IT is well known that previous to the war of the Revolution, the whole of the western portion of Pennsylvania was inhabited chiefly by different Indian tribes. Of these, the Delawares were the friends of the whites, and after the commencement of the great struggle, took part with the United States. The Iroquois, on the contrary, were the friends and allies of the mother country.
Very few white settlers had ventured beyond the Susquehannah. The numerous roving bands of Shawanoes, Nanticokes, &c., although sometimes professing friendship with the Americans, and acting in concert with the Delawares or Lenape as allies, at others, suffered themselves to be seduced by their neighbors, the Iroquois, to show a most sanguinary spirit of hostility.
For this reason, the life of the inhabitants of the frontier was one of constant peril and alarm. Many a scene of dismal barbarity was enacted, as the history of the times testifies, and even those who felt themselves in some measure protected by their immediate neighbors, the Delawares, never lost sight of the caution required by their exposed situation.
The vicinity of the military garrison at Pittsburgh, or Fort Pitt, as it was then called, gave additional security to those who had pushed further west, among the fertile valleys of the Alleghany and Monongohela. Among these were the family of Mr. Lytle, who, about two years previous to the opening of our story, had removed from Path Valley, near Carlisle, and settled himself on the banks of Plum River, a tributary of the Alleghany. Here, with his wife and five children, he had continued to live in comfort and security, undisturbed by any hostile visit, and only annoyed by occasional false alarms from his more timorous neighbors, who having had more experience in frontier life, were prone to anticipate evil, as well as to magnify every appearance of danger.
On a bright afternoon in the autumn of 1779, two children of Mr. Lytle, a girl of nine, and her brother, two years younger, were playing in a little dingle or hollow in the rear of their fatherís house. Some large trees, which had been recently felled, were lying here and there, still untrimmed of their branches, and many logs, prepared for fuel, were scattered around. Upon one of these the children, wearied with their sports, seated themselves, and to beguile the time they fell into conversation upon a subject that greatly perplexed them.
While playing in the same place a few hours previous, they had imagined they saw an Indian lurking behind one of the fallen trees. The Indians of the neighborhood were in the habit of making occasional visits to the family, and they had become familiar and even affectionate with many of them, but this seemed a stranger, and after the first hasty glance they fled in alarm to the house.
Their mother chid them for the report they brought, which she endeavored to convince them was without foundation. "You know," said she, "you are always alarming us unnecessarily -- the neighbors' children have frightened you to death. Go back to your play and learn to be more courageous."
So the children returned to their sports, hardly persuaded by their mother's arguments. While they were thus seated upon the trunk of the tree, their discourse was interrupted by the note, apparently, of a quail not far off.
"Listen," said the boy, as a second note answered the first, "do you hear that?"
"Yes," was the reply, and after a few moments' silence," do you not hear a rustling among the branches of the tree yonder?"
"Perhaps it is a squirrel -- but look! what is that? Surely I saw something red among the branches. It looked like a fawn popping up its head."
At this moment, the children who had been gazing so intently in the direction of the fallen tree that all other objects were forgotten, felt themselves seized from behind and pinioned in an iron grasp. What were their horror and dismay to find themselves in the arms of savages, whose terrific countenances and gestures plainly showed them to be enemies!
They made signs to the children to be silent, on pain of death, and hurried them off, half dead with terror, in a direction leading from their fatherís habitation. After travelling some distance in profound silence, the severity of their captors somewhat relaxed, and as night approached the party halted, after adopting the usual precautions to secure themselves against a surprise.
In an agony of uncertainty and terror, torn from their beloved home and parents, and anticipating all the horrors with which the rumors of the times had invested a captivity among the Indians -- perhaps even a torturing death -- the poor children could no longer restrain their grief, but gave vent to sobs and lamentations.
Their distress appeared to excite the compassion of one of the party, a man of mild aspect, who approached and endeavored to soothe them. He spread them a couch of the long grass which grew near the encamp-ing place, offered them a portion of his own stock of dried meat and parched corn, and gave them to under-understand by signs that no further evil was intended them.
These kindly demonstrations were interrupted by the arrival of another party of the enemy, bringing with them the mother of the little prisoners with her youngest child, an infant of three months old.
It had so happened that the father of the family, with his serving-men, had gone early in the day to a raising at a few miles' distance, and the house had thus been left without a defender. The long period of tranquillity which they had enjoyed, free from all molestation or alarm from the savages, had quite thrown them off their guard, and they had recently laid aside some of the caution they had formerly found necessary.
These Indians, by lying in wait, had found the favorable moment for seizing the defenceless family and making them prisoners. Judging from their paint, and other marks by which the early settlers learned to distinguish the various tribes, Mrs. Lytle conjectured that those into whose hands she and her children had fallen were Senecas. Nor was she mistaken. It was a party of that tribe who had descended from their village with the intention of falling upon some isolated band of their enemies, the Delawares, but failing in this, had made themselves amends by capturing a few white settlers.
It is to be attributed to the generally mild disposition of this tribe, together with the magnanimous character of the chief who accompanied the party, that their prisoners in the present instance escaped the fate of most of the Americans who were so unhappy as to fall into the hands of the Iroquois.
The children learned from their mother that she was profoundly ignorant of the fate of their remaining brother and sister, a boy of six and a little girl of four years of age, but she was in hopes they had made good their escape with the servant girl, who had likewise disappeared from the commencement.
After remaining a few hours to recruit the exhausted frames of the prisoners, the savages again started on their march, one of the older Indians proffering to relieve the mother from the burden of her infant, which she had hitherto carried in her arms. Pleased with the unexpected kindness, she resigned to him her tender charge.
Thus they pursued their way, the savage who carried the infant lingering somewhat behind the rest of the party, until finding a spot convenient for his purpose, he grasped his innocent victim by the feet, and with one whirl, to add strength to the blow, dashed out its brains against a tree. Leaving the body upon the spot, he rejoined the party.
The mother, unsuspicious of what had passed, regarded him earnestly as he reappeared without the child -- then gazed wildly around on the rest of the group. Her beloved little one was not there. Its absence spoke its fate, yet, suppressing the shriek of agony, for she knew that the lives of the remaining ones depended upon her firmness in that trying hour, she drew them yet closer to her and pursued her melancholy way without a word spoken or a question asked.
From the depths of her heart she cried unto Him who is able to save, and He comforted her with hopes of deliverance for the surviving ones, for she saw that if blood had been their sole object the scalps of herself and her children would have been taken upon the spot where they were made prisoners.
She read too in the eyes of one who was evidently the commander of the party an expression more merciful than she had even dared to hope. Particularly had she observed his soothing manner and manifest partiality towards her eldest child, the little girl of whom we have spoken, and she built many a bright hope of escape or ransom upon these slender foundations.
After a toilsome and painful march of many days, the party reached the Seneca village, upon the headwaters of the Allegany, near what is now called Olean Point. On their arrival the chief, their conductor, who was distinguished by the name of the Big-White-Man,* led his prisoners to the principal lodge. This was occupied by his mother, the widow of the head-chief of that band, and who was called by them the Old Queen.
On entering her presence, her son presented her the little girl, saying:
"My mother -- I bring you a child to supply the place of my brother who was killed by the Lenapé six moons ago. She shall dwell in my lodge, and be to me a sister. Take the white woman and her children and treat them kindly -- our father will give us many horses and guns to buy them back again."
He referred to the British Indian agent of his tribe, Col. Johnson, an excellent and benevolent gentleman, who resided at Fort Niagara, on the British side of the river of that name.
The old queen fulfilled the injunctions of her son. She received the prisoners, and every comfort was provided them that her simple and primitive mode of life rendered possible.
We must now return to the place and period at which our story commences.
Late in the evening of that day the father returned to his dwelling. All within and around was silent and desolate. No trace of a living creature was to be found throughout the house or grounds. His nearest neighbors lived at a considerable distance, but to them he hastened, frantically demanding tidings of his family.
As he aroused them from their slumbers, one and another joined him in the search, and at length, at the house of one of them, was found the servant-maid who had effected her escape. Her first place of refuge, she said, had been a large brewing-tub in an outer kitchen, under which she had, at the first alarm, secreted herself until the departure of the Indians, who were evidently in haste, gave her an opportunity of fleeing to a place of safety. She could give no tidings of her mistress and the children, except that they had not been murdered in her sight or hearing.
At length, having scoured the neighborhood without success, Mr. Lytle remembered an old settler who lived alone, far up the valley. Thither he and his friends irnmdediately repaired, and from him they learned that, being at work in his field just before sunset, he had seen a party of strange Indians passing at a short distance from his cabin. As they wound along the brow of the hill, he could perceive that they had prisoners with them -- a woman and child. The woman he knew to be a white, as she carried her infant in her arms instead of upon her back, after the manner of the savages.
Day had now begun to break, for the night had been passed in fruitless researches, and the agonized father after a consultation with his kind friends and neighbors, accepted their offer to accompany him to Fort Pitt to ask advice and assistance of the Commandant and Indian Agent at that place.
Proceeding down the valley, as they approached a hut which, the night before they had found apparently deserted, they were startled by observing two children standing upon the high bank in front of it. The delighted father recognized two of his missing flock, but no tidings could they give him of their mother and the other lost ones. Their story was simple and touching.
They were playing in the garden, when they were alarmed by seeing the Indians enter the yard near the house. Unperceived by them, the brother who was but six years of age, helped his little sister over the fence into a field overrun with bushes of the blackberry and wild raspberry. They concealed themselves among these for a while, and then, finding all quiet, they attempted to force their way to the side of the field furthest from the house. Unfortunately the little girl in her play in the garden had pulled off her shoes and stockings, and the briars tearing and wunding her tender feet, she with difficulty could refrain from crying out. Her brother took off his stockings and put them on her feet. He attempted, too, to protect them with his shoes, but they were too large, and kept slip-ping off so that she could not wear them. For a time, they persevered in making what they considered their escape from certain death, for, as I have said, the children had been taught by the tales they had heard to regard all strange Indians as ministers of torture, and of horrors worse than death. Exhausted with pain and fatigue, the poor little girl at length declared she could go no further.
"Then, Maggie," said her brother, "I must kill you, for I cannot let you be killed by the Indians."
"Oh! no, Thomas," pleaded she, "do not, pray do not kill me -- I do not think the Indians will find us!"
"Oh! yes they will, Maggie, and I could kill you so much easier than they would!"
For a long time he endeavored to persuade her, and even looked about for a stick sufficiently large for his purpose, but despair gave the little creature strength, and she promised her brother that she would neither complain nor falter, if he would assist her in making her way out of the field.
The idea of the little boy that he could save his sister from savage barbarity by taking her life himself, shows what tales of horror the children of the early settlers were familiar with.
After a few more efforts they made their way out of the field, into an unenclosed pasture-ground, where to their great delight they saw some cows feeding. They recognized them as belonging to Granny Myers, an old woman who lived at some little distance, but in what direction from the place they then were, they were utterly ignorant.
With a sagacity beyond his years, the boy said:
"Let us hide ourselves till sunset, when the cows will go home, and we will follow them."
They did so, but to their dismay, when they reached Granny Myersí they found the house deserted. The old woman had been called by some business down the valley and did not return that night.
Tired and hungry they could go no further, but after an almost fruitless endeavor to get some milk from the cows, they laid themselves down to sleep under an old bedstead that stood behind the house. Their father and his party had caused them additional terror in the night. The shouts and calls which had been designed to arouse the inmates of the house, they had mistaken for the whoop of the Indians, and not being able to distinguish friends from foes, they had crept close to one another, as far out of sight as possible. When found the following morning, they were debating what course to take next, for safety.
The commandant at Fort Pitt entered warmly into the affairs of Mr. Lytle, and readily furnished htm with a detachment of soldiers, to aid him and his friends in the pursuit of the marauders. Some circumstances having occurred to throw suspicion upon the Senecas, the party soon directed their search among the villages of that tribe.
Their inquiries were prosecuted in various directions, and always with great caution, for all the tribes of the Iroquois, or, as they pompously called themselves, the Five Nations, being allies of Great Britain, were consequently inveterate in their hostility to the Americans. Thus, some time had elapsed before the father with his attendants reached the village of the Big-White-Man.
A treaty was immediately entered into for the ransom of the captives, which was easily accomplished in regard to Mrs. Lytle and the younger child. But no offers, no entreaties, no promises, could procure the release of the little Eleanor, the adopted child of the tribe. "No," the chief said, "she was his sister; he had taken her to supply the place of his brother who was killed by the enemy -- she was dear to him, and he would not part with her."
Finding every effort unavailing to shake this resolution the father was at length compelled to take his sorrowful departure with such of his beloved ones as he had had the good fortune to recover.
We will not attempt to depict the grief of parents compelled thus to give up a darling child, and to leave her in the hands of savages, whom until now they had too much reason to regard as merciless. But there was no alternative. Commending her to the care of their Heavenly Father, and cheered by the manifest tenderness with which she had thus far been treated, they sat out on their melancholy journey homeward, trusting that some future effort would be more effectual for the recovery of their little girl.
Having placed his family in safety at Pittsburg, Mr. Lytle, still assisted by the Commandant and the Indian Agent, undertook an expedition to the frontier to the residence of the British agent, Col. Johnson. His representation of the case warmly interested the feelings of that benevolent officer, who promised him to spare no exertions in his behalf. This promise he religiously performed. He went in person to the village of the Big-White-Man, as soon as the opening of the spring permitted, and offered him many splendid presents of guns and horses, but the chief was inexorable.
Time rolled on, and every year the hope of recovering the little captive became more faint. She, in the meantime, continued to wind herself more and more closely around the heart of her Indian brother. Nothing could exceed the consideration and affection with which she was treated, not only by himself, but by his mother, the Old Queen. All their stock of brooches and wampum was employed in the decoration of her person. The principal seat and the most delicate viands were invariably reserved for her, and no efforts were spared to promote her happiness, and to render her forgetful of her former home and kindred.
Thus, though she had beheld, with a feeling almost amounting to despair, the departure of her parents and dear little brother, and had for a long time resisted every attempt at consolation, preferring even death to a life of separation from all she loved, yet time, as it ever does, brought its soothing balm, and she at length grew contented and happy.
From her activity and the energy of her character, qualities for which she was remarkable to the latest period of her life, the name was given her of The Ship under full sail.
The only drawback to the happiness of the little prisoner, aside from her longings after her own dear home, was the enmity she encountered from the wife of the Big-White-Man. This woman, from the day of her arrival at the village, and adoption into the family as a sister, had conceived for her the greatest animosity, which, at first, she had the prudence to conceal from the observation of her husband.
It was perhaps natural that a wife should give way to some feelings of jealousy at seeing her own place in the heart of her husband usurped, as she imagined, by the child of their enemy, the American. But these feelings were aggravated by a bad and vindictive temper, and by the indifference with which her husband listened to her complaints and murmurings.
As she had no children of her own to engage her attention, her mind was the more engrossed and inflamed with her fancied wrongs, and with devising means for their address. An opportunity of attempting the latter was not long wanting.
During the absence of the Big-White-Man upon some war-party, or hunting excursion, his little sister was taken ill with fever and ague. She was nursed with the utmost tenderness by the Old Queen, and the wife of the chief, to lull suspicion, and thereby accomplish her purpose, was likewise unwearied in her assiduities to the little favorite.
One afternoon, during the temporary absence of the old Queen, her daughter-in-law entered the lodge with a bowl of something she had prepared, and stooping down to the mat on which the child lay, said, in an affectionate accent
"Drink, my sister, I have brought you that which will drive this fever far from you."
On raising her head to reply, the little girl perceived a pair of eyes peeping through a crevice in the lodge, and fixed upon her with a very peculiar and significant expression. With the quick perception acquired partly from nature, and partly from her intercourse with this people, she replied faintly,
"Set it down, my sister. When this fit of the fever has passed, I will drink your medicine."
The squaw, too cautious to use importunity, busied herself about in the lodge for a short time, then withdrew to another, near at hand. Meantime, the bright eyes continued peering through the opening, until they had watched their object fairly out of sight, then a low voice, the voice of a young friend and play-fellow spoke,
"Do not drink that, which your brother's wife has brought you. She hates you, and is only waiting an opportunity to rid herself of you. I have watched her all the morning, and have seen her gathering the most deadly herbs. I knew for whom they were intended, and came hither to warn you."
"Take the bowl," said the little invalid, "and carry it to my mother's lodge."
This was accordingly done. The contents of the bowl were found to consist principally of a decoction of the root of the May-apple, the most deadly poison known among the Indians.
It is not in the power of language to describe the indignation that pervaded the little community when this discovery was made known. The squaws ran to and fro, as is their custom when excited, each vying with the other in heaping invectives upon the culprit. No further punishment was, however, for the present inflicted upon her, but the first burst of rage over, she was treated with silent abhorrence.
The little patient was removed to the lodge of the Old Queen, and strictly guarded, while her enemy was left to wander in silence and solitude about the fields and woods, until the return of her husband should determine her punishment.
In a few days, the excursion being over, the Big-White-Man and his party returned to the village. Contrary to the usual custom of savages, he did not, in his first transport at learning the attempt on the life of his little sister, take summary vengeance on the offender. He contented himself with banishing her from his lodge, never to return, and condemning her to hoe corn in a distant part of the large field or enclosure which served the whole community for a garden.
Although she would still show her vindictive disposition whenever, by chance, the little girl with her companions wandered into that vicinity by striking at her with her hoe, or by some other spiteful manifestation, yet she was either too well watched, or stood too much in awe of her former husband to repeat the attempt upon his sister's life.
Four years had now elapsed since the capture of little Nelly. Her heart was by nature warm and affectionate, so that the unbounded tenderness of those she dwelt among had called forth a corresponding feeling of affection in her heart. She regarded the Chief and his mother with love and reverence, and had so completely learned their language and customs as almost to have forgotten her own.
So identified had she become with the tribe, that the remembrance of her home and family had nearly faded from her memory; all but her mother -- her mother whom she had loved with a strength of affection natural to her warm and ardent character, and to whom her heart still clung with a fondness that no time or change could destroy.
The peace of 1783 between Great Britain and the United States now took place. A general pacification of the Indian tribes was the consequence, and fresh hopes were renewed in the bosoms of Mr. and Mrs. Lyt1e.
They removed with their family to Fort Niagara, near which, on the American side, was the great Council Fire of the Senecas. Col. Johnson readily undertook a fresh negociation with the Chief; but in order to ensure every chance of success, he again proceeded in person to the village of the Big-White-Man.
His visit was most opportune. It was the "Feast of the Green Corn," when he arrived among them. This observance which corresponds so strikingly with the Jewish feast of Tabernacles that, together with other customs, it has led many to believe the Indian nations the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel, made it a season of general joy and festivity. All other occupations were suspended to give place to social enjoyment in the open air, or in arbors formed of the green branches of the trees. Every one appeared in his gala dress. That of the little adopted child consisted of a petticoat of blue broadcloth, bordered with gay-colored ribbons; a sack or upper garment of black silk, ornamented with three rows of silver brooches, the centre ones from the throat to the hem being of large size, and those from the shoulders down being no larger than a shilling-piece, and set as closely as possible. Around her neck were innumerable strings of white and purple wampum, an Indian ornament manufactured from the inner surface of the muscle-shell. Her hair was clubbed behind, and loaded with beads of various colors. Leggings of scarlet cloth, and moccasins of deer-skin embroidered with porcupine quills, completed her costume.
Col. Johnson was received with all the consideration due to his position, and to the long friendship that had subsisted between him and the tribe.
Observing that the hilarity of the festival had warmed and opened all hearts, he took occasion in an interview with the chief to expatiate upon the parental affection which had led the father and mother of his little sister to give up their friends and home, and come hundreds of miles away, in the single hope of sometimes looking upon and embracing her. The heart of the chief softened as he listened to this representation, and he was induced to promise that at the Grand Council soon to be held at Fort Niagara he would attend, bringing his little sister with him.
He exacted a promise, however, from Col. Johnson, that not only no effort should be made to reclaim the child, but that even no proposition to part with her should be offered him.
The time at length arrived when, her heart bounding with joy, little Nelly was placed on horseback to accompany her Indian brother to the great Council of the Senecas. She had promised him that she would never leave him without his permission, and he relied confidently on her word thus given.
As the chiefs and warriors arrived in successive bands to meet their father, the agent, at the council-fire, how did the anxious hearts of the parents beat with alternate hope and fear! The officers of the fort had kindly given them quarters for the time being, and the ladies, whose sympathies were strongly excited, had accompanied the mother to the place of council, and joined in her longing watch for the first appearance of the band from the Alleghany river.
At length they were discerned, emerging from the forest on the opposite or American side. Boats were sent across by the Commanding Officer, to bring the chief and his party. The father and mother, attended by all the officers and ladies, stood upon the grassy bank awaiting their approach. They had seen at a glance that the little captive was with them.
When about to enter the boat, the chief said to some of his young men, "stand here with the horses, and wait until I return."
He was told that the horses should be ferried across and taken care of.
"No," said he, "let them wait."
He held his darling by the hand until the river was passed -- until the boat touched the bank -- until the child sprang forward into the arms of the mother from whom she had been so long separated.
When the Chief witnessed that outburst of affection he could withstand no longer.
"She shall go," said he. "The mother must have her child again. I will go back alone."
With one silent gesture of farewell he turned and stepped on board the boat. No arguments or entreaties could induce him to remain at the council, but having gained the other side of the Niagara, he mounted his horse, and with his young men was soon lost in the depths of the forest.
After a sojourn of a few weeks at Niagara, Mr. Lytle, dreading lest the resolution of the Big-White-Man should give way, and measures be taken to deprive him once more of his child, came to the determination of again changing his place of abode. He therefore took the first opportunity of crossing Lake Erie with his family, and settled himself in the neighbourhood of Detroit, where he continued afterward to reside.
Little Nelly saw her friend the Chief no more, but she never forgot him. To the day of her death she remembered with tenderness and gratitude her brother the Big-White-Man, and her friends and playfellows among the Senecas.
* Although this is the name our mother preserved of her bene-factor, it seems evident that this chief was in fact Corn-Planter, a personage well known in the history of the times. There could hardly have been two such prominent chiefs in the same village.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 266-287.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.