Into the Wilderness
In tribute to National Women’s History Month, the Ticonderoga Historical Society re-prints an account of the many hardships endured in the life of a pioneer woman.
It begins in the winter of 1797 in a sleigh as it glided over Lake George ice with her mother and father to Ticonderoga ~~~
“I am now 74 years old. I was 13 when I came. This then was in 1797 — We came through from the head of Lake George on an awful cold day on the ice. No stage, or mail, or hardly any travel, so we had no track. Mother was sick that day and lying in the bottom of the sleigh come once or twice near fainting. We thought for our souls we never should get through where we could get water for mother. We did start to bring a little spirits in the morning but forgot it. On neither side of the lake was there any settlement except at Sabbath day point. There both sides and whole length of the lake the great pines stood, all around on the mountains, one unbroken wilderness. Not an axe had been heard there then or hardly a gun to scare the deer — Well, we got in at the Upper Falls, (Alexandria) where there were only 2 houses. Capt. (Elijah) Bailey’s and Mr. (Levi) Cole’s. We lived in a small wood house just above the Rapids (Lake George Outlet) two weeks and then went to the (Benona) Thornton place, just south of the Lower Village, where we lived six years.
We had heard that Ti. was a Paradise, that we should find pigs and fowls ready cooked running about with knives and forks stuck in their backs, crying, “Eat us!” But when we got there it was all bushes. In the new roads the stubs stuck up as thick as your fingers, and down you would go at every careless step. The land was densely timbered. We had one cow and a yoke of cattle. I’ll tell you the way we built our first cabin. Father took 14 feet boards and withed them up to four staddles that stood just right and covered them over, hovel fashion. We moved in. On the 15th of April come snow breast deep and there we were. It was a terrible storm, — you could walk over the fences, and we gathered sap on snow shoes. We all went to cutting logs and when we got four walls locked together, half a roof and the chamber floor, we moved in. When we wanted groceries we had to cross the lake to J. Catlin’s for them, but oftener went without them. I remember going once to a mill and dusting up flour from behind the bolt that had worms in it, picking them out, and so making bread. We had brown bread, and wheat cracked in milk. Land alive! when we wanted fish, all we had to do was to run down to the brook — there were schools as big as a washtub. Father drew out 18 great trout one morning, I remember, in about three minutes. We had provision left back on the way at Hoosack Falls, (Hoosick Falls) but we could not get it. Finally father gave a man half of it for going with his team for it.
Father had to work over the lake in Vermont to get hay for his critters. —Mother and I when he was gone used to take the axe and bush hook and go out to our clearing at the back of the barn, and work all day. We used to cut out all the underbrush and staddles, and pile them up, I tell you sir, as slick as bean poles; and then, when he came home, he cut the big timber. Once we logged there three days on a black fallow — father, and mother and I — and had not a piece of bread to eat as big as your fingers, but only fat pork. La, me! I could not eat it, but just took my fish hook and line and ran down to the brook for fish.
Wolves fighting for rank order
No sheep. Land! you could have no sheep, the wolves would tear you right down. You could hear them away off in the night — one would howl, then another would answer — howl, howl — then another, way off, howl, howl, howl, — till they got up such a roar that it would almost tear you down. One day I and my brother were standing on the bridge and three wolves came along the road close to us. We thought they were three grey dogs till they got near, and then we scapered, I tell you. Oh! they were awful thick and dangerous. We never had any sheep. You could not keep any.
The animals we feared most were bears, wolves, catamounts, and rattlesnakes. Deer were thick as sheep are now. Shot one from the house door once.
old calico print
Calico work dress
Gracious! we didn’t have any calico. Calico was worth a dollar a yard! I took flax and spun it, colored it with copperas and made a dress that lasted 10 years, and I went to balls in it. Little cloth enough in ladies’ dresses in those days. Two breadths, one in front and one behind, with a couple of chinks to widen out the sides, were all that we could afford, and then they were only just a little puckered up behind. Calico short gowns some had. We had to card and spin our own cotton, you understand, buying it in bales at 25 cts. a pound –Land alive! the first calico dress I had cost me $7.00, the next $5.00 — calamink, they called it. I had a red broadcloth cloak that cost $21. Fur hats tied under the chin were used for dress bonnets. Girls used to wear handkerchiefs tied over their heads in turbans with a bow to dance in. Father made his own shoes. I made my own with cloth and old felt hat for soles. Went barefoot in summer. I was married in velvet shoes that father made.
I must tell you about my marriage. You see Squire (John) Perrego (Perrigo) married us and he was Squire and a Doctor. So lots of folks came down, having been invited. We had a stew pie made for them in a three pail iron kettle, all nice, and it was good one too, but it would be an awful thing now-a-days to boil in a big kettle over a fire place.
After we were married we moved across the valley westward to the Sheldon place where we had to tough it. I had toughed it at fathers and now I had to tough it here. Only half an acre was cleared. There we lived five years without a stove or fireplace. We absolutely had no chimney. We burned wood right against the logs of the cabin and when they got afire we put it out. We used to draw logs right into the house, great backsticks and foresticks.
Sap, from the maple trees was so plenty that we could hear it in the night, drip, drip, drip, till morning. Deer used to come and stand right across the run where I used to get water, and once one knocked down the door to my oven not two rods from the house, but he didn’t get the pie crust.
Now come a trouble upon us. My husband had just got a grand fallow burned as black as a coal, had worked out and paid for seed wheat, been to get it, and coming home, in getting over a log, fell and almost cut his hand in two on his sickle. He come home after I was a-bed groaning: “I’ve cut me to death.” And he did come near bleeding to death. It absolutely bled a small pail full and run out at the door though I did every thing to stop it. I hallood, and yelled to make distant neighbors hear, and could hear nothing but George Cook’s sheep bleat and the patter of rain on the leaves. It rained dreadfully that night. At last a woman that lived on the mountain above us came, but she could do nothing. I resolved to make a desperate attempt, for we believed that my husband would die. So I seized a great fire-brand and ran. I had no shoes or stockings, but I swung my fire-brand ahead and to each side to scare the wolves as I ran along the edge of the mountain, and crossed the valley to my father’s place. Only a few days before my husband had come along the path with a leg of mutton. He set down on the leaves a minute, and the next day around that place half an acre of leaves was torn up by the wolves. When I crossed the brook I heard something splash in the water behind me. The rain roared so I could not hear for sure, but I thought it might be something and looked back, but could see nothing. I tell you the grass did not grow under my feet that trip. It was not bears, or rattle snakes this time, but wolves, wolves! I was afraid of the wolves. I came back, after rousing my folks, with a candle. I heard Mrs. Wardwell from my house, crying out, Murder! Murder! I cried back, and my folks thought it was to them, and so they cried to me, and the doctor a little beyond with my brother to them. I to her, they to me, and the doctor a little beyond with my brother to them. I to her, they to me, and my brother and the doctor to them, and so it kept up a stream of halloes and yells through woods. It was a wild time, but I only thought of my husband.
Female Brook Trout
He was 3 weeks getting well. I did every thing. I used to harness up my horse, go to the woods, get my staddles, draw them in, and cut them up for wood. Three months I worked so, for he was obliged to go off to work. Our fallow was now ripening a nice crop of wheat. Said I to him, “That wheat must be cut.” “I cant do it; I must work in my place,” said my husband. — “Then I guess I shall reap it to day, myself!” So I set to work with my sickle alone. I remember I had reaped through twice, raked, bound, and set up my grain, and was coming through the third time, when I found a place where the sprouts stuck up thick in the grain. I put my sickle round them and was drawing it in, when — out run a great black rattle snake from the other side! I got me a club and killed him, and tried his fat. He had no gall, for he had been eating mice. I put his body across a stump and nine days after his head was cut off, when I went there and pressed a sharp stick into him, the flesh would squirm.
We took 14 sheep, but one night we could not find them to yard, and that same night the wolves killed all but one. One dead carcass we found in the crotch of a tree a good way from the ground.
I must tell you about one or two tussles we had with bears. There was one that come into our cornfield and used to tear it down like a dozen hogs. My husband tried every way, and at last set a gun for her, just before dark. “Now, old woman,” said he, “when that gun goes off you must go with me and I will find the bear.” “What can I do,” said I. “Oh, you can carry a fire brand, if nothing more.” Just as we were getting into bed, bang went the old gun.— “Here we are,” said I. He seized a big brand and I followed him out into clearing. “Give the brand to me,” said I. “Just as well,” said he, “I’ll go forward and find the old critter.” Take care,” I warned him, “if she is wounded. old man, she will make shoe strings of your hide,” “No” he would not hear to the old woman. He had not gone far when he tumbled right over the bear! He hopped up. I guess near two feet at the bear’s growl, and cried – a short quick cry — “O God!” Bear weighed 200 lbs: we tried that fat; the meat cut like pork, but I could not bear to eat it.
Adirondack Black Bear
Another bear was so cunning that when we set a gun for her she wold take it out of its place, as we knew because it was never fired and by finding the prints of bear teeth on the stock. Then they watched for her. Says my husband to Ben Sevens, ” About dark she will be coming down the ledges and we’ll get in the brush and let her have.” So they did, but she run when wounded, and they after her lickety swingle up the ledge. She tuned and cuffed, they clubbed and backed up till my old man backed against a tree. Little dog jelped and nipped so behind that she turned round or she might have killed him. One more good wipe of the hickory club and she was down. The found seven balls in that bear’s head.
Attaching broom corn to handle
When I wanted a broom I went out and cut a hickory club, dried and peeled it. A fan kept us three months. Berries were thick. I remember going out to pick berries when my oldest son weighed 23 ponds. I laid him down among the bushes after nursing and picked two pailfuls. Then I picked another pailful in my great apron, and took the three pailfuls and my babe and carried them to the house. Next day I carried these over the lake to Vermont on horseback and brought back cheese, pork and flour. That was the way we got our groceries.
I have given you a true account of how we used to live and what adventures we met with. It don’t seem scarcely possible now that the woods are cleared off, that such wolf-howling and kind of work ever were in these valleys.
When I had nothing to do I helped my husband. I did not care what I wore, had, or did — any thing to help him. I worked there and was black as a nigger. We lived, you might say, on work and love.”
Mrs. Adolphus Sheldon
This folk telling was recorded by Flavius J. (Joseph ) Cook and re-printed in “Home Sketches of Essex County” – Ticonderoga” in 1858.” As our tribute to National Women’s History Month observance we are re-publishing this so a new generation of folks may learn of what life was at the beginning of the settlement of the town. Rev. Cook’s book was re-published by the Ticonderoga Historical Society in 1989 and is available in our “Olde Post Office Book & Gift Shop at the Hancock House.
Rev. Cook note: Nothing need be added. This compact and graphic delineation of hardships and perilous labors, ought not merely to interest but to instruct those of the present generation. It might be well to mention that two brothers of that boy that was cradled among the berry bushes, afterwards resolved to get an eduction. As they were too busy to study in the day time they studied at night. As they had no candles they burned pitch pine. They prepared lessons by torches like those with which their mother had scared the wolves. They succeeded by most diligent labor, most stern determination, most rigid economy, and very remarkable ability. Both are liberally educated, and stand high as men of intellectual influence, one (Dr. Benjamin Arod Shelton- 1825?-1896) having long held the Professorship of Mathematics in the Free Academy (University) of New York. Any sketch of Ticonderoga would be incomplete without mention of these self-made men. B.A. and D. Sheldon, who do not forget their own and their father’s old home in Trout Brook Valley.
Wolves, 1805 — From Town Records – “Voted, that Forty Dollars be raised for the purpose of Destroying Wolves, and that five Dollars be paid to any Person that does actually Ketch and Kill a full grown Wolf within the limits of this town, until the whole sum of 40 dollars be Expended.” Thirty dollars was raised, and expended in the same way, the next year. In 1808, twenty-five dollars was raised, of which two dollars and fifty cents should be be paid for “each Whelp killed.” In 1812 the same bounty was offered for “each whelp that can walk alone.” In 1814 the definition was made more specific still, embracing “each whelp which is not able to take care of itself, provided they have their eyes open and can see.” This last foray against the innocent peepers must have swept the race, for after this we find no more votes about wolves.
“Home Sketches” – was published in 1858, and only a few original copies existed up to the 1980s. At that time members of the Ticonderoga Historical Society decided that the contents of his book was invaluable and that it needed to be re-published. Working from a very damaged copy, and through additional research, it was re-constructed and re-printed in 1989. Elizabeth McCaughin, Elizabeth Densmore and William Dolback, trustees, were the principals in this project. The Society’s archival collection has a large collection of William and Joseph Cook material.
If any of our readers have any “Sheldon” family, or other family connections mentioned in this article, we would like to hear from you.