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Robert Miller

Adventures of early Jefferson County Settlers
Published in the Indiana Magazine of History Vol. 12 No 3 – 1916

It is said that when an Indian story-teller relates the history and the folk-lore legends of his tribe, he always begins by saying: “This is what my grandfather told me when I was a little boy.” Now, I am not an Indian nor much of a story-teller, but I am going to write a few homely incidents of pioneer life and I am going to begin just as though I were a Cherokee Indian historian, and will say before I begin that the incidents of which I write were related to me, from his own personal knowledge, by my grandfather, as we sat before the wood fire in the wide old fire place, years and years ago.

This is what my grandfather told me when I was a little boy:

His father came, with his wife and one child, from Buncombe County, North Carolina , in the early years of the nineteenth century. They came, with other settlers, by way of the old Indian trace (warrior’s trace), a footpath used by the Indians, leading from the mountains of the southern states to the wilderness and Great Lakes of the north. The journey was made on horseback, the few household goods packed on one horse, the wife and child on another, while the husband and father walked alongside, with his trusty rifle ready for immediate business.
The little company settled in the western part of Jefferson County, along Neil’s Creek and my grandfather was born in a block-house where the village of Kent now stands, and which was then called Dobbinsville. Neil’s Creek was named for a man of that name who was lost in the woods while hunting cattle, and having no means of kindling a fire, crept into a hollow log to spend the night and was frozen to death.

The settlement was soon cleared, the land was new and strong and good crops were almost a certainty. But the settlers were compelled, much against their will, to share with the original denizens of the forests. Bears, deer, squirrels and wild turkeys made sad inroads on grain fields and the deer helped the settlers to dispose of the tobacco crop, eating the green leaves, to the last vestige, they being, curiously enough, the only animal that will eat “the weed.” Squirrels were by far the most troublesome animals, and late in summer and fall, they collected in the field in hordes. Three or four times each day, all the men and boys, and often the women and girls, went through the fields with some noise-making instrument, usually a “horse-fiddle,” and frightened them out. Usually the frightening was done by one member of the family, while the others patrolled the fences and with the aid of the dogs, of which there was always from one to a dozen, slew the little rodents by dozens as they left the fields. The hams of the squirrels were preserved, salted and smoked in the wide mouthed chimneys, while the dogs fell heir to the remainder.

The woods abounded with deer and there was little trouble in supplying even the largest families with fresh venison. One of the favorite means of securing fine deer was to kill them after nightfall about the “licks or sulphur springs,” where they came to drink in the darkness. This feat was accomplished by placing on the bank near the springs and on the windward side, a bit of spongy, rotton root of the sugar maple or beech tree, known as “fox-fire,” (probably a corruption or phosphor), which shone with a phosphorescent glow in the darkness, on the opposite side of the Lick, a rifle placed on two crotched sticks was trained on the fox-fire, and a blind of green boughs thrust into the ground concealed the hunter. When the deer came to drink, the hunter waited until he came in range and when the fox-fire was hidden from view, he knew the deer was where he wanted him. Then a touch on the trigger, a flash, a report, and nine times out of ten the deer was his.

My great-grandfather was an adept at this mode of hunting and on one occasion he met with an adventure which, but for the watchful presence of his dog, might have been serious. He had gone to a “lick” not far from home, had fixed his paraphernalia before dark and settled down to wait for the coming of a deer. He waited for three hours with the dog at his side but no deer rewarded his patience. The dog was uneasy and several times started up with a growl at a rustling in the leaves near at hand, but at a word from his master lay down again. Finally the old man’s patience was exhausted and taking up his gun, he arose to return home. The dog growled and raised his bristles, scenting an unseen enemy. His master gave him permission to go and he needed no second bidding. He darted into the shadows and in a twinkling was mixed up in a terrific combat with a hidden foe, while the amazed hunter stood with his gun ready to shoot, but afraid to do so for fear of killing his dog. Finally, after a desperate struggle, the combatants drew apart for a moment and the hunter stepped forward, and with the muzzle of his rifle almost touching the animal fired. Dragged into the light, the animal proved to be an enormous wildcat which had also been deer hunting, and, meeting with no success, had started man-hunting instead, and except for the presence of the faithful dog, would undoubtedly have attacked him in the screen of boughs.

Panthers or “painters” as they were called in those days were also numerous and committed many depredations on live stock and poultry and would even attack a human when hungry. One summer afternoon my great-grandfather took his rifle and strolled out into the woods, seeking some stray calves. Passing along a path in the edge of the woods, he experienced that indefinable feeling we all have when under the fixed steady gaze of another’s eye. Lifting his eyes, he met those of a huge panther crouched on the top of a sapling which had been broken down about twelve feet from the ground, resting on the stub. The animal was ready for a spring, but the hunter was too quick for him and a rifle ball brought him to mother earth.

A record of pioneer life without a bear hunt would be incomplete so I will tell you of two in which my own grandfather took part, hila-hi-yu (long ago), as the Indian story teller would say. Two young ladies returning late in the afternoon from a visit to a neighbor, saw a bear come out of the cornfield just ahead of them, cross the path and shamble into the woods. There had been much complaint in the neighborhood concerning the depredations of a bear which had stolen pigs, chickens and other things good for a bear’s appetite, but whose lair could not be located. Here was a chance to track the robber home and the girls instantly took advantage of it. Keeping themselves hidden from the bear, they followed him through the woods for half a mile until he disappeared in the hollow top of a huge leaning maple tree. Then, knowing that he was safe for a time, the girls hastened home and informed their fathers. No time was lost. The neighbors were summoned and in a short time a dozen men armed with guns and axes and guided by the two girls, surrounded the tree. A huge fire was kindled to light up the scene, for it was now dark in the forest, and while two sturdy axe-men fell to chopping at the base of the trees, the others disposed themselves near where the top of the tree would strike the ground, expecting to make an easy conquest of bruin when he appeared, stunned by the shock of the falling tree. In half an hour the tree came crashing down, splitting open from end to end, but no bear appeared. The hunters stared in surprise until a yell from one of the axe men called their attention and the clumsy beast appeared climbing out of the stump. With one accord, the riflemen ran toward the butt of the tree and as the high animal shambled away amid the treacherous shadows, every gun in the party was discharged in his direction, but so far as could be learned, not a bullet touched him and he disappeared in the darkness.

One Sunday afternoon, late in the summer, my grandfather, who was then about grown, with another young man about the same age, went home from church or Sabbath school with a neighbor’s son to take supper and remain until time for evening services. After supper, the man and his wife left the three boys to “do the chores,” and started to church. After completing the chores, the boys started off just before dark. The path led through a “windfall,” a tangled mass of logs and brush overgrown with blackberry briars, grape vines, whipsedge and bushes. About the middle of this delightful place, they stumbled on to a small black bear which had killed a pig and was making a meal of him. When the boys appeared, the bear left his quarry and darted into the thicket, but knowing that he would not go far, two of the boys remained on guard while the third returned to the house for a gun. When he returned, the three boys endeavored to get a shot at bruin, but he was too shy to venture into the open. He could be heard sniffing, grunting and crashing through the tangle but was too wary to venture into view. At last the boys lost their patience and started through the jungle in pursuit and for two hours they played hide-and-seek with bruin in the moonlight, until the man and his wife returned from church, when the boys learned that the gun they carried was empty. When they realized the risk they had taken in chasing a hungry bear for three hours with an empty gun, their only consolation was in knowing that it was a cowardly little black bear and not a war-like grizzly.

One more incident and I am done. A lady returning from a visit to a sick neighbor, just before dark one evening, discovered that she was being followed by a panther. She quickened her pace and the animal did the same. When she slackened her footsteps, the panther did likewise. Knowing that the brute would overtake her, she took refuge in a deserted cabin in a small clearing, hoping to outwit him. Instead of passing, however, he came up and clawed at the door. The woman climbed into the loft and the panther soon clambered to the roof and began tearing at the boards. Fearing that the panther would gain an entrance, she descended and the animal did the same. All night long the game of hide-and-seek went on until daylight appeared, when the panther was frightened away by a passing hunter and the woman released. The strain and horror of that terrible night in the lonely cabin, besieged by the savage beast was too much for her nerves and she died a few days later from the effects of sheer fright. This lady’s name, if I remember rightly, was Gowans.