Jonathan's Escape by Robert H. Fuller


A Young Hero of Hadley who Fought at Turner’s Falls in 1676

Though the Indians of New England were for many years vastly superior in numbers to the white men, they were never wholly united, and their cowardice and lack of discipline were weaknesses for which their treachery and deceit could not compensate. The long conflict between the races culminated in 1675 in King Philip’s War, when the wily Wampanoag sachem succeeded in forming a confederation, embracing nearly all the New England tribes, for a final desperate struggle.

It seemed for a time as though the combination might succeed. At the end of the summer the scattered settlements, and especially those along the Connecticut River, which formed the outposts of the colonies, were panic-stricken. Everywhere the savage allies had been victorious. A dozen towns had been attacked and burned, bands of soldiers had been cut off, and isolated murders without number had been committed. Prowling bands of Indians lurked about the stockaded towns, driving off cattle and rendering impossible the cultivation of the fields, so that the settlers were called upon to face starvation as well as the scalping-knife and tomahawk.

There was no meeting the Indians face to face, except by surprise. They fought from ambush, or by sudden assault on unprotected points, and would be gone before troops could be brought to the scene. The white men were unable to follow them without Indian allies, and they were slow to adapt themselves to the Indian mode of fighting. Flushed by their success, the confederates became overconfident, and grew to despise their clumsy opponents. In the spring of 1676 more than five thousand of them were encamped on the Connecticut River, twenty miles north of Hadley. Here they planted their corn and squashes, and amused themselves with councils, ceremonies, and feasts, boasting of what they had done and what they would do. They judged the white men by themselves, and did not suspect the iron courage and stubborn determination that were urging the people in the towns below them “to be out against the enemy.” On the night of May 18th they indulged in a great feast, and after it was over, slept soundly in their bark lodges, all but the wary Philip, who, scenting danger, had withdrawn across the river.

On that same evening about two hundred and fifty men and boys gathered in Hadley street. Of this number fifty-six were soldiers from the garrisons of Hadley, Northampton, Springfield, Hatfield, and Westfield. The rest were volunteers, among whom was Jonathan Wells, of Hadley, sixteen years old, whose adventures and miraculous escape have been preserved.

 The party was under the command of Captain William Turner, and the expedition which it was about to undertake was inspired by a daring amounting to rashness. The plan was to attack the Indian camp, which contained four times their number of well-armed braves. Defeat meant death, or captivity and torture worse than death. The march began after nightfall so as not to attract the attention of the Indian scouts, and the little band made its way safely through swamps and forests, past the Indian outposts, and at daybreak arrived in the neighborhood of the camp. Here the horses were left under a small guard among the trees, while the men crept forward to the lodges of the enemy.

The surprise was complete. The panic-stricken savages, crying that the dreaded Mohawks were upon them, were shot down by scores, or, plunging into the river, were swept over the falls which now bear Captain Turner’s name. The backbone of Philip’s conspiracy was broken, and he himself was driven to begin soon afterwards the hunted wanderings which were to end in the fatal morass.

But the attacking party, though victorious, was not yet out of danger. It was still heavily outnumbered by the surviving Indians. While the soldiers were destroying arms, ammunition, and food, or scattered in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, the warriors rallied, and opened fire upon them from under cover of the trees. Captain Turner became alarmed and ordered a retreat. The main body hastily mounted and plunged into the forest, seeking to shake off the cloud of savages who hung upon their flanks like a swarm of angry bees.

Young Jonathan was with a detachment of about twenty who were some distance up the river when the retreat began. They ran back to the horses and found their comrades gone. The Indians pressed upon them in numbers they could not hope to withstand. It was every man for himself. In the confusion the boy kept his wits about him, and managed to find his horse. As he plunged forward under the branches three Indians levelled their pieces and fired. One shot passed through his hair, another struck his horse, and the third entered his thigh, splintering the bone where it had been broken by a cart-wheel and never properly healed. He reeled, and would have fallen had he not clutched the mane of his horse. The Indians, seeing that he was wounded, pursued him, but he pointed his gun at them, and held them at bay until he was out of their reach. As he galloped on he heard a cry for help, and reining in his horse, regardless of the danger which encompassed him, found Stephen Belding, a boy of his own age, lying sorely wounded on the ground. He managed to pull him up behind, and they rode double until they overtook the party in advance. This brave act saved Belding’s life.

The retreat had become a rout. All was panic and dismay; but Jonathan was unwilling to desert the comrades left behind. He sought out Captain Turner, and begged him to halt and turn back to their relief. “It is better to save some than to lose all,” was the Captain’s answer. The confusion increased, and to add to it the guides became bewildered and lost their way. “If you love your lives, follow me!” cried one. “If you would see your homes again! follow me,” shouted another, and the party was soon split up into small bands. The one with which Jonathan found himself became entangled in a swamp, where it was once more attacked by the Indians. He escaped again, with ten others, who, finding that his horse was going lame from his wound, and that he himself was weak from loss of blood, left him with another wounded man and rode away. His companion, thinking the boy’s hurt worse than his own, concluded that he would stand a better chance of getting clear alone, and riding off on pretence of seeking the path, failed to return. Jonathan was now wholly deserted. Wounded, ignorant even of the direction of his home, surrounded by bloodthirsty Indians, and weak with hunger, he pushed desperately on. He was near fainting once, when he heard some Indians running about and whooping near by; but they did not discover him, and a nutmeg which he had in his pocket revived him for a time.

After straying some distance farther he swooned in good earnest, and fell from his horse. When he came to he found that he had retained his hold on the reins, and that the animal stood quietly beside him. He tied him to a tree, and lay down again; but he soon grew so weak that he abandoned all hope of escape, and out of pity loosed the horse and let him go. He succeeded in kindling a fire by flashing powder in the pan of his gun. It spread in the dry leaves and burned his hands and face severely. Feeling sure that the Indians would be attracted by the smoke and come and kill him, he threw away his powder-horn and bullets, keeping only ammunition for a single shot. Then he stopped his wound with tow, bound it up with his neckcloth, and went to sleep.

In the morning he found that the bleeding had stopped and that he was much stronger. He managed to find a path which led him to a river which he remembered to have crossed on the way to the camp. With great pain and difficulty, leaning on his gun, the lock of which he was careful to keep dry, he waded through it, and fell exhausted on the farther bank. While he lay there an Indian in a canoe appeared, and the boy, who could neither fight nor run, gave himself up for lost. But he remembered the three Indians in the woods, and putting a bold face on the matter, aimed his gun, though its barrel was choked with sand. The savage, thinking he was about to shoot, leaped overboard, leaving his own gun in the canoe, and ran to tell his friends that the white men were coming again.

Jonathan knew that pursuit was certain, and as it was broad daylight, and he could only hobble at best, he assured himself that there was no hope for him. Nevertheless he looked about for a hiding-place, and presently, a little distance away, noticed two trees which, undermined by the current, had fallen forward into the stream close together. A mass of driftwood had lodged on their trunks. Jonathan got back into the water so as to leave no tracks, and creeping between the trunks under the driftwood, found a space large enough to permit him to breathe. In a few minutes the Indians arrived in search of him, as he had expected. They ransacked the whole neighborhood, even running out upon the mat of driftwood over his head, and causing the trees to sink with their weight so as to thrust his head under water; but they could find no trace of him, and at last retired, completely outwitted.

The boy limped on, tortured by hunger and thirst, and so giddy with weakness that he could proceed but a short distance without stopping to rest. Happily he saw no more of the Indians, and at last, on the third day of his painful journey, he arrived at Hadley, where he was welcomed as one risen from the dead.

The story of his escape was told for years around the wide fireplaces throughout the country-side, and was thought so remarkable that one who heard it, unwilling that the record of so much coolness and courage should be lost, wrote it down for future generations of boys to read.