Coattails and Captivity
(The following story is a bit of my ancestral folklore. It was written, along with a series of other family stories, for an illustrated children’s book that I distributed to family members. Note that at the end, I retell the story as I heard it from my grandfather.)

Reverend Thomas Brownlee lived with his wife, Elizabeth in a clearing in the woods of western Pennsylvania.

One day in the fall there was a warning that the Indians were on the warpath. Reverend Brownlee went into the woods to bring home the family cow.

He’d only gone a little way when he heard Indians approaching. There was no time to run. Quickly, he crouched down among the branches and leaves of a thicket near the trail. But he forgot to pull down the long tails of his coat. Those tails caught in the thicket branches and stood up behind him like flags.

The Indians captured him easily. Rev. Brownlee thought they would kill him right away, but they didn’t. They wanted a captive instead. He thought of his wife, hoping she would be safe. She could shoot as well as a man, but could she manage alone? She would think that he was dead. He had to stay alive and find a way to get back to her.

On the way to the Indians’ camp he thought of a plan. The Indians knew little English, and he knew only a few words of their language. But he did know how to make moccasins. Maybe they could use another set of hands to work the leather. He could stay alive and watch for a chance to escape.

In camp, he used many gestures and his few words to convince his captors of his skills. They seemed interested and tied him to a nearby tree. They brought him an animal skin and some rough tools to show what he could do. It was not a good skin, but he worked it carefully.

He must have impressed them because they brought him more leather and better tools. While he worked, he felt they would let him live. But they gave him only parched corn and water to eat.

Through the winter he remained tied to the tree, making moccasins. He was hungry and thirsty and cold. The bark of the trees and water he melted from the snow provided him some relief. He became very thin, and his skin grew weathered from the sun and the wind and the cold. His hair and beard grew long, and he didn’t have a way to bathe or wash his clothes. It was a very long winter.

That spring the Indians and the settlers negotiated an exchange of captives. Thomas Brownlee was one of the captives released in the exchange. He was weak from hunger and lack of exercise, but he was determined to reach home. He moved slowly and carefully through the woods, avoiding the trail. He kept the tails of his ragged coat in mind so they wouldn’t give him away again.

It took a long time, but he finally reached the clearing and knocked at the cabin door. Elizabeth answered the knock, but she almost slammed the door in his face when she saw the thin, ragged, hairy, dirty man who stood before her. Then he spoke. “Your husband has come home,” he said. And she recognized him and hugged him, and he was home at last.

The story as Alfred Raymond Francis remembered his mother, Georgeina Davidson Francis, telling it. She heard it from her grandmother Elizabeth Greathouse Brownlee:

Elizabeth’s husband was captured in western Pennsylvania one fall when he went into the woods to get the cow after an alert of an Indian uprising. He spotted Indians and hid in a bush, but his coat tails caught and gave him away. He spent the winter tied to a tree making moccasins. He ate parched corn and water and elm and basswood buds. In the spring he was released in a prisoner exchange and made his way home–where his wife didn’t recognize him at first because of his long hair and beard. (By the way, Elizabeth told Georgeina that she could shoot as well as a man could!)

Back to Top