“Meandering Through Tall Pines”

“Snapshot Saturday”

Msko-waagosh, the returned white captive, pauses beside a large pine tree.

Msko-waagosh meandered through the tall pines that overlooked the Pigeon River in the heart of the Old Northwest Territory. The afternoon scout centered on finding elk sign for the upcoming fall. Several white-tailed deer, two with fawns, crossed the returned captive’s path on that pleasant June afternoon. In the Year of our Lord, 1796…

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“That’s where you belong…”

Damp elk moccasins scuffed away duff. Dew drops clung to the bushy cedar’s bough tips. Sweep by sweep, the nest took shape. Msko-waagosh, the returned white captive who spent his youth among the Ojibwe, sat cross-legged in the depression. A soft fog drifted about, pushed by a warm, humid breath, then an occasional chilly gust. The aroma of moldy cedar needles and disturbed earth surrounded the makeshift fortification. All was well that pleasant August morning in 1796, deep in the Old Northwest Territory.

A traditioinal woodsman stalking a foggy bog.A vigorous scout preceded the welcomed respite. The worn-out moccasins held to the doe trails, but before reaching the meadow, they became damped through. The hand-dyed silk ribbons that bound the flaps of the woodsman’s blue wool leggins displayed a water line. Such discomfort was of little concern.

Forty paces to the north, clumped prairie grass hid a hen turkey. Now and again a gray head popped up, looked about, then disappeared. This bird inched east, circled back, then east again. Overhead, two pairs of Canada geese, separated by a few seconds, ke-honked toward the River Raisin. A fox squirrel navigated a distant maple. Two crimson cardinals bantered. “Tu-Tu-Tu-Tu,” one said. “Whit, whit, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu,” the other answered.

About the time a dozen black, darting crows got into a fracas, the hen stepped from the prairie grass. She looked about, took maybe a dozen strides, then stopped as if reconsidering her choice. She uttered two faint clucks: “Ark, ark.” Her head stretched high; her beak turned to the east and in less than a minute her demeanor relaxed. Herky-jerking here and there, the plump wild turkey pecked the ground.

“Clikk, clikk.” A gray-skin head with a hint of red ducked and dodged in the deep prairie grass. The hen stood on the crest of the tiny knoll in the center of the meadow. She stopped pecking and gazed to the west, intent on the area that once sheltered her approach. The new arrival took two paces, then looked…two paces and a looksee…

Two trade gun lengths from the meadow’s short grass, big wings flapped twice. With a hop and long stride, a wild tom turkey sporting a stubbed-off beard appeared. The hen knelt down. The tom fluffed his feathers, then stood tall and stared at the knoll crest. The backcountry hunter’s inquisitive, 18th-century heartbeats marked time as the woodland drama unfolded.

The jake broke into a fast walk. The hen scrunched flatter. The distance between the two melted away. When the sprinting bronze bird got close, the hen stood and started walking east. Before long, the jake was running after the hen as they zig-zagged around the meadow. Their chase angled near the cedar fortress. The hen slowed, then stopped twenty paces distant. The jake stopped, fluffed up his feathers and fanned his tail.

The one-sided dancing, erratic spinning and false posturing lasted but a few minutes. The hen turned to walk away. The young tom folded his feathers and followed. She stopped, glared over her back and clucked once, stern and commanding. “Aarrkkkk!”

They leered at each other, then the tom glanced to the west. The hen took a couple of jerky steps, then went back to pecking the ground. The young gobbler watched and watched. Rejected, he walked to the northeast, up and over the knoll and out of sight…

A Trip to the “Outdoor Trading Post”

Pressing farm work filled a recent Monday afternoon. A sticky note from last November made its way to the top of the “to-do” pile. Emails flew through cyberspace. A rendezvous to pick up a large tractor part took shape. The Dodge Ram was on the road by 1 p.m. Much to my delight, Tami felt up to riding along.

Light snow fell, enough to make the landscape beautiful, but not enough to make the driving miserable or unpleasant. We chatted along the way, then she got quiet. She said she felt up to it, and asked if we could stop on the way back at the big-box outdoor store. We usually make that store a day-trip on our anniversary, but she was too ill to travel then.

The paperwork took longer than it did to load the steel frame. Thirty minutes later we pulled into a handicapped parking spot right in front of the main doors. She found a fully-charged scooter and I tagged along for a few minutes as she motored to the clothing section. I then headed to the gun side of the store. Rack after rack of modern guns filled the wall behind the glass showcases. Eight mass-produced, reproduction muzzleloaders hid upright in a deserted corner. The “black powder accoutrements center” occupied eight feet of display space. I had to really hunt to find that section. I never did find the 18th-century clothing racks. Hmmm…

After all of two minutes, I started wandering about. The display of knock-down steel targets was interesting. A $99.00 spinner target with six three-inch paddles would last for six hits from “Old Turkey Feathers.” To be fair, I’ve been asked not to shoot the smoothbore at a couple of silhouette matches and woodswalks, because their steel clangors were not heavy enough for the trade gun’s death spheres. I can accept that.

The boxes and boxes of modern ammunition were mind boggling, at least for me. All I could think was, “What do you do if you buy the wrong ammunition? How do you know what’s safe to shoot?” Then I shifted to my own circumstance. “You have two packed-full muzzleloading cabinets that need cleaning,” I chided. “Where would you find room to store boxes of steel or plastic suppositories?”

With a deep sigh, I wondered how I managed to hunt an entire season with seven round balls and a half pound of black powder, stored in a buffalo horn and a flimsy deerskin pouch. Mind boggling, as well…

Now, I’m a people watcher, so I started observing the local wildlife. A clean-cut gentleman in a tailored suit and black wool overcoat (he had “middle executive” written all over him) stood at a showcase admiring a revolver on a black velvet pad. He and the sales clerk spoke a language foreign to me. Oh, I recognized the English words, but not the context or jargon. What happened to “flintlock,” “smooth-bored” and “grains of FFg black powder”?

That glass case alone displayed 45 pistols, multiplied by six or so cases. I’d have to figure that one long hand; my abacus is at the bead-makers for reconditioning. And scopes? There were six glass cases of those, with about 36 scopes per case (yup, I counted ‘em. Hey, I had time on my hands). The lenses on some of the scopes were bigger than the lens on my good Nikon camera. And $1,000.00 plus for a scope?

A small steel sight lashed to a trade gun.This last fall I made a rear sight for the “Silver Cross,” Tami’s chiefs-grade trade gun, so my grandson could use the smoothbore for hunting deer and turkeys. I didn’t want to dovetail the barrel, so I cut a strip of steel from an old joist hanger, bent it, then filed and shaped it to make the sight. I used artificial sinew to hold it in place. It took all of an hour, and I questioned spending that much time on a rear sight. With a chuckle, I remembered those misgivings as I gazed in amazement at the scopes. I could not help but think, “Five cents for the material and twenty-five dollars in labor (I always pay myself more than I can really earn)?”

Then a fellow strolled through the aisles with a blue plastic shopping basket slung on his right forearm. As he passed by, I counted eight point-of-purchase display cards, most with double-digit prices, before he started heaping items in the basket. Now let’s see, I need to finish making the strap for Mi-ki-naak’s powder horn, create a shot pouch, finish the sheath for the scalping knife… Am I missing something?

A young couple stopped a sales clerk and asked for something I had never heard of. I tried to write down what he said, but it made no sense: “Grandma Tofu mat?” I had to give up that quest. That’s when the thought struck me, “You don’t belong here.”

Not long after, I met up with Tami where the full-bodied elk browse on plastic flowers. I started laughing when she said, “This is disappointing. I feel like we don’t belong here.” Soul mates and kindred spirits…

I don’t know what to make of that visit. Maybe I dialed the wrong year into my time machine? In one respect it bothers me, then on the other hand, it reinforces why I do what I do. I realize this is all in fun, but I will need time to cogitate on the hidden meaning. My head hurts. In the meantime, I’m taking Msko-waagosh to the woods. I told him, “That’s where you belong…”

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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“Hounds a Bayin'”

“Snapshot Saturday”

A lady of the woods watches two beagles chasing a cottontail rabbit.

Two hounds bayed in the thicket. A cottontail rabbit bounded into the open, then circled away from the lady of the woods. She watched in great anticipation as the rabbit toyed with the beagles, hoping the furry lightning bolt would streak within range of the “Silver Cross,” her chiefs-grade trade gun. Old Northwest Territory, west of Lake Huron, in the Year of our Lord, 1797…

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Time to Move On…

Trail-worn moccasins whispered in soggy snow. Up on the rise, a blue jay sang a contented morning song: “Swip-it! Swip-it! Swip-it! ”

Sunlight streamed through the hardwoods. The aroma of warm bark perfumed the fresh, cool air. Three steps and the barren glade returned to silence. Three more footfalls, then stiff fingers touched a shag-bark hickory at a pause. “Swip-it! Swip-it!” The blue jay’s melody resumed.

Keen eyes scanned the rise and the ridge crest beyond. The Northwest gun’s tarnished brass butt plate rested on a moccasin. The hollow silence returned as the trudge continued on that glorious morn in 1796.

Msko-waagosh approached the damaged wigwam.At the tipped sassafras, the next pause brought the little valley into full view. The wigwam’s domed crown appeared jagged and torn. A faster-paced course snaked around the red oak’s splintered trunk and toppled log. The calamity came into full view: grayed canvas, broken cherry saplings and globs of snow caked in shadows that should not be.

Wet snow covered the fleshing beam. Geese began ke-honking near the River Raisin’s sandy shallows. Msko-waagosh concentrated on the canvas shelter and not on where he walked. Barberry spines tore at bare flesh on the woodsman’s left inner thigh. The sharp pain brought a halt to the haphazard advance. The wigwam was gone; the damage from February’s heavy snowfall was too severe to repair.

Msko-waagosh trying to shake frozen snow off the broken wigwam.Red Fox circled the downed dome. It appeared that rain wet the covering, then the snow fell, freezing white clumps here and there and binding canvas pieces to the forest floor. The smoke flap hung straight up and down, limp like a fallen battle flag; the prop-pole leaned against the east upper rib the same as it did during the fall hunts.

That side still stood and would have provided an evening of comfort, were it not for the sunset side being frozen flat over the fire pit. A butcher knife cut a few threads that held a canvas panel to a horizontal rib. Pulling the stiff fabric back did little to uncover the cause of the collapse. Broken bents and ribs, some exposed and some hidden, held the remaining three or four canvas panels up.

A few minutes of quiet contemplation and rehashing melancholy memories gave way to the realization nothing could be done until the March thaw. Rebuilding would be left for another day, perhaps in a month or so. With geese ke-honking on the River Raisin, Msko-waagosh decided it was time to move on…

The Unfortunate Demise of a Wigwam…

Late one November morning, Msko-waagosh wandered to his wigwam. Raindrops pitter-pattered on fallen leaves. The dome-shaped shelter in the little valley offered a quiet respite from the storm. My alter ego left the flap open, sat to one side and watched the ridge to the south and west for passing deer.

In the height of the rainstorm, I started looking around the wigwam. At the third horizontal rib, one of the bents had cracked and lost its curved shape. After careful examination, I found two other breaks. A few days later, after the shelter dried out, I returned and lashed the wild cherry saplings together.

A wigwam's frame on a snowy winter morning.The degree of rot and the speed with which the bents and ribs deteriorated bothered me. The last wigwam saplings outlived the canvas. They survived for five seasons. I abandoned that structure when my persona changed. Unfortunately, the only pictures I have are of the bare frame after a December snowfall. I expected the same longevity with Msko-waagosh’s wigwam, but that is the way of the forest…

My alter egos like to hunt from a period-correct structure. A few years back, the trading post hunter built a simple lean-to patterned off one described by Meshach Browning. My hunter hero called his a “bush-camp,” because it was covered with pine boughs. He noted that the pine-bushes “were very dry…” (Browning, 110)

Cedar boughs covered the rafters of my bush-camp, and they became very dry. I felt a kinship with Browning when I noted that occurrence. The cedar branches also harbored a sizable herd of mosquitoes in the warm months. The smoke from a smudge fire did little to drive off those blood-thirsty beasties. Browning failed to mention that phenomenon, perhaps he did not experience that woodland joy?

“…I made the fire, then stood my rifle against the tree which formed the mainstay of the camp, hung my bullet-pouch, containing half a pound of powder and twenty or thirty balls, on the muzzle of the gun…While the girls were busily fishing, the fire had crept along in the dry grass, and got into the bush-camp, which was burned up, and thence the fire had communicated to my powder-horn. My gun was considerably injured, but not so much as to hinder me from using it…” (Ibid)

Many times the simple act of leaning “Old Turkey Feathers” against that oak’s trunk fostered a pristine moment shared with Browning. Little did I realize the danger I was in when I napped in the pleasant confines of that shelter.

Early in April of 1794, the trading post hunter passed by his bush-camp an hour before noon. The day was sunny and warm, too nice to spend in camp. An hour after noon, my alter ego circled south and again passed by the brush-covered lean-to. It was flat on the ground, crushed by a powder-keg-sized, living limb that tore free for no apparent reason and fell square across the ridge beam. Such is the way of the forest…

A couple of shelters have just rotted away, victims of historical neglect. The canoe-tarp lean-to station camps afforded one season in a chosen location. They were packed up in late December, relocated in the spring and moved again when the snow accumulated.

The “duck camp’s” rafters still stand, but God has reduced its cedar-bough skin to an ankle-high pile of twigs. If I’m not mistaken, a British ranger assigned to Joseph Hopkins Company spent time at that lean-to this past fall. Hopefully, with the help of three grandchildren, that camp will see new life later this spring.

The research surrounding the birth of Msko-waagosh brought with it similar stories of the abrupt end of hunting camps. Early on in his narrative, John Tanner, The Falcon, told of the demise of his own bush-camp:

“We used to hunt two or three days’ distant from home, and often returned with but little meat. We had, on one of our hunting paths, a camp built of cedar boughs in which we had kindled fire so often, that at length it became very dry and at last caught fire as we were lying in it…” (Tanner, 23)

Later in his journey through life, John Tanner lost another “lodge.” He does not describe this dwelling, and oh, how I wish he had!

“…When I returned late at night, after a long and unsuccessful hunt, I found these two children standing, shivering and crying by the side of the ashes of my lodge, which, owing to their carelessness, had been burned down, and everything we had consumed in it. My silver ornaments, one of my guns, several blankets, and much clothing, were lost. We had been rather wealthy among the Indians of that country; now we had nothing left but a medicine bag and a keg of rum…” (Ibid, 67)

But fire was not the only danger. Enter the devious creatures of the glade:

“One day, when I had killed a moose, and gone with all my family to bring in the meat, I found on my return, the wolves had pulled down my lodge, carried off many skins, carrying-straps, and in fine, whatever articles of skin, or leather they could come at. I killed great numbers, but they still continued to trouble me, particularly an old dog wolf, who had been so often at my door that I knew his appearance, and was perfectly acquainted with his habits…” (Ibid, 171)

Tanner tells of the ever-present wolves, as do many of my hunter heroes, and the impact they had on his life and survival. About fifteen years ago, while reading the early remembrances of settlers in this county, I was surprised to read of the commonality of wolves near the headwaters of the River Raisin up through the 1830s. And, until studying Tanner’s narrative, I had no idea of their threat to a woodsman’s lodge.

Like The Falcon, life must go on for Msko-waagosh. The humble wigwam in the little valley will rise up again, after a careful dissection and an appropriate amount of reflection. The loss of this lodge is, after all, another wilderness classroom lesson. Such is the way of the forest…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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“A Wary Gobbler”

“Snapshot Saturday”

A traditional woodsman watches a tom turkey over the brim of his wife's hat.

“Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl!” A distant tom turkey answered a single cluck from a wing-bone call. Twenty agonizing minutes later, the gobbler strutted to the top of the knoll. The grizzled woodsman watched the bird’s approach over his frontier wife’s hat brim. Much to the couple’s dismay, a hen appeared… Old Northwest Territory, two ridges east of the River Raisin’s bottom lands, in the Year of our Lord, 1796.

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“Forging the Long Lake Ax”

“Snapshot Saturday”

A blacksmith forges steel into an ax.

John Cummins studied the picture of the ax head found at Long Lake, near Hastings, Michigan. He wrote the dimensions on his chalk board and did some calculations. With great care and anticipation, he set about forging an exact replica in the blacksmith shop on the home grounds of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association at Friendship, Indiana.

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Saving Hours of Rummaging

Leaves rustled. A wild turkey offered a weak gobble, muffled in the River Raisin’s bottoms. A gray squirrel materialized, bounded once and commenced digging. Leaves and pieces of leaves flew along with tiny scrapings of earth. The squirrel’s nose burrowed beneath the layered, brown skeletons of the summer prior, then emerged with a mold-encrusted acorn.

A traditional woodsman watches from behind a mossy log.This forest tenant ran by the downed red oak top, passing three trade-gun lengths distant. It leaped to a standing oak, clenching the tree waist high, measured on a tall British ranger. Spiraling upward, silvery tail flicking and twitching, the gray squirrel circled around the trunk, then perched on a stubby branch, rotted and broken off years before. On that warm, pleasant morning in May of 1795, that squirrel partook of a fine breakfast.

For the second time that morning, the returned captive woodsman reached into his shot pouch and retrieved a single wing bone. He cupped the round end in his hands, placed the flatter end to his lips and sent a sharp, snappy “arrkk” in the direction of the river bottom.


Again, the tom turkey sounded weak and perhaps uninterested. The utterance emanated from the same location: the fallen trees at the sedge grass cove. Either the bird had not moved or another took his place.

Chipping sparrows, two cardinals, a handful of chickadees, and a wandering robin filled the glade with hushed, but joyous music and merriment. Now and again a crow cawed from the hardwoods on the far side of the River Raisin. Several geese jabbered at the sand shallows. And in time, a red tailed hawk circled overhead.

Msko-waagosh sat motionless. His dark brown eyes panned right-to-left, then left-to-right. The woodsman who spent his youth among the Ojibwe centered his attention on the little knoll and the dip to the northeast. If the tom came looking for the mysterious hen, he would pass over the knoll or stroll through that valley…

A Hunter Hero’s Material Culture Outline

The creation of any history-based portrayal, whether founded on an actual person who lived in a chosen time period or a fictional character built from the life stories of two or more individuals, starts with gathering and analyzing first-person accounts.

First and foremost, my research centers on hunting tales, harrowing or mundane. When I read an article in one of the living history magazines or peruse a new 18th-century book, I spend a fair amount of time scrounging through the bibliography. Any books that cover 1790 to 1800, or as in Mi-ki-naak’s case 1763, garner my attention. Some I already have in my library, others go on the infamous “Dad’s book list,” a wish list that gets run through the online booksellers every now and again.

SCOOUWA: James Smith’s Indian Captivity Narrative, sits on top of shelved books, along with the missives of John Tanner, Jonathan Alder, Mary Jemison and anthologies of captive narratives edited by Frederick Drimmer and Colin G. Calloway. These books have been my “go to” research sources in the last few years for the returned captive persona of Msko-waagosh, the Red Fox.

Research books showing sticky notes, highlighting and margin notes.Yellow, purple, blue and orange sticky notes, most with notations, protrude from page edges. This indexing system is fine, if I can remember which author wrote what—which is not that often. Early on in this journey to yesteryear, I highlighted passages in yellow, underlined important phrases in red and penciled notes in the page margins. I added the sticky notes, which act like file tabs. A few thousand sticky notes later I still spent hours rummaging through tabs to find two or three sentences that stuck to the cobwebs of my mind.

One evening, in the midst of an exasperating quest, Miss Tami, the ever efficient business system analyst, suggested I establish a searchable data base. The first choice was MS Access.  This program worked great for short passages, but anything over a half-dozen words became cumbersome. I tried just keywords, but some historical statements lost too much meaning when reduced to two or three words. I had the same results with MS Excel, too. Even the cyber version of the wilderness classroom can be cruel at times.

One technical aspect of my writing process includes the occasional word search using the “Find” tool under “Editing” on the MS Word tool bar. A week or so after the data base failures, in the midst of scribbling a manuscript draft, I needed to find a passage. As I typed two words, the “Eureka!” light came on.

I stopped working on the manuscript, opened a new document and saved it as “John Tanner Material Culture” in the “Msko-waagosh” file within the “Persona Development” file. Fingers flew on keys. A page number followed the crux of a highlighted passage:

“…drawing his tomahawk…” (5)

“…had some blankets and provisions concealed… (5)

“…gave me a pair of moccasins…” (6)

“…put them in a small kettle…” (7)

“…mukkuks of sugar…” (9)

I paused about twenty pages into Tanner’s narrative, The Falcon… I opened “Find” and started testing. This outlining system worked and required no more set-up time than MS Access or MS Excel.

Two or three evenings each week are devoted to research, depending upon how tired my eyes are. Instead of reading, the next few nights I banged keys with great delight. The highlighting and sticky notes helped, but I found myself skimming the text—rereading Tanner’s life story. The skimming discovered passages missed in prior readings. Of course, those phrases made it into the outline. Eleven typed pages later, 280 pages were reduced to a searchable document, complete with page references.

James Smith’s narrative, SCOOUWA… was next. Smith’s writing style required longer passages for the outline, because his sentences were more detailed, many including an additional explanation:

“…I saw Russel’s Seven Sermons…brought from the field of battle…” (26)

Outlining a hunter hero’s writings removes the words that are necessary to move the narrative along in a smooth, cohesive manner. For a living historian studying the material culture of a given place, time period and station in life, the great revelation of cutting to the basics is the amazing list of resources, accoutrements and daily items available to the individual who currently sits on the examining table.

One page in the outline might cover twenty to fifty pages in the hunter hero’s narrative. Spread out over that many pages, the items appear sparse and sometimes unrelated. Put in outline form, those same pages compress. To some degree, each outline page represents a shopping list of goods the original writer once possessed or that were commonly owned or used by those around him or her.

A general picture develops when passages follow each other in close order. “Breech-clout,” “powder, bullets, flints,” “a pair of scissors,” “silver bands,” “new ruffled shirt,” “garters dressed with beads,” “leggins…with ribbons,” “a pipe,” “tomahawk,” and “flint and steel” become golden nuggets when viewed back-to-back. The context of each passage must be taken into account, as well as other passages that refer to these items. And of course, the commonality of usage is best confirmed when compared to other authors of that era.

But the significance of any outline is this compression of thought, hunting experiences or material objects. The initial investment of time to set up the outline pays great benefits when creating a new persona or tweaking an existing historical portrayal. A word search finds the passages pertinent to a given topic in short order, saving hours of rummaging through sticky notes or thoughts scribbled in margins.

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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“Unexpected Ambush”

“Snapshot Saturday”

"A trading post hunter shoots a wild turkey

A raspy-mouthed hen turkey clucked just ahead of a trading post hunter. The woodsman stopped, then sat on a steep side hill. The old hen kept walking. At twenty paces the bird came into view in the tangled underbrush. The Northwest trade gun roared…Old Northwest Territory, east of the River Raisin, in the Year of our Lord, 1795…

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