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John Lang

A Borderer in America

It would be matter for wonder if, in the histories of old Border families, record of strange personal experiences did not at times crop up. Sons of the Border have wandered far, and have sojourned in many lands, and borne their part in many an untoward event. But it is not likely that any can lay claim to adventures more strange and romantic than those which, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, befell a youthful member of one of the most ancient of these Border clans. This story of his adventures is literally true, as the family records prove, but the descendants of the person to whom they happened prefer that he should not figure in the tale under his own name. For convenience, therefore, it must suffice here to call him Andrew Kerr.

The responsibilities of life began early in his day. A boy who would now find himself in a very junior form at school, was then considered old enough to serve his Majesty in a marching regiment, or left his home to engage in business whilst yet his handwriting had scarcely emerged from childhood's clumsy formation, and veritable infants served as midshipmen in ships of war. Young Kerr was no exception to this general rule. Long before the boy had reached the age of sixteen he was shipped off to New York, there to join an uncle who, in order to engage in commerce, had lately retired from the 60th "Royal American" Regiment, then a famous colonial corps.

Those were stirring times, and for a passenger the voyage to America was no hum-drum affair devoid of excitement or peril. We were at war with France and Spain. Every white sail, therefore, that showed above the horizon meant the coming of a possible enemy; no day passed, in some part of which there might not chance to arise the necessity to employ every device of seamanship if escape were to be effected should the enemy prove too big to fight, or in which there was not at least the possibility of smelling powder burned in earnest.

Nor were danger and excitement necessarily ended with the ship's arrival in New York harbour. We were still fighting the French in Canada; men yet told grim tales of Braddock's defeat and of the horrors of Indian warfare. To him whom business or duty took far from the sea-board into the country of the savage and treacherous Iroquois, there was the ever-present probability that he would some day—perhaps many times—be compelled to fight for his life, with the certainty that, if disabled by wounds he fell into the enemy's hands, the scalp would be torn from his skull ere death could put an end to his sufferings; whilst capture meant, almost for a certainty, the being eventually put to death after undergoing the most hideous tortures that the cruelty of the Redskins could devise. To the colonists, "the only good Indian was a dead Indian"; and doubtless, by the newly-landed Andrew Kerr, the order at once to proceed up-country with a convoy in charge of military stores must have been received with somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, his boyish love of adventure would be amply satisfied, while, on the other, there were risks to be faced which might well have caused more than uneasiness to many an older man—risks which the boy's acquaintances possibly were at no pains to conceal, which, indeed, a few of them would probably take pleasure in painting in the gloomiest of colours. But duty was duty, and the lad had too great a share of Border stubbornness and grit to let himself be badly scared by such tales as were told to him.

The destination of the convoy was Fort Detroit. In those far-off days New York was but a little city of some twenty thousand inhabitants, and the western part of New York State was quite outside the bounds of civilisation. To reach the Canadian frontier there were then two great routes of military communication—one, up the Hudson River, and so by way of Lakes George and Champlain and down the Richelieu to the St. Lawrence; the other, by the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, then by way of Lake Oneida and the Oswego River to the first of the great lakes, Lake Ontario; thence the journey to Fort Detroit would be chiefly by canoe, up Lakes Ontario and Erie. Between the last military post at the head of the Mohawk, however, and the mouth of the Oswego River, there was a great gap in which no military post had been established. Thus the route of the convoy to which Kerr was attached necessarily took them through country overrun by hostile Indian tribes.

No mishap, however, befell the party; probably they were too strong, too wary and well skilled in Indian warfare, to give the enemy a chance of ambushing or taking them by surprise on their march through the woods.

At Fort Detroit, it was found that a small exploring party, under a Captain Robson, was about to set out with the object of determining whether or not certain rivers and lakes were navigable, and young Kerr, boylike, eagerly volunteered to join the expedition.

Here began his strange adventures. The party, all told, consisted but of eleven persons—Captain Robson, Sir Robert Davers, six soldiers, two sailors, and young Kerr. Apparently they did not think it necessary to take with them any colonists, or Indian scouts. It is a curious characteristic of the average Britisher who finds himself in a new land, that he appears to regard it as an axiom that he must necessarily know much more than the average colonist; can, in fact, teach that person "how to suck eggs." The colonist, of course, on his part—and in the majority of cases with justice—regards the "new chum," or "tender foot," as a somewhat helpless creature. But the Britisher despises, or at least he used to despise, the mere colonist. Hence have arisen not a few disasters. The little—travelled Britisher does not readily learn that local conditions in all countries are not the same, that dispositions and customs which suit one are totally out of place and useless in another. That was how General Braddock made so terrible and absolute a fiasco of his expedition; it was the custom of the British army to fight standing in line—(and, in truth, many a notable victory had they won before, and many have they won since, in that formation)—therefore fight thus in line they must, no matter what the nature of the country in which they fought. Hence, in dense forest, surrounded by yelling savages, our men stood up to be shot by a foe whom they never saw till it was too late, and panic had set in amongst the few survivors. Had our troops been taught to adapt themselves to circumstances and to fight as the colonists fought, as the French in Canada had learned to fight, as the Red Indians fought, taking every advantage of cover, Braddock need not thus unnecessarily have lost nearly seventy per cent, of his force. In matters appertaining to war or to fighting, it was beneath the dignity, most unhappily it was beneath the dignity, of a British general to regard as of possible value the opinion of a mere colonial, no matter how experienced in Indian fighting the latter might be, or how great his knowledge of the country. It was that, no doubt, which induced Braddock to disregard the opinion, and to pooh-pooh the knowledge of his then A.D.C. George Washington. Yet it was nothing but Washington's knowledge that saved the van of Braddock's defeated force.

In like manner, had this little exploring expedition been accompanied by colonists experienced in Indian ways, or had they chosen to make use of Indian scouts, disaster might have been averted. As it was, almost on the threshold of their journey they were ambushed, and cut off by the Redskins. Robson, Davers, and two of the men were speedily picked off by the concealed enemy, or were killed in the final rush of the painted, yelling savages. The little force was scattered to the winds. One or two, taking to the water, under cover of the darkness, and protected by that Providence which sometimes watches over helpless persons, eventually reached safety. But young Kerr was not amongst these fortunate ones. For him, experiences more trying were in store. In the last mle he fell into the hands of a grim-looking, powerfully-built warrior, who bound him to a tree, and in that most unpleasant predicament the lad for a time remained, from moment to moment anticipating for himself the treatment he saw being dealt out on the bodies of his friends. His youth saved him. Too young to be considered by the Indians as fit to be a warrior, his scalp was not added to the other bloody trophies of victory; for him was reserved the fate of slavery, the disgrace (from an Indian point of view) of performing menial offices, of doing the work usually performed by squaws. Kerr's captor, a warrior named Peewash, of the tribe of the Chippeways, dragged his prisoner home to his wigwam. There the boy was stripped naked, painted as Indians were painted, his head clean shaved except for one tuft on top called "the scalp lock," which amongst the Indians it was the custom to leave in order to facilitate the operation of scalping by their enemies should the owners chance to fall in battle. A scalp was the recognised trophy of victory. It was not regarded as absolutely necessary to kill an enemy; if his scalp could be torn from his head, no more was required, and not infrequently a wounded man was left scalpless on the ground, writhing in speechless agony, to linger and die miserably.

After undergoing the preliminaries of an Indian toilet, young Kerr had moccasins given to him, and a blanket to wear—a costume perhaps more convenient than becoming—and he entered on a round of duties new and strange. He was not, after a time, unkindly treated by Peewash and his squaw. But the work was far from pleasant, and many were the terrible sights forced on his unwilling notice at this time. Once, when the little garrison of Detroit sent out a small party, which, making a dash at the Indian camp, succeeded in killing a Chippeway Chief, the Redskins in revenge tortured and killed Captain Campbell, a Scot, who had been captured by the Ottawas. Such sights filled the boy with sick horror, and with a not unnatural dread of the fate which might yet await himself. Rather than remain to furnish in his own person the leading feature of an Indian festival, it was surely better, he thought, to die in attempting escape.

As it chanced later, a French trader—these tribes were the allies of the French—arrived in camp, and remained there some time. Moved to pity by the boy's unhappy condition, this man, with some difficulty, persuaded Peewash to sell the lad to him for goods to the value of 40. Great was Kerr's exultation; once more he was free, free too without having had to face the terrible ordeal of attempting to escape from these murderous Indian devils. All would now be well, for assuredly he, or his friends, would repay to the Frenchman the ransom money. The boy felt as if his troubles were already over; in a day or two at longest he would sleep again under the flag of his own land; perhaps even, at no distant date, he might once more gaze on scenes for which throughout his captivity his soul had hungered, see, once more, Cheviot lying blue in the distance, the Eildons with their triple crown, hear the ripple of the Border streams. What tales of adventure he would have to tell.

Alas! he counted without his hosts. The Chippeways when they heard of the transaction would have none of it. The captive boy had been the property of the tribe, they said, and they refused to part with him; he must be given up by the Frenchman. And the latter had no choice but to comply.

Black now were the nights, gloomy the days, for Andrew Kerr, the blacker and the more gloomy for the false dawn that for brief space had cheered him; unbearable was his burden, more hopeless and wretched than ever before, a thousandfold, his captivity. It was as it might be with a man dying of thirst if a cup of cold water were dashed from his lips and spilt on the sandy desert at his feet. Who can blame the boy if only the knowledge of what treatment he would avowedly receive from the young Indians if he should play the squaw and weep, kept him from shedding tears of misery and vexation.

A new master was now his, a chief of the Chippeways; a new squaw set him hateful, degrading tasks, and ordered him about; the young men and the squaws laughed him to scorn; life became more bitter than ever before.

Gradually, however, Kerr's new owners relaxed their severity of treatment, and his lines grew less unpleasant. Time, indeed, made him almost popular—embarrassingly popular—for there came a day when the tribe more than hinted its desire that the Pale-face should wed one of its most beauteous daughters. Happily, the question of who should be bride was left in abeyance. He became, too, almost reconciled to his dress, or want of dress—though, to be sure, a coat of paint and a blanket cannot, at the best, be regarded as more than a passably efficient hot-weather costume. With the easy adaptability of boyhood, Andrew Kerr had become almost a veritable Indian.

Now, Peewash all this time had looked with covetous eye on his former slave, and desired to repossess him. A big price would have to be paid, no doubt; but Peewash was prepared to bid high, and the owner could not withstand a temptation, backed, as it was, by that bait irresistible to a Red Indian, "firewater." The boy again changed hands, and now for some time served his original captor.

About this period the Tribes again "dug up the hatchet," and set out on a big war-trail. Cruel and bloody was the fighting, many the prisoners taken and brought into camp from time to time. On one occasion young Kerr was compelled to stand, a horrified spectator, among the exulting Redskins as with yells of gratified triumph, warriors and squaws, young men and children, gloated fiercely over the brutal torture and lingering death of eight English prisoners. It was a grim and grisly spectacle, for no form of torment—from the nerve-wracking test of knife and tomahawk, arrow or bullet, aimed with intent to graze the flesh and not immediately to kill, to the ghastly ordeal of red-hot ramrods and blazing pine-root splinters thrust into the flesh or under the nails—was omitted by those bloodthirsty red devils. Many a sleepless hour, many a night broken by awful dreams, must the sight have cost the boy. But it determined him to attempt escape at all hazards whenever kind fortune should put the chance in his way.

And fortune did help him ere long. There was a French trader named Boileau who came much about the camp. To him Andrew very cautiously made advances, and succeeded at last in enlisting the man's sympathies. Kerr confided to the trader his desire to attempt escape, and, none too willingly at the beginning, Boileau agreed to take the risk of helping. It was no easy task to lull the suspicions and to evade the watchful eye of the crafty Indians; but the boy had never, so far, shown any desire to escape, and he was not now so everlastingly under supervision. In very bad English on Boileau's part, and in worse French on that of Kerr, a plan of escape was devised. Early in the day, Boileau, after his usual habit, was to leave camp in his canoe, ostensibly setting out on an ordinary trapping expedition. After nightfall, he would return to a certain rock on the lake shore, and then Kerr was to steal out and attempt to join him; thereafter, a night's paddling ought to take the fugitive out of the immediate danger-zone.

The night was cloudy and black, and not too still; everything, in fact, was in the boy's favour as, with beating heart, he wormed his way out of the wigwam and crawled stealthily on his belly from the camp towards the dense gloom of the forest. Then, almost as he had succeeded in gaining the comparative safety of the trees, beneath his moccasined foot a stick snapped, and a cursed Indian dog gave tongue, rousing the entire pack, and the sleeping camp, like an angry swarm of bees, woke at once to venomous life.

But Kerr by this time was at least clear of the wigwams; if he could but reach that rock by the lake-side, and if the Frenchman had kept faith, he might get safely away. Boileau would surely never fail him. Hampered and constantly tripped up by roots and tangled undergrowth, confused by the blackness of the night, the boy toiled on with thumping heart and shortening breath; and at last, looming above him, was the welcome outlines of the great rock. But on neither side of it could he find sign of the trader or of his canoe. And already by the rustlings in the woods and the occasional snapping of dry sticks, he could tell that the pursuing Indians were drawing perilously near him.

"Boileau!" he whispered. "Boileau!" And then, in an agony of mind he risked all, and shouted:

"Boileau, Boileau! A moi!"

An angry whisper from almost at his side replied viciously:

"Pas de chahut, malheureux! A bord vite, mille dieux!"

And as the canoe silently glided from the shore with the boy safely on board, the form of an Indian could be dimly seen where Kerr had stood the previous moment, and a bullet sang past his ear.

There for the time his more acute troubles ended. A few days later, at Detroit, a throng of persons, half helpless with laughter, noisily escorted to the Fort a forlorn, bald-headed, painted scare-crow, clad in a tattered Indian blanket, which scare-crow presently introduced itself to the commandant as Andrew Kerr, lately a prisoner of the Indians.

Once recovered from his fatigues and hardships, Andrew, as one of a small force, was sent to Niagara to obtain supplies for the Detroit garrison. The outward voyage down Lake Erie was safely and pleasantly accomplished. But these vast American lakes are subject to sudden and violent storms, and on the return trip, during an exceptionally fierce squall, the little 40-ton sloop, heavily laden as she was with military stores, sprang a leak, and to save themselves the crew were forced to run her aground on a gravelly beach under the lee of a projecting headland. The situation at best was most critical, for if the wind should shift but a few points the sloop must inevitably break up; and not only was the one boat available a mere skiff incapable of living in a heavy sea, but even should they all succeed in safely getting ashore with muskets intact and ammunition dry, their position would still be in the last degree precarious. For well they knew in what manner of country they were about to set unwilling foot—forest land occupied by the fiercest and most treacherous of the hostile Indian tribes. Capture meant death, probably with torture to precede it.

With great difficulty and some danger the ship-wrecked crew did at length succeed in getting ashore, with their rifles and a fair supply of powder and lead, and without an instant's delay they set about building a rude breastwork for protection if matters should come to a fight. The stranded vessel must certainly have been already seen by the Indians; at any moment they might appear. But the breastwork was completed without interruption, and still no sign of the Redskins had been seen. It was at least breathing space, though all knew what must assuredly follow, and to some the actual immediate combat would have been less unwelcome than was now the suspense.

After consultation, a few of the party, including Kerr, whose knowledge of Indian ways it was thought might be useful, left the breastwork to spy on the enemy—or at least to try to pick up some knowledge of their whereabouts. Had it been into that enchanted land that they now entered, where lay the Sleeping Beauty, the forest shades could not have been more still, more apparently devoid of life. No breath of wind stirred leaf or bough, all nature breathed peace, and, lulled to a sense of security, the little party ventured farther among the trees than was prudent. In Indian warfare, appearances were ever deceitful; the greater the apparent security, the greater the need for caution. So it was now here.

"I guess it ain't all right," one man was saying; "I don't like it. Get back, boys."

And even as he spoke, "crack" went a rifle on their left—"crack," "crack," "crack," came the sound of fire-arms on three sides; and as they turned and ran for the breastwork, a man hiccoughed and fell on his face, clutching at the grass, coughing up his life-blood. No time to turn and help; the yelling Redskins were at their heels, tomahawk and scalping knife in hand; delay meant certain death for all, and the fugitives tumbled into the breastwork just in time. Then, save for one awful scream of agony, again for a time all was quiet; for any sign that might be seen of them by the white men, the forest might have swallowed up the enemy. But let one of these white men for but an instant show his head over the breastwork, or in any way expose an arm or even a hand, then from the concealed foe came at once a hail of bullets, and the forest rang with the crack of rifles. Several of the little garrison, careless, or too impatient to fire only through the roughly made loopholes, lost their lives in this way; and some others were picked off by Indians who had managed to get into the high branches of neighbouring trees, and thence, concealed behind thick foliage, fired on the garrison, for a time with impunity, till by chance it was discovered from where the fatal shots were coming.

Meantime, for the white men it was almost like letting off their rifles into the night; seldom could a Redskin be seen, and men fired only at the spots where the smoke of Indian muskets hung about the undergrowth, or where they saw a spirt of flame.

And so the fight went on, hour after hour, till many of the defenders had fallen, and the necessity of husbanding ammunition slackened the fire of Kerr and his comrades. Then the Indians, knowing that the white men were few, abandoning caution tried to rush the breastwork. But now necessarily they exposed themselves, and as the white men had reloaded the empty rifles of their dead and wounded comrades, and thus had at least two apiece ready, heavy toll was taken of the stormers, and the Redskins were beaten back. Time and again was this repeated, once even during the night—just before dawn. But each attempt failed, and the baffled Indians finally drew off.

With thankful hearts, if with sore labour, the surviving white men, by lightening their vessel, got her off the ground, and succeeded in finding and stopping the leak. A few days saw them again safely at Detroit.

No more, as a civilian, did Andrew Kerr face the Indians. On getting back to New York in 1764 he was given a commission as ensign in the 1st battalion of the 42nd Regiment, and in various parts of the world he saw much service, finally retiring about 1780 with the rank of captain. He did not wholly, however, sever his connection with the service, for later, after he had purchased an estate in the Border, and had married, he became a major in the Dumfries Militia.

It is given to few to pass a youth so stormy as Kerr's, and to end, as he did, by becoming a peaceful, prosperous Border laird.