The Heroine of Long Point, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Tales and Sketches

[1869.]

LOOKING at the Government Chart of Lake Erie, one sees the outlines of a long, narrow island, stretching along the shore of Canada West, opposite the point where Loudon District pushes its low, wooded wedge into the lake. This is Long Point Island, known and dreaded by the navigators of the inland sea which batters its yielding shores, and tosses into fantastic shapes its sandheaps. The eastern end is some twenty miles from the Canada shore, while on the west it is only separated from the mainland by a narrow strait known as "The Cut." It is a sandy, desolate region, broken by small ponds, with dreary tracts of fenland, its ridges covered with a low growth of pine, oak, beech, and birch, in the midst of which, in its season, the dogwood puts out its white blossoms. Wild grapes trail over the sand-dunes and festoon the dwarf trees. Here and there are almost impenetrable swamps, thick-set with white cedars, intertwisted and contorted by the lake winds, and broken by the weight of snow and ice in winter. Swans and wild geese paddle in the shallow, reedy bayous; raccoons and even deer traverse the sparsely wooded ridges. The shores of its creeks and fens are tenanted by minks and muskrats. The tall tower of a light-house rises at the eastern extremity of the island, the keeper of which is now its solitary inhabitant.

Fourteen years ago, another individual shared the proprietorship of Long Point. This was John Becker, who dwelt on the south side of the island, near its westerly termination, in a miserable board shanty nestled between naked sand-hills. He managed to make a poor living by trapping and spearing muskrats, the skins of which he sold to such boatmen and small-craft skippers as chanced to land on his forlorn territory. His wife, a large, mild-eyed, patient young woman of some twenty-six years, kept her hut and children as tidy as circumstances admitted, assisted her husband in preparing the skins, and sometimes accompanied him on his trapping excursions.

On that lonely coast, seldom visited in summer, and wholly cut off from human communication in winter, they might have lived and died with as little recognition from the world as the minks and wildfowl with whom they were tenants in common, but for a circumstance which called into exercise unsuspected qualities of generous courage and heroic self- sacrifice.

The dark, stormy close of November, 1854, found many vessels on Lake
Erie, but the fortunes of one alone have special interest for us. About
that time the schooner Conductor, owned by John McLeod, of the
Provincial Parliament, a resident of Amherstburg, at the mouth of the
Detroit River, entered the lake from that river, bound for Port
Dalhousie, at the mouth of the Welland Canal.

She was heavily loaded with grain. Her crew consisted of Captain Hackett, a Highlander by birth, and a skilful and experienced navigator, and six sailors. At nightfall, shortly after leaving the head of the lake, one of those terrific storms, with which the late autumnal navigators of that "Sea of the Woods" are all too familiar, overtook them. The weather was intensely cold for the season; the air was filled with snow and sleet; the chilled water made ice rapidly, encumbering the schooner, and loading down her decks and rigging. As the gale increased, the tops of the waves were shorn off by the fierce blasts, clouding the whole atmosphere with frozen spray, or what the sailors call "spoondrift," rendering it impossible to see any object a few rods distant. Driving helplessly before the wind, yet in the direction of her place of destination, the schooner sped through the darkness. At last, near midnight, running closer than her crew supposed to the Canadian shore, she struck on the outer bar off Long Point Island, beat heavily across it, and sunk in the deeper water between it and the inner bar. The hull was entirely submerged, the waves rolling in heavily, and dashing over the rigging, to which the crew betook themselves. Lashed there, numb with cold, drenched by the pitiless waves, and scourged by the showers of sleet driven before the wind, they waited for morning. The slow, dreadful hours wore away, and at length the dubious and doubtful gray of a morning of tempest succeeded to the utter darkness of night.

Abigail Becker chanced at that time to be in her hut with none but her young children. Her husband was absent on the Canada shore, and she was left the sole adult occupant of the island, save the light-keeper, at its lower end, some fifteen miles off. Looking out at daylight on the beach in front of her door, she saw the shattered boat of the Conductor, east up by the waves. Her experience of storm and disaster on that dangerous coast needed nothing more to convince her that somewhere in her neighborhood human life had been, or still was, in peril. She followed the southwesterly trend of the island for a little distance, and, peering through the gloom of the stormy morning, discerned the spars of the sunken schooner, with what seemed to be human forms clinging to the rigging. The heart of the strong woman sunk within her, as she gazed upon those helpless fellow-creatures, so near, yet so unapproachable. She had no boat, and none could have lived on that wild water. After a moment's reflection she went back to her dwelling, put the smaller children in charge of the eldest, took with her an iron kettle, tin teapot, and matches, and returned to the beach, at the nearest point to the vessel; and, gathering up the logs and drift-wood always abundant, on the coast, kindled a great fire, and, constantly walking back and forth between it and the water, strove to intimate to the sufferers that they were at least not beyond human sympathy. As the wrecked sailors looked shoreward, and saw, through the thick haze of snow and sleet, the red light of the fire and the tall figure of the woman passing to and fro before it, a faint hope took the place of the utter despair which had prompted them to let go their hold and drop into the seething waters, that opened and closed about them like the jaws of death. But the day wore on, bringing no abatement of the storm that tore through the frail spars, and clutched at and tossed them as it passed, and drenched them with ice-cold spray,—a pitiless, unrelenting horror of sight, sound, and touch! At last the deepening gloom told them that night was approaching, and night under such circumstances was death.

All day long Abigail Becker had fed her fire, and sought to induce the sailors by signals—for even her strong voice could not reach them—to throw themselves into the surf, and trust to Providence and her for succor. In anticipation of this, she had her kettle boiling over the drift-wood, and her tea ready made for restoring warmth and life to the half-frozen survivors. But either they did not understand her, or the chance of rescue seemed too small to induce them to abandon the temporary safety of the wreck. They clung to it with the desperate instinct of life brought face to face with death. Just at nightfall there was a slight break in the west; a red light glared across the thick air, as if for one instant the eye of the storm looked out upon the ruin it had wrought, and closed again under lids of cloud. Taking advantage of this, the solitary watcher ashore made one more effort. She waded out into the water, every drop of which, as it struck the beach, became a particle of ice, and stretching out and drawing in her arms, invited, by her gestures, the sailors to throw themselves into the waves, and strive to reach her. Captain Hackett understood her. He called to his mate in the rigging of the other mast: "It is our last chance. I will try! If I live, follow me; if I drown, stay where you are!" With a great effort he got off his stiffly frozen overcoat, paused for one moment in silent commendation of his soul to God, and, throwing himself into the waves, struck out for the shore. Abigail Becker, breast-deep in the surf, awaited him. He was almost within her reach, when the undertow swept him back. By a mighty exertion she caught hold of him, bore him in her strong arms out of the water, and, laying him down by her fire, warmed his chilled blood with copious draughts of hot tea. The mate, who had watched the rescue, now followed, and the captain, partially restored, insisted upon aiding him. As the former neared the shore, the recoiling water baffled him. Captain Hackett caught hold of him, but the undertow swept them both away, locked in each other's arms. The brave woman plunged after them, and, with the strength of a giantess, bore them, clinging to each other, to the shore, and up to her fire. The five sailors followed in succession, and were all rescued in the same way.

A few days after, Captain Hackett and his crew were taken off Long Point by a passing vessel; and Abigail Becker resumed her simple daily duties without dreaming that she had done anything extraordinary enough to win for her the world's notice. In her struggle every day for food and warmth for her children, she had no leisure for the indulgence of self- congratulation. Like the woman of Scripture, she had only "done what she could," in the terrible exigency that had broken the dreary monotony of her life.

It so chanced, however, that a gentleman from Buffalo, E. P. Dorr, who had, in his early days, commanded a vessel on the lake, found himself, shortly after, at a small port on the Canada shore, not far from Long Point Island. Here he met an old shipmate, Captain Davis, whose vessel had gone ashore at a more favorable point, and who related to him the circumstances of the wreck of the Conductor. Struck by the account, Captain Dorr procured a sleigh and drove across the frozen bay to the shanty of Abigail Becker. He found her with her six children, all thinly clad and barefooted in the bitter cold. She stood there six feet or more of substantial womanhood,—not in her stockings, for she had none,—a veritable daughter of Anak, broad-bosomed, large-limbed, with great, patient blue eyes, whose very smile had a certain pathos, as if one saw in it her hard and weary life-experience. She might have passed for any amiable giantess, or one of those much—developed maids of honor who tossed Gulliver from hand to hand in the court of Brobdingnag. The thing that most surprised her visitor was the childlike simplicity of the woman, her utter unconsciousness of deserving anything for an action that seemed to her merely a matter of course. When he expressed his admiration with all the warmth of a generous nature, she only opened her wide blue eyes still wider with astonishment.

"Well, I don't know," she said, slowly, as if pondering the matter for the first time,—"I don't know as I did more 'n I'd ought to, nor more'n I'd do again."

Before Captain Dorr left, he took the measure of her own and her children's feet, and on his return to Buffalo sent her a box containing shoes, stockings, and such other comfortable articles of clothing as they most needed. He published a brief account of his visit to the heroine of Long Point, which attracted the attention of some members of the Provincial Parliament, and through their exertions a grant of one hundred acres of land, on the Canada shore, near Port Rowan, was made to her. Soon after she was invited to Buffalo, where she naturally excited much interest. A generous contribution of one thousand dollars, to stock her farm, was made by the merchants, ship-owners and masters of the city, and she returned to her family a grateful and, in her own view, a rich woman.

When the story of her adventure reached New York, the Life-Saving Benevolent Association sent her a gold medal with an appropriate inscription, and a request that she would send back a receipt in her own name. As she did not know how to write, Captain Dorr hit upon the expedient of having her photograph taken with the medal in her hand, and sent that in lieu of her autograph.

In a recent letter dictated at Walsingham, where Abigail Becker now lives,—a widow, cultivating with her own hands her little farm in the wilderness,—she speaks gratefully of the past and hopefully of the future. She mentions a message received from Captain Hackett, who she feared had almost forgotten her, that he was about to make her a visit, adding with a touch of shrewdness: "After his second shipwreck last summer, I think likely that I must have recurred very fresh to him."

The strong lake winds now blow unchecked over the sand-hills where once stood the board shanty of Abigail Becker. But the summer tourist of the great lakes, who remembers her story, will not fail to give her a place in his imagination with Perry's battle-line and the Indian heroines of Cooper and Longfellow. Through her the desolate island of Long Point is richly dowered with the interest which a brave and generous action gives to its locality.