The Story of Jonathan Dawson, the Yankee Boy
LET us take a look at this Yankee boy, as he sits on the wooden settle beside the great, roaring wood fire, and, by the light of its cheerful blaze, reads "The Pilgrim's Progress."
He is a tall and sturdy lad, with face somewhat freckled and hair somewhat bleached by constant exposure to sunshine, or whatever other kind of weather the Lord chooses to send.
He wears a jacket and trousers of coarse, strong woollen cloth of the color known as "pepper and salt," and even this simple suit of clothes would be a fit subject for a collector of curiosities in our own day. Only a week ago the wool of which it was made was on the sheep's backs.
"Jonathan must have a new suit of clothes," his mother had said, as she carefully set a round patch into the middle of the big square one that she had inserted into his trousers a month or two ago.
"I can make the clothes now, if I have the wool; but next week come the soap-making and the quilting, and there will not be much time to spare."
"Then I will shear for you to-morrow," said her husband, and, true to his word, he brought her in a black fleece and a white one, and the wool was soon carded, and the spinning wheels in motion.
Thankful, the oldest daughter, was a good spinner, and their neighbor, Mrs. Deliverance Putnam, coming in the next day, began also to spin with the big wheel, while she told her news; so it was not long before the heavy skeins of black and white yarn were ready for the loom.
Mother herself is the best weaver; so Thankful and Betty did the churning and cooking and sweeping and mending, while she "set up" a good piece of mixed black and white cloth (pepper and salt), as I said before.
Then Miss Polly Emerson, the tailoress, came to cut out the clothes, and busy hands (not sewing-machines, for who ever dreamed of a sewing-machine in those days?) soon stitched them together, and there was Jonathan's new suit, homespun, home-woven, home-made.
We may have some idea of what a suit of clothes is worth when we understand how all this work has been needed for the making of it. And now we are ready to charge Jonathan not to use his new clothes carelessly. He isn't to wear them every day, of course; his old ones will still last some months with careful patching. But to-day is Sunday and he has been to meeting, and sat on the pulpit stairs through a sermon two hours long by the hour-glass, in the forenoon, and another scarcely shorter in the afternoon, relieved a little, however, by the singing from the old Bay Psalm-book in which the whole congregation joined.
Now, since the sun has set, and the needful household chores are done, he may read Pilgrim's Progress by the firelight.
At noontime he had eaten his dinner of bread and cheese on Meeting-house Green, where he talked with Reuben Thompson and Abner Dwight, who had come with their parents to meeting, riding by a bridle-path through the woods. Jonathan stood on the meeting-house steps to watch them ride away when the afternoon services had ended. Farmer Dwight, on his brown horse, with his good wife behind him on a pillion, and Goodman Thompson, on his old gray, which also carried double, for Goodwife Thompson sat smiling behind her husband, as easy and comfortable as if in her own chair at home.
The two boys rode together on old Dobbin, and urged him along as best they could, lest they should not get through Price's woods before dark, for it wasn't unusual to meet a prowling wolf by the way after nightfall.
Then Jonathan had trudged home, two miles over a rough road, and was ending his day beside the fire, with his book, as I told you in the beginning of the chapter.
He had just got as far as Giant Despair and Doubting Castle, when his little sister Patty, sitting on a low stool before the fire, with her kitten in her lap, called to him to look quickly, and see the wild geese go up the chimney, and there, on the sooty back of the great, wide fireplace, the sparks had caught for a moment like a flock of birds, quickly moving up the chimney, as one died out and a fresh one caught fire.
The children always liked to watch them, and this time Stephen Stackpole, their father's hired man, stopped for an instant to watch them too, while he laid a fresh armful of wood beside the fire.
"Them ain't wild geese, children," he said, "Them's the folks goin' to meetin'. Don't ye see, there's the parson in front, and all the folks flockin' on behind. That's what we used to call 'em when I was a boy."
Sunday evenings were short in those days, and Monday morning found our boy up at day-break, and dressed in his patched clothes. He is busy about his morning work, for he has to help about the milking, drive the cows and sheep to pasture, draw water from the well with a bucket hung from a long pole called the well-sweep, and then carry the hams up to the little smoke-room that is built into the chimney, and reached through a door which opens from the attic; for the best of bacon was smoked in every household chimney in those days.
While he is working, we will take a look at his home,—a strange, one-sided-looking house, with a "lean-to" at the back or north side, where there is a cool buttery, or pantry, which saves Goodwife Dawson many a trip down cellar or out to the well. For the well is used as a sort of refrigerator, and many a pail of butter is kept cool and sweet in its depths.
The cellar has a big trap-door outside the house, and ladder-like steps to go down, and when this door is closed it makes a comfortable seat where, on a summer afternoon, you might see little Patty Dawson sitting with her knitting-work; for, the minute the child sat down, her mother would put her knitting-work into her hands, saying, "You can rest just as well knitting." And the consequence was that the little eight-year old girl has already become an expert knitter, and has not only knitted a pair of stockings for herself, but also a big stout pair, of blue yarn, for her brother.
The cellar had bins for potatoes and turnips and other vegetables, and many an hour has Jonathan worked there, storing away the winter stock of food.
"That is just what the farmers do everywhere, now as well as then," you will say.
That is true of the farmers, but in Jonathan's time this storing of provisions for the winter was necessary for every man, for provision-stores were few and far between, and almost every man had land enough to raise all that was needed for his own family.
When the cellar-door was closed, you could stand upon it and look in at the east window of the kitchen. It was a window of twenty-four small panes of coarse, greenish glass, set in heavy sashes, but through it you could look into the pleasantest room in the house.
It extended the whole way across the back part of the house, and had one east window and two west ones, and the sun lay across the floor, one way or the other, all day long. On the north side was the great brick fireplace, with a stone hearth that measured ten feet by seven.
In the afternoon, when the work was done, the kitchen floor was sprinkled with sand, which was swept into graceful curves, like a prettily marked-out pattern. Thankful always took her finest birch broom for this sweeping, and prided herself upon her kitchen floor as much as Minnie and Alice do now upon their piano-playing and embroidery.
The kitchen fire was a pleasant sight. It not only roasted the meat, and boiled the kettle and the pots that hung from the hooks of the crane, it also filled the kitchen with a glow of light and heat, and shone upon the pewter plates and dishes on the dresser, and the polished brasses of the great chest of drawers that stood opposite the fireplace.
Under the doors and around the windows winter winds blew in, and snow drifted into little piles on the sills, and grandfather had to sit in the warmest corner, where the high back of the settle protected him from drafts.
Over the fireplace were curious little cupboards in the wall, so high up that the children could not reach them; but perhaps the treasures they contained were all the safer for that.
Sometimes, after supper, sitting there by the firelight, the children ask their grandfather for a story, and he answers, "Well, hand me down the old cup, and I will tell."
And Jonathan climbs on one of the rush-bottomed chairs, opens the little cupboard door, that is fastened by a wooden button, and from a shelf inside takes out a curiously-shaped little wooden cup. It is made of oak wood, and is already turning dark with age.
Putting it into the old man's hand, he stands beside him to listen to the strange and terrible story he has already heard many a time before, of the sudden night attack upon the settlement by French and Indians, when his grandfather was a young man; how he waked only to find the house in flames and surrounded by whooping savages, tomahawk in hand: and how he was marched away captive through the forest, with many other men, women, and children, who, as it happened to please their captors, were held for ransom instead of being tortured and killed.
It was during this strange captivity that he had made this little wooden cup to drink from, and brought it away with him when at last the end of the war brought an exchange of prisoners. "You mind neighbor Churchill's wife, my boy," the old man would say. "Well, she was one of the babies that was taken through the woods with us,—a baby in her mother's arms. The hope of saving her baby was all that kept that poor mother alive through that terrible march. Not until we reached the Indian village, near the Canada line, did she give up, and then she just dropped down and died.
"The Indians would have made short work with the baby if the mother had dropped on the road, but in the village a childless squaw claimed it for her own, and a good foster-mother she made, too. It was pitiful to hear her plead to keep it when the news came that the chief had given his word that all prisoners should be sent down to the nearest fort for exchange.
" 'The little one has no other mother but me,' she said.
"It was true, and the child was loth to leave her; but its own father was at the fort to claim his wife and baby, and he went home with the poor little thing sobbing in his arms, as sorry to leave her Indian mammy as if she had never known any other.
"You'll keep this cup, boy," he said, as he handed it back to be returned to its place in the little chimney cupboard.
"That I will, grandfather; it is as good as a story itself," answered Jonathan.
"We are safe enough here, now, from the red-skins," continued the old man, "but there are plenty of them still in the wilderness of the Ohio and in Kentuck, and you may have to meet them in battle yet, Jonathan."
You will see that the old grandfather was not the only one who thought it likely that the boys would need to fight some day. Master Wadsworth, the schoolmaster, had also the same idea; perhaps not with regard to fighting Indians only, but possibly British troops, for, if you will go to school with Jonathan, you will see that there was something besides reading, writing, and ciphering taught in that school. On the school-room walls hung a row of wooden muskets with tin bayonets, and, as the clock struck twelve, Master Wadsworth took up his cocked hat, and, shouting "To arms!" led his little regiment of boys out to drill. He taught them the proper handling of their arms, marched them, and wheeled and counter-marched, through sunshine and through rain, over hills and through woods. "For the need will surely come," said the master, "and you must be ready."
And the need did come. In less than ten years Master Wadsworth was General Wadsworth, and some of his old schoolboys were serving under him in the Revolutionary war.
On Friday afternoon there was catechising in school. On Monday morning the texts of yesterday's sermons must be repeated.
The most common reading-book was the Bible; and many a worn-out copy that had been used in school showed how the children had toiled over the hard words and unpronounceable names. So poor was the print of some of these old Bibles that there were often blotted words which could not be deciphered, and the reader would supply their places by saying, "scratched out."
"The city that the Lord hath scratched out," read Jonathan in a loud, sing-song voice, one morning.
"Stop, stop," cried Master Wadsworth, "let me see, you young rascal, what city that is."
Saturday was a holiday, and of course you want to know what Jonathan did then.
It wasn't all play, for Yankee boys, in whatever station in life, used to work in those days.
So the first thing in the morning was to bring in the oven-wood. If you don't know what that means, I must tell you that beside the fire-place was a great brick oven, like a baker's oven. It was heated by building a fire in it, which, when it had burned down, left the bricks so hot that the heat would serve for hours to bake bread and cake and pies, and finish by cooking a great pot of beans and a loaf of brown bread, which were left in all night, and taken out still warm for breakfast on Sunday morning. The oven-wood was always to be brought in early on Saturday morning.
Then there was the jack to be wound up; that was another thing for Jonathan to do. I don't believe any of you know what the jack was, and, to explain it, I must tell you that, when meat was to be roasted, it had a long iron spit run through it, and was placed before the fire, where the ends of the spit rested in a frame. Now, of course, the spit must be turned round and round, or the meat would roast only on one side.
I have heard of dogs being employed to turn a spit, by means of a little treadmill, but I think the jack which used to be in my grandfather's old kitchen was a better turnspit. It had weights like a tall clock, and was wound up and attached to the spit, which it would turn steadily round and round, until it ran down, when, of course, it could easily be wound up again.
After the jack was wound up, Goodwife Dawson would perhaps say that she needed new brooms; and Jonathan would go to the edge of the woods for suitable birch sticks, and then, sitting on the kitchen doorstep, he stripped them down nearly to the end, turned the strips over, and tied them firmly round, thus making a very useful broom. Could you do that, do you think?
Or, if she did not need brooms, she might want ribwort, or sage, or raspberry leaves gathered to dry for tea, for already the odious tea-tax had roused the Yankees to resistance, and only "liberty tea" was used in this patriotic family. Sometimes Jonathan brought home from the fields or pastures the sweet-smelling bayberries, that his mother might have bayberry tallow for her candle-making.
The firelight, as we have already seen, was often bright enough to read by at night, but there was always also a good supply of home-made candles, both dip and mould: the former made by dipping a wick into melted tallow, cooling and dipping again and again until it was large enough; the latter, by pouring the melted tallow into a mould. The bayberry tallow gave out a pleasant fragrance as it burned, and was also of a pretty green color, and the bayberry candles were often run in a pretty fluted mould.
The work being finished, the boy would be off to the woods to set snares for rabbits, or traps for foxes; perhaps even to help the young men of the neighborhood set a bear-trap for the brown bear that had killed a calf last week.
Sometimes a flock of wild pigeons would almost darken the sky, and would fall by dozens at the fire of the old guns which were to be found in every house, hanging on the hooks over the door or the fireplace.
The best Saturday play was "training," as the boys called playing soldiers.
"Training-day" was the day when the militia marched out to the meeting-house green and were reviewed by their officers. And the boys, who looked on with delight, celebrated their training-day as often as a leisure Saturday would permit.
They hadn't many holidays. Christmas was frowned upon, as a festival of the English church upon which their ancestors had turned their backs when they came to this country. But Thanksgiving was the chief feast-day of the year. To meeting in the forenoon, to hear a good strong sermon on the state of the country; and then home to a grand dinner of turkey and chicken pie, plum-pudding and pies of pumpkin, apples, and mince, with a dessert of apples and cider, and a grand game of blind-man's-buff in the evening,—that was Thanksgiving Day; and while they were in the midst of its festivities, perhaps a great snow-storm would come, and block up the windows and doors, so that their only way out the next day would be through a tunnelled drift.
Sometimes, on a market-day, the boy goes into Boston with his father, who with well-filled saddle-bags rides his big bay horse, while his son jogs slowly beside him on old Dobbin. They cross the river on a flat ferry-boat worked by a chain which stretches across the stream, and they enter town by the road leading in over "the Neck," where they meet the New York stage which has been for two weeks on its way from that city, bringing mails and passengers.
In Boston he sees gentlemen in their powdered wigs, braided queues, cocked hats, lace ruffles, small-clothes with knee-buckles, and gilt buttons on their coats. Occasionally, too, a carriage with a black footman or a coachman,—slaves they were, Cæsar or Cato by name, for Massachusetts had not yet set all her slaves free; though men were beginning to think that they couldn't conscientiously say, "All men are born free and equal," while they held any in bondage.
He is always glad when business takes his father down to the wharves, so that he may see what is coming from or going to other parts of the world. Perhaps a schooner is in from Barbadoes, loaded with molasses, and another is loading for the same port with salt fish. A ship from England, which has been five or six weeks on the way, is unloading window-glass, salt, calico, broadcloth, hardware, and many a simple thing that the skilful New Englanders could make for themselves if their mother country would allow them to do so.
Jonathan stands under the great elm, that has already received the name of "Liberty Tree," and he sees red-coated soldiers in the streets, and hears on all sides talk of the British war-ships in the harbor.
His father buys a copy of "Poor Richard's Almanac," published by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia; and also a newspaper, "The Massachusetts Spy," and carries them safely home to read at his leisure; for a newspaper was a rare treasure in those days. And the buying of the newspaper reminds me to tell you what sort of money Jonathan uses, when he has any to use,—which, to tell the truth, is not often.
He has coppers or pennies three times as large as our present cents. Then he has sometimes a silver sixpence, or ninepence, or a little piece called fourpence-ha'penny, and occasionally a Spanish pistareen, which is worth about twenty cents. He has seen pine-tree shillings, which were used in his grandfather's day, but there are no five or ten cent pieces, no quarter or half dollars, though there are big Spanish silver dollars, much used by the merchants.
If he is sent to buy sugar or molasses for his mother, he is perhaps told that the price is "one and sixpence," or "two and six," or "three and nine." What a mystery such prices must be to you to-day!
His father, last year, bought his wife a calico gown at four and sixpence a yard, made, very likely, of American cotton,—for cotton had been growing in South Carolina for the last twenty years, and was already exported to England and manufactured. But Goodwife Dawson will not wear any more British calico. She will prefer her own homespun dresses, and the independence that comes with them.
One singular event of Jonathan's boyhood I must not omit to mention. He had the small-pox; that is, he had it given to him on purpose. He went, with his mother and two sisters and a half dozen of their neighbors, to a lonely house on an island, and there the whole party had the small-pox together. After they were well, others took their places for the same purpose. Vaccination had not been discovered, and it was found that taking the small-pox by inoculation, as it was called, made the disease less dangerous, so it was the custom for people to save themselves from the worst form of it by taking the lightest.
Although Jonathan is a New England boy, he has never seen the American flag, for there was no American flag in his time; even the pine tree flag had not yet been made.
He has never celebrated the Fourth of July; for as yet there has been nothing to distinguish that day from others. But he will live to call it "Independence Day," and to think of it as the birthday of a great nation.
He is a British subject while a boy. When he is a young man he will be a soldier in the Revolutionary army, and fight under the stars and stripes. And long before he is an old man, he will be a good citizen of the free and independent republic of the United States.