A Mother Finds a Way


In Tales of Old Cincinnati, a book compiled by Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Ohio in 1940, there is a story about my 6th Great-Grandma Hannah Keen Guard, wife of Alexander Guard. This is her story, one of the many  adventures they experienced moving from New Jersey to Dearborn County, Indiana after the Revolutionary War. The Guard family were one of the founding pioneer families that settle the area of the Miami River.

 

The River Upsets A Boat

Early on a spring morning in 1793 there was much excitement in the family of Alexander Guard. The children clapped their hands and danced around. Mrs. Guard herself was more quiet, but she, too, was happy. They had lived for three years beside the Great Miami River near North Bend. Mr. Guard had just finished building a new log cabin farther down the river. Today they were moving. A clumsy, home-made boat six or seven feet wide and more than 40 feet long was drawn up on the river bank below their home. Mr. and Mrs. Guard, together with the children large enough to help, were carrying all their furniture and household goods to the boat. Mrs. Guard sometimes glanced at the Great Miami. She had a worried look in her eye. Spring rains had filled the river with swift water. She wished the big canoe were a flatboat. A big canoe, which was called a pirogue, could go quickly through the water, but it was not so safe as a flatboat. The sharp, narrow bottom of the pirogue made it easy to tip over. But there was no flatboat, nor could they carry their household goods down the river. So they had to use their canoe.

At last the boat was loaded with everything the Guard family had, and they were ready to start on their trip. Mrs. Guard and the children walked along the bank of the river. Mr. Guard got in the middle of the boat and paddled it downstream. Mrs. Guard and the children could hardly keep up with Mr. Guard. The river was even more dangerous than they had thought. They watched Mr. Guard as he struggled to keep the boat straight in the water. Soon the current carried him to a bend in the river. The water swirled fast. The long boat was thrown around and overturned. Mr. Guard and all the family goods fell into the wild water. Mrs. Guard and her children screamed, and ran toward him along the stream. They could see nothing except the pirogue whirling upside down in the muddy river. After what seemed a long time, Mr. Guard’s head bobbed up out of the water. Mr. Guard knew how to keep from being drowned. He did not struggle. He relaxed and swam until he reached his family on the shore. He stood there tired and dirty and dripping with water as they kissed him.

Mrs. Guard has a problem

Mrs. Guard and the children were glad that he was alive and safe with them. They hardly gave a thought to their furniture and clothing lost in the river. “We have one another, our new home, our land, and our farm animals, ” they said. They walked on down the river to their new cabin. As they went, Mrs. Guard looked at her husband and children and wondered what she would do. They did not have enough money to buy new furniture. Even if they had, there was no furniture store in the wilderness. But Mr. Guard could make rough beds, tables, and three-legged stools from wood. He could gouge out bowls and whittle spoons, and could even make a spinning wheel and loom. Mrs. Guard was not worried about furniture. She wondered how she would get clothes for her family. She had no cotton or wool or flax to spin. Her children could wear coonskin caps and deerskin moccasins. They might even sleep on skins, and use bear or buffalo robes for blankets. But Mr. Guard could not kill enough animals to get skins for the clothing of the whole family.

Mrs. Guard kept thinking about the problem of clothes for her family even after they had reached the new cabin. She kept worrying about it all through the days that she spent getting her house in order. She even wondered what to do about it as she planted corn, beans, pumpkins, and potatoes, and as she pulled weeds from the garden. She had a real problem to solve. The children did not know that Mrs. Guard was worried. She smiled at them as they helped in the hard work of destroying the weeds. Some plants, such as pokeweeds, were easy to pluck, but others were tough to cut and hard to pull. The toughest and hardest weeds to kill were the nettles. Their scratchy stems and prickly leaves stung the children’s hands.

All through the spring and summer Mrs. Guard pulled nettles and kept worrying about winter clothing for her children. One day she found some nettles that seemed especially tough. She stopped her work in the garden and looked at them carefully. She saw there were strong fibers in the stem. She pulled the fibers apart. Then she stood a long time trying to work out something in her mind. The next morning her children were surprised when she told them to gather the nettles and bring them to her. “I want all I can get,” she said. The boys and girls found many nettles all around. They cut the rough plants and brought them to their mother. They wondered what she would do with them, and watched her as she began to work out her idea with the plants.

She Solves it

She told them to bring fresh nettles to her.

Mrs. Guard cut away the leaves and pounded the stems until the pulp was loosened. Then she soaked the bruised stems in water. She left them in the water for several days. When she took them out, the bark and softer parts of the stems were ready to fall away. Mrs. Guard then dried and combed the stems with a wire brush until nothing was left but the strong fibers. Then she spread out the fibers on the grass to bleach. Next Mrs. Guard began spinning the fibers into thread as she would have spun flax for linen. Soon she had a good deal of thread. It was coarse and yellowish brown, but strong enough to be woven into cloth.

Mr. Guard built a loom, and Mrs. Guard began weaving. The work went slowly. She liked the cloth she wove, and asked the children to gather more nettles. They ran out eagerly, and came back with their arms full of nettles. Their mother wove more cloth. When she thought she had enough cloth, Mrs. Guard made it up into dresses and coats and trousers. When winter came, the children put on heavy clothes. And as they played in them and were warm, they were thankful that they had such a wise mother.

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