Charles R. Tanner The Pioneer

I hear they’ve taken down the old bronze statue in the square at Boltonville and put up a ninety-foot granite shaft. The square will seem funny without old Ezra Bolton’s stern face frowning down on it, but I still keep right on thinking and talking as if Ezra Bolton was one of the Holy Trinity. And I suppose the schools there will still keep on teaching American history as if it were just the fringe around the edge of Ezra’s life.

For Boltonville is proud, and justly so, of its founder. Daniel Boone was all right, I suppose; and Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson, and all of those fellows did their best; but the fair-haired boy of them all – ah! There’s no doubt about it that was Ezra Bolton.

There are a lot of Boltons still living in Boltonville, and the Bolton Mills are there, and the Pottery, but I don’t think that influences folks’ opinions any. If the Boltons moved out, bag and baggage, and took their factories with them, the people would still be just as proud of old Ezra… I think.

He really was a terror to the Indians. They say he used to scalp them, just like the Indians scalped the white folks, and the time came, so it’s told, when he wouldn’t keep the scalp of any old redskin at all, but specialized in chiefs’ scalp locks only. That may be just a little exaggerated, but I don’t know. From all I’ve ever heard of him, it sounds likely.

Old Ezra was born in 1791, but nobody knows for sure just where; Freeboro, Massachusetts, most likely. Several old newspaper articles give that as his birthplace, but there aren’t any records of a Bolton family there. Still, records weren’t kept with any sort of regularity in these days. Freeboro is as good a place as any to start off the story of his life, I suppose, for he was gone from there, never to return, by the time he was sixteen.

That was how old he was when he ran away from a farmer named Tucker, to whom he had been rented out by his father. His mother, who was a Stacey, must have been already dead by that time, and from what we can gather, a dollar was worth more to his father than a son, any day.

Anyway, before he was seventeen years old, he had crossed the mountains, worked his way down the river and obtained possession, somehow, of a horse and a gun, all that was necessary, in those days, to rate one a man, no matter how young he was.

Whether he some knowledge of hunting woodcraft before he left home, or whether he picked it up after he came to live in the wilderness, is unknown; but he must have been quite a woodsman, for Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone both knew him slightly and he is mentioned once in Davy Crockett’s autobiography. All in all, before he was twenty, he was known throughout the border states as quite a youngster.

He did quite a bit of trapping in those days, especially in the fall, and managed to sell enough furs to keep him through the winter. The year he was twenty, he spent the winter at Kendall’s Landing; and of course it was inevitable that Job Kendall had a marriageable daughter, that year. Old Job married off daughters to most of the pioneers of the state, it seems.

Anyway, when spring came, there was young Ezra, a benedict; and swearing to his bride that he would settle down and become a respectable father and a farmer that the town would be proud of. He achieved the first goal with no trouble at all; as to the second - - well, the year was 1812, and throughout the border the cry was going out for volunteers. Ezra held out as long as he could, and then shouldered his long rifle and marched away with a company which had been organized by job Kendall’s oldest son, leaving Johannah already heavy with the first of his many children.

Ezra had enlisted, as he thought, to fight the English, but before long it became evident that the men of the frontier were going to have their hands full with the Indians, and, indeed, it wasn’t until they met them at New Orleans that Ezra’s particular group ever saw Englishmen at all. But the years of fighting polished off and perfected Ezra’s character, and he returned from the south as hard-fighting, as hard-drinking, and as hard-talking as any pioneer on the west side of the mountains.

Meanwhile, Johannah had tried to keep up the farm. Ezra had hardly finished clearing it when he left; yet cleared it had to be, if there was to be food that winter; and most of the able bodied men were gone to war. So, though she occasionally had the help of one of the few men left in the district, most of the remaining clearing fell upon the young mother herself. She managed to plant some corn and potatoes, pretty late; and did everything else that could possibly be expected of an eighteen year old girl with an infant daughter.

It was a pretty hard winter, nevertheless. The worst came in February and the early part of March, when they were snowed in for nearly five weeks. They ran out of food entirely and Johannah had to take a gun and tramp off through the arrow looking for game. She came back empty-handed for several days, for she didn’t dare to go too far from the house where she had left the baby. Whether she ever did get anything or not, history doesn’t state, but she held out somehow and when the snows at last melted she made her way to the neighbor’s house, a Mister Morey’s, and here she lived until the weather broke and she could return to her own cabin.

She managed better in the spring of 1814, and in May, Ezra returned again in the fall, and when he departed for the south to join up with Jackson’s forces, there was enough laid by to make the winter much easier one than the last. It would have been an easier one, that is, if young Brice had not been such a difficult child to bear. Folks thereabout said that if she had had as easy a time with Brice as she had the Lucinda, she might never have developed that weakness in the chest that was to be, the bane of her existence from that year on.

The war over, Ezra returned with a new idea. The town was beginning to grow, and although his farm was hardly more than three years old, it had increased quite a little in value, so he proposed to sell it and go further west. He would probably have carried out the plan at once had it not been for Johannah’s health. That held him back for a year or two, a fortunate circumstance, for when he did sell and start west, he had a good wagon and team, and plenty of supplies and quite a nest egg in cash.

In the spring of 1818, he traveled down one river, up another and on west until he came to the point where the Keegaskin flows into the main stream. Here, on the broad bottomland between the two streams, where the business section of Boltonville is today, he built his homestead. And here, a month or two later, young Ezra was born. They say that old Ezra had been pretty piqued because Brice had not been named after him, but if so, he was satisfied now. Little Ezra became the apple of his eye, and forever remained so, even long after Brice had been elected to Congress, his namesake still remained his favorite.

Ezra’s farm had netted him a goodly profit. He saw, now, a chance to use the money to good stead. When, during the summer of 1819, quite a number of settlers passed his home on the way west, he seized opportunity and established a general store and trading post. That it was a successful goes without saying, had it not been, this story would probably never have been told.

But fate was not to allow Ezra Bolton to vegetate as mere general store keeper, yet. Early in the spring of 1820, a settler’s wagon was attacked by Indians and the settler killed. One of his sons escaped from the attack and managed to get back to Bolton’s store. Ezra at once called out all the settlers in the neighborhood, send word up and down the main river, and managed to get together some forty men, who set out to avenge the murdered man and to rescue, if possible, his wife and whatever children were still alive. He left the store and the farm in charge of Johannah; with such help as little Lucinda was able to give her. And though the child was only eight, the chances are that that help was not a little, for even then the hardness and strength of character that were to distinguish Lucinda all her life must have been evident.

But, as was almost characteristic with Ezra, he left his wife with child. This was Nehemiah, the fourth child and the last which he had rom Johannah. Physically, Johannah was weak and sickly ever since that year when she found herself snowed in with little Lucinda. There is not much doubt that she had tuberculosis, and it tells volumes about the indomitable spirit of the woman when we realize that she fought that dread a disease for over a decade before she finally succumbed to it.

But to return to Ezra and his Indian fighting… he departed on this sortie, which he expected to be on a march of a few weeks duration, at the head of about forty men. But the depredation which had set him off had been but the beginning of a general Indian uprising, and before he knew it his little company had been absorbed into the army of General Lew Shackelford, which had been sent to put down the uprising.

It was during this campaign that Ezra won his greatest laurels. When he set out, he was at the head of about forty men who rather dubiously called him captain. When he returned he was Colonel Bolton the Indian Fighter, and he remained so to the end of his life. The campaign carried him over three states and several territories and his name was linked with Lew Shackelford’s, and his fame, if anything, surpassed the general’s.

The Indians were soon driven out of the territory around the mouth of the Keegaskin, and the result was that the land thereabouts was settled much sooner than it would have been if the war hadn’t taken place. So Ezra’s business prospered, even in his absence, and he returned to find himself a much more prosperous man than he had been when he left, as well as much more famous one.

They say, during the twenties, settlers would go out of their way, along the river, to stop at Bolton’s and trade, and listen to advise from the famous Colonel Bolton. And quite a number settled near there, too, for there was a certain feeling of security to be under the wing, as it were, of such a famous warrior.

In 1828, Johannah died. All during Ezra’s absence, she had run the store, kept up the farm, and attended to the children, to say nothing of the countless chores that were the natural business of a woman of her day. There was fruit and vegetables to put, wood to cut for winter, cloth to spin, quilts to make, washing, cooking; need I list anymore? At any rate, it was too much for a woman whose health had been growing worse and worse for years, and at last she succumbed.

She was buried in August. The following February Ezra married Maria Whitlow, the daughter of Israel Whitlow, who had established a mill on the Keegaskin, not far from Bolton’s place.

Now, there are folks who consider Ezra a heartless wretch for marrying as soon after his wife’s death. But they’re modern folks, generally, and folks who haven’t read much history, either. I think the fact that Ezra held out as long as he did shows that he truly loved his wife and truly mourned her passing. Here was a successful young man, still only thirty-seven years old, with four children to take care of, with a busy store to look after, a farm to ten and only the children to help him. It was truly more than God intended any man to do, and it is no wonder that, after trying it all winter, he yielded to his natural impulses in the spring and married again.

Honeymoons were not a common thing, in those days. But then, Ezra Bolton was not a common man. He announced that he was going to take his wife to Washington, to attend the inauguration of Jackson, and in spite of the ordeals of the journey, take her he did. When he returned with the office of postmaster of the new village of Boltonville there were some who said that was all he had gone to Washington for in the first place; but more than likely they were just jealous.

For several years, it began to look like the pioneering days of Ezra Bolton were over for good.