Chapter II - Hist. Steuben Co - McMasters [1853] - Steuben Co., NY GenWeb

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Hist. Steuben by McMasters Table of Contents

History of the Settlement of Steuben County, New York

by: Guy McMasters [1853]

Chapter II

Steuben County Immediately Before Its Settlement--A Journey Sixty-Five Years Ago--The Forest--The Rivers &C.--Sketch of Benjamin Patterson, The Hunter--Skirmish at Freeling’s Fort--Scuffle With The “Interpreter”--The Wild Ox of Genesee Flats.

On the morning of Christmas-day, in the Year 1787, a backwoodsman and an Indian issued from the door of a log cabin which stood half buried in snow on the point of land lying between the Cowenisque Creek and the Tioga River, at the junction of the streams, and set forth on the ice of the river for a journey to the settlements below. They were clad according to the rude fashions of the frontiers and the forest, in garments partly obtained by barter from outpost traders, and partly stripped by robbery from the beasts of the forest. Tomahawks and knives were stuck in their belts, snow shoes were bound to their feet, and knapsacks of provisions were lashed to their backs. Such was the equipment deemed necessary for travelers in Steuben County not a century ago.

The snow lay upon the ground four full feet in depth. It was brought from the north in one of those night storms which in former days often swept down from Canadian regions and poured the treasures of the snowy zone on our colonial forests--storms which seldom visit us in modern days--as if the passage of tariff bills, which have cramped the operations of many heavy British-American firms, had made it impracticable for Polar capitalists to introduce their fabrics into the Commonwealth of New York with the profusion which was encouraged in the times of the English governors.

The pioneer and his savage comrade pursued their journey on the ice. The Tioga was then a wild and free river. From its source, far up in the “Magnolia hills” of the old provincial maps, down to its union with the equally wild and free Conhocton, no device of civilized man fretted its noble torrent. A single habitation of human beings stood upon its banks, the log cabin at the mouth of the Cowenisque; and that was the western most cabin of New York. But it bore now upon its frozen surface the forerunner of an unresisting race of lumbermen and farmers, who in a few years invaded its peaceful solitudes, dammed it wild flood, and hewed down the lordly forest through which it flowed. The travelers kept on their course beyond the mouth of the Canisteo to the Painted Post. Here they expected to find the cabin of one Harris, a trader, where they might have lodgings for the night, and, if necessary from the comfort of the savage breast, a draught from “the cup which cheers (and also) inebriates.” On their arrival at the head of the Chemung, however, they found that the cabin had been destroyed by fire. The trader had either been murdered by the Indians, or devoured by wild beasts, or else he had left the country, and Steuben County was in consequence depopulated.

Disappointed in this hope, the two travelers continued their journey on the ice as far as Big Flats. Here night overtook them. They kindled a fire on the bank of the river, and laid them down to sleep. The air was intensely cold. It was one of those clear, still, bitter nights, when the moon seems an iceberg, and the stars are bright and sharp like hatchets. The savage rolled himself up in his blanket, lay with his back to the fire and did not so much as stir till the morning; but his companion, though, framed of the stout staff out of which backwoodsman are built, could not sleep for the intensity of the cold. At midnight a pack of wolves chased a deer from the woods to the river, seized the wretched animal on the ice, tore it to pieces and devoured it within ten rods of the encampment. Early in the morning the travelers arose and went their way to the settlements below, the first of which was Newtown, on the sight of the present village of Elmira.

Such is one of the earliest glimpses of our county granted us, Journeys are performed in rather a different manner now! The incidents of the trip sound oddly enough to the ear of the modern traveler--the excursion on snow shoes--the possible destruction of the village of Painted Post by the Indians--the encampment and night fire under the trees by the river bank, on a stinging Christmas night, while frost-bitten wolves regaled the ears of the travelers with dismal howling! The backwoodsman was Samuel Baker, a New Englander, afterwards well known to our citizens as Judge Baker, of Pleasant Valley.

This is a winter scene. The Descriptive and Historical “Citizen” given in his sketch a summer picture,--”a picture of our county as it was a few summers before the irruption of the backwoodsman; for this, the figure of our rugged home arrayed in its ancient and barbarous yet picturesque and noble garb, is one which the reflecting citizen will sometime contemplate in imagination, with pleasure, and not without some degree of wonder.

“On a summer’s day, shortly after the close of the War of Revolution, let the observing citizen stand with me on an exceedingly high mountain and survey the land. It is a vast solitude, with scarce a sound to break the reigning silence but the splashing of the brooks in their defiles, and the brawling of the rivers at the rifts, or perhaps the creaking of sulky old hemlocks as the light wind stirs their branches or sways their tottering trunks slowly to and fro. What a noble forest is this, covering the valleys and the high, rounded hills, and the steep sides of the winding gulfs, and the crests of the successive ranges that rise above each other till the outline of a blue and curving barrier is traced against the sky. For ages upon ages has this land been a wilderness. Savages have hunted in it. Storms have passed over it, and its history would present but a record of wild beasts slain, of trees uprooted, and of the passage of terrible whirlwinds which broke wide lanes through the forest and overthrew the timbers of whole hill-sides. See how the three rivers flow through groves of elm and willow, while the white sycamores, standing on unmolested islands, raise aloft their long branches where the cranes rest with the plunder of the shallows. Free rivers are these, flowing joyously through the channels provided for them of old, shackled by no dams, insulted by no bridges, tormented by no saw-mills. They bear with gladness the occasional canoe of the people that gave them their sounding names; they give drink to the heated deer, to the panther, and the wallowing bear,--disgusted by no base-born beasts of the yoke wading their stony fords, nor by geese swimming in their clear waters, nor by swine lounging in the warm mud of the eddies. See, also, the lakes sleeping in the hollows prepared for them anciently, their bluffs and beaches occupied even to the water’s edge with forest trees, while solitary loons and fleet of wild fowl cruise on their waters, scared by neigh wheels of the passing steamer, nor by the whistling bullets of fowls. Behold too the creeks, the brooks, the torrents, leaping down from the highlands like hearty young mountaineers; while in the ravines through which they brawl the great pines stand as if dreaming, unconscious that their gigantic trunks contain spars and saw-logs.

“But the forest is not destitute of an active populace. Bears sit growling at the widows of their towers in the hollow trees; painted catamounts lurk in the glens; panthers crouch on the low branches of the oaks; elk and many thousand deer are standing in the ponds or browsing in the tickets; while hungry gangs of wolves rove at dusk through the groves with dismal howling. And these are not the only citizens of the wood. There we see the myriads of squirrels, the wood-fowls whistling and drumming in the tickets, the old and clumsy sons of the she-bear tumbling in the leaves in their awkward play, the comical raccoons frolicking in the tree-tops, while the wise and sober woodchuck goes forth alone, and the otter cruises in the still water of the streams.

“All these things, let the observing citizen mark,--these far rolling forests, these silent lakes and wild rivers, these savage creeks and torrents, these gorges and wooded glens, these deep-worn valleys and the abrupt ranges that bound them, and the promontories that jut from the ever-changing outlines of the ranges,--all as they were in the ancient time before I begin the story of their conquest,--a half melancholy story; for who can think how these solitudes were broken up and these fine forests mangled without a half melancholy story; for who can think how these solitudes were broken up and these fine forests mangled without a half-regretful thought?

“The wilderness is doomed. Even now as we stand on the mountain the men who will invade it are astir. Down on the Susquehanna uneasy farmers are already working their way upward in broad barges; uneasy New Englanders are already launching canoes on the Unadilla, which will find their way hither. Even now Scotchmen, Irishmen, and Englishmen are tossing on the seas who in a few years will live in these valleys, farmer and tradesmen, and even supervisors, Justices of the Peace, and Judges. Barbarism, drawing its fantastic blanket over its shoulders, and clutching its curiously-wrought tomahawk, must withdraw to other solitudes, jingling its brazen ornaments and whooping as it goes.”

Such was our County as seen by the “Citizen” before the year 1787. There are a few additional facts which escaped his notice on the “exceedingly high mountain,” which may with propriety be mentioned before proceeding to the narration of events connected with the settlement.

This whole region,--especially that part of it occupied by the valleys of the Conhocton and Canisteo,--was of old one of the best hunting grounds belonging to the Six Nations, and was visited in the winter and autumn by large parties of Seneca Indians, who came from their villages on the Genesee for the destruction of game. It was a royal park indeed--and yet of course not such a park as the elegant deer-folds of Europe thus named--but rather like those rugged and unkempt Asiatic parks, where the Nimrods and Cyruses of old, with their peers and captains, made war upon lions and tigers, and boars; only here were unfortunately neither boars, nor tigers, nor lions, and, to speak truly, but shabby substitutes for such noble game. It was only when the wild huntsman grappled with the wounded panther or scuffled with the angry bear, or dodged the horns of the furious stag, that the perils of the chase deserved record with the exploits of those worthies of old, who pricked lions in the jungles with their Assyrian pikes. Still, of very rude and ugly beasts there was no scarcity. Of bears and panthers there were quite as many as the County could support even under a system of direct taxation for that purpose, and when we take into account beside these, the large and happy communities of rattlesnakes and catamounts which flourished in eligible localities, there is no reason why the patriotic citizen should feel mortified at our county’s ancient census returns.

There are certain facts with regard to the rivers which do not appear in the Citizen’s “Sketch.” Before the settlement of the county, the rivers were much deeper, stronger, and steadier, than they are at the present day. In modern times they are notoriously unreliable servants of the people--sometimes reducing the saw-mill to half-rations, and confining the eels to limited elbow-room; anon rising above their banks, flooding the flats, sweeping away piles of lumber, and testing the labors of the commissioners of highway and bridges, as is the undoubted right of every river in this republican land. The destruction of the forests has caused the drying up of multitudes of little springs which formerly, by their penny contributions to the great sinking-fund, swelled appreciably the treasures of the streams. Freshets can be had on shorter notice now than then, but they are of shorter duration. Then, the snow melting in the woods slowly, caused the March and April floods to be deliberate and of long continuance. How, the snow falling upon bare hills and open farms, melts rapidly at sunshine and shower, rushes into the ravines and swells the creeks with violent and short-lived freshets. Many channels which were formerly the beds of petty, but perennial brooks, are now “dry runs,” except after rains, when they are filled with powerful torrents. The State Geologist apprehends serious inconvenience from the failure of water, if the destruction of the forest is continued in the future as extravagantly as during the last fifty years.

Our ancient rivers, in addition to their superiority in depth and power to the shallow streams which to-day wind through our valleys, were far more correct in their habits and firm in their principles than the modern waters--not being so easily persuaded to indulge in irregularities, and not taking advantage of every winter-thaw, to rise up, and go off on a “bender,” as it were, with the creeks and runnels, like a crew of light-headed youngsters. And yet it is not to be extravagances. Early settlers well remember how the lower valley of the Tioga was flooded from hill to hill fully a mile, deep enough almost, at the shallowist, to swim a horse; and how men, near Painted Post, paddled their canoes in the roads for miles. This was about forty-five years ago.

The rivers were furthermore grievously afflicted with flood-wood. They bore down with their strongest waters annual tribute to the Susquehanna, of trees, broken trunks, and enormous roots--the bullion of the forest--like savage chiefs of the mountain, bearing gifts to the prince of the plains, of rough ores, unwrought gems, and the feathers of strange birds. In modern days we continue this tribute, but in different form, as evidence of our improved state--coining the uncouth bullion into boards or huge ingots of timber. Notwithstanding the great quantities of flood-wood from which the rivers freed themselves by the occasional floods, there were yet large masses of this raft which the freshet did not loosen, or at most, shifted from point to point. The two lesser rivers were fairly strangled by these dams. Navigation, for any craft heavier than the birch canoe of the pagan, was utterly impracticable. After the settlement of the county, these collections of flood-wood were chopped and burned away at a considerable public expense. Upon the whole, it would appear that our county contained in old times, a very heedless and lawless family of waters. The rivers were badly snarled. It is one of the most pleasing results of a judicious civilization that these tangled torrents have been combed out smoothly, and that the mountain creeks, which then like wild colts came leaping through the ravines, have at last been caught in huge timber traps so ingeniously contrived with bulkheads and flooms, that there was really no chance of escape for these lively streams, and have been given to understand that all this capering through the glens, and leaping over the rocks, might be excused when the poor Indian who know nothing about hydraulics held the land, but that they must now come into the harness and carry saw-logs and turn undershot wheels.

Considering all these things--the forests, the hills, the shaded island, the wild beasts, and the untamed rivers--our county appears to have been truly a fastness of barbarism. Its ancient tenants did not yield it without a long battle, fought inch by inch with fire and steel. Mountains and rivers formed a league. The mountains displayed the fortitude of martyrs. When beset by merciless farmers, they resolutely refused to give up their treasures. Dumb and obstinate they were stripped of their raiment, they were flayed, they were torn with plows and harrows, they were scorched with fire--like Jews in the castles of the old barons--and only surrendered their hidden wealth after the most dreadful tortures. The rivers, with equal fidelity, resisted the inroads of the back-woodsmen. The “Citizen” says, “If the rivers of this county were anciently populated with any tribe of Indian bogles, or water-imps, (and there is no good reason for supposing that they were not,) I should say that they invisible citizens mustered for a last stand, in defense of their homes. They built barricades of flood-wood, they piled battlements of great roots, they pulled down mighty sycamores to fortify the rifts. But they were overpowered like the insurgents of Paris. Their barricades were broken with axes or destroyed by fire, and the fleets of the pioneers pushed their way up the rivers by degrees, driving before them these unlucky little aborigines.”

They were many patches of land on the river flats, which were free from timber. At the north of the Canisteo there was an “open flat,” of some two hundred acres. In the upper valley of that river there was a much larger one. There were open flats near the Painted Post and up the Tioga, and a single one on the Cohocton--the fine meadows south of the village of Bath.

There was at this time a man living near Northumberland, in Pennsylvania, who afterwards became a noted citizen of this county; and although his connection with it did not begin till after the first settlements were made, yet, for convenience, a brief sketch of him may be introduced.

Benjamin Patterson, The Hunter.

Of great renown, towards the close of the last century, throughout all the hill county of the West, was Ben Patterson, the hunter. From the mid-branches of the Susquehanna to the most north-western waters of that river, there was not one of greater fame. Courageous and energetic of spirit, and powerful of frame, he explored the forests of Pennsylvania, roved over the ridges and through the revines of the Alleganies, navigated untried rivers, discovered mines and hidden valleys, gave names to creeks and mountains, and guided adventurers through the wilderness..

Sometimes he was a hunter; sometimes an Indian fighter; sometimes a spy; sometimes a Moses to despairing emigrants; sometimes forester to backwoods barons. He had been associated with all the noted characters of the frontier; with Gurty, the renegade; with Murphy, the runner; with Van Campen, the ranger; with Hammond, the fighter. He knew the farmers of Wyoming, the riflemen of the West Branch, and the warriors of Niagara. To bears, panthers, and wolves, to elk, deer, and beaver, he was an Alaric. The number of these beasts that fell before his rifle almost passes account. In the latter years of his life, when an old man, living on his farm by the Tioga, and game began to become scarce, he thought it necessary to put a narrow limit to his annual destruction of deer, and in each year thereafter laid up his rifle when he had killed an hundred. He was not a mere destroyer of wild beasts, but a man of keen observation, of remarkable powers memory, of intelligence, of judgment, and withal of strict integrity. He possessed great powers of narration. Not only children and rough men of the frontier, but men of learning, listened hour after hour to his thousand tales. The late Chief Justice Spencer, when Circuit Judge, once met him at the Mud Creek tavern, in this county, and was so interested with his graphic description of wild scenery and wood life, that he sat up all night with him engaged in conversation; and always after, when holding court in Bath, sent for the hunter, provided for him at the hotel, and passed his company a great part of his time off the bench.

Mr. Patterson was born in Loudoun county, in the State of Virginia, in the year 1759, and died in 1830, at Painted Post, having been for the last thirty-five years of his life a citizen of this county. His mother was a cousin of Daniel Boone, the first of the Kentuckians. Early in life he removed with the family of his step-father to Pennsylvania, and passed the greater part of his youth in the State, though living for a time again in Virginia. It was on the Susquehanna frontiers that his hunting tastes were formed and developed.

During the Revolutionary war he served in a rifle-corps, organized for the defense of the borders, and in this perilous service met with many adventures. At the skirmish of Freeling’s Fort, in 1779, he and his younger brother Robert (who afterwards was also a citizen of this county) fought in the party of Captain Hawkins Boone, and narrowly escaped with their lives. Freeling’s Fort, on the West Branch of the Susquehanna, had been taken by a party of Tories and Indians, the former under the command of McDonald, a noted loyalist of Tryon county, in New York, and the latter led by Hiakatoo (the husband of Mary Jemison “the white woman.”) Captain Boone’s party of thirty-two volunteered to scout in the neighborhood of the captured fort, and to attack the enemy if it could be advantageously done. They advanced cautiously, and succeeded in concealing themselves in a cluster of bushes overlooking the camp of the enemy. Both Tories and Indians were engaged in cooking or eating, while a single sentinel, a fine tall savage, with a blanket drawn over his head, walked slowly to and fro. Boone’s men commenced firing by platoons of six. The sentry sprang into the air with a whoop and fell dead. The enemy yelling frightfully ran to arm and opened a furious but random fire at their unseen foes. Their bullets rattled through the bushes where Boone’s men lay hid, but did no mischief. The slaughter of Indians and Tories was dreadful. The thirty-two rangers firing coolly and rapidly by sixes, with the unerring aim of frontiersmen, shot down one hundred and fifty (so the story runs) before the enemy broke and fled. Boone’s men, with strange indiscretion, rushed from their covert in pursuit, and immediately exposed their weakness of numbers. Hiakatoo with his Indians made a circuit, and attack them in the rear, while McDonald turned upon their front. They were surrounded. “Save yourself men as you can,” called Captain Boone. The enemy closed with tomahawks and spears. This part of the fight occurred in the midst of woods. The rangers broke through their foes, and led with such success that many escaped, but their captain and more than half of his men were killed. Robert Patterson, who was very swift of foot, was followed several miles to the clearings of another fort by three or four fleet Indians. Seeing that he would escape from them, his pursuers reserved their fire till he should clamber over the fence which enclosed the clearing, when they might aim at him with greater certainty than while he was running through the woods. He however sprang to the top rail at a bound and escaped. The bullets struck the wood just under his feet. Benjamin Patterson, in the meantime, had hidden himself under a log overgrown with vines or briars. The Indians ransacked the woods all around, and passed so near his hiding place that he could touch their moccasins with his ramrod. Many times he thought himself discovered, and was on the point of springing forth to die fighting, but the Indians gradually wandered away from his vicinity. The last straggler returning from the pursuit carried the dripping scalp of the only red-haired man in the party, which he was twirling around his finger with great delight. “I was strongly tempted to shoot that fellow,” said Patterson, but on reflecting that the main body of the Indians was not distant, he thought it prudent to deny himself that pleasure. At night he escaped to Boone’s Fort.

The enemy retook the prisoners of Freeling’s Fort, and carried away many captives to Niagara. Patterson, in a company of rangers, pursued. They believe that the Indians had a great many wounded with them, for at the deserted encampments bushels of slippery-elm bark were found, which had been pounded in preparing draughts and dressings. The enemy struck over from Pine Creek to the Tioga, and passed up the valley of the Conhocton to Niagara.

Patterson was engaged throughout the war in the perilous frontier-service; sometimes scouting with the wary and fearless captains of the borders; sometimes skirmishing in the forests; sometimes devising plots and counter plots against the secret and wise foes who hid in the dark places of the wilderness, and came and went like the lightning. At the close of the war he was at liberty to give himself up to his roving and hunting propensities. He explored the region north of the West Branch, passed up through the Genesee country, spied out the land, and guided emigrants, travelers and adventurers through the woods; shooting always wherever he went. He was the guide of Talleyrand in an excursion through the wild country, and at a later period piloted another French gentlemen for many weeks around the wilderness. The latter was agent for a company of French emigrants, then residing at Philadelphia, who desired to make a settlement in some choice place on the outside of civilization. The Frenchman was a merry companion, and took to wild life with a good grace. With a negro servant he followed the hunter over a great extent of country, learning to swim and shoot, bathing in the lakes, sleeping on the ground, and learning backwoods science with much zeal. The emigrants, it is said, were sadly taken in by the land speculators who sold them at a great price, an armful of mountains not worth eighteen pence.

The hunter’s home was for many years on the West Branch, near Northumberland. After the war, the region thereabout began to be overrun to a destructive rate with farmers, who laid waste the home of the bear and the wolf with the most sickening barbarity. The forests were again and again decimated, till his old hunting grounds, disfigured with wheat fields, corn fields, and potato fields, presented a melancholy scene of devastation. The wild beasts quite lost heart, and began to retire to deeper solitudes, and the hunter determined to remove his household elsewhere, into a land as yet unmolested by plowman and wood-choppers. In the year 1796, he boated his goods up the river to Painted Post, and kept for seven years the old tavern at Knoxville. At the end of that time, he moved up on the farm now occupied by one of his sons, two miles above the village of Painted Post, on the Tioga. It was quite a productive farm, yielding a crop of twenty-two wolves, nine panthers, bears a few, besides deer, shad and salmon uncounted.

He was of medium stature, and squarely built. When in his prime, he possessed great strength and activity, and was famed as “a very smart man.” He never encountered a man who got the better of him in a scuffle. His acquaintance with the famous interpreter, Horatio Jones,commenced in true frontier chivalry. A party of Indians, with a few white men, had gathered around a camp-fire near the Genesee, when for some reasons, the savages began to insult and abuse an individual who was standing by. At length they threw him into the fire. The man scrambled out. The Indians again seized him and threw him into the fire. Patterson, who stood near, a perfect stranger to the company, sprang forward, saying to the tormentors “Don’t burn the man alive!” and dragged him off the burning logs. Two or three of this genial party, displeased at the interruption of their diversions, immediately assaulted the hunter, but relinquished the honor of whipping him to Jones, who stepped forward to settle the affair in person. Jones was also famed as a “smart man” being powerful, well skilled in athletic sports, and able to maintain his authority over the Indians by strength of arm. Before the fight had lasted many minutes, the savages standing around began to whisper in their own language, “He has got his match this time,” with perhaps some little satisfaction, for the Interpreter used a rod of iron, and sometimes banged his people about without ceremony. Jones was badly beaten, and kept his wigman for several days. At the trial of the Indians, Sundown and Curly-eye, at Bath, in 1825, (or about that time,) Jones, who was present as interpreter, laughed heartily over the matter, and sent his complements to the old hunter.

He was of course a crack shot, and carried a rifle which killed where vulgar guns smoked in vain. In one of his excursions with Capt. Williamson, he found a wild ox roving over the vast Genesee Flats, which, by his sagacity and swiftness, baffled all the efforts of the Indians to destroy him. This beast was the last of several domestic oxen, which at times strayed to these marvelous meadows, and became wild as buffaloes. They lived like the cattle of Eden in the luxurious pasture of the flats during the summer, and in the winter by thrusting their noses through the snow, ate the frozen grass below, and sustained life quite comfortably. All had been slain but the one which now grazing in that great field, and his faculties had been so sharpened by the relapse to barbarism, that it was quite impossible for even the craft of the Indians to circumvent him. His scent was almost as keen as the elk’s; his eyesight was so quick and suspicious, that before the red men could skulk within gunshot, of him, he shook his great white horns and race off through the high grass like and antelope. Capt. Williamson charged Patterson to lay low the head of this famous beast. The hunter crept along carefully while the ox was grazing, and when it raised its head and stared around the plain to discern an enemy; lay flat in the grass. Either his patience or his skill was greater than that of the Indians, for he completely out-generalled the wary animal, got within fair shooting range of it, fired and brought it down. The savages set up a great whooping, and crowded around the fallen ox as though it were a horned horse, or a sea-elephant. One of his noble horns, suitably carved and ornamented, afterwards hung at the hunter’s side as a powder-horn..

He preserved in his old age all the characteristics of the hunter, and always found his chief pleasures in the vigorous pursuits to which his youth had been devoted. When attending court at Bath, as a juryman, he was in the habit of going out in the morning before anybody was stirring, to the little lake east of the village, and shooting a deer before breakfast. It is to be regretted that the reminiscences we have collected of this far-known character, and recorded in this and in succeeding chapters of this volume, are so scanty. More of the thousand tales, which he told of the “old times” to boys and neighbors and travelers, might doubtless be gathered even yet; but had they been taken from his own lips in his lifetime, they would have formed a volume of reminiscence and adventure of rare interest. There would have been, besides, a gain in accuracy; for what we have collected were told twenty or thirty years ago to youngsters. Whatever was told by the old hunter himself was to be relied upon, for he was carefully and strictly truthful.

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