h2g2 Literary Corner: When Tennessee Was a Frontier

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A tale about some pioneers.

When Tennessee Was a Frontier

Frontier fighting in Tennessee in the 1790s

Back in the 1790s, before the Grand Ole Opry, and the internet, and such, the US State of Tennessee was, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad, 'one of the dark places of the earth'. To imagine that sort of thing happening in a European neighbourhood, you'd probably have to go back to the mythic past of epic poetry – or else watch Game of Thrones.

This story of life on the Tennessee frontier was written down in 1917 by Mary H Carmichael in her thrilling tome, Pioneer Days. She claims these stories are true, and we have no reason to doubt her – although we may wish she'd been a bit more even-handed in her coverage1. The prose is pretty excitable, too.

In this episode, called 'Maniac Defender: A Story of the Border', we have just learned that Reginald Clarke, a young married man, was among the three white scouts killed by the Cherokees, who are planning to attack a nearby settlement as part of their war with the settlers and their other enemies, the Chickasaws. As we pick up the tale, Mary Clarke has had a bad dream.

In one of the block houses sat two women, the wives of Gee and Clarke. Mrs. Gee was a rosy-cheeked, black-eyed woman, of perhaps forty, a daughter of the forest and well inured to the dangers of the frontier. Mary Clarke, the wife of a year, gentle and timid, had lived all her life long in a city, where danger was unthought of, and border outrage a thing to be
read of in the newspapers. Like a true wife, she had followed the fortunes of her young husband when his lot was cast among scenes of death and violence.

''What is the matter, Mary? You hardly speak, but sit there with your eyes fixed on the hills as though you expected a redskin to jump at you. I tell you what. I don't believe this story of Joe Durant's. The redskins can't be very near or Jonathan wouldn't stay out. He's been gone three days now, and he must be in to-morrow," said Mrs. Gee, a little anxiously, for her husband's absence was not so uncommon that she should be seriously alarmed.

" Suppose they never come back, Nancy?"

" What do you mean, Mary? Who has been putting such nonsense in your head?"

"No one. Don't laugh at me, and I will tell you a dream I had last night."

"A dream! What, are you fretting over a bad dream? You ought not to do that now."

"I can't help it; the dream was so lifelike that I must believe it."

"Well, what was it? Tell me about it."

"I dreamed," said Mary Clarke, drawing her shawl closer about her, shuddering as she
spoke, "1 dreamed I saw Reginald, with your husband and Clayton, walking along by the
bank of a river…it seemed after awhile that other men came on the opposite bank, and beckoned
them to cross. There were many of them and some wore moccasins of the Indians and their
knives and tomahawks were concealed beneath their hunter's dress. I saw our scouts plunge
boldly into the dark waters of the river; I saw them reach the opposite bank – and, O Nancy, pray Heaven it is not true – I saw them reach the shore, and climb up the steep bank; and then I heard the terrible war-whoop of the redskins ring out plainly on the waters, and saw the terrible features of Timereor2, and the half-breed3 Cherokee chief, Watts, concealed beneath the cap of the hunter, and I saw the Indians surround their captives, singing and dancing with horrible glee. I saw tomahawks glitter in the air. I saw them fall, and heard the one wild cry of 'Mary' burst from Reginald's lips as he sank, all mangled and dying, at the feet of the chief. After the horrid work was done, the Indians threw the bodies into the river. I saw the waters close over them, and I awoke. But, oh! the memory of that dream has been with me all day. I cannot take any peace until Reginald returns."

As we already know, Mary's dream is deadly accurate. That night, the Cherokees attack the blockhouse. Mary, unsettled by her dream, is awake and alert and gives the alarm, along with her faithful dog. Soon, the small group of farmers are embroiled in a fight for their lives against skilled warriors. Mary arms herself with a rifle. She has a particular target in mind, and she's very determined.

From the first moment of the attack, Mary Clarke had watched for him, the monster who had murdered her husband. Her rifle was loaded for him; she had sworn vengeance on him alone. Her gentle, timid nature was turned into stone; her one wild prayer was
that the chief should fall by her hand.

A wild laugh burst from her lips as she beheld the stalwart figure of the bloodthirsty villain fall motionless upon the torch he carried – a laugh that was heard above the din without. Many an eye turned sadly upon her, a tear fell on many a rough, sunburnt cheek and many a bold, honest heart ached for her young life blighted in its prime.

Nancy Gee whispered to her neighbors, tears standing in her dark, bright eyes: " Poor thing, poor thing! I am afraid her dream is true, after all. Jonathan will never come back; these bloody redskins have killed him."

"I'll go and speak to her," said Lucy Forbes, dropping the rifle she held and walking towards the unhappy girl. "Come away, Mary", she said soothingly, "the Indians will shoot you through the loophole. Come !" And she tried to draw the poor creature away.

"Let me alone!" shrieked the young wife. "He is coming – the greatest villain of the whole. He murdered Reginald. I saw him do it and I'll shoot him."

"Who is it, Mary?"

"The Cherokee, Watts. See, there in the shadow under the trees is Reginald. Look! How bloody are his clothes and how pale his face is! He told me that Watts killed him and bade me take revenge and I will have it."

And again the maniac's laugh rang above the Indian shouts and the crash of musketry – a
laugh that every soul in the fort heard with a shudder, knowing but too surely what it meant.

"He will come, ha, ha! He comes when we call him, Reginald and I; ha, ha, ha!" laughed the maniac hoarsely as the Shawnee chief, tribe, but Mary Clarke seized the rifle of a soldier near her and again the sharp crack sounded through the fort. The right arm of the Indian fell useless by his side and, raising a yell of discomfiture, he climbed the palings and rejoined his tribe.

The face of affairs was changed. Watts, convinced of his mistake and severely wounded, called off his warriors to a hurried council, after a serious attack of an hour, during which time he had lost many of his best warriors and his ally, Mockingehock. The loss was never accurately ascertained, but at a subsequent meeting Watts admitted that thirty were killed, which was probably about half of the true number. In the fort, only one man, Michael O'Connor, an Irishman, was wounded by his own blunderbuss, into which he had carelessly put a double charge. Sullenly the defeated Indians filed homeward, carrying with them a large quantity of corn and driving before them several hogs, the only booty they had been able to secure.

By this repulse Nashville was saved…

Of Mary Clarke our tale is short. When the gates were opened, she was the first to sally out and closely watched the soldiers as they buried the slain warriors. When Timereor's remains were deposited in the earth, she fled towards the river, crying, "I killed him, but the other escaped." And flinging on the winds that horrible maniac laugh, which froze the blood in the veins to hear, down the slope she fled, swifter than those who followed her could have dreamed possible. "Yes, yes, 'twas I – I did it; ha, ha, ha, ha!"

Down, down with terrible speed, till she reached the river's brink, then, with one spring, she sank into the turbid waters. Strong arms struck out after her, but, when the faithful dog bore his dripping burden to the shore, life was extinct.

Wow. That's positively Shakespearean.

When I was a kid, there was a poem that started, 'Where we walk to school each day, Indian children used to play.' While searching for it, I ran across this excellent blogpost by some experts in children's literature, commenting on what is wrong with that poem. I thank them for putting into words what I felt at 10 years old: 'Hey, wait, that can't be the whole story…'

Wherever you are, go outside. Look at the ground beneath your feet. Repeat after Conrad: 'This also has been one of the dark places of the earth.'

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

08.01.18 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1And less racist. But it was 1917, and that might be too much to expect.2Cherokee war leader.3Racist term for 'biracial'. Native Americans hardly ever worried about the ethnicity of their antecedents – they weren't into 'scientific racism' – but a lot of others in North America did. Hence being rude about people of mixed parentage.

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