TNB Night Owl – Paul Gasford

Lake Ontario shoreline.
Lake Ontario shoreline. Public domain.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, possibly about 1805, four-year-old Paul Gasford’s parents moved their family from the Bay of Quinté on the north side of Lake Ontario, Canada, to their new home in Niagara, in New York State, presumably at or near the mouth of the Niagara River. With their children and their worldly possessions loaded aboard a small vessel, they set sail southwest across the big lake until they came upon the New York shoreline.

They were only forty miles or less from their destination, and decided to put in to shore to rest, fix a meal, and eat. Paul’s mother spied wild sarsaparilla growing in the woods and offered sixpence to the child that brought back the most. Off they ran, gathering as much as they could. The older children could gather much quicker than young Paul. In their eagerness and excitement to collect the reward, they ran back to the beach leaving Paul behind. Paul wasn’t concerned, he’d spent much of his youth running and playing in the woods back home. Besides, he wanted to collect more sarsaparilla than any of his siblings and earn the reward. When he was satisfied he’d collected enough, he ran back to the beach. After a few minutes of running he still hadn’t come to the beach so he ran some more. Eventually he realized he’d run too far. Surely, the beach could not be this far.

Now Paul knew he’d been running in the wrong direction. He looked at the wilderness around him. Nothing was familiar. Which way was the beach? He was lost and suddenly afraid. He started to cry and panic set in. Running this way and that, he frantically searched for the beach. Time went by, but the panic persisted. As the sun sank low in the sky Paul stumbled onto the beach, but the boat and his family weren’t there. He began to run up and down the beach, east and west and back and forth but still no family and no boat to be found.

When the other children brought the sarsaparilla to the beach, no one immediately noticed Paul’s absence. Perhaps when the food was ready to eat, his mother asked where he was. No one had seen him since they left the woods. Alarmed, maybe even panicky, his parents began searching and calling for him. Night fell, and Paul was still missing.

Up the beach, out of earshot, Paul had calmed down. Reason returned to him and he began to think. He remembered hearing them say that Niagara was within forty miles. He knew it was to the west, where the sun had set. He resolved that he would walk the rest of the way, following the beach, and figured he could do it in four days. (He was an optimistic youngster). He dug a hole in the sand to sleep in, and pushed a stick in the ground pointing towards the west so that he’d know which way to go in the morning. He crawled in his hole and covered himself with a blanket of sand. He slept well.

It’s unlikely his parents slept well. His family stayed there for three days, looking for him. The biggest worry was that he would be taken by hostile indians, a not uncommon occurrence thereabouts in decades past. His mother refused to give up, and had to be physically forced onto the boat once it was clear that little Paul could not have survived on his own in the woods for such a long time. The mood onboard sailing to Niagara had to have been one of bleak, pure anguish.

The next morning, Paul awoke in good cheer and got on his way. He found wild grapes to eat but only ate them in small amounts, as he remembered his mother’s warning that eating too many at once would make him sick. On the way to Niagara, he did see some indians and their dog, but Paul hid. Neither the indians nor the dog detected him. Each night he dug his hole and set his stick in the sand pointing west.

On the fourth day, Paul made it to Niagara. One can only imagine the elation, joy, and thankfulness his parents and siblings felt.

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The moral of the story is, don’t panic. One of the most useful bits of advice I ever heard when I was a kid: whatever happens, keep your wits about you, sit down, calm down, think through the situation. Panic wastes energy and confuses the brain. Don’t do it!

I based this story on a children’s book, The True and Wonderful Story of Paul Gasford, published sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century, possibly in 1826. It is available for download at archive.org. A minor amount of additional information can be found at smithsonianmag.com.



Question of the Night: What mighty feat are you famous for? (It doesn’t have to be a physical accomplishment).

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About Richard Doud 138 Articles
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