Tag Archives: Pennsylvania History

Chapter One: Wagoners Wanted

I’ve given you the Prologue of The Snake Fence in my blog about Quaker lingo. Here’s the first chapter as a teaser. You can now order an advance copy of The Snake Fence at  http://www.quakerbooks.org/the_snake_fence.php at a discounted price. The book will be mailed to you by the end of the month.


Chapter 1

Wagoners Wanted

Clutching both reins, I yelled, “Giddyup, Hope! Home, Seth! Faster! Faster!” Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette was tucked inside my shirt. Bags of newly milled flour thudded against the bed of Pa’s old farm wagon. My teeth rattled as the horses pounded the dirt road. Here’s my chance, I thought, if only Pa will let me go!

My straw hat slipped off the back of my head and my hair whipped across my eyes. I brushed it back with my forearm, not letting go of the reins. Bad things were happening on Pennsylvania’s frontier. Indians were killing people, burning houses and crops. Not here in Chester County, but in the Back Counties. And the English were sending a grand army to defend us.

Because we are Quakers and don’t believe in war, I couldn’t join the army. But I sure wanted to help make things right. If Indians attacked our farm, would we defend ourselves? If we didn’t, what would happen? Bloody scenes flashed through my mind.

I loved my family too much to let something that awful happen without trying to . . . to what? To kill to avoid being killed? Could I even do that? If I did, the Meeting might disown me. That in itself would be a kind of death.

I had never met an Indian. At Quaker Meeting, I heard that they, like everyone else, had “that of God” within them. But the Pennsylvania Gazette painted a different picture. Why were Indians suddenly violent? Mayhap others had it right: they were just savages who couldn’t be trusted. I was sitting on the snake fence on this issue.

People I knew seemed more interested in following Quaker teachings than in questioning them. Not everyone in the world believes as Quakers do. What makes Quakers so sure they have the Truth and everyone else is wrong? But when I asked Pa, he just looked at Ma as if to say, “Where did this young’un come from?” So I didn’t ask again, but I kept wondering.

I didn’t expect to find answers at home on the farm. Mayhap Franklin’s advertisement would make all the difference. But I would have to put it to Pa in just the right way. Pa was a good man, but not easy. He had an edge in his voice, a challenging look in his eyes. He was fair but tough, and he lacked patience with anything he considered a hare-brained idea.

According to Pa, I had come up with more than my share of those ideas. One was to mount chair legs on curved runners so the chair could tilt back and forth. Istill thought it was worth pursuing, but Pa had really scorned that one. “Why would I want to tilt my chair back and forth? When I sit down, I want rest, not exercise!”

I hoped this latest idea was not hare brained. It was Benjamin Franklin’s idea, after all. I just wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of something big.

The late afternoon sun winked through little spring leaves as I careened up the hill to our barn. My finger fumbled unhitching and watering the horses. Then I raced down to the house, jerked a dripping bucket of water from the well, splashed my sweaty face, and burst through the kitchen door. The Pennsylvania Gazette was hidden in my shirt.

The family had just finished supper. Everyone was there, even my oldest brother Enoch and his wife, Deborah. Pa and Ma sat in their chairs at either end of the long plank table. Bersheba and Will, older than I, and our younger brother Benjamin were perched on stools on either side. My place was still set.

“Time for the Bible reading, Noble,” Pa said. “Eat thy supper while I read.”

I squatted on my stool. My knees bumped up under the table now that I’d grown taller. Ma passed me a plate of bread and sausage gravy. Pa read from the big Bible, as he did every day. Then he prayed and the family all said “Amen,” same as every day. Then he put the Bible back in its heavy wooden box. Time to make my move.

“Pa,” I said, “I brought home the new Pennsylvania Gazette. Want to read it?”

Pa put his glasses back on his nose, and Will and Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Listening to news beat going out for evening chores. Pa opened the paper and began to read aloud. Never ones to sit idle, the women took out their needlework. My older brothers either leaned their elbows on the table or tipped their stools back against the blue hutch.

I had a plan, if I could just be patient enough. I hoped my voice wouldn’t crack. It hadn’t for a while now, but it still did when I least expected it.

Pa droned on about the latest squabble between the Pennsylvania Assembly and the governor. This whole year of 1755 had been full of war talk. I knew Pa would read all the news before he got to the advertisement that had captured my imagination.

Pa always read the ads. There were descriptions of runaway apprentices, indentured servants, and horses. Who knew when we might see one of them and be able to claim the reward? “Keep eyes sharp, lads,” Pa would say. He read all notices of sales of farms, houses, and estates. Not that he wanted to buy, but he wanted to know what the market was. Pa had a reputation for making money where others might not think to try or want to take the risk.

A sudden change in Pa’s voice caught everyone’s attention. He had found the advertisement signed by Benjamin Franklin himself. “Forty-one Wagons are immediately wanted, to carry a load of Oats and Indian Corn from Philadelphia to Wills’s Creek, for which they are to be paid twelve pounds each wagon. Protections and passes will be given the Wagoners by authority of the General, to prevent their being impressed, or detained after delivery of their Loads. They are to set out together on Thursday the 29th instant. Apply to Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia. Note: several neighbors may conveniently join in fitting out a wagon, as was lately done in the Back Counties. If the Wagons cannot thus be obtained, there must be an Impress.”

Pa’s voice was heavy with significance as he read that last word. Leaning back in his armchair, he looked over his spectacles. The family silently considered what he had just read. I forced myself to keep quiet. I mustn’t be in a hurry.

“What’s an impress, Pa?” Ben asked.

“It means the army could force farmers to deliver grain, willing or not.”

“And General Braddock might keep the horses and wagon, maybe even the farmer, for as long as needed,” added Enoch. Even though he and Deborah were expecting a child of their own, he still enjoyed frightening Ben.

“If Indians are attacking as close as the Susquehanna, how much longer will we be safe here in Chester County?” Ma worried.

“An army must be splendid, all those uniforms, horses, and guns,” Ben sighed.

“An army isn’t splendid, Ben,” William scoffed. “When thee sees an army, thee is seeing men who kill each other. We don’t believe in war, remember.”

I glared at him. “But soldiers and their horses need to eat, surely,” I said. “We can’t fight, but we can feed them, can’t we?”

“Making money on the war,” Will grumbled. “That’s as bad as fighting.”

“The army is already here, to defend us. Why shouldn’t we feed them?” Enoch said. “Don’t we owe them that?”

“But, Pa, isn’t supplying an army the same as fighting?” Will asked.

I couldn’t wait for Pa to answer. “Nay, Will, think of it this way: it would be unchristian to let soldiers starve in the wilderness, wouldn’t it, Pa?”

Pa looked from one of us to the other, a hint of a smile on his face. He enjoyed watching us argue. It sharpened our minds, he said, though Ma pleaded with him not to encourage us. Finally he said, “The Lord wants us to be good stewards. If an opportunity comes along and does no one harm, I find naught wrong with it. ‘Twelve pounds and safe passage for any who would drive a wagon loaded with oats and corn,’ ” he read again.

I had waited long enough. About to burst with excitement, I chose my words carefully, watching Pa’s face for any reaction. “Pa, since thee bought the new wagon,don’t we have a spare one?”

“Aye, we do.”

I couldn’t help wriggling on my seat. “And now that Ben is getting so stout, might thee spare me to make this trip?”

“What? That would leave me with just Will and Ben to help out here.”

“Aye, but we’ve nearly finished planting, so there is only haying to do in Sixth Month. Sheba can help with that, and I’d be back before time to pull flax and cut rye.”

“And what will draw the wagon?” Pa replied. “I can’t spare two horses.”

Enoch broke in. “Deborah’s brother Jonathan has a horse he might let us use, if thee could spare one.”

Us? Does thee think to go with me?” Suddenly I saw my twelve pounds halved.

“Nay, little brother, I may let thee go with me,” Enoch taunted. “Not likely Jonathan would let thee borrow his horse.” Deborah nodded her agreement.

“Why would I trust either of thee with my horse and wagon?” Pa asked.

“Thee let me drive a load to Philadelphia alone, and on this trip there would be a whole train of wagons,” I said. “Pa, how can I prove myself without such a chance?”

“And what would thee do with the twelve pounds?”

I thought fast. “We’d split it evenly.” Half my profit gone, but I needed that horse. Pa waited for me to continue.

“I’d buy woodworking tools.”

“Well, if Jonathan Swayne is willing to lend his horse, I suppose we could spare thee for a while. We managed well enough during thy apprenticeship, didn’t we?” Then he added, “But don’t come home with an empty wagon.”

Until I heard those words, I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath. Then it burst out in amazed relief. Pa was actually going to let me go. Now I could be part of showing those Indians they couldn’t get by with attacking civilized people. I didn’t know how that could be done without violence, but I was too excited about the coming adventure to worry about details.

Ma shook her head in resignation. I knew she was relieved that two of us were going, because we would look out for each other.

Pa folded his spectacles and put them away with the newspaper.

I tried hard not to show how smug I felt. What a great adventure I was about to have! It almost made up for not getting a journeyman job right away. This way I could do something about stopping those awful attacks on settlers, see the world, or a different part of it leastways, and earn money for tools.

That night Ben hopscotched silver squares of moonlight on the floor of our bedroom as we shimmied out of our breeches and hung them on wall pegs. He said, “I wish I could go with thee, brother.”

“I’d rather have thee than Enoch for a traveling partner any day. He always acts as if he’s just eaten a sour apple. Pa can spare but one of us, though, and thee is rather young.”

“Thee will see soldiers, maybe Indians and Frenchmen, maybe even a battle.”

“I hope so. Someone has to keep them from killing people. I wish the Meeting would allow us to fight. But maybe there’s a way to stop violence without adding to it.”

Ben curled up like a puppy on our rope-strung bed, his chin resting on his hand. We were buddies as well as brothers. Joking with Ben had made dull days nearly bearable. I would do anything to defend him, I told myself, Quaker or not.


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Noble Butler

Noble Butler

I am blessed with having a large book about my maternal grandmother’s genealogy. A kinsman in Pennsylvania, Thomas Butler, worked for years researching family history and published the book Noble Butler of Pennsylvania, Ancestors and Descendants. Noble Butler was brought from Bristol, England, to Philadelphia by his Quaker parents, John and Bersheba Butler, some time between his birth in 1704 and 1711. In 1727 he married Rachel Jones, and they had five sons and one daughter who lived to adulthood.

Thomas Butler’s book holds much more than the family tree. He has included pictures, family letters, wills, inventories of estates, and newspaper articles. As I paged through the years, I was struck with how this Quaker family has been involved in one way or another in every war that ever came along in American history. Quakers are known for pacifism, right? Yet there the Butlers are, either participating in or fleeing every war.

Here in my hands, in this thick book, was raw material for historical fiction. Conflict: internal, among family members, within Meetings, with the greater community, and of course the wars themselves. I decided I would write a series of historical novels spanning the whole of American history with my Quakers as protagonists. What a grand project!

Where to begin? I pored over Thomas Butler’s book till I knew enough about Noble and Rachel’s children to deduce some personality traits. Enoch, the oldest, was the contrary one; John, the unfortunate; Will, the goody-goody (the only one who was never complained of in Meeting); Noble, the adventurer; and Ben, the faithful son who cared for his parents until their deaths and then met his own when he finally set out on a new path. Bersheba was harder to figure out, but I would characterize her as long-suffering. Most women were, then, and very little is written about them. So I tried to concentrate on her husband, John McCowen. From inventories of estates, I could guess at their occupations: most were farmers with some skill in a trade, each one different.

Most of the early records are in Monthly Minute Meetings in libraries and historical societies in the Philadelphia area. My new husband asked me where I wanted to go for our Fall Term Wild Card. He had agreed to live with me in Florida but said he might want to be guest research scholar or professor somewhere from time to time, and I said I would go with him anywhere during Fall Term. We had spent one Fall Term in Edinburgh, his choice, and now it was mine.

“I need the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania if I’m really going to write about the Butlers,” I replied. Fine, he said, he would find a teaching position at one of the many colleges and universities in the area. And so it was that we moved to Pennsylvania for a Fall Term in 1999. While he taught at Villanova and I did my research in Swarthmore, we fell in love with the area and moved there full time in the spring of 2002.

In the quiet of the Friends Historical Library, I pored over Monthly Meeting Minutes on microfiche and paged through books of old records. Finally, I began reading bound volumes of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia newspaper. There I found, in the classified ads of early May, 1755, something to start with:

“Forty-one Wagons are immediately wanted, to carry a load of Oats and Indian Corn from Philadelphia to General Braddock at Wills’s Creek, for which they are to be paid twelve pounds each wagon. Protections and passes will be given the Wagoners by authority of the General, to prevent their being impressed, or detained after delivery of their Loads. They are to set out together on Thursday the 29th instant. Apply to Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia. Note: several neighbors may conveniently join in fitting out a wagon, as was lately done in the Back Counties. If the Wagons cannot thus be obtained, there must be an Impress.”

General Braddock! The British general on his way from Fort Cumberland on Wills’s Creek to Fort DuQuesne (now Pittsburgh) where he was defeated by the French and Indians! The beginning of the French and Indian War in Pennsylvania!

My Quakers in 1755 wouldn’t fight, but they might have no scruples against making money by delivering supplies to the British army. After all, Noble, Sr., had been dismissed from his Meeting for charging too much interest on a loan. The fine ethical line appealed to me. Whom should I send? What were the Butler offspring doing that spring? Enoch was married, John had left as a Free Man (another story), Will, Noble, and Ben were home on the farm. I’d already pegged Noble as the adventurous one. Born in 1739, he would be sixteen years old. Sixteen-year-olds usually think they are ready to go off on their own, capable of anything required of them. Reading William Butler’s book, I deduced that Noble might have worked hard to separate himself from his father’s domination. He would be the one to make the trip.

But he would need his pa’s wagon and horses, and Pa wouldn’t trust him to make the trip alone. Enoch, newly married, would need that money. Why not send Noble and Enoch together out to Wills’s Creek? With what I had deduced about the two of them, they would not get along. It could be an interesting trip.

Next, I had to calculate the route they might have followed. The Pennsylvania Gazette didn’t mention the wagon train again until their return to Philadelphia, so the route was up to me. The Friends Library has wonderful old maps, hand-drawn, nearly as big as the table-tops in the reading room. Bending over the table, tracing the few old roads, or communications, as they were called then, I plotted the wagon train’s course and began to build my story.

And thus The Snake Fence was conceived. In subsequent postings I’ll tell you some of the adventures I had while researching and writing this book, which will be released by Quaker Bridge Media sometime after the first of the year. Please stay tuned.


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