In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 8

Lesson 8
Captives of 1704: Abigail Nims, The Cordwainer's Daughter

Goodwife Nims, at her wheel by the west window, looked across Town Street at a boy, very small and very sad, who sat on the door- step opposite.

Freedom French, the blacksmith's daughter, had run in for the loan of a half teacup of salt, and to her Mary Nims now said,

"Aye, 'tis little Josiah Rising sent here, they tell me, because his father's house was already running over with children when the last one came. Their cousins, the Hindsells here, as yet have ne'er had a one. So strange are the ways of Providence! He's to help Mehuman with the animals, and do the churning and such, for his bed and board. Belike he misses his brothers and sisters, poor lamb!" And her big mother-heart yearned over the waif across the way.

"Come, Abby," she said later to the baby-girl, who had waked from her noon-day nap, and was just finishing her brewis, "let's over to the Hindsells', and see what like is the poor motherless lad."

Holding the child by both dimpled little hands, she guided the tiny feet as they plunged ahead. Small Josiah on the doorstep turned large, unhappy eyes on the pair as they neared him.

"Aye, she's in," he said, fighting back the tears.

At that moment Abby gave a wilder plunge and slipped from her mother's grasp. She would have fallen head first against the stone doorstep had not the lad sprung forward and caught her in his arms. A peal of laughter rippled from her lips. She clapped her hands and offered him her dewy mouth to kiss.

The homesick lad had found a friend. After that they were close companions. Chores morning and night, and daily lessons at Master Richards's next door, took much of Josiah's time, but he was often at the Nims's cheery hearth, or, as Abby grew older, roaming with her as far as they might go in sight of the stockade.

Iris and forget-me-not bloomed for them freely by the brook, but the violets were her favorites. Josiah thought them like her eyes. He took her to visit the ground-sparrow's nest, with its four or five mottled eggs. In the Autumn he filled her lap with shining chestnuts. When snow came he drew her about on the little sled he had made.

Nearly two happy years passed in this way when one day there was news that the Indians were coming and Josiah was forbidden to take Abby outside the fort any more. But there was always plenty to do indoors, what with games

[illustration caption: POPPING CORN]

with the twins and the popping of corn and the roasting of nuts and apples. Godfrey Nims often let them play in his shop while he cobbled and tapped little tunes on his neighbors' shoes.

Then there was the baby! Abigail's married sister had moved with her husband into a cave in the hillside to be safe from the Indians. Their underground life gave a thrill to Josiah, but it was the new baby that pleased Abby most. With eyes smarting from the smoke and feet like little lumps of ice, she would sit and hold her niece by the half hour.

It was now the 29th of February, 1704. That morning Josiah overheard his cousin Mehuman talking with Godfrey Nims about strange sounds that many had heard in the night.

Poor Josiah was haunted all day by the vision of savages. He wanted to look in the snow outside the palisade for their footprints. In the school-room wild faces glared at him from his book. In vain Master Richards scolded him.

Shivering he went to bed, but not to sleep. At a late hour he dozed off. It seemed only a moment later that he woke in the dark to find his fearful dreams come true. The faces were there!

He wondered why the demons did not murder him. Instead he was bound and almost thrown into the meeting-house. A woman and child were pushed in at the same time. It was Abigail and her mother!

On the march toward Canada the three kept together, but Mary Nims each day grew weaker. She and Josiah both knew what this was to mean. At last she beckoned him to one side.

"My lad," she faltered, "you have ever been to me as one of my own. The end for me draws nigh. Promise me, Josiah Rising, that you will shield my baby as far as in you lies." And the boy promised.

For a time Abigail cried for her mother. As only Josiah could quiet her, the Indians let them travel together.

And so it happened that they were taken to the same Indian settlement in Canada.

In the shadow of a mountain near Montreal, on the bank of the Prairie River, stood the fort of Sault au Recollet, known to the English as Fort Oso. It had been built by the French for the protection of their Indian converts. To this fort, with its great stone wall and rude towers, our two captives were brought.

Winter with its many hardships was over. The mild air was musical with bird song. To the worn and half-starved captives the sight of bark wigwams in the shade of friendly trees was most welcome. To one of these Josiah followed his Indian master, and into another the squaw Ganastarsi took wee Abigail.

Soon they were quite at home with papooses and puppies, playing the Indian games, speaking Iroquois, and answering to the names Shoentakaani and Taatogaach, though Abigail was bap- tized by the Jesuits as Mary Elizabeth and Josiah as Ignace.

The damp and smoky wigwam was like the Munns's cave, and her bright new blanket was better than Abigail's Puritan clothes, now in rags. Save for her blue eyes, the change was complete. She had already grown used to dirt, and to scant, coarse fare, though not yet to being slapped and beaten.

There came a day when Ganastarsi washed the child's face and hands and led her to the nuns' school.

"The poor baby!" whispered the Lady Superior. She herself was an English captive from Maine. She took Abigail and combed her matted hair. Then she washed the baby face and hands. This time they were clean. Next she found some clean clothes, and, when she had dressed the chilld, took her in to the other sisters. They made a great fuss over her.

"After this, my child," said Sister Marie des Anges, "you will go to mass. You can go with the other girls. And--you are to learn the creed and catechism." Abigail would have learned anything for the beautiful Sister Marie des Anges!

Now she was taught how to read and write and to speak French. Every weekday afternoon she sat with the Indian girls and learned


from the patient sisters to sew and knit, and later to make lace and to spin.

But, best of all, she liked attending mass on Sunday, when the boys and girls of the mission went in procession to church, where were bright pictures of the saints and of the blessed Jesus and his mother, with tall candles burning before them on the altar. She knew Josiah's voice above the rest of the choir, without turning to look, which would have been a sin.

He, too, was learning useful things, like carpentry and shoemaking, for he would soon be a man.

Down in the village how different were the lessons they learned! from war-parties returning with scalps, from torture of prisoners, and from war-songs and dances lasting into the night, all cruelty and hate!

And these fiends went to mass and called themselves Christians! It was too hard for Josiah to understand. All hope for his own escape had long since died out of his heart. Even could he get away there was his promise to Mary Nims. He might not leave Abigail behind.

Ensign John Sheldon, sent by the Governor of Massachusetts, had made more than one visit to the fort in search of captives, but Josiah each time would be away hunting, sent purposely by his master. At such times, too, Abigail was hidden away by the sisters somewhere in the convent.

Abigail was confirmed when she was ten years old, and, all in white and in a shimmering white veil, she went up to the altar for her first communion. Ignace was there in his white surplice, and it was he who swung the censer. To the little devotee he was always Ignace, not Shoentakaani, as with the Iroquois, and never any more Josiah.

Later, her brother John came from Deerfield, with Lieutenant Samuel Williams, to demand her release. Her father, John said, had left her a little property. Would she not come home and claim it?

The sisters were made very happy when their little Mary Elizabeth answered that she would rather stay a poor girl with them than leave them to be a rich heiress.

And deep down in his heart Ignace was not sorry.

It is early summer in Westfield, Massachusetts.

At the edge of the common a group of men and boys have gathered about an evil-faced Indian, with him a young squaw. To one side of the crowd two men, king's officers, stand watching.

"I tell you, Barnard," Col Partridge is saying, "she is no squaw, but a white woman. Why, man alive! her eyes are blue! Blue as"—he looks around and spies some flowers at their feet, "blue as those violets!"

Captain Barnard smiles at the old veteran. "For all that, Partridge, the woman may be a halfbreed, French and Indian belike. "Tis a common sort in the north, you remember."

"She is an English captive, I tell you," shouts the Colonel. "I would take my oath upon it. I believe the maid is Godfrey Nims's daughter, from your own town. Was ever a greater crime in this county of Hampshire? An English maid put up for sale like any cattle!"

"But Nims's daughters were all killed ten years ago--all save Mistress Munn. Hold! I remember now there was a child of four or thereabouts--Abigail, I think, they called her. Can it be possi- ble that this poor Indian creature and she are the same?"

"Talk with her, Barnard, and with the scoundrel who leads her."

Captain Barnard pushes his way through a crowd for a close look at the young squaw--skin brown, hair hidden by a gay blanket, exactly like an Indian. Suddenly she turns her eyes full upon him. Heavens and earth! Partridge was right. Violets are no bluer!

Her name is Taatogaach, the girl says. Any other? Mary Elizabeth. Her master Elawacamb wants a price, but she will go to the highest bidder. Barnard's anger rises that this is possible in a Christian land. Barter and sale of English among English! Yet if the Indian won her in battle, no power save that of purchase can take her from him.

So, through purchase, Abigail returned to Deerfield after all. She lived with her brother John and his wife on old Town Street, once more in Puritan garb, as she helped in the work of the household.

But to John, his wife Elizabeth said, "I can make naught of her. When I gave her that pretty cloak she made no more sign than when she scalded her foot the day before. I doubt she will always be Indian."

They would have wondered could they have read her mind. All through the long, busy days, whether tending cradle, sewing or spinning, one name was always in her thoughts and "Ignace!" was the cry of her lonely heart.

These Deerfield people were strange, and their ways more so. On the Sabbath they gathered twice a day in a box they called a meeting-house, where a solemn Mr. Williams spoke for hours from the pulpit. There were no candles, no incense, no pictures, no choir-boys --no Ignace! She missed the sisters of the mission school, the priest to whom she made confession and--Ignace.

When Spring came with the singing of birds and the soft breath from the forests, Elizabeth noticed that Abigail seemed restless. There was a look in the blue eyes as of something caged. One morning the young matron called her sister twice without an answer. Hurrying above to the girl's room she found it empty. The bird had flown!

On a chair, neatly folded, lay the clothes Elizabeth had so carefully made for her. Only her blanket was missing.

With the training of the savage, Taatogaach found her way to Montreal reading the signs of the forest, of stars and streams. For her it was no new thing to live on bark and wild roots. Safely she stole by hostile Indian and deadly wild beast. Footsore and fainting she paused outside Fort Oso.

The first one to walk out through the gate was Ignace!

They were married soon after, the groom nearly twenty-one, the bride fifteen. Happy in the union of their dear children Sister Marie and the other nuns were present. Many of the Iroquois were at the wedding, for Ignace and his bride still belonged to their tribe.

Later, because of their good lives, the priests gave them a large grant of land on which they built a home where they reared a family of eight children and were in all things a pattern to the savages.

The eldest daughter became a nun and was sent as a missionary to the Iroquois. In this way Abigail Nims and Josiah Rising returned to their enemy good for evil.

Today the descendants of Ignace and Elizabeth Raizenne live under their original roof-tree, and there you may drink to the memory of the two captives, in wine from vines of their own planting, or, if you prefer, in cool, clear water from the well dug by the hands of Josiah Rising.

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