Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Happy Columbus Day

I recently found out I am a direct descendant of Penelope Thompson Van Princes Stout.  It’s amazing what our ancestors endured to build this country.

In 1634 Penelope Thompson was a pretty girl of twelve living in Amsterdam, Holland. She wore ribbons in her cap over yellow ringlets and her eyes sparkled --- everyday an adventure to her. Not far from her home lived a young portrait painter, Rembrandt van Ryn who was currently the rage of Amsterdam.  Penelope had a tutor who, besides teaching her French and English, told her how proud she should be of her small country's history of expansion... especially now that the Dutch West India Company was carrying on a thriving trade with the wild men -- the Indians -- of the northeastern parts of America... how these Indians could be  dealt with if one observed a strict policy of fair and open terms.  So, by the time she married Kent Van Princes, both of them age 20, she must have carried in her mind a pleasantly colored picture of the Dutch settlement in the new world.  When Kent proposed that they leave Holland and set: forth for New Netherland to see if they could make a home there, Penelope "went with willingness." There is little on record of Kent, but it comes down to us of that time that Penelope herself was a woman blossoming into beauty with a cheerful and loving disposition.

Kent was ill from the day the ship set sail; growing steadily worse; delirious with fever. On the 58th day in the murky gloom of a stormy afternoon, the ship made landfall of a sort --- it crashed into the rocky shoals off the coast of Sandy Hook. In fright and confusion, the settlers shinnied down hand-burning lengths of rope into life rafts, some of which capsized in the heaving surf. Penelope, aided by sailors, managed to get her unconscious husband off the ship and most of the passengers and crew managed to reach the shore. They found themselves on a barren expanse of beach, lined with dense woods. They held a short conference and decided to press on toward their destination, New Amsterdam, that very hour.  Fear of the wild men decreed that no one spend a night on the unprotected beach. They urged the young Mistress van Princes to come along and Penelope pleaded with them to help her carry Kent. Stern pitying faces denied her; carrying Kent would slow down the party on their  way to the safety of the town and surely she realized he was all but dead anyway.  She refused to leave him and they left, promising to return as soon as possible with help.

The night came on. Crouched beside Kent she slept fitfully. With the morning came events more terrible than this pretty, sheltered young bride from Holland could have possibly imagined. For, in the morning the wild men came.

She saw little ---- three or four men with feathers sticking up from shaved and coppery heads. Then their arms were swinging down upon her with knives and with something she was later to learn was a tomahawk. One blow and the dying young man was dispatched. Penelope was deftly scalped, a knife slashed into her shoulder and another stroke drove into and across her abdomen. They left her for dead.

She crawled to the edge of the woods; found dew in the hollow of leaves; ate fungous excrescence and the gum growing on the trees.  The emotion and physical pain can only be imagined.  On the 4th day she saw a deer run by with arrows sticking in its flanks. She hid in a hollow tree. But a dog came racing across the beach and stood barking at her --- baring its rotten teeth until the wild men came up.

This time there were only two of them -- one young; one older. The young one raised his tomahawk but the older one stepped in front of him, frowning at the girl. In an action that mercifully caused her to faint, the older man threw his coat over her body and carried her off.

When she awoke, her first realization was that the terrible pain had gone. Slabs of a sort of mud had been applied to her bloody head.  Her stomach was bound tightly with cloth. Her mouth felt fuzzy as if she had swallowed some drug; and for the moment she did not even feel panic.

Days passed with her waking, sleeping, having double vision, screaming, nausea; light as painful as splinters, blackness that terrified, now and then a rough hand on her forehead, chills, consuming heat ... and constant nightmares of being chased by yelling wild men waving knives chasing her down an endless stretch of sand.

When she was finally fully conscious, she sat up and could see across from her a few women sitting, eating with their fingers out of small bowls.  They brought her a bowl and to her surprise, the taste was delicious and she realized she was starved. She was cramming the food into her mouth so fast that it ran down her hands and arms, but she didn't care.  She was out of pain and didn't seem to be in any apparent danger.

Suddenly she looked up and all the fear returned. Standing before her was a wild man ... and she realized it was one of the wild men from the beach and she drew in her breath to scream. But before this could happen she realized the man was speaking to her and she was somehow able to understand him. " I save you. I Chief. You stay here." The memory of her tutoring came flooding back. He was speaking English! She wanted to thank him for saving her life --- but she fainted.

It was dark when she awakened again.  All of a sudden she remembered all that had happened to her and put her hands to her head.  She was completely bald! She was a widow, alone, far from home and family, afraid, just 20 years old ... and she cried herself silently to sleep.

As she recovered, she was taught to cook. She was taken through the woods to a stream where she was made to understand that this was where she would be coming to fetch water and pick clamshells.  She looked across the waters of what seemed to be a bay and saw on the other shore a cluster of houses ... homes of the white settlers! The thought of getting to them crossed her mind but almost as though one of the squaws read her thoughts the squaw "answered" by drawing her finger across her own throat. Penelope was to be kept there, but for how long and why she did not know.  But, in her mind and heart a plan for escape was born.

A few days after sighting the settler's homes, the chief sent for her. His name, she learned, was Tisquantum*. He made her understand that she was being kept because he wanted to practice his "Yngees".  He had mingled with the white skins on the shores and learned a little of their tongue, but he wanted to learn more because it would be helpful in barter; enabling him not to be cheated; and would also aid in defending himself and his tribe from lies and unfair acts which were already in practice. It must have been an odd conversation ... Tisquantum with his guttural grunts and Penelope with her heavily Dutch accented English.

Penelope was not treated unkindly .. but was nevertheless a captive. As days turned into weeks, she learned many of the Indian ways ... but the thought of escape was never out of her mind.  She knew the only way she could escape was to find a boat of some kind, but all her efforts to do so had failed. She was always watched ... never alone. In desperation she made friends with the old warrior who was the official boat maker hoping to follow when they took a boat to the beach ... and it almost worked... but at the last moment they turned and sent her back to the camp.

She was sent one day to gather clamshells.  With  her heart in her throat, she searched the bushes at the edge of the woods not knowing what would happen to her if she were caught. She found a canoe pushed up into the thicket. Escape by day was impossible as she was always watched ...she promised herself that on the next moonless night ...

The very day after the discovery of the canoe, the younger brave who had wanted to finish her off as she had huddled in the hollow tree appeared in the longroom she shared with the other unattached squaws. He grinned at her evilly, and deposited a large gray-white fish at her feet. At this the other squaws burst into shouts of laughter. Penelope, frightened, ran to the chief.  Tisquantum told her that this was the same man who had scalped and killed her husband; who had been with him when she was found alive; and since she had survived, he felt "possessive" toward her. He had brought her the fish, a type of salmon, for her to eat because it aroused sexual desire.  Penelope was horrified. Tisquantum told her calmly that she need not accept the first brave who made such overtures.  She might turn down two more. After that there was no more leeway choosing a mate. The fourth man would be her mate.

Penelope had been wearing a piece of fur around her shaven head. Now she went without it. This did not seem to make any difference. Soon after the incident of the gray fish, another young buck began following along wherever she went. Number two! Now she was sure she could not afford to wait for a moonless night... she had to escape.

Penelope learned that a three day religious festival was to be held. Each year in the dead of winter the tribe honored a great spirit Manibus in the hopes that Manibus would cause the spring to come again. Inspired, Penelope hoped this would give her the chance to escape.

On the first day of the celebration there was too much activity. No one slept. It continued through the second night and there was a full moon that turned night into day.  On the third night she was hopeful. Most of the participants were so exhausted from lack of sleep that no one seemed to be paying any attention to her.  The moon was obscured by clouds.  She began walking in the direction of her tent, trying to appear casual.  Suddenly rough hands seized her from behind and she was thrown to the ground. She screamed as a young buck leaped upon her. The squaws chased him away and led Penelope back to the longhouse. Her third suitor and her plan of escape in shambles.

Spring arrived early that year and with it came a different excitement. Scouts from her tribe reported sightings of the Mohawk tribe. Angry mutterings of war filled the air. A scouting party left the tribe and returned about noon the next day dragging Mohawk captives. These captives were tied to stakes and tortured. Everyone in the tribe, men, women and children, joined in this torture... which became more and more terrible. Never did a tortured warrior let out so much as a cry ... not even when he saw some of his own flesh, uncooked, being eaten. Penelope sprang  up in complete horror and fled. No one followed her as all were too caught up in the hideous fun. She ran pall mall through the woods, stumbling, falling, and scrambling to her feet again. She vowed that if she could not find a canoe, then she would just throw herself into the water and swim until she reached land or drowned.

She found the boat ... but couldn't budge it an though she strained until her hands  were bruised and bleeding. It was made from a heavy tree hollowed out ... not a light skin-covered canoe.  The tide was coming in with maddening slowness and after a lifetime it lifted the boat. She scrambled in and started for the little houses on the far shore.

She could see the houses, but it was a longer way than she had imagined. Hours seemed to have passed, dusk came and the houses had grown no larger. As she lifted the heavy paddle front side to side, her left shoulder, its muscles severed by the Indian's knife, gave her such agony that she lost consciousness briefly from time to time.

At last she looked up and could make out lamp-lighted windows drawing nearer!  With the wild energy that comes out of desperation, Penelope started paddling as hard as she could ... succeeding only in turning the canoe over. So weak was she that she sank under immediately. But instinct took over and she struggled to the surface, thrashing about and swallowing water. And the realization came over her ... her feet were touching ground!

She made her way to the houses and was taken into the home of Lady Deborah Moody at Gravesend, New Amsterdam or New York as we know it today.

Penelope was not yet 21 years of age. While this ends the year of her life I wanted to share with you tonight, it is not the end of Penelope's story. When she was 22 she married Richard Stout and they had ten children. She remained friends with Tisquantum and it is recorded how he would drop into her home, sit in her kitchen and talk with her. Once he even came to warn her of a planned massacre of her town which enabled Penelope to warn the others and save the town.

Penelope is well recorded in the New York and New Jersey history books and records. For those of you interested, the best and most thorough history of her life was published in 1970 in a book called Four Women in a Violent Time by Deborah Crawford, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1970

In spite of her early beginning, Penelope lived to be 110 years of age. She saw her offsping multiplied into 502 in about 88 years. She told her story over and over, to her children, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

* Not Squanto, obviously, but the chief of the Delaware (a.k.a. “Lenni Lenape”) tribe.


Justin said...

Amazing story, absolutely amazing. I love to read primary sources about real history. Truly that past is a foreign country.

Dexter said...

Don't you know? The supposed sufferings of white racist imperialists simply don't count! This nation is not based on their work and positive achievements, but on their aggressive plundering of peaceful indigenous peoples.