Imagining Ball's Farm

Sometimes in pursuit of the artistic truth of a story, the novelist must resist the temptation to tell what really happened. This has been on my mind lately as I take Jake and Eli to the fields and woods outside of Newark that was known then as Ball's Farm.  

You won't find a farm there today.  Drive a couple of kilometers down County Road 55 and you'll come across a McDonald's and the Pillitteri Estates Winery but in 1813, there were farms owned by Peter Ball and Castle Corus. They were located up the road toward Fort George from "the Crossroads" which is now the town of Virgil. Several times they were overrun by fighting, but the skirmishes there have been largely forgotten today.  The historical plaque commemorating the July 8 fight is located at the Butler's Burial Ground:

"On the 8th of July, 1813, an outpost of the invading force, encamped near Fort George, was defeated by a band of Six Nations and Western Indians led by Chiefs John Norton and Blackbird and interpreters Michel Brisebois, Louis Langlade and Barnet Lyons. Lieutenant Samuel Eldridge and 22 soldiers of the 13th United States Infantry were killed and 12 taken prisoners."

In The Iroquois and the War of 1812, Carl Benn refers to 60 or 70 Americans killed, wounded or taken prisoner at Ball's Farm while, on the Crown side, only two warriors and one interpreter wounded. Professor Benn also cites the way in which the American dead had been mutilated by the First Nations warriors:

An American officer who arrived on the scene after the fighting would later report that nothing could have prepared him for "a scene of wanton and revolting barbarity.  [The warriors] had left on the ground nearly half of the detachment, most of them dead, but some of them still breathing, though scarcely sensible.  Every body was utterly stripped, and scalped, and mangled and maimed in a way that looked as if there had been a sort of sportive butchery among the dying and the dead. [One man had] more than a dozen of these gashes and lacerations. [His head was] denuded from the eye-brows to the back of the neck [but he] was still breathing and sensible when our party reached him."  The Americans brought him back to their camp but his "exquisite agonies were terminated a few hours after." [Benn, p. 127]

Professor Benn gets further into this story when he cites Captain John Norton's journal for an explanation of what actions may well have precipitated what turned into a massacre.  "During the action," says Benn, "an officer in the Thirteenth Infantry [Eldridge?] and two of his men fell into the hands of a young Ottawa [warrior]. The warrior first aimed his musket at the officer, who made a sign of submission by dropping his pistol arm. But when the warrior turned his attention to the others, the officer raised his pistol and shot his captor. More warriors arrived on the scene just in time to see what had happened and instantly tomahawked the Americans in retaliation."

Following the battle, Chief Black Bird's defended the practice of scalping and mutilation in response to similar American atrocities against First Nations. Professor Benn also makes the point that, for First Nations warriors, terror was an important weapon to instill fear among their much more numerous enemies. 

This is very dramatic material for an historical novelist. There's more -- in fact, some of the details of the fighting at Ball's Farm seem ideally suited to writing stories for young people.  In his Annals of Niagara (1896) William Kirby told the story of 13-year-old John Law. In researching his The Flames of War, Richard Feltoe shares with us the results of his research into William Kirby's papers at the Detroit Public Library. 

Here's how Feltoe sets up the story: 

"On July 8, 1813, a group of local ladies and gentlemen were gathered at the farm of Mr. Peter Ball, near to Four Mile Creek, when polite conversation was interrupted by the sounds of gunfire coming from the adjacent farm, owned by Castle Corus. There, a force of Brutish regulars and Native allies, sent to recover a rare chest of medicines and surgical tools hidden during the British retreat in May, had engaged the nearby American picket lines.  Witnessing the battle taking place outside their window, the guests watched with alarm as the contest developed and stray shots struck the house.  Captain James Kerby, of the Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada, later recorded the course of events:

"...among them was Mrs. Law, niece of Mr. Daniel servos and wife of Captain John Law of the 1st Lincoln Militia... Captain Law was mortally wounded and his eldest son William Law....killed at the taking of Niagara by the Americans [on] 27 May, 1813. Their younger son John Law, then a boy of 13, in order to revenge the deaths of his father and brother, got a musket and ammunition and ran down to the front line of skirmishers, among the Indians and fired some time at the enemy..  His mother...fearing...her young son might also be killed, ran down into the very thick of the battle, among the wild and yelling Indians, and in spite of the balls flying all over the field, she found her boy, who was too full of the fright [fight?] to leave when she called him.  When Mrs. Law took hold of him by force and carried him in her arms out of the field to the house uninjured.".  

How can an author of historical novels for young people improve on that!  The story begs to have someone put it into a book -- or on the screen.

Alas, it will be someone else, not I, who will tell the story of John Law. Why? Because it doesn't fit into the narrative arc that the Jake and Eli stories have already established. You cast your dice when you invent characters and set them into action. To have Jake Gibson respond like John Law would not fit in The Company of Traitors. 

So yes, I'm hoping to put Jake and Eli into the skirmish at Ball's Farm -- or rather, I'm having them witness the aftermath. The facts that we know about the skirmish at Ball's Farm must be tempered with the situations that I've created in my imagination.

Historical novelists have two very stern task masters, and sometimes they don't agree with each other. On the one hand is the drive to keep the history as factual as possible. On the other, there's the demands of story-telling and the character arcs that have been set in motion each time your characters act.

I hope that someone will some day tell John Law's story and see where it leads.