The Birth Of The Kaaterskill
From "The Land Of Rip Van Winkle" (1884)
By A.E.P. Searling
"A legend that grew in the forest's hush
Slowly as tear-drops gather and gush,—
* * * * *
It grew and grew,
From the pine-trees gathering a sombre hue,
Till it seems a mere murmur out of the vast Norwegian forests of the past. --- Lowell .
In the far off days behind us, in the time when legend and fairy tale and childhood's lore was true, when every cave, and ravine, and waterfall had its spirit, good or evil, these mountains were sacred ground to the superstitious Indian, and it was with wary steps and fearful heart he explored their secret places for wild beasts, and the shyest birds of the wilderness. Here the great Manitou held sway in a high place, and sent forth his emissaries in the lightning and thunder, or the balmy west winds that draw down through their cloves sometimes on a sultry midsummer day. Held in the highest veneration, no human quarrels were allowed to intrude on Manitou's battleground, and however loud he might thunder and war on stormy nights, as his approving spirits clashed in warfare, on this sacred ground the red man's scalping-knife was sheathed, and his arrow never found here its way to any human heart. Seldom, indeed, did the Indian come up here, save to hunt the bear or catamount, or to cross over through the Palenville clove trail to make war on the peaceful Catskill natives.
Land Slide On Top Of Cauterskill Clove
Belle Falls At Palenville
Along the river the Indians were more peaceful than the warlike tribes of the six nations, who dwelt beyond the mountains, spread over all the country to Lake Erie on the west and Ontario on the north. The peaceful river-dwellers cultivated plantations of corn and beans, and lived, according to the accounts of early navigators who explored the Hudson, a quiet and somewhat domestic life. They were of the great Mohican nation, and held a tradition of an origin in the west where their enemies, the Mohawks, now held sway. This tradition preserved among them, caused them to resent with intense bitterness the marauding wars of the tribes from beyond the mountains, who made occasional descents upon their fertile fields, destroying sometimes a year's work in a day, and murdering or killing all they could catch, while the children they carried away in captivity, to be brought up as Mohawks themselves.
Hendrick Hudson, in his account of his voyage in the "Half Moon" in 1609, gives some descriptions of these people and of their habits.
He says: "At night we came to other high mountains which lie from the riverside. There we found very loving people, and very old men where we were well used. Our boat went to fish, and caught great store of very good fish.
"The sixteenth, fair and very hot weather. In the morning our boat went again to fishing, but caught very few, by reason their canoes had been there all night. This morning the people came aboard and brought us ears of Indian corn and pompions (squashes) and tobacco; which we bought for trifles. We rode still all day and filled fresh water; at night we weighed and went two leagues higher, and had shoald water; so we anchored till day."
At Schodac, he enters in his journal the following: "I sailed to the shore in one of their canoes, with an old man who was chief of a tribe consisting of forty men and seventeen women. These I saw there in a house well-constructed of oak bark, and circular in shape, so that it had the appearance of being built with an arched roof. It contained a great quantity of maize, or Indian corn, and beans of last year's growth; and there lay near the house, for the purpose of drying, enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields. On our coming into the house, two mats were spread out to sit upon and some food was immediately served in well-made wooden bowls. Two men were also dispatched at once, with bows and arrows, in quest of game, who soon brought in a pair of pigeons which they had shot. They likewise killed a fat dog, and skinned it in great haste, with shells which they had got out of the water. They supposed I would remain with them for the night; but I returned in a short time on board the ship. The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon, and it also abounds in trees of every description. These natives are a very good people, for when they saw that I would not remain, they supposed that I was afraid of their bows; and taking their arrows, they broke them in pieces and threw them into the fire.
So it was these "very loving people" of the river, above Esopus, the Catskill Indians, lived in peace and prosperity under their chief Mayna, cultivating their lands and handing down to their children the traditions of their forefathers, in which lore their tribe, the Mohicans, were rich.
Not so, however, with their enemies, the Mohawks, beyond the mountains. With them the art of war was imbibed with the mother's milk, and all their tales about the fires were of blood and battles, and the adventures of the braves with their enemies. Their education was devoted to the development of endurance and bravery, and their religion, like most of the Indians, was chiefly a placating of the dread Manitou and the various demons and giants that waged unseen war against them. High Peak was the home of the Great Spirit, and the woods around it a sacred grove where once yearly they came to perform their religious dance about a huge fire at midnight . Tradition says that in the far-away past, when there was no water in Palenville clove, that part of the mountains was the favorite hunting-ground of Manitou and indeed, after a climb through that fairy-like region on a bright June day, the superstition is easily believed. Nature seems to have made a peculiar effort to adorn each rock and tree and wandering pathway with lichen and moss and vine and delicate maiden-hair fern. All shades of green are these, ever shifting and changing as the leaves stir and glisten, with inter-lines of fine gray moss, and the blood-red splashes of liver-wort on the varied carpet under foot, while all about are hiding branches of blossom, white and pink or vivid scarlet it is a fugue in colors - a soul-stirring harmony, that repeats itself in
echoing refrains all writ in nature's pigments. Here, great Manitou walked at noon-day undisturbed, for in that remote time, no trail was made through this clove.
Now among the western tribes beyond the mountain appeared a great wonder a snow-white maiden with flaxen hair and blue eyes! Their chief, when away alone, on an expedition to prove his prowess, had found her, he said, beneath a tree, down in the South-river (Delaware river) country, wrapped in white blankets of exquisite fineness. The little one was looked upon as a gift from the Great Spirit, an omen of his favor, and was forthwith treated as a goddess. No goddess could wed with mortal man, so she was vowed to virginity, and once a year was taken to Manitou's mountains, and in the sacred clove left for a week to his holy protection and ministration. This ceremony, however, was not inaugurated till her eighteenth year.
The Maid In Kaaterskill Falls
As she was clothed in white when first found, they continued to make her garments of that hue, and "The White Maiden" was her title. Very beautiful she was said to have been, and wise as well, for her advice was asked as if she were an oracle, and her commands were followed with fidelity.
One May-time they carried the maid to the sacred spot, placing in her lodge made all of white skins, procured at great pains, cakes of maize, meat, and lentils, and then they went away and left her weeping at her lonely plight. Not long did her tears flow, however, for soon a slight noise in the forest startled her, and springing up in terror she espied, approaching, a beautiful youth of some tribe unknown to her. Making signs which all Indians, even of widely separated tribes, readily comprehend, he assured her of his good-will, and promised to protect her in her lonely stay. Her fears at rest, she listened to him, and soon learned to love him, and hand in hand they wandered through the beautiful region like happy children, So they remained in the joy and innocence of childish love till the time drew near for the warriors of the Mohawks to reclaim her then the strange youth departed, promising to come to her at this time the following year, and enjoining on her strict secrecy. They made their farewells with many tears, and the beautiful stranger disappeared down the clove, going toward the river. On the morrow the Mohawks took away the White Maiden, and from the new look of happiness in her tearstained eyes they guessed she had seen the great Manitou, her father, and forebore from questioning her. For several years this idyl was repeated, till at last the youth one May-time found himself unable to tear himself from the side of his mountain love, and so disaster came upon them.
Lingering with her till the last day, he persuaded her to go eastward with him to his own people and there to abide, and she at last consented. Wandering thus away from the white lodge they forgot in their love and happiness the danger of detection before leaving the mountain, and the Mohawks, finding the lodge deserted, separated to search the mountain side for their lost goddess. One of these searchers spied the lovers sitting on a mossy bank, and immediately ran to tell his companions. Just at this time the beauty was imposing a task on her swarthy lover ; it was to bring her, from a point far down the rugged ravine, a bunch of bluebells she had noticed there a short time before, hanging over a dizzy height. The youth sprang down from stone to stone, clinging here and there to overhanging branches and was soon lost to sight. Stillness reigned in the shaded chasm, and the leaves cast little flecks of moving shadow over the white leggings and snowy blanket of the girl, and her long wavy hair fell in a golden shower down her back. She leaned forward, watching the dense growth below for some sign of moving branch, and listening for a sound of cracking twig to give token of the youth's return. Suddenly a wild yell above her re-echoed from side to side of the rock-bound ravine, and seemed enclosing her in a mad babel of sound. Starting up, she stood a moment with her hand pressed to her breast, then seeing the advancing Mohawks as they came rushing down the mountain, she seemed to divine with quick instinct what they were seeking, and the hideous punishments that awaited her lover, if he were caught. Instantly she turned and darted down the clove like a flash of white light as the sun shone on her garments where the shade divided as she passed. Down, down, and the quick feet behind her coming nearer, while the savage cries seemed in her very ears! Much farther she cannot go, for here is the precipice of the Kaaterskill, descending straight across the vale with sheer fall into dark, stony depths. Springing to the rocky platform, at its edge she paused and turned, her blanket partly falling from her gleaming shoulders, then, as if with sudden resolve, as the yells came nearer, and the hands of her friends were stretched out to save her, she sprang into mid-air, her hair streaming out behind her and mingling with the folds of her blanket. And now a great marvel came to pass, for before their eyes, dazzled by the sun-illumined garments, the maiden disappeared in a stream of water that plunged for the first time in the memory of man, over the cliff, down the gorge in white timbling foam. It seemed to them that the snowy garments faded and melted into a myriad glistening drops of spray, and the floating yellow hair became the golden bars of sunlight on the water.
So the great spirit took his daughter to himself, and the saddened and awe-struck savages went their homeward way, not daring now to wreak their vengeance on the Catskill chief who caused all the trouble. But they never forgot, says tradition, the old score against the river Indians, and, till civilization drove them westward, they continued to wreak their vengeance on their enemies.
It is all a myth, of course, and yet at times by the witching light of a midsummer moon, if you tune your thoughts aright, the silvery white garments seem to gleam through the waters of Kaaterskill, and the face will almost shape itself, then fade away; while the dripping, floating hair is often present near the top, before the water breaks in a misty veil of spray.
There existed among the Indians when the first whites came to them a tradition that in early times a vessel had been wrecked on the Atlantic coast and most of the crew drowned. The few who survived were pale of face, with flaxen or golden hair, and soon mixed with the tribe of the Tuscaroras, then inhabiting Virginia . The Tuscaroras afterward moved northward and came to western New York, still preserving this tradition of pale-faces. The two stories would seem to have some dim connection, and it is not beyond credence that Manitou's "White Maiden" was the deserted baby of some Northman of old.
Amid the various comments on this tale, Captain Oldbore surprised every one by a gracious corroboration of part of it, which was the more to be wondered at because he had listened to its recital with evident impatience.
"Now, that interesting fact about the ice-formation under the fall is strictly true, and may be observed toward the latter part of February or early in March, when the slow accretions of frozen drops of spray have built a circular wall around the place where the water drops into the pool, but the instances of its reaching the top of the cliff are rare, though I have spoken with more than one mountaineer who has seen it."
Mrs. Schuyler said civilly that "she hoped the story would soon appear in print," and Miss Rutherford was reminded of Bryant's verses on the Kaaterskill, which she recited:
Midst greens and shades the Caaterskill leaps
From cliffs where the wood-flower clings
All summer he moistens his verdant steps
With the sweet light spray of the mountain springs,
And he shakes the woods on the mountain side,
When they drip with the rains of autumn-tide.
But when, in the forest bare and old,
The blast of December calls,
He builds in the starlight, clear and cold,
A palace of ice where his torrent falls,
With turret, and arch, and fretwork fair,
And pillars blue as the summer air.
For whom are those glorious chambers wrought,
In the cold and cloudless night?
Is there neither spirit nor motion of thought,
In forms so lovely and hues so bright?
Hear what the gray-haired woodmen tell
Of this wild stream and its rocky dell.
'T was hither a youth of dreamy mood,
A hundred winters ago,
Had wandered over the mighty wood,
When the panther's track was fresh on the snow,
And keen were the winds that came to stir
The long dark boughs of the hemlock-fir.
Too gentle of mien he seemed, and fair,
For a child of those rugged steeps
His home lay down in the valley where
The kingly Hudson rolls to the deeps;
But he wore the hunter's frock that day,
And a slender gun on his shoulder lay.
And here he paused, and against the trunk
Of a tall gray linden leant,
Where the broad clear orb of the sun had sunk
From his path in the frosty firmament,
And over the round dark edge of the hill
A cold green light was quivering still.
And the crescent moon, high over the green,
From a sky of crimson shone,
On that icy palace whose towers were seen,
To sparkle as if with stars of their own,
While the water fell with a hollow sound,
'Twixt the glistening pillars ranged around.
Is that a being of life that moves
Where the crystal battlements rise?
A maiden watching the moon she loves,
At the twilight hour, with pensive eyes?
Was that a garment which seemed to gleam,
Betwixt the eye and the falling stream?
'T is only the torrent tumbling o'er,
In the midst of those glassy walls;
Gushing, and plunging, and beating the floor
Of the rocky basin in which it falls.
'T is only the torrent - but why that start ?
Why gazes the youth with a throbbing heart?
He thinks no more of his home afar,
Where his sire and sister wait;
He heeds no longer how star after star
Looks forth on the night as the hour grows late;
He heeds not the snow-wreaths, - lifted and cast
From a thousand boughs by the rising blast.
His thoughts are alone of those who dwell
In the halls of frost and snow,
Who pass where the crystal domes upswell
From the alabaster floors below,
Where the frost-trees bourgeon with leaf and spray,
And frost-gems scatter a silvery day.
'And oh! that those glorious haunts were mine!'
He speaks, and throughout the glen
Thin shadows swim in the faint moonshine,
And take a ghastly likeness of men,
As if the slain by the wintry storms
Came forth to the air in their earthly forms.
There pass the chasers of seal and whale,
With their weapons quaint and grim,
And bands of warriors in glittering mail,
And herdsmen and hunters, huge of limb;
There are naked arms with bow and spear,
And furry gauntlets the carbine rear.
There are mothers, and oh! how sadly their eyes
On their children's white brows rest!
There are youthful lovers - the maiden lies
In a seeming sleep, on the chosen breast;
There are fair, wan women, with moonstruck air,
And, snow-stars flecking their long loose hair.
They eye him not as they pass along,
But his hair stands up with dread,
When he feels that he moves with that phantom throng,
Till those icy turrets are over his head,
And the torrent's roar as they enter seems
Like a drowsy murmur heard in dreams.
The glittering threshold is scarcely passed,
When there gathers and wraps him round
A thick white twilight, sullen and vast,
In which there is neither form nor sound;
The phantoms, the glory, vanish all,
With the dying voice of the waterfall.
Slow passes the darkness of that trance,
And the youth now faintly sees
Huge shadows, and gushes of light that dance
On a rugged ceiling of unhewn trees,
And walls where the skins of beasts are hung,
And rifles glitter, on antlers strung.
On a couch of shaggy skins he lies;
As he strives to raise his head,
Hard-featured woodmen with kindly eyes
Come round him and smooth his furry bed,
And bid him rest, for the evening star
Is scarcely set, and the day is far.
They had found at eve the dreaming one
By the base of that icy steep;
When over his stiffening limbs begun
The deadly slumber of frost to creep,
And they cherished the pale and breathless form,
Till the stagnant blood ran free and warm.
Next morning the skies are gray, and a cold, soaking rain is falling. The disappointed pleasure-seekers look forth from behind their windows and conclude to give up all open-air plans and stay within doors warm, at least, and dry. The fire is alluring, and one by one they settle down for a morning with books and work and talk. Mrs. Schuyler is busy over a bit of knitting that she calls her " kill-time," but which her husband has dubbed "the spoil-sport," as he dreads with true masculine hostility her absorption in its mysteries. Miss Rutherford is arranging her botanical specimens, while pretty Miss Polly is pulling the ears of a gray pussy-cat in her lap, and rubbing it gently under the chin. The Literary Fellow is occupied with watching this performance, while the Artist is making sly sketches of each one from his corner. As for the captain not long since a dangerous gleam shone in his eye as he rose and stole quietly from the room. Now he returns with a neat roll of manuscript in his hand, at the sight of which an uneasy stir runs through the party, and Miss Perkins groans audibly.
"I thought it an excellent opportunity to read you my pages on the 'Revolutionary Captivities.' In a few days more we shall be going through the river valley again, and that region as well as these mountains is concerned in the stories."
Of course he was politely urged to read, so unrolling his papers, he began at once.