The Farm Boy And The Angel


When the Smith caravan left the old Dutch town of Albany on the Great Western Turnpike, they were not alone. Hundreds of Yankee farmers, disheartened by the stony soil and freezing weather, had pulled up stakes and were rolling west to the fertile ground and the mild climate which they had been told they would find beside the fresh-water seas. Promise of thriving business lay in every swaying stagecoach that plunged past, in every freight wagon thundering over the deeprutted road with the driver cracking his long whip over the eight-horse team. Peddlers’ wagons—“flying stores”—jingled to a stop here and there, and the owners exhibited glittering wares and shouted their praises. Taverns along the way swarmed with loudvoiced patrons and hurrying servants.

At one of these hostelries, about twenty miles west of Utica, Lucy Smith, preparing in early morning for another day on the road, heard the excited report of her son Alvin that Mr. Howard had thrown their goods on the ground and was about to drive off with the wagon and team. She told the boy to order the driver to the barroom. He came, and they met in a noisy crowd of travelers. Lucy demanded an explanation, and Howard answered that the money she had given him for the trip had run out and he had quit.

The blood of her Scottish preacher ancestors, the spirit of her soldier-father, Solomon Mack, who had fought the French and Indians and later the British, asserted themselves. She spoke out so loudly and so sharply that the chattering men and women about her were stilled. The whole scene made such an impression upon her memory, she wrote years later, that she could recall her every word. “Gentlemen and ladies,” she said, “please give your attention for a moment. Now, as sure as there is a God in heaven, that team, as well as the goods, belong to my husband, and this man intends to take them from me … leaving me with eight children, without the means of proceeding on my journey.”

She turned to Howard: “Sir,” she said, “I now forbid your touching the team or driving it one step further. You can go about your own business; I have no use for you. I shall take charge of the team myself; and hereafter attend to my own affairs.”

Then she walked out to the horses and took up the reins while Howard slunk away.

The lame, unsmiling towhead would walk little now. He would ride and think, and he had more to think on than most boys on the west-rolling wagons. In his first decade, and possibly before his memory took hold, his parents had moved him from their Sharon, Vermont, farm, boulder-peppered, steep, and lonesome above the tumbling White River, to busy Tunbridge.

In that town, before his birth, his father had once set up a shop and his mother had tended it, and the two of them had risked their savings on a profitless venture—shipping to China ginseng roots, said to be in demand as revivers of sexual potency.

They found the return to Tunbridge with little Joseph disappointing and set out for nearby Royalton, which also had failed them once and now did so again. Then they tried Lebanon, New Hampshire, in the Connecticut’s smiling valley. By this time Joseph was about seven and fully aware of his changing environs. For several months here the family did so well that they could afford to enter Hyrum at Moore’s Academy across the river at Hanover. From this school he came home with a fever instantly communicated to his brothers and sisters. Thence came the infection on Joseph’s leg and the savage operation. Once more the family moved back to Vermont and a fertile Norwich L farm which kept none of its promises because of three successive crop failures, the last being in desolate 1816.

During all the peregrinations through little Yankee towns, Joseph had known two old men who had left their marks upon him. One was white-haired Grandfather Mack, who, come a-visiting, would painfully climb down from the sidesaddle on his rib-striped mare to tell the family stories of the days when he was a hero in battles against the painted, whooping Indians, the slick and monstrous-cruel “monseers,” the dimwitted British lobster-backs. When Joseph was five the old man had brought the Smiths a book in which his tales had been printed, and daughter Lucy never tired of reading them to her children.

The other old man was Grandfather Asael Smith, tall and well filled-out but of strange appearance because a burn on his neck when he was young caused him to carry his head to one side—“Crooked-neck Smith,” folks called him. He, too, had fought in the War of Independence and so had his father—but he said little about it. He was a thoughtful man who had ideas and stuck to them even when the whole of Topsfield, his home town in Vermont, disagreed. He was a man to talk about a boy’s behavior and his work and his thoughts about God. He was both serious and powerful but of a gentle nature, never seeking trouble, though he never avoided it either. Joseph had not seen as much of Asael Smith as he had of Solomon Mack, but Asael was not someone to forget.

Most recent of Joseph’s memories and most vivid as he bounced along on the buckboard was the seaport, Salem, which he had left only a few months before his father had set out for the west. To a Vermont farm boy whose parents were almost continually on the move, this town could not have failed to provide a symbol of continuing wealth, stability, and romance.