Caught in a Cabin in the Woods

harriet beecher stowe family in front of mandarin fl home
Harriet Beecher Stowe family in front of Mandarin, Florida home. Via Florida Memory.

Humpty Dumpty

I suppose you will think that was not her true name, but it was. She was a little colored girl, a slave, too, but she had a good master and mistress, who never ill-treated those who were dependent on them, but did all they could to make them happy.            

When the baby opened its eyes upon this world her parents were much exercised over a name for her, but before it was settled it become only too certain that the poor little creature was doomed to pass through life in sad deformity. The dark, curly head settled down too far on the shoulders and the back arched behind it.  

“Oh!” exclaimed Harry Fairleigh, the first time he saw the baby. “Why, mamma, she’s a regular Humpty Dumpty; isn’t she?” “Wha’s dat, Massa Harry, wha’s dat – Humpty Dumpty?” cried Aunt Dinah, her ear caught by the new name.

                            Humpty Dumpty on the wall –

                            Humpty Dumpy got a fall,

quoted Harry, and that ended the search for a nice, big name for the little stranger, and so Humpty, as they called her, became a recognized member of the household, and by no means a useless one as she grew older. “Humpty has more thought, young as she is, than all the rest of the slaves put together,” Mrs. Fairleigh used to say, and it was true.

Humpty’s master lived in Georgia on a large plantation where cotton and sugar cane grew in great luxuriance. He had a large number of slaves, whose neat little houses were scattered all over the plantation, each one with its own garden plot.

humpty dumpty. neat little houses were scattered all over

The Fairleighs had a beautiful home, plenty of money, and love and peace among themselves, so they ought to have been happy, you will think. And so they were, as far as these things went, but over all there was a cloud, a tiny one at first, but it kept on growing bigger and bigger, causing Mr. Fairleigh many an hour of the sharpest anxiety, until by the time Humpty was 14 years old the sky darkened, the thunder began to mutter, and the long looked for storm broke forth.      

Mr. Fairleigh’s home, which has been his father’s and his grandfather’s before him, was not far from the Florida line, and the Indian village of Miccosukee was only a few miles on the other side.         

Florida was then a Spanish province, though the Spanish commanders had no power outside their fortified posts, and in the interior, the Seminole Indians, who, as their name indicates, were “runaways” from the Creek nation, held full sway. The Red Stick tribe of the Miccosukee village were their allies, and were called Red Stick because in the center of the village stood a tall pole painted red, to denote the warriors’ thirst for the blood of the palefaces, and on it were many hundreds of American scalps.

humpty dumpty. the Seminole Indians held full sway

Besides these hostile Indians, there were hundreds of runaway slaves and escaped convicts roaming at will over the beautiful Florida wilderness, ready at all times to join the Indians in robbing and murdering Americans. They spared the Spaniards because the Spanish authorities in Florida encouraged their lawless acts. So, as you may believe, things were bad enough at all times, but now they were growing worse, and the Indians had declared war. For months past Mr. Fairleigh’s anxiety had been intense, and again and again he had urged his wife to abandon their home until peace should be restored.

But Mrs. Fairleigh loved her home and was not willing to leave it, so kept putting off her departure. 

The day came, however, late in March, 1816, when her husband came riding home from the town, twenty miles away, at breakneck speed, his face white and drawn with intense excitement.

He rode straight to the stables, called the slaves together and bade them harness all the horses and mules to the wagons. Then he came to the house and loaded up all the most valuable furniture.

“Be quick!” he ordered. “The Red Sticks are out pillaging and murdering. We must get off as fast as possible. There! There! Don’t wail or moan; work, work, with all your might; that will do more good than howling!”        

Then he dashed into the house, and in a moment more all there was a bustle and confusion and rapid, energetic action. In less than three hours the plantation was deserted and its whole population well on the road towards a place of safety.

humpty dumpty. In less than three hours the plantation was deserted

But of course, when the flight had been so hasty, some important things had been forgotten, and so a week later, hearing that the Indians had left that part of the frontier for the time, Mr. Fairleigh decided to return to the plantation for a few days, taking with him E Pluribus Solis (for thus had Humpty’s parents named her elder brother, acting on the advice of a mischievous Harry), a sturdy youth of 18, and Humpty to cook for them, for young as she was she had learned a great deal of this difficult art.        

There was much to do to prepare for a long absence, so the three were very busy, and every little while Humpty, who of course felt very anxious, crept out upon the roof to look for signs of the enemy, and at last, on the second day, quite early in the morning, her heart gave a great leap as she saw over the tree tops a column of smoke rising sky-ward. She knew that only one thing could make such a smoke in that particular spot, a burning house, that of their nearest neighbour two miles away, and she was equally sure that the Indians were there robbing and burning, and only not murdering because the family had deserted their home.      

Humpty was only a little girl, only a little negro hunchback. The sight and the shock overcame her. Head over heels like a ball she rolled down the ladder that led to the roof and lay on the floor screaming at the top of her voice. Only for a moment, thought. Then she stopped, caught her breath, doubled up her fists and pummeled herself unmercifully.    

humpty dumpty. Head over heels like a ball she rolled down the ladder

“You, Humpty, you misibile critter,” she cried indignantly, “git right up, and run and tell massa and Solis! There now, stop yellin’, and git up quick, mean, miscible little nigger, you! ‘Pears like her oughter be scaped, but don’t want to, no how – oh, Lord!”         

Panting and breathless little Humpty rushed across the fields to Mr. Fairleigh and her brother, and in a few moments all three were running back to the house. But before they had gone half way a shot, another and another from out the young forest warned them that their foes were already upon them.          

They were close to an old log cabin, once used as a smoke house for curing bacon. It had a great chimney, built of clay and sticks, running up on the outside, and on the inside a large fireplace and two rooms.

Since the new troubles with the Indians Mr. Fairleigh had repaired the old cabin and built a high, strong picket fence around it, intending, if he was so unfortunate as to be surprised by the enemy, to take refuge there until help could come from the settlement. In the cabin was a keg of powder, a good store of bullets and several rifles, besides a keg of water, and some provisions, for he had thought it all out and prepared for a short siege, if needs must.

humpty dumpty.he had thought it all out and prepared for a short siege      

The bullets rattled against the picket fence as the three fugitives rushed through the gate and barred it behind them. E Pluribus Solis, with his teeth chattering and smarting under the reproaches of his sister as “a mean, misible nigger, feared of Injuns,” yet managed to help his master get out and load the half dozen rifles that the latter’s forethought had placed ready to their hands. Around the inside of the two rooms that constituted their castle a platform had been raised for the express purpose of being used to fire at the Indians over the top of the tall fence.    

A large party of them ran out from the woods as the gate closed, but after two or three had been dropped to the ground by the balls from Mr. Fairleigh’s rifle they did not dare to come any nearer, as that involved exposing themselves to his fire while crossing the open field.    

So, for the present, they contented themselves by sending a shot now and then at the cabin and with burning down the beautiful house where Mr. Fairleigh’s grandfather, father, himself and his children had been born.  

As soon as the house and stable were in flames the Indians noisily retired, driving before them the two horses that had brought the three besieged ones from the settlement.  

And then all was quiet and peaceful as the hours wore on toward nightfall. Only for the smoke that rose from the site of the ruined home of the Fairleighs there was not a sign that an enemy was near. 

But Mr. Fairleigh was not deceived nor tempted beyond the enclosure that sheltered the old cabin. He knew the Indians were there in the woods, watching and waiting for the cover the darkness to creep down upon it unawares.     

Humpty kept watch while her master and Solis arranged pieces of fat wood, placed in the enclosure on purpose to serve such a purpose, so that they would burn through the night and cast a light on the whole line of fence, for the worst danger they had to face was that the Indians might succeed in getting over the fence and then enter the cabin through the roof or set fire to it. 

As soon as it was dark Humpty was stationed as a lookout at the loopholes, while the other two lighted the pine knots and then stood close against the pickets ready to fire at a moment’s warning.

humpty dumpty. Humpty was stationed as a lookout

Before long Humpty saw a round dark object rise above the top of the fence and a warning note told Solis, who guarded that side. In a second there was a flash and report, a yell, and the dark object disappeared.

Later on the little hunchback’s keen eyes detected a suspicious movement in a corner that was partly in the shadow, and a shot from Mr. Fairleigh was followed by a shriek and the heavy fall inside the enclosure of a dead Indian.

There was a long rest after this, but toward daylight wide awake Humpty thought she heard a slight rustling in the room with the chimney and the huge fireplace, and as she went softly in several small pieces of clay rattled down. The little girl hesitated a moment, then crept cautiously near and looked up the chimney. Strange to say, as Humpty drew back and tiptoed across the room, her dark face gleamed all over like a ray of sunshine bursting out of a cloud and spreading over the landscape.

In perfect silence she picked up some pieces of fat pine, used for kindling, and filled her arms with the coverings from a bed in the corner.

“Hi! hi!” she chuckled, shaking from head to foot, “I’ll swinge dat chicken, fer shua; fust rate idee! He won’t know what’s happenin’. Goose up the chimbly; swinge ‘em, swinge ‘em well!” 

Quick as a flash Humpty placed the kindlings in the fireplace, lighted them, and when they blazed up, threw on the bedclothes, and then more wood.     

Then, the picture of delight, she darted away, and mounted to a loophole.        

“Hi! massa, I’se swingin’ a chicken goose up the chimbly. Come in yer, massa, he tumble down or he get on de roof. Shoot here or catch him on the roof, one or t’other. Reckon he feel mighty warm by dis time, hi! hi? Humpty, swinge ‘em, shua!”  

Mr Fairleagh darted in to the cabin, and E Pluribus Solis raised his rifle, ready to fire if Humpty’s “chicken goose” appeared on the roof. And this is just what he did do, evidently in a great hurry, and in the midst of a cloud of smoke. “Swingin’” was something he had not calculated on, neither on the bullet that went crashing through his head, and sent him rolling off the roof to the ground.

That ended the attack for the time. The first rays of light were streaming out from the east and the Indians drew back under shelter, having lost three of their boldest warriors.

humpty dumpty. The first rays of light were streaming out from the east

But still Mr. Fairleigh had no hope of ultimate escape; he knew his enemies would not give up on the siege. Humpty saw his trouble. There was one person whom she loved with utter devotion, and that person was her master. All day long she moved about quietly and thoughtfully; she was turning something over in her mind, and just before night she went to her master and told him about it. 

“Let Humpty go, massa,” she pleaded. “Solis, he’ll look out sharp, and Humpty’ll creep, creep, creep till she gits clar off, and den run, run, run. Git help heah ‘fore tomorrow night, and den massa’ll be all right.”

At last Mr. Fairleigh yielded. The plan would at least give little Humpty a chance to escape.

And so, as soon as it was dark a picket was cautiously loosened  and the heroic little slave crept through, not knowing but the next moment a tomahawk might descend upon her head.       

Slowly, now curling on her hands and knees like a dog, now dragging herself along like a snake, she made her way across the field until at last she gained the shelter of the woods. Still cautiously, but walking now, she went steadily on, and when she felt sure she was beyond hearing of the Indians, who were now, no doubt, drawing near to the cabin, she ran, ran as she had never ran before.     

Twenty miles to the settlement and then all that distance to be gone over again before help could reach her beloved master!       

On and on she ran till suddenly she stopped short, catching her breath and shaking from head to foot, for there was a strange sound in the air; coming closer along the wagon track she was following a heavy tramp and deep murmur. Humpty was terribly frightened. She thought it was  a whole regiment of spooks, or “hants,” as she called the “spirits,” and she dropped down in a heap.   

Very soon the noise came opposite her, and then she saw what it meant, and her little, sorely tired heart gave a throb of joy.     

Soldiers! hundreds and hundreds of them. Yes, it was a really Gen. Jackson’s army with that brave himself riding at their head. They were on the road to the Miccosukee village (you will find it on the Florida maps to this day, only it is not an Indian town now) to punish the Red Sticks, and how well they did it, too, history tells us.

humpty dumpty. Soldiers! hundreds and hundreds of them.  

But now, led by Humpty, they marched rapidly to the relief of the cabin where so desperate a fight was being fought, and they arrived in time to kill or capture every one of the savages, who had just succeeded in scaling the fence and were attacking the cabin itself.  So they were nicely caught in a trap of their own making, and not one escaped. 

Humpty used often to tell the story in the peaceful after years of her life, and never forgot to relate with glee how she “swinged the chicken-goose in the chimbly.”

Perhaps she tells it yet, for she was living only two or three years ago. – Helen Harcourt in Philadelphia Times.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

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