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Children's Story Garden  >  The Latchstring

Girl standing in wild undergrowth, casting milkwood seeds to the breeze.

The Children's Story Garden

The Latchstring


"WELL, perhaps we ought at least to bar our door, for the sake of the children." Mary Tyler spoke reluctantly, and there was a note of uncertainty in her voice.

"Perhaps so," replied James Tyler. "It seems to me every man within five miles has upbraided me for not protecting my children.'?

Mary glanced with troubled eyes at the face of her husband, as they sat before the fire in their little cabin. She knew that he, too, was living over the uncertain days since the outbreak of the war. Time and again there had been reports that the British soldiers had incited the Indians to burn the cabins of the settlers and massacre whole families. Despite these reports, the Tylers had lived, as before, on friendly terms with their neighbors, both Indians and white men. When massacres had occurred in nearby settlements, they had still continued to leave out the latchstring, that leather thong which enabled a person outside the door to lift the latch and enter.

The Tylers had trusted entirely to the protection of their Heavenly Father, and had refused to arm themselves, or even to lock their door. Now they had reliable assurance that the Indians were coming to destroy their settlement. Neighbors urged that they had no right to imperil the lives of their children by such foolhardiness — that they should protect themselves.

"But is it really protection?" Mary queried, as now they sat alone in their cabin.

"At least," responded James, "we shall be doing what most people consider safest."

For what seemed a long time, they sat gazing at the fire. The silence was broken only by the moaning of the wind in the pine trees and the crackling of the logs on the hearth. For the first time in all the dark days, Mary felt afraid. She stirred uneasily and cast a furtive glance around the shadowy room. James rose and lighted a candle. He crossed the room and stood for a moment uncertainly beside the outside door. Then, with a deep sigh, he pulled in the leather thong, fastened the latch securely, and prepared for bed.

All night James tossed restlessly. Every time one of the children stirred, or a branch scraped the roof, he would start violently, and fall back unnerved. He tried to calm himself by repeating verses from the Bible, but instead of the usual comfort, the words only brought a challenge to his excited brain. "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" "Take the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked."

"Mary," he whispered at last, "art thou awake?" "Yes, James," she replied," I have not slept. I have tried to pray, and always the answer has been, 'Behold the Lord's hand is not shortened that it can not save."

"Thou art right, Mary, the Lord's hand is not shortened and we did wrong to pull in the latchstring. Shall we put our trust entirely in Him?"

"Aye, James, I should feel much safer so," she replied. Quickly James stepped to the door and pulled the leather thong through to the outside. Then he lay down again and both enjoyed such a sense of peace and security as they had not felt for hours. Suddenly, just as they were about to drop off to sleep, they heard a blood-curdling war-whoop. A few seconds later the moccasined footsteps of several men passed the window and stopped in front of the door. The latch clicked and the door swung open. By the dim light from the embers on the hearth, James could see seven Indians in full war paint. They motioned and talked to each other and then silently pulled the door to and disappeared into the night.

In the morning, when James and Mary looked out of their door, they saw only the smoking ruins of their neighbors' cabins.

Years later, when the war was over, the government of the United States appointed James Tyler as a representative to an Indian conference. One day he told this story to all those assembled. In reply, an Indian arose and said: "I was one of those Indians. We crept up in night. We meant to burn and kill. We found latchstring out. We said, 'No burn this house. No kill these people. They do us no harm. They trust Great Spirit.'"

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In The Children's Story Garden. Stories collected by a committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting — Anna Pettit Broomell, Emily Cooper Johnson, Elizabeth W. Collins, Alice Hall Paxson, Annie Hillborn, and Anna D. White. Illustrated by Katharine Richardson Wireman and Eugénie M. Wireman. Published in 1920 by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Notes and links

The Latch String
All of the important events are true. Names of characters are fictitious. (Historical Notes.)
Another version of the story:

In 1812 our country and England were at war. The soldiers of England paid some of the Indians to burn the homes of Americans. The Indians would come out of the deep woods with angry war cries. They would burn down the farm houses and take the cows and horses away with them.

At first the war did not go well for our country. Many people had to leave their farms. They went to towns and cities where there were enough soldiers to keep the Indians away. James and Mary Tyler lived on a farm with their four children. James would not move them to town when he was told that the Indians might come at any time.

I think we should go, Mary said. No, said James. We must believe that God will take care of us. We must believe that both the red men and the white men are our friends.

Well, said Mary, if we stay here you must take in the latchstring on the door. Then the Indians cannot just walk in on us.

Years later, when the war was over, James Tyler was at a meeting. Indians and white men were there. Mr Tyler told the story of the latchstring. He told of how the war party of Indians had left his home when they found that the latchstring was out.

Suddenly an old chief got to his feet. I was one of these Indians, he said. We came at night. We mean to burn house. Take cows and horses.

But we find latchstring out. We say, We no burn this house. These people our friends! They believe in Great Spirit.

Source: Doorways to Adventure, by Harold G. Shane and Kathleen B. Hester. (Laidlaw Brothers, 1960.) Included in a scan and edit of the book, parts 1 and 2.