Gabriel and the Pirates of Kelly’s Island

A children’s story based on a true story

Was the “Pirate of Kelly’s Island” Just A Wicked Pirate or A Misunderstood Gentle Giant?

Gabe is a runaway slave.  He has gotten as far as Kelly’s Island and he is hiding out there.  He sees the slave catcher coming and runs for the cabin that is supposed to be a station on the Underground railroad. The friendly people there have moved on and he encounters a hostile family/ They tell him that he is an agent of Benjamin Napier and they run him off with a shotgun.  except for one little girl. She shows him a canoe.  He takes the  canoe and attempts to row to the Canadian border, but a storm comes up and he capsizes.  Benjamin Napier and his “pirate” crew rescues him and takes him the few miles to the Canadian shore. Do you think Benjamin Napier in this story was completely wicked?

Gabriel wanted to blow the horn that mama always was telling him about when he stepped on the sandy beach at Kelly’s Island. Mama always said that the angel Gabriel blew his horn when someone made it to heaven.  Scrunching the sand between his bare toes, Gabriel knew he had made it to heaven. He was free!  The air even smelled different on this island in the middle of Lake Erie. The wind raked gusty fingers through his hair. He put his finger in his mouth and held it up to the wind as a challenge. The wind answered his challenge by blowing his hair into his eyes and drying his finger almost as soon as he had poked it into the wind. It felt like a storm was coming. Gabe heard raindrops pattering in the leaves of the trees growing on the hill.

Gabriel stood up straight, listening for the sound of the angel Gabriel blowing his horn.  He heard bird songs and the slapping of the Lake Erie waves against the shore, but even when he closed his eyes and scrunched up his nose, he couldn’t hear the angel Gabriel’s horn blowing.  He did hear a dog barking somewhere in the distance.

Tilting his head back and  slowly scanning the hill that jutted up from the beach, Gabriel saw a black smoke smudge curling against the sky.  He shaded his hand with his eyes and saw that the black smoke smudge came from the chimney of a log cabin standing like a sentinel on top of the hill. Gabriel sighed. He was so tired, he wasn’t sure he could climb to the top of that high, steep hill. The hill reminded him of the hills along each side of the Ashtabula River that he had climbed so many times while he was hiding in Ashtabula. He had steered his raft down the Ashtabula River to Lake Erie when people in one of the Underground Railroad stations had warned him that slave catchers were coming to Ashtabula. He  spent weeks traveling down lazy and lively summer creeks, and even once floated down a canal that someone had told him was called the Beaver and Erie Canal.  He had been being smuggled from house to barn to hay stack to collect food and water and once to the belfry of a church along the Ashtabula route of the Underground Railroad running from Ashtabula to Canada.

Sighing again as he studied the beach hill and remembered the Ashtabula hills, Gabe thought about the hills surrounding his real home in Kentucky. He and Mama and his sister Katie had lived on a farm, not on a plantation where so many of these Yankee folks thought all slaves lived.  Their owner, Mr. Brownlee, had been kind and generous to Gabriel and his mother and sister. Papa had run away, promising to come back for Mama and Gabe and Katie, but he had never come back. Their owner had sold them to the Brownlees who owned a farm beside the Ohio River. A few months before Gabe ran away, Mr. Brownlee had sold his mother and sister Katie to a planter from Louisiana. “I had no choice,” he told Gabe with tears in his eyes.  “The crops have been bad for the past few years, and if I don’t raise enough money to buy more seed and plows, I’ll go bankrupt.”

That was the day Gabe resolved to run away. First, he would find Papa and then he and Papa would find Mama and Katie and they would be a family again and live free across the Ohio River in the free state of Ohio. One summer night, Gabe waited in his sleeping room in the barn loft until the pinpoints of lamp light from the farmhouse had slowly winked out. Then he crept out of the barn, clutching a knapsack full of bread and cheese that he had saved from the noon lunch and flitted in and out of the shadows of the tree lined dirt path leading to the Ohio River.  He had no idea how he would get across, so he walked along the water’s edge trying figure out if he could swim the river.  Papa had taught him now to swim in the Brownlee farm pond when he was small and how to paddle a raft so they could go fishing, but this Ohio River was much bigger than the Brownlee farm pond.

Then Gabe saw it. Someone had tied a raft to an oak tree growing by the water’s edge. He quickly untied, and with a silent apology to its owner, he found a large tree branch to steer it and pushed it into the water.  Silently promising its owner to tie it safely on the other side, Gabe steered a wobbly course toward the opposite shore of the river. He never imagined how long it would take him to return the raft to where he found it and how many adventures he would have in the time between his taking the raft and returning it to the same spot.

The swift Ohio River current carried him along like he had jumped on the back of Mr. Brownlee’s horses. He didn’t know where the River would take him, but he didn’t care as long as it took him away from Kentucky and the Brownlees and toward freedom.

It took Gabe a week of floating down the river and camping every night to hunt for berries and roots for food to finally spot another human being.  One night he spotted a boy about his own age. who hollered for him to tie up.  Gabe cautiously tied up his raft, trusting that the boy  would be a friend.  The boy, whose name was Nate,  was a good friend, who brought Gabe food, an extra shirt, a pair of trousers, and a map of the River. Gabe camped on the riverbank by Nate’s cabin for three nights, and he and Nate cut poles to steer the raft.

Then one morning Nate told him that he heard there were slave catchers in the area.  Gabe packed up his food, the blankets that Nate had brought him, and tucked the map safely in his shirt pocket. It’s a good thing it’s summer,” Nate shouted after Gabe as he  quickly poled his raft out into the river. “Good trip, good blessings, Gabe.”  

Gabe quickly pushed back into the river, but this time he knew where he was headed. He was rafting to Pittsburgh where its tributaries, the Allegheny and the Monongahela joined to form the Ohio River. Then he would turn down the Allegheny River and float to Franklin. At Franklin, Gabe would turn into the mouth of French Creek that would take him to the Beaver and Erie Canal which ran through Erie and which would take him to Lake Erie. He didn’t know where he was going once he got to Lake Erie, but he was poling to freedom so he would go where the raft took him.

The raft took Gabe to Pittsburgh and its steep hills and wooden ribbon bridges crossing the river. He paddled furiously past hills with building block wooden buildings and smoke from mills and furnaces. He passed skiffs and canoes, and sailing ships and even a steamboat or two sailing up and down the river.  He paddled furiously, afraid to stop because of the people he saw walking along the banks and up and down the streets of the city. There had to be some slave catchers lurking there too, or other people who would be glad to turn him in to the sheriff to take him back to Kentucky.

 Several people hailed him as he paddled through Pittsburgh and a group of boys in a canoe even followed him, but his frantic poling and the river current helped carry him out of their reach.  Finally, he propelled himself to quieter reaches of the Allegheny River. He admired the forested banks where trees grew right down to the water’s edge and the only daytime sounds he heard were birds calling, and an occasional gun shot from a hunter in the woods.

At the mouth of French Creek where it joins the Allegheny River, Gabe met some students from Allegheny College who assured him that they were Abolitionists. They proved that they wanted to help him escape slavery by waterproofing his raft and putting a sail on it to help it travel faster. They also gave him a new set of clothes, and some dried venison, beans, and dried apples.

They assured Gabe that very few slave catchers came to Franklin and that their College in Meadville stood for the freeing of his people.  Gabe didn’t want to free his people.  He just wanted to find his mama and papa and sister Katie and free them.

As the days slide into one another, Gabe grew tired of traveling, even though by now he realized that traveling by water was a lot easier than making his way through the thick woods.  As he traveled down French Creek, he saw a wagon stuck in the muddy woods and a desperate man and wife trying to free it. He poled his raft to the bank, tied it to a tree, and hurried to help the man and his wife. The man told him where to find an Underground Railroad station in Erie and after they had freed the wagon, Gabe got back on his raft and continued his journey.  Finally, he saw sunlight glinting off a sheet of water that looked like it went on forever. Gabe had reached Lake Erie!!

Gabe found the Underground Railroad Station the man in the woods had told him about and stopped for the night. Firelight danced across the hanging pans in the kitchen and a woman with red hair and a brown dress gave him a plate of ham and cornbread. He had gulped down half of it and was chewing more slowly savoring the taste of the ham when a man with a long brown beard and curly whiskers threw the door open.  The man motioned to Gabe. “Come quickly, he said. “A deputy sheriff from Kentucky is here to arrest you.”

The man bundled Gabe into a wagon and covered him with hay. Gabe felt the wagon lurching over ruts in the road.  He hoped the man had put his raft in the wagon.  By now, Gabe knew he couldn’t get along without his raft. Suddenly, the wagon stopped and Gabe saw the man’s hands busy throwing the hay off of his feet. Gabe helped the man throw the rest of the hay off of his shoulders and stood up.  He saw that they were standing on the beach of a lake that stretched to the sky and over the corners of the earth. This had to be Lake Erie.  The man was pulling Gabe’s raft from under the hay.  He shoved it to the water’s edge and handed him his pole and a map.

 “You’ve got to get going,” he warned. “Some of the workers in town can stall the sheriff for awhile, but he’ll probably guess that you will go on the lake.  I don’t think he knows you have a raft and it’s getting dark, so you have a chance to escape.  Just stick to the shoreline. The man thumped a bulging canvas bag on the raft.  I filled this with food for you.  It’s going to be at least a two day trip if the weather holds.  Stick as close to the shoreline as you can and try not to be seen. And follow this map.”

“Thank you for the food,” Gabe told the man as he poled out into the water far enough so that the raft would float.

“I hope the weather holds good,” the man said. “You can never tell what the fall weather will do on Lake Erie. Some days are like summer and other days, we have wind blizzards without the snow.”

The first day of Gabe’s Lake Erie rafting the waves rolled in like Papa turning over on his straw pallet, slow and gentle and smooth. Gabe estimated that he made some good mileage that day. The moon shone brightly enough that night that he decided to pole all night and he barely caused a ripple when he passed the wooden houses and other buildings that the man’s map identified as Cleveland. The next day, the wind picked up and drove Gabe and his raft along like Mr. Brownlee driving his cows with his dogs and a “get along cows!”

The brisk wind drove Gabe’s raft ashore a few times, but he waited until it died down and got right back on the water, but that night he decided to pull ashore and make camp. The wind cracked and stung like a horsewhip now, and the raft bucked up and down like one of the horses that Gabe had helped Mr. Brownlee break. They slapped the raft on the beach and Gabe wrestled it from the grip of the waves and pulled it up to the tree line. It was too windy to make a fire, so piled up some evergreen boughs and pulled a blanket around his shoulders. He was shivering and eating a piece of corn pone when he heard voices rough and loud enough for him to hear above the whistling of the wind.

What could Gabe do now?  He had a feeling that the voices belonged to unfriendly people, but the voice of the wind was just as threatening. Gabe hesitated, looking out at the dark tossing water. He looked back over his shoulder and he saw flickering torches and heard the rough voices and dogs barking.  With cold numbed fingers, he untied his raft, and dragging his pole behind him, he shoved the raft down to the water, leaving his knapsack of food behind him in his hurry.

The next day blurred in Gabe’s mind and memory.  He felt waves with strong fingers grab him and try to pull him off his raft. The waves grabbed his pole and he watched it float away on a moonlit path across the water. Finally, as the sun came up over the horizon, the waves grabbed Gabe’s raft, leaving him bobbing the water like his pole. He swam and swam for what seemed to him like another day. He treaded water for awhile and swam for what seemed like another day. Finally, when he was getting so tired that he just wanted to use the soft water for a pillow and go to sleep, he felt his feet touch sand. This time, the waves helped him by pushing him onto the beach.

Kelley’s Island

Gabe stared at the hill and the black smoke smudges again the sky. The chimney had to mean a house and so far in his journey the people in every house that he had stopped at had been friendly. He forced his aching feet to carry him to the foot of the hill and then step by slow step, with his eyes fixed on the smoke trail, he climbed the hill.  Gabe tried not to feel too discouraged.  His food and his raft were gone, but surely the people in the cabin would give him a piece of corn bread and maybe even help him escape farther north to Canada. He reached the top of the hill, gasping for breath, and fell against the cabin door. 

Someone on the other side threw it open and Gabe fell into a dark, smoky room. Oiled paper covered the window two tiny windows and a flickering fire provided the only light. As Gabe’s eyes adjusted, he could make out a man with a white bushy beard sitting at a rough wood table with his head in his hands.  A bottle of whiskey rested near his elbow.

“Sir, could you help me?” Gabe asked.

“I ain’t helpin’ no runaway,”  the man said. “You’re black, so you’re a runaway, ain’t you?”

“There are free blacks in this country too, sir. I aim to be one of them.”

The man made a quick movement toward a gun that hung on pegs by the fireplace. “And I aim to turn you in for the reward.”

The man turned his back to Gabe to grab the gun, and Gabe turned on both heels and ran out the door.  He ran so fast that he nearly rolled down the hill.  He heard the man crashing after him, cursing as the branches slapped his face.

“First time I ever heard of anyone being slapped  sober,” Gabe thought as he ran-rolled down the hill.  But where to go now?  The only thing on both sides of him were thick woods, the man was at his back, and Lake Erie was at his front. Gabe decided to take his chances with Lake Erie once again.  He waded in and swam as fast as he could.  He heard a bullet zing across the water and felt it swish by, but it fell harmlessly into the water ahead of him.  Gabe swam so fast that soon the man became a distant figure standing on the beach firing a gun.

Gabe swam and swam, so hard and fast that soon all of his muscles quivered like Mama’s sweet grape jelly. But he had to keep swimming.  He couldn’t go back to shore and let the man shoot him.  The waves began to get bigger and stronger and Gabe gulped a mouthful of water. He choked and coughed and felt his body start to sink under the water. “Help,” he cried, but he knew no one out here in the lake could hear him.

Then he saw Mama and Papa and Katie walking toward him, just like Jesus had walked on the water toward his disciples.  They held out their hands to him.  “Don’t give up, Gabe,” they seemed to say together. “We are giving you freedom and we are counting on you to pass it on to your children.”

Reaching out to grab Mama’s hand, instead of her soft fingers curling around his, he felt the solid, smooth wood of a paddle. He blinked the water from his eyes and saw that a man the size of a haystack was sitting in a canoe holding out the paddle to him.

“Grab onto the paddle,” the man shouted. “Hurry, before I have to net you to keep you from sinking.”

After Gabe grabbed the paddle,  the man slowly inched the paddle to the canoe.  The man grabbed Gabe and pulled him into the canoe.  He pointed to a seat. “Sit here and collect yourself,” he ordered.

Sitting  and collecting himself in bits and pieces, Gabe finally caught the breaths he had missed taking in the water and he watched them rising and falling in his chest. He breathed a short prayer of thanks.

“What are you doing out here?” the man asked Gabe when he saw him breathing easy again.

“I’m finding my freedom,” Gabe said. “What are you doing out here?”

“I’m fishing and pirating, mostly fishing,” the man told him.  “My name’s Captain Benjamin Napier and folks say I ‘m the pirate in these parts.”

“What do you pirate?” Gabe asked him.

“I don’t pirate anything too much.  I just want to farm my land and live a peaceful life.”

“I want to live a free life,” Gabe said.

“You’re probably freer in Canada than Kelley’s Island,” Captain Napier told Gabe.  “The slave catchers stop by there pretty regular.”

“Then I’ll go to Canada if I have to swim,” Gabe said.

“You are halfway there,” Captain Napier said.  “Let me take you the rest of way.”

“The storm took my raft and my food,” Gabe told him.  “How can I go to Canada?”

“By helping me paddle,” Captain Napier said, handing Gabe a paddle.

Gabe pushed his paddle into the water and it hit something solid. “Watch those rocks,” Captain Napier warned. “They’re pretty close to the surface. They cause shipwrecks, accidental or deliberate.  I have been accused of luring ships to crash on the rocks and then salvaging and selling their cargos. “

Staring at the Captain, Gabe couldn’t tell if he looked happy or angry, so he didn’t say anything. The Captain and Gabe paddled steadily until Gabe saw a line of land on the horizon and a stretch of sandy beach. “Is that Kelley’s Island?” Gabe asked him.

“No, you were swimming for Kelley’s Island.  This is Fish Point on Pelee island.  Step on the beach and you are in Canada.”

Leaving his footprints in the sand of the Fish Point beach, Gabe didn’t care if Captain Napier was a pirate or just a private American citizen.  He was free and he had a lot of work and living to do.  He left a line of firm footprints in the stand before he started running.