1800 and Froze to Death by C. A. Stephens
An exciting story of a battle with a crazy moose. It has a
Thanksgiving flavour, too.
"WHAT shall we have for Thanksgiving dinner?" was
a question which distressed more than one household
that year. Indeed, it was often a question what
to have for dinner, supper, or breakfast on any day. For
that was the strangely unpropitious, unproductive season
of 1816, quaintly known in local annals as "1800
and Froze to Death."
It was shortly after the close of the War of 1812 with
England. Our country was then poor and but little
cultivated. There was no golden West to send carloads
of wheat and corn; no Florida or California to send fruit;
there were no cars, no railroads. What the people of
the Eastern States had they must raise for themselves,
and that year there were no crops.
Nothing grew, nothing ripened properly. Winter
lingered even in the lap of May. As late as the middle
of June there was a heavy snowstorm in New England.
Frosts occurred every fortnight of the season. The
seed potatoes, corn, and beans, when planted, either
rotted in the ground or came up to be killed by the
frosts. The cold continued through July and August.
A little barley, still less wheat and rye, a few oats, in
favourable situations, were the only cereals harvested,
and these were much pinched in the kernel.
Actual starvation threatened hundreds of farmers'
families as this singular summer and autumn advanced.
The corn crop, then the main staple in the East, was
wholly cut off. Two and three dollars a bushel—equal
to ten dollars to-day—were paid for corn that year—by
those who had the money to purchase it. Many of
the poorer families subsisted in part on the boiled
sprouts of raspberry and other shrubs. Starving children
stole forth into the fields of the less indigent farmers
by night, and dug up the seed potatoes and sprouted
corn to eat raw.
Moreover, there appeared to be little or no game in the
forest; many roving bears were seen, and wolves were
bold. All wild animals, indeed, behaved abnormally,
as if they, too, felt that nature was out of joint. The
eggs of the grouse or partridge failed to hatch; even
woodchucks were lean and scarce. So of the brooding
hens at the settler's barn: the eggs would not hatch,
and the hens, too, it is said, gave up laying eggs,
perhaps from lack of food. Even the song birds fell
into the "dumps" and neglected to rear young.
The dreary, fruitless autumn drew on; and Thanksgiving
Day bade fair to be such a hollow mockery that in
several states the governors did not issue proclamations.
Maine at that time was a part of the state of Massachusetts.
My impression is that the governor appointed
November 28th as Thanksgiving Day, but I am not
sure. It is likely that not much unction attended the
announcement. The notices of it did not reach many
localities in Maine. In the neighbourhood where my
grandparents lived, in Oxford County, nothing was
heard of it; but at a schoolhouse meeting, on November
21st, our nearest neighbour, Jonas Edwards, made a
motion "that the people of the place keep the 28th of
the month as Thanksgiving Day—the best they could."
The motion prevailed; and then the poor housewives
began to ask the question, "What shall we have for
Thanksgiving dinner?" At our house it is still remembered
that one of my young great-uncles cried in reply,
"Oh, if we could only have a good big johnnycake!"
And it was either that very night, or the night after,
that the exciting news came of the arrival of a shipload
of corn at Bath and Brunswick.
At Brunswick, seat of the then infant Bowdoin College,
Freeport, Topsham, and other towns near the
coast of Maine, where the people were interested in
maritime ventures, it had become known that a surplus
of corn was raised in Cuba, and could be purchased at
a fair price. An old schooner, commanded by one Capt.
John Simmons, was fitted out to sail for a cargo of the
precious cereal. For three months not a word was
heard from schooner or skipper.
Captain Simmons had purchased corn, however, and
loaded his crazy old craft full to the deck with it.
Heavy weather and head winds held him back on his
voyage home. Water got to the corn, and some of it
swelled to such an extent that the old schooner was like
to burst. But it got in at last, early in November, with
three thousand bushels of this West India corn.
How the news of this argosy flew even to towns a
day's journey up from the coast!
A great hunger for corncake swept through that part
of the state; and in our own little neighbourhood a
searching canvass of the resources of the five log farmhouses
followed. As a result of it, young Jonathan
Edwards and my then equally youthful Great-uncle
Nathaniel set off the next day to drive to Brunswick
with a span of old white horses hitched in a farm wagon
without springs, carrying four rather poor sheep, four
bushels of barley, and fifteen pounds of wool, which
they hoped to exchange for five bushels of that precious
corn. On top of it all there were three large bagfuls
of hay for the horses. The boys also took an axe
and an old flintlock gun, for much of the way was then
It was a long day's drive for horses in poor condition,
but they reached Brunswick that night. There, however,
they found the cargo of corn so nearly sold out,
or bartered away, that they were able to get but three
bushels to bring home.
The corn was reckoned at nine dollars, the four sheep
at only six dollars, and it had been difficult "dickering"
the fifteen pounds of wool and the two bushels of barley
as worth three dollars more. The extra two bushels
of barley went for their keep overnight. Such was
produce exchange in 1816.
The next morning they started for home, lightly
loaded with their dearly bought corn. Their route
lay along the Androscoggin River, and they had got as
far on their way as the present factory town of Auburn,
where the Little Androscoggin flows into the larger
river of the same name, when they had an adventure
which resulted in very materially increasing the weight
of their load.
It was a raw, cloudy day, and had begun to "spit
snow"; and as it drew toward noon, they stopped beside
the road at a place where a large pine and several birches
leaned out from the brink of the deep gorge through
which the Little Androscoggin flows to join the larger
stream. Here they fed their horses on the last of the
three bagfuls of hay, but had nothing to cook or eat in the
way of food themselves. The weather was chilly, and
my young Great-uncle Nathaniel said to Jonathan:
"If you will get some dry birchbark, I will flash the
pan. We will kindle a fire and warm up."
Jonathan brought the bark, and meanwhile Nathaniel
drew the charge from the old "Queen's arm," then ignited
some powder in the pan with the flintlock, and
started a blaze going.
The blaze, however, had soon to be fed with dry
fuel, and noticing a dead firtop lying on the ground a
few steps away, Jonathan took the axe and ran to break
it up; and the axe strokes among the dry stuff made a
Throwing down the axe at last, Jonathan gathered
up a large armful of the dry branches, and had turned to
the fire, when they both heard a strange sound, like a
deep grunt, not far away, followed by sharp crashes of
the brush down in the basin.
"What's that?" Nathaniel exclaimed. "It's a bear I
guess," and he snatched up the empty gun to reload it.
Jonathan, too, threw down his armful of boughs and
turned back to get the axe.
Before they could do either, however, the strange
grunts and crashes came nearer, and a moment later a
pair of broad antlers and a huge black head appeared,
coming up from the gorge.
At sight of the snorting beast, Jonathan turned suddenly.
"It's a moose, Nat!" he cried. "A big bull
moose! Shoot him! Shoot him!"
Nat was making frantic efforts, but the gun was not
reloaded. Recharging an old "Queen's arm" was a
work of time.
Fortunately for the boys, the attention of the moose
was full fixed on the horses. With another furious
snort, it gained the top of the bank and bounded toward
where they stood hitched, chewing their hay.
The tired white horses looked up suddenly from their
hay, and perceiving this black apparition of the forest,
snorted and tugged at their halters.
With a frightful bellow, half squeal, half roar, the
moose rose twelve feet tall on his hind legs, and rushed
at the one hitched nearest. The horse broke its halter,
ran headlong against its mate, recoiled, bumped into a
tree trunk, and then—the trees standing thick in front
of it—backed over the bank and went out of sight down
the bluff, the moose bounding after it, still bellowing
The other horse had also broken its halter and ran off,
while the two boys stood amazed and alarmed at this
tremendous exhibition of animal ferocity.
"Nat! Nat! He will kill that horse!" Jonathan exclaimed,
and they both ran to look over the bank.
Horse and moose were now down near the water, where
the river ran deep and swift under the steep bank, the
horse trying vainly to escape through the tangled alder
brush, the moose savagely pursuing.
The sight roused the boys to save their horse. Axe in
hand, Jonathan ran and slid down the bluff side, catching
hold of trees and bushes as he did so, to keep from
going quite into the river. Nat followed him, with the
gun which he had hastily primed. Both horse and
moose were now thrashing amidst the alder clumps.
"Shoot him, shoot him!" Jonathan shouted. "Why
don't you fire? Oh, let me have that gun!"
It is not as easy as an onlooker often thinks to shoot
an animal, even a large one, in rapid motion, particularly
among trees and brush; something constantly gets
in the way. Both animals were now tearing along the
brink of the deep stream, stumbling headlong one
second, up the next, plunging on. As often as Nat tried
to steady himself on the steep side of the bluff for a shot,
either the horse was in the way or both animals were
wholly concealed by the bushes. Moreover, the boys
had to run fast through the brush to keep them in sight.
Nat could not shoot with certainty, and Jonathan grew
wild over the delay.
"Shoot him yourself, then!" Nat retorted, panting.
Jonathan snatched the gun and dashed forward, Nat
picking up the axe and following after. On they ran for
several hundred yards, barely keeping pace with the
animals. Jonathan experienced quite as much difficulty
in getting a shot as Nat had done.
At last he aimed and snapped—and the gun did not go
"You never primed it!" he exclaimed indignantly.
Nat thought that he had done so, but was not wholly
certain; and feeling that he must do his part somehow,
he now dashed past Jonathan, and running on, attempted
to head the horse off at a little gully down the
bank to which they had now come. It was a brushy
place; he fell headlong into it himself, and rolled down,
still grasping hard at the axe. He was close upon the
horse now, within a few yards of the water, and looking
up, he saw the moose's head among the alder brush.
The creature appeared to be staring at him, and regaining
his feet, much excited, Nat threw the axe with all
his strength at the moose's head.
By chance rather than skill, the poll of the axe struck
the animal just above the eyes at the root of the
antlers. It staggered, holding its head to one side a
moment, as if half-stunned or in pain. Then, recovering,
it snorted, and with a bound through the brush, jumped
into the stream, and either swam or waded across to the
low sandy bank on the other side. There it stood, still
shaking its head.
Jonathan had caught up with Nat by this time, and
they both stood watching the moose for some moments,
hoping that the mad animal had now had enough of the
fracas and would go his way. The horse was in the
brush of the little gully, sticking fast there, or tired out
by its exertions; and they now began considering how
they could best extricate it and get it back up the
Just then, however, their other horse neighed long
and shrill from the top of the bank, calling to its mate.
The frightened horse beside them neighed back in
These equine salutations produced an unexpected result.
Another hoarse snort and a splash of the water
was the response from across the stream.
"He's coming again!" exclaimed Jonathan. "Have
you got the powder-horn, Nat? Give it to me quick, if
you've got it!" Nathaniel had had the powder-horn
up on the bank, but had dropped it there, or lost it out of
his pocket in his scramble down the bluff.
There was no time to search for it. The moose was
plunging through the narrow stream, and a moment
later sprang ashore and came bounding up the gully
toward the horse.
The boys shouted to frighten him off. The crazy
creature appeared neither to hear nor heed. Jonathan
hastily took refuge behind a rock; Nat jumped to cover
of a tree trunk.
In his rush at the horse, the moose passed close to
them. Again Nat hurled the axe at the animal's side.
Jonathan, snatching up a heavy stone, threw it with all
his might. The horse, too, wheeling in the narrow bed
of the gully, kicked spitefully, lashing out its iron-shod
hoofs again and again, planting them hard on the
For some moments this singular combat raged there.
Recovering the axe and coming up behind the animal,
Nat now attempted to deal a blow. The moose wheeled,
however, as if struck by sudden panic, and went clear
over Nat, who was thrown headlong and slid down into
The moose bounded clear over him, and again went
splashing through the Little Androscoggin to the other
side, where it turned as before, shaking its antlers and
rending the brush with them.
Nathaniel had caught hold of a bush, and thus saved
himself from going fully into the swift current. Jonathan
helped him get out, and the two young fellows
stared at each other. The encounter had given them
proof of the mad strength and energy of the moose.
"Oh, if we could only find that powder-horn somewhere!"
The horse up on the bluff sent forth again its shrill
neigh, to which the one beside them responded.
And just as before, the moose, with an awful bellow,
came plunging through the little river and bounding up
"My soul! Here he comes again!" Jonathan fairly
yelled. "Get out o' the way!"
And Nat got out of the way as quickly as possible, taking
refuge behind the same rock in the side of the gully.
Again the place resounded to a frightful medley of
squeals, bellowings, and crashes in the brush. This
time Jonathan had caught up the axe, and approaching
the furious mêlée of whirling hoofs and gnashing teeth
from one side, attempted to get in a blow. In their
wild movements the enraged animals nearly ran over
him, but he struck and stumbled.
The blow missed the moose's head, but fell on the
animal's foreleg, just below the knee, and broke the
bone. The moose reared, and wheeling on its hind legs,
plunged down the gully, falling partly into the river,
much as Nat had done.
A dozen times it now struggled to get up, almost
succeeding, but fell back each time. With the ardour of
battle still glowing in him, Jonathan rushed forward
with the axe, and finally managed to deal the moose a
deathblow; with a knife they then bled it, and stood by,
"We've muttoned him! We've muttoned him!" Nat
shouted. "But I never had such a fight as that before."
The horse, as it proved, was not seriously injured, but
they were obliged to cut away the alder brush in the
gully to get the animal back up the bluff, and were
occupied for fully an hour doing so.
The body of the moose was a huge one; it must have
weighed fully fourteen hundred pounds. The boys
could no more have moved it than they could move a
mountain. Moreover, it was now beginning to snow
fine and fast.
Jonathan had a fairly good knife, however, and by
using the axe they succeeded in rudely butchering the
carcass and dismembering it. Even then the quarters
were so heavy that their full strength was required to
drag them up the bluff and load them into the wagon.
The head, with its broad, branching antlers, was all that
they could lift to the top of their now bulky load.
The task had taken till past four o'clock of that stormy
November afternoon. Twilight was upon them, the
wintry twilight of a snowstorm, before they made
start; and it was long past midnight when they finally
There were corncake and moose venison for Thanksgiving