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|Keys to Natchez frontier survival: Corn, wild game, Kentucky rifle|
In May 1774, a weary party of river travelers docked flatboats at Natchez country after a two-month, 1,500-mile journey along the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
The travelers included Anthony and his pregnant wife Anne Hutchins, their four children, all age five or younger, and Toney, an African sold into slavery on the auction block in South Carolina. The Hutchins party docked at the old mouth of St. Catherine's Creek along the Mississippi River just north of Ellis Cliffs and moved three miles inland to Second Creek.
The year before, on a scouting trip to Natchez, Hutchins had chosen a home site along the creek where two Indian mounds built by the Natchez stood. The mound site is noted on early European maps. A descendant of the tribe told Hutchins that the place was once a Natchez village called White Apple, although historian Jim Barnett notes that there was more than one White Apple site. Barnett thinks the mounds at the Hutchins home place, known by archaeologists as the Mazique site, were abandoned by the ancestors of the Natchez around A.D. 1200, some 500 years before the Europeans arrived here.
In his old age in the early 1800s, Toney pointed to an old pecan tree at the site and recalled to writer William Sparks that some in the party camped under the tree as they rested from the long journey. There, said Toney, "the old man (Hutchins) raised all his family" and there he and Anne died.
When Hutchins first visited the site in 1773 he and the Natchez Indian known as Tom built a rough cabin and a few sheds. The flatboats, which had been loaded with farm implements, livestock, furniture, clothing, dried pork, flour, sugar, salt -- all the family's possessions -- were disassembled and the wood used for farm buildings. Second Creek, which was crystal clear, provided the family an immediate source of drinking water, a place to wash their clothes and a watering hole for livestock.
The previous year, Hutchins and Tom planted corn. Hutchins' grandson, historian John F.H. Claiborne, said the corn was "cultivated and cached...in the Indian mode, in pits." One of Hutchins' sons recalled that Tom harvested the corn crop as Hutchins returned to North Carolina for his family. Tom then lined and covered the corn seed with tree bark before placing it in pits on a ridge for keeping through the winter. Making a corn crop that first summer in the wilderness was crucial to survival on the frontier. In six weeks, the Hutchins would have roasting ears, and corn could be made into hominy or ground into meal for cornbread and grits, a method the pioneers learned from Native Americans.
Just two months after arriving in Natchez, Anne gave birth to the first Hutchins child born on the frontier, John, who by the time he was old enough to carry a Kentucky long rifle was in the woods hunting. John wrote about his early years as a gift for his grandchildren. More than a century later in 1958 his story was edited and published in the Journal of Mississippi History by John Q. Anderson.
John said every boy on the Natchez frontier "was raised with a gun in his hand..." Even before he had the strength to hold the gun to his shoulders, he practiced hunting and shooting with an accessory -- a forked stick -- driving the pointed end into the ground until the fork was at shooting level. Resting the barrel on the fork, John could wait for game to appear in his sight or twist the fork to position himself for a shot.
Historian Joseph Dandridge wrote that during this period 12-year-old boys in Virginia and Pennsylvania were "furnished with a small rifle and shot pouch. He then became a fort soldier, and had his port hole assignation. Hunting squirrels, turkeys and raccoons soon made him expert in the use of his gun." Never was a boy taught to stand and shoot with his weapon at his shoulder.
Instead, writes Alexander Rose in "American Rifle: A Biography," he was "to use a rest -- such as placing moss on a log or holding the rifle against the side of a tree to aid steadiness." Why? Because, said Rose, "Marksmanship was of paramount importance to the American frontiersman."
While hunting was certainly a sport for boys, it was also crucial to the survival of their family in a wilderness. Wild game -- big and small -- bear, deer, squirrels, rabbits -- meant life.
American gunsmiths on the edge of the frontier in Pennsylvania had improved and improvised upon the German-made Jager in developing a weapon that became known as the Kentucky long rife. While the German Jager, a military weapon, was 30 to 36 inches long, the Kentucky rifle was between 40 and 48 inches in length.
While fathers often taught their sons to hunt, John Hutchins was taught by Toney, who John called his "constant companion and brother hunter." John said Toney was an expert hunter and could tell by the bark of the dogs the size of the animal being pursued. When hunting bear he could even predict when or if a bear would turn and fight the dogs. A big bear would almost always fight and never climb a tree. Once when preparing for a bear to charge, Toney steadied John as he took aim and calmly told him to shoot "through the heart." He reassured him that if he missed he would give the bear "a pop" with his Kentucky long rifle.
On good days, Toney and John would kill five bears. At camp they dressed and salted the meat then began work to dry and stretch the skins. The salted meat was stored in a shed at home while the bear skins were used as blankets, wraps and rugs or traded. Nothing was wasted.
On the Natchez frontier, the well-aimed Kentucky rifle, a crop of corn and wild game were the difference in survival and death.
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