PROLOGUE and CHAPTER I
Born on July 13, 1801 in Canada, the son of an English foot soldier.
I, William Featherstone, shakily ink my pen, early on this morning of the twenty-fifth day of February, in the year of eighteen hundred and eighty-eight, with mixed purpose and aged hand. I pray the prudently written words about to be spilt upon this journal lying blank before me, can somehow bridge the chasm too long existing between the offspring of my daughter I left behind in Tennessee and my children in Texas, for my blood flows through all your veins. Perhaps the words to come will reveal as much to myself as to those of you who read them when I am gone.
Aware that my sun is sinking low and that I have reached the end of my worldly pursuits, I have a few regrets. I have only one move left in me, that great mysterious exodus just over the horizon, so close now I expect I could reach it in a day or two, if I hurry. But I am weary, and choose instead to drag my feet a bit, to bide my time. I need to examine the choices I made in this life, ponder those I did not. I spend much time lately wondering about the role Fate played in it all, and whether the choices I made were ever really my own.
Just as I am being drawn away, I feel compelled to record my existence on this planet, and to expose myself, the good and the bad — to you, all my offspring, wherever you are, desiring, of this I am certain, to know and perhaps vindicate your own history.
My eyes, though dimmed, have seen all of what humanity has to offer, the best and the worst — the kindness of gentle folk and the brutality of the devil’s own. I have known good fortune, terrible loss, hardship, and recovery. Always recovery, for I am a man of strong will and resilience. I come from good people, as well as I can remember, although I, myself, have not always behaved accordingly. My greatest regret is my act of desertion, not of my country — no, for that I have no compunction — but the abandonment of my own, not once but twice, lies heavily on my heart.
My youthful quest for new adventure, shadowed later by a driven need to escape my own shameful past, drove me onward still, chasing that elusive ideal called freedom. Ill-conceived actions born out of anguish and fueled by rage set in motion deadly conflict and ruin. The bloody adversity left in my wake haunts me relentlessly, even after all these years. I fear the consequences of my mistakes will revisit you, my descendants, long after I am gone.
Perhaps old age is affecting my sensibility, leaving me superstitious, irrational, but I implore you, heed this warning: be knowledgeable of the sins of your ancestor, lest history repeat itself.
A Drummer Boy
My parents were poor, my father an illiterate foot soldier with the 41st Regiment who traveled aboard the transport ship, Asia, from Cork, Ireland to Quebec City in 1800. I was born in 1801 in Montreal, after the regiment arrived there to give aid to the Canadians against the French, and later the Americans. My mother hated the military life, the constant moving from one garrison town or outpost to another, from one battle to the next. I’ll not send my son to die for any king, she said. She knew a cobbler in town, and convinced the man, whose name I long ago forgot, to take me into his shop as an apprentice, wishing for me to learn his trade. Each night, the cobbler’s wife gave me lessons in reading and writing and arithmetic.
I enjoyed working with the leather at first, and learned quickly, although I soon grew bored with it. Talk scurried up and down the streets, that the Americans would soon be invading Canada, despite the valiant efforts at holding them back thus far. One day my father’s regiment, victorious from the Battle at Queenstown, came marching, in all its red-coated regalia, past the cobbler shop. A boy of twelve, I felt my heart swelling with pride, and yearning.
I didn’t want to be a cobbler, spending my days inside that dreary shop, repairing and making shoes. No, I wanted to learn to beat a drum, and I wanted to march in line with the bravest of all the king’s regiments, right into the thick of battle, behind the stand of the magnificent colors of the greatest empire in the world. I told my sponsor my wishes, and after he consulted with my father, the arrangements were made.
One day I was learning to stretch and hammer leather around a wooden lasts, and doing my lessons; the next, I was inside my father’s barracks, with my new drum. I learned all the beats quickly, everything from the reveille and the general, to the retreat and the taptoo. The drummers regulated every aspect of the daily routine of a soldier, so I, with my fellow drummers, became an integral part of regiment life. We enjoyed the ceremonies, the patriotic loyalty to each other and country, and the close-knit, albeit brief, brotherhood we shared. But things took a bad turn, when we actually went into battle.
We were sent to the Detroit post, under the new commander Proctor, who in the end, sacrificed most of the regimen and became my undoing, as far as patriotism to the king and soldiering went. He was a coward, not nearly the man his predecessor had been, fat and undisciplined, blaming the troops always with his failures.
If not for the great Indian Tecumseh, the 41st would no doubt have been wiped out early on. I admired that Shawnee Indian; he was a smart, dignified man, an able, respected leader, and a skilled warrior. The mutual respect he enjoyed with the previous commander was legendary. Tecumseh loathed Proctor. Proctor’s retreat up the Thames River cost Tecumseh his life. I, myself, saw the great chief slaughtered.
And, I watched the killing of my own father on the same battlefield, caught in the crossfire, his strong healthy body clad in the once proud uniform, now dirty and tattered, riddled from both sides. On that October day, in 1813, I witnessed the horrible brutality of war for the first time, the irrational hatred capable of savage mutilation, one soldier upon another, and prayed to God Almighty for it to end. The brave soldiers of my regiment, ordered to retreat up the river, ran for their lives, most shot in the backs by the Americans led by William Henry Harrison who later became president.
Tecumseh’s body was taken into the swamp by his men, where it was said they buried him in some secret place. I hid nearby in a clump of bushes, hugging my drum, closing my eyes to the massacre surrounding me, horrified by the cries of the murderers and the murdered. Finally, their wretched sounds blended with their blood into the river, indistinguishable. I cried for my dead father, for my poor mother and my brother and sisters — what would become of them?
Cold, hungry, terrified, and heart-broken, soaked in blood, river water and swamp mud, I watched the Americans herd many of the survivors of the 41st onto boats. Fearful of being found hiding like the frightened child I was, I raised my hands above my head and fell into line with the rest of my comrades. I couldn’t bear to look back, not even at my fallen father, and I have wondered every day since what became of his body, where he is buried.
At the prison camp near Detroit, we were treated well, given new clothing, and good food. They allowed me to keep my drum, which I later traded for a beaver trap. Being the youngest prisoner in the camp, the Americans looked out for me, and after a few weeks, they made me an offer. If I chose to stay in this country, some of its states not much older than me at the time, then I could walk away a free man, they told me. Even gave me money and supplies to accept their proposition.
I have mulled over that decision a lot in recent years, like a toothless old dog gnawing on a bone, wondering what the hell’s the use in it. Always, it settles back down into the nether regions of my brain, like that old bone winds back up in the hole where the old dog buries it, to be retrieved and gnawed on over and over again. It comes down every time to the same thing — a lad of twelve with nothing, when offered the excitement of a new life filled with opportunity and the promise of prosperity, simply lacked the will power to not reach out and take it.
So that’s what I did. I reached out and grabbed it, thinking — at least that’s what my adult mind would conjure up years later when my conscience required it — that I would return one day with my fortune and rescue my poor mother, my brother, and baby sisters. Yes, I would later convince myself that I fully intended to go back to look for them. Someday.
Under the bluest of skies, on the fairest of spring mornings, I began my journey into the wilderness of my new land, along with others who had chosen the same path. No, I was not alone in the desertion of my country. I had plenty of company. We made our way hastily across Lake Erie, we all knew the price for desertion, for we had seen the bodies hanging up and down the roads long before we were captured. I harbored the same distaste for the sorry lot of the cowardly turncoats as the rest of my proud countrymen, but that was before everything changed for me. That’s an astonishing fact, and even now, causes my head to shake in wonder, how that life-changing, battlefield event wiped away all fore-drawn conclusions, should say ILLUSIONS, opening my young mind to the possibility that everything I believed prior was false, or at least, suspect, having been formed and conditioned entirely by cultural dictates and pre-conceived observations.
It felt like the whole earth was brand new, a rugged wilderness filled with uncertainty, hardship, and often tragedy, but with a potential not possible anywhere else. I think it was the best time to be alive, of any other generation before or since, and I marvel at my place in history, at the unfathomable forces placing me, a mere insignificant lad with little judgment, at the heart of such a dynamic and pliant time. Opportunity for land, for rich farming soil, for good fortune, spirited the people onward, causing them to leave family behind, to head out on their own, and to never look back. This was a new breed of people, and I was one of them. That was how I felt at the time.
Rough settlements had sprung up along the Ohio River almost overnight, some said, and a few cabins could be seen in small clearings a fair distance away from the banks, inside the forests. Encampments were growing as more newcomers sought safety among their own people. I noticed that the German settlers tended to group themselves further away, perhaps due to the language barrier, and other cultural differences, but the English-speaking pioneers welcomed all who came wishing to join them in the sparsely located villages up and down the Ohio. And, it struck me, as I ambled along the river fishing and hunting, and visiting with folks, with everything I owned tied up in a piece of burlap and tied to a stick, that hope for the future was the common denominator we all shared.
Sometimes I trapped beaver, and made good selling the pelts, either in trade, or for precious gold nuggets, which I kept securely tied to the inside of my breeches waistband. Before long, however, I found steady work on the barges further down the Ohio River, mostly loading salt from the mines, working my way gradually southward, finally to the Mississippi River. I found myself eventually across the river from a place they called Madrid, Missouri, the place where that bad earthquake of 1811 did so much damage, with the state of Tennessee not much more than a stone’s throw from me to the southeast.
I felt such a kinship with the developing frontier where, if a man was lucky enough to survive the elements and the diseases, anything was possible. I felt sympathy for the natives, and none of the fear which seemed inherent in the other newcomers. Perhaps it was due to my exposure to the Indians back in Canada, or simply to the unwariness of youth. Blind optimism and a teenage bit of narcissism, allowed little thought at that time to the lives of the natives, whose very existence would be decimated by this new breed of Americans, like me.
The war with England had all but ended, and the earliest pioneers from the northeast poured into Tennessee: by foot, by horseback, by river. My observation found the Chickasaws to be accommodating, certainly not hostile. Drawing back into the forest, into their own log house villages, the Indians kept their distance, minding their own affairs, even though their women and the frontiersman often married. The Chickasaws believed that all nature, everything the earth offered, even the natural abilities of its people, were to be shared by everyone, all things a part of the great circle of life. I found them to be gracious, even neighborly, and I learned from them.
So, they were a non-threatening presence as far as I was concerned, although predetermined notions attaching a violent nature to all Indians, unnerved many of the pioneers from the east. The settlers, always on guard in their uneasiness, came well-armed, having either heard about or witnessed, the attacks and atrocities committed by some tribes when pushed to defend their own land. Such were my observations of the Americans and the Indians.
Fishing for my supper one day, I noticed down river at the dock, one of the largest flatboats I had seen anywhere. Curious, I watched for a while, then forgetting my fishing, I made my way toward that boat, sauntering passed the blacks, their hardened bodies glistening as they labored under the hot sun of late summer, and the weight of the heavy kegs of whiskey they loaded. And bushels of salt, never saw so much salt!
Horse drawn wagons, a few ox drawn carts, and mules, some already laden with goods purchased from the other barges docked there, waited at the mooring to load their supplies and commodities. Sugar, salt, tobacco, whiskey, rum, spices, coffee, and flour, could be bought and bartered along the river. Talk of steamboats long preceded their actual appearance but promised even more commerce to and from northern cities, and southern ports, like Natchez and New Orleans. Anyone with the means to either barter, or outright purchase, found an abundance of textiles, ammunition, guns, tools and implements. Every known commodity, both raw and manufactured, travelled up and down that busy river.
Curiously, I wandered onto the deck of the big boat, eyeing the vessel’s sturdy construction. I knew that these flatboats weren’t meant to travel but one way, downriver, and not built to last, most often burned for firewood, or used to build a cabin, after the destination had been reached. The captain, a friendly looking Irishman, approached me, asking what business brought me. That is when the idea entered my head that I could work on that boat, travel further down the river, and see where it took me. I found the magic words I needed, and voiced my aspirations to the copper-haired giant.
“Looking for work, Sir.”
“How old you be, Lad?” He looked my skinny frame up and down.
“You live by here?”
“I live nowhere,” I replied. “I’m an orphan boy.”
The towering man, both physically and in personality, studied me inquisitively, in the way I’d seen a fighting rooster up the river sizing up a lesser cock one day before a death match. He shook his wild red head like a mane, throwing back his broad, muscled shoulders, placing his massive hands on each hip, both elbows jutting out like wings, he strutted, back and forth, his bright green eyes examining me. I felt like a worm on the ground at his feet. His scrutiny drew a crowd, deck hands swarmed around us, curious about what had captured the captain’s attention. I expected him to crow, so much he reminded me of the champion cock I’d seen upriver.
“Tell me true, laddie. You wouldn’t be no runaway, would ye be?”
“No sir, I’m just a poor river boy, trying to get by, all alone I am,” I said, and looked straight into the captain’s eyes.
He cocked his head to one side, eyeing me for another minute, in contemplation. “My name’s Daniel Keogh, laddie, from the great state of Tennessee. Welcome aboard this box.”
In that moment, the course of my life was laid, although I had no way of knowing it then. To know that was impossible, since I had yet to learn how an action, a word, even a look — especially a look — could chart one’s route in an instant.
I’d never seen another human being like the man in the midst of the activity bustling around us. He was dressed in tight fitting cotton breeches, tucked into high-topped black boots, and his shirt was loose-fitting, opened halfway down his barreled chest which glistened with curly reddish hair. His big brimmed straw hat, its cord tied beneath his chin, hung at his back.
Half-naked blacks strained under the heavy burdens they stacked on the boat, although some were laughing, some singing in strange dialects, creating a frenetic cacophony of voices above the whacking sounds of wood being slammed against wood, from one end of the barge to the other.
Being addressed by such a powerful looking man, in the midst of all the activity, got my blood pumping even more, and I felt more alive than that first day I had beat my drum behind the colors in parade. The energy the man generated was contagious, and I stretched my hatless head higher, widening my barefooted stance. I looked up into the ruggedly chiseled, intelligent face of Daniel Keogh, glimpsing a probing gentling in his eyes, and a softening in his voice.
“You ever done any river work, Laddie?”
“Loadin’ is all, and leadin’ the mules what tow up the river between moorings.”
I crossed my arms across my chest, one hand gripping the knapsack stick, and added, “Mostly fishin’ and trappin’s all I know.”
“I can always use an honest man.” Giving me a friendly nod, he continued. “‘Soon as we load up here, we’ll be heading downriver a ways. My two hands just quit me. What’s your name, Lad?”
“If you’ve a mind to throw in with me, Billy, I can keep you busy as you wanna be.”
Not wishing to look any greener than I was, I hid my excitement. “Yes sir, Cap’n,” I said, my free hand caught in the calloused grip of his forceful shake.
“Call me Danny.”
Soon, we were shoving off, each pushing our long pole-like oar into the bottom of the river, moving away from the land, and out into the waterway. When we slowed too much, I pushed with the pole from one side, Danny doing the same on the other. The August sun beat down on the two of us, strangers floating along together, on a favorable current, on what I hoped would be a slow moving and uneventful ride. The boat glided like a massive ark, loaded to the gills, mostly with whiskey and salt, some other crated goods, along with barrels of flour, sugar, and molasses. We met barges, keels, and other flatboats, while I kept my eyes peeled for any obstacle ahead of us, whether it be a fallen log, a stump rising out of the water, or a dreaded sandbar. I couldn’t help but wonder if I might possibly catch a glimpse of a steamboat traveling upriver from New Orleans.
“River’s changing’, Billy Boy. Won’t be long now, be swarmin’ with the paddle boats, bringin’ any and everything north and south, a thrivin’ thoroughfare. A fellar could get mighty rich, quick.”
“Reckon there’s pirates down here?”
“I’ve heard tales.”
“Ever seen ‘em?”
The terrain rolled by us, as the sun disappeared gradually behind the forests, leaving only shadows of the day, casting vast silhouettes across the deep black face of the Mississippi. Danny told me I was doing a good job keeping watch, surprising me by saying that he was in unfamiliar territory, this far down the river.
When it got too dark, we moored to an island where other boats were docked for the night, agreeing to take turns with our neighbors at guard duty until morning for whatever mischief the darkness concealed, Indian, or otherwise.
By the time we had our supper, fished from a trotline in the river, and had stretched out on the deck, my employer seemed less the daunting giant I’d first encountered, and more of a protective guardian. Though the possibility of pirates unsettled me, Danny relaxed, perfectly at ease, smoking his pipe and staring up into the silver-studded universe.
From the other boats, we saw the sporadic glowing of candles, and could hear drunken laughter, as the men gambled, sometimes raising their voices in loud cursing, shouting to others about the island, or to imagined savages in the woods.
Danny paid them no attention, and told me about his life, about how he had worked up and down the river for years, since making his way down from Pennsylvania, through Carolina, where he and his father had joined the militia not too many months before the Battle of Kings Mountain.
“Oh, laddie, the horrors that battle wreaked upon the defeated Tories!” He shook his head with a grimace. “Much talk preceded the battle about the bravery required to stay and fight! There was no disgrace like that of cowardice.
“Me, just a sixteen-year-old boy, not much bigger’n you, I wanted only to turn and flee. But like my father and the others, I accepted my fate, as much as I abhorred the soldierin’ life, the gory killin’. I accepted the helpless hopeless realization that no other alternative was available to a man, if he wanted to remain a man.
“I did what I had to do, along with the others, although most seemed to relish the venture, their faces not revealin’ one ounce of the terror I felt. Perhaps I was too young to comprehend the true meanin’ of freedom, the way the other men, including’ my father, did. The mettle of its power over individuals in pursuit of it, or in protection of it, would come to me, in time.
“Yessir, Billy, it took a while for that whole freedom idea, in all its uncertainty, to drill its way into my rock-hard noggin!” He laughed softly, and moved to a more comfortable position. “But my father was a freedom fighter, a genuine patriot, until the very end when he fell, mortally wounded that day on King’s Mountain.”
Danny told me how he had helped the other militiamen haphazardly bury the pitiful Tory bodies heaped and strewn in terrible disarray about the mountain after the battle. He heard later that they had done such a poor burial, that the hogs from nearby farms came and devoured much of the flesh left exposed, strewing remains like rubbish all around the countryside. The hogs grew fat, they said, but the farmers, so disgusted by the grisly account, refused to eat them.
He remained in the service of the Revolution for a few more months, being discharged before seeing another major battle. He had nothing and nobody, his mother having died giving birth to him.
“I found meself at the mercy of my own wit and curious nature, both of which have thus far served me well!” He knocked on the floor of the boat, for luck.
“You betcha, I know all about bein’ an orphan!”
I lay still, barely aware of the sounds of the night, mixed with sporadic snoring from the nearby boat, so fascinated I was with the tales Danny told me. I thought of my own story to tell but debated the wisdom of spilling my secret of desertion to a thirty-seven-year-old man, whose own father like mine had died in battle, while he himself, stayed true to the cause. I decided to hold my tongue.
Daniel Keogh continued to talk, his voice low and lilting in its rhythmic brogue, about his first venture into the Tennessee backwoods. He had paddled by canoe, exploring the torturous, mysterious waterways, learning to maneuver the constant peril of the bayous, the tricky, deceiving currents, the deadly ever-present obstacles hidden beneath dark water, and the pre-conceived barbarity of the savages protecting their native territory.
His exploration led him finally to building his first flatboat and soon he had fallen in love with the slow-moving river life of the Ohio and Mississippi.
“It takes a special kind of person,” he said, “a rude sort of romanticist, a drifter, a dreamer with ambition, to love, and profit from, the river life.”
I kept quiet, and listened, not even trusting myself to speak, becoming more uneasy about how I should tell this brave man about what I had done.
“And, the good sense to know that no river can ever be trusted! I learned to respect, and to expect, the unpredictability of them all, holdin’ the deepest reverence for each, individually. Why, after a while I was ridin’ the currents like an insatiable young lover, satisfyin’ my own wanderlust.”
He coughed slightly, getting up to refill his coffee cup. “More?” he asked me, offering the pot.
“You bet, warm it up!” I hated the strong acrid taste of the nasty stuff, but decided I was going to develop a liking for it anyway.
“And another thing about the river, besides teaching me the meanin’ of freedom, I think it also tamed the wildness in me. It’s fattened my money pouch, too.” He looked down at me, winked, and drew on his pipe. I could see his eyes glinting in the candle light.
“But it’s a young man’s passion, Billy, and it’s time for me to get on back home now. Passed time, perhaps. “My woman, well, she gets lonely, and our little girl needs her daddy. She’s growin’ up fast, a young woman near bouts, and she hardly knows me. I promised Mana,” he paused to explain, “my wife.” Drawing on his pipe, he continued, “I told her that this would be my last run.” His pipe had gone out and after several futile puffs to revive it, he tapped the cold ashes over the side of the boat.
“How ‘bout you, Bill? What happened to your people?”
By now, sleep threatened. I stretched, yawned and mumbled, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” I turned over and closed my eyes.