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The Log School-House on the Columbia

The Log School-House on the Columbia

Author:Hezekiah Butterworth


An elderly woman and a German girl were walking along the old Indian trail that led from the northern mountains to the Columbia River. The river was at this time commonly called the Oregon, as in Bryant's poem: "Where rolls the Oregon, And no sound is heard save its own dashings."...
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  An elderly woman and a German girl were walking along the old Indian trailthat led from the northern mountains to the Columbia River. The river wasat this time commonly called the Oregon, as in Bryant's poem:

  "Where rolls the Oregon,And no sound is heard save its own dashings."

  The girl had a light figure, a fair, open face, and a high forehead withwidth in the region of ideality, and she carried under her arm a longblack case in which was a violin. The woman had lived in one of thevalleys of the Oregon for several years, but the German girl had recentlyarrived in one of the colonies that had lately come to the territoryunder the missionary agency of the Rev. Jason Lee.

  There came a break in the tall, cool pines that lined the trail and thatcovered the path with glimmering shadows. Through the opening the highsummits of Mount St. Helens glittered like a city of pearl, far, far awayin the clear, bright air. The girl's blue eyes opened wide, and her feetstumbled.

  "There, there you go again down in the hollow! Haven't you any eyes? Iwould think you had by the looks of them. Well, Gretchen, they were placedright in the front of your head so as to look forward; they would havebeen put in the top of your head if it had been meant that you should lookup to the sky in that way. What is it you see?"

  "Oh, mother, I wish I was--an author."

  "An author! What put that into your simple head? You meant to say youwould like to be a poet, but you didn't dare to, because you know I don'tapprove of such things. People who get such flighty ideas into their looseminds always find the world full of hollows. No, Gretchen, I am willingyou should play on the violin, though some of the Methody do not approveof that; and that you should finger the musical glasses in theevening--they have a religious sound and soothe me, like; but the readingof poetry and novels I never did countenance, except Methody hymns and the'Fool of Quality,' and as for the writing of poetry, it is a Boston notionand an ornary habit. Nature is all full of poetry out here, and what thiscountry needs is pioneers, not poets."

  There came into view another opening among the pines as the two went on.The sun was ascending a cloudless sky, and far away in the cerulean archof glimmering splendors the crystal peaks and domes of St. Helens appearedagain.

  The girl stopped.

  "What now?" said the woman, testily.


  "Look yonder--what for? That's nothing but a mountain, a great waste ofland all piled up to the sky, and covered with a lot of ice and snow. Idon't see what they were made for, any way--just to make people go round,I suppose, so that the world will not be too easy for them."

  "Oh, mother, I do not see how you can feel so out here! I never dreamed ofanything so beautiful!"

  "Feel so out here! What do you mean? Haven't I always been good to you?Didn't I give you a good home in Lynn after your father and mother died?Wasn't I a mother to you? Didn't I nurse you through the fever? Didn't Isend for you to come way out here with the immigrants, and did you everfind a better friend in the world than I have been to you?"

  "Yes, mother, but--"

  "And don't I let you play the violin, which the Methody elder didn't muchapprove of?"

  "Yes, mother, you have always been good to me, and I love you more thananybody else on earth."

  There swept into view a wild valley of giant trees, and rose clear aboveit, a scene of overwhelming magnificence.

  "Oh, mother, I can hardly look at it--isn't it splendid? It makes me feellike crying."

  The practical, resolute woman was about to say, "Well, look the other waythen," but she checked the rude words. The girl had told her that sheloved her more than any one else in the world, and the confession hadtouched her heart.

  "Well, Gretchen, that mountain used to make me feel so sometimes when Ifirst came out here. I always thought that the mountains would look_peakeder_ than they do. I didn't think that they would take up so muchof the land. I suppose that they are all well enough in their way, but apioneer woman has no time for sentiments, except hymns. I don't feel likeyou now, and I don't think that I ever did. I couldn't learn to play theviolin and the musical glasses if I were to try, and I am sure that Ishould never go out into the woodshed to try to rhyme _sun_ with _fun_;no, Gretchen, all such follies as these I should _shun_. What differencedoes it make whether a word rhymes with one word or another?"

  To the eye of the poetic and musical German girl the dead volcano, withits green base and frozen rivers and dark, glimmering lines of carbon,seemed like a fairy tale, a celestial vision, an ascent to some city ofcrystal and pearl in the sky. To her foster mother the stupendous scenewas merely a worthless waste, as to Wordsworth's unspiritual wanderer:

  "A primrose by the river's brim,A yellow primrose was to him,And it was nothing more."

  She was secretly pleased at Gretchen's wonder and surprise at the newcountry, but somehow she felt it her duty to talk querulously, and tocheck the flow of the girl's emotions, which she did much to excite. Herown life had been so circumscribed and hard that the day seemed to be toobright to be speaking the truth. She peered into the sky for a cloud, butthere was none, on this dazzling Oregon morning. The trail now opened fora long way before the eyes of the travelers. Far ahead gleamed thepellucid waters of the Columbia, or Oregon. Half-way between them and thebroad, rolling river a dark, tall figure appeared.


  "What, mother?"

  "Gretchen, look! There goes the Yankee schoolmaster. Came way out hereover the mountains to teach the people of the wilderness, and all fornothing, too. That shows that people have souls--some people have. Walkright along beside me, proper-like. You needn't ever tell any one that Iain't your true mother. If I ain't ashamed of you, you needn't be ashamedof me. I wish that you were my own girl, now that you have said that youlove me more than anybody else in the world. That remark kind o' touchedme. I know that I sometimes talk hard, but I mean well, and I have to tellyou the plain truth so as to do my duty by you, and then I won't haveanything to reflect upon.

  "Just look at him! Straight as an arrow! They say that his folks arerich. Come out here way over the mountains, and is just going to teachschool in a log school-house--all made of logs and sods and mud-plaster,adobe they call it--a graduate of Harvard College, too."

  A long, dark object appeared in the trees covered with bark and moss.Behind these trees was a waterfall, over which hung the crowns of pines.The sunlight sifted through the odorous canopy, and fell upon the strange,dark object that lay across the branching limbs of two ancient trees.

  Gretchen stopped again.

  "Mother, what is that?"

  "A grave--an Indian grave."

  The Indians bury their dead in the trees out here, or used to do so. Abrown hawk arose from the mossy coffin and winged its way wildly into thesunny heights of the air. It had made its nest on the covering of thebody. These new scenes were all very strange to the young German girl.

  The trail was bordered with young ferns; wild violets lay in beds ofpurple along the running streams, and the mountain phlox with its kindlingbuds carpeted the shelving ways under the murmuring pines. The woman andgirl came at last to a wild, open space; before them rolled the Oregon,beyond it stretched a great treeless plain, and over it towered a giganticmountain, in whose crown, like a jewel, shone a resplendent glacier.

  Just before them, on the bluffs of the river, under three giganticevergreens, each of which was more than two hundred feet high, stood anodd structure of logs and sods, which the builders called the SodSchool-house. It was not a sod school-house in the sense in which the termhas been applied to more recent structures in the treeless prairiedistricts of certain mid-ocean States; it was rudely framed of pine, andwas furnished with a pine desk and benches.

  Along the river lay a plateau full of flowers, birds, and butterflies, andover the great river and flowering plain the clear air glimmered. Likesome sun-god's abode in the shadow of ages, St. Helens still lifted hersilver tents in the far sky. Eagles and mountain birds wheeled, shriekingjoyously, here and there. Below the bluffs the silent salmon-fishersawaited their prey, and down the river with paddles apeak drifted the barkcanoes of Cayuses and Umatillas.

  [Illustration: _Indians spearing fish at Salmon Falls._]

  A group of children were gathered about the open door of the newschool-house, and among them rose the tall form of Marlowe Mann, theYankee schoolmaster.

  He had come over the mountains some years before in the early expeditionsorganized and directed by Dr. Marcus Whitman, of the American Board ofMissions. Whether the mission to the Cayuses and Walla Wallas, which Dr.Whitman established on the bend of the Columbia, was then regarded as ahome or foreign field of work, we can not say. The doctor's solitary rideof four thousand miles, in order to save the great Northwest territory tothe United States, is one of the most poetic and dramatic episodes ofAmerican history. It has proved to be worth to our country more than allthe money that has been given to missionary enterprises. Should the PugetSound cities become the great ports of Asia, and the ships of commercedrift from Seattle and Tacoma over the Japan current to the Flowery Islesand China; should the lumber, coal, minerals, and wheat-fields ofWashington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho at last compel these cities torival New York and Boston, the populous empire will owe to the patrioticmissionary zeal of Dr. Whitman a debt which it can only pay in honor andlove. Dr. Whitman was murdered by the Indians soon after the settlement ofthe Walla Walla country by the pioneers from the Eastern States.

  Mr. Mann's inspiration to become a missionary pioneer on the Oregon hadbeen derived from a Boston schoolmaster whose name also the Northwestshould honor. An inspired soul with a prophet's vision usually goes beforethe great movements of life; solitary men summon the march of progress,then decrease while others increase. Hall J. Kelley was a teacher of theolden time, well known in Boston almost a century ago. He became possessedwith the idea that Oregon was destined to become a great empire. Hecollected all possible information about the territory, and organizedemigration schemes, the first of which started from St. Louis in 1828, andfailed. He talked of Oregon continually. The subject haunted him day andnight. It was he who inspired Rev. Jason Lee, the pioneer of theWillamette Valley. Lee interested Senator Linn, of Missouri, in Oregon,and this senator, on December 11, 1838, introduced the bill into Congresswhich organized the Territory.

  Some of the richly endowed new schools of Oregon would honor history by amonumental recognition of the name of Hall J. Kelley, the oldschoolmaster, whose dreams were of the Columbia, and who inspired some ofhis pupils to become resolute pioneers. Boston was always a friend toWashington and Oregon. Where the old schoolmaster now rests we do notknow. Probably in a neglected grave amid the briers and mosses of some oldcemetery on the Atlantic coast.

  When Marlowe Mann came to the Northwest he found the Indian tribes unquietand suspicious of the new settlements. One of the pioneers had caused asickness among some thievish Indians by putting emetic poison inwatermelons. The Indians believed these melons to have been conjured bythe white doctor, and when other sickness came among them, they attributedit to the same cause. The massacre at Waülaptu and the murder of Whitmangrew in part out of these events.

  Mr. Mann settled near the old Chief of the Cascades. He sought the Indianfriendship of this chief, and asked him for his protection.

  "People fulfill the expectation of the trust put in them--Indians as wellas children," he used to say. "A boy fulfills the ideals of hismother--what the mother believes the boy will be, that he will become.Treat a thief as though he were honest, and he will be honest with you. Wehelp people to be better by believing in what is good in them. I am goingto trust the friendship of the old Chief of the Cascades, and he willnever betray it."

  It was summer, and there was to be a great Indian Potlatch feast under theautumn moon. The Potlatch is a feast of gifts. It is usually a peacefulgathering of friendly tribes, with rude music and gay dances; but it bodeswar and massacre and danger if it end with the dance of the evil spirits,or the devil dance, as it has been known--a dance which the EnglishGovernment has recently forbidden among the Northwestern tribes.

  The Indians were demanding that the great fall Potlatch should end withthis ominous dance of fire and besmearings of blood. The white peopleeverywhere were disturbed by these reports, for they feared what might bethe secret intent of this wild revel. The settlers all regarded withapprehension the October moon.

  The tall schoolmaster watched the approach of Mrs. Woods and Gretchen witha curious interest. The coming of a pupil with no books and a violin wassomething unexpected. He stepped forward with a courtly grace and greetedthem most politely, for wherever Marlowe Mann might be, he never forgotthat he was a gentleman.

  "This is my gal what I have brought to be educated," said Mrs. Woods,proudly. "They think a great deal of education up around Boston where Icame from. Where did you come from?"

  "From Boston."

  "So I have been told--from Harvard College. Can I speak with you a minutein private?"

  "Yes, madam. Step aside."

  "I suppose you are kinder surprised that I let my gal there, Gretchen,bring her violin with her; but I have a secret to tell ye. Gretchen is akind of a poet, makes rhymes, she does; makes _fool_ rhyme with _school_,and such things as that. Now, I don't take any interest in such things.But she does play the violin beautiful. Learned of a German teacher. Now,do you want to know why I let her bring her violin? Well, I thought itmight _help_ you. You've got a hard lot of scholars to deal with out here,and there are Injuns around, too, and one never knows what they may do.

  "Well, schoolmaster, you never heard nothin' like that violin. It isn't noevil spirit that is in Gretchen's violin; it's an angel. I first noticedit one day when husband and I had been havin' some words. We have wordssometimes. I have a lively mind, and know how to use words when I amopposed. Well, one day when husband and I had been havin' words, which weshouldn't, seein' we are Methody, Gretchen began to cry, and went and gother violin, and began to play just like a bird. And my high temper allmelted away, and my mind went back to the old farm in New England, and Ideclare, schoolmaster, I just threw my apron over my head and began tocry, and I told Gretchen never to play that tune again when I was talkingto husband for his good.

  "Well, one day there came a lot of Injuns to the house and demandedfire-water. I am Methody, and don't keep any such things in the house.Husband is a sober, honest man. Now, I've always noticed that an Injun isa coward, and I think the best way to get along with Injuns is to appearnot to fear them. So I ordered the stragglers away, when one of them swunghis tommyhawk about my head, and the others threatened to kill me. How myheart did beat! Gretchen began to cry; then she ran all at once for herviolin and played the very same tune, and the Injuns just stood like somany dumb statues and listened, and, when the tune was over, one of themsaid 'Spirits,' and they all went away like so many children.

  "Now, I thought you would like to hear my gal play between schools, and,if ever you should get into any trouble with your scholars or Injuns oranybody, just call upon Gretchen, and she will play that tune on theviolin."

  "What wonderful tune is it, madam?"

  "I don't know. I don't know one tune from another, though I do sing theold Methody hymns that I learned in Lynn when I am about my work. I don'tknow whether she knows or not. She learned it of a German."

  "I am glad that you let her bring the instrument. I once played the violinmyself in the orchestra of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society."

  "Did you? Then you like it. I have a word or two more to say aboutGretchen. She's a good gal, and shows her bringing up. Teach her reading,writing, and figures. You needn't teach her no grammar. I could alwaystalk without any grammar, in the natural way. I was a bound-girl, andnever had much education. I have had my ups and downs in life, like allthe rest of the world. You will do the best you can for Gretchen, won'tyou?"

  "Yes, my dear madam, and for every one. I try to make every one true tothe best that is in them. I am glad to have Gretchen for a scholar. I willspeak to her by and by."

  How strange was the scene to Gretchen! She remembered the winding Rhine,with its green hills and terraced vineyards and broken-walled castles;Basel and the singing of the student clubs in the gardens on summerevenings; the mountain-like church at Strasburg; and the old streets ofMayence. She recalled the legends and music of the river of song--a riverthat she had once thought to be the most beautiful on earth. But what werethe hills of the Rhine to the scenery that pierced the blue sky aroundher, and how light seemed the river itself to the majestic flow of theColumbia! Yet the home-land haunted her. Would she go back again? Howwould her real parents have felt had they known that she would have founda home here in the wilderness? Why had Providence led her steps here? Hermother had been a pious Lutheran. Had she been led here to help in somefuture mission to the Indian race?

  "Dreaming?" said Mrs. Woods. "Well, I suppose it can't be helped. If abody has the misfortune to be kiting off to the clouds, going up like aneagle and coming down like a goose, it can't be helped. There are a greatmany things that can't be helped in this world, and all we can do is tomake the best of them. Some people were born to live in the skies, and itmakes it hard for those who have to try to live with them. Job sufferedsome things, but--I won't scold out here--I have my trials; but it may bethey are all for the best, as the Scripture says."

  These forbearing remarks were not wholly meant for Gretchen's reproval.Mrs. Woods liked to have the world know that she had her trials, and shewas pleased to find so many ears on this bright morning open to herexperiences.

  She liked to say to Gretchen things that were meant for other ears; therewas novelty in the indirection. She also was accustomed to quote freelyfrom the Scriptures and from the Methodist hymnbook, which was almost heronly accomplishment. She had led a simple, hard-working life in hergirlhood; had become a follower of Jason Lee during one of the old-timerevivals of religion; had heard of the Methodist emigration to Oregon, andwished to follow it. She hardly knew why. Though rough in speech andsomewhat peculiar, she was a kind-hearted and an honest woman, and veryindustrious and resolute. Mr. Lee saw in her the spirit of a pioneer, andadvised her to join his colony. She married Mr. Woods, went to the Dallesof the Columbia, and afterward to her present home upon a donation claim.