Tales of the Tribe of Benjamin

Julia Frost Watkins recorded several anecdotes of family history from a book written by her brother, Joseph Ray Watkins (1840-1911) entitled Tales of the Tribe of Benjamin.  The complete text of this work and the original manuscript have been lost.  In one interesting passage, Joseph Ray Watkins presents a fictionalized “Journal of Rachel Badgley” that describes the family’s journey from New Jersey to Ohio (from Annals of Our Ancestors, pp. 308-312).  The “Journal” was read aloud by William Benson Watkins at the Golden Wedding Anniversary of his uncle and aunt, William Utter and his wife Laura (Smith) Watkins, in about 1876.



Pittsburg, 25 July, 1800. We at last reached this place after a tiresome journey of six weeks. We left Elizabethtown, N. J., on the tenth of  June. I greatly feared the journey and before we started used to say to mother: “Mother, the road to Kentucky is as dark as night to me,” but she would say, “Why, Rachel, what do you mean? ‘Tis as light as day to me,” and so she urged us and was always ready to go. My brother Robert rode across the mountains in 1799 and returned with glowing reports of the new land. “You could ride,” he said, “for a whole day and not find a stone to throw at a bird.” This took my husband’s mind, for his ten acres were so stony that he often had to carry the earth on his hoe to cover the seed corn. But one story that Brother Robert told impressed us more than anything. A settler from Jersey had taken a farm in the Millcreek valley and cleared four or five acres in 1798, intending to plow the land and sow wheat, but he could not plow it and when September came he determined to sow without plowing, but the weeds were so that he could not get thro’, so he mounted a horse and rode through, scattering the grain as he went. When Robert was there last summer the wheat was six feet high and as thick as it could stand. We had for ten years been hearing a song the burden of which was:


The girls will sit and sew.

 And the boys will reap and hoe.

 And we’ll hunt the buffalo

 On the banks of the O-hi-o.


26 July. I had no chance to write anything on our way. Sometimes we camped out but usually stopped at taverns and private houses to stay over night. At one place we wanted to stay over night but the folks could not understand our language nor we theirs. Mother talked to them in Low Dutch but they could not understand; she said they were High Dutch people. Mother has been a great comfort to me; she is of a cheerful and hopeful temper while I am fearful and despondent. James is one of the best of men but he is totally deaf and I can only communicate with him by signs, though I can understand what he says. After my marriage with him I felt so lonely that after father’s death I had mother come to live with us. James is greatly attached to her and tho’ she is over sixty she has more courage and strength of mind than I. Speaking of James being deaf reminds me of what happened to us while crossing a river. The wheels of the wagon ran over a stone and the sudden jar loosened the tongue of the wagon from the yoke, the tongue fell to the ground, the wagon stopped and James calmly drove the oxen on across. When he looked back and saw the wagon standing in the river and mother and me laughing with all our might, he swung his hat and laughed with us and took it for a good joke, though getting all in order agam was not so funny.


27 July. To-day and yesterday we have been looking about for a boat to take us down to Fort Washington, five hundred miles below here on the Ohio River. At first we thought we would have to join with others and build a boat, but we heard of one for sale to-day and went to look at it. I wanted a big boat, enough for fifteen or twenty families, but this was a wretched little thing and did not look as if it had room for even two or three. I condemned it at once and told James I would rather stay here all summer and help build a big boat so that we could float down the river in some sort of safety. Mother thought this little boat would do; it would hold three families, and if we could find five men to make the crew we would do very well. I fear the dangers of the water and also of the Indians, tho’ we have been told that for the last five years, thanks to General Wayne, no one has been molested. We heard to-day of a young man who was making up a herd of cattle and horses to drive thro’ the woods to Fort Washington and to-morrow we will see if we can put in our oxen and our horse if he does not charge too much. No road to Fort Washington has yet been cut through. There is only a path and very few houses at which we could stop. There are more settlers on the Virginia side than on the other side. The road that we have passed over in coming here was bad enough. To encourage me they told me at one place where we stopped that the road was much better than it used to be; that there were only two or three places where we would have to let the wagon down with ropes. We did not let it down with ropes but I think we ought to have done so. I never thought a wagon could get down such steep pitches without being broken or oversetting.


28 July. The young man agreed to take our oxen and horse through for ten dollars. He will start next Monday. We have been talking with the different movers encamped here and arriving every day and trying to raise a company to build a big boat, but it doesn’t seem to work. James can’t talk to the people and mother is in favor of a small boat and wants to start at once. She says that it will cost us more than we can pay to stay here on expenses and bear our share in building a large boat.


29 July. We reached a conclusion last night. Mother and I talked it over and went to see Allens and Flemings. In the latter family are, besides the father, one grown son and one of eighteen years. So we will have a crew of six men. The price of the boat is seventy-five dollars. This morning Allen went over and bought the boat for the party and this afternoon it will be brought down to the landing and we will begin to load. They tell me that it will take us more than two weeks to float down and I fear that we will run out of money. The tavern bills we had to pay in Pennsylvania cut deeply into our hundred dollars that we started with. We stopped in Pennsylvania and James worked two weeks in harvest at fifty cents a day. Our stock of provisions which we brought from Jersey is nearly exhausted. We still have some of the big cheese that was mistaken for a grindstone by some who saw it.


30 July. Saturday. The boat was brought down and we unloaded our wagon of its heavy freight, took out the nail machine which was the first that had ever been seen here, took out the anvil and the blacksmith’s tools, the great chests and the bedding and took the wagon apart and stowed it away under the roof, putting the wheels in the bottom of the boat. We then loaded the stuff the best way we could. Allen’s and Fleming’s wagons were put aboard in like manner and an hour ago all was loaded. The men then set about making a fireplace and mother and I went to the village to lay in provisions for the voyage.


Monday Evening, 1 August, 1800. We attended meeting yesterday and heard preaching, and at daylight this morning unmoored and started on our perilous voyage! None of our crew have ever been down the river before. We were soon borne out of sight of the settlements and were on the rushing waters of the lonely river. Owing to the steep crumbling banks the trees do not reach down to water’s edge but the hills are crowned to the very top with trees, often crowded with underbrush. I could not help thinking before we had gone ten miles how easy it would be for Indians to hide in the bush of the banks and fire on us and kill our men at the oars, but mother would hear nothing of that kindand made me ashamed of indulging such thoughts.


Friday, 5 August. No Indians have appeared. We are crowded in our little boat and the company is none too good. I have to watch my little Robert, three years old, and am in mortal fear lest he tumble into the river and be drowned. We passed the settlements at the mouth of the Muskingum yesterday. They were made twelve years ago. Some of the settlers have good houses and large fields. I never saw corn so rank and high before. Watermelons were ripe and we stopped to buy. I was just going out over the plank when Allen jerked it from under me and I fell into the river. Luckily the water was not deep. My husband struck Allen and they had a fight and James had the worst of it for his eyes were blackened. I think I never saw as mean folks as those Allens. Whenever we have passed settlements we have stopped and bought roasting ears and so have fared very well.


Saturday, 13 August. We reached the mouth of the Little Miami and stopped. This place is five miles above Fort Washington. At Round Bottom, three miles up the valley of the Little Miami, there has been a fort for the last five years and there is a considerable settlement. We shall have to wait here for our cattle and horse. The only thing worth telling on our trip from the Muskingum down was the trick which the pilot put on old Allen. We came to a place called Letart’s Falls where there are rapids and a settler near by makes a living by piloting boats down the rapids tho’ James and mother said there was no need whatever of a pilot. But we hired him and paid him three dollars and Allen had the steering oar in the stern. As soon as the boat was in the swift water he began to shout, “To the right!” and Allen bent to the oar with all his might, but before the boat could answer the helm he shouted, “To the left!” and so on all the way down the falls. Allen tugged and got red in the face and owing to the cover of the boat could not see but that we were in great danger. The fact was that we were in the channel current and in no danger, needed no pilot and the shouting was all a sham.

Monday. We have found a cabin on shore and moved into it and the boat is unloaded. When the cattle come we shall go down to Fort Washington which is a considerable place, tho’ there is only one brick house in it, and will probably settle in the Millcreek Valley, which Brother Robert thinks is the best location.


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