Story of a Log Cabin

by H. S. Caswell[A]


[A] I lately came across this sketch in an old Magazine, bearing the date of 1842, and, thinking others might be as much interested by it as I was myself, I transcribe it in an abridged form to the pages of this volume.

It was a dreary day in autumn. Like the fate which attends us all, the foliage had assumed the paleness of death; and the winds, cold and damp, were sighing among the branches of the trees; and causing every other feeling rather than that of comfort. Four others and myself had been out hunting during the day, and we returned at nightfall tired and hungry to our camp. The shades of night were fast gathering around us; but, being protected by our camp, with a blazing fire in front, we soon succeeded in cooking some of the game we had shot during the day; and as we ate, the old hunters, who were my companions grew garrulous, and in turn related their numerous adventures. "You have lived in Dayton for some time," said an old hunter, addressing one of his companions. "Have you ever seen during your rambles the remains of a log cabin about two miles down the Miami Canal?" "I recollect it well, but there is a mystery attached to those ruins which no one living can solve. The oldest settlers found that cabin there; and it then appeared in such a dilapidated state as to justify the belief that it had been built many years previous." "Do you know any thing about it?" I eagerly asked. "I know all about it," replied the old hunter; "for I assisted in building it, and occupied it for several years, during the trapping season. That cabin," he continued, as a shade passed over his features, "has been the scene of carnage and bloodshed. But why wake up old feelings—let them sleep, let them sleep;" and the veteran drew his brawny hand over his eyes. All the curiosity of my nature was roused; and the old men seated by his side gazed upon him enquiringly, and put themselves in a listening attitude. The speaker, observing this, sat silent for a few moments, as if collecting his thoughts, and then related the following tale:

"There has come a mighty change over the face of this country since the time when I first emigrated here. The spot where now stand your prettiest towns and villages was then a howling wilderness. Instead of the tinkling of the cow-bells and the merry whistle of the farmer-boy as he calls his herd to the fold, might be heard the wild cry of the panther, the howl of the wolf, and the equally appalling yell of the aborigines. These were 'times to try men's souls'; and it was then the heart of oak and the sinews of iron which commanded respect. Let me describe to you some scenes in which such men were the actors; scenes which called forth all the energy of man's nature; and in the depths of this western wilderness, many hundreds of Alexanders and Cæsars, who have never been heard of. At the time I emigrated to Ohio the deadly hatred of the red men toward the whites had reached its acme. The rifle, the tomahawk and the scalping knife were daily at work; and men, women and children daily fell victims to this sanguinary spirit. In this state I found things when I reached the small village opposite the mouth of Licking river, and now the great city of Cincinnati. Here in this great temple of nature man has taken up his abode, and all that he could wish responds to his touch; the fields and meadows yield their produce, and, unmolested by the red man whom he has usurped, he enjoys the bounties of a beneficent Creator. And where is the red man? Where is he! Like wax before the flame he has melted away from before the white man, leaving him no legacy save that courageous daring which will live in song long after their last remnant shall have passed away. At the time when I first stepped upon these grounds the red man still grasped the sceptre which has since been wrenched from his hand. They saw the throne of their father beginning to totter. Their realm had attracted the cupidity of a race of strangers, and with maddening despair, they grasped their falling power, and daily grew more desperate as they became more endangered. I among the rest had now a view of this exuberant west, this great valley of the Hesperides; and I determined to assist in extirpating the red man, and to usurp the land of his fathers. Among the men who were at the village, I found one who for magnanimity and undaunted courage merits a wreath which should hang high in the temple of fame, and yet, like hundreds of others, he has passed away unhonored, unsung. His name was Ralph Watts, a sturdy Virginian, with a heart surpassing all which has been said of Virginia's sons, in those qualities which ennoble the man; and possessing a courage indomitable, and a frame calculated in every way to fulfil whatever his daring spirit suggested. Such was Ralph Watts. I had only been in the town a few days, when Ralph and I contracted an intimacy which ended only with his death. I was passing the small inn of the town, when a tall man, with a hunting shirt and leggings on, stepped out and, laying his hand on my shoulder, said: 'Stranger, they say you have just come among us, and that you are poor; come along. I have got just five dollars, no man shall ever say that Ralph Watts passed a moneyless man without sharing with him the contents of his pocket—come along.' Ralph and I soon became inseparable friends. His joys as well as his sorrows were mine; in a word, we shared each other's sympathies; and this leads me to the scene of the log cabin. We often hunted together, and while on our last expedition, took an oath of friendship which should end only with death—and how soon was it to end! We left the infant Cincinnati one summer morning at the rising of the sun, and with our guns on our shoulders, and our pouches well supplied with ammunition, we struck into the deep wilderness, trusting to our own stout hearts and woodscraft for our food and safety. We journeyed merrily along, whiling away the hours in recounting to each other those trivial incidents of our lives which might be interesting, or in singing snatches of song, and listening to its solemn echo as it reverberated among the tall trees of the forest. Towards evening we reached our first camping ground—a spot near where the town of Sharon now stands. Here we pitched our tent, built our fire, cooked our suppers, and prepared to pass away the evening as comfortably as two hunters possibly could. All at once the deep stillness which reigned around us was broken by a low cry similar to that of a panther. We both ceased speaking and listened attentively, when the cry was repeated still nearer, as if the arrival was rapidly advancing upon us; and thus the cry was repeated, again and again, till its shrillness seemed not more than a hundred yards distant, when the voice changed to that of a yell, whose tones were so familiar to the ear of my companion as to exert quite a visible effect upon his actions. We both sprang to our feet and, seizing our guns, stood ready to fire at a moment's warning. "Halloo!" cried a deep voice, just outside our camp, but instead of answering it we nerved ourselves for a desperate encounter, feeling assured that several Indians were lurking outside our tent. "Halloo, white brudder, come out," cried the same voice in broken English. We consulted for a moment and finally decided to trust, for once, to Indian faith. Ralph first stepped forth and demanded in no very amiable voice, what was wanting. "Come out white brudder," was the answer. After assuring ourselves that there was but one person near we walked forward and found a large Indian sitting by the fire, both hands spread before the flame to protect his eyes from the light, that his keen gaze might rest unmolested upon us. As soon as he saw us a writhing grin spread over his painted features, and rising he offered us each his hand in a very friendly manner. The Indian drew from his belt a large pipe, gaudily painted, and from which depended a profusion of wampum, beads, and eagles' feathers. He lighted the pipe, and after taking a whiff, passed it to Ralph, who, following his example, passed it to me. After taking a puff I handed it to the Indian, who replaced it in his belt. This very important ceremony being finished, the Indian made known his business. After bestowing a thousand anathemas upon his red brethren, he informed us that he had left the red man forever, and was willing to join his white brothers, and to wage an exterminating warfare against his own kindred. We strove to extort from him the cause of this ebullition of passion, but he only shook his head in reply to our questions, and uttered a guttural "ough." We at first suspected him of some treacherous plot; but there was such an air of candor and earnestness in the communication he now made, that we threw aside all suspicion and confided in him. He stated that there was a large party of Indians in our rear, who had been tracking us for several hours; and that it was their intention early in the morning to surround us, and take us prisoners for victims at the stake; "but," said he, "if my white brudder will follow his red brudder he will lead him safe." We instantly signified our willingness to trust ourselves to his guidance, and, shouldering our blankets and guns, we left our camp, and followed our guide due north at a rapid gait. For several miles we strode through the thick woods, every moment scratching our faces and tearing our clothing, with the thick tangled brush through which we had to pass, but considering this of minor importance we hurried on in silence, save when we intruded too near the nest of the nocturnal king of the forest, when a wild hoot made us start and involuntarily grasp our rifles. "Sit on this log and eat," said our red guide. Finding our appetites sharpened by vigorous exercise, we sat on the log and commenced our repast, when our guide suddenly sprang from his seat, and with a hideous yell bolted into the forest and was soon lost to our sight. This conduct instantly roused our fear; and with one accord we sprang to our feet. We gazed around. Turn which way we would, the grim visage of a painted warrior met our terrified gaze, with his tomahawk in one hand, and his rifle in the other. "Perfidious villain," exclaimed Ralph, "and this is an Indian's faith." An Indian of gigantic size, dressed in all the gaudy trappings of a chief, now strode towards us. Ralph raised his gun, and closed his eye as the sight of the weapon sought the warrior's breast. "Don't shoot, and you will be treated friendly," cried the savage in good English. "So long as I live," said Ralph, "I'll never put faith again in an Indian's word." The gun went off, and the savage, with an unearthly cry, bounded high in the air, and fell upon his face a corpse. A scream, as if ten thousand furies had been suddenly turned loose upon the earth, rang around us; and ere we could start ten steps on our flight, we were seized by our savage foes, and, like the light barque when borne on the surface of the angry waves, were we borne, equally endangered, upon the shoulders of these maddened men. We were thrown upon the earth, our hands and feet were bound till the cords were almost hidden in the flesh; and then, with the fury of madmen, they commenced beating us with clubs, when another chief, who appeared to be of higher standing than the one who had just lost his life, rushed into the crowd, hurling the excited warriors to the right and left in his progress, and mounting upon a log he harangued them for a few moments with a loud voice. They at once desisted, perhaps reconciled by the prospect of soon seeing us burnt at the stake. We were carried to their encampment, where we were still left bound, with two sentinels stationed to guard us. In this painful state we remained all day; when towards evening another company of warriors arrived, and then vigorous preparations were made for burning us. A stake was planted in the ground, and painted a variety of fantastic colors; the brush was piled around it at a proper distance; and every other necessary arrangement made; while we sat looking on, subject to the continual epithets of an old squaw, whose most consoling remarks were: "How will white man like to eat fire," and then she would break into a screeching laugh, which sounded perfectly hideous. A cold chill pervaded my frame as I gazed upon these ominous signs of death; but how often is our misery but the prelude of joy. At the moment that these horrid preparations were finished, a bright flash of lightning shattered a tall hickory, near by; and then the earth was deluged with rain. The Indians sought the shelter, but left us beneath the fury of the storm, where we remained for several hours; but seeing that it increased rather than diminished, they forced us into a small log hut and leaving a man to guard us, bolted the door firmly and left us for the night. What were our reflections when left alone? Your imagination must supply an answer. But we did not entirely gave way to despondency. We were young and robust, and our spirits were not easily subdued. Instead of becoming disheartened our approaching fate emboldened us, and by looks, whose expression made known our minds to each other, we resolved to effect our escape or be slain in striving for it. Anything was preferable to the fiery torture which awaited us. Our guard proved just the man we wanted, for, having during the evening indulged rather freely in drinking whiskey, he soon sank into a profound slumber. Long and anxiously had we watched the man, and now our wishes were consummated. I contrived with much exertion to draw my knife from my pocket, and commenced sawing at the tough thong which confined my wrist. My heart beat high with joy, and already we felt that we were free, when the guard sneezed, opened his eyes, rolled them round the room, and discovered that he had been asleep. I slipped the knife into my pocket without his notice, and he discovered nothing to rouse his suspicions, although he regarded us closely for a long time. He finally sat down, lit his pipe and commenced smoking. After puffing away for half an hour, which seemed to drag by with the tediousness of a week, he laid his tomahawk (which contains the pipe) by his side, and after nodding for some time he again stretched himself upon the rough floor, and soon his deep snoring fell upon our ears. O! what music was that sound to us. I again drew the knife from my pocket, and with desperation freed my hands, and in one minute more Ralph stood like myself a free man. With the stealthy tread of a cat we reached the door, softly slid back the bolt, and once more we stood in the open air. The rain had ceased, the clouds had swept by, and the full moon pale and high in the heavens threw her light upon the tree tops, bathing them in liquid silver. Silently but rapidly we bounded through the forest, our fears of pursuit urging us onward; and by daylight were within twelve miles of the log cabin whose history I am telling. At that time there dwelt in that cabin, with his family, a trapper by the name of Daniel Roe. When we reached there we found Roe at home, to whom we recounted our adventure. He only laughed at our fears that the Indians might track us thus far, and we finally listened to his laughing remarks and concluded to rest in his cabin for several days. We heaped folly upon folly; for instead of putting the house in a state of defence, and preserving as much silence as possible we commenced trying our skill by shooting at a mark. We continued this exercise through the afternoon, partook of a hearty supper, chatted till bed-time, and then retired. Ralph soon fell sound asleep, but I could not; I felt a presentiment of approaching danger; still there was no visible signs of it, yet I could not shake off a peculiar nervousness which agitated me. I lay still for some time listening to the deep and regular breathing of Ralph, and ever and anon as an owl screamed I would start, despite the familiarity of the cry. Just as I turned in my bed, and was trying to compose myself for sleep, I heard a cry very similar to the hoot of an owl; still there was something about the sound which did not sound right. My heart commenced beating rapidly and a sweat started from my brow. I rose softly and looked through the chinks of the logs, but there was nothing to be seen. I listened attentively for at least an hour; but heard no sound to confirm my fears; and finally ashamed of my own nervousness, I could not call it cowardice, I slipped into bed, determined to sleep if possible. But soon I heard that same sound on the still air. I rose, dressed myself, but still I could see no form like that of an Indian. Just as I was on the point of abandoning my fears as idle and childish, I cast my eyes through an aperture between the logs; and saw the dusky forms of several Indians moving about the yard. I sprang to the bedside, and awoke Ralph, and in a few moments more, Roe, Ralph, and myself, stood with ready guns, waiting for a chance to shoot. A shot passing through one of the savages, told the rest they were discovered; and now a regular firing began. The Indians simultaneously uttered a fiendish shout, such as no person can imagine who has not heard the Indian war-scream; and then brandishing their tomahawks rushed upon the house and began hewing at the door. In a moment we were all down stairs, and our fire became so fatal that they were forced to retire several times; but with desperate courage they returned to the attack. I never experienced the feeling of utter despair but once in my life; and that was then. Roe came running down stairs (whither he had gone for more ammunition) and with a face white from terror, informed us that the ammunition was expended. Here we were, surrounded by a host of savages, fastened in a small house, with nothing to defend ourselves, and the helpless women and children under the roof. 'Let us open the door, and decide the contest hand to hand,' said Ralph Watts. 'O! my family, my wife and children,' groaned Daniel Roe, 'let us defend the house to the last.' And with nerves strung like iron, and hearts swelled to desperation, we waited in silence for the savages to hew their way through the door. The work was soon over, the savages uttered one deafening yell as the door gave way; and clubbing our guns we wielded them with giant energy. The dark forms of the savages crowded the door-way, their eyes glared madly at us, and their painted features working into a hundred malignant and fiendish expressions, which, together with their horrid yells, and the more heart-rending cries of women and children, all formed a scene of the most harrowing description. The battle was soon over. By some mishap I was hurled head foremost out the door; but so intent were the savages upon the battle within, that they did not once notice me, as they rushed forward to the scene of action. Seeing that all was lost, and that to remain would only be throwing away my life uselessly, I sprang to my feet and slipping around the corner of the house I made my way over the old fortification[B] and soon left the noise far behind me. Much has been written and said of grief, but how little do we know of its poignant nature, till we suffer the loss of some dear friend. 'Tis when we behold an object of deep affection lying passive and dead—but a thing of clay unconscious of the pain it gives, that we feel that sorrow, which language is too feeble to express. I found it so, when upon returning to the cabin a few hours afterward, I found the dead bodies of all my friends mutilated and weltering in their blood. Around the body of poor Ralph lay six Indians, with their skulls beat in; his gun furnishing evidence, by its mutilated state, of the force with which he had used it. My story is soon finished. As the tears streamed from my eyes, I dug a grave where I deposited the remains of my friends, and after placing a large stone above their resting place, I departed, wishing never to return to the spot again, and I never have."

[B] Near the spot where the cabin stands are the remains of immense works, but by whom and when built will forever remain hidden.