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   Chapter 2 OLD WOLF PUTNAM

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 13645

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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Judging from the stability of his position in Danvers, it would seem that young Farmer Putnam was established for life. He had land enough to satisfy any ordinary cultivator of that period, and a comfortable house in which dwelt with him wife and child, to cheer him by their presence. But the future patriot felt within him an ardent thirst for adventure. He longed for a wider field, and though to all appearances firmly rooted in the soil of Salem Village, he was already thinking of transplanting himself and family into that of another region. Hardly, in fact, had he settled in the home he had made than he began preparations for removal to what was then considered a comparatively wild section of New England.

In the old homestead at Danvers is still preserved the quit-claim deed signed by Israel Putnam, "of Salem in the County of Essex and Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England, husbandman," which records the transfer by him to his brother David of his share in the ancestral house and acres.

In the local history of the town of Brooklyn, Conn., occurs this passage: "In the year 1703, Richard Ames purchased 3,000 acres of land lying in the south part of Pomfret, where the village of Brooklyn now stands, which he divided into five lots and deeded to his sons. Directly north of this was situated a tract of land owned by Mr. John Blackwell, comprising 5,750 acres, which was willed to his son John, and afterward sold to Governor Belcher of Massachusetts, who divided it into farms and sold them to different individuals, among whom was General Israel Putnam. This tract went by the name of 'Mortlake.' A beautiful stream which rises in the western part of the tract, and received its name from the former proprietor, Blackwell, empties into the Quinnebaug."

These several transactions in real estate, taken together, will sufficiently explain to the reader, perhaps, the subsequent movements of Farmer Putnam. After disposing of property to his brother David, and receiving therefor the goodly sum of £1,900, Israel Putnam joined with his brother-in-law, Joseph Pope, in the purchase of more than five hundred acres of land from Governor Belcher, for which they agreed to pay at the rate of five pounds per acre. They paid for it partly in "bills of credit on the Province of Massachusetts," and gave a mortgage for the remainder. And so fertile was this wild land, and so thrifty was the young pioneer farmer Israel Putnam, that within little more than two years he had liquidated the mortgage and received a quit-claim deed from the Governor, as well as purchased his brother-in-law's portion of the tract they had bought together.

The two pioneers may have made a special trip to the Connecticut tract before deciding to purchase; for it was not in the nature of them to "buy a pig in a poke," as it were. And such a journey of nearly a hundred miles, mainly through a wilderness, was no child's task in those days. In after-years General Israel Putnam made many a longer journey, through wilds swarming with hostile Indians, too, and thought nothing of it; but this was the first of any account that he took very far away from home.

What the young wife thought when the enthusiastic adventurer came back with his story was never recorded. Neither, for that matter, was the tale he told her, as well as his friends and neighbors, many of whom, doubtless, would fain have dissuaded him from making what they viewed as a rash and risky move. Details of Putnam's life at this period of his career are lacking; but there stand the records, with their statement of facts. They can not be gainsaid. The very fact that he, a prosperous farmer, even then well off as to this world's goods, should make the adventure-the first of his family in America to abandon the home acres and seek others in the wilderness-is sufficient to attest his energy and ambition.

Sometime in the latter part of the year 1740 the young husband of twenty-two, with a wife under twenty and a babe only a few months old, set out to make his fortune in the rough country adjacent to his native State. Many of his race and family have since become pioneers in various parts of the world, and this country owes them much for blazing out the way in which others might follow; but young Israel Putnam was the first of them-the pioneer of pioneers, in the great American movement.

A second time he set himself to the building of a house and the establishing of a home, and as he found much of the material ready at hand-stone for foundations and timber for the building-it was not long before the farmer and his family had another roof-tree of their own above their heads. This structure has gone the way of the first, and long since disappeared, traces of the cellar and foundations only being visible; but the large dwelling-house which he later built, and in which he died, still stands at a little distance away. After clearing a portion of the land, and working the stones with which it was plentifully bestrewed into dividing walls, he planted an apple-orchard, sowed grain of various sorts, and increased as rapidly as possible his flocks and herds of live stock. His chief, perhaps his only, assistant in these earlier labors was a negro servant, who figures, though not greatly to his credit, in the narration of an adventure in which his master took part, about two years after his arrival in Connecticut. This, of course, is that famous encounter with the wolf, which has since become part and parcel not only of local tradition, but of American history. As many generations have been familiar with this story as related in story-books and primers, particularly during the early part of the nineteenth century, it will now be told in the language of a contemporary, Colonel David Humphrey, who was an aide-de-camp to General Putnam, and also to General Washington, during the Revolutionary War, and who wrote the first and best biography of our hero, which was published in his lifetime. "The first years on a new farm are not exempt from disasters and disappointments, which can only be remedied by stubborn and patient industry. Our farmer, sufficiently occupied in building an house and barn, felling woods, making fences, sowing grain, planting orchards, and taking care of his stock, had to encounter in turn the calamities occasioned by drought in summer, blast in harvest, loss of cattle in winter, and the desolation of his sheepfold by wolves. In one night he had seventy fine sheep and goats killed, besides many lambs and kids wounded. This havoc was committed by a she-wolf, which, with her annual whelps, had for several years infested the vicinity. The young were commonly destroyed by the vigilance of the hunters, but the old one was too sagacious to come

within reach of gunshot. Upon being closely pursued she would generally fly to the western woods, and return the next winter with another litter of whelps. This wolf at length became such an intolerable nuisance that Farmer Putnam entered into a combination with five of his neighbors to hunt alternately until they could destroy her. Two by rotation were to be constantly in pursuit. It was known that, having lost the toes from one foot by a steel trap, she made one track shorter than the other, and by this vestige the pursuers, in a light snow, recognized and followed the trail of this pernicious animal. Having followed her to the Connecticut River and found she had turned back toward Pomfret, they immediately returned, and by ten o'clock the next morning their bloodhounds had driven her into a den, about three miles distant from the house of Mr. Putnam. The people soon collected, with dogs, guns, straw, fire, and sulphur, to attack the common enemy, and made several unsuccessful efforts to force her from the den.

The Wolf Den at Pomfret, Connecticut

"Wearied with the fruitless attempts (which had brought the time to ten o'clock at night), Mr. Putnam tried once more to make his dog enter, but in vain. Then he proposed to his negro man to go down into the cavern and shoot the wolf; but he declined the hazardous service. Then it was that the master resolved himself to destroy the ferocious beast, lest she should escape through some unknown fissure of the rock. His neighbors strongly remonstrated against the perilous enterprise; but he, knowing that wild animals were intimidated by fire, and having provided several strips of birch-bark, the only combustible material he could obtain that would afford light in this deep and darksome cave, prepared for his descent. Having accordingly divested himself of his coat and waistcoat, and having a long rope fastened about his legs, by which he might be pulled back at a concerted signal, he entered head foremost, with the blazing torch in his hand. The aperture of the den, on the east side of a very high ledge of rocks, is about two feet square; from thence it descends obliquely fifteen feet, then running horizontally about ten more, it ascends gradually sixteen feet to its termination. The sides of this subterraneous cavity are composed of smooth and solid rocks, as also are the top and bottom, and the entrance in winter, being covered with ice, is exceedingly slippery. It is in no place high enough for a man to raise himself upright, nor in any part more than three feet in width.

"Having groped his passage to the horizontal part of the den, he found it dark and silent as the house of death. He, cautiously proceeding onward, came to the ascent, which he slowly mounted on his hands and knees until he discovered the glaring eyeballs of the wolf, who was crouching at the extremity of the cavern. Startled by the sight of fire, she gnashed her teeth and gave a sullen growl. Having made the necessary discovery (that the wolf was in the den), Putnam kicked at the rope, as a signal for pulling him out. The people at the mouth of the den, who had listened with painful anxiety, hearing the growling of the wolf, and supposing their friend to be in the most imminent danger, drew him forth with such celerity that his shirt was stripped over his head and his skin severely lacerated.

"After adjusting his clothes, and loading his gun with nine buckshot, holding a torch in one hand and the musket in the other, he descended the second time. He drew nearer than before, and the wolf, assuming a still more fierce and terrible appearance, growling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs, was evidently on the point of springing at him. At this critical instant he leveled his gun and fired at her head. Stunned with the shock and suffocated with the smoke, he immediately found himself drawn out of the cave. But, having refreshed himself, and permitted the smoke to dissipate, he went down the third time. Once more he came within sight of the wolf, who appearing very passive, he applied the torch to her nose, and perceiving her dead, he took hold of her ears, and then kicking the rope (still tied round his legs), the people above, with no small exultation, dragged them both out together."

This is the story, told by one who knew Putnam intimately and who had it from his own lips, while neighbors were still living who were "in at the death" and could have refuted any misstatement or exaggeration. The deed, in truth, was characteristic of the dauntless young farmer, whose courage and heroic character (as his eulogist justly remarks) "were ever attended by a serenity of soul, a clearness of conception, a degree of self-possession, and a superiority to all vicissitudes of fortune, entirely distinct from anything that can be produced by a ferment of the blood and flutter of spirits, which not unfrequently precipitate men to action when stimulated by intoxication or some other transient exhilaration."

That was "Wolf Put," or "Old Wolf Putnam," as he came to be called thenceforth. But at no time in his active and wonderful career was he an old man when he performed his deeds of valor. The wolf-hunt, in fact, was mainly a young men's and boys' affair, Putnam himself being only twenty-four at the time, and the wolf having been traced to her lair by young John Sharp, a boy of seventeen.

The slayer of the old she-wolf was the hero of the time; but he bore his laurels modestly, though exaggerated accounts of the affair were published all over the colonies, and even in England, where they were exploited in the public prints. By rising to the occasion, and doing the right thing at the right time, he acquired a reputation for valor and firmness that stood him in good stead in those coming conflicts, the Seven Years' War and the Revolution.

Unknown to him, however, and unsuspected, were the heights to which he subsequently rose. He devoted himself to his farm, becoming the best agriculturist in the region in which he lived, and also performed the duties of a good citizen, never shrinking from his share of civic burdens. The youth of to-day could not do better than emulate the example of this illustrious American; and they might do worse than take part in the patriotic pilgrimages annually made to the scenes of his early life. The citizens of his adopted State have religiously preserved intact the second house he built in Brooklyn, then Pomfret; and the she-wolf's den may still be seen, in the side of a wooded hill. The entrance-way is at present too low and narrow to admit the passage of a boy, much less of a full-grown man; but that is said to have been caused by the falling in of the rocks, in the lapse of time since Putnam's day.

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