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Abigail Becker

My next heroine is chosen from the humbler walks of life. The incident I am about to relate is by no means an isolated case, but it serves to illustrate many unrecorded acts of bravery of common occurrence.

Every autumn brings with it its long list of shipwrecks upon our great lakes, and many a thrilling tale could be told of the experiences of the brave men who sail these inland seas. The month of November, 1854, was a particularly severe one. The three-masted schooner Conductor, laden with grain, was overtaken by a furious blizzard as she headed for the Welland Canal, and in her efforts to seek shelter at Long Point, she foundered upon the bar in spite of the efforts of the skilled Captain Hackett and his trained crew of six sturdy sailors and a cook. The vessel listed to one side, and the rigging alone showed above the tempestuous waters.

All night the eight victims of the storm clung to such treacherous foothold as they could gain. Daylight still found them battling for their lives. The sea had not abated. The huge waves came roaring towards them, and, as though bitterly disappointed at their inability to reach the chilled mariners upon their insecure footing, they angrily dashed the spray over them, so that their clothing soon was saturated with the ice-cold water.

Not far distant, in a lonely cabin, lived a poor trapper named Becker, who was away at the time, having left his wife Abigail with their young children in charge of the humble home. The roaring of the storm disturbed her slumbers, and she passed a restless night; it may be, indeed, that unknown spirits were summoning her to the aid of the despairing creatures upon the wreck. In the early morning, as she went to the lake for a pail of water, she saw the ill-fated schooner. She made her way down the beach far enough to learn the pitiable plight of the distressed sufferers. The angry waves were still contending for their prey, and for the men to attempt to swim the distance would mean certain death. She immediately returned to the house and, taking from her scanty store of supplies a quantity of tea, a tea-kettle and some matches, retraced her steps towards the wreck.

Upon arriving at a point nearest to the vessel she set about gathering driftwood to kindle a fire, and upon it heaped all the material she could get, in order that the wretched men might know that help was at hand and might have the much-needed warmth should they succeed in reaching shore.

The hearts of the half- frozen sailors, who had a short time before despaired of receiving any assistance, were rejoiced at the preparations they witnessed on the shore, and above the roaring of the waves there fell upon the ears of the toiling woman and her two little boys, who were assisting her, three faint cheers from the rigging of the submerged vessel. Then the question arose, how could she aid the perishing sailors in their distress? No boat was at hand, and even if she had one she would be powerless to control it in that awful sea. Quickly deciding on a. plan of action, she dashed into the water and waded towards the ship and with outstretched arms beckoned the sailors to make an effort to reach her. It was their only hope. Against the entreaties of his crew, the Captain, removing his coat and boots, plunged into the ice-cold water and pluckily swam towards his would-be rescuer. A huge wave engulfed him and he disappeared from sight. He reappeared, but only for an instant. A heroic struggle ensued. Abigail with cries and gestures encouraged the already exhausted man to bear up, if only for another minute, but the strong frame, tossed about on the crests of the merciless waves, could no longer contend against such fearful odds. An enormous roller broke over him. He was caught in the undertow and was being dragged by the victorious waters out to the open lake. The sailors were stricken with horror as they viewed what they believed to be the awful death of their captain, feeling that they, too, must soon share his fate. Abigail saw the danger, and, plunging deeper into the surf, she grasped the drowning man and carried him safely to shore, where he speedily revived before the roaring flames.

The second mate was the next to make the attempt. The elder of the two boys, a poor cripple upon crutches at the time, fired with the same spirit that animated his brave mother, endeavored to assist her in bringing the mate to shore, but his weakened limbs could not bear up in the chilling water, and the un-daunted woman with her son in one arm and the drowning sailor in the other, dragged them both to the welcome fire. With remarkable tenacity, she plunged in again and yet again, and one by one bore her precious burdens to the shore, until but one lone figure remained clinging to the rigging. It was the cook, who, unable to swim, was left to the cruel mercy of the storm and sea. With apparently no thought of her own comfort and safety, the drenched and tired woman heaped more fuel upon the fire, and gave the benumbed sailors each a hot cup of tea. In a short time they were able to undertake the trip to the cottage. Wrapping her shawl about their shoulders, and placing her own shoes upon their be-numbed feet, she conducted them, one at a time, to her humble home.

By the following morning the men were sufficiently restored to undertake the rescue of the forsaken cook, who, before the departure of his friends for the shore, had lashed himself to the rigging. The storm had abated and the sailors, by means of a hastily-constructed raft, were able to reach the wreck and bring the almost lifeless form of their companion to the Becker house. His feet were frozen and he could not have endured much longer the awful exposure he had been subjected to for thirty-six long hours. These eight lives must be placed to the credit of this poor woman.

The merchants and sailors of Buffalo presented Abigail Becker with a substantial purse, and for years she proudly wore upon her breast a gold medal awarded by the American

Humane Association; but what she prized more highly than either of these was a letter from another woman whose kind and sympathetic heart never failed to recognize true merit, no matter where it might be found. The writer of this letter was none other than Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, who did not consider it beneath the dignity of the sovereign of the greatest nation of the world to send her greetings to the noble wife of the poor trapper of Long Point.


Heroines of Canadian History, By W. S. Herrington, 1910

 

Canadian Heroines


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