Twelve-year-old Wilbur Bowling had a smile on his face as he emerged from the forest that fringed his family’s 25-acre farm on a cold March afternoon. He felt like a man. He looked like one too, at least in the opinion of Ruthie and Mary, his younger half-sisters. They were especially impressed with the stag-handled hunting knife he’d traded John Colby’s wife for in exchange for his squirrel hunting services while her husband and oldest son were gone with the militia. Wilbur thought it was really his well-worn, homespun-wool blanket coat that made him look seasoned. In truth, the blanket it was made from was rather worn before his mother cut and sewed the best sections into a garment for him. She said he was growing so fast it would be wasteful to make him a coat from new cloth, and that the cost of wool was too high with no more imports from England. Likewise, his feet were growing too fast to warrant the expense of new shoes. He wore Indian moccasins. Indians were not common in this part of the county, but white Indian traders passing through sometimes stopped by their farm to buy or trade for a jug or two of their corn whisky.
He’d watched with fascination as his father and five hired slaves built the small log building for their distillery five years earlier, not understanding at the time what a lodestone it would become. According to his mother, it was a profitable side venture before the war, and a moderately profitable one now. If not for that distillery, his present manly image would have to suffer him wearing his father’s old shoes, which were absurdly big for him. He passionately objected to wearing Father’s “snowshoes” when his mother first suggested it, but she would not give ground and he had to wrap his feet in sacks until the whisky-moccasin barter option presented itself.
On top of his moccasins, Wilbur wore supple but durable brain-tanned deer hide leggings that their slave Joshua had made for his father and him to protect their calves from the thorny underbrush and copperheads while hunting. At Father’s instruction, Joshua made a pair for himself and their other slaves, Phillip and Will, to wear when they were cutting trees for firewood in the forest. The latter two slaves were field hands his father brought with him from Virginia when he first came to North Carolina. Joshua was purchased from a neighbor three years prior. What Wilbur hadn’t already learned about dressing, salting and smoking from his mother and father, he learned from watching Joshua. Now he knew the means to render any creature from farm, river or forest, in a manner it would stay fit to eat for months. However, tonight the Bowlings were eating fresh meat, thanks to his marksmanship and hunting prowess.
Two huge rabbits hung tied to the muzzle of Wilbur’s rifle. He carried the gun over his shoulder like a militiaman so the success of his hunt wouldn’t go unnoticed. He knew his father would be proud of him. He would probably say, “Why, those look more like mules than hares, boy!” Wartime in the North Carolina backcountry brought with it the weight of a somber and anxious spirit. The absence of his father’s good humor, and the way he could use it to cheer a heart, or calm one, was one of the many things he sorely missed when Father was away serving in the militia. He was glad to have him home again.
THE BOWLING FAMILY’S life, and Wilbur guessed everyone’s life in the 13 American colonies, had turned upside down in the last nine months. Much had changed since the spring of 1775, when British soldiers trying to seize the arms and powder of the Massachusetts militia were met with armed resistance at Lexington and Concord.
As he walked toward home across their bare corn fields, Wilbur recalled the day in early May of ’75 when he and his father first learned of the armed clashes in Massachusetts from a wagon driver they passed on the road to the county seat at Salisbury. By then, the news was more than a month old. Wilbur was confused about why the British soldiers who fought to protect them from the Indians and their papist French allies were now shooting at colonial militia. He asked dozens of questions, which his father patiently answered after pondering them over silences so lengthy, he sometimes thought his father had forgotten him.
That spring, his father decided to plant no tobacco. That led to a terse exchange with his mother. She was business-minded, and Father credited a good share of their family’s prosperity to her. Tobacco was their most profitable crop. She didn’t want to let it go, but Father convinced her.
He said, “A good many people of this colony are Whigs who’ve decided they won’t bow to a government an ocean away that treats them like subjects rather than citizens.
The Provincial Congress they formed wants the Royal Governor to go back to England. Do you think the crown is going to just let us go our own way? Why would they do that when there are probably just as many Tories in this colony who think the Provincial Congress is treasonous and want to see John Harvey hanged? Remember in ’71 how Governor Tyron marched a thousand militia troops here and shot down the Regulators? Remember how he hanged Captain Ben Merrill and five more of our neighbors for supporting the Regulator revolt? In the eyes of Governor Tyron, the real crime those men were guilty of was challenging the corrupt royal tax collectors and judges that do the bidding of the big landowners. What’s happened in New England shows the scourge of war is already on us and God knows when and how it will end. You and the children can’t eat tobacco.”
Corn it was to be, and events before the fall harvest proved Father right. The royal governor dissolved the North Carolina general assembly elected by the people. The patriot Ethan Allen, leading Vermont militia, attacked the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga on the Canadian border and captured it. A second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, voted to raise a Continental Army to follow their orders and put a big Virginia planter and French and Indian War hero named George Washington in command of it. Combined New England militias fought a pitched battle with British regulars outside Boston at Bunker Hill and left more than a thousand Redcoats dead or wounded on the field.
That September of 1775, word reached the Bowlings, and the other dispersed farmers of Rowan County, that their Provisional Congress had authorized the formation of 35 militia companies and able-bodied men from 16 to 60 years old must present themselves for duty if they were not otherwise pledged to military service with the colony. Father joined the 1st Rowan County Militia as a rifleman. Rowan County’s western edge faded into wilderness and the call to muster drew in not just the farmers and tradesmen from the settlements, but the rugged and unruly men from over the mountains who trapped and hunted for skins and lived cheek-to-jowl with the unpredictable and dangerous Cherokee.
To the east, the pacifist Moravians, wherever their true loyalties may lie, refused to serve. Likewise for the dyed-in-the-wool Tories. The Moravians stayed in their communities but a good share of the Tories slipped away to the west and south. They sought to stir up the Cherokee against the Patriots and to form up Loyalist fighting units of their own in South Carolina.
AT THAT TIME, the prospect that his father would be called off to war had filled Wilbur with dread. He was 11½ years old then, the oldest male child. The thought of taking on his father’s duties was overwhelming and frightening. He’d wondered, how could he manage a farm, a distillery and their three slaves, and keep them and his mother and younger sisters fed and protected? When, almost in tears, he confessed these fears to his parents, he was surprised by their beaming smiles. As long as he lived, he would never forget the embraces, and the exchange of words that followed. Revisiting them in his mind helped to bolster his spirits in the face of challenges.
“Wilbur,” his father said, both hands on his shoulders and looking him in the eyes, “You are not in this alone. I am flattered that you believe I actually do all those things on my own, but truth be told, your mother was doing quite well as a widow before I came along and married her. Though you aren’t my blood, I consider you my son and I have endeavored to teach you the things you need to know by example.”
“But, Father, I don’t even know how to hunt!” Wilbur blurted out, revealing the depths of his lack of confidence.
“Yes, you do,” his father replied. “You’ve hunted with me hundreds of times. What you don’t know how to do yet is shoot, and that is one of the easiest parts of hunting.”
With that, his father presented him with his old bedroll blanket, rolled loosely around some long, slender object and tied with three thin strips of red wool stroud that he recognized as the scraps from the new capes Mother had sewn for herself and his half-sisters. Mother had already used one of those scraps to make him a decorative band for the crown of the hat she’d bought him in Bethabara at the store the Moravians set up to sell to the “outsiders” who didn’t share their strange faith. But this roll wasn’t another hat. It was heavy in his hands and inside he found a beautiful new rifle scaled down to his stature. The extravagance of the gift left him speechless.
“I had a gunsmith in Salisbury make it for you,” Father said. “You have always admired my rifle so I had the gunsmith model yours after it. It’s part tidewater Virginia gentleman and part frontier over-mountain man. It shoots a 70-to-the-pound ball that you can use on small quarry or deer.” Then he paused for several seconds and finally added, “And if you must, God forbid, any Indian or man bent on doing the family harm.”
“Thank you, Father,” was all Wilbur could manage, still partially stunned by the surprise.
The rifle surely cost Father as much as his own and he must have commissioned it during their trip to the county seat when they learned of the fights at Lexington and Concord. The furniture was iron instead of brass, but it was well sculpted and engraved with a hinged patch box, a setting western sun on top of the buttplate, and just enough carving on the stock to make it elegant without seeming like something too fine to be used for food or fighting. A boy too small to handle man’s rifle usually had to wait until he grew up enough to do so.
To have a rifle made to fit the boy was a rare thing. Wilbur raised it to his shoulder and pressed his cheek on the buttstock’s carved rest. The rifle fit him well, and being three-quarters the length and weight of Father’s .54-caliber, he had no trouble holding the muzzle up to aim.
“That’s not all, Wilbur,” his father added. “Your mother has something from your late father for you too.”
The rifle came as a surprise, but this was a shock. Wilbur had few memories of his real father. His mother told him his name was Andrew Townsend and he married her in Wilmington in 1763 and took her west to the North Carolina frontier to settle on this farm, but died of fever before Wilbur was two years old. Other than to say he was kind to them, his mother never spoke of him, and the man standing over Wilbur now was the only father he had ever known. To actually touch something that was connected to his real father was akin to seeing a ghost. Wilbur was impressed and perplexed when his mother handed him a light, slim and finely made tomahawk with a long, slender handle. The handle’s remarkable grain figuring had evenly spaced bands of light and dark. The metal was cleanly filed and polished with no hammer marks on the perfectly proportioned head. As he turned it in his hands, he noticed a temper line at the edge! The smith who made it gave it a hard steel bit so it would hold its sharpness. Like the rifle, it was a perfect size for him.
“How did he get it?” Wilbur asked, captured by the unexpected link to his distant past.
“He told me he killed the Cherokee warrior who had it and took it as a trophy,” his mother answered. “Andrew Townsend had a reputation as a capable Indian fighter.”
“The handle is so slim, it doesn’t look strong enough for chopping wood,” Wilbur observed.
“It’s not for chopping wood, boy,” his father interjected. “It’s for fighting. You need to keep that on you all the time. If you have your rifle with you, and you have to put it down because you need both hands to work, it can be hard to keep an eye on it so that a person bent of mischief doesn’t get hold of it when you’re distracted. You can’t be as trusting of people you meet now that we are at war, not even of our own slaves.
I’m not saying this will happen with Joshua, Phillip and Will, but slaves have revolted and murdered their masters in times more certain and peaceful than ours. Keep that tomahawk in your belt and don’t pull it out lest you mean to use it. And if you have to use it, hit them as hard as you can and keep hitting them so that if you don’t kill them outright, they’ll know you’re full of fight and no easy target.”
THAT SEPTEMBER AND October, Wilbur’s father taught him how to shoot, cast lead balls from the mold with the recovered projectiles, maintain the rifle’s barrel, lock and stock with judicious cleaning after firing, and how to keep it always ready and reliable outdoors so it would fire when he needed it.
From Joshua, the slave entrusted to operate their distillery and the smoke-house, Wilbur got some scraps of groundhog, deer and cowhide left over from those tanned at Father’s direction for use by the family or the slaves. With these pieces, and some direction from Joshua, he cut and sewed himself a shot pouch of his own, which his father dubbed “the Bag-Of-The-Three-Beasts.” When Wilbur countered with, “I already named it the Hunting-Bag-Of-The-Boy-Without-A-Shilling,” his father let loose one of his familiar peals of laughter.
Joshua had a mind for making and fixing things, and Father had him fashion a small powder horn for Wilbur that wouldn’t weigh the boy down like a ship-of-the-line’s anchor. In the colonies, and especially the backcountry, rifles were of large caliber and a resupply of powder often uncertain. For a peaceful mind, a man wanted a big horn to hold 2 pounds or more of gunpowder.
Never having made a powder horn prior, Joshua accidentally drilled the spout too deep and punctured the side of the cow horn. Father was not angry with him. It was a common failing and worth correcting in light of the fine carving work Joshua had already done on the spout neck. Joshua nipped a small piece of brass from his shoe buckle with a chisel and hammered it flat to patch the hole. Then, to distract from his error, he engraved the body of the horn with unexpected artistic skill, using the tip of a carving knife. Wilbur thought it distinctive, like his hunting bag, and was delighted to have it.
As Wilbur approached the low log huts where the slaves lived, he half expected Joshua to be there splitting wood, but he was not. Phillip told him that Master Bowling had given Joshua leave to visit his wife Annie on their neighbor’s farm. It had been his father’s intention to buy Annie last summer, but the frugality imposed by war delayed those plans, much to Joshua’s disappointment.
When the comforting and familiar sight of their two-room log house came into view, smoke drifting up from its stone chimney, Wilbur began to wonder when his father would be called away to war again. The first time he’d been nervous, even though there’d been ample time to prepare their farm and distillery for winter. When Father and the rest of the men of the Rowan County Militia marched off in late October, just over four months earlier, their families hugged them goodbye and pleaded to God for their safe return. In January, the prayers of the Bowling family, and all of their neighbors save one, were answered. A single Patriot had been killed, and 14 wounded, chasing down and fighting Loyalist miitia over a hundred miles of South Carolina backcountry.
The culmination of the campaign was a long march through a 30-hour snow storm that reached a depth in places over a man’s knee. In three engagements with Loyalist units, the Patriots laid 64 Tories in their graves, captured 280, and broke their organized resistance in the backcountry. Then they marched home.
The second time Father left, Wilbur was only worried for him. In late February of 1776, the 1st Rowan County Militia was called to muster again and marched all the way to the east shore to challenge a Loyalist force of 1,800 men raised by the ousted Royal Governor. To the surprise of everyone in Rowan County, they were back in the time it took to march the 350-mile round-trip. The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was over before they arrived. Father said the stories that the men who were in the action told him seemed like something from the English Civil War. The Patriot force on the scene at the time numbered 1,100 men armed with muskets and rifles. The Loyalists, largely Scottish Highlanders, chose to attack, armed mainly with broadswords and pikes.
“Perhaps they mistook our men for Roundheads,” Father joked. “When it was over, we had a man dead and another wounded, while the foolish bravado of the Loyalists cost them 30 dead, 20 wounded and the capture of 850 more.”
Wilbur heard a lot of stories about the South Carolina campaigns from the victorious militiamen in January of ’76 and came to appreciate his father’s talent for telling a great story without reducing it to fiction. It was clear North Carolina’s patriots had done well so far, but it was also obvious that their opposition was light, and the British Army, or even a substantial, well-organized and capably led Loyalist force, had yet to challenge them. Last night, Father pointed this out again to temper Wilbur’s expectations of easy victory and prepare him for hardships he feared lay ahead should the enemy carry the fight to their doorstep.
For now, though, Wilbur was nearly at his doorstep and he chose not to dwell on troubles to come. He and Father had hunted together almost daily last fall and in the month between his service with the militia. Since Father’s return from the long Moore’s Creek march the day before, he was too weary to join him in the woods. Wilbur left him resting by the hearth and went out confidently on his own. Now, as he opened the latch on their iron-strapped door, the wild giggling of his sisters assured him Father was awake. As the hinges squeaked the news of his arrival, a familiar voice called out, “My son, the over-mountain man, returns!”
The Saga of the Longknife Collection
Wilbur Bowling’s fictional story was inspired by the real-life Saga of the Longknife art collection, comprised of a fully functional rifle, powder horn, knife and sheath, shot pouch, tomahawk, hat, and the supporting wooden sculpture, clad in coat, leggings and moccasins. Representing thousands of hours of work, Saga of the Longknife is the collaborative creation of eight uniquely talented artists of the Contemporary Longrifle Association (CLA). You can imagine your own backstory for these one-of-a-kind, authentically styled, handmade creations. Since the collection is up for auction, you can even own it!
On August 17, buyers will bid in person, by phone and online for Saga of the Longknife, and many other original pieces from contemporary artists, in Lexington, Kentucky, at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the CLA.
Auction proceeds are used to preserve and expand the study and practice
of early American artisanal methods through scholarships awarded by the
Contemporary Longrifle Foundation (CLF). Traditional skills such as
longrifle-building, leatherwork, hornmaking, blacksmithing, and knifemaking are among the many areas of study artists can pursue.
It’s All About Generational Traditions The long-bladed steel swords that
the early colonial settlers in North America armed themselves with made a distinct impression on the native Indians who began to refer to all colonials as Longknives. The term stayed in use for generations, long
after firearms largely replaced edged weapons. Artist Matt Fennewald
based the Saga of the Longknife collection on a generational theme.
His goal was to draw focus on the importance of passing on, from father
to son, the traditions and skills of what today many involved in the practice of early (sometimes called primitive) American history-based shooting sports, artisanal work and reenacting refer to as the Longrifle Culture.
However, in using that jargon, we run the risk of underestimating the
full magnitude of this generational knowledge transfer’s importance.
The anxiety parents feel today about the life-or-death consequences
of failing to teach their child to cross a street safely was magnified a hundred times for colonial parents, who had to teach their children, and especially their boys, what amounts to basic, and then advanced long-term, survival skills to allow them to literally live off the land indefinitely.
Today’s Navy Seals aren’t even trained to do that! Colonial frontier parents taught their kids to use guns and other weapons for hunting and fighting, how to make and maintain fire, dress game, tan leather, fish, trap, preserve food, find edible plants, grow food, how to avoid dying from exposure, how to make a shelter in the wilderness, how to cross a river, animal husbandry, etc.
In addition to that, many of them also taught their kids to read, write and do arithmetic. They also did it over a span of about two centuries of our history. That’s an impressive accomplishment. It makes the gradual decline in hunting sports we’ve seen in the last few generations really look like just plain laziness on our part.
Story by Frank Jardim • Photos by David Wright