BY ELIZABETH GEORGE SPEARE
It is somewhat surprising for me to discover that in The Sign of the Beaver (Houghton) I have written a survival story. That was never my intention, and I was still naive enough when I reached the last page not to realize what had happened to my story, even though my publisher and the first reviewers recognized it at once. What, then, was I trying to do? Let me go back to the very beginning. Where did I get the idea for this book? The answer is very simple. The idea was handed to me, a little gem, straight from the pages of history. Many years ago my husband and I spent a number of vacations at a small fishing camp in Maine. One afternoon, rather bored with dangling a line in the water, I drove into the nearest town of Milo and poked about in the small library. In a slim volume, The History of Milo, I came upon a short anecdote. The story was new to me, but I have since discovered that is has been retold in a number of histories of the state of Maine.
In May, 1802, Benjamin Sargent and his fourteen year old son came to Maine to make a place for the family in the wilderness holdings he had bought above Bangor. They had left the rest of their family in Methuen, Massachusetts, and boarded a schooner, probably at Newburyport, and sailed from there to Bangor. They landed at what is now Exchange Street and Mr. Sargent secured a boat, into which were put their belongings, after which they rowed up the Piscataquis River to a spot about 4 miles above Derby. There they landed and began at once to clear a spot for a cabin and garden. A two room cabin was built and a garden planted then Mr. Sargent left the boy to live alone in the wilderness and tend the garden while he returned to bring the rest of the family to their new home.
When Sargent reached Methuen, he found the family sick with typhus fever, so he had to wait for them to recover before the long trip to Maine could be made. There was no way he could let his young son know the reason for his delay. In the mean time, Theophilus was busy caring for the garden and getting his own meals. He was very well, though lonely, when one day he forgot and left his’ cabin door open. While he was busy at his work, a big black bear came by, and smelling food, walked into the cabin. Before the Theophilus could come up to the rescue of his precious supplies the bear had eaten his molasses and most of his flour. And probably made a wreck of the place. It was a heartbreaking sight that greeted the boy when he entered the cabin. His scanty food supply was ruined, and the family’s return long overdue. Luckily there was a friendly tribe of Indians in the forest getting bark for canoe building. The chief, on learning of the serious condition in which the white boy was left, took pity on him. He left his son Ateon, with him and generously provided for the two boys until Theophilus’s family finally arrive just before the river froze.
For more information about the settling of Milo, please see The History of Milo.
*In 1996 a television movie was made from the story called Keeping the Promise.