg were sleeping. He whispered, “haw wechee”, which means, “here, friend”. Eunice asked him what he wanted. He pointed to Miss Kellogg and said, “cawen nishishen squaw” – meaning “no good squaw, send to wigwam”. Eunice scolded him for thinking such a thing and turned over to go to sleep. Next thing she knew, he was standing over Miss Kellogg with a tomahawk raised over her head! Eunice had had it by then and pointing to the door, ordered both of them outside for the remainder of the night. She kindly tossed them a coal from the fire on their way out so they could start their own. Daylight was drifting over the horizon.

In the morning, when Eunice went out to feed the cattle, gunshots shattered the early morning stillness. Eunice turned around to see feathers flying and two chickens running with their heads shot off.

“All you had to do was ask. I would have given you some breakfast,” she shouted.

~

A few days later, Chief Ogontz showed up at the Oviatt’s house. With him was Pontecacawaugh, the father of the two boys who had caused the trouble. They had heard of the incident and wanted to make recompense for the ordeal. Pontecacawaugh expressed great shame at the conduct of his sons and requested that Eunice write up an order stipulating the damages done to her property. She listed the loss of the two chickens.  It was agreed that the boys would repay Eunice with two coonskins in four days. Chief Ogontz and Pontecacawaugh signed the bottom of the order. The Chief wrote his name in cursive as the French had taught him. Pontecacawaugh signed with an X. Eunice signed as “Mrs. Heman Oviatt”. This document was placed in the office of the town clerk as witness to the agreement.

Exactly four days later, the boys arrived at Eunice’s door with the coonskins in hand and an apology on their lips.

As an addendum to the document concerning this incident, Eunice went to town hall the next day and wrote beneath the signatures that the coonskins were indeed delivered and then wrote, “How much more is this in the spirit of Christianity than the manner the whites have fulfilled their engagements to the Indians.”

 ~

Many have said regarding the Indians that they were brutal savages of low intelligence. I think that my story proves otherwise. Men of any size, shape or color behave badly and likewise can redeem themselves.

Those that speak disparagingly of the natives do so out of their own ignorance. It is not the color of a man’s skin that determines his identity, nor heralds his reputation. I know this sounds high-minded and all, but it was what I learned from those early days in the Western Reserve.

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About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
This entry was posted in Native American, Pioneer, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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