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Early History of Underground Railroad - Frank Mathews - 1899


Posted By: deb (email)
Date: 2/15/2008 at 08:48:06

Mt. Pleasant Weekly News
October 4, 1899

Sheep and Wolves

How One was Watched and the Other Trapped.

Some Interesting Incidents Connected with the Early History of the Underground Railroad



(continued from last week)


While we were living in Lee County, M.M. Maccarvee went to Kentucky and bought 5000 sheep. They were the old long-legged, bare bellied kind; were easily stampeded and could run like a deer. He hired myself and brothers to herd them. The wolves were thick and we built a corral with a close high fence to put them in at night. After breakfast we would turn them out. They looked fine filing out on the prairies. Three of us undertook to herd them. One of us rode an Indian pony, the other two on foot. The first few days we had no trouble. Then came a cloudy, rainy day and the wolves slipped up the ravines and pounced on the sheep, killing and wounding several of them. The sheep would scatter, running every way, and while heading one bunch, another bunch would run far away. We kept them about six weeks before they were sold, and even with father to help, we lost 500 of them. They would scatter and run. Some of them ran ten to fifteen miles. Some of them ran through Salem; some we found at Glasgow, others went through West Point on into Sugar Creek timber, many we found at Denmark, many took up with other sheep, yet Maccarvee did well with his venture.

He gave us boys a pet lamb which grew very fine and one snowy day it followed father and I out about ten rods from the buildings where we were husking corn shocks and it went away from us about five rods and we heard it bleat and looking up saw a large wolf catch it. We hallowed and ran to its relief but it killed it before we could drive it away. We then set a trap near it and covered it with snow. But in the morning the trap was sprung and he had taken a meal out of the sheep. I then went over to where an old hunter and trapper lived. His trap weighed 45 pounds. He had a wolf leg and foot and he instructed me how to trap him; said he had seen it several times and it would find and spring a trap before eating a carcass. Well, I set the trap as follows: So was the big trap that I had to take a hand spike to spring it down to set it. I set the small trap about two feet from the carcass, a little of it sticking out. Then on the other side close up to the sheep I set the large one. Did not handle the snow with my hands but used a clapboard. I leveled the snow so as to make it look natural but took the wolf leg and made tracks in the snow on top and around the trap. Father and I and brother went out early in the morning before breakfast. We found that he had jumped into the big one.
Having a big cur dog and the snow being ten inches deep we all started in pursuit. Well about nine o’clock a.m. we got up within one hundred yards of him and tried to make the dog take hold of him. The dog would run up behind him and grab hold of his hind quarters but when the wolf turned on him he would stand off and bark. We had clubs and tried repeatedly to get near enough to strike him but he would wheel and run again. About 11 a.m. he ran within two miles of our house and we then went home and got some dinner; went to the neighbors and got another dog. We then renewed the chase. He did not go far from where we left him but when he saw that there was two dogs he ran down on Prairie Creek and getting in where there was a short bend in the creek with a steep bank at his back he stopped and the dogs coming up to him he would first snap one and then the other. He had both dogs bleeding; had slit their ears and noses and held them at bay in fine style. We watched the fight for a few moments but saw that he was hurting the dogs so had father ran up and hit him on the nose, breaking it. The dogs then closed in on him and he locked jaws with our neighbor’s dog and hung on until our dog chewed his breast until he was dead. We had to pry his mouth open with a stick to release the other dog. He was as large and as tall as a gray hound and more than a match for one dog.


While living there my brother and I concluded to tame some prairie chicken. We went to the old abandoned still house at Lowell and got two large tubs about four feet high and large in proportion and taking the bottom out we set them on the fresh grass and caught some little young ones, put them in, fed them and watered them all summer; would move the tubs on fresh ground every other day, put in tame chickens with them, but could not mate them at all. We kept their wings clipped so they would not fly out. They would eat and drink when we were not present but would try to hide when we were present. Like an Indian they can’t be civilized and like them they are being exterminated.

Along in the forties there were many runaway slaves that crossed over into Iowa. The underground railroad was then doing its largest business. These negro men crossed the Des Moines river and reached Salem in safety and were directed to go to the house of Nathan Bond who lived on the head of Prairie Creek. They traveled in the night and although it was not more than ten or twelve miles they got lost and daylight coming on they hid in bushes, expecting to spend the day there. But Wm. Berry, our neighbor, a West Virginian, and pro-slavery man, while hunting cattle came onto them and well knowing that a reward would be offered for their arrest he pretended that he would assist them in getting away. Told them to remain where they were until night; that he would bring them plenty of food and when night came on he got his brother, George Berry, and his nephew, John Hamilton, a strong young man, and all being armed, they came to the slaves and told them to march as they told them, or they would shoot them like dogs. They took them to George Berry’s and guarded them until the reward was offered. Then notified the owners and got $900 for their treachery. One of the slaves was an old man, and just before parting with them he prayed for them in a voice that was very cutting to them. Told them that they would be sorry for what they had done. But the money was a large sum in those days, and it enabled them to enter more land and dress up, and for a time all went well. But the day of retribution was not far away.

Some time after that I went to Lowell to mill, and while waiting for my grist, Wm. Berry came with a grist also. Louis Collins, a half-breed spoken of before, was the Miller. He asked me privately, if that was Wm. Berry. I told him it was. He went up to him, and said: “I believe your name is Wm. Berry.” Berry said yes, that is my name. Well, says Collins, I believe you are the man who betrayed some men of my color back into slavery, are you not?” Yes says Berry, I helped to return some fugitives to their masters as the law directs. I am a law abiding man, and I am am sure they are better off where they are than they would be here. Well, says Collins, in a very insulting manner, I have one prayer that I pray I always pray for you. I pray that you may never succeed in anything you undertake. I pray that you may never raise over half a crop on your farm. That you and yours may come to want, and your children that you raise, may become a curse to you, and that happiness may never be yours. Berry walked of up into town. Looked much vexed, but dare not resent it, as Louis was a giant in strength and well liked by everyone. While we lived there I know he never did raise more than half a crop. If it did grow the stock would break in and destroy the half or more. In regard to coming to want, the records of this county tell. His oldest boy died on the road to California. Samuel is a citizen of this county. The other children do not know any thing about George Berry, who at the time was county surveyor of Lee County, and was very popular. He lost his popularity and much of his property. Hamilton died soon after. I understood that while delirious with typhoid fever, of which he died, he often said: Poor fellows, poor fellows, I wish I had not done it. If I had to do again I would not do it, etc. One cold, stormy night a negro man came to our house. Said he was lost. Said he was going from Denmark to Mt. Pleasant. We questioned him and was satisfied that he was a runaway. Father said if he was a runaway, he would not run after him, he didn’t care what the law was. As my father was Whig, he had evidently made a mistake and come to the wrong house.



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