In 1854, Abigail Becker married a widower and moved to a small, rugged trapper’s cabin on Long Point, Lake Erie, in very remote Ontario, Canada, where she planned to earn a hardscrabble life living off the land and the lake. Oh, and she was also there to raise her husband’s six kids. The two of them went on to have eight kids together, and when he died, she married again and had three more kids.
Seventeen kids, living hand to mouth out in the middle of frigid Lake Erie. And thus concludes this installment of Historical Badass.
Well, no, not really.
Becker lived in a place uniquely well positioned to notice distressed mariners running aground on shallow sandbars in central Lake Erie. In a short period of time she rescued at least 10 people from shipwrecks, in some cases practically dragging survivors through frozen beaches and woods to reach the warmth of her family’s fireplace.
Becker’s story isn’t at all well known today, but through the latter years of her life she earned a localized kind of fame as the “Angel of Long Point.” A gold coin was struck to honor her achievements, and the Prince of Wales made a point to track her down while on a hunting trip nearby. Queen Victoria was so impressed the royal sent Becker a monetary gift she used to buy her own house.
In November, 1854, after a mild summer, autumn had come on cold and strong on the Great Lakes. A ship called the Conductor, bearing a heavy load of wheat, was sailing for Toronto when on the night of November 23, the captain became disoriented in a driving snow and a moonless night. The ship struck an offshore sandbar, was thrown sideways, then swamped by a powerful wave that filled the belowdecks and sunk her in shallow waters. The seven-man crew clambered up the frozen mast and prayed they’d not freeze to death overnight.
The next morning, Becker was filling a bucket of water at the beach when she looked to sea and saw the Conductor’s crew hanging from its spindly mast. Many miles from any possible help, Becker acted quickly to build a large fire on the beach to alert the men she’d seen them, then started beckoning to them they’d need to swim to shore to make it out alive.
The captain went first, swimming the quarter mile or so to the beach before foundering in the swirling undertow near shore. Becker, who couldn’t swim, ran into chest-deep water, grabbed the captain by his collar, and wrestled him to safety.
One by one the men steeled their courage, leapt into the freezing water, and braved the treacherous surf and undertow swirling on the shallow sandbars. They warmed themselves first on the beach, then in the Becker home.
But that wasn’t the only rescue.
On a later occasion, a ship lost its way and beached itself on the sand near the Becker farm. That night, four of the crew stumbled to her front door, covered in ice, nearly hypothermic, deeply shaken by their ship’s foundering and their nighttime stumble for safety. Becker learned two of the crew didn’t have the strength to make the trek, so she left the men by the fire, then headed out with two of her boys in a pitch black night with a heavy snow falling to find the two lost crew. Miraculously, she did, though there were nearly unresponsive. Becker and her sons carried the men back to the cabin, wrapped them in blankets by the fire, and revived them to health.
When Becker wasn’t saving sailors, she was fishing, trapping, repairing the cabin, collecting water, and feeding her small town of children. Six feet tall, unafraid of cold, isolation, or a raging inland sea, even though she was unable to swim, Becker was seemingly made for a life as the Angel of Long Point. Though she was memorialized in song and poetry in her native Canada, after she passed away in 1905, on a farm given to her by the regional government for her lifesaving work, her legend quickly faded. Not one to particularly care much what others thought, she was probably just fine with that.
Words by Justin Housman