The Ballad of Richard Bard
(The Poetry may be poor, but the story is amazing.)
I have found over the years in my genealogical searches that there are ancestors of whom I have become particularly fond. One couple, whom I admire greatly, both makes me laugh and makes me feel horrified by what they endured—Richard Bard and his wife Catherine Poe Bard. They were my 4th great grandparents on my mother’s side.
Richard had a really interesting life. He was born in February 1736 at “Carroll’s Delight” near Fairfield, PA. He became a miller, and at the age of 20, he married 19-year-old Catherine Poe. Within a year, they had their first son, John. Richard was fairly well educated in that he could read and write.
Richard Bard became well known because of an incident during the French and Indian War, and event that occurred a few months after son John was born. The short version of the traumatic story is that Richard and Catherine, along with their infant son and a few other friends and relatives, were attacked and captured by Delaware Indians. The captors were brutal. They killed and scalped the baby in front of the parents shortly after the abduction. During a long, forced walk, Richard escaped, with Catherine’s help, and made his way back home. After two and a half years of searching for Catherine, he finally located her and bought her back from the Indians for 40 pounds.
That’s the short version of a horrible experience that probably was not atypical of the times. What sets it apart is what Richard did next. He wrote a poem about his experience. From the point of view of a poetic critic, it is really a pretty awful poem. Rhyme and rhythm and grammatical structure give way to his need to relate the events as they happened. Comprising 97 stanzas, it is a very long poem which he titled “A Ballad.” This poem (or parts thereof) has been published on a number of occasions over the 200+ years since it was written. It has also been handed down through generations of descendants. The poem is very much a “woe is me” rendition of events. For example, in writing about the events immediately following the capture:
But forty miles now having gone, This day is at an end: They halt, and here to stay this night Is what they do intend. And here, the fire and us between, Our infants scalp they place: Thinking that while we viewed the same, Our sorrows would increase.
And, after his escape, he describes the seriousness of his situation:
Amazingly my foot is swelled, With heat ‘tis in a flame; And though I’m in the desert land, Can’t walk, I am so very lame. But it is not my foot alone That misery is to me, For by not having food to eat, My woes increased be.
I don’t want to minimize his situation. It was awful. But about this point in the poem, where Richard is cold and hungry and has a sore foot, I not only reflect on the quality of the poetic form, I begin to wonder what is happening to Catherine. Chronologically, the poem ends when Richard makes it back to safety. History shows that Catherine survived, was adopted as a sister to two Indian men, was eventually rescued by Richard, and went back home to have lots more children.
To Richard’s credit, near the end of the poem, he expresses his faith with thanks to the Lord. Then his mind turns to Catherine’s fate:
And now from bondage though I’m freed, Yet she that’s my beloved, Is to the land that’s far remote, By Indians removed. Alas! Alas! For my dear wife, That’s gone to heathen lands, There to obey their every hard And their unjust commands. By thinking on your misery, Increased is my woe: Yea, pained is my aching heart, For what you undergo.
Richard accomplished much in his life following the Indian event. He fought in the Revolution, he was a member of the Pennsylvania Convention that reviewed the proposed Federal Constitution, and he was a delegate to the Harrisburg Convention which ratified said Constitution.
Those accomplishments evoke pride. But my fondness for Richard comes from the existence of the poem itself. Richard told his story. He also encouraged his wife and children to tell the story. It is through the published writings of Richard’s son Archibald that we learn what happened to Catherine.
And consider what else was learned because of the poem. Richard, born in a time where many could not read or write, was literate. He was educated. He was a man of faith. At age 21, he was determined to survive, and he would not give up his search for Catherine. By passing down the story and having his children pass it down to their children, we have been given a glimpse into a period of time, into a family, and into the character and strength of both its patriarch and matriarch.
Catherine was only 20 at the time of the raid. Her character also shines through the story. She witnessed her infant son’s murder. She helped her husband escape from the Indians, even though she knew she would face consequences herself. She had to have known that beatings and possibly much worse would be her fate. She navigated wisely through her years in captivity. She survived. And she told her side of the story to her son, who published it and passed it down.
With luck, none of us will endure such trauma. Nothing I have experienced is comparably dramatic. But, in an age of email and texting, I worry—will we take the time to record the events that have shaped our lives so that our children, grandchildren and even, perhaps, our 4th great grandchildren will know what life was like during our visit here on Earth? I hope so. So, thank you, Richard. Thank you, Catherine. You both encourage me to tell my story.