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First published: 1942

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of work: 1728-1755

Locale: Pennsylvania

Principal Characters:

Anna Sabilla Schantz, a pioneer matriarch

Johann Sebastian Schantz, her grandson

Ottilia Zimmer, a young German immigrant, loved by Sebastian

Margaretta, and

Gertraud, their twin daughters

Conrad Weiser, a famous interpreter and Indian agent

Shekellimy, an Oneida chief and a friend of Weiser

Skelet, a half-friendly, half-treacherous Delaware

The Story

In 1728, Conrad Weiser, white clan brother of the Mohawks, saw Owkwari-owira—Young Bear—for the first time, a naked small boy daubed with clay and running wild in Chief Quagnant's village. Weiser, his quick eye seeing pale skin under the dirt and grease, bartered for the child and took him back to the German settlement at Schoharie. Young Bear was baptized Johann Sebastian and found in Anna Eve, Conrad's wife, a second mother. The Weisers believed that Bastian was the grandson of Anna Sabilla Schantz, whose daughter Margaretta had followed an English trader into the forest.

Many of the Schoharie community were preparing to move to Pennsylvania, where there was rich land for thrifty, industrious German settlers. Anna Sabilla had already gone to her own cabin in a clearing beside the Blue Mountains. Sturdy and resolute, she cared for Nicholas, her paralyzed brother, tended her garden, called all Indians thieves and rascals, but fed them when they begged at her door. For trader Israel Fitch, she carved wooden puppets in exchange for salt, cloth, and tools. Weiser took Bastian to her when he went to claim his own lands along the Tulpehocken.

Growing up, Bastian helped his grandmother with plantings and harvests. From Skelet, a sickly, humpbacked Indian whom Anna Sabilla had nursed back to health, he learned the ways of animals and the deep woods. When old Nicholas died, Bastian moved into his room. Tall and strong for his age, he was the man of the family at age fourteen.

The chiefs' road ran through the clearing, and along the trail, Delawares and Iroquois traveled to and from the treaty councils in Philadelphia. Bastian knew them all—old Sassoonan of the Delawares, loyal Shekellimy, Weiser's friend, who ruled the Delawares for the Six Nations, Seneca, Oneida, and Mohawk spokesmen—and they remembered Owkwari-owira. Sharp-tongued Anna Sabilla grumbled when he talked with them in their own tongues, but she raised few objections when he went with Weiser and the chiefs to Philadelphia for the great council of 1736.

The city was finer than Bastian had ever imagined it. Whenever he could, he left the State House and wandered through the streets and along the waterfront. He saw a shipload of German immigrants and among them a black-haired girl whose parents had died at sea. Because she had no one to pay her passage, her eyes were those of a hurt deer, and he gave all his money to a kindly couple who offered to look after her. Bastian heard only that her name was Ottilia before a runner from Weiser summoned him to the council. He went back to look for her later, but the immigrants had gone.

Anna Sabilla hinted that Anna Maria, Weiser's daughter, or the Heils's blond Sibby would have him quickly enough, but Bastian remembered black hair and dark eyes. Tramping from clearing to clearing looking for her, he found some passengers from the ship who remembered that she had gone away with a family named Wilhelm. Again, he went to Philadelphia for a treaty council. There Weiser found the girl's name on a ship's list—Ottilia Zimmer. Bastian's search led him to John Bartram, the Quaker naturalist, along the Schuylkill, beyond the Blue Mountains. Nowhere did he get word of Ottilia or the Wilhelms. Anna Maria Weiser became engaged to marry Henry Melchior Muhlenburg, a young pastor. Anna Sabilla shook her head over Bastian; in her old age, she wanted the comfort of another woman and children in the cabin.

The chiefs of the Six Nations and delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia met in Lancaster in 1744. Weiser was there because he was needed to hold the Long House in friendly alliance, and Bastian because, as the years passed, Weiser counted greatly on his help. The weather was hot and the noise deafening. Weiser and Bastian went to a small inn to escape feasting Indians. The waitress had black hair and dark eyes. She was Ottilia, and she rode home with Bastian when the conference ended. Humpbacked Skelet ran ahead to tell Anna Sabilla that Bastian had found his squaw.

Settlers were moving beyond the Susquehanna. While Delawares and Shewanese signed treaties with the French, Weiser worked to keep the Long House neutral. Bastian went with him to Logstown on the Ohio, where Tanacharison and Scarouady promised to keep their tribes friendly toward the English. As Bastian rode home, neighbors called to him to hurry. In the kitchen of the cabin, Anna Sabilla rocked a cradle in which slept the newborn zwillings, Margaretta and Gertraud. At last, said Anna Sabilla, they were a real family.

Winds of violence were blowing from the west. Weiser gave presents at Aughwick, at Carlisle, but his arguments, feasts, and gifts could not hold the Shewanese and the Delawares, angry because their hunting grounds had been taken from them. General Braddock, marching to force the French from the Ohio, was ambushed. Fitch, the trader, brought word of burnings and killings beyond the mountains. Because Pennsylvania lay open to war parties of French and Indians, Bastian was glad when Fitch decided to stay; another man might be needed if Indians appeared on the Tulpehocken.

Bastian had gone to help a sick neighbor when the raiders struck, burning the cabin and barn and leaving Fitch's body where it fell. Anna Sabilla, Ottilia, and the twins were gone. Pretending ferocity, Skelet had taken a small part of Ottilia's scalp and left her unconscious. He took Anna Sabilla and the twins with him to Kitanning, calling Anna Sabilla his squaw. She was indignant, but she realized that his claims kept her alive and the twins safe.

Reviving, Ottilia wandered through the woods for days in company with a small boy whose parents had been killed and scalped. At last, with other fugitives, she made her way to the Moravian settlement at Bethlehem. There Bastian found her on his journey back from Philadelphia, where he and other settlers had gone to demand the formation of militia units and forts to protect the frontier. Leaving Ottilia with the Weisers, he joined the garrison at Fort Henry, built where Anna Sabilla's cabin had once stood.

One night, he and a friend captured a young Frenchman who carried the carved figure of a little girl, and Bastian, recognizing Anna Sabilla's work, concluded that she and the twins were still alive. He joined a raiding party marching on Kitanning, but Anna Sabilla and the little girls were not among the white prisoners freed in the attack.

Anna Sabilla and the twins were already on the way home. Knowing that Skelet was vain and greedy, she promised money if he would guide them back to the settlements. They set out, Skelet dreaming of the rum and finery he would buy with the old woman's gold. Then, worn out by hardships on the trail, he died on the ridge above her own clearing.

Suddenly, Anna Sabilla smelled chimney smoke and heard voices. She ran, urging the girls before her. Safe within the stockage, and grateful, she declared that the old humpback had been a rascal but that he had been helpful. She intended to bury him among her people.

Critical Evaluation:

Elsie Singmaster is an author who has attracted little literary criticism. The bulk of her writing is in the genre of the historical novel and either is written for juveniles or deals with youthful heroes. Born in a small town in the German region of Pennsylvania in 1879 and educated at Radcliffe, Singmaster's fiction is largely regional, concerned with the span between colonial times and the mid-twentieth century in America. A HIGH WIND RISING is one of her later works and is set in the years of the French and Indian Wars; it details the efforts of local German settlers to secure the Ohio River Valley for the British during the conflict. The writer's straightforward narrative and careful characterizations downplay the historical importance of these people. Instead, she dramatizes the struggle of their everyday lives as pioneers who must cope with both natural and political forces in order to survive.

Singmaster brings the period dramatically to life in her characterizations of pioneers such as Conrad Weiser and Sebastian Schantz, of frontier women such as resourceful, devoted Anna Sabilla. Those people live with no self-conscious sense of national destiny, as do so many pioneers in lesser fiction. Their lives illustrate what must have been the daily life of the frontier, the hardships and dangers that they faced no more than a part of their everyday existence. Other figures great in Pennsylvania annals are more briefly viewed in this crowded canvas of people and events—Benjamin Franklin, James Logan, John Bertram, Henry Melchior Muhlenburg, Lewis Evans. The passing of time and the pressures of history shape the plot, but the story itself is as simple and realistic as homely family legend. The novel is an example of the historical chronicle at its best.

The author has clearly been influenced by historical Romanticists like James Fenimore Cooper. In contrast to Cooper, however, who creates larger-than-life characters such as Natty Bumppo for the purpose of dramatizing significant historical themes, Singmaster wishes to depict the lives of the early settlers without exaggerating for thematic effect. If Cooper is interested in the ethical, historical, and metaphysical aspects of the frontier, Singmaster is interested in the details of everyday lives; whereas romance is central to Cooper, it is incidental to her.

It is, finally, her attention to the orderly lives of her characters that remains her most modern feature. There is, furthermore, a pervasive tone of good feeling toward humanity in her work. That healthy tone, in A HIGH WIND RISING and in her other work as well, undoubtedly accounts for her popularity with the young.