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Roosters in the barnyard crowed, but their effort was futile: It was still well before daybreak but I was already awake, wide awake. I lay in bed, listening, waiting to hear Mother stoking the fire in the big
kitchen stove downstairs. I listened to the weathervane changing direction on the roof ridge right over my head. I listened to the hens
outside, already scratching and clucking and pecking in the yard. Somewhere out in the fields I heard a cow lowing to be milked. Finally I heard Mother in the kitchen, so I very quietly crawled out
of my bed mat in the attic so as not to disturb my little brother William, still snoring gently next to me. I pulled a clean shirt over my head, put on fresh leggings and almost jumped into my new leather britches. I ran my fingers through my hair and tied it back with a black ribbon, then slipped on a new pair of buckle shoes, made by the cobbler 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 5th 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 cousins near about. All were pressed into service to launch us on our grand adventure. Trunks to be packed, clothes to be cleaned and repaired, tools to be made, seed grains to be gathered, letters of introduction written, foodstuffs to be stored, 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. This would be the longest time we would be apart. And we did not really know how long it might be, ‘tho Father said he was 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 are going. You know how I will worry about you every moment until you come back to me. Promise you will send me word 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 called Stroudsburg, 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 neighbors who 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 French and 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 save my 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 was extremely clever, and funny, and curious. Like me, I suppose. When we were together, we would often look at each other and giggle, as if we had a secret joke. And when we weren’t together, we often knew what the other was doing or 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 it Witchcraft. And now we had another set of twins in the family, 5-month old Rachel and Abraham. At first Hannah and I watched them closely to see if they had the same kind of relationship we did, but we decided it was impossible to tell 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 somewhat spotty and lessons tended toward the Biblical. But it was Mother, with her fondness of reading, who instilled in us the love of books. Among her many relatives nearby, we had a vast library of books to choose from, ‘tho many were in German or Dutch, which we could read but a little. It is to this Old World family that we owe our knowledge (‘tho little 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. I thought Mother was going to cry, and I was afraid that would make me cry, too, and on this day of all days, I did not want 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, a cousin, 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 previous marriages, 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 and Isaac, ‘tho half-brothers to me, were much older and more like uncles. Of the five of us making the journey, I was closest to Balthus. I had many cousins here about, but I was fondest of Balthus. He always finished his chores quickly, to give him more time to “play the lay of the land,” as he said it. Often we roamed the countryside together, hunting fowl and squirrel, 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 Dutch lineage. 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 two of 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 trip would be by horse and wagon from our temporary home here in Harford County, Maryland, to Baltimore. From there we would catch a sloop to New Amsterdam [now called New York City], then a boat up the Hudson River to Tarrrytown, then overland by horseback to Ft. Decker, New Jersey, then down the Delaware River by pole boat to whatever 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 on the back of an old, slow sorrel and taught me to ride. But I had never been on a sailing ship before, and I had heard many 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 the sleeping arrangements were a bit haphazard. There were always more children than beds, even two to a bed, so the last 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 was usually 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 some advantage. Start loading the wagon there. Jacob will direct you. Put the boxes in first and the bags on top. I’ll tend to the horses.” “Yes, sir,” Balthus and I said together. We picked up the tongue of the 4-wheel wagon to pull it over to the porch where the boxes and bags were stacked. Even this became a game as we pretended we were horses harnessed to the wagon, competing to see who would be the most powerful. Laughing at the game, Jacob jumped on the back of the wagon 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 at once as we sat down at the long family table. At the head of the table, Father quietly cleared his throat and the tableside 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 we embark on a perilous journey. We ask you to watch over those who are staying behind. Give us comfort and aid as you see fit. Help each of us to be the equal of the task you have set before us. When you are ready, receive us into your loving arms. Amen.” Amen. Then with a rush, the noise and excitement started all over again. After a tumultuous breakfast, everyone scrambled out in front of the house. Father brought out two horses and harnessed them to the wagon; my half-brothers Phillip and Petrus (or Peter, as the girls called him) brought out three riding horses, saddled and ready. Everyone else stood around us in an excited, anxious circle. Cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and of course Mother. It made quite a noisy crowd.
I saw Father talking to one of the neighbors who came over to wish us God-speed. I was able to pick up part of the conversation, ‘tho they spoke with hushed voices. “Now Teunis, ye’ve no doubt heard about that murderous rascal Chief Pontiac laying siege to the northern British forts?” It was Thomas MacGregor talking, one of the few Scots in this area settled largely by Dutch and Germans. I always had great fondness for Mr. MacGregor. He spoke with a thick Scottish brogue that was unfamiliar to me yet fascinating, saying things like ‘aboot’ instead of ‘about’. I pretended not to listen, but listened anyway. “Yes, Thomas,” replied Father, quietly. “We heard the reports, but he’s not runnin’ anywhere near to where we will be traveling.” “Aye, friend, but I’ve heard the Indians along th’ Delaware are on th’ rampage as well,” MacGregor said and he leaned in closer to Father. “Ye just don’t know what they’ll do, ‘tho for certain they’ll be up to naw good. I am heartily concerned fer yer safety out there. Those Indians are steamin’ mad that the French lost the War and gave all the Western lands to the Brits, lands that the Indians say belong to them.” “Yes, yes, MacGregor, we’ll be watching for trouble,” Father said. “The boys are all good shots and noble lads. And if Dansbury is still too treacherous to live in, why, we’ll just keep on going down the river and end up back here directly.” Here one of Mother’s cousins chimed in. “Listen, Teunis, that surrender by the French leaves the Indians with no allies, and they don’t ken to having us take over their lands. Trouble is brewing for sure out there. Why not wait for Spring?” Father replied, “Because the rivers are low now and travel will be easy. Spring floods are over and the winter rains have not started. We dare not travel down the Delaware in flood.” MacGregor nodded, then added, “Of course we will all be watching out fer yer family here. Ye know that, Teunis. Do not worry for yer loved ones here. Worry most about the Indian ye cannot see.” The three men nodded gravely, and Father turned to say his goodbyes. We were all saying goodbye when I noticed Hannah off to one side. I slid over to her and she put out her hand. In it was a small carved figure about six inches long. She handed it to me. “This is so you won’t forget me,” she said. “I just know I’m going to miss you. But all you have to do is think real hard on me, and I will do the same on you, and we’ll know how things are with us.” I knew the truth of that, just as I knew I could never forget Hannah. I looked down at the figure in my hand. It was her! Her same long reddish-brown hair, her little pointy nose, and the same gingham dress she was wearing now. She had carved the figure herself, and painted it with colors from the root garden. I slipped it into my britches pocket and kissed her on the forehead. Next to Mother, I was sorriest to leave Hannah. We always had been inseparable, and now we were separating ourselves. I had been telling myself it was time for me to grow up and not be so dependent on her, but deep down I was a little afraid, too. I hardly remember the rest of the goodbyes; there were many tears, hugs, and well-wishes. Mother kissed me and hugged me gently, but not overmuch in front of the crowd. For that I was grateful. I did not cry. For the 25-mile trail ride to Baltimore, Father, Jacob, and Isaac would ride their horses. Phillip and Petrus would handle the wagon, and Balthus and I would ride on top of the load. Then Phillip and Petrus would return home from Baltimore with the empty wagon and all the horses; the rest of us would sail on to New Amsterdam. At long last it was time to take our leave. We all mounted up. With a “Heeyah,” Father led the way out of the barnyard, with Petrus handling the reins on the wagon and Phillip on the seat beside him, then Isaac and Jacob riding along behind. From our perch on top of the wagon, Balthus and I faced backward and waved to the crowd as it got smaller and smaller in the distance. At last we turned a corner onto the main track and we could see them no more. A sudden silence overwhelmed me, broken by the sounds of the horses, the creaking and grinding of the wagon, and birds chirping in the trees. This was the day I had longed for with mounting excitement, but now that we were actually on the move, my sense of excitement was mixed with dread and fear. As I lost sight of my family in the distance, I wondered how soon I would see them again.
Little did I know it would be years before I saw any of them again, and some would be lost to me forever.
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