William True Sleeper, born in 1819 in Danbury, New Hampshire, was the fourth son of Jonathan and Mary Parker Sleeper. In 1835 he accompanied his family into the “wild woods of Maine” where they settled in Smyrna township in Aroostook County.
Years later, after he had completed his schooling and entered the ministry, he compiled sketches of his childhood and youth, leaving for our family archives an unusually vivid picture of life on the Maine frontier. What follows are excerpts from his writings.
Father had sold his farm in Danbury, and our household goods were packed on a two-horse sled for a journey of 350 miles, from Danbury across the country to Bangor and up the Penobscot River into Aroostook County, Maine. Father and Mother, together with my two little sisters, rode in a sleigh behind the gray mare, and we four boys rode on the load of goods. Jonathan drove the span, Moses sat on the seat next to him, then Daniel and I took seats in the rear. We all ran up the hills, thus resting our legs and relieving the horses somewhat. Everything was new to us, and people were interested in such a family of boys on top of a load of goods. Our journey led us through Bangor, the first city I ever saw.
We reached the wild woods of Aroostook about the last of February, spending our last night before our journey’s end in Danneus (sp. ??) at a log hotel kept by the grandfather of Governor Burleigh of Maine. We had traveled from Old Town on the military road, a road built by the U.S. government to establish Fort Hancock at Houlton near the boundary line of New Brunswick. Our road on from Burleigh's log hotel was only a rough logging road through the woods. The bushes were cut out, and the logs cleared away to make a path six or eight feet wide so that sleds hauled by oxen or horses could get along. The path was worn by teams so it was smooth, but knolls and hollows made our sled pitch like a ship at sea. We were well shaken up when we got to Uncle Leavitt's log house in No.6, Range 3, now known as the town of Smyrna, some fifteen miles west of Houlton.
Uncle Nehemiah Leavitt had bought this township from the state, on condition of getting into the town seventy-five actual settlers. My father and his four boys were induced to go there to make five of the settlers. Our family of eight persons moved into Uncle Leavitt's log house of two large rooms, with open fireplaces and two small bedrooms. There was also an attic whose floor was made of cedar splits. Our family was the third in the house, for already Uncle Leavitt's family of five and his son and namesake's family of three were domiciled there. In a week or two John Taylor's family of nine, and two young men, nephews of Uncle Leavitt, were received into the house, making twenty-seven souls in that one house with only two living rooms, two bedrooms and a crazy attic. Our family of eight and Nehemiah Leavitt, Jr., with wife and baby, sat at our table. The plates were so crowded Cousin Nehemiah and his wife ate from the same plate.
About mid-May the snow had so far gone that we began to clear a piece of ground adjoining Cousin Nehemiah's chopping, for sowing wheat and planting potatoes. This chopping was five miles from our temporary home, and we had to lodge in a camp, sleeping on cedar boughs with a great fire made at the mouth of the camp. I, being the youngest and least able to chop the logs, went back and forth from house to camp carrying bread and pork on my back. It was here that I first got sight of Mount Katahdin, about fifty miles distant. It looked like a great white giant, standing out clear and high above an unbroken forest. The atmosphere was so transparent that old Katahdin seemed but a few miles off.
Father took three lots of land adjoining Cousin Nehemiah Leavitt's lot, at the center of the township, and during the year built a house of hewed logs, into which we moved late in 1835.
One winter day father sent me with the horse and sled to the mill in Hodgdon, some twenty miles away. I had about ten bushels of wheat for my grist. When I got to the mill there were many grists ahead of me, and I could do little but wait until my turn came. At night when the others had gone home the miller took pity on me and ground my grist, as I had no money to put up at a hotel and needed my flour to carry home. .
About nine o'clock in the evening my grist was ready, and I went to the mill pond to water the horse before starting. The pond was frozen over, with snow on the ice. I was walking along to find water when I stepped into a hole in the ice, and went down till my arms stopped me. I got out as quick as I could, wet to the skin. I was well watered instead of the horse. I look off my boots, wrung out my socks, and put them on again, and started the twenty miles for home. When I was chilly I would jump off the sled and run behind the horse; when tired of running I would ride, and so got home about three o'clock in the morning. The next day I felt none the worse for my ducking and running.
The sickness and death of Cousin Nehemiah Leavitt, who was our next neighbor, were events of great moment to me as well as to the whole community. He was a man small of stature, and, as I was about eighteen and not large for my age, we often exchanged work, as we called it. That is, I worked for him one day and he worked for me the next. Thus we were much together, threshing grain in the winter, felling trees and clearing land in the spring and summer, and harvesting in the fall. He was intelligent and bright and agreeable – the clerk of the plantation, the Justice of the Peace, the land and road surveyor, one of the school committee, and, in fact, the most useful man in town.
While laying out a road one day, he was in some way injured internally and came home in great distress, riding on a horse. A doctor was sent for who gave him a lobelia emetic, which increased his distress and produced no change for the better. Another emetic was administered, and another, for this doctor knew no other remedy; but our dear cousin grew worse and worse while the doctor with a sober face and the appearance of wisdom kept pouring down lobelia. We all began to see that human means could not cure, so we began to pray. I asked God to take me and spare Cousin Nehemiah. But it was not so ordered, and this noble and useful man passed away while I was left.
Then I prayed that his mantle might fall on me. This prayer was answered in some respect, for after I became a minister and returned to Maine I was permitted to receive into my church at Sherman Widow Leavitt, her two sons and a daughter.
The winter I was twenty-one years of age, I had a chance to work for my board at Joseph Houlton’s in the town of Houlton. I was to saw wood, take care of the cattle and milk six cows. Though I had been to school in New Hampshire and had learned to read a little and to cipher as far as interest, I had forgotten much of it, having no newspaper to read and no books. Father had a Bible and a hymn book, and the life of John Colby, but these books were not much read in our family. I read the New Testament a little, and hymns were sung in meetings, but I was a poor reader and a much worse speller. I could write a little, and in this condition I entered the district school on the hill at Houlton.
In reading and spelling I was in a long class of boys and girls that took their place on the floor. Some of them were small, not more than ten years old, and some, like myself, were eighteen to twenty-one. When I spelt a word that others missed, I walked up proudly. But in arithmetic, of which I knew a little, and in grammar and geography, of which I knew nothing, I very soon was one of the best. During the term of four months I went through the arithmetic and grammar and reviewed them. I made good progress in geography went through Comstock's Natural Philosophy, and was able to parse a pretty hard sentence.
I shall never forget that at the beginning of school I was thought to be very green, and really was so. One day a young lady, by the name Sarah Houlton, called me "Jonathan." I thought she had made a mistake in the name, and I informed her that Jonathan was my brother’s name. Miss Houlton look it that I had turned the joke very wittily, and ever after seemed to respect me, especially as she and others soon learned that I was far ahead of them in scholarship. It was years afterward that I learned that, a greenhorn was called a "Jonathan."
At Mr. Houlton's a young man by the name of Bartlett was boarding, a clerk in the garrison. He could read music, and he taught me the natural scale, and with the scale and some natural gift for music I learned slowly to pick out the notes, and finally to read music.
The spring of my twenty-first year I hired out with William Irish for two months to get money to go to school in the fall. Having got together thirty dollars, I started the last of August with a bundle tied up in a red handkerchief to go somewhere, I did not know where. It was in my mind to go to the house of Elder Ireland in Newport, some twenty-five west of Bangor. I walked to Houlton and hired a passage on a six-horse team that was going to Bangor for goods, about 110 miles. I could sit beside the driver and ride to Bangor for two dollars. We were three days reaching Old Town, where I took the steam cars for Bangor, twelve miles away.
This was the first railroad I ever saw, and the first ride behind the engine. It was a wonderful ride for me, as we went whizzing through the fields and woods. In an hour we had travelled the twelve miles, and I took my bundle and began to walk alone Exchange Street in Bangor.
A man came out of a saloon, asking me if I wanted to get work on a vessel. He said he had just bought a schooner and was in want of men. I told him I was on my way to school, but I had never seen a ship of any kind and was curious to see one. As he invited me down to the wharf behind a pile of lumber to see his vessel, he took a little black ball from his pocket, and said there was a five cent piece in it, and asked me to find out how the ball could be opened. While I was looking at it another man came along who seemed about as curious and green as I was. The captain left us for a few minutes, apparently to look at some lumber which he said was to be carried to Boston on his ship. While he was absent his confederate opened the ball and took the five cent piece out and hastily shut the ball up again. This pleased me immensely and I laughed, as the captain was returning to us he said. "What are you laughing at? You think there is no five cent piece in that
ball, but I'll bet you ten dollars there is:”
I laughed, and said, "I know there is no five cent piece in that ball."
The confederate hunched me, and said, "Keep still; we can get something out of him."
After considerable bantering, we each bet five dollars against his ten, that there was no five cent piece in the ball. The money was laid down, and the ball, or another one looking the same, was opened, and there was five cents. The captain grabbed the twenty dollars and was off. I was struck by thunder and lightning and all the other invisible powers. Five silver dollars were gone, for which I had worked ten days. I hastened out of the hated streets of Bangor, towards Newport. I cried and hit my teeth together, and walked fast and grew angry with the world. At last I determined to eat less, fare worse, and make my money last me through the term.
I got to Elder Ireland’s the next day, and he kept me a few days, I working enough to pay for the trouble. Then he took me to St. Albans, eleven miles away, where an academy would commence the fall term that day. He found a place for me to board, and I entered school.
Before the week was out I became acquainted with two young men who were hiring a room and boarding themselves. They offered to let me share their room and bed, if I would sleep between them in the wide bed, and this I agreed to. I bought a small bag of flour, a jug of molasses, a bowl and a spoon. I got a neighbor to cook my bread for a trifle and do my washing, and I was ready for housekeeping. I took a bowl of cold water, sweetened it with molasses and crumbled in the bread. I lived on this fare through the term and thrived. The preceptor gave me a certificate at the end of the term, saying that William True Sleeper, the bearer, was qualified to teach a district school in the State of Maine.
I left for home with over two dollars in cash and all bills paid. I walked all the way except as I got free rides. The last day I rode in a wagon all day over frozen ground. I had no overcoat, or mittens, and the snow was driving into my face and freezing my ears. I thought I should perish, but I got home sound and well. That winter I taught school in my own town, by which I earned over fifty dollars.
When I went to St. Albans to school, I supposed I could learn in one year all that was needful to make me a learned man, but found out it would take me three years to fit for college, then, if a profession was entered, three years of further study. I was determined to try. In the spring I worked for Uncle Joseph Houlton again, and I taught a winter school in Hodgdon.
Father owed a small debt of about forty dollars in New Hampshire, which he had neglected to pay. A letter came threatening to send the note to a lawyer in Houlton for collection if it was not paid soon. Father was frightened but had not the money to pay the note. He had a yoke of oxen and a colt three years old which could be spared from the farm. He tried unsuccessfully to sell the oxen, and finally I made father an offer - I would take the colt, ride him to New Hampshire, sell him and pay the debt. This seemed to be the only way to get father out of the hole he was in and me out of the woods of Aroostook to a school.
I got together all the money I could, three dollars and fifty cents, an old saddle and old saddle bags with a pocket in each side. In one side I put a shirt, a pair of stockings, and what books I had. In the other side my dear weeping mother carefully put a loaf of bread or two, some sweet cakes, and a piece of cheese. All the clothes I had, good for anything, were on my back. Thus fitted I mounted the colt, said good by, and started into the woods by a bush path that led to Houlton.
I had to put up at hotels on my journey of 350 miles, and my money amounted to one cent a mile. At noon I stopped beside the road and let the colt feed for his dinner while I ate my bread and cheese. At night I had to pay twelve and a half cents for my lodging, and twenty-five cents for the colt's hay and oats. I had eaten my supper before reaching the hotel.
The narrative ends in the spring of 1845, when William True Sleeper finally entered Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college.