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Chapter 1: Our Perilous Journey

Chapter 1: Our Perilous Journey

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Published by Gordon Clark

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Published by: Gordon Clark on Jan 17, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Roosters in the barnyard crowed, but their effort was futile: It was still w
ell before daybreak 
but Iwas already awake,
awake. I lay in bed, listening, waiting
to hear Mother stoking the fire in the bigkitchen stove downstairs.I listened to the weathervane changing direction on the roof ridge right over my head. I listened to
the hensoutside, already scratching and clucking and pecking in the yard. Somewhere out in the fields Iheard a cow lowing to be milked. Finally I heard Mother in the kitchen
, so I very quietly crawled outof my bed mat in the attic so as not to disturb my little brother William, still snoring gently next to me. I pulled aclean shirt over my head, put on fresh leggings and almost jumped into my new leather britches. I ran my fingersthrough my hair and tied it back with a black ribbon, then slipped on a new pair of buckle shoes, made by thecobbler just last week. They were still stiff, but I hoped they would loosen over time.
The exciting day was finally at hand.
This is the day I have dreamed of for months. It is the 5
of September in the Year of Our Lord 1763. On this day five of us are to begin a grand journey by horse, sailing ship, and pole boat. This is the day we are to set out for the rugged wilderness on the remote western edge of New Jersey Colony.It is a most exciting day for this most excitable 10-year-old youngster.Preparations had been going on for weeks. Everyone in the family was involved, and for us that means a lot of family. I have 18 siblings and half-siblings, including my twin sister Hannah, plus many aunts, uncles, and cousinsnear about. All were pressed into service to launch us on our grand adventure. Trunks to be packed, clothes to becleaned and repaired, tools to be made, seed grains to be gathered, letters of introduction written, foodstuffs to bestored, weapons to be cleaned and checked.Dawn was just breaking when I stumbled into the kitchen. Mother gave me a long hug, much more than usual. Thiswould be the longest time we would be apart. And we did not really know how long it might be, ‘tho Father said hewas sure it would be six months at the most.“My dearest Benjamin, how I will miss you,” she said as she handed me a cup of steaming black tea. I looked at her,and was surprised at how old she seemed just then, and tired. Perhaps she was; indeed she had every reason to be.Rachel Van Garden DeCorsa was then 46 years old, the mother of 12 children by two husbands, a devout Christian,a strong-willed matriarch, a learned and respected community member, and my dear Mother.“You must mind your Father and your brothers, and always be alert.” She undid my hair ribbon and combed my hair with a real tortoise-shell comb, then said, “You know the stories. You know how dangerous it is where you aregoing. You know how I will worry about you every moment until you come back to me. Promise you will send meword whenever you can, and read your Bible every day.”She continued to absently stroke my hair, lost in her own thoughts.Of course I knew the stories. I knew them by heart. We were going back to Dansbury, Pennsylvania, now calledStroudsburg, a place I did not remember but my parents remembered all too well. In December, 1755, when I was but 3 years old, we fled from our home there to avoid the Indians’ bloody rampage. Mother was pregnant with my brother William at the time. Hearing talk of Indian ambushes and fearing for our safety, Father and my half-brother Jacob loaded our large family and a pitiful few belongings onto pole boats. Some few of our neighbors did likewise.In a mad rush, we escaped down the Delaware River to relative safety. Two days later the Indian savages swept
through our community and burned the homes of my parents, and Jacob, and most of our neighbors. The neighborswho did not escape were butchered and scalped. It utterly destroyed our fledgling community of Dansbury.Far and wide, the attack came to be known as the Dansbury Massacre, one of the worst Indian attacks of the Frenchand Indian War.I had heard that story, and others like it, all my life. Already I had laid plans in my imagination on how I would savemy family from ambush if we should be attacked. Many times I saw myself brandishing a weapon and warding off the attacking hordes. Usually I saw myself injured in the scuffle (mildly, of course).“And you know how Hannah will worry, too,” Mother added somewhat wistfully, still stroking my hair.Yes, I knew that, too. As twins, Hannah and I were especially close. We were always together, sometimes to our  parents’ dismay. ‘Tho I had many siblings and cousins around me, I usually preferred Hannah’s company. She wasextremely clever, and funny, and curious. Like me, I suppose. When we were together, we would often look at eachother and giggle, as if we had a secret joke. And when we weren’t together, we often knew what the other was doingor feeling, just by concentrating real hard on the other twin. Sometimes I could think real hard and sort of “see”Hannah, doing whatever she was doing. And she could see me, too.The two of us talked about this a lot, but of course we never told anyone else about this, for fear some might think itWitchcraft.And now we had another set of twins in the family, 5-month old Rachel and Abraham. At first Hannah and Iwatched them closely to see if they had the same kind of relationship we did, but we decided it was impossible totell at that age. Mostly they were just squalling lumps of needs.Hannah and I were both readers, and enjoyed it. Usually she would finish a book and pass it on to me or me to her.That we were well-schooled was Mother’s responsibility. Our formal “book–learning” schooling was somewhatspotty and lessons tended toward the Biblical. But it was Mother, with her fondness of reading, who instilled in usthe love of books. Among her many relatives nearby, we had a vast library of books to choose from, ‘tho many werein German or Dutch, which we could read but a little. It is to this Old World family that we owe our knowledge (‘tholittle love) for languages. I speak French passably well, for Father spoke the language fluently, but Hannah and I both struggle with the Old Dutch of our grandparents.Just then I heard my Father outside talking to Jacob. I thought Mother and I were the only ones up.“Go help your Father, dear,” Mother said. “He needs your help saddling up the horses.” Now, I knew we would not saddle the horses until after breakfast, but I went out anyway, and was anxious to go. Ithought Mother was going to cry, and I was afraid that would make me cry, too, and on this day of all days, I did notwant to cry in front of my parents.There were five of us making the trip: my Father, then 60 years old, my half-brothers Jacob, 30, and Isaac, 24, acousin, Balthus VanEtten, 16, and me. I was greatly honored to be part of this expedition, ‘tho in truth I had to badger Father for months to let me go. I think he was always partly for it, but Mother was dead set against the idea.It took a great deal of persuasion to change her mind, and I don’t mind telling you I had to be on my very best behavior for months to prove I was old enough. Finally she relented and agreed that I could go.A word now about this great, sprawling family I am part of.Hannah and I are the eldest of five children of our parents, Teunis and Rachel. They both had families from previousmarriages, accounting for the large number of half-siblings Father’s first wife died after bearing eight children,including Jacob. Mother’s first husband died at sea after fathering seven children, including Isaac. So Jacob andIsaac, ‘tho half-brothers to me, were much older and more like uncles. Of the five of us making the journey, I wasclosest to Balthus.I had many cousins here about, but I was fondest of Balthus. He always finished his chores quickly, to give himmore time to “play the lay of the land,” as he said it. Often we roamed the countryside together, hunting fowl andsquirrel, exploring the many limestone caves, or swimming in a nearby spring-fed pond. Balthus was an avid
swimmer, unusual for the times, and he taught me well. But of all the traits of Balthus, I think I most enjoyed his boundless curiosity. It led us off on many adventures together.Jacob was a great deal like Father, inheriting from him the sturdy, serious, hard-working attitude of our Dutchlineage. He was short and stocky, with powerful arms, dark eyes, and comic shaggy eyebrows. Isaac, on the other hand, was tall and fair, with long sandy-colored hair and a quick smile. I suppose I was something between the twoof them, tall for my age like Isaac, but with Jacob’s dark eyes and hair.Just now Father and Jacob were standing next to the corral, eyeing the horses we would take. The first leg of our tripwould be by horse and wagon from our temporary home here in Harford County, Maryland, to Baltimore. Fromthere we would catch a sloop to New Amsterdam [
now called New York City
], then a boat up the Hudson River toTarrrytown, then overland by horseback to Ft. Decker, New Jersey, then down the Delaware River by pole boat towhatever was left of our former homes in Dansbury.At the time I thought myself a good horseman. I had been riding for several years, ever since Father first put me onthe back of an old, slow sorrel and taught me to ride. But I had never been on a sailing ship before, and I had heardmany stories of the dreaded sea-sickness.“Hey, there, boy,” Jacob said when I first walked out. “Did ye sleep well?” He winked when he said it.“In truth I think I but barely slept, as excited as I was,” I replied. “Where is Balthus?”“I think the old slug is still in bed,” said Jacob. “Go roust him out, will ye? It is past time he’s up and ready.”I trotted back to the house. After fleeing the Indians eight years ago, we had moved in with my Mother’s cousins,the VanEttens, here in the Maryland countryside. Our stay was always intended to be temporary; therefore thesleeping arrangements were a bit haphazard. There were always more children than beds, even two to a bed, so thelast few children to bed at night would end up on the floor with other late-nighters. Balthus was always one of these.But when I got to the room he shared with several others, he was already up and clothed.“Come on, Balthus, let’s go,” I urged. I knew he was excited as me. “Jacob wants you at the corral.”We raced outside. It seemed whenever we were together, we raced. Although Balthus was older than me, I wasusually faster, a fact I never let him forget. I easily beat him to the corral.“Well, lads, glad to see ye’ve got so much spunk,” Father grinned at us. “Let’s see you use that energy to someadvantage. Start loading the wagon there. Jacob will direct you. Put the boxes in first and the bags on top. I’ll tend tothe horses.”“Yes, sir,” Balthus and I said together. We picked up the tongue of the 4-wheel wagon to pull it over to the porchwhere the boxes and bags were stacked. Even this became a game as we pretended we were horses harnessed to thewagon, competing to see who would be the most powerful. Laughing at the game, Jacob jumped on the back of thewagon and we carried him across the foreyard to the porch.The three of us made short work of the loading, just finishing when my half-sister Helena called us for breakfast.With so many people, mealtime was a loud and raucous affair, but this morning outdid them all. Everyone talked atonce as we sat down at the long family table. At the head of the table, Father quietly cleared his throat and thetableside noise hushed instantly. He bent his head and offered the morning prayer.“Dear Lord, we humbly ask your blessings on this house and everyone in it. We ask for your protection as weembark on a perilous journey. We ask you to watch over those who are staying behind. Give us comfort and aid asyou see fit. Help each of us to be the equal of the task you have set before us. When you are ready, receive us intoyour loving arms. Amen.”Amen.Then with a rush, the noise and excitement started all over again. After a tumultuous breakfast, everyone scrambledout in front of the house. Father brought out two horses and harnessed them to the wagon; my half-brothers Phillipand Petrus (or Peter, as the girls called him) brought out three riding horses, saddled and ready. Everyone else stoodaround us in an excited, anxious circle. Cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and of course Mother. Itmade quite a noisy crowd.

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