Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review

Panther in the Sky

by James Alexander Thom

Weshecat-welok’weshe laweh-pah.  Translation: May we be strong by doing what is right.  This Shawnee maxim is the major theme of James Alexander Thom’s Panther in the Sky, a historical novel I wholeheartedly recommend.
One reason is you will learn so much about the Algonquian/Shawnee culture as it existed in the Ohio River Valley during the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Religious beliefs, ceremonies, social morays, games, agricultural practices, tools and weapons, clothing, house construction, the roles of men and women: all of this is included in Thom’s narration of the life of the remarkable Shawnee warrior chief Tecumseh.
Here is an interesting example that involves Daniel Boone, who had been taken prisoner by the Shawnee war tribe that the child Tecumseh belonged to.  Adopted by the tribe’s chief, Boone had been accepted as a member of the village.  “Some days Big Turtle [Boone’s Indian name] would sit in the sunshine for hours, wincing while the children took turns at the tedious task of plucking off his whisker stubble, bit by bit getting rid of his facial hair as the Shawnee men did theirs.”
If you read this book, you will understand fully why Native American/frontier Caucasian conflict occurred.  Natives believed that their Creator had placed them exclusively on the North American continent where they were expected to live harmoniously with nature.  Tribes did not own specific parcels of land.  They were free to roam.  Any tribe could migrate into any territory not occupied by a different tribe.  American frontiersmen believed that Indian land existed for their taking.  Their attitude about seizing Indian territory is revealed in this passage, written by Tecumseh’s arch-enemy and future U.S. President, William Henry Harrison:
“Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined, by the Creator, to give support to a huge population, and to the seat of civilization, of science, and of true religion?”
White men deemed themselves the sole owners of the property they occupied.  They possessed deeds of ownership.  No other person could occupy any portion of their land, however extensive and unused it might be.  During and after the American Revolution Blue Coat soldiers and Kentucky militiamen drove Native Americans out of Kentucky and out of the valleys of the Magnificent River (Ohio River) tributaries.  Behind them hurried settlers eager to own property, clear forests, raise families, establish towns, and create states.  Most of the land they would come to own had been obtained by military conquest or by treaty, old tribal chiefs forced to relinquish Indian territory and be placed on small reservations to protect their people from being militarily destroyed.  Once these treaties were signed, no tribe could occupy any of these lands.  Settlers, however, were allowed to venture beyond the boundaries of these lands to settle in what still remained Indian territory.  Thereafter, soldiers would intimidate Indian settlements within the ever-shrinking Indian territory, and chiefs of those settlements would also be forced to decide whether to sign a treaty ceding another portion of desired land or fight.  This systematic stealing of Indian land is what Tecumseh devoted his entire adult life to eliminate.
A third reason I would recommend that you read this book is to have you appreciate Tecumseh as a human being.  A fierce warrior in battle, he was indefatigable in his efforts to protect his people.  Yet he was compassionate.  He abhorred senseless killing.  He strived always to prevent the torturing and slaying of the combatants he took prisoner.  He attempted to unite every tribe west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River to halt, if not reverse, the white man’s inexorable encroachment.  You will despise Tecumseh’s enemies -- particularly Harrison -- their racism, their arrogance, their sense of entitlement, their ignorance, and their cruelty.  You will appreciate those few white men who did value Tecumseh’s ideals and friendship.  You will respect Tecumseh’s family members (with one exception) and his loyal subordinates.
A fourth reason is Thom’s narration of certain, important historical battles, which are an essential part of our understanding of the Native American displacement.
A final reason to read this book is that the author provides you with what all fiction readers desire: depth of character, purposeful dialogue, intense conflict, emotionally evocative personal relationships, and effectively utilized sensory detail.  Panther in the Sky is high on my list of historical novel recommendations.            

Monday, September 2, 2013


"Shame's Squeezing My Heart," Pages 215-220


     Safe in the wood lot next to the burying grounds, Sylvanus Wood had tried to attach meaning to particular sounds. The beating of a drum had preceded the shouts of individual officers. Later, he had heard the strident voice of one officer. A colossal musket volley had made him start. Three massive, deep-throated shouts had quickened his pulse. Hoarse commands had followed. Finally, he had heard the marching sound of hundreds of feet.
     The trill of fifes and the tattoo of drums told Sylvanus of the column’s fading proximity. Leaving the grove of pine, catching sight of trailing militiamen on the Concord road, Sylvanus felt the strong tug of obligation. His compulsion to return to where he had stood, to where comrades had died, was stronger.
     Sylvanus Wood walked abashedly across the Common’s sparse grass. From different edges of the field other men were converging, six contorted bodies their lodestone. Three, Sylvanus saw, had fallen where Captain Parker had stood!
     A militiaman who had hurried across the grass from the northeast side of the field was staring at them. He was John Munroe. Staring back at his nephew, arms out, hands open as if to embrace him, old Robert Munroe was as indifferent to life and death as the hat that lay next to him. Blood stained the leather coat below the neck, where the ball had penetrated.
     Sylvanus walked past them. Several feet away lay the twisted corpse of Jonas Parker, his coat and the grass beside him recipient of the esteemed veteran’s blood. His hat lay open to the sky. Sylvanus saw inside it the musket balls, wadding, and flints that Jonas had intended to use. He recalled how the man had touched the brim of his hat when Sylvanus had been introduced. Jonas Parker had said that he would not run from the British. Because he had fled, Sylvanus had lived.
     “I saw what happened. He got hit and dropped t'his knees.” Someone behind Sylvanus had spoken. Sylvanus did not recognize the man. Tolerating Sylvanus’s stare, the militiaman nodded. “He fired his musket just the same! Lobsterback stuck him.” The stranger stared at the Concord road. “Old Jonas never had a chance.”
     Sylvanus grimaced agreement. He walked, morosely, toward the Meeting House. Halfway there, he paused to watch two wounded men being tended. He recalled the beating of the drum, the cordiality of strangers, the talk of old veterans. Like an excited child he had courted Captain Parker's favor. How easily he had been chased away!
     Striving to rid himself of shame, he loitered beside the large oak stump near the back of the Meeting House. Close by, Jonas Parker had asked, “What's it t'be, John? Hide or go out on the Common?” Live or take a musket ball or the blade of a bayonet!
     Sylvanus walked past the southwest corner of the building. Two men were carrying a wounded man to the front door. The man’s face was the color of slate.
     “The Captain was wounded in the leg,” a tall, dark-haired man exiting the building said to someone behind Wood. For a moment Sylvanus thought the man was speaking to him.
     “Where’s he at?”
     “Over at the Reverend's house, I figure.”
     The two men were silent a moment, each staring northward.
     “Does … Captain Parker know his cousin's dead?” Sylvanus asked. His tone of voice surprised him.
     The taller of the two looked at Sylvanus. After a moment, he nodded.
     “Probably the first thing he knew, I'd say,” the older man answered.
     “So you were there?” Sylvanus responded. He grimaced. Needing to say something, he had misspoken.
     The taller man stared at him an entire five seconds. “We don't know you,” he said.
     “I'm Sylvanus Wood; no, you wouldn’t.” He paused. “I live in Woburn. I stood near the Captain, 'til after the first volley, when he said t'take care of ourselves.” Looking down, he saw a gash mark across the top of his right shoe.
     “So you ran.”
     He had made an enemy of this man.
     “It's all right. We all ran. Except those that got shot.” The older man likewise stared at his shoes.
     The taller man walked away. After glancing at Wood, the older man strode after him.
     The two men who had carried the wounded man inside the building, having exited, stamped their feet. One of them, a stout man with graying temples, glanced sideways at Sylvanus. “Need your help carryin' in the wounded,” he said.
     Sylvanus walked over to them.
     A third man, who had come around the far corner of the building, joined them. “Some were wounded on the Bedford side,” he said, without introduction. Sylvanus felt even more the outsider.
     “That's taken care of, Winsett,” the second man, his mouth twisted, said. “They’re bein’ takin' t’ the Reverend's house.”
     They began their walk toward the middle of the Common.
     “After we get all the wounded, we'll take in the dead,” the gray-haired man said, neither looking to his left nor right.
     “How many?”
     The man gave Sylvanus a peculiar look.
     “I seen three or four,” Sylvanus said. He had meant the dead. Had he made this man think he didn't want to carry in the wounded?!
     “More'n that,” the second man said. “John Brown died near the swamp north of the Common, I was told. We'll have t'get him. An' Robert Harrison told me Samuel Hadley's behind a wall in John Buckman's garden.”
     “Asahel Porter, he didn't make it neither.” His lips compressed, the third man, Winsett, shook his head. “He was caught scouting. When the shooting started, he tried t'run down the Bedford road.”
     “How d’y’know that?!”
     “I was with him. They caught me after they did him.”
     “But you didn’t try t’ run, did you?” the second militiaman responded.
     “No.” Winsett looked off across the field.
     “Too bad.”
     “Asahel Porter’s from Woburn,” Sylvanus said, softly. Hard-working Asahel Porter, close to his own age, father of a year old son. Always keen to help somebody. Because of it he was dead.
     “They just rushed away from me. Left me. Then I ran.”
     I would have done that, Sylvanus thought. I wouldn’t have tried right away to escape, either.
     “I hid behind a tree just off the road,” Winsett said. “I saw Jonathan Harrington drag himself off the Common to that house o' his; I was thinkin' a redcoat was gonna see him and bayonet him, but that didn't happen.”
     The man that had been captured and that had escaped brought his left shirtsleeve across his mouth. Having everybody’s attention, he hesitated, inhaled, afterward blinked. “Must have been fifty feet or so,” he said. “He got t’his doorstep. Ruth came screamin' out the door and flung herself down.” His voice quavered. “Went over there as soon as they left. Jonathan died right there on his doorstep. His nine year old boy … saw it all from upstairs.”
     “Caleb Harrington was shot down, too. Just outside the Meeting House,” the second man said. “Him and some other men were inside gettin' powder.” He, too, blinked. “They tried t'run for it, so I heard.”
     When they reached the two wounded men that Sylvanus had seen being tended, three men stood up.
     “Can they be moved into the Meeting House?” the leader of Wood's group asked.
     “They walked out of the trees just awhile ago. Collapsed right here. S'pect so. We'll take them there right now.”
     “Then we’ll be movin’ on.”
     The third man, Winsett, the one that had witnessed Jonathan Harrington's death, hesitated. He looked at Sylvanus’s companions, briefly, then stooped to grasp a leg of one of the wounded.
     “Least he’s helpin’,” the second militiaman said, after they had walked a distance.
     “That’s so.”
     They reached the bodies of Robert Munroe, Jonas Parker, and, five yards away, a militiaman that Sylvanus didn’t know. Sylvanus stared at the pine trees into which he had fled. “We’d best get started,” he heard the gray-haired man say. Sylvanus sensed they were not yet ready.
     “Guess we'll take Isaac Muzzy first,” the gray-templed man said, grimacing. “Someone will have t’tell old John. Maybe he already knows.”
     “He does.” The other man pulled his hat down about his head. “I seen him go off down the road after the redcoats.”
     “All right then.”
     Having stared a bit longer at Muzzy, they took each of the dead man's arms. Sylvanus lifted the legs.
     “I didn't think this would happen,” the second man said when they had stopped half way to the Meeting House.
     “I guess them that did weren’t out here,” the other one said, with restrained malice.
     “Maybe next time they will.”
     “I expect not,” the gray-haired man said.
     They completed the trip in silence.
     Inside the Meeting House the two Lexington men started a conversation with a man tearing cloth. Feeling ill, Sylvanus exited. For a short while he stood at the southwest corner, facing the Concord road. “Shame’s squeezing my heart,” he said.
     Jonas Parker. Asahel Porter. Other men he’d never met. For what?! Angrily, he gripped the barrel of his musket, which minutes earlier he had propped against the building’s wall.
     They’d marched to Concord. They’d be marching back!
     This time he would not run and hide. Nor would he stand in the open. From a secure place off the road he would burn every ounce of powder, fire every musket ball he possessed!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Traitor Arrested!

In September 1775, having good reason to believe that he had corresponded with the enemy, George Washington had General Gage’s spy, Benjamin Church, arrested.

Paul Revere, afterward, had a conversation with Deacon Caleb Davis, who had seen Church in Boston on that day in April when Church had agreed to deliver a message to Revere’s wife Rachel. Davis had been ordered by General Gage to report to the Province House. Revere wrote: “When he [Davis] got to the General's house, he was told, the general could not be spoke with, that he was in private with a gentleman; that he [Davis] waited near half an hour, when General Gage and Dr. Church came out of a room, discoursing together, like persons who had been long acquainted. He [Church] appeared quite surprised at seeing Deacon Davis there; that he went where he pleased, while in Boston, only a Major Craine, one of Gage's aides, went with him. I was told by another person, whom I could depend upon, that he saw Church go into General Gage's house, at the above time; that he got out of the chaise and went up the steps more like a man that was acquainted than a prisoner.”

Church had in fact seen Rachel Revere and taken her hurried letter to Paul and one hundred and twenty-five pounds. Her letter was discovered in General Gage's personal papers one hundred fifty years later, at Gage's home in Sussex, England. The letter read, “My dear, by Doct'r Church I send a hundred & twenty-five pounds & beg you will take the best care of yourself & not attempt coming into this towne again & if I have an opportunity of coming or sending out anything or any of the Children I shall do it. pray keep up your spirits & trust yourself & us in the Hands of a good God who will take care of us.”

Revere did know before Church’s arrest that the doctor was an adulterer, that he kept a mistress, and that he lived extravagantly. It had not occurred to him, Doctor Joseph Warren, or anybody else that Church was a traitor.

On May 16 the Provincial Congress sent Church to Philadelphia to deliver a letter to the Continental Congress. The message urged that body to assume responsibility for the province’s militia army. Upon his return Church informed General Gage that the Provincial Congress was planning to fortify Bunker Hill. The Battle of Bunker Hill (fought on Breeds Hill) took place on June 17. Shortly thereafter, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington commander of the Massachusetts army. Church and a Moses Gill were selected to greet Washington upon his arrival from Philadelphia. The Provincial Congress then appointed Church the army’s chief physician.

Church’s spying ended in September, after staff officer Nathanael Greene gave General Washington a suspicious letter taken from a woman “of ill repute,” an intermediary who had attempted to deliver it to the British. The woman admitted that Church had sent the message to her. The doctor’s papers were seized and examined. Finding no incriminating documents, the searchers concluded that Church, forewarned, had removed them. Church insisted that the ciphered letter was meant for his brother, Fleming, in Boston. Two amateur cryptologists, working independently, deciphered it. Church had written about his activities, described the strength and strategic plans of Washington's army, and mentioned the American plan for commissioning privateers. The letter ended with “Make use of every precaution or I perish.”

On October 4 a council of war found Church guilty of communicating with the enemy. The Massachusetts legislature, after hearing his case, expelled him from the colony. On November 7 the Continental Congress ordered that he be closely confined in a Connecticut jail. Because of ill health Church was allowed to return, on parole, to Boston, after the British had evacuated the city. To forestall bodily attacks upon him, he was jailed. Before the close of 1777, he was allowed to leave the colony on a schooner bound for the West Indies. The ship vanished.
As Near to Heaven

On August 31, 1583 – less than a year before Captains Barlowe and Amadas would make peaceful contact with Algonquian natives at Roanoke Island – Sir Humphrey Gilbert decided to return to England.  He had not deposited settlers at Norumbega  -- the Queen would surely fault him -- but he had declared Newfoundland an English possession.  Using his wit, his charm, and his half-brother’s recently-acquired influence -- Raleigh would happily assist him -- Gilbert felt confident that he could persuade Elizabeth to allow him to return.  Next summer he would plant the colony, it would become a privateering base, precious minerals would be mined, and a northwest passage to China might be found.  This expedition that he was concluding had ended badly.  Very badly.  Next year, outcomes would be quite different.     

His first mistake had been leaving Plymouth so late, June 11.  Five ships had sailed; he had now but two: the Golden Hinde, 40 tons, and the Squirrel, dangerously small at 8 tons.  The Bark Raleigh, 200 tons, had returned to Plymouth two days after it had left, too many of the crew members disobedient or sick.  He had arrived at St. John’s Bay in Newfoundland August 4.   

The following day Gilbert had declared all land 400 leagues north, south, east and west of St. John’s English territory.  For 16 days he had impressed upon the many Spanish, French, and Portuguese fishermen – from 36 ships in the harbor -- that Newfoundland would no longer be an international territory.  Fishing captains could not regulate local affairs.  English law would prevail.  The Church of England would be supreme.  Fishing licenses would be dispensed.  "If any person should utter words sounding to the dishonour of Her Majesty, he should lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscated."  Attempting to win their allegiance, Gilbert had feasted them, using much of his dwindling ships’ stores.  Concerned solely about returning to their countries with full catches, content to wait for his departure after which they would ignore his declarations, they had regarded his antics as so much theater. 

The crews of Gilbert’s four ships had worked against him, his second major difficulty.  Blackguards, thieves, pirates, they had stolen fish.  A group had plotted to use one of Gilbert’s ships to privateer.  Foiled, they had stolen a foreign ship.  Every sailor, it had seemed, had been disgruntled.  This land, this enterprise, had offered him nothing.  And there had been much sickness.  This, that, the lateness of the season, and insufficient supplies to sustain through the winter months a yet to be founded settlement had convinced Gilbert that he had to quit Newfoundland. 

He had not, however, conceded defeat.  He had believed that he could still return to England in triumph, provided he obtained food immediately and planted his settlement at the mouth of what would eventually be called the Penobscot River.  Simon Fernandez had scouted Norumbega in 1579.  John Walker had done so in 1580.  Leaving Newfoundland, he would sail 100 miles out to sea from central Nova Scotia to Sable Island, where, years before, Portuguese explorers had released pigs to roam wild and procreate.  That would solve his food problem.  Shipping the worst of his disaffected and sick sailors back to England on his 30 ton ship Swallow would solve his crew management problem.  Accomplishing what remained had seemed straightforward, attainable.  Deposit his colonists and their necessities at Norumbega.  Sail to England.  Return to Norumbega with colonists and supplies in the spring.   

Gilbert had left St. John’s Bay August 20 aboard the Squirrel.  He had spent several days  separated from the Delight and the Golden Hinde reconnoitering the rocky inlets, creeks, and rivers of southern Newfoundland before rejoining them.  Experienced seaman at Newfoundland had warned him about Sable Island.  They had told him to avoid it altogether.  Many ships had been destroyed on its treacherous rocks.  If you had to go there, don’t approach it in a fog.  But if you did, lead with your smallest ship.  Gilbert had approached Sable Island ensconced in fog -- his largest ship, the Delight, 120 tons, leading.  The Delight’s master, Richard Clarke, had argued with Gilbert about the best course he should take.  Clarke had advised a south-west-south course, because “the wind was at South and night at hand and vnknowen sands lay off a great way from the land.”  Gilbert had declared that Clarke’s reckoning was untrue.  He had wanted Clarke to take a west-north-west direction.  Clarke had answered that the island “was Westnorthwest and but 15 leagues off; and that he should be vpon the Island before day, if hee went that course.”  Invoking Queen Elizabeth’s authority, Gilbert had demanded obedience.  Clarke had complied. 

The weather had then turned stormy.  Thick fog had shrouded the island.  At seven o’clock in the morning the Delight had run aground and broken apart.  100 crewmen, many having leaped into the water, had drowned.  Gilbert had backed “off to Sea, the course that I would haue had them gone before,” Clarke would later write.  Gilbert had stayed safely away from the island for two days before determining that none of the crew members had survived.  (Unbeknownst to Gilbert, Clarke and 14 of the crew had boarded the ship’s recently constructed pinnace, which had been towed behind the Delight.  I will relate this survival story in next month’s blog)  A great disaster had occurred, for which Gilbert was entirely to blame.  On August 31 he had come aboard the Golden Hinde to announce his decision to return to England.

Humphrey Gilbert was many things: soldier, scholar, writer, adventurer, visionary.  He was impulsive, hot-tempered, passionate, opinionated, and toward certain people exceedingly cruel.  In 1569, serving Queen Elizabeth in attempting to quell Irish resistance to English Protestant rule, he had committed terrible atrocities.  To inspire terror in those who had to appear before him, he had skulls -- “the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and friends” – arrayed on each side of the pathway to his tent.  Upon boarding the Golden Hinde after the Delight had been destroyed, he had his cabin boy brought before him.  The lad had forgotten to transfer Gilbert’s charts, notes, and mineral samples from the Delight to the Squirrel, as he had been instructed, before leaving Newfoundland.  Using a cane, Gilbert delivered one stroke upon the boy for each chart and sample lost.

Thereafter, Gilbert told his officers that he would return to England on the Squirrel.  Warned that the undersized, heavily laden ship was in great danger of being swamped, he responded: "I will not forsake my little company going homeward, with whom I have passed through so many storms and perils.”  Well and good, you might think, but what might have been his true motives?  Was he punishing himself for his awful judgment and its tragic consequence?  By displaying singular courage did he believe he could expunge his guilt and neutralize forthcoming savage attacks on his reputation?

Gilbert’s two ships made their way across the Atlantic in manageable weather until they approached the Azores, off the coast of Africa.  On September 8 they passed through a strong weather front.  The men of the Hinde watched the Squirrel ride the huge peaks and descend into the deep valleys of a distressed sea.  The light on its main-mast appeared, disappeared, reappeared.  Gilbert remained seated on the stern deck, reading as he had said he would Thomas More’s Utopia.

When the Golden Hinde neared the Squirrel, Gilbert stood.  His red hair flapping, he leaned against the railing.  The wind carried his voice.  "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land," he shouted. 

A strange man with strange thoughts, the Hinde’s crew members must have thought.  Their vigil of the disappearance and reappearance of the Squirrel's light continued.  Just before midnight, the sailors of the Hinde saw the light a final time.  They waited, several minutes, before admitting that the sea had indeed swallowed Gilbert and crew.