Chapter 4: A Wretched Place

Fort Decker, they called it. In my mind I called it something far worse. When I first saw the place, it was dirty, smelly, cold, and tough. The area was crowded with Colonial settlers, British soldiers, Indians of many tribes, a few leftover French traders, a lost-looking Dutchman who claimed he was a Jesuit priest, and bums and scoundrels of many colors. They called it a fort, but it was not. At best it was a trading house hard on the banks of the Delaware River, made of stone but a story and a half high, a secure place to gather in case of attack to be sure, but certainly not a stockade. Never was there a more rough and tumble place. And never was there a place that excited this 10-year-old’s imagination more than Fort Decker. At wretched Fort Decker, I was certain I was as far from the orderly, cosmopolitan New Amsterdam as I could get. This outpost was on the far frontier between the British Colonies and the unexplored Indian lands. We had arrived yesterday, using what’s known as The Old Mine Road. All of our goods were stacked on a rather rickety looking freight wagon drawn by two horses. The adults took turns driving the wagon while the rest of us walked and watched. It had taken eight days of rough toil, for in truth the road was one more of imagination than fact. At times the wagon wheels locked on rocks and roots, and at other times the horses strained to pull the load up the hills or through mud holes. Whenever this happened, we all put our shoulders to the wagon to free it up again. Fort Decker was just a way-stop, a place where we could rest and trade the horses and wagon for a boat before heading down the Delaware River. From here Father knew the way back downriver to our old home in Dansbury, what we hoped would be a much more congenial place for us to live.

Fort Decker certainly was not congenial, though it surely fired my imagination. Back in Maryland, Hannah and I had read the new Robinson Crusoe novel. I had imagined my life here in the wilds would be very much like that. I thought we even might find a friendly wandering Indian who would want to be our manservant, like the charming character named Friday in the Crusoe book.
Here in Fort Decker I quickly realized the error of my thinking. “Eh there, lad, watch where yer going.” A man’s low, grumbly voice next to me startled me out of my wandering daydreams. He carried a heavy gunny sack slung over each shoulder as he pushed past me. He dropped the bags into the back of a small horse-drawn cart nearby, then turned back to speak to me. “Well, then, laddie, yer new to this place, aintcha?” His appearance was rough and shaggy, all black hair and buckskins. “Where are ye from?” “We just came in from Tarrytown, sir,” I replied in my best formal English. “I hear ol’ Chief Pontiac is raiding up in these parts and has laid siege to Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt,” the man said. “And ‘course they’re all upset over the way Colonel Bouquet beat ‘em at Bushy Run. Did ye meet up with any of those knaves on the road, then?” “No, sir,” I responded. I had heard all about the Ottawa Chief, Pontiac, leading the Ottawa and Seneca tribes of the Great lakes into war against the British. His forces had already taken over or destroyed many of the British Army

posts. “We were warned by the British in New Amsterdam to stay away from that area. I have not heard much since then. How did the battle go?” “Well, I am told that wily general passed out smallpox-infested blankets that the Injins picked up, and many died within a few days. It seems they can fight off the British, but they can’t fight off the pox. Or at least, that’s the story I heard.” He fell silent a moment, then took out a filthy handkerchief and mopped his brow. I could not tell whether he felt sorry for the Indians or not. “A question, Sir,” I said. “What of the Indians here. Are they Ottowas?” “Nah, they are Lenni Lenapes, what we call Delawares, and a fairly ragtag bunch at that,” he said. “Chief Pontiac and his thievin’ Ottawa clan are far to the north of us here. These Indians here [he jabbed a finger toward a group near the river] are not really a tribe of their own, rather they are bits of various tribes from up and down the river. Think of them as loners and losers rejected by their tribes. Not a bad bunch, but keep yer eyes open around them just the same. They are thievin’ rascals for certain.” Instinctively I put my hand in my pocket and fingered my Hannah doll. On the outbound trip I had done this often. It comforted me. “So then, lad, what do ye think of this fair town, then?” The man’s eyes twinkled when he said this. “Well, sir, it is not quite what I expected,” I replied. “For certain this place is not a town, and it surely is far removed from Baltimore or New Amsterdam.” The man threw back his head and laughed a long, throaty laugh. “Oh, that’s good,” he wheezed. “What might our Fort Decker be missing then, laddie? A library, perhaps? An opera house, or fine stores selling linens to the ladies and kerchiefs to the fops? Or how about those eating houses where the rich swells hang about?” He wiped his brow again, then continued: “I will tell you this. We have many things that Baltimore don’t. Why, we’ve got more mud than they have, and more flies, and more Indians. We’ve got bear wandering through town, and mosquitoes the size of black birds. And you’ll likely never see a moose in Baltimore, nor a beaver.” I could tell he was just getting warmed up to his subject. I thought to head him off by asking, “How long have you been here, sir?” “Oh, lessee, the better part of a year now, I reckon,” he replied. “In and out, you know. Sometimes I stay here, sometimes I’m on the river, and sometimes I go out with the Brits to help them out.” He winked when he said this, but I did not know what to make of it. He certainly was not a regular British soldier from any garrison. Maybe he is a spy, I thought. The idea somehow thrilled me. Fort Decker was not regularly garrisoned with British troops, ‘tho a squad was now bivouacked nearby. The building was part of a farm that extended for several hundred acres down to the Delaware River. To the east lay the Shawangunk Ridge, to the north the edge of the Appalachian plateau. The property had a wide view of the flatland surrounding it. Just then a double column of British regulars slumped by, looking weary and dejected. Looked like they’d been out chasing Indians, or maybe French loyalists. Folks nearby paid them little attention. “Well, lad, I’ll be off then,” the man said. “The name’s Murchison. And yours?” “I am Benjamin DeCorsa, sir.” “Well, Master DeCorsa, fare thee well.” Mr. Murchison nodded, then turned and mounted his wagon. With a snap of his whip, he guided his sleepy-looking horse down the rough road leading away from the stockade. Somehow I knew I’d see him again. Father, Jacob, and Balthus were in the small trading post nearby, buying goods for the next leg of our journey; Isaac was watching over our campsite at the river. I sat down on a stump in front of the trading post and watched the movement of people around me. At the river’s edge a group of Indians and Whites smoked from long pipes. The Lenni Lenapes call the river Mame-ko-ting, while the English call it the Delaware, after Lord de la Ware, the first Colonial governor. Indians have lived along this river forever. Now the colonists were coming in by trail and by river to carve farms out of the wilderness that the Indians claimed as theirs. The Indians were not happy about this.

Some distance away from the main building, a few dozen rough wooden huts and log cabins were inhabited by traders, settlers, and bums. Beyond the huts, partly hidden amongst the trees, were several large Indian lodges covered with skins and rush mats, with wisps of smoke curling out the smoke holes on top. Several small Indian children scampered around one lodge, bedeviling a sorry-looking mongrel dog. Suddenly I saw three Indians walking straight toward me. I was terrified, and tried my best to disappear into the stump. Two of them had long flowing black hair and wore rough leather garments rather like long coats. But I was most fascinated and terrified by the tall one dressed in warrior gear: moccasins, leather leggings and breechclout, a beaded pouch, and an elegant French powder horn over one shoulder. He wore a shiny bracelet on one arm and had a ring in each ear. His head was shaved except for a long knot of black hair braided with colorful beads. He cradled a flintlock rifle in one arm. Nor could I take my eyes off the tattoos on his arms and shoulders. I had seen tattoos only once before, on sailors debarking from ships in New Amsterdam harbor. As the three approached, I sensed their black, piercing eyes watching me without appearing to see me at all. The closer they got the stronger they smelled, a wild mixture of wood smoke, bear grease, and sweat. I sat very still on my stump as they moved silently into the trading post behind me. I exhaled at last. This was the closest I had ever been to real Indians. A few moments later Balthus scampered out of the post. His eyes were huge. “Did you see them?” he whispered to me, nodding toward the three Lenni Lenapes who had gone inside. Balthus’s arms were filled with bags of foodstuffs. “I do believe they intend to buy liquor.” I knew what he meant. We had heard many stories of how Indians behave when they get drunk. It was said nobody was safe around them until they finally fell asleep. “Did you see the powder horn the tall one carried?” I asked. “He must have got that from a French soldier. Did you see the fleur de lies decorations on it? That is standard soldier issue. Do you think he killed for it?” Balthus put his packages on the ground and rubbed his arm muscles. “I do not know. But I do know this for certain: They better not try to get the better of me or they will be truly sorry.” That was Balthus: always trying to pretend he was stronger and fiercer than he really was. I think he was just as scared as me. Just then Father came out the post door, carrying an exceedingly large bag of dried beans, which he handed to me. “Well, lads, let’s gather up our goods and get along.” I staggered under the load. Father ducked back inside, then he and Jacob appeared with several bags of flour, seed, and foodstuffs over their shoulders. Together the four of us were weighted down with bags, boxes, and sacks. Struggling under the load, we didn’t speak at all while we walked the short trail back to our campsite along the river. We were using the hollow trunk of a giant cottonwood tree for shelter. Gratefully we unloaded our goods inside the tree and plopped down against a log in the warm sand in front. Isaac arranged the bags in a neat row. “From now until we leave, we will not leave this spot unguarded,” Father said quietly. I always loved the way he used English, smooth and rhythmic, with barely a hint of his native French accent. “I have arranged to purchase a boat tomorrow. I expect that we shall be able to push on tomorrow afternoon, once we have everything secured onboard.” “What kind of boat will you get, Father?” I asked. “It’s called a bateaux, a flat-bottomed boat with high gunnels, about 20 feet long. It will take all our gear. It takes two men to pole her and one to steer from the rear, so we’ll all take turns. Anyone who’s not working will be watching. At night we will tie up to the shore but stay on the boat. It should give us good cover from hard going.” By ‘hard going’, we knew he meant Indian attacks, although he did not say it outright. Balthus asked, “Uncle, do you think those Indians in the post were buying spirits?”

“No, Balthus, they were trading furs, beaver furs. As nearly as I could understand, they were trading the furs their people caught during the Spring. I have a mind to buy a few myself. We will need good fur clothing when winter comes upon us. I will talk with the trader tomorrow, when I arrange for the boat.” While we were talking, Jacob used his flint to start a small fire in the fire ring. He was very handy with the flint, much faster than I. In less than a minute, he always had a good little fire going. He set a pot of water to boil for Father’s tea, while Father opened one of the boxes and pulled out jerky, dried fruits, and some special sweet biscuits. Earlier in the day he had shot, skinned, and quartered a raccoon. In the Provincial Army he was known as a skilled marksman who could always be counted on to bring back food for his fellow soldiers. He now put pieces of ‘coon meat on skewers over the fire. Soon the warm sizzling smell of the meat made us all very hungry. When it was cooked, we contentedly feasted while watching the wide, slow sweep of the mighty river before us. Soon, we knew, we should be out on that river, floating downstream, heading for our new home, somewhere out there. The sun was dipping low above the trees on the opposite side of the river when we finished our meal. I was grateful when Father told us to spread out our bedrolls. It had been a long, strange, exciting day for me and I was exhausted. I knew Father and the others were just as exhausted as I, but I also knew they would take turns through the night standing guard over our little encampment. Father, as usual, would take the first watch. He settled into a comfortable position with his back to the river and his beautiful English Brown Bess flintlock rifle resting over his knees, primed and ready, with the powder horn next to him. Jacob sat next to him, smoking from a long clay pipe. Isaac, Balthus, and I snuggled into our bedrolls and almost immediately we were asleep. I was vaguely aware when Father awoke Isaac sometime during the night, and plied him with hot black tea to help him stay awake. Next thing I knew it was morning, with the sun just peeking through the trees. Father and Jacob were already awake, stirring the fire to get our morning tea going. Isaac was back in his bedroll and Balthus was just waking up. I rolled out of my blankets and put on my stiff boots and jacket. This was to be a big day. This was the day we would take to the river, and leave the stockade behind forever. At least, I hoped so.

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