Once I had delved into genealogy thoroughly enough, I began enjoying one of the rewards I would have missed if I had invested myself in the process in a more casual fashion. Not only was I gaining insight into forebears and relatives who had distinguished themselves and been subject to noteworthy paper trails (i.e. not just census entries and marriage certificates, but biographical sketches), I was so deep in I began seeing the stories of the unsung individuals, the ones that powers-that-be of their own time had assigned no importance to, or whose stories they actively suppressed. This was true gold.
Today I’m offering up one of those examples of rescued history. Below is a passage from a book-length memoir written by Esau Johnson (1800-1886). Esau was a nephew of a great great great grandmother of mine. When he was an old man in a charity institution, the staff convinced him to jot down the story of his life. And so he did, resulting in a memoir long enough to fill a rather fat book. Naturally I was drawn to it because of the family connection, but if that’s all there was to it, I wouldn’t blog about it. The fact is, Esau’s writings have true general appeal. He and his parents and siblings were edge-of-the-frontier pioneers of the Ohio Valley during the first three decades of the 19th Century. Aside from his account, there is almost no first-hand perspective available about the lives of ordinary settlers of that place and that era. There just isn’t. Nearly all books about the pioneer era of the Ohio Valley were written by historians of later generations, who at best were able to interview a few elderly surviving pioneers. In almost all cases, the authors failed to do any narrative staging that would take a reader “into the scene” and portray the lives of the subjects in a fashion that would allow a reader to draw their own conclusions. Instead, the chapters are laden with agenda — the right and wrong of who won what battle, who established the first bureaucratic jurisdiction, who made the most money. Esau was just a regular guy and described what he saw and did without the lectures and distortions and contrivances. The access his offering provides is unique and precious.
The events portrayed in this snippet happened in the final months of 1821 on into the autumn of 1822. Esau and his family were dwelling upon a homestead they had founded in 1815 in what is now Vermilion County, IL. They had lived there at first without any neighbors of any sort, i.e. they were the first settlers to arrive, and they had created their farm by clearing virgin timber and deep-plowing raw prairie. (I use the terms “virgin” and “raw” with qualification. Of course the land had been occupied at some earlier point by indigenous peoples, but that prior occupation had ceased so many years earlier that the land had reverted to an untamed condition.) Beginning in 1817, other family members began to join the Johnsons and establish adjacent farms. New on the scene in 1821 was Esau’s uncle Absalom Starr and his wife, the former Hannah Harris, and their children.
Here are Esau’s words. Please note this was a man who had only experienced one half-year of school as a child and only knew how to read and write because in his mid-twenties, he had hired a tutor for a few weeks. He was eighty-two years old when he wrote this:
In the fall of 1821 after the move, Uncle Absalom Starr had a sore come on his right heel that grew inflamed and soon got so he could not walk. He got a Doctor Palmer to doctor it. After doctoring it for some six weeks, he said he did not think it could be cured without taking the foot off, but he did not want to do that. Best try some other doctor [because] he could not cure it.
There was three brothers in Dayton, Ohio by the name of Treeon that advertised in the newspapers to cure any sore in the flesh. They did not care what it was. Cancer or anything else. Uncle took most of his money and went there to get cured.
His wife said, “Go and get cured and I will get along till you come back. I want you cured and then we can be happy and comfortable, but it’s trouble now and no happiness nor comfort. You are almost dead with that sore on your heel. Unless you get it cured, you will die, and then I will be in a bad fix. So go and be cured and then we can take comfort together.”
After Uncle Absalom was gone, I went to see my Aunt Hanna Starr. She asked if she could get me, if she made rails, to haul them out on the prairie for her, and she [would] pay me for doing it.
[In the year 1822 Hanna, aka Hannah, was twenty-nine years old and was the mother of eight living children, the eldest of whom was just barely entering his teens.]
I said, “Yes, I will draw out all the rails you will make, and put them up in a fence for you without you paying me anything for that. I don’t care how many you make.”
Aunt Hanna Starr went to work. I thought the rails she would make would be easily hauled and laid up, but that was a mistake. Aunt done her house work and made her one hundred and fifty rails per day and I hauled them out, laid them up till I fenced forty acres for her.
[The photo above shows a split-rail fence. It may be quite like the one Esau built for his aunt, using the rails she split. I should add that Hannah was midway through a pregnancy as she performed that labor.]
Aunt Hanna said she was in hopes Uncle Absalom would get well and come home before [spring planting season], but he did not. All her hopes were blasted. I never heard her mutter nor grumble all the time. That made me think more of her than any other aunt I had.
Uncle came home in the fall of 1822 without getting well. He had given up all hopes of ever getting well. He had to crawl from his bed to the fire and from the fire to the bed.
He said, “I paid five hundred dollars for doctoring and they done no good.”
In the fore part of the winter of 1822 and 23 there was a Delaware Indian come to Father’s to buy corn. Father let him have the corn. As they were shelling it, Father asked him if there was any good doctors amongst them.
He said, “Yes, my wife good doctor.”
Father told him that his wife’s brother had a very sick heel. He asked him to go and see it.
They went. After the Indian looked, he showed how [the wound] commenced a little stretch, then got bigger and bigger.
Father asked him if his wife could cure it. He said yes.
Then how much would she cure it for? he asked.
He said, “Ten bushels of corn.”
Father said, “Come cure it and I will give you the corn.”
The Indian said, “Tomorrow we come.”
They came with their medicine, a parcel of roots dried and pounded up fine and they brought a little brass ladle to make it up in to put on his heel.
They stayed all day. Dressed it three times that day. Left the brass ladle and the medicine and said we should dress it three times a day. Said they would be gone three days. She had to go dig more roots and prepare them, but the fourth day they would come back.
The next morning I went in to see how Uncle was. When I went in he said, “Esau, I am going to get well.”
I said, “You are in too big a hurry.”
He said, “No, I am not. Because ever since the problem commenced on my heel there has been a gnawing going on in my heel and last night it stopped about midnight, and I have not felt it since. Before last night [despite] all the strong stuff that was put on, that stinging, gnawing, and biting had not stopped at any time.”
They came the fourth morning and brought a large bag of medicines. They got his heel pretty near all healed up by the time they wanted to leave for Arkansas. They fetched me the new root the [healer woman] had strung up, so that if the heel did not keep getting well, I could prepare more, but his heel did well from the moment the Indians commenced to cure it. I thought it never could get well because the heel bone on the back of his heel and the bone of the leg were entire naked.
Uncle said the Treeons put something on it to kill the disease and what was in it nearly killed him. He said there was nine inches of the big leader that runs from the heel bone on the bottom of the heel up the back of his leg [the Achilles tendon] that came off at one point. He thought it never could heal over. He figured if it did, his foot would be so [bad] that he would not have any use of it. But it got well and was [eventually] so [good] that Uncle could run a pretty good foot race. Later he hunted and killed a good many deer and wild turkeys.
And there you have it, a tale not only of a truly stalwart female pioneer, but of the sophistication of native medicine and the expertise of a female practitioner of same. And what I like most, it is a real example of a happy outcome that sprang from cordial, respectful, humane interactions.