There are a number of legends and stories I grew up with about the history of Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley. As a child, I lived close enough to the Catskills to take seriously a story that no doubt most of us remember being told by our parents whenever a large thunder and lightning storm was brewing overhead. This story was about the cause for thunder.
My mother told me this was due to a bowling ball striking the nine-pins in a bowling alley up in there in the mountains. The lightning indicated the ball had just been release by Rip Van Winkle and the thunder was due to striking the nine pins. A shorter period of time between the two meant the ball was rolling faster once it was released, resulting in a louder banging of the pins once they were hit. I was told to imagine this each time lightning bolt was seen, and try to determine whether there was a strike or not.
From that point on, at about the age of 4 or 5, I can recall sitting in the living room during these storms. Once a heavy bolt of lightning was seen, I would count slowly and wait for the bowling ball to strike the pins. This Washington Irving classic is a story that some of us old-time locals will recall.
I am not sure how many of the local children living in the county, valley or at the base of the Catskills today have been told the same tale by their parents today. No doubt, the fairly rapid changes in population in the Hudson Valley over the past fifty years have resulted not only in a loss of this important piece of our local history, but also changes in how we view everything around us as Hudson Valley residents. Instead of learning about Sleepy Hollow as Irving presented it to us, we are instead exposed to the new legends of the Valley as these are posed through movies and television, in the form of local news and such. Some of these tales are fairly traditional in their story telling fashion, some are not. A few of these legends are simply the result of local news and local reactions to these stories by other imaginative story-tellers. Most of today’s Hudson Valley legends focus on such things as the history of Indian Point Power Plant environmental issues or the discussions of Pete Seeger and Clearwater education events.
Apparently, there is very limited sharing of important tales about the history of the Hudson Valley. Even though we, as locals, try to do everything we can do to get this knowledge out, most people are not interested in learn about such histories. One major reason to learn about these parts of our local history is that each time a particular piece of land or community setting is redesign and redeveloped, we lose some of this past as another old tree that George Washington slept next to gets toppled, or another boundary marker such as a cut stump or cornerstone for an 18th Century land deed gets destroyed. Even more is lost when a neighborhood forgets they are living along the Old Post Road or King’s Highway that Livingston was on when he dropped his sachet with pieces of eights, hurrying up to Fishkill for a meeting. In many places, the back edge of the yard, where woods could be seen as far back as one could see with the naked eye, was the place where some of the first Iron axe heads for Iroquois were pounded about 1790, next to an old blacksmithing shop that stood there. These commonplace tales were replaced during the early 1800s by such legends as the headless horseman instead of Catherine Philipse, or James Fenimore Cooper’s famous spy instead of my Fishkill favorite, Enoch Crosby. New legends are not always better than the much older, more traditional legends of this area.
Shaman’s Place or Burial Site?
One such tale or legend that I suspect is unique to the region, even to today’s oldest historians of the valley, pertains to a site I used to fish next to during my earliest high school years. It was a small knob of soil and gravel strangely placed at the edge of a lake. It formed a fairly large hump rising up from an otherwise swampy shoreline.
This hill I was told, according to local legend, is an old Indian Burial site. It is a site where the deceased were placed to become ‘one with the Creator’. This ceremonial practice was performed in order to allow the spirit of the deceased to leave his or her body and once again be with other family and tribal members. Since this was a western tradition I never really placed much value on it as a local Algonkin, Mahican, Wappingi or Iroquois legend.
In the decades that followed, I viewed this legend as the result of some movie popular for between the 1950s and 1960s. But as I would later discover, it ends up there is another story to this place that is considerably more credible, one I understood better during my years in college student studying and teaching ethnobotany and Native American medicine and religion. Since then, I have determined that this is possibly a site where a small encampment which a local native, becoming an adult, or some sort of shaman or tribal leader could be placed, typically as part of some personal spiritual growth experience, or it is a site where some local American Indian families spent much of their time, with this hill or knoll serving as the shaman’s place of stay.
According to one Cherokee descendent I talked to about this site, there were certain features that made it stand out as being a sacred place. When I began this discussion, I included the story about the time I tried to set up camp on this place, and how later I was almost literally blown off the hilltop by an incoming tropical storm. My mind changed about her interpretation of this place when she took the pen and paper from my hand and drew in a line representing a nearby flowing stream adjacent to the hill. This stream separated the knoll from an area where a small group could set up camp. Her illustration was surprisingly accurate. I had never told her about this stream and she had never been at this site. She in fact resided thousands of miles away from this place for all of her life. Yet she knew about its layout and topography. She believed this was a shamanic site, and told me this was why I was essentially blown off the top of the knoll by the incoming tropical storm.
Back in the 1970s–the local legend that this place was an Indian Burial site did nothing to prevent me from fishing next to it. In the summer of 1971, I decided to canoe to this place, make my way up the small hill, and set up a tent to stay there for the night. At first nothing seemed to be much of a problem with my desire to camp out for the night. I was still just a few hundred yards from a nearby camping grounds with trailers instead of tents, and I was very close to mainland, close enough for others to hear me and for me to hear them should any communications be necessary.
Like any regular night of camping I set up a small fire, which burned for several hours. I then went into the tent to go to sleep. Now, this tent wasn’t an ordinary tent. In fact I found it a few weeks earlier while trout fishing along Mongaup Creek. A few miles down this creek from a pond by the same name, just before this creek makes its 90 degree turn to the right, there was a small camping area set up with an old canvas tent lying there from the autumn before. I brushed off the pine and hemlock needles on it, rolled it up, and lugged it back to the campground where my family was staying at the time. My family’s encampment was few miles upstream, and about a half to three-quarters of a mile through the woods heading away from the edge of the fishing stream.
Prior to spending the night on this island with my new tent, I had sprayed it with waterproofing agent. I also carved a wooden frame for it using some saplings. This was the largest tent I had ever owned and was about to sleep in. I could even almost completely stand up in it, barely touching its top with the top of my head. Next to my sleeping bag, I placed my clothes for the day and a light for use during the night.
A couple of hours into the night, around 11:30, the batteries were running low and so I replaced them and left the two older D batteries lying just outside the tent door. At about the same time, the wind began to act up and the tent was flapping and shaking unlike any other time I was tenting with the Boy Scouts. I went outside briefly and checked the scenery. The stars, usually seen in the sky from this vantage point, were now becoming obscured by clouds. It was beginning to rain. Walking over to the south slope face of the island, I looked about 25 to 30 feet down the hill and saw the canoe shaking and making some noise due to the waves. I went back into the tent, settled down, and tied up the window and door flaps and tried to go to sleep.
By midnight, the wind was a serious problem and was taking its toll on the tent. Soon, the wooden frame I lashed together was beginning to loosen. So once again I went outside to deal with the frame and tent. When I went back inside and kneeled down, I placed my right hand into a 1/2 inch puddle of water just adjacent to the sleeping bag directly in front of me. There was no way however that this leak was going to make me abandon my plans. The water I determined was seeping through the spot where my hair had come in contact with the canvas. To deal with this I fashioned a small burrow in the tent floor with my hands in order to guide the water out through the front door.
Lying back down again, I noticed there was still a lot of noise and turbulence that I would have to get used to in order to go to sleep. The canoe was still bouncing around between the trees below. While lying there, rethinking my strategies for the night, I heard my name being yelled out from below. It was the man in charge of the campground that my family was staying at. Once again I crept outside the tent and asked him what he wanted.
This man was dressed in that large yellow headpiece and rainwear typical of a ship captain. He yelled back at me saying I had to come down off that island. When I asked him why he replied “Tropical Storm Doria is coming!”
“Doria?!?” I was thinking.
Reflections of Recent Pasts
For much of the hour previous, lying in that tent, I was trying to concentrate on what this man told me about this island earlier that day and not react to the apparent storm coming in or the problem with my newly carved poles, which I realized could be too weak to withstand the wind and rain that was now about to fall.
How can I recall all of this so well?
That day was August 28, the day after my birthday and my last weekend of the year before returning to school. This island I was staying on during the last weekend up there before schools seemed to be to be somewhat of a symbolic thing, a coming of age so to speak. I was about to partake in my first year of high school.
When I talked with the local campgrounds director about whether or not I could stay on that island for the night, he first told me about its local history as being a burial site. He then also told me about the history of this island, as if to warn me about some evil spirits or the like that can take advantage of you if you should try to camp on such an important or special place. (We didn’t use the word sacred back then to describe such sites.) So, what happened in the upcoming hour during my stay up there constantly brought all that he had said back into my mind. Even before I knew that a tropical storm would be coming in, I had some concerns about what might happen if I stayed there for a night.
Some time around midnight that night, I was uncertain about what was causing the tent to shake. As one of the wooden poles started to crack, and water began to fill the floor of my tent on its east side close to the door, with my chances for a warm fire now totally extinguished, I began to rethink my options concerning what to do. As a result, with just one shout from the old man telling me to prepare to get off that island in the next few minutes, I did not hesitate to follow-up on his suggestion. As per his instructions I pulled the poles from the tent and left everything lying there lying on the ground to take on water. I extinguished what was remaining of my fire and then took as many of my belongings as I could back to the mainland with me, stepping into his flat-bottom boat because my canoe had accumulated enough water to soak the sleeping bag I had just tossed in there. We dragged my canoe back home with me and that was all for the night.
Over the next day or two, Doria made her way through this part of the Hudson valley. Doria took a path that went straight up the Hudson Valley after hitting land somewhere around New York City. Back at my abandoned campsite from the night before, the tent was drenched, covered with leaves, dirt , sand and gravel. Doria left quite a mess for me to pick up. The first chance I had, I went back to the island to remove the tent. Everything else I left behind.
My Return to this Place
Thirty years later, I went back to the hill or island in this marsh at the end of the lake. The marsh was filling in, but the island for the most part changed very little. It was still an island, with a much slower current of water flowing along its west face. The 4 foot deep trench that separated it from the mainland could not be as easily sighted, although it was still there. The trunks of the oak trees on this island were of course larger. Some had even grown completely around some large rocks set at their base. The shrubs and weeds at its edge seemed pretty much untouched. And a few marsh plants had filled the spaces where small grass and stump islands once grew.
Once again, I began clearing a path through the loosestrife surrounding this island. What I had now come to ponder as a possible ’sacred site’ once used by local Mohegans or Munsee Indians, had also become something that I had developed knowledge of the local history for. The days before, while rummaging through the village library and town hall records, I had learned that, fortunately, this land was not really at risk for any sort of destruction due to land use changes. It resided along a narrow piece of property defined as an easement or right of way for the family living across the street from this lake. According to the local town board member I spoke with about this parcel, it was traditional for deeds to include a sentence offering adjacent land owners the rights to access a nearby lake by right of way, a provision common to the mid-1800s. The town board member’s discussion therefore calmed any concerns I had for any possible destruction of this place due to changes in land use patterns and any new potential for its sale. I never informed him of its possible Indian heritage.
In the nearby local town library I came upon some writing which told me that this lake had an interesting history to tell. In J. Michael Smith’s published writing on Ninham and the Munsee Indians’ rights to local land, it was also told that Munsee and local Mohegans, during the late early 1700s, were living two distinctly different lifestyles. The Mohegans were in the midst of being converted to Christianity by Moravian missionaries travelling with them. On at least one occasion, as said in the history writings, the Mohegans made their way past a south end of this lake by way of another common stream often travelled by Mohegans making their way towards the Hudson River. I thought it rather interesting to think that at the north end of this same water body, there were the last of the remaining Munsee residing nearby as well, some as Revolutionary War participants–descendents of the Wappingi who first turned parts of this land over to the Dutch during the early to mid 1600s, while at the south end were the last of another Indian race who also become well-known for very different reasons–Last of the Mohegans.
I knew about all of this by the time I reached the island for this second time in my life, As I made my way back to the hilltop where I set up camp, ascending it on its east face, I came upon and picked up the batteries I pitched thirty years earlier. The 2 and a half feet circle of rocks that formed my fire-place were still visible. The gravelly nature of the soil was of course unchanged, although I did not see any signs of my tent stakes.
Walking around, I also saw that surrounding the island and its base were a number of plants that I came to learn about over the years. One of these plants is hard to find for its survives just 4 to 6 weeks of the year and is a victim of the many changes we have made in the local natural plant settings. This was the first plant to capture my attention about the natural history of this island. It was a small Penstemon or Indian Snakeroot (above), like the ones I read about over the years that were collected by Jane Colden for inclusion in her pressed plant collection.
The second plant I noticed was a species of Cornus shrub (above), now uncommon to this particular part of the county, but once popular like many other local Indian medicines. At the base of this island, next to its swampy edge, was the expected skunk cabbage and a little bit of cattail. Pacing slowly about this island, trying not to cause too much damage to the thick layer of lichen covering much of its gravelly surface, I found some of the more common Cornus Flowering Dogwood species. While touring its lower border with the lake on its south face, I saw the frame of an antique basket-like baby carriage from earlier times buried in the mud; its form told me it was a relic probably left there about 100 to 150 years ago, perhaps due a heavy rain outwash that once took place at the northeast corner of this island. This carriage was just a few feet from where I first tied my canoe back in 1971.
All of these events suddenly made me realize, ‘Some things seem to never change’.
I took two more trips to this island in order to document its history and try to make sense of the local folk tale about this place. This story was told to me by a man who was at the time more than 70 years of age, so I went to visit this man again. He remembered me very well. I reminded him about my early high school years when he told me about this island and its history as a burial site for Native Americans. He re-confirmed all of this legend with me and then I told him about my findings for this place.
Over the next few months I met with him on and off, stayed at another campground located about a mile from this site. During one of our meetings, this old man also gave me the information I needed to know about the local land use history, in order to determine that I probably would never have to worry about this piece of property being damaged or disturbed by local developers. Surprisingly, he was still a member of the town board, and told me he had his say in everything that happened to his property and places like this residing next to it. I then told him that I doubted that any of the locals now residing in this area have any idea of the history attached to this knoll.
Throughout the remaining weeks that summer, I took some photographs of the island, its plants and its surroundings. As a naturalist I feel that this place is most representative of the various “island communities” written about by ecologists (areas separated or detached from other areas due to physical landform features, enabling these small areas to develop their own local ecology). This island community I find to be unique because it is found on such a small island, relatively speaking, about 80 feet in length from north to south and 50 in width from east to west.
As a geology major at a NY university, I might speculate that this island could be simply the result of a natural formation, surviving as a remnant of the glacial history of this region. Wandering about the region, through miles of woodlands located all around this site and to the north, I could see that past glaciers had left their marks up and down this part of the New York landscape, thousands of years before. The week before, for example, just a few miles of this site, I discovered a number of fairly large icemelt ponds scattering the forest floor well into the woods. These lakes were perfectly round due to the melting of the ice block that formed them. And in this section of the county, I was able to determine that a fairly swampy area now filling this area, was actually a leftover riverbase from glacial melt. This area now holds several lakes forming a chain, with a small stream connecting them all together.
I asked myself – - Could the knoll be simply a result of natural events, perhaps reshaped somewhat by local native uses several centuries ago and earlier? Quite obviously, I realized, it would be difficult to lay all of this gravel, dirt, and large rocks by hand, in order to form this knoll. Perhaps the formation itself was the consequence of an act or two of nature, not the polished shape and form resulting from any human activities. Whatever the case, the possible uses of this land are important to local history, for which reason I held onto this local story and legend as long as I did in order to work out its final rendering.
So I surmise that the following is the best rendering of the littles bit of truth about this land formation and its human geography history: the reason this large landmass formed at the edge of the lake is probably related to the large ice pieces that at times helped to block and redirect gravel, sand and dirt as it flowed southward to ultimately empty into a small tributary to the Wappingers Creek. The Native perspective of this sand and gravel hill was that it was where it was for use either by shamans, or, for use in offering respect for past fathers and chiefs by serving as a place for the dead. All of this was situated immediately adjacent to two small lakes nearby. There was a place where a Munsee or Mohegan campground could be established. Colonial writings tell us about some these uses of the land well before the French, Walloon, Dutch, Moravian, Jesuit, and English immigrants moved in for their permanent stay.
Perhaps the most tell-tailing story of this natural setting is found in Moravian Missionary writings, in which Christian Indians (formerly Mohicans) were passing by the south end of the lake whilst Munsee were residing at its north end. This story was penned just a few years before the region was completely claimed by European inhabitants. By 1730, few if any Indian camps remained nearby. From ground level, these lakes appeared as though they bore two natural forms, the shape of a sunfish and the shape of a yellow perch or large mouth bass jumping out of the water–two natural inhabitants of these water bodies, with a thick section of vine joining the two together. Much further to the north was a lake that from ground level was amazingly shaped much like an arrowhead on the map before me (on an 1850 map it was two distinct lakes however). This formed the north end of a chain of post-glacial water bodies.
Although culturally out of context, the Buffy St. Marie video images added were extracted from rutebeuf‘s Starwalker [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeH_vTqnR1w&feature=related]
For details on the local history attached to places very close to this site, see J. Michael Smith’s “The Highland King Nimhammaw and the Native Indian Proprietors of Land in Dutchess County, 1712-1765.” The Hudson Valley Regional Review (2000/1?). pp. 169-208.
Patches of light grey Cladonia species (Reindeer Moss, which is actually a lichen) formed patches about 1-2 inches deep, a few inches to a foot across, and fairly irregular. Very fragile, these patches crunched when you stepped on them.
Viburnum and Cornus shrubs are scattered across the east and southeast face of the mound. The plants filling the shore edge at a 1 to 3 feet water level are Lythrum salicifolia or Loosestrife, a native and somewhat invasive species with a characteristic reddish to purple flower spike. This plant fills most of the wetlands of the valley, in particular within large fields, and is found scattered along the shorelines of numerous lakes and ponds. It has pretty flowers, but is a threat to local wetlands ecology. The lower stems are fairly woody, enabling them to turn into sharp spikes in early winter–a hazard to any man or animal trying to cross this section of land and water edge.
Cornus sericea (notice the distinct parallel veins indicative of Cornus species)
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) stands in the shade, with a hollowed out oak tree truck to the right.
Scattered about this section is Indian or Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), a well-known medicine to local natives and herbalists. It is called Wild Sarsaparilla because Colden noted its use as a substitute for the Central American popular root medicine and tonic-Sarsaparilla.
On the right side: Wild Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), a plant considered to work best as styptic by herbalists, but with a long history of use as a blood and liver tonic due to the yellow color of its wood within the roots and stems. Rich in highly medicinal berberine alkaloids.
Cattails with root masses (Typhus latifolia)
A nearby beaver hut with a young to moderately aged couple.