Lake Saratoga. – Its Legends and Traditions .


"When the hunter shall sit by the mound, and produce his food at noon, ‘some warrior rests here,’ he will say; and my fame shall live in his praise."



CONNECTED with Lake Saratoga is a touching Indian legend which undoubtedly has more of truth blended with it than is usually the case with stories of a similar nature. The legend associates itself with the high promontory on the eastern shore, now known by the uneuphonious name of "Snake Hill," and is as follows:

In the autumn of 1693, Count Frontenac, then Governor of Canada, accompanied by a party of Algonquins and Hurons, left Montreal for the purpose of descending upon the frontier settlements of Schenectady and Albany. On his way to accomplish his design, the Count took Lake Saratoga on his route, with the intention of capturing a large camp of the Mohawks, who had gone thither for their annual fall hunting. While yet a day’s march from the Lake, two of the Hurons deserted from the forces of the Count, and gave the Mohawks such an appalling description of the march, that they dared not remain and give battle.

Yonnondio’s {The signification of Yonnondio (also spelled Onontio) is Great Mountain , being a translation into Iroquois of the name of the second Governor of Canada, the Chevalier Montmagny. The Indians always applied the same name to his successors in office. – Jesuit Relations , 1640: i. 77.} army, they said, was like the leaves of the trees – more numerous than the pigeons that fly to the north after the season of snows. They were armed, they said, with great guns that threw up huge balls toward the sun, {Mortars.} and they would explode and scatter death everywhere. Upon this intelligence, the Sachems gathered into a group around the council-fire for consultation. Their eyes, which were at first burning with indignation, soon dropped sullenly to the earth, as they reflected upon the impossibility of contending against such weapons, while their dusky countenances gathered darkness with the gloom. Some of the principal chiefs having interchanged a few words in an undertone, there was a call to bring Thurensera {A name among the Six Nations, signifying "The Dawning of the Light."} to the council-fire. A dozen young warriors instantly sprang to their feet and bounded toward the great wigwam of the village with the swiftness of an arrow. They soon returned, bearing upon a rudely-constructed litter an aged and venerable-looking chief, whose head had been whitened by the snows of more than a hundred winters. He had been foremost on the war-path and first at the council-fire before the canoes of the pale faces had touched the shores which the Great Spirit had given them. The young men treated their burden with the utmost care and deference, and the aged chieftain was seated at the foot of a tall sycamore, against the huge trunk of which he leaned for support. A brief but solemn pause ensued, during which all eyes were directed toward the venerable father of the council. At length the venerable Sachem raised his head, and looking about upon the group of chiefs and warriors gathered anxiously around him, he thus spoke:

"Why have my children brought Thurensera to the council-fire? The Great Spirit will call him to his hunting-grounds. Thurensera’s eyes are dim, and his limbs, no longer like the bending sapling, are stiff like the scathed trees of the burnt prairies. He can no more bend the strong bow. He cannot go forth upon the war path, or recount the deeds of his fathers to the young men at the council-fire. Thurensera is a woman. But his father was a great chief, and," elevating his voice, he added, "I can now see him upon a cloud fringed with the red lightning and beckoning me to come. Why have my children called Thurensera, and why do their spirits droop like the hawk when struck by the young eagle?"

After another pause, and a moment’s consultation among the chiefs, one of the bravest warriors informed the sage of the intelligence received from Yonnondio’s camp, and of the peril of their situation. They had therefore sent to their father for counsel in this emergency.

Once more there was silence – still as the forest shades when not a leaf rustles in the breeze nor a stick breaks beneath the light tread of the fox. The venerable sage hid his furrowed countenance in his withered hands, as if deeply engaged in thought, while the dark group of chiefs and warriors gathered more closely around, all ready to obey his counsel, be what it might, and all anxious, as it were, to drink in the wisdom that was for the last time, perhaps, to flow from his lips. At length the chieftain of more than thirteen hundred moons slowly raised his head, and spoke as follows:

"My children! This council-fire which the Great Spirit first kindled with sparks from the sun must go out. The Great Spirit wills it. But the two logs will blaze again, and this valley gleam with red light. Then shall my children consume the battle in its rage, and the spirits of our fathers riding on the storm-cloud rejoice!

"My children! You see my head is whitened by more than a hundred snows. Listen to my words. I have been upon the war-path with your fathers and with your fathers’ fathers. But the Great Spirit commands me to his hunting-grounds, where I shall be bounding like the young dear before the setting sun.

"My children! A cloud has gathered over our council-fire and you must fly! Yonnondio is come among us with his people like a flock of birds. You must not wait till you see the big ball of thunder coming to your destruction, or the star of day and night that breaks when it falls, to burn your castle and wigwams.

"My children! You have been like the lynx on the trail, and made the war-path red with the blood of your enemies. But you must fly, until joined by the Oneydoes, the Cayugas, and the Senekas; when you can come back upon your enemies, and spring upon them like the hungry panther. You will spring on them when they are asleep, and the fire-balls cannot burst upon you, to kill my warriors and burn up their wigwams.

"My children! Thurensera will stay to show Yonnondio’s palefaces how to die ! Yonnondio shall see what a Mohawk can bear without a cry of pain. He shall see what his children will have to bear, when my sons assemble their warriors and come before his settlements in their wrath.

"My children! When you pass this way, find my bones. Bury them deep in the bosom of the earth, who is my mother, on the Hill looking toward the setting sun, {Snake Hill.} by the Lake that is beautiful. Put into my grave my pipe, my hatchet, and my bow, that I may chase the moose and the buffalo in the hunting-grounds of the Great Spirit. Put in my canoe that is on the beautiful lake, that, when the Great Spirit tells me, I may come and look upon my children – I may paddle again on the bright waters of Lake Saratoga. I will come when the moon in her fulness steals over the lake, to let her light sleep in its calm bosom. As I glide onward, the lovers of our young men and women will dream of other days, and the spirits of the clouds will whisper, ‘The grave of the old warrior, who taught Yonnondio how to die! They will tell the white man to cross it with a soft step.

"My children! You must fly! Keep the covenant-chain of our tribe bright like silver, and let it bind you together like strong iron. Put the brand to your wigwams, that Yonnondio may get no booty but the scalp of Thurensera. Let the rain of heaven wash all the bad from your hearts, that we may again smoke together in friendship in the Happy Hunting grounds of the Great Spirit. Thurensera has no more to say."

The aged chief was listened to throughout with the most profound attention. The chiefs and warriors were exceedingly reluctant to leave the venerable Sachem by whose wisdom they had so long been guided, and by whose arm so often led to victory; but he was resolute in his purpose, and inflexible in his determination. He gathered himself into an attitude of the most perfect composure, and turning his face in the direction from which Frontenac was expected, prepared to meet his fate. Meantime, the Sachems, having hastily completed their arrangements, took their final leave of their old chieftain, fired their wigwams, and disappeared in the thick wilderness.

The Count Frontenac, astonished at the sight of the ascending columns of smoke as they rose in curling folds towards the sky, moved rapidly forward. But it was to obtain an empty conquest. The wigwams of the Mohawks were already in ashes. The old chief, Thurensera, was found by the trunk of the sycamore, seated with the same stoical composure in which he had been left; and Frontenac’s Indians – to the eternal disgrace of that general, be it said – by his permission had the pleasure of tormenting him. He bore their inflictions with unflinching firmness. Not a muscle moved, not a limb quivered, not a sigh nor a groan escaped him. Finally they stabbed him in several places. "Go on, ye tormenters!" he exclaimed, with an energy belonging to other days. "The old eagle has received the death-arrow in his breast. He will never soar again but in the bright skies of the Great Spirit. You cannot harm him. The Great Spirit," he continued, "has touched my eyes, and I see through the clouds of death the warriors who have raised the war-cry with me in other times. They are walking on the winds and playing on the clouds. I see the dark waters all must pass. These dark waters are the tears shed by the Great Spirit for the bad deeds of his children. Go on, ye tormenters – ye Indians who take the scalp for Yonnondio – ye dogs of dogs! But why stab me with the long knife? You had better take fire, that the Frenchmen may know how to die. Tear me to pieces; roast me at the war-feast; scatter my ashes to the winds! Ye tormenters! Listen to the voice of the Manitou, while he bids Thurensera tell what is to come upon you. Your race is to be as a river dried up – as the dead leaves of the forest when the fire has gone over it. The white man who sent Yonnondio over the salt lake, in the big canoe, shall lose his power. A wolf {Each of the Six Nations were subdivided into clans or tribes, named the Wolf, Deer, Bear, Snipe, Beaver, Heron, Turtle, and Hawk. These tribes were distinguished by the totem or representation of their respective animals or birds tattoed upon the skin.} is to walk abroad that shall scatter the Pale-faces at Quebec like a flock of sheep, and drive them out of the Red-man’s land. The white men, with Cayenguerago, who is our friend, shall come over the land like the leaves. The panther is bounding to the setting sun; the bear moves slowly off the ground; the deer and buffalo leap over the mountains, and are seen no more. The forest bows before the white man. The great and little trees fall before his big hatchet. The white man’s wigwams rise like the hill-tops, and are as white as the head of the bald eagle. The waters shall remain, and when the Red man is no more, the names he gave them shall last . The Great Spirit has said it. {A most remarkable prophecy in view of the utter ruin of French power in America.} A hundred warriors are coming to lead me on the trail to the happy hunting-grounds. Think of me, ye tormenters, when my sons come upon you like the chafed panther in his swiftness and his strength! Great Spirit! I come!"

Thus died THURENSERA, with a greatness of soul worthy of a Sachem of the Six Nations!

But let not the visitor to the "Springs" form his estimate of the aboriginals – among whom was Thurensera – from the so-called Indians who annually come hither. Though occasionally a pure Mohawk or Iroquois brave may be found among those at Saratoga, yet it is the exception, not the rule. Those that congregate at the "Springs" in summer are usually half or quarter breeds, composed of Canadian French and Negro blood, having all the vices of the Indian with none of his virtues. Of not such stuff were made those warriors that King Philip and Pontiac led to battle, or Massasoit and Tammany instructed in the arts of peace!

Another Indian legend that connects itself with Lake Saratoga, and which, by the way, is also associated with Snake Hill is, in sentiment, the very opposite of the one just related, but is worthy of note, especially as the American aboriginals have generally been accounted, comparatively, strangers to la belle passion . The legend, which is an interesting story of love to distraction, and courage to death on the part of a young Indian beauty, is called the LOVERS’ LEAP.

It is of later date than that of Thurensera, but nevertheless, not only descends from remote tradition, but was distinctly remembered by those settlers who were contemporaries with Amos Stafford. It is as follows:

During the war of the Six Nations and the Algonquins of the North, a chief of the latter was captured by the Mohawks while they were engaged in their yearly hunting around Lake Saratoga. The captive, though young in years, was famed for his prowess in the forest conflict, and nature had been bountiful to his person in those gifts of strength and symmetry which awaken savage admiration. After a short debate, he was condemned to die on the following day, by the slow torture of impalement. While he was lying in the "Cabin of Death" – a lodge devoted to the reception of condemned prisoners – the daughter of the Sachem brought him food, {The Indians always supply their prisoners with every comfort until the time for their execution arrives.} and struck with his manly form and heroic bearing, resolved to save him or share his fate. Her bold enterprise was formed by the uncertain light of the gray dawn, while the solitary sentinel, weary with his night watch, was slumbering. Stealing with noiseless tread to the side of the young captive, she cut the thongs wherewith his limbs were bound, and besought him, in breathing accents, to follow her. The fugitive descended the hill near that which is now Ramsdell’s cove by a woody path conducting to the Lake; but ere they reached the water, an alarm-whoop, wild and shrill, was heard issuing from the lips of the waking guard. They tarried not, though thorny vines and fallen timber obstructed their way. At length they reached the smooth beach, and leaping into a canoe, previously provided by the brave and considerate damsel, they plied the paddle vigorously, steering for the opposite shore. Vain were their efforts. On the wind came cries of rage, and the quick tramp of savage warriors, bounding over rock and glen in fierce pursuit. The Algonquin, with the reckless daring of a young brave, sent back a yell of defiance, and soon after the plash of oars was heard, and a dozen war canoes were cutting the billows in their rear. The unfortunate lovers on landing took a trail leading in a southerly direction toward Snake Hill. The Algonquin, weakened by unhealed wounds, followed his active guide up the acclivity with panting heart and flagging pace, while his enemies, with the grim old Sachem at their head, drew nearer and nearer. At length, finding further attempts at flight useless, she diverged from the trail, and conducted her lover to the very crest of the hill overlooking the lake. With hearts nerved to a high resolve, the hapless pair awaited the arrival of their relentless pursuers. Conspicuous by his eagle plume, towering form, and scowling brow, the daughter soon descried her inexorable sire leaping from crag to crag below her. He paused abruptly when his fiery eye rested on the objects of his pursuit. Notching an arrow on the string of his tried and unerring bow, he raised his sinewy arms, but ere the missile was sent, Wun-nut-hay, the Beautiful, interposed her form between her father and his victim. In wild, appealing tones she entreated her sire to spare the young chieftain, assuring him that they would leap together from the precipice rather than be separated. The stern old man, deaf to her supplication and disregarding her menace, ordered his followers to seize the fugitive. Warrior after warrior darted up the hill, but on reaching the top, at the moment when they were grasping to clutch the young brave, the lovers, locked in fond embrace, flung themselves

"From the steep rock and perished."


Snake Hill .


Snake Hill, with which the two Indian legends just narrated are intertwined, has formed the framework of a very readable romance from the pen of the late Daniel Shepherd, of Saratoga. This name was given to it by the early settlers of the town, in consequence of a formidable den of rattlesnakes that formerly existed about half way up its side. This nest, however, was many years since entirely destroyed, so that the tourist may traverse the hill from base to summit without fear. A visitor to the "Springs" in 1810, walked partly up the mountain one morning in his slippers, and stopping to gaze at the landscape below, was startled by a rustling near his feet. Suddenly, on looking down, he was terrified to find himself surrounded by three or four enormously large rattlesnakes. He had no weapon, nor the means of obtaining one except at the hazard of his life. As the snakes made no attempt to approach him, he had sufficient presence of mind to stand perfectly still until they crept away, which they soon did, to his no small satisfaction. It is well known that the rattlesnake seldom meddles with anything but its natural prey if unprovoked, but when accidently trodden upon, or pursued, it makes a dreadful and desperate defence. President Dwight, when visiting Saratoga in 1820, was informed that a few years previously there was a man living near Snake Hill who had the singular power and still stranger temerity to catch living rattlesnakes with his naked hands, without wounding the snakes or being wounded by them. He used to accumulate them in great numbers for curiosity and for sale. But one evening, arriving at the "Springs" with a pair of these amiable playthings in a box, and having disregarded the principles of the temperance society, he heedlessly took them out of the box to show their docility. Not, perhaps, liking the familiarity of a tipsy keeper, one of them bit him in the hand, and his death ensued on the following day. An accident very similar to this (save in regard to the intoxication) occurred in the village in 1855. The house in which the man died is still standing, near property owned by the late Madame Jumel, and is known as the "Snake House" to this day.

There is yet another legend connected with Lake Saratoga, which is thus related by the late N.P. Willis:

"There is," says Willis, "an Indian superstition attached to this Lake, which probably had its source in its remarkable loneliness and tranquillity. The Mohawks believed that its stillness was sacred to the Great Spirit, and that if a human voice uttered a sound upon its waters the canoe of the offender would instantly sink. A story is told of an English-woman, in the early days of the first settlers, who had occasion to cross this lake with a party of Indians, who, before embarking, warned her most impressively of the spell. It was a silent, breathless day, and the canoe shot over the smooth surface of the lake like an arrow. About a mile from the shore, near the centre of the lake, the woman, willing to convince the Indians of the weakness of their superstition, uttered a loud cry. The countenances of the Indians fell instantly to the deepest gloom. After a minute’s pause, however, they redoubled their exertions, and in frowning silence drove the light bark like an arrow over the waters. They reached the shore in safety, and drew up the canoe, when the woman rallied the chief on his credulity. ‘The Great Spirit is merciful,’ answered the scornful Mohawk, ‘he knows that a white woman cannot hold her tongue!’ "

The author, some years since, related the above to the poet, John G. Saxe, and suggested that he should work it up as he alone could. The result was the following little gem, which is here reproduced:

A lady stands beside the silver lake;

"What," said the Mohawk, "wouldst thou have me do?"

"Across the water, sir, be pleased to take

Me and my children in thy bark canoe."

"Ah!" said the Chief, "thou knowest not, I think,

The legend of the lake: hast ever heard

That in its wave the stoutest boat will sink

If any passenger should speak a word?"

"Full well we know the Indian’s strange belief,"

The lady answered, with a civil smile;

"But take us o’er the water, mighty Chief;

In rigid silence we will sit the while."

Thus they embarked; but ere the little boat

Was half across the lake, the woman gave

Her tongue its wonted play! But still they float

And pass in safety o’er the utmost wave.

Safe on the shore, the warrior looked amazed,

Despite the stoic calmness of his race;

No word he spoke, but long the Indian gazed

In moody silence in the woman’s face.

"What think you now?" the lady gaily said;

"Safely to land your frail canoe is brought!

No harm, you see, has touched a single head;

So superstition ever comes to naught!"

Smiling, the Mohawk said, "Our safety shows

That God is merciful to old and young;

Thanks unto the Great Spirit – well he knows

The pale-faced woman cannot hold her tongue!"

Tradition further relates that in the summer of 1833 there was a gay party on Lake Saratoga, fishing and airing their wit under the auspices of a belle of some fame and authority. The boat had been pulled about two hundred yards from the shore, into water five or six feet in depth, and the ladies sat at the ends of their rods watching their floats, which lay on the surface of the water like sleeping flies, but, as the old fisherman in the bow could have told them, laughing loud enough to frighten even eels from their appetites. After several hours’ bobbing without bite or nibble, the belle above mentioned discovered that her hook was caught at the bottom. Rising in the stern to draw it up more easily, and the rest of the party leaning over at the same time, she lost her balance, and in falling overboard upset the boat. For the first minute it was a scene of some terror. The gentlemen were very near drowning the ladies, and the ladies the gentlemen; but the old fisherman – a tall fellow who knew the ground, and was just within his depth – quietly walked about picking them up one by one, and, giving them a hold on the inverted gunwale, pushed them safely to shore suspended around the boat like herrings on a hoop. Nobody caught cold – other people had caught fish – they dined merrily at Avery’s Lake House, and the principal actress in the scene was ever afterward known by the sobriquet of the "Diving Belle."


A Lake Idyl .


But Lake Saratoga has not always been associated with fashionable frivolity. Some years ago the late Dr. Baldwin – so long the beloved pastor of the Baldwin Place Baptist Church in Boston – was on the lake with a party of clerical friends, among whom was the late Rev. Francis Wayland – and while out on the water he composed, and his companions then and there sang, that well-known and beautiful hymn, the first verse of which is :

"Oh! whence does this union arise,

That hatred is conquered by love;

It fastens our souls in such ties,

That nature and time can’t remove."



Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 2/8/00.

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