It is strange that so straightforward and transparent a character as „Old Put” should have become the subject of controversy. Too much is claimed for him by some disputants, and much too little is conceded to him by others. He was certainly as far from being a rustic booby as he was from being a great general.
Conceive him, first, as a thriving, vigorous, enterprising Connecticut farmer, thirty years of age, cultivating with great success his own farm of five hundred and fourteen acres, all paid for. Himself one of a family of twelve children, and belonging to a prolific race which has scattered Putnams all over the United States, besides leaving an extraordinary number in New England, he had married young at his native Salem, and established himself soon after in the northeastern corner of Connecticut. At that period, 1740, Connecticut was to Massachusetts what Colorado is to New York at present; and thither, accordingly, this vigorous young man and his young wife early removed, and hewed out a farm from the primeval woods.
He was just the man for a pioneer. His strength of body was extraordinary, and he had a power of sustained exertion more valuable even than great strength. Nothing is more certain than that he was an enterprising and successful farmer, who introduced new fruits, better breeds of cattle, and improved implements.
There is still to be seen on his farm a long avenue of ancient apple trees, which, the old men of the neighborhood affirm, were set out by Israel Putnam one hundred and forty years ago. The well which he dug is still used. Coming to the place with considerable property inherited from his father (for the Putnams were a thriving race from the beginning), it is not surprising that he should have become one of the leading farmers in a county of farmers.
At the same time he was not a studious man, and had no taste for intellectual enjoyments. He was not then a member of the church. He never served upon the school committee. There was a Library Association at the next village, but he did not belong to it. For bold riding, skillful hunting, wood-chopping, hay-tossing, ploughing, it was hard to find his equal; but, in the matter of learning, he could write legibly, read well enough, spell in an independent manner, and not much more.
With regard to the wolf story, which rests upon tradition only, it is not improbable, and there is no good reason to doubt it. Similar deeds have been done by brave backwoodsmen from the beginning, and are still done within the boundaries of the United States every year. The story goes, that when he had been about two years on his new farm, the report was brought in one morning that a noted she-wolf of the neighborhood had killed seventy of his sheep and goats, besides wounding many lambs and kids. This wolf, the last of her race in that region, had long eluded the skill of every hunter. Upon seeing the slaughter of his flock, the young farmer, it appears, entered into a compact with five of his neighbors to hunt the pernicious creature by turns until they had killed her. The animal was at length tracked to her den, a cave extending deep into a rocky hill. The tradition is, that Putnam, with a rope around his body, a torch in one hand, and rifle in the other, went twice into the cave, and the second time shot the wolf dead, and was drawn out by the people, wolf and all. An exploit of this nature gave great celebrity in an outlying county in the year 1742. Meanwhile he continued to thrive, and one of the old-fashioned New England families of ten children gathered about him. As they grew towards maturity, he bought a share in the Library Association, built a pew for his family in the church, and comported himself in all ways as became a prosperous farmer and father of a numerous family.
So passed his life until he reached the age of thirty-seven, when he already had a boy fifteen years of age, and was rich in all the wealth which Connecticut then possessed. The French war broke out – the war which decided the question whether the French or the English race should possess North America. His reputation was such that the legislature of Connecticut appointed him at once a captain, and he had no difficulty in enlisting a company of the young men of his county, young farmers or the sons of farmers. He gained great note as a scouter and ranger, rendering such important service in this way to the army that the legislature made him a special grant of „fifty Spanish milled dollars” as an honorable gift. He was famous also for Yankee ingenuity. A colonial newspaper relates an anecdote illustrative of this. The British general was sorely perplexed by the presence of a French man-of-war commanding a piece of water which it was necessary for him to cross.
„General,” said Putnam, „that ship must be taken.”
„Aye,” replied the general, „I would give the world if she was taken.”
„I will take her,” said Putnam.
„How?” asked the general.
„Give me some wedges, a beetle, and a few men of my own choice.”
When night came, Putnam rowed under the vessel’s stern, and drove the wedges between the rudder and the ship. In the morning she was seen with her sails flapping helplessly in the middle of the lake, and she was soon after blown ashore and captured.
Among other adventures, Putnam was taken prisoner by the Indians, and carried to his grave great scars of the wounds inflicted by the savages. He served to the very end of the war, pursuing the enemy even into the tropics, and assisting at the capture of Havana. He returned home, after nine years of almost continuous service, with the rank of colonel, and such a reputation as made him the hero of Connecticut, as Washington was the hero of Virginia at the close of the same war. At any time of public danger requiring a resort to arms, he would be naturally looked to by the people of Connecticut to take the command.
Eleven peaceful years he now spent at home. His wife died, leaving an infant a year old. He joined the church; he married again; he cultivated his farm; he told his war stories. The Stamp Act excitement occurred in 1765, when Putnam joined the Sons of Liberty, and called upon the governor of the colony as a deputy from them.
„What shall I do,” asked the governor, „if the stamped paper should be sent to me by the king’s authority?”
„Lock it up,” said Putnam, „until we visit you again.”
„And what will you do with it?”
„We shall expect you to give us the key of the room where it is deposited; and if you think fit, in order to screen yourself from blame, you may forewarn us upon our peril not to enter the room.”
„And what will you do afterwards?”
„Send it safely back again.”
„But if I should refuse you admission?”
„Your house will be level with the dust in five minutes.”
Fortunately, the stamped paper never reached Connecticut, and the act was repealed soon after.
The eventful year, 1774, arrived. Putnam was fifty-six years of age, a somewhat portly personage, weighing two hundred pounds, with a round, full countenance, adorned by curly locks, now turning gray – the very picture of a hale, hearty, good-humored, upright and downright country gentleman. News came that the port of Boston was closed, its business suspended, its people likely to be in want of food. The farmers of the neighborhood contributed a hundred and twenty-five sheep, which Putnam himself drove to Boston, sixty miles off, where he had a cordial reception by the people, and was visited by great numbers of them at the house of Dr. Warren, where he lived. The polite people of Boston were delighted with the scarred old hero, and were pleased to tell anecdotes of his homely ways and fervent, honest zeal. He mingled freely, too, with the British officers, who chaffed him, as the modern saying is, about his coming down to Boston to fight. They told him that twenty great ships and twenty regiments would come unless the people submitted.
„If they come,” said Putnam, „I am ready to treat them as enemies.”
One day in the following spring, April twentieth, while he was ploughing in one of his fields with a yoke of oxen driven by his son, Daniel, a boy of fifteen, an express reached him giving him the news of the battle of Lexington, which had occurred the day before. Daniel Putnam has left a record of what his father did on this occasion.
„He loitered not,” wrote Daniel, „but left me, the driver of his team, to unyoke it in the furrow, and not many days after to follow him to camp.”
Colonel Putnam mounted a horse, and set off instantly to alarm the officers of militia in the neighboring towns. Returning home a few hours after, he found hundreds of minute-men assembled, armed and equipped, who had chosen him for their commander. He accepted the command, and, giving them orders to follow, he pushed on without dismounting, rode the same horse all night, and reached Cambridge next morning at sunrise, still wearing the checked shirt which he had had on when ploughing in his field. As Mr. Bancroft remarks, he brought to his country’s service an undaunted courage and a devoted heart. His services during the Revolution are known to almost every reader. Every one seems to have liked him, for he had a very happy turn for humor, sang a good song, and was a very cheerful old gentleman.
In 1789, after four years of vigorous and useful service, too arduous for his age, he suffered a paralytic stroke, which obliged him to leave the army. He lived, however, to see his country free and prosperous, surviving to the year 1790, when he died, aged seventy-three. I saw his commission as major-general hanging in the house of one of his grandsons, Colonel A. P. Putnam, at Nashville, some years ago. He has descendants in every State.