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Historical Novels -Bobi Andrews

Friday, February 3, 2012

Trees - A Historical Essay

Courtesy of Rose Nuernberger
Original Watercolor - 2011


A Historical Essay

What is one of the most common things we see everyday? From the beginning of time (well, at least 145 million years ago) there were trees—sequoias for one species—and many others. Some redwood trees still in the ground today were seedlings 2000 years ago. When we stop to think about it, we sometime marvel about the things we take for granted. However, the impact of trees is gigantic—food, shelter, recreation, even one of the important ingredients of rain. A threat to a hundred-year-old oak gets regional and national attention. Woods are romantic, spooky, or dangerous. Nothing compares to the colors of maple and gum trees in Vermont and New Hampshire in the fall.

I got to thinking about the impact of trees for our immigrating ancestors, and trees kept coming up as a factor in the research completed for my historical novels.

Our immigrants coming to the colonies found a heavily forested country, and after a few short years in America, they developed an adverse view of trees. Once they migrated west from the edge of the east coast, trees no longer were their friends—they were a burden for the settlers who cleared land for cabins and crops. For some, it took a lifetime to clear four hundred acres. Here is what happened to one of our ancestors:

Back before 1730, John Miller and Mary Ignew (sixth great grandparents to my generation and fourth great grandparents to E. F. Hutton of New York financial fame), owned considerable land in Chester, Pennsylvania, near the Quaker New Garden Meetinghouse. He was the largest land owner in the settlement and built the first mill along White Clay Creek. A story is handed down (Smith Ahnantafel Tables – Rootsweb) about a simple adventure in the trees for Mary Ignew Miller.

When Mary was in her early fifties, she went out to get the cows and got lost in the woods. She wandered hopelessly. At length, she came to a house. She knocked on the door and pleaded if she could please spend the night. She had gotten so scared in the thick woods that it took her family some time to get her to realize she had come to her own house.

Having previously lived in the area for a number of years, I know Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania well. Except for the heavily treed Iron Hill and Chestnut Hill near Newark, Delaware, that part of White Clay Creek has been urbanized for years with manufacturing and residential development. Natural trees do exist in northern Delaware and the piedmont of Pennsylvania—but so thick as to get lost? Never.

William Sherrill, the protagonist of The Sotweed Smuggler novel, immigrated to America perhaps on a ship of prisoners exiled to the Barbados Islands for misdeeds committed in England.

He became known as the Conestoga Fur Trader and was credited with opening up land for settlement near the Susquehanna River, purchasing sizable tracts in both Maryland and Pennsylvania. Clearing land was a horrendous hardship for both he and his sons. When there were too many trees for any one family to fell, they cut bands around the tree trunks and waited for the trees to die before burning. Tree branches stacked lengthwise in piles simulated fences and kept cows from wandering.

William and his sons were the first to cross to the west bank of the Catawba River in North Carolina. His first encounter with the wilderness and forested land is described in the Inglitchman and the Pioneer, an unpublished manuscript. The published stories of his great granddaughters, Sarah Sherrill Simpson (Dear Mama, Love Sarah) and Bonnie Kate Sherrill Sevier (The Frontier Princess) tell the amazing lives of two women of the Sherrill clan.

Pascal Lando. Printed from http://www.trekearth/ com/gallery/Europe/France
Photo 154913.htm
 Here is what William had to say as he stood in the wilderness:

‘“Admit it, you old coot. You are afraid.” Tell-tale voices resound in my head like a sharp clap of thunder. Everywhere I look, I find nothing to silence the voice. The wind is blowing out of the north freezing the air billowing between my skin and buckskin leggins. I started the day with yesterday’s fatigue unabated. As I look out to the vastness of trees and snow, there is no trail to follow, just an inner sense that exists between man and his prey. And food so scant that a rabbit crossing my path will provide a feast. Night is closing in fast blurring the distinction between who is hunter and who is prey. I am alone on my quest.’


From research for my novel, The Frontier Princess, I describe through the eyes of Bonnie Kate Sherrill, the migration of her family from Sherrill’s Ford, North Carolina, through the squabble lands to the Watauga Fort (eastern Tennessee) when they passed through fortresses of trees. Today the area is adjacent to the Smoky Mountains.

The scene goes as follows.  “After slipping by and leaving the ghosts undisturbed at Hickory, Bonnie Kate, with new curious eyes, envisioned ahead the sharp rise of the mountains with beauty and peril in measured balance. The purple haze reflected many shades like the changing colors spiraling from the throat of a spring crocus, with each ridge stacked behind the other, like petals on the flower. The highest layer radiated a deeper purple. The closer ridges were covered by green shadows from the tops of endless trees. At a distance smoky mists blurred the line between mountain and sky.

Courtesy of Rose Nuernberger
Original Watercolor - 2011
 “In a short while, Bonnie Kate, anticipated they would wind their way upwards and around the hidden trunks, which appeared like a mighty sequestered army barring any one from squeezing by. She suddenly realized the obvious—the number was few of settlers traveling through the mountains.”

Our Ohio-bound Quaker ancestors, Mordecai Ellis and sons, found forests so thick that they traveled days without seeing the sun. There were no roads—nothing but Indian and deer trails which only packhorses could navigate. Once settled in Fairfield, Ohio, they with other settlers cleared their land and found an overabundance of squirrels to be a serious problem with their crops. Settlements set quotas and accepted squirrel pelts as part of the taxes owed. Any boy who could shoot was eager to be sent into the woods on a squirrel posse.

The Ellis’s migrated from Fairfield, Ohio, to Wayne County, Indiana, then to Tippecanoe County, Indiana. One woman, Frances Sterling, the wife of Thomas Sterling, relates the following story of their migration and the role of a basswood tree for a coffin.1

There were a number of Quaker families making the trip. They left in February, 1825, and the journey lasted fourteen days. It rained every night except two. The story starts after they had lost a wagon which had to be abandoned after it was determined it could not be repaired.

“My husband went to the South Fork of Wildcat Creek to old Mr. Odell’s after a wagon. We camped at Potato Creek for the night. The next morning, we started with Mr. Little for his home on Flint Creek which was 25 miles distant. I was on one horse with a baby in my lap with Mr. Little, holding the reins, on foot for an entire day. The fatigue was almost unbearable. Sometimes it rained and snowed as fast as it could come down.

“The next day, March 2, my husband came back with goods and immediately took sick which lasted six weeks. There were no doctors or medicines. We gave him a dose of tartar emetic and blister flies along with butternut pills and a bottle of Bateman’s drops. We struggled to get to Mr. Little’s home on Flint Creek.

“I was confined on August 21 for the birth of my baby, but had to get up and perform work as best I could. A man named Luce took sick and died. Almost everyone was sick. My husband was also sick and my babe was only a week old. Mr. Luce died and we succeeded in getting help to dig the grave for Mr. Luce. Mordecai Ellis made his coffin by splitting a basswood tree, dressing the boards with a broad axe and jack planing and painting them black. He made quite a decent coffin.

“A brief time later, I shook with ague for forty days. I then got some quinine and improved for ten days. Then when I was thrown by a horse, the ague came back stronger than ever. I never saw another woman for three months.”
1Extracted from Odell, John C. “History of Carroll County, Indiana.” B. F. Bowen, Publishers. 1916. Crawfordsville (Indiana) Library, April 2005.

Another account of an Ellis migration the same year to Tippecanoe County: 2

This was the family of Jehu Ellis, his wife Phoebe, and their eight children. They settled in the trees near a creek and lived in a camp with boards standing upright with a quilt for an opening. In reaching Tippecanoe, they had been able to travel by wagon and as they passed through the Indian village of Thorntown, Indiana, Indians came around the wagon in which their daughter Lizzie was riding with one of her brothers. They wanted to buy her with tobacco and whiskey. Frightening her very much, the Indians were entranced by Elizabeth’s long golden curls. Wolves came from the woods at night and so alarmed Lizzie that she was afraid to sleep next to the boards for fear the wolves would tear the boards off.
2 As told from the memory of Sarah Ann Brockus Ellis to Ms. Sadie Keever, her granddaughter on September 7, 1879.


Flint Creek Trees, Tippecanoe County
Greenfield Farmer's Academy
Bobi Andrews Photo

A few years ago, I traveled to Indiana to trace my Quaker Ellis ancestors in Tippecanoe County. Here Flint Creek, draining to the Wabash River, winds around hilly farm land, and interestingly, was a route of the Underground Railroad when slaves sought freedom by escaping to Canada. I found Greenfield-Farmers Academy near the intersection of Buddell Sleeper Road and Route 660. Buddell Sleeper was known as one of the “station masters” along the underground route. Mordicai Ellis’s original land was but a mile or two further up on Flint Creek. This was an abolitionist area of Quaker safe homes with false walls, closets for no particular purpose, barns with trap doors, and wagons loaded with cut wood covering an escape hatch leading to the bottom bed of the wagon.   

Bobi  Andrews Photo
Greenfield-Farmers Academy

The grounds of the Greenfield-Farmers’ Academy were surprisingly barren, there being but two fledging trees braced upright by poles and twine. Don Naylor, the caretaker, said that many of the old trees on the grounds, which he estimated to be 150 to 200 years old, had rotted and he was attempting to replace them by moving younger saplings from the nearby creek to the grounds. He said that the two trees had become a major controversy to get the members of the meetinghouse to approve. Seems that families passed down through their descendants the same grudge against trees—it had been so difficult for the original settlers to clear the land that they stipulated for all of posterity no trees be planted on the academy grounds.


The year 1886 found Cephas Ellis and his wife, Rachel, living in The Grove section of Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Cephas was the grandson of the Mordicai Ellis from Tippecanoe County. An area map shows a large grove abutting his land intersecting sections of farmland with the Wheeler Christian Church at its northeast tip.  This area, too, was known to be part of an underground railroad running from southwest Iowa to Iowa City and then north to routes leading to Canada. At this point, Cephas Ellis was a lay minister for the Wheeler’s Grove Christian Church. Not only does it appear that he parted formally from the Quakers, but he moved across the Missouri River to the prairies of Pilger, Stanton County, Nebraska.
Elllis Family Photo
Cephas and Rachel Ellis

Here the tree saga ends as Cephas’ son, Charlie, soon migrated across the knee-high blowing prairies to treeless Cheyenne County, Kansas, and then back to northeastern Nebraska. The adage at this time was that it was easier to make a farm from the prairie and raise timber than it was to clear heavy timber and then get it under cultivation.  Once on the prairie, many felt that in breaking through the deep, tough root system of the prairie, they had met their limit of endurance. One can only hope Cephas and Charlie didn’t think breaking prairie sod with an ox-drawn plow was easier than felling trees.

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