If it didn’t hurt so much, Allie would laugh. Here she was, a well-bred St. Louis girl, lying unwashed and indelicately perspiring in a frontier outpost, surrounded by a wilderness alive with wolves, murderous Indians and ravenous insects, on a river lost somewhere in the impenetrable jungle of southwest Florida, attended only, as she was the only woman at this post, by a well-meaning but awkward doctor who was more accustomed to treating soldiers and horses than ladies in childbirth.
Allie heard her husband’s careful step and turned her head on the pillow. He leaned over her with glowing eyes. She smiled. “We have a daughter,” she whispered. “Are you pleased?”
“Pleased, my dear? I am in heaven.”
The scene described above, between Almira and Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, is imagined, of course. But in 1857, in the military outpost of Fort Myers, Florida, Mrs. Hancock did give birth to her daughter, Ada Elizabeth, and Captain Hancock, garrison quartermaster, became the first man in the history of Fort Myers to become a father while in Fort Myers.
We remember him on this Father’s Day, 158 years later.
Named after Brigadier General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812, Winfield Scott Hancock was born in Pennsylvania in 1824, graduated from West Point in 1844, and was introduced, in 1850, to Almira Russell in St Louis. The brevity of their courtship was breathtaking. Six years and one child (a son) later, with hostilities between the United States and the Seminole Indians imminent, Hancock was assigned quartermaster duty at Fort Myers, which he undoubtedly had to locate on a map. He wanted neither the duty nor the post assignment, but accepted it in order to gain his promotion to captain.
General William S. Harney, in command of the post, may have been even less happy with his transfer to Fort Myers. In 1939, during the second of the apparently interminable Seminole wars, he was in command of a trading post on the north bank of the Caloosahatchee River (in present-day Cape Coral) when his garrison of 23 soldiers was surprised by 150 Seminoles and slaughtered almost to the man.
So how does a young husband and father protect and provide for his wife and young son in a frontier fort virtually under siege by the enemy? You do the best you can. As a stress reliever, you dig holes and plant trees.
FATHER AS PROVIDER
In the summer of 1856, Allie, “cut off from civilization and suffering all the inconveniences and discomforts of a frontier station” (as she later described the experience), realizes that she is again with child. But child-bearing in frontier posts is only one of the hazards of being a soldier’s wife, and she prepares as best she can for her delivery.
In the meantime, Captain Hancock, as garrison quartermaster, does the best he can to keep the fort provisioned with everything from canned goods to ammunition. Both mail and supplies are brought up river under sail. If the boat is lost at sea, the inhabitants of this little military enclave write letters home to the effect that they are still waiting for their ship to come in.
“In this forsaken country, prodigal only in the number and variety of venomous snakes and insects of every kind,” milk could scarcely be obtained from those “half-starved, miserable Florida cows,” so Father tries to bring in a milk cow. The first one wanders off (maybe) from the herd driven overland; the second one arrives by boat, but in landing, falls overboard and breaks her neck; the third arrives safely, only to wander off into quicksand and sink slowly under Allie’s horrified gaze.
FATHER AS PROTECTOR
Privation is especially hard to endure when you are pregnant, but confinement is also maddening when you have a four-year-old boy tugging at your skirts, begging to go out and play. Russell is really too little to let run around the fort unsupervised. As the only child in the fort, the boy is like birdsong to the soldiers, but they are foul-mouthed, often drunk, and not entirely trustworthy when it comes to keeping a little boy from under the hooves of cattle, from the red-hot anvil in the blacksmith shop, and from the currents at the end of the long army wharf.
The only recreation possible is a stroll to the end of the wharf, where they can stand and watch sea birds, perhaps. Sometimes a soldier fishing on the river bank will show little Russell how to bait and cast a line. Allie finally persuades Winfield to let them at least take a barge out on the river. These float trips make Father considerably more nervous than the “living hell of fire, and shell and grape shot” at the battle of Gettysburg, where he will distinguish himself for his remarkable calm under fire. He heavily arms the oarsmen, and when Indians are spotted along the river bank, he orders Allie and Russell to lie flat and flips a heavy rubber tarp over them. Once, they discover that the “Indians” are nothing but flamingoes and Allie laughs until she realizes that Winfield is not amused and she presses her lips together hard to stifle her giggles.
FATHER AS BABY SITTER
Sometimes Father takes his boy to work with him in the post’s administrative office, giving his pregnant wife a chance to elevate her swollen feet. Unfortunately for the army, but fortunately for a number of Seminole fathers and mothers, Russell is present on the day that General Harney orders that the captured Seminole women and children be brought to him. After the massacre in 1839, General Harney has taken a strong dislike to Indians, so he may or may not be bluffing when he threatens to hang the captive women’s children if they don’t tell him where Billy Bowlegs’ camp is. Four-year-old Russell, gripping the arms of his chair with chalk-white fingers, listens in horror, his eyes widening when General Harney brandishes a rope in the women’s faces. Suddenly he jumps off his chair and, sobbing, pleads for the lives of the children. Russell’s father, General Harney, and the other officers present keep up the pretense of the threat and finally, the boy wipes his eyes, drops his small shoulders in abject resignation, and says sadly, “Well, if you’re going to hang them, at least let me have their bows and arrows.”
Well, of course, the officers lose it. They absolutely crack up. So much for finding Billy Bowlegs.
FATHER AS GARDENER
Captain Hancock loves to plant shrubs and trees, not only for relaxation, but also for the enjoyment of those who will come after him. He will plant them at every post to which he is assigned. When his daughter, Ada, is born, a year after they come to Fort Myers, he joyfully celebrates her birth by planting a tree in front of the officers’ quarters.
But living under the constant threat of Indian attack makes life at Fort Myers tiresome in the extreme. The Hancocks are immensely relieved when General Harney, transferred to Fort Leavenworth, where hostilities between the United States and the Sioux nation are imminent, requests the transfer shortly thereafter of Captain Hancock to the same post.
And so, when the baby is 3 months old, the Hancocks leave Fort Myers.
In 1875, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock is in command of the Division of the Atlantic, headquartered at Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in New York City, when his beloved daughter, Ada, dies of typhoid fever just one month short of her 18th birthday.
Allie Hancock tells us in her memoirs, Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock, which were published in 1887 by Mark Twain’s publishing firm, Webster & Company, and upon which this history is based, that her husband retained all of his life a “strange, and jealous love” for the plantings he left at each of their posts. Now legend has it that the tree, or date palm, that Captain Hancock planted when Ada was born, grew to become a sort of tourist attraction in the town of Fort Myers, and that it lived until 1921, when it was so severely damaged in a hurricane that it had to be removed.
The tree is gone, but the story of the love of a father for his daughter lives on in a city of palms unimaginable to the little family that stepped onto a schooner one May day in 1857, and sailed away forever to their own sad and glorious destinies.