Brice Hanna Story

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Source

A woman's story of pioneer Illinois, 1870. By Christiana Holmes Tillson Google Books

Related

Person:Brice Hanna (1) may or may not be the same person as described in this story.

Prefatory note

The following item is a from a pioneer story written by a woman who went west from New York to Illinois, about 1817. I came across the story while searching for information about a certain "Brice Hanna" who was a carpenter in Old Augusta about 1766. Brice had been hired to do some repair work on the church, and, as described in court records

NOVEMBER, 1771 (B). Boone vs. Campbell et als.--Brice Hanna failed and ran away. Charles Campbell, Alexander Moore, William Walker and James Walker were commissioners to have work done at New Providence Church in 1766. Brice Hanna was contractor.Chalkley's Chronicles 1:364

I've no way of knowing whether this is the same Brice Hanna, 50 years later, referred to in the record above, but the story told here does not seem inconsistent with the person who "failed" in Augusta county. In any case, it seems like a story characteristic of the frontier, be it in 1750 or 1817, and so helps condition our understanding of what life was like "in The Tapestry".

Text

After riding about two hours we came to a horrible corduroy, and were relieved when that came to an end and we found ourselves at a running brook, where we stopped to give our horses water. After giving them due time to slake their thirst, and the signal was given them to move on, we found them a fixture, and all the coaxing and whipping that was alternately administered had no effect to produce a forward movement. As "Charley" had always been so reliable, never having departed from his lofty bearing, the conclusion was that the new horse must be at fault, consequently a sound whipping was administered upon the poor darkey, who by plunging and trying to leap forward showed his willingness to obey. It then became evident that the trouble was with "Charley," who, when he was whipped, only floundered about in the water, and then settled himself down again. Your father looked perplexed and troubled, and on closer examination discovered the stump of an old tree at the bottom of the water which he thought might be the cause of the difficulty. There being but one way to get out of it, he commenced another lashing of poor "Charley." I felt like crying and I am not sure but that I gave myself up to that indulgence. Your father seemed to feel every lash that he administered to his poor victim, who, finally, with one desperate leap freed himself from his anchorage, and it was found that one of his feet had been caught between two prongs of the stump, thereby holding him fast. Joy came to us all when we found that although "Charley" came out with a ragged hoof and looking decidedly used up, he was able to walk and to take us on our journey. Your father had made up his mind—so he told us afterwards—that one of his legs was broken, and that he should be obliged to kill him, and leave poor "Charley" by the wayside, which would have been a most grievous thing to him. He had purchased him before going east with Mr. Collins in the spring; had rode from Illinois to Massachusetts on horseback, and then had driven him back to Illinois; and he was such a rare specimen of all that was reliable and elegant his loss would have been to us irreparable.

After the excitement was over—the carriage having been disengaged from the horses and drawn back on the corduroy—finding it would be some time before all could be in readiness to move again, I discovered myself not in high heart; that my enthusiasm for western prairies was vanishing; that I was approaching the extreme of what Captain Artus afterwards called "gaudiloupiness." So I concluded as my only resource to start off on a brisk walk, expecting the carriage would soon overtake me, but after losing sight of my companions, and looking about into the swampy surroundings, things looked dubious and the dismals were getting a good hold of my feelings when I heard a most unearthly yell coming through the forest, and the vivid recollection of a panther story I had heard not long before coming to my help, I turned back and with a quicker step than I could take now hastened towards the carriage, not knowing whether I was going from or approaching the dreaded foe. I had heard that their manner of attack was to perch themselves on the branch of a tree, and when within reaching distance pounce upon their prey. Every rustling of the branches assured me that a panther was on the watch for me with a hungry appetite.

At last I reached the brook, where a new difficulty was presenting itself. The horses had become so thoroughly frightened that no urging or driving could get them near enough to hitch to the carriage, and while trying to invent some way to draw it over two teamsters came along, each having a large Pennsylvania wagon drawn by four horses. One of the forward horses—which they called the leader— had a saddle on, on which sat the owner of the team, one of the men looking as lordly as if he was leading an army to battle. Your father asked them if they would take off their forward horses and draw out the carriage. The man nearest—the lordly looking one—said he would do it for a "dorller." Your father not pretending to hear him, went on trying his own horses. The man again called out: "Stranger, I say, I'll do it for a dorller." Your father told him he was in difficulty and would be much obliged to anyone who would help him. The wagoner looked sulky, and the man in the rear wagon called out: "See here, Brice, you move along; it isn't me that leaves a stranger in a fix like this;" so the "dollar" man moved on and the other drove up, unhitched his horses, and putting them to our carriage drew it out of the water. The whole performance did not occupy ten minutes. When the man was on his horse again and ready for a start, your father bestowed many thanks on him, and we were soon on our way. We soon overtook the teams and inquired how far it was to Brice Hanna's, and were answered by the man who had helped us. We also asked if it was a good place to stop. Imagine our surprise when he pointed to the other man and said, "That is Brice Hanna." Brice pretended not to hear.


Old rheumatism took me by the hand a few weeks ago, and has held his grip so tightly that I thought my pencilings were at an end; but, having a release from my bondage, and feeling quite lonely, I have concluded to resume my recollections of western life. In recording reminiscences of the past I have tried to give a truthful description of events as they occurred forty-eight years ago. I probably have forgotten many things that were, at the time of their occurrence, interesting to me. I regret that I have not the power within me to give a more high-toned record, but as that gift is not, and the subject not a soul-inspiring one, I must be content to suit my story to the log cabin surroundings, which are not wont to elevate. Mr. Hardy, a Presbyterian minister, who used to have his home with us when in our vicinity, said that on his first going west, when he attempted to write he would find himself falling into log cabin dialect, and log cabin notions of things, and that he used to get a volume of Burns' poems—of which he was fond—and read, and then look at the log walls of the cabin, then read again, and look at his puncheon floor, and try to look at them with a mind elevated by the inspiration of reading, and he felt he had accomplished quite an improved standard. But no such experiment came to my help. The indescribable care devolving upon a housekeeper in that new and rough country and the ways and means to which one must resort in order to keep up a comfortable establishment absorbed not only the physical strength of a Yankee housewife, but all the faculties of the mind had to be brought into requisition in order to secure a comfortable living.

I believe when I left off writing we were on our way to our night's station, and had been introduced to our host. I so vividly remember the events of that night that I will try to give you some idea of it. Brice Hanna was a tall, well-formed man with good features, and but for his surly expression might have been called handsome. When we arrived at his house he dismounted, came up to the carriage, and told us there was another house on the other side of the swamp where we could stay; that he had been from home all the week; that his wife was sick, and that we could not be accommodated anyhow. Your father told him that it was nearly sunset, and that he should not attempt to go through a five-mile swamp until he could do it by daylight, so we unpacked ourselves and moved towards the house, and with much fear and trembling I set my foot on the threshold of Brice Hanna's cabin. There was but one room in the main cabin, which I at once perceived was unusually clean for an establishment of that kind. There were two beds nicely made, with clean pillows and handsome bed-quilts, the floor clean, and the coarse chairs looking as if they had just been scrubbed. In a large, open fire-place was a cheerful fire

of oak logs, which were supported by one old iron andiron and a stone on the other side. But what most puzzled me was a pretty woman — who did not seem to be more than twenty— sitting with her feet on a chair, and with pillows around her, and holding her infant in her lap. Her skin was very fair, and she had an abundance of jet black, curly hair, and bright, black eyes. She had on a pretty pink calico dress, which with her baby's gear had the appearance of thorough cleanliness. She looked a little annoyed when we first went in, but politely asked us to be seated, and by her manner we concluded that she was mistress of the mansion. Brice had not made his appearance, but he finally came in bringing a stone, which he threw down with an oath, saying he had had his eye on that rock for some time, and thought it would be a match for the one in the fire-place. He commenced pulling out the andiron, swearing at the fire for being too hot. His wife looked on tremblingly, and asked why he was not willing to have the andiron remain, as it was "a heap handier than the stone." With another string of oaths he jerked out the poor andiron, and taking it to the door he threw it as far as he could into the yard. Such things might do for the broadcloth gentry, but he did not belong to. the gentry; at the same time giving one of his menacing glances at us. He went out, but returned in a few minutes to say to his wife that the woman she had there — who, with' her husband and boy, occupied a little cabin in the yard—"should not stay in his diggings another night," and with another oath said, "clare them out." "Well, what is the matter?" asked the trembling wife. "Matter! why the cursed "a list of epithets too fearful to repeat; "infernal fool has let the hogs and cows get into my corn-field and destroy more corn and potatoes than thar eternally cursed necks are worth; so I'll clare them out," finishing off his sentence with another string of oaths not to be outdone by Sancho Panza's proverbs.

The poor wife would shrink down when the blast was heaviest, but after he had gone would brighten up again. When one of the storms had subsided and he had gone out to anathematize the man and boy with curses loud and heavy, I ventured to ask her how long she had been a cripple. She said only a few months; that just before her baby was born she fell into the well and broke some of her bones, and was so hurt all over that she had not been able to walk since, and if it had been God's will she should have wished never to have come out alive. She was ignorant, but pretty, and with a sweet expression; so much truthfulness was manifested in all she said that my heart went out to her with a compassion that I cannot express.

After awhile the fiend again made his appearance with a large slice of bacon and corn read in his hand, and with his foot he kicked along a chair until he reached his. wife, and seating himself by her side he took out a long bowie knife and commenced eating. Looking at her with something of a subdued tone, he said: "This is the first corn bread and bacon I have tasted since I went from here. Too bad," she remarked, pleasantly; "and what did you eat all the week?" "Why, you see, I was hauling for Marshall; Marshall is building a big house; and I have been hauling brick and timber. When I gits to the house Marshall will call to that infernal old black cook of his'n to get my supper, and the "usual list ofexpletives, "fool goes and makes me some coffee as black as her derned old face, and some of them 'are cussed light Yankee biscuits, and some beef that was just warmed through as the old bull was when he was running alive and bellering, and when you put your knife inter hit by thunder the blood would run. Haven't had a bite of pone, or corn-dodger, or hog meat, not any since last Monday morning." "Too bad; didn't they give you any milk?" "Jest so; axed for milk, and the old black devil brought me some jest from the cow; haven't seen a sip of buttermilk or clabber." "Too bad." She looked pleased that he had become sufficiently subdued to bear soothing.We had previously called for supper, and were summoned into the cabin in the yard, which was used for a kitchen and dining-room. The woman of all work—the wife of the man who didn't keep the hogs out of the cornfield—was standing at a side table where we were to be seated for our evening repast. I have forgotten what we had for food, but remember the cleanliness of the rough furnishing, and that a saucer standing on the table, filled with lard, with a strip of white cloth laid in it and one end raised up at the side of the saucer, burning, served to light the table and the whole room. We went back from our supper to where the happy pair were still seated, he looking as if he had blown another blast and had settled down to sulk, and the wife trying to look happy, and smiling through her tears. He sat awhile as if trying to think of something disagreeable to say or do. All at once a happy thought seemed to occur to him, and looking at us with malicious satisfaction he commenced a furious rubbing and scratching, pushing up his sleeves and looking at his wrists. He turned suddenly around and asked us if we had any beds of our own to stretch on for the night. He had seen all we took from the carriage, and knew that we had no beds along, and looked satanically happy when he announced that we would all get the itch, as all in the house had it, and swore that the cursed old fellow who couldn't keep the cows out of the corn-field had brought the itch to them. Such startling information would have been fearful had I not looked at the honest face of the poor wife, who, without uttering a word, showed plainly that it was news to her, and I felt sure it was only a scheme of his own to make us uncomfortable. He seemed disappointed that he had not made a greater sensation, and as no one replied to his last effort he settled himself to think of something else disagreeable.

At last, with a more extended swear than before, he said he was tired, and was going to bed; it would do for gentry, who could stay in bed as long as they pleased, to sit up late, "but I'm no gentry, and I'm going to bed." There were .two beds in the room, standing foot to foot, on the side opposite the fire-place. One was for us, the other for Brice, wife and baby, your Uncle Robert making bis bed on the floor with the carriage cushions and a buffalo robe which had been purchased at Shawneetown. He evidently felt relieved that he was not under the necessity of getting into the infected beds. Although I did not believe there was any danger, I took the precaution to spread some pocket-handkerchiefs over the pillows, and by only removing my outside garments and putting on gloves, a thing I could not induce your father to do, felt pretty secure as to infection, but not quite comfortable as respected the mood of mine host. Being very tired I thought I would lie down, but not allow myself to sleep. Our trunks were deposited in the same room where we were, and I imagined that there had been a suspicious eyeing throughout the evening, and that the inside as well as the out might prove attractive; as we were so evidently in close quarters with a mad man, was not altogether at ease about our personal safety. I was very tired, and Morpheus finally overcame all my resolutions and made me forgetful of danger.

I do not know how long I had slept, when aroused by the crying of baby and the coarse swearing of the father. He scolded his wife for letting it cry, and then cursed the "little imp; imp of the devil." The wife said the child needed caring for, and would not go to sleep without it; that it must be taken to the fire and made dry and comfortable, but he swore he would gag the squalling brat. After a while he sprang out of bed and pulling the child from under the bed clothes, declared he would roast it. There was in the fire-place a large fire, made of oak logs, which were all aglow and gave light to the whole room. He took the baby under one arm, and with two or three bounds was at the fire-place. He commenced raking open the coals, still holding baby under his arm, swearing he would make a back-log; "yes, I'll brile ye." I kept both eyes open and trembled for the fate of the baby, when, to my surprise, he seated himself, carefully warmed the dry linen that was hanging by the fire, and in the most handy manner performed all that a good nurse or mother could have done. And now that baby was dry and there was no good reason for crying, and swearing did not soothe, he pressed "the brat, imp of the devil," to his breast, and commenced singin g a good Methodist hymn in a soft, subdued voice, and had i't been my first impression I should have supposed him a most devout Christian. A more sudden change from the profane to the devotional could not be imagined.

This scene occurred forty-eight years ago, and now it is as fresh to my mind as at that time, but perfectly to describe it would be impossible. The most provoking part of the last performance was that I had to enjoy it alone; no one to share with me the ludicrous climax of the closing hymn, your father and Uncle Robert being asleep. As soon as it was light we were up and ready for a leave-taking. At the five-mile house on the other side of the swamp we found a plain, decent family, who gave us a breakfast of "common doings," corn bread and bacon, without any attempt at "wheat bread and chicken fixings," and from them we heard more of Brice Hanna. The man told us that Brice had a good farm and in his way kept his family comfortable, took pride in having the best wagon and 'horses in the county. He had always been proud of his wives, the one we saw being his third; but his greatest pride was in his peculiar capacity for swearing. He once took an oath that he would not swear again for two years, from the fact that he had found a man down in "Shawnee who could out-swear him, and he said he felt mean ever after. He was true to his vow, but when the two years had expired commenced with renewed vigor. The gossip of the settlement was that his first wife died of a broken heart, that he had poisoned the second, and that the poor young creature whom we saw had jumped into the well to drown herself, but the water not being deep, was pulled out with nothing but bruises for her effort. The man did not believe the story of his having poisoned his second wife, but thought what was reported of the last might be true.

We had left Shawneetown on Saturday with the feeling that it was no place to spend the Sabbath, and finding ourselves at a worse place at night, we did not think it amiss to move on Sunday morning. At the place where we breakfasted they told us there was no place of preaching near, but on the other side of the prairie they had preaching every Sunday in a schoolhouse, so there being no place here to stay longer than to breakfast and to rest our horses, we set our faces northward again, and soon after starting came to a large prairie; I think it was called "Hind's prairie." This was my first introduction to a real prairie, and I must say I was sorely disappointed. Your father had talked so much about their beauty that I expected to feel a kind of enchantment. He said, "you never saw anything like this before." I said "no;" but did not say I never saw anything more dismal; and to those who have seen western prairies after the autumnal fires have passed over, leaving them in all their blackness, with an occasional strip of coarse grass or a scrubby bush, it will be needless to describe, and I think hard to gather beauties from it. We did not reach a stopping place until dark. Found a cabin with one room, the two heads alone being at home. The "younguns," as the mother said, had gone to preaching at the schoolhouse, two miles off. We felt no inclination to follow and join in the services, although they said that the "greatest preacher in the sarkit was to be thar." The people all thought a "power of him," and he was "doing a heap of good." They gave us a clean, coarse supper; had neither coffee nor "store tea," but what they call "mountain tea," made from some herb that grew in that region'. It had a pleasant taste, and with appetites sharpened by hunger and thirst we made a very refreshing meal, and were soon snugly occupying the onelegged bedstead that stood in the corner of the cabin. If I had endurance to write all I would like, I would tell of some of the freaks of onelegged bedsteads, and also give a description of them. I do not recollect where we stopped Monday night, but remember a place where we called about noon on Tuesday, and the mistake I made. As we went into the yard a little boy with no other garment on than a shirt was mounted on a large white horse, while two larger boys, in shirts and pants, were driving the horse around the house. I thought they were imposing on their little brother and stopped to ask them not to tease him in that way, and to get his clothes and let him dress himself. Your father looked amused, and said I had come too late in the season to see the prairie boys "turned into their shirts," a western custom of which I will speak hereafter. Your father called for a pitcher of milk, but the pitcher with the one tumbler furnished was sufficient for me; I can see them now as they then looked in their filth.

Thursday, November 26, we arrived at a very comfortable looking two-story log house, just before sunset. The outward appearance of the establishment indicated that they—as the westerners say— were in a better fix than most of their neighbors, so we anticipated a good supper, but I saw the lady — as she called herself—go through the whole process of preparing the meal, which satisfied all my cravings for supper, though my appetite had been well sharpened by a day's ride. I could relate a queer experience, but am getting along slowly in my week's travel from "Shawnee." Your father not knowing the reason why I could not eat supper, being out with the host during the preparations, asked for an early breakfast, as we might not find as good a place on the way. Oh, dear, what could I do? In vain I urged him to start before breakfast, but he could see no reason for so doing, and I in presence of host and hostess could not explain.

Tired and supperless I went to bed, and "nature's sweet restorer" soon came to my relief. I awoke early, and perceiving through the chintz curtains that hung around our bed, that there was light in the room, hastened to awake your father, and urged him to get off without waiting for breakfast. He peered through the loop-holes, and with much satisfaction told me it was the fire-light I saw, and they were preparing our breakfast. Oh, oh, ohl what could I do? I told him it would be impossible for me to eat a mouthful in that house, and that what I had seen the night before was already more than I could stand; but before we were ready to start breakfast was smoking on the table, and I had no alternative but to sit down. Fortunately the lady thought I might be sick, and rummaging somewhere brought me a cracker, which, with some honeycomb that was on the table, made an apology for a breakfast. Hunger had so far gained the ascendancy that I would not look to see the place where the cracker had been deposited. We were soon ready to take up our line of travel, and to say farewell to our hosts. Mine host, by the way, was no mean personage; talked politics, did not swear; said he had been thinking of running for the legislature; seemed to be in good humor with every one — particularly himself. Mine hostess had children from boys of sixteen or eighteen to the wee baby sitting on the floor, with a darkey of the masculine gender for a nurse; said nurse was about as large as a good-sized dog, and could act dog or monkey, as best suited baby's whims; so having a darkey she was a mistress, consequently a lady. When we were again on our way I had the time to review the incidents of the past week. Shawneetown, the encounter with the stump at our watering place, Brice Hanna, the poverty, ignorance, and filthiness of the people I had met, the black dismal prairie I had crossed, suffering from pinching hunger, and, with feelings better imagined than described, was feeling that the farther I went the worse things I might have to encounter. When your father said "the breakfast seemed pretty good," I asked him if he thought it had time to digest? If so, I would tell him of a few things that went to make his meal.