It was 1817, and Solomon Sweatland had risen early that September morning, anticipating one of his favorite activities: deer hunting. He hunted with his neighbor, a Mr. Cozzens, who owned deer hounds. The dogs would trail a deer by scent and hopefully chase it into nearby Lake Erie. Either Sweatland or Cozzens would then pursue the deer by canoe and shoot it in the water.
Though that hunting technique was no doubt very effective, it is also highly illegal today in Ohio where this story takes place. Not only is it against the law to pursue deer with dogs in the Buckeye State, it’s also illegal to shoot a deer in the water. But in those days, nearly two centuries ago, hunting was done more for food than fun so most anything was acceptable, as long as it put venison on the table.
Stepping out of his cabin at dawn, Sweatland didn’t have long to wait before hearing the baying of the hounds. And he was in luck; the chase was leading toward the lake. Running to the beach carrying his muzzleloading rifle, Sweatland saw the deer, a large one, already swimming away from shore. Taking off his hat and coat and throwing them on the ground, he jumped into his 14-foot dugout canoe and began paddling in pursuit.
What Sweatland had failed to notice, however, was the brisk breeze blowing hard from the south. The wind had been gaining intensity all night, and now with the breaking of day was freshening all the more. But his focus was on the deer, and he strained at his paddle to close the distance for a shot.
When the deer saw him coming it began making a wide turn, heading back toward land. Sweatland saw this as his chance for a shot, but when he put the paddle down and picked up his rifle the waves swept him past the deer so fast he couldn’t draw a bead. Undeterred, Sweatland once again began paddling. But turning into the wind, he soon discovered he could make no headway against the building waves; in fact, he was losing ground. It was at that moment Solomon Sweatland knew he was in trouble.
Cozzens, now on the shoreline along with his dogs, saw what was happening and raced to commandeer a larger boat. Doing so, he and two other men searched the lake for hours, as much as five or six miles offshore, but found no sign of Sweatland. At one point the would-be rescuers even passed the exhausted deer as it approached land, but they paid no attention—their sole mission now was to save their fellow hunter.
After searching the lake for hours—at great danger to themselves in the howling wind and rising waves—the men finally encountered giant waves they determined no canoe could survive without capsizing. Eventually, the rescue boat and its reluctant crew returned to shore, giving up their hunting partner for drowned.
Sweatland, however, was far from dead. A man of considerable strength and experienced with boats, he did not panic. Instead, realizing there was no chance of returning to the beach in the gathering gale, he determined to run with the wind and try to make it to the north shore of the lake—Canada—some 50 miles away!
Standing in the heavy dugout to quickly shift his weight and steady the boat from the breaking waves, Sweatland kept paddling. Occasionally, he would fall to his knees and bail with the only thing he had available, his shoes. Twice during the day schooners appeared on the horizon and he tried signaling them by waving his paddle and screaming for help, but both sailed on without noticing.
As the hours dragged on and daylight gradually faded into the darkness of evening, lights began coming on in his family’s cabin and other houses he recognized along the south shore. And as those same lights slowly disappeared below the raging waters of the lake, he was pushed ever northward by the waves. It must have occurred to Sweatland during the long night that he very likely would not survive to see tomorrow’s sunrise.
But when the sun finally did rise the next morning, Sweatland was not only alive, he was once again in sight of land—only this time it was Long Point on the Canadian shore! After 30 hours in that bucking dugout canoe, wet and cold, he finally made landfall. But as thankful as he was to once again be on firm ground, his adventure was not yet over.
Sweatland walked some 40 miles before finding human habitation, and that through marshes and thickets. Once he reached an occupied cabin, the surprised family took him in, fed and clothed him, and helped him recuperate for a few days. Sweatland then continued his hike, walking around the northeast corner of Lake Erie to Buffalo, New York, more than 100 miles.
At Buffalo, Sweatland’s luck finally changed. The packet boat Traveler was in port and headed for Conneaut, Ohio, near his cabin. The captain was more than happy to take Sweatland home, and when the ship arrived off Conneaut the crew fired guns and gave three cheers in celebration. Upon going ashore, Solomon Sweatland learned that his family and friends had already attended his funeral. And he found his mourning wife dressed all in black, believing she was a widow.
Many such survival/adventure stories exist from America’s frontier past. This gem was found in Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, Volume I, published in 1846.
Image is "Beached Canoe, Squall Beyond" by D. Howard Hitchcock, 1896.