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THE CAPTAIN’S BOOK: Lost Diary of a Patriot
Written By: Newt Weaver
*Click images below to view larger versions.
THE  CAPTAIN’S  BOOK: Lost Diary of a Patriot
Hurricane Donna September 1960
    Living near the Atlantic Ocean, residents can bet that eventually they will experience the dangers and inconvenience of flood waters from extreme tidal surges as well as wind and rain damages courtesy of an early spring, full moon, three-day Nor’easter or a season-ending hurricane whose eye skirts the coastline a hundred miles off shore.
    I can recall as a youth one particular hurricane - Donna.
    It seems this hurricane took its time traveling up the Atlantic seaboard. Nearly fifty years ago, beginning on the 10th of September to the 14th, 1960,  this tropical depression ravaged the seashores from the Florida Keys to Maine. It is the only hurricane on record to produce hurricane-force winds consistently throughout the entire U.S. East Coast!
    No sooner had the harsh winds and blinding rains abated from the slow moving disturbance that I found myself scurrying towards the beach. It was reasonable to assume that a collectable or two had been unearthed and left for the taking. I was not alone as other hardy residents soon joined in the traditional pursuit of discovery and keeps. From a distance, the beach looked like a nomadic wasteland, a dumping ground of sea fury consisting of ocean foam, driftwood and trash. Upon closer inspection, it magically became an instant treasure trove where one can find things of interest and value. From dimes, quarters and an occasional Franklin half-dollar sticking out of the damp, wind-blown surface to gold rings, bracelets, watches and even a wallet or two. Precious items or heirlooms lost or forgotten, and buried in the sand from seasons past by the throngs of tourists briefly visiting the beach. For those folks who were brave enough to venture out, and to fend off the last remaining stinging grains of wind-blown sand, beachcombing shortly after a dominate storm was quite lucrative.
    Severe seasonal weather isn’t just restricted to the coastal regions. A low pressure tempest can occur almost anywhere in the country stretching from moderately populated centers to remote localities.
    Occasionally when a critical storm passes over such an area, the newly discovered matter might fall into the category of reality being stranger than fiction. The phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up!” readily comes to mind.
    Just as family, friends and neighbors in the U.S. began to gather in celebrating the ninety-seventh year of declared independence, a massive and very powerful, late afternoon storm roared through the Miami Valley in Ohio. The July 4th storm of 1873 was believed to be the remnants of a tropical depression or, as some sources claim (including reports from The New York Times and The Philadelphia Ledger), a hurricane which spawned destructive wind gusts, torrential rains and even a few tornadoes. It left a path of devastation from Cincinnati to Toledo uprooting trees and snapping nearly two thousand telegraph poles which blocked most major roads. Numerous bridges were declared unstable and some were  ‘washed out’ stranding many residents.
    The next day it was prudent that landowners and caretakers begin surveying their respective acreages in order to determine the extent of damage that the storm had inflicted on their properties. One such area, known as the “Anderson Farm” belonging to a man named Rogers, was nearly wiped out - including a towering grove of oaks. In the center of the handsome grove had stood a giant oak groomed by nature before Columbus had bravely st forth on an expedition from the Canaries in 1492.
    Rogers was startled at the mass of destruction that lay scattered before him. The landlord sat resting on a nearby felled tree. He stared for a few minutes at the once noble oak, which had snapped during the storm, to see if any parts of it would be of use as rail-timber.
    Then something caught his eye.  A closer examination revealed that beside the giant oak’s cavernous hollow, which had been struck by lightning and carved out many years earlier, were several rags and some old-style tarnished buttons. Being curious, he began pulling on the material, which resembled the remnants of an old coat. He tried clearing it away from the tree’s split and crumbled hollow. While tugging away, something caught hold of the tattered cloths. Perhaps it was the underbrush, some vines, maybe a branch or two tangled up.  Instead, to his amazement, he found several bones ... human and disconnected, toned yellow by age. With a little more effort he eventually recovered a skeleton with the skull almost intact; all the teeth except two (molars) were still in the jaw.  There was a jagged scar on the left parietal bone which indicated an injury of a serious nature.
    Alongside the remains, there was an old-fashioned leather packet. Unfortunately, this leather purse contained no silver or gold; however, what was discovered inside would be considered ... priceless.
    Numerous pages and dates, similar to those found in diaries or log-books, kept Rogers busy initially thumbing through the reports. Notes were often difficult to understand as they were scribbled on the backs of army passes and military consignments which dated back to 1776!  As darkness began creeping in through the woodlands, with light giving way to shadows, the pages became almost impossible to decipher.
    Rogers, overwhelmed by what he had found, respectfully gathered the human remains as best he could and started his long trek back to the farmhouse where he would store them. He took  care not to lose any bones along the way. Once back at the house, under candle-light, he began to slowly read each page of the journal.
    From the diary, he found that the author was  Roger Vanderberg. He was a captain in the Revolutionary Army and a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Vanderberg was an aid to General George Washington during his brief stand at White Plains, New York in late October 1776. He participated in the retreat across New Jersey. He was also involved in the crossing of the icy Delaware River, and in the victorious Battle of Trenton and later in  Princeton, New Jersey. He spent the harsh winter of 1777-78 holed-up on the frozen grounds of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The captain also served in the summer of 1780 under General Benedict Arnold whose headquarters was at West Point, New York. Here the withered pages failed to complete the Captain’s story as words detailing events and dates had just faded out. However, Rogers, with straining  eyes, was able to continue with his reading.
    In 1791, Vanderberg marched with General Arthur St. Clair against the Northwestern Indians (Miami and Shawnee Tribes of Indiana and Ohio) and was involved in the famous conflict: the Battle of the Wabash on November 3, 1791. By the end of the day,  St. Clair had lost over 650 men. In comparison, that’s nearly twice as many as General George Armstrong Custer would later suffer on July 26, 1876 in the Battle of Little Big Horn.  The Wabash confrontation (known today as Fort Recovery) is still considered the greatest Native American victory over the U.S. Military.
    It was in the heat of this skirmish that Vanderberg was seriously injured and captured by Little Turtle’s tribe, the Miami. While the tribe was on the march to an Indian town at Upper Piqua to celebrate their great victory, Vanderberg managed to escape from the tight reigns of his handlers. Running through the woods with his adversaries in close pursuit, he located a huge oak with a hollow formed several feet above ground.
    Despite his lacerated broken arm, he managed with the help of a nearby beech tree to climb into the hollow only to realize later that the depth of it was too much to overcome. He became a prisoner of the giant oak.
    Rogers paused briefly rubbing his tired eyes, studying the dancing light of the candle on the final pages of the captain’s book. He surmised that the courageous soldier, though severely wounded, would rather have given in to the exposure of the cold and endure starvation than to suffer the heinous torture at the fire stake when he arrived at the Indian settlement of Upper Piqua. Here was a brave, loyal patriot who once was in ear shot of marching orders given by Generals Washington, Arnold and St. Clair.
    Writing in his diary through faded light and dusting snow, Vanderberg’s words come from the heart. The following is just one entry in his book.
    “Nov. 10th – Five days without food!  When I sleep, I dream of luscious fruits and flowering streams. The stars laugh at my misery! It is snowing now. I freeze while I starve! God pity me!”
    The entries covered a span of eleven days ... with incomplete sentences revealing the events leading up to the final days of his life. Rogers tried to recall if there was any other hand-written record of one’s own suffering and death; none came to mind.
    Rogers left word in Lancaster that he would send Vanderberg’s remains to any relative wishing to claim the valiant captain as theirs.  Soon this incident was making headline news, mixing with the storm coverage in the local and regional papers.
    The lead story spelled out how an incredible discovery of skeletal remains inside a tree hollow in Ohio can give closure to a family in Pennsylvania 82 years after the missing relative first crawled into it.
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