Friday, March 2, 2012

A Death In the Family

I recently discovered a letter online written by my 2nd great grandmother Jane Elizabeth Cowles or Jennie as she was known. In her letter she writes about the pioneering days of her grandparents (my 4th great grandparents) Polly Miner and Salmon Cowles. I have written about Salmon previously but will have to revisit that post with some of the new information in this letter in some future post. But for now, here is an excerpt from Jennie's letter about Salmon and Polly's time in Ohio before they moved to Iowa in 1840 and became my first of many ancestors to set foot in the future state of Iowa. For some context, keep in mind that Polly was 14 years old at the time of the story and her mother Lorain Royce Miner (my 5th great grandmother) had died three years earlier of consumption.

Jane (Jennie) Elizabeth Cowles Grim
the author of the following letter

I am not able to find out certainly, but I always got the understanding that her father moved to a new place still deeper in the wilderness after her mother’s death and her sisters’ marriages.  However that may be, he lived a mile and a half or two miles form his brother, who was his nearest neighbor, and the roads were only blazed trails through the forest, made by frontiersman as he walked along with his ax, striking the bark from the trees along the path.  If one strayed form this trail, he was likely to get lost, for the forest was thick and dark, and if he could not see the sun, nor tell the directions, especially if the sun was not shining brightly.  Such were the conditions on that 29th day of July, 1804, which Polly never forgot, telling of it often to children and grandchildren long years after.

The day had been excessively hot and oppressive, and about the middle of the afternoon signs of an approaching storm became manifest.  Gradually, these signs increased, and Polly brought the children indoors from their play, and soon, John Miner, himself, leaving his work in the clearing and looking about to see that everything was safe, came in and put up the clapboards that served as shutters instead of windows and shut the door as the storm broke.  It proved to be the most horrible tornado that part of Ohio had ever seen.  Now, of course, with window shutters up and door shut, no one could see out of the little cabin; so after awhile, the storm not seeming to abate its fury, John Miner, anxious and curious to see what was going on, unbarred the door and holding it against his body as he stood in the opening, leaned out to look around.

Just at this moment, a great tree limb hurtled through the air by the wind, struck him on the back of the head, knocking him forward on his face and killing him instantly.  Polly ran to him instantly, but could do nothing.  Tug and work as she might, that giant limb defied her every effort and mocked her agonizing fears.  Finding she could do nothing, and that her strength was giving out and evening coming apace, she decided what to do.

Seating the little brother and sister side by side in their chairs, she made herself ready, and pulled her father’s feet outside the door, shut it tightly, and started on her perilous mission.  The storm had abated by this time, but it could not be very long until the evening shadows would make her progress through the forest impossible.  She soon found that it was well-nigh impossible already.  Giant trees lay uprooted across the path and she could hardly make out where the trail was, as they lay in inextricable confusion, and she must not lose the trail.

It was nearly dark when she came out where she could see the light in her uncle’s cabin, but the clearing reached, it was not long until she was telling them her sorrowful story.  Her uncle at once started on to the next neighbor’s a half mile or so away to get help, and her aunt took care of the plucky little girl.  Soon several men were gathered with pine torches and axes to go back and do what could be done, and bring the little ones.  Uncle Justus had no idea of taking Polly back with them, but she insisted on going, saying that she had promised the children that if they would sit still and be quiet while sister went for someone to take the big tree off Father, she would surely come back to them, and so she must go.  Seeing the reasonableness of her wish, she was allowed to accompany the men.

There was much use for the axes and it was nearly midnight when the rescue party reached the little cabin.  But God had kept watch, and all was as Polly had left it.  The men soon had the tree chopped and lifted off the father, and laying him out on his bed and covering his form with a sheet, they took the children, now fatherless and desolate, and began the homeward journey; first seeing that everything at the cabin was shut tightly so that no marauding wild animal could gain entrance to disturb the remains.  It was nearly, or altogether, a week before roads could be cleared and word got to daughters and friends, so that they could bury John Miner.  Then the cabin was deserted, and kind friends took the now doubly orphaned children.

Polly was in her 14th year, and she did not propose to be long a burden on her sisters and friends, no matter how kind they were.  She had improved her father’s instruction, and so was fairly well along with her studies.  A little more schooling in a more settled part of the country, and she was prepared to teach.  There was no public school system in the Northwest Territory then, and all the schools were subscription schools.  Likewise, there were no standards of qualifications for teachers and no age limits.  One who aspired to teach school must satisfy those she desired as patrons, and this Polly was able to do, and began her career as a schoolteacher when she was scarce fifteen years old, which occupation she continued until her marriage.


R. Sherman said...

We don't know the hardships those people endured with a quiet grace. Good stock, our ancestors.


Ed said...

I found myself pondering what I would have done in that situation with my other parent now dead beneath a tree and two younger siblings in the cabin behind me. I'm not sure I would have handled it with as much quiet grace.

sage said...

that letter is a real find... A tragedy even today, but it must have been really horrific back then.

R Johnson said...

Really gripping. It gives the picture of life in a time we can hardly imagine.