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 through forest.

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 considerable crackling.

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 hoarsely.

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 off.

"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 bluff.

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 reply.

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 moose's front.

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 water.

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!" Jonathan exclaimed.

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 the gully.

"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 mle 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, triumphant.

"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 plodded home.

There were corncake and moose venison for Thanksgiving dinner.