J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Sylvanus Johnson in the Woods

As described yesterday, in 1754, at the age of six or seven Sylvanus Johnson was taken prisoner by Native Americans, probably Wabanaki, from Fort No. 4 in New Hampshire. (The image here, a detail from the photograph by Ann M. Little here, shows a young reenactor at that recreated fort.)

Sylvanus was adopted into a Native American family and remained with them for four years. The British authorities then “redeemed” him for cash, and Israel Putnam conducted him back to his family.

Johnson lived along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire for the rest of his life. He married and had children starting in the early 1770s. But Johnson always said the Native culture he experienced as a child was superior.

In his History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont (1907), Lyman Simpson Hayes recorded traditions about “Uncle Vene” Johnson. The first is incredibly sad:
After paying the ransom, his white friends traveled a day’s journey and encamped for the night. So homesick was little Sylvanus for his forest home that he stole away in the darkness and followed the trail back to the wigwams of his masters. In doing so he had to cross a river, swimming over with his clothes tied on his head. His Indian friends would not speak to him or recognize him in any way. They had received the money demanded for his ransom and he was theirs no longer. During his whole life he so much preferred the modes of Indian life to the prevalent customs of civilization that he often expressed regret that he was ever ransomed.
Johnson lived into his eighties and was remembered in the region as quite a character.
The young men of North Walpole and Bellows Falls counted it a treat to be taken by Uncle Vene on a hunt. Often the old man would pretend to get lost almost in sight of home and keep the frightened and bewildered boys out all night in a shelter made in true Indian style. . . .

At one time he was crossing the river in his canoe, having indulged his appetite in the taverns at Bellows Falls. He was caught by the strong current and would have gone over the dam had not one of his neighbors put out in a boat and towed him to shore. The old gentleman was very indignant at being treated thus. When he was told that he would surely have gone over the dam he exclaimed, “Couldn’t I have put out a foot and braced?”
Adding more poignancy to that last story, two of Johnson’s sons drowned in the Connecticut River.

1 comment:

Historiann said...

I didn't know that about his sons! Yes, it was a life marked by sadness and trauma. It's almost like the trope of the "tragic mulatto" that literary critics write about--at home in neither culture.

Thanks for these posts and your further research, J.L.!