In the fall of 1809 near Port Gibson, Miss., Peggy Dow waited one long day after another for the arrival of her 31-year-old husband Lorenzo Dow, a Methodist circuit rider who traveled the country preaching the gospel.
Peggy was 28. She and Dow had been married for five years but for 12 months the couple had been separated by thousands of miles.
Dow's wanderings across the country had been curtailed when he moved to Claiborne County in Mississippi Territory to take over a sawmill venture left incomplete by his brother-in-law. Two years after that, he returned to Georgia and to the northeastern states to preach and for business. Being too ill to travel, Peggy was forced to stay behind in the company of sisters Ann and Elizabeth Coburn in Claiborne County.
"I had joined society when I first came to that country," Peggy recalled in her autobiography (Vicissitudes in the Wilderness). "I lived in great harmony with my two companions that Lorenzo had left me with, while he was going to visit the States once more. I attended meeting (church) regularly every week, and had many precious times to my soul. I had some trials to encounter, but the Lord was my helper, and brought me through them all. I was desirous to return to some part of the States, if Providence should spare Lorenzo, and he should again come back to me in safety."
‘PEACE IN OUR OWN BREAST’
Dow departed the territory during the fall. Peggy spent the “winter and the next summer, as agreeably as I had done such a length of time in almost any situation that I had been placed in for several years; at the same time these people that had pretended a great deal of friendship to us in former times, were quite distant; however, this affected me but little, as I learned in some degree this lesson, that our happiness does not depend on the smiles or frowns of the world; but we must have peace in our own breast, or we can find it no where else."
Peggy and Lorenzo faced scorn by many in Claiborne County because Peggy's sister Hannah was an adulterer who had left her husband for a younger man. Hannah's husband had failed at his sawmill venture, ran up a huge debt and began drinking heavily. Although Dow assumed the debt and attempted to complete construction of the sawmill, the scandal caused by his relatives was the subject of much gossip and condemnation.
It does not appear Dow was able to clear the entire debt.
Just before Dow departed for the eastern seaboard, Hannah died. Peggy was crushed. Their mother had died when Peggy was five months old and Hannah was 16. Peggy wrote that Hannah “married when I was six years old and she prevailed on my father to give me to her, which accordingly he did; and I was carried into the State of New York, and saw his face no more!”
Peggy mourned Hannah's passing as if her mother had died. She also worried over Hannah's salvation and feared she would not see her in heaven.
Peggy found some solace from the words of another preacher who told Dow that Hannah was repentant over her affair. Yet Hannah refused to leave her lover in Spanish West Florida and move in with Dow and Peggy.
‘MY HEART LEAPED FOR JOY’
"I lived quite retired from the world with a few exceptions," Peggy wrote about the year she spent in Mississippi Territory while Dow traveled. "I seldom went out but to meeting -- there I found most peace and consolation. Thus I continued to spend my time, until the period that Lorenzo was to return ... I received a letter from him, to meet him about twelve miles from where I was, where he had sent an appointment to preach. This was pleasing intelligence to me, as I had then been separated from him for near twelve months.
"I went the day before the time appointed for him to arrive at the place; and the day that he came I was again attacked with the ague and fever, which I never escaped for one summer while I was in that country … the fever was tolerable high when it was observed by some of the family that Lorenzo was come!
"My heart leaped for joy at the sound of his name. We met, after having been separated for twelve months and six days. I felt some degree of gratitude to our great Preserver that he had brought us though many dangers and difficulties, which we had met with during our separation.
"We intended to return to the States, as soon as we could get prepared. There was a large congregation attended to hear Lorenzo preach; and it was a solemn, melting time among the people! After the meeting we started for the place I had made my home in his absence. Although I was quite unwell … we rode twelve miles, in the company with several friends that had come from the neighbourhood to meet him.
"It was ten o'clock before we reached our destination: however, we were very much rejoiced to have the privilege of joining our hearts and voices in prayer and praise to that God who had prolonged our lives, and brought us to meet again on mortal shores. The next day I had a very sick day -- the ague came on more severely than it was the day that Lorenzo came back! He wished to make ready to leave the territory, and I was anxious to go with him, as I could not enjoy health in that country. I made use of some means to get rid of the ague, and it had the desired effect, so that after a few days I got something better, and in about two or three weeks I was able to start on our journey through the wilderness to Georgia."
‘IT WAS A GLOOMY NIGHT’
Peggy said he attended two meetings in the Port Gibson area before the couple "started for Natchez, where we got what was necessary for our journey, and from thence we made the best of our way to the wilderness, although our friends expected us to have returned and bid them farewell, and I myself expected to have seen them again before I left that country; but it was otherwise ordered, for I saw them no more; and I do not know that I ever shall, until we meet in eternity.
“ … We reached the outskirts of the settlements of Natchez on the third day after we left the city. It was something late in the day before we left the last house inhabited by white people, and entered the vast wilderness."
Peggy was afraid. She had never traveled through the virgin forests and was terrified at the thought of sleeping under the stars. By day's end, they came to a place with a source of water and thick cane that was fed to the horses. They determined to camp there for the night. Dow built a fire and they had coffee and biscuits for supper.
"We had no tent to screen us from the inclement weather," Peggy wrote, "but we had blankets on which we slept which made us tolerably comfortable when the weather was clear. We lay down, after having prepared a quantity of wood for the night; but it was a gloomy night to me, it being the first time that I ever had been in like circumstances; and to look up and see the wide extended concave of heaven bespangled with stars, without any covering, it was truly majestic. Yet to consider we were in a lonely desert, uninhabited by any creature but wild beasts and savages, made me feel very much alarmed, and I slept but little, while Lorenzo was quite happy and composed; as he observed, he had never been so well pleased with his situation in traveling through this wild unfrequented part of the country before; and this was the tenth time that he had passed through it, in the space of nine or ten years!"
Dow, like other Methodist circuit riders spreading the gospel in the territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, had to learn survival skills. Jacob Young, a circuit rider who preached with Dow, reported that he learned a great deal about survival from another Methodist preacher, James Axley, who spent months preaching in northeastern Louisiana. Once on a journey with Axley from Catahoula to the Ouachita Circuit in the region of present day-Monroe, La., Young recalled in his book (Autobiography of a Pioneer):
"I observed, as brother Axley rode along, that whenever he could see a bit of dry rotten wood on a tree, he would pick it off and put it in his pocket. I did not know what he intended to do with it, and did not ask him.” Later at camp Young witnessed the purpose when Axley, using his jack-knife, “cut a large quantity of cane to last them through the night. Taking his flint, and steel, and spunk out of his pocket, he struck fire and applied it to his dry, rotten wood that he had gathered through the day, and soon had a blaze. We stopped where there was many pineknots and rich pine limbs. He threw them on the fire till he had a kind of log-heap; the blaze was soon ten or twelve feet high."
A SLOUGH CALLED ‘HELL HOLE’
In the wilderness, Peggy survived her first night under the stars with little sleep. She and Dow traveled 40 miles after breakfast and arrived at the Pearl River, where they stayed the night in the shack of a mix-blood Native American whom she identified in the language of the day as a "Half Breed." The Indian operated a ferry and transported the couple and their horses across the Pearl River.
The next day they made good progress. Around dark, they met a group of Choctaws preparing to camp for the night: "This struck me with some considerable dread, and to add to that we had to cross a dreadful slough, called by the travelers, 'hell hole.' This place consisted of thin mud, so that horses after they were striped of saddle and harness, could swim through; and then it was necessary that some one should be on the other side, so as to prevent them from running away ... yet so it happened, the Indians had made a temporary bridge of poles and canes to get their horses over, which served for us to get over upon also."
They retired for the night a half-mile from the camp of the Indians, which alarmed Peggy. Dow made a fire, fed cane to the horses and they made themselves a bed on the ground. Peggy had another fretful night, disturbed by dogs barking in the nearby camp and the jingle of the bells tied around the necks of their horses. Although she took in the beauty of the night, her nerves kept her from resting:
"The moon shone through the trees in great splendour, and the stars twinkling around; and if my mind had been in the right frame, it would have been a beautiful prospect to me, but I was so much afraid, that it quite deprived me of any satisfaction, while Lorenzo would have slept sweetly, if I had not been so fearful, and frequently disturbed him -- I longed for day-light to appear."