Friday, August 12, 2011

Cavendish Semiquincentennial: Susannah Johnson

The Cavendish Players production of “Cavendish Chronicles II: The Early Years,” will be held on August 27 and 28, 7 pm at the Cavendish Town Elementary School in Proctorsville. In keeping with the 250th anniversary of the town, the play covers the time period from the settling of the town through the Civil War. The next few posts will provide history about some of the characters in the play.

In August 1754, the Johnson family, who lived outside of Fort 4 in Charlestown, NH, was kidnapped by members of one of the Abenaki nations. Mrs. Susanna Johnson was nine months pregnant. She wrote the following about her capture, “Here, after being hurried from home with such rapidity, I have leisure to inform the reader respecting our Indian masters. (Susannah, as she writes her memoirs of her captivity, here, speaks to the readers of her account) They were eleven in number; all men of middle age, except one, a youth of sixteen, who, on our journey discovered a very troublesome disposition. According to their practice he who first laid hands on a prisoner considered (the prisoner) his property. My master, who was the one who first took my hand was as clever an Indian as I ever saw. He even evinced, at numberous times a disposition that showed he was by no means void of compassion. The four who took my husband claimed him as their property. My sister, three children, Labaree and Farnsworth had each a master. When the time came for us to prepare to march I almost expired at the thought of leaving my aged parents, brothers, sisters and friends and travel with savages through a dismal forest to unknown regions in the alarming situation in which I then was with three small children. The eldest (child) Sylvanus (Johnson) was but six years old. My sister Miriam (Willard) was fourteen. My husband was barefoot and otherwise thinly clad. His masters had taken his jacket. My two daughters had nothing on but their shifts and I had only the gown handed to me by the savages. In addition to the sufferings which arose from my own deplorable condition I could not but feel for my friend, Labaree. He had left a wife and four small children behind - his situation was extremely unhappy. The Indians pronounced the dreadful word, "munch", (march) and on we must go.

I was put on the horse; Mr. Johnson took one daughter and Mr. Labaree took the other. We went six or eight miles and stopped for the night. The men were made secure by having their legs put in split sticks somewhat like stocks and tied with cords which were tied to limbs of trees too high to be reached. My sister much to her mortification must lie between two Indians with a cord thrown over her and passing under each of them. The little children had blankets and I had one for my own use. The fatigues of day obliged me to sleep for several hours in spite of the horrors which surrounded me. The Indians observed great silence and never spoke but when necessary. My children were much more peaceable than could be imagined. Gloomy fear imposed a deadly silence.

The Indians captured a stray horse, which Mrs. Johnson rode. On the second day of their journey, they encamped in Reading, VT, when Mrs. Johnson went into labor. According to the Indian Stone markers on Rt 106, on the border of Reading and Cavendish, about a mile up the brook from where the stones are now, she delivered the child, Elizabeth Captive Johnson. The stone marker information would suggest that the first white child born in Cavendish would have been Elizabeth “Captive” Johnson.

The day after the child’s birth, they continued traveling northward. Starvation eventually forced the Indians to kill the horse Mrs. Johnson rode and use him for food. Given the choice of being left behind with her baby, Mr. Johnson carried his wife on his shoulders.

Once in Canada, the family was divided between Indian and French families. Mr. And Mrs Johnson were both imprisoned where they developed small pox. It would be four years before the family was reunited. Mr. Johnson’s freedom was short lived as he would die from wounds sustained at Fort Ticonderoga. Susanna Johnson lived to be 80-81 and wrote a book about her experiences “Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson Containing A Account of her suffering during Four Years with the Indians and French.” Her diary and story was the basis for Elizabeth George Speare’s 1957 book “Calico Captive.”

Learn more about Susanna Johnson

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