Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins
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Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was an African American historian, playwright, novelist, and the author of Winona. Hopkins, who explored racial and social themes in her writing at the turn of the century, was a pioneer and created an impressive body of work. Winona is a tale of life in the American South. The story is set in Kansas, where pro and anti-slavery forces are clashing in an attempt to take over the state.


A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins

Chapter I

Crossing the Niagara river in a direct line, the Canadian shore lies not more than eight miles from Buffalo, New York, and in the early 50’s small bands of Indians were still familiar figures on both the American and Canadian borders. Many strange tales of romantic happenings in this mixed community of Anglo-Saxons, Indians and Negroes might be told similar to the one I am about to relate, and the world stand aghast and try in vain to find the dividing line supposed to be a natural barrier between the whites and the dark-skinned race. No; social intercourse may be long in coming, but its advent is sure; the mischief is already done.

From 1842, the aborigines began to scatter. They gave up the last of their great reservations then before the on-sweeping Anglo-Saxon, moving toward the setting sun in the pasture lands surrounding the Black Hills.

Of those who remained many embraced Christianity; their children were sent to the pale-face schools; they themselves became tillers of the soil, adopting with their agricultural pursuits all the arts of civilized life, and cultivating the friendship of the white population about them. They, however, still clung to their tribal dress of buckskin, beads, feathers, blankets and moccasins, thereby adding picturesqueness of detail to the moving crowds that thronged the busy streets of the lively American city. Nor were all who wore the tribal dress Indians. Here and there a blue eye gleamed or a glint of gold in the long hair falling about the shoulders told of other nationalities who had linked their fortunes with the aborigines. Many white men had been adopted into the various tribes because of their superior knowledge, and who, for reasons best known to themselves, sought to conceal their identity in the safe shelter of the wigwam. Thus it was with White Eagle, who had linked his fortunes with the Senaca Indians. He had come among them when cholera was decimating their numbers at a fearful rate. He knew much of medicine. Finally, he saved the life of the powerful chief Red Eagle, was adopted by the tribe, and ever after reverenced as a mighty medicine man.

Yet, through Erie County urged the Indians farther West, and took up their reservations for white settlers, their thirst for power stopped short of the curtailment of human liberty. The free air of the land of the prairies was not polluted by the foul breath of slavery. We find but one account of slaves brought into the country, and they were soon freed. But the free Negro was seen mingling with other settlers upon the streets, by their presence adding still more to the cosmopolitan character of the shifting panorama, for Buffalo was an antislavery stronghold, — the last most convenient station of the underground railroad.

It was late in the afternoon of a June day. It was uncommonly hot, the heat spoke of mid-summer, and was unusual in this country bordering upon the lakes.

On the sandy beach Indian squaws sat in the sun with their gaudy blankets wrapped about them in spite of the heat, watching the steamers upon the lakes, the constant traffic of the canal boats, their beaded wares spread temptingly upon the firm white sand to catch the fancy of the free-handed sailor or visitor. Upon the bosom of Lake Erie floated a canoe. It had been stationary at different points along the shore for more than an hour. The occupants were fishing; presently the canoe headed for an island lying close in the shadow of Grand Island, about a mile from it. The lad who handled the paddle so skilfully might have been mistaken for an Indian at first glance, for his lithe brown body lacked nothing of the suppleness and grace which constant exercise in the open air alone imparts. He wore moccasins and his dress otherwise was that of a young brave, save for feathers and paint. His flashing black eyes were fixed upon the island toward which the canoe was headed; as the sunlight gleamed upon his bare head it revealed the curly, crispy hair of a Negro.

The sunlight played, too, upon the other occupant of the canoe, as she leaned idly over the side trailing a slim brown hand through the blue water. Over her dress of gaily-embroidered dark blue broadcloth hung two long plaits of sunny hair.

Presently the canoe tossed like a chip at the base of wooded heights as it grated on the pebbly beach. The two children leaped ashore, and Judah pulled the canoe in and piled it and the paddles in the usual place, high in a thicket of balsam fir. Winona had removed her moccasins and carried them in her hand while they made the landing; Judah balanced his gun, the fishing-rods and the morning’s catch of fish on a rod.

They took their way along the beach, wading pools and walking around rocks, gradually ascending the wooded heights above them round and round, until they stood upon the crest that overlooked the bay and mainland.

The island was the home of White Eagle. When the Indians gave up Buffalo Creek reservation to Ogeten in 1842, and departed from Buffalo, he had taken up his abode on this small island in the lake, with an old woman, a half-breed, for his housekeeper. Hunting, fishing, trapping and trading with the Indians at Green Bay gave him ample means of support. But it was lonely with only a half-deaf woman for a companion, and one day White Eagle brought to the four-room cottage he had erected a handsome well-educated mulattress who had escaped from slavery via the underground railroad. With her was a mite of humanity whose mother had died during the hard struggle to reach the land of Freedom. In the end White Eagle crossed the Canadian shore and married the handsome mulattress according to English law and with the sanction of the Church; the mite of black humanity he adopted and called “Judah.”

In a short time after the birth of Winona, the wife sickened and died, and once more the recluse was alone. Yet not alone, for he had something to love and cling to. Winona was queen of the little island, and her faithful subjects were her father, Judah and old Nokomis.

So transparent was the air on this day in June, that one could distinguish strips of meadow and the roofs of the white Canadian houses and the sand on the edges of the water of the mainland. The white clouds chased each other over the deep blue sky. The dazzling sunshine wearied the eye with its gorgeousness, while under its languorous kiss the lake became a sapphire sea breaking into iridescent spray along the shore.

The children were on a high ridge where lay the sun-flecked woods. They were bound for the other side, where lurked the wild turkeys; and partridges and pigeons abounded, and gulls built their nests upon rocky crests.

Singing and whistling, Judah climbed the slopes, closely followed by Winona, who had resumed her moccasins. The squirrel’s shrill, clear chirp was heard, the blackbirds winged the air in flight, and from the boughs above their heads the “robin’s mellow music gushed.” Great blossoms of pink and yellow fungus spotted the ground. Winona stopped to select from among them the luscious mushroom dear to her father’s palate. Daisies and bell-shaped flowers of blue lay thick in the grasses, the maples were still unfolding their leaves; the oak was there and the hemlock with its dark-green, cone-like folliage; the graceful birch brushed the rough walnut and the stately towering pine.

The transparent shadows, the sifted light that glimmered through the trees, the deer-paths winding through the woods, the green world still in its primal existence in this forgotten spot brought back the golden period unknown to the world living now in anxiety and toil.

A distant gleam among the grasses caught the girl’s quick eye. She ran swiftly over the open and threaded her sinuous way among the bushes to drop upon her knees in silent ecstacy. In an instant Judah was beside her. They pushed the leaves aside together, revealing the faint pink stems of the delicate, gauzy Indian-pipes.

“Look at them,” cried Winona. “Oh, Judah, are they not beautiful?”

The Negro had felt a strange sense of pleasure stir his young heart as he involuntarily glanced from the flowers to the childish face before him, aglow with enthusiasm; her wide brow, about which the hair clustered in rich dark rings, the beautifully chiselled features, the olive complexion with a hint of pink like that which suffused the fragile flowers before them, all gave his physical senses pleasure to contemplate. From afar came ever the regular booming of Niagara’s stupendous flood.

“But they turn black as soon as you touch them.”

“Yes, I know; but we will leave them here where they may go away like spirits; Old Nokomis told me.”

“Old Nokomis! She’s only a silly old Indian squaw. You mustn’t mind her stories.”

“But old Nokomis knows; she speaks truly,” persisted the girl, while a stubborn look of determination grew about her rounded chin.

“When you go to school at the convent next winter the nuns will teach you better. Then you will learn what you don’t know now. You’re only a little girl.”

There was silence for a time; Judah sank in the tall grass and aimed for a tempting pigeon roosting low in the branches of a tree. Nearer he stole — his aim was perfect — he was sure of his prey, when a girlish voice piped, —

“Did they tell you that at school?”

“There now! You’ve spoilt it! why did you speak?”

“Well, I wanted to know,” this in a grieved tone.

“Wanted to know what?”

“Did they tell you that at school?”

“Tell me what?”

“That Nokomis is silly?”

“Of course not! They didn’t know old Nokomis. But in school you learn not to believe all the silly stories that we are told by the Indians.”

The boy spoke with the careless freedom of pompous youth.

They moved on through the woods over the delicate tracery of shadowy foliage, and climbed down the steep sides of the hilly ridge that rose above a quiet cove on the other side where they had made what they called a kitchen. Winona led the way in her eagerness to reach the shore. She had been silent for some time, absorbed in thought.

“I tell you, Judah, I will not go to the convent school. I hate nuns.”

“Ho ho!” laughed Judah. “But you must; the father has said it.”

“Papa cannot make me. I will not.”

“Ah, but you will when the time comes, and you will like it. I doubt not you will want to leave us altogether when you meet girls your own age, and learn their tricks.”

“Stop it, Judah!” she cried, stamping her small foot like a little whirlwind, “you shall not torment me. I do not want to leave papa and you for a lot of nuns and strange girls who do not care for me.”

“What, again!” said Judah, solemnly. “That makes three times since morning that you’ve been off like a little fury.”

“I know it, Judah,” replied the girl, with tears in her eyes, “but you are so tantalizing; you’d make a saint lose her temper, you know you would.”

“Oh, well; we shall see — Look, Winona!” he broke off abruptly, pointing excitedly out over the bosom of the lake. Three birds floated in the deep blue ether toward the island. “Gulls!”

“No! No! They’re eagles, Judah!” cried the girl, as excited as he.

“Sure enough!” exclaimed the boy.

The birds swerved, and two flew away toward the mainland. The third dropped into the branches of a maple. “It’s a young eagle, Winona, and I’m going to drop him!” catching up his weapon he leaned forward, preparing to take careful aim. Suddenly there was a puff of smoke that came from behind a bend in the shore just below where they were standing. A dull report followed and the eagle leaped one stroke in the air and dropped like a shot into the waters of the lake. A boat shot out from the beach with two men in it. They picked up the dead bird and then pulled towards the spot where the children stood intently watching them. They came on rapidly, and in a moment the occupants stood on the beach before the surprised children.

They were white men, garbed in hunter’s dress. They seemed surprised to see the girl and boy on an apparently uninhabited island, and one said something in a low tone to the other, and motioned toward the crisp head of the boy. They spoke pleasantly, asking the name of the island.

Winona shrank behind Judah’s back, glancing shyly at them from beneath the clustering curls that hung about her face.

“This island has no name,” said Judah.

“Oh, then it is not a part of the Canadian shore?”

The questioner eyes the boy curiously. Judah moved his feet uneasily in the pebbles and sand.

“‘Not that I ever heard. It’s just an island.”

“‘Do you live here?”

“Yes, over there,” pointing toward the other side.

“We’re mighty hungry,” joined in the other man, who had pulled the boat to a safe resting place out of the reach of the incoming tide.

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