Bear Swamp: its Human and Brute Inhabitants. - How Dobson Treed the Bear. - Crabb, the Astrologer .


"Yonder is the wolf."

'Are these thy bears?"

"So looks the panther."



STRETCHING around the village of Saratoga Springs, on its eastern side, in a semicircular form, and reaching from the old Dunning Street Road on the south to the ridge leading to Wilton on the north, is a wide belt of low, marshy land known as the "Bear Swamp." Although it is now being gradually drained and cleared up, it still retains the same general features that characterized it in the early settlement of the country. At that time, as the visit of Mrs. Dwight to Saratoga in 1789 shows and as the stories told me by the settlers or their sons corroborate, the region now being described was most remarkable for the number and variety of the savage and wild animals it contained. It undoubtedly furnished a large portion of the game which caused Lake Saratoga to be so well known to the Six Nations, "as the place where game abounds"; and after the country was comparatively settled up, it still presented fine opportunities for hunting both the larger and smaller varieties of animals. Thus it naturally came to pass that this section of country soon became a rich mine whence were drawn stories both of strange and comical adventure. Nor did animals alone figure in these traditions. Many were the wild and weird tales told of the residents of the swamp long before the present inhabitants of the country, or even their fathers, were born. Indeed, by the whole country round, "Bear Swamp" was regarded as a terra incognita filled with

"Gorgons vast and chimeras dire,"

and looked upon very much as the Black Forest is by the German peasant who is unfortunately obliged to pass through it after nightfall. And in those early days when naught was before the backwoodsman save hard work, any little adventure which beguiled the time around the huge fireplace of a winter's evening, was, like the Sagas of the Norseman, sure to be handed down from father to son, preserving, moreover, oftentimes more of truth than is usual with tradition generally. One of these, which is of a humorous rather than a tragical nature, is the following:

Among the earliest settlers in "Bear Swamp," about 1790, was a Vermonter, by the name of Dobson - a large, resolute, and athletic man. Returning one evening from a fruitless hunt after his vagrant cows, which, according to custom in new countries, had been turned into the woods to procure their own subsistence from the rank herbage of the early summer, just before emerging from the forest upon the clearing of the worthy Mr. Joseph Sleeper, he saw a large bear descending from a lofty hemlock, where he had been in quest probably of honey. A bear ascends a tree much more expertly than he descends it - being obliged to come down stern foremost. Dobson did not very well like to be joined in his evening walk by such a companion, and without reflecting what he should do with the "varmint" afterwards, he ran up to the tree on the opposite side from the animal's body, and just before the bear reached the ground, seized him firmly by both his fore-paws. Bruin growled and gnashed his tusks, but he soon discovered that his paws were in the grasp of paws equally iron-strung with his own. Nor could he use his hinder claws to disembowel his antagonist, as the manner of the bear is, inasmuch as the trunk of the tree was between them. But Dobson's predicament, as he was endowed with rather the most reason, was worse yet. He could no more assail the bear than the bear could assail him. Nor could he venture to loosen his hold, since the presumption was that Bruin would not make him a very gracious return for thus unceremoniously taking him by the hand. The twilight was fast deepening into darkness, and his position was far less comfortable than it otherwise would have been at the same hour surrounded by his wife and children at the supper-table, to say nothing of the gloomy prospect for the night. Still, as Joe Sleeper's house was not far distant, he hoped to be able to call him to his assistance. But his lungs, though none of the weakest, were unequal to the task; and although he hallooed and bawled the live-long night, making the woods and welkin ring again, he succeeded no batter than did Glendower of old in calling spirits from the vasty deep. It was a wearisome night for Dobson. Such a game of hold fast he had never been engaged in before. Bruin, too, was probably somewhat worried, although he could not describe his sensations in English - albeit he took the regular John Bull method of making known his dissatisfaction - that is to say, he growled incessantly. But there was no let-go in the case, and Dobson was therefore under the necessity of holding fast until it seemed to his clenched and aching fingers as though the bear's paws and his own had grown together.

As day-light returned, and the smoke from Mr. Sleeper's chimney began to curl up gracefully, though rather dimly, in the distance, Dobson again repeated his cries for succor; and his heart was soon gladdened by the appearance of his worthy but inactive neighbor, who had at last been attracted by the voice of the impatient sufferer, bearing an axe upon his shoulder. Dobson had never been so much rejoiced at seeing Mr. Sleeper before, albeit he was a very kind and estimable neighbor.

"Why don't you make haste, Mr. Sleeper, and not be lounging along at that rate, when you see a fellow-Christian in such a kettle of fish as this?"

"I vum! Is that you, Mr. Dobson, up a tree there! And was it you I hearn hallooing so last night? I guess you ought to have your lodging for nothing, if you've stood up agin the tree all night."

"It's no joke, though, I can tell you, Mr. Joe Sleeper; and if you had hold of the paws of the black varmint all night, it strikes me you'd think you'd paid dear enough for it. But if you hearn me calling for help in the night, why didn't you come and see what was the trouble?"

"Oh! I was jest going tired to bed after laying up log-fence all day, and I thought I'd wait till morning, and come out bright and airly . But if I'd known 'twas you - "

"Known 'twas me!" replied Dobson, bitterly, "You knew 'twas somebody who had flesh and blood too good for these plaguy black varmints, though; and you know there's been a smart sprinkle of bears about the settlement all the spring."

"Well, don't be in a huff, Tommy. It's never too late to do good. So hold tight now, and don't let the tarnal critter get loose, while I split his head open."

"No, no," said Dobson. "After holding the beast here all night, I think I ought to have the satisfaction of killing him. So you just take hold of his paws here, and I will take the axe and let a streak of daylight into his skull about the quickest."

The proposition being a fair one, Mr. Sleeper was too reasonable a man to object. He was no coward either; and he thereupon stepped up to the tree and cautiously taking the bear with both his hands, relieved honest Dobson from his predicament. The hands of the latter, though sadly stiffened by the tenacity with which they had been clenched for so many hours, were soon brandishing the axe, and he apparently made all preparations for giving the deadly blow - and deadly it would have been had he struck, since, like the sons of Zeruiah, Dobson needed to strike but once. But to the surprise of Sleeper he did not strike; and to his further consternation, Dobson swung the axe upon his shoulder and marched away, whistling as he went, with as much apparent indifference as the other had shown when coming to his relief.

It was now Sleeper's turn to make the forest vocal with his cries. In vain he raved, and called, and threatened. Dobson walked on and disappeared, leaving his friend as sad a prospect for his breakfast as he himself had had for his supper. Hour after hour passed away, and Sleeper still found himself at bo-peep with Sir Bruin. In the course of the afternoon, however, when Dobson supposed that the lesson he was teaching had been thoroughly learned by his pupil, and when he thought the latter would willingly forget his resentment for the sake of succor, the sturdy Yankee returned, and by a single blow relieved both bear and man from their troubles in the same instant. Sleeper thought rather hard of Dobson for some time afterward, but no real breach of friendship ensued, and, indeed, the two borderers became subsequently better friends than before.


Mrs. Barhydt and the Bear .


I myself have never had any particular liking for bears, and, like the Indians mentioned by Sir John Franklin, I have always been disposed in my hunts in the Adirondacks, either to let them "severely alone," or else treat them with marked civility. "O bear!" exclaimed the Indian when a huge one - the Indian was unarmed at the time - came and seated himself near his lodge, "I never did you any harm; I have always had the highest respect for you and your relations, and never killed any of them except through necessity. Go away, good bear, and let me alone and I promise not to molest you."

Not so, however, felt Mrs. Barhydt, the wife of an old settler who at that time lived on the edge of the "Bear Swamp," near the site of the villa built by Dr. Childs, a few rods east of the present race-course. She was a woman of pluck - of much the same stuff that the Revolutionary dames were made of - as the following will show. One afternoon, while her husband was absent, a large bear came in through the open door of the log-house and leisurely walked up to where a neighbor's babe was sleeping in its cradle. Mrs. Barhydt, turning around, saw the bear; whereupon, in her excitement, forgetting the old Queen Anne's musket that hung loaded over the fire-place, she seized a large case-knife which she had just used in cutting up some pork, and after a desperate struggle succeeded in despatching the unwelcome visitor. The little infant thus saved, perhaps, from an early and frightful death, grew up to be one of the most respected citizens of Saratoga Springs, and she is now, or was two or three years since, living in the city of New York. As for the bear itself, Mrs. Barhydt was wont to remark that the affair was really "quite providential," since the animal furnished them with fresh meat for several weeks - an article which they had been out of for quite a long time.


Barhydt and the Panther .


The American panther or puma ( felis concolor ) is the most ferocious and dangerous animal that infests our forests. There was "a smart chance" of them, as they say in Missouri, thirty years ago on the head waters of the Delaware and Susquehanna; but, like the poor Indian, they have mostly been driven from their own territories deeper into the wilderness. The panther is a beautiful animal in form, of untamable ferocity, and insatiable in its thirst for blood. Nothing can inspire a border settlement with greater terror, save the war-whoop of the Indian, than the knowledge that a panther has been heard screaming in the neighborhood. The Ishmaelite of the forest, he makes war upon everything; and such is his swiftness of movement, and the agility with which he climbs the trees, and springs from one to another in pursuit of his prey, that few animals can escape him. The panther, is, perhaps, the most treacherous of the cat tribe; fierce, rapacious, and cruel, and entirely destitute of those noble traits which have been sometimes awarded to the lion.

Between the bear and the panther a war of extermination has been waged almost from the period of their release from the ark at Ararat. An incident in point occurred in the experience of the early settler Barhydt (husband of Mrs. Barhydt) shortly after his immigration into this section of the country. The adventure, as was witnessed by Mr. Barhydt, was related by him as follows:

A large bear having scented out of the lair of a panther, came upon it in the absence of the old one, and destroyed her young. Bruin very well knew that for this invasion of a private dwelling, and the murderous deed committed therein, he should be compelled to fight. The panther would soon return and be upon his track; and as well might an alderman think of waddling away from an antelope as a clumsy bear from such a feline pursuer. The aggressor, therefore, lost no time by a futile attempt at retreat; but like a skilful general forthwith set about securing the most advantageous position for a battle. And this he selected with the skill of a French engineer. Crossing a deep ravine from the direction of the panther's lair, Bruin took a deliberate survey of the ground, and at length perched himself high on the opposite bank beneath a shelving rock, and so completely covered his position that he could only be attacked in front. Here he raised himself upon his haunches, and calmly awaited the onset. It was not long before the screams of the bereaved panther were heard, and she presently made her appearance upon the opposite verge of the ravine. Her eyes glared upon Bruin, who, nothing daunted, looked fiercely back upon her. At length, maddened with rage, the panther sprang with unerring precision upon the bear, but was received by a blow from one of his tremendous paws which knocked her back into the valley, Bruin still keeping his position, though with the loss of an eye. The panther rallied, selected a new starting point, and, bristling fiercely, sprang again and was received in the same undaunted manner. The attack and defence, with wild screams and surly growls, continued for some time, until at length the panther succeeded in planting his talons so deeply in the body of the bear as to prevent another separation until the contest should be decided. The hug was now mutually desperate, and the conflict terrible. The blood streamed from each - now the jaw of the one was in the mouth of the other, while their claws were fearfully lacerating the sides of both. At length the bear lost his balance, and the monsters rolled over each other into the bed of the ravine, where the contest was continued for an hour. Suddenly all became still, and Barhydt, looking over the cliff, saw both animals lying in what was, literally, a deadly embrace. {The place where this encounter took place was just behind the "Half-way House," on the old road to the Lake, near where the road turns to go to Schuylerville.}

Nor does it seem in the least incredible that "Bear Swamp" should have been frequented within the present century by these savage animals. Indeed, it is not thirty years since T. Hayward Thompson (to whose liberality, by the way, the village is indebted for the beautiful and long avenue of maples on the Wilton road) shot a panther on the Palmertown Mountain. And even as late as 1846, Daniel Ramsdell (cousin of Jefferson Ramsdell), one Sunday morning, in the presence of Anthony Carragan, C.A. Rockwell, Robert Sewell, and John Dumphey, shot in an old tree-top a huge panther half a mile west of the Geyser Spring on the Milton road. The panther, which measured fully nine feet from his nose to his tail, was brought up to the village, and exhibited for several days at the old Montgomery Hall, and afterwards at the hotel of Daniel and Philip Snyder, in Congress Street. {This remarkable panther, for which Ramsdell received fifty dollars, is now preserved in the "Geological and Agricultural Rooms at Albany."

Another adventure of one of the early settlers with a panther was as follows: Among the emigrants of the universal Yankee Nation who had sought to increase their domains and better -their fortunes among the wilds I am describing, was a man by the name of Roger Bacon, an illustrious name in the annals of England, but now, for the first time, recorded in those of Fish Creek. That he was as learned as the monk of Ilchester, I need not affirm; and that he was not as wise, will appear in the sequel. He was, however, an honest, worthy man - a bachelor by the way - somewhere on the other side of forty, upon whose heart neither the kindness nor the witchery nor the beauty of Yankee lasses had ever made the least impression. He was of a moody temperament, fond of solitude, and had emigrated alone, with the apparent resolution that "no woman should come within a mile of his court." He purchased, just previous to the Revolution, a farm upon the interval of Fish Creek, between the present Stafford's and Bryant's Bridges, with a sufficient portion of upland - the whole covered with a noble forest.

It was late in the summer when Bacon entered upon his new premises, so that he only had time to erect a log-cabin and cut down the timber of a few acres before the beginning of winter. Contrary to the advice of the earlier settlers, he persisted in building his house upon the flats near the creek. He was admonished of the hazard he was running in the event of a heavy freshet in the spring, but to no purpose. The alluvial soil of the interval was so much better adapted to the purposes of a garden than the upland, that he was not to be diverted from his design. But the moody emigrant had no idea of the quantity of snow which falls in this region, or of the magnitude of the flood which would follow its rapid dissolution in the spring. It so happened that the snow fell to an extraordinary depth during the ensuing winter, and the month of March was so cold that the sun had but little power upon it. The consequence, was that instead of gradually disappearing, the whole body of snow was left to melt suddenly beneath a warm April rain, by reason of which Fish Creek was swollen to an unprecedented extent. The snow had fallen so deep that but little intercourse was kept up among the scattered inhabitants during the winter, and Mr. Bacon had lived almost as secluded as a bear in a hollow tree - perhaps his nearest neighbor.

During the rain just mentioned, which poured like a deluge from the clouds upon the materials for another deluge below, the solitary had observed the rapid dissolution of the snow and the corresponding rise of the river, but he still thought himself secure, and retired to his lonely bed soon after sundown with his usual composure and unconcern. Before midnight, however, he was startled from his slumbers by the cracking of trees and the rush of waters. He sprang from his couch, and found himself leg-deep in water upon his own floor! There was no time for his toilet; it was evident that not a moment was to be lost; and what was still worse, it was too dark to make his escape, even if the flood would admit of it. His only course of safety, therefore, was to climb the tree nearest to his house, and await the dawn of the morning - yet many long and wearisome hours distant.

Notwithstanding the depth and force of the water, he succeeded in reaching and ascending the tree, and seated himself with tolerable security among its branches. But it was a dismal sight. The unseasonable cold bath he had taken was no addition to his comfort, while, from the roar of waters and the occasional crash of trees, it was evident that the icy fetters of the river had been broken up, and that the freshet, with increasing volume, was sweeping onward with tremendous power and velocity. The next cake of ice, moreover, might, in its irresistible course, bear away the tree which was his own supporter! His mind was not very imaginative, otherwise his sufferings might have been a hundred-fold greater than they were. Still his situation was sufficiently critical and painful. The longest night, however, must have an end, and day at length dawned upon the sleepless eyes of Roger Bacon. But the darkness disappeared only to show him the most cheerless and fearful prospect upon which his eyes had ever rested. One of the first objects discerned, on the approach of light, was the destruction of his cabin, which rose upon the waters and was soon dashed to pieces in its furious current, the logs of which it was composed floating promiscuously away. He next saw the whole valley of Fish Creek a waste of waters, rushing onwards with a mighty impulse, and bearing upon their surface huge cakes of ice, with broken timber and decayed trunks of trees, now whirling in eddies, and now borne onward upon the maddened torrent with tremendous force, cutting away and bearing down everything in their course. What was to be his own fate, or whether a rescue was possible, he could not tell.

Nor was this all that was unpleasant in his situation. For an hour before light he heard a distant scream, which seemed approaching nearer at every repetition, until it had now become so distinct as to enable him to recognize the cry of the panther! Should the furious animal scent him in the air, his fate was too certain to be helped by insurance. Nor was he long in doubt upon this point. From its cries the animal must be rapidly approaching him; and the flood which was sweeping beneath him afforded no protection in the emergency, since the panther could travel by springing from tree to tree, almost as well as upon the ground. At length he saw the shaking of the limbs of a tree at no great distance, and - what a situation for a man of sensibility! - a mighty chaos of waters beneath, whirling yet more angrily along, from the huge masses of ice and fragments of timber borne upon their troubled current, and into which it was certain death to plunge, with the almost inevitable prospect of becoming the breakfast of a panther if he remained! Another moment of yet deeper interest passed; and he saw distinctly the body of an animal. Again it sprang, and again. The dreadful crisis had now arrived; for, at the distance of not more than forty yards, he saw in full view a huge panther crouching upon an enormous limb, with cat-like watch, and evidently measuring the distance to his intended prey, preparatory to the last bound. His large, green eyes flashing with rage, glared hideously upon him, while, as he uttered a hoarse and frightful growl, his blood-red mouth disclosed a set of fangs anything but inviting to a poor mortal expecting in the next moment to be within them. Bacon grasped the limbs by which he was holding with convulsive energy. The ferocious animal uttered another dreadful yell, his hair bristled, he drew his back up into a curve, and commenced the rapid and tremulous shake of his tail - the unerring signal for a final leap - his burning eye-balls glowing yet more fiercely. He made the leap with the swiftness and precision of an arrow; but by a tremendous effort Bacon succeeded in giving the branch upon which the panther caught such a sudden shaking exactly at the right instant as to prevent his making a secure lodgment of his talons. The monster attempted to recover, but could touch no branch of the tree with his hindmost feet; and he was thus suspended for a moment by his claws, and hung dangling in the air, at full length, over the wild abyss of waters. But Bacon continued shaking the limb, and it was soon evident by the giving way that the terrible animal could sustain himself by his talons but a few seconds longer. The panther himself now raised a piercing cry of terror, and the next instant the grasp of his claws gave way, and he fell with a howl of horror into the torrent, yet rushing onward with increasing velocity. The monster clung for a moment to a broken limb upon which he struck; but he was soon drawn beneath the surge, and borne away among the ice and driftwood, to trouble honest yeomen living in single blessedness alone in the woods no more.

In the course of the day the neighbors began to remark the precarious condition in which the freshet had probably found their solitary neighbor; and, after the ice and broken timber had so far passed away as to render it safe to put forth a canoe, he was relieved from his perilous situation.

In the early summer of 1804 (the year which saw Hamilton killed by Burr) the village of Saratoga was in imminent danger of being terribly singed, if not destroyed, by fire. One Sunday afternoon, a man on horseback (by no means the mythical one so often seen by James) came galloping into the main street (Broadway), with the announcement that the woods in Bear Swamp were on fire, and that the flames were advancing with frightful rapidity toward the village before a heavy wind! The woods, it must be remembered, extended at that time, with the exception of a little clearing at the old Stewart Place, close up to the village. Quickly, thereupon, the inhabitants of the village assembled, armed with spades and axes, and set out to arrest the progress of the flames, or - to adopt their nomenclature - to "fight fire." Several visitors, who chanced to be in town at the time, volunteered to accompany the party; and a brisk walk of half an hour brought them to within sight of the spectacle - and a grand spectacle, from the accounts of the day, it must have been! Covering a belt of half a mile in width, the flames came on roaring and crackling, licking up the streamlets in their path, and, like some irresistible army of reapers, mowing down giant trees - the growth of centuries - as if so many reeds. Soon after the arrival of the villagers, the wind fortunately changed, and drove the flames in an opposite direction toward the Lake, where they could do comparatively little damage. But throughout the entire night their roaring could be distinctly heard, and their track marked by the vividness of the light. The extreme dryness, moreover, caused the flames to spread with such rapidity that before daylight all that tract between what is now the "Half-way House," and the Lake was wrapped in one sheet of fire. Night heightened the effect, while the blazing and crackling of the timber, the roaring of the fire, and the bold outline of the flames as they were rolled back upon the dark sky - all tended to teach the beholder his own insignificance. For several years afterward the swamp presented to the eye one hideous mass of charred skeletons of trees.

Since this time, fortunately, the only fire of any consequence that has occurred in the woods in the vicinity of the village was in 1852. In the summer of that year the woods in the "Patrick Neighborhood," two miles south of the town, caught fire from the spark of a passing locomotive. All night it raged, and at one time it was feared that both the Ellis Place (Dr. Huddlestone's) and the house of Dr. Dostie, would be burned. But the exertions of the fire companies that went down to the scene, and the wind dying away, soon relieved all fears of such an untoward result.


Crabb, the Astrologer .


Among all the inhabitants of Bear Swamp, none, perhaps, have ever attracted so much attention as two men, by the names of Buck and Crabb. Of the former little is known, save that he was reputed to be a wizard and his wife a witch, and that strange things were related of them. Of the latter, however, more tales have come down to us. Crabb was, in truth, a singular as well as mysterious being. Isolated from all his fellows - seeking no companionship, and shunned by all - he was looked upon as a weird and uncanny personage, to whom it would be well to give a wide berth. And this, too, notwithstanding he professed to cure

"All maladies

Of ghostly spasm, or racking torture, qualms

Of heart-sick agony, all feverous kinds,

Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrhs,

Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs,

Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy,

And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy,

Marasmus, and wide wasting pestilence,

Dropsies and asthmas, and joint-racking rheums."

Added to all this was the rumor that he dealt in the black art - a report, moreover, which was considerably strengthened by the fact that on one occasion a resident of the village (the late Dr. R.L. Allen) happened to call on him when he was engaged in casting the horoscope either of himself or of some other. When Dr. Allen entered, he had drawn the points of the zodiac on the floor; and as he stood in the centre of the charmed circle, holding a skull in one hand and a witch-hazel rod in the other - surrounded by sulphurous flames from the vases placed on the outer rim - he looked, in very truth, like the famous Dr. Dee, the magician and alchemist of Louis XIV. In addition to all this, two of his wives died under very suspicious circumstances - whether killed by his incantations or by more material means could not be ascertained - though at the post-mortem examination, at which Mr. Walter J. Hendrick was present, Dr. Steel thought that a trace of arsenic was observable. There was, however, something exceedingly weird and mysterious about this man which never was cleared up. Whether he had, indeed, dealings with the evil one, or whether a certain moroseness of character aided in giving him his equivocal reputation in the minds of the ignorant and superstitious, are questions which must, in this world, at least, ever remain unsolved.



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