Evan Cogwell's Ice Fort by Irving L. Beman
In the early days of Northern Ohio, when settlers were
few and far between, Evan Cogswell, a Welsh lad of
sixteen years, found his way thither and began his career
as a laborer, receiving at first but two dollars a month
in addition to his board and "home-made" clothing. He possessed
an intelligent, energetic mind in a sound and vigorous
body, and had acquired in his native parish the elements of an
education in both Welsh and English.
The story of his life, outlined in a curious old diary containing
the records of sixty-two years, and an entry for more than
twenty-two thousand days, would constitute a history of the region,
and some of its passages would read like high-wrought
His first term of service was with a border farmer on the
banks of a stream called Grand River, in Ashtabula County.
It was rather crude farming, however, consisting mostly of felling
trees, cutting wood and saw-logs, burning brush, and digging
out stumps, the axe and pick-axe finding more use than
ordinary farm implements.
Seven miles down the river, and on the opposite bank, lived
the nearest neighbors, among them a blacksmith who in his trade
served the whole country for twenty miles around. One especial
part of his business was the repairing of axes, called in that day
"jumping," or "upsetting."
In midwinter Evan's employer left a couple of axes with
the blacksmith for repairs, the job to be done within a week.
At this time the weather was what is termed "settled," with deep
snow, and good "slipping" along the few wildwood roads.
But three or four days later, there came a "January thaw."
Rain and a warmer temperature melted away much of the snow,
the little river was swelled to a great torrent, breaking up the
ice and carrying it down stream, and the roads became almost
impassable. When the week was up and the farmer wanted the
axes, it was not possible for the horse to travel, and after waiting
vainly for a day or two for a turn in the weather, Evan was
posted off on foot to obtain the needed implements. Delighting
in the change and excitement of such a trip, the boy started before
noon, expecting to reach home again ere dark, as it was not
considered quite safe to journey far by night on account of the
Three miles below, at a narrow place in the river, was the
bridge, consisting of three very long tree-trunks reaching parallel
from bank to bank, and covered with hewn plank. When Evan
arrived here he found that this bridge had been swept away.
But pushing on down stream among the thickets, about half a
mile below, he came upon an immense ice-jam, stretching across
the stream and piled many feet high. Upon this he at once resolved
to make his way over to the road on the other side, for
he was already wearied threading the underbrush. Grand River,
which is a narrow but deep and violent stream, ran roaring and
plunging beneath the masses of ice as if enraged at being so obstructed;
but the lad picked his path in safety and soon stood
on the opposite bank.
Away he hurried now to the blacksmith's, so as to complete
his errand and return by this precarious crossing before dark.
But the smith had neglected his duty and Evan had to wait
an hour or more for the axes. At length they were done, and
with one tied at each end of a strong cord and this hung about
his neck, he was off on the homeward trip. To aid his walking,
he procured from the thicket a stout cane. He had hardly gone
two miles when the duskiness gathering in the woods denoted
the nearness of night; yet as the moon was riding high, he pushed
on without fear.
HOMEWARD. SAFELY INTRENCHED.
But as he was
skirting a wind-fall
of trees, he came suddenly
upon two or
three wolves apparently
their daytime hiding
place for a hunting
startled; but as they
ran off into the
woods as if
afraid of him,
he took courage
in the hope that
they would not
molest him. In
a few minutes,
set up that dismal
which they summon their mates and enlarge their numbers; and
Evan discovered by the sounds that they were following him
cautiously at no great distance.
Frequent responses were also heard from more distant
points in the woods and from across the river. By this time it
was becoming quite dark, the moonlight penetrating the forest
only along the roadway and in occasional patches among the
trees on either side. The rushing river was not far away, but
above its roar arose every instant the threatening howl of a
wolf. Finally, just as he reached the ice-bridge, the howling
became still, a sign that their numbers emboldened them to enter
in earnest on the pursuit. The species of wolf once so common
in the central States, and making the early farmers so much
trouble, were peculiar in this respect; they were great cowards
singly, and would trail the heels of a traveler howling for recruits,
and not daring to begin the attack until they had collected
a force that insured success; then they became fierce and bold,
and more to be dreaded than any other animal of the wilderness.
And at this point, when they considered their numbers equal to
the occasion, the howling ceased.
Evan had been told of this, and when the silence began, he
knew its meaning, and his heart shuddered at the prospect. His
only hope lay in the possibility that they might not dare to follow
him across the ice-bridge. But this hope vanished as he approached
the other shore, and saw by the moonlight several of
the gaunt creatures awaiting him on that side. What should he
do? No doubt they would soon muster boldness to follow him
upon the ice, and then his fate would be sealed in a moment.
In the emergency he thought of the axes, and taking them
from his neck, cut the cord, and thrust his walking-stick into one
as a helve, resolved to defend himself to the last.
At this instant he espied among the thick, upheaved ice-cakes
two great fragments leaning against each other in such a
way as to form a roof with something like a small room underneath.
Here he saw his only chance. Springing within, he
used the axe to chip off other fragments with which to close up
the entrance, and almost quicker than it can be told, had thus
constructed a sort of fort, which he believed would withstand
the attack of the wolves. At nightfall the weather had become
colder, and he knew that in a few minutes the damp pieces of
ice would be firmly cemented together.
Hardly had he lifted the last piece to its place, when the
pack came rushing about him, snapping and snarling, but at
first not testing the strength of his intrenchment. When soon
they began to spring against it, and snap at the corners of ice,
the frost had done its work, and they could not loosen his hastily
Through narrow crevices he could look out at them, and at
one time counted sixteen grouped together in council. As the
cold increased he had to keep in motion in order not to freeze,
and any extra action on his part increased the fierceness of the
wolves. At times they would gather in a circle around him,
and after sniffing at him eagerly, set up a doleful howling, as
if deploring the excellent supper they had lost.
Ere long one of them found an opening at a corner large
enough to admit its head; but Evan was on the alert, and gave it
such a blow with the axe as to cause its death. Soon another
tried the same thing, and met with the same reception, withdrawing
and whirling around several times, and then dropping
dead with a broken skull.
One smaller than the rest attempting to enter, and receiving
the fatal blow, crawled, in its dying agony, completely into the
enclosure, and lay dead at Evan's feet. Of this he was not sorry,
as his feet were bitterly cold, and the warm carcass of the animal
served to relieve them.
In the course of the night six wolves were killed as they
sought to creep into his fortress, and several others so seriously
hacked as to send them to the woods again; and, however correct
the notion that when on the hunt they devour their fallen
comrades, in this case they did no such thing, as in the morning
the six dead bodies lay about on the ice, and Evan had the profitable
privilege of taking off their skins.
Of his thoughts during the night, a quotation from his diary
is quaintly suggestive and characteristic.
"I bethought me of the wars of Glendower, which I have
read about, and the battle of Grosmont Castle; and I said, 'I am
Owen Glendower; this is my castle; the wolves are the army of
Henry; but I will never surrender or yield as did Glendower.'"
Toward morning, as the change of weather continued, and
the waters of the river began to diminish, there was suddenly a
prodigious crack and crash of the ice-bridge, and the whole mass
settled several inches. At this the wolves took alarm, and in an
instant fled. Perhaps they might have returned had not the
crackling of the ice been repeated frequently.
At length Evan became alarmed for his safety, lest the ice
should break up in the current, and bringing his axe to bear,
soon burst his way out and fled to the shore. But not seeing the
ice crumble, he ventured back to obtain the other axe, and then
hastened home to his employer.
During the day he skinned the wolves, and within a fortnight
pocketed the bounty money, amounting in all to about one
hundred and fifty dollars. With this money he made the first
payment on a large farm, which he long lived to cultivate and
enjoy, and under the sod of which he found a quiet grave.