Their History and Legends
Extracted from the History of Greene County, pages 19-22
By J. G. Beers, published in 1884
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
ONE OF THE first inquiries that suggests itself when we consider the history of a locality is in regard to its primitive occupancy. Who were the people that lived here before our ancestors gained a home on the soil; and how did they live: What was their condition, and what became of them when the white settlers took possession of their lands? Amid the obscurity which surrounds the early history of this locality we find but little positive data from which to construct satisfactory answers to these questions. The aborigines reared no enduring monuments to perpetuate to civilization the record of themselves and their work. When the first European settlers came, the land now occupied by Greene County was occupied by sub-tribes of the great Algonquin nation. Indications of their existence are not wanting. We see them in the traces of their once frequented villages, their burial grounds, their stone arrow-points and instruments of various kind, but in these there is little upon which to found a definite account of their history or themselves.
In the early part of the seventeenth century the banks of the Hudson were occupied by sub-tribes of the two great Indian nations, the Lenni Leapes, or Delawares as they were afterwards called, and the Mahicans. The former occupied the west side of the river from its mouth up as far as the Katskill, and west to the head waters of the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers, while the latter occupied all the east side of the river, and the west side from an undefined point in the northern wilderness down to the Katskill, and west as far as Schenectady.
The wolf was the totemic symbol of the representatives of both these nations upon the territory of Greene county. The chieftaincy of the Lenni Lenapes that extended up the river to this point was the Minsis, which had six sub-divisions. One of these sub-tribes was the Catskills, and they inhabited the region from Saugerties northward to the Katskill, and perhaps, beyond that stream. Definite boundaries to their jurisdiction were unknown. There are evidences that indicate that their claim to lands as far north as Coxsackie Creek was admitted. It appears, however, that they held no lands beyond the ridge of the Katskill Mountains, the Schoharie Valley being the ground of the Mohawks. The Catskill Indians were spoken of by Hudson as a "loving people," and otherwise seemed to have the reputation of a very peaceable clan. In 1663, their Chief was known as Long Jacob; and their sachem in 1682 was Mahak Niminaw. The Warranawonkongs, another sub-division of the Minsis, and the most numerous of all joined them on the south. The particular chieftaincy of the Mahicans that occupied the valley of the Hudson was divided into five or more sections or sub-tribes. Of these the Mechkentowoons occupied the territory "above the Katskill and on Beeren or Mahican Island."
We have little evidence to show that the Indians of this territory played a very conspicuous or active part in the wars between the Mohawks and the Mahicans that waged for many years during the period of European discovery and settlement. The Catskill Indians were no doubt associated with the other sub-tribes of their nation in resisting the Mohawks. A tradition comes down to us that once upon a time, the representatives of the two great powers—Iroquois and Mahicans—met in great numbers upon the island now called Rogers Island, (Wanton Island, several miles below Catskill, has also been made the scene of this battle.) and there engaged in bloody conflict for the supremacy over the river. The result, as the tradition goes, was a victory, complete and lasting for the former, or more definitely for the Mohawks, they being the particular tribe of the Iroquois confederation engaged in this conflict. When it took place we are not told. the Mohawks, whatever may have been their triumphs, never laid claim to the lands bordering the river here.
The history, habits, manners and religion of the Indians who occupied this ground were the same generally as those of the nations to which they belonged. They selected for their habitations the rich flats bordering the streams, and probably seldom ventured upon the mountains. The fish in the river and its tributary creeks and the game with which the forest of the plains and lesser hills abounded, together with the products of the fertile soil which they cultivated gave them an abundant livelihood, and there was little in the waste of rocks and in accessible steeps to attract them thither. They lived in circular wigwams, generally in single families. These wigwams, ten or twelve feet across them, were formed of poles set up in circular form and the top drawn together, after which the frame-work was covered with barks and skins. They had a custom of setting the woods and meadows on fire in autumn, at "Indian summer" time. Their strong-holds were circular forts, built upon commanding elevations at important points. These forts were usually enclosures, containing about an acre, surrounded by palisades 12 of 15 feet high, and within were filled with wigwams. The hoes with which they planted and cultivated their corn were made of the shoulder-blades of the deer or moose, or clam shells, fastened to a handle. It is said that they sometimes used fish as a fertilizer, (though we do not see the necessity of that), and that their corn-fields were often several acres in extent. Besides corn, they also raised squashes, tobacco, beans and sunflowers.
Swiftly and surely they faded out, before the poisonous breath of civilization and "fire-water," and there is nought left to speak of their existence but the ashes of their homes, their own decaying bones and the fragments of their stone implements that here and there protrude from the disturbed soil.
Of the few legends that are preserved concerning them, we have only room for the following, which is the substance condensed from recollections of a recital of it made forty years ago by a descendant of the old Dutch settlers:
"About the time of the settlement of this vicinity, there lived an Indian chief who bore the name Shandaken, who is said to have occupied, during the warm season, the table rock upon which the Mountain House, on Pine Orchard, stands. This old chief had an only daughter, whose beauty excited the admiration of all the young braves and the envy of all the squaws in the neighborhood. Lotowana, for that was her name, was sought for by many a warrior of high rank in the circles of the forest. But the proposals, which were frequently made to Shandaken for the hand of his daughter, were uniformly rejected, for she was already betrothed to a young chief of the Mohawks. Among those who were captivated by the charms of Lotowana was Norsereddin, who boasted descent from an ancient race of Egyptian Kings, and who lived somewhere upon the banks of the Katskill. This young man had little to recommend him to the favor of any one, either in possessions or character. Haughty, morose, unprincipled, cruel and dissipated, he still possessed and invincible determination to accomplish his purposes that recoiled not from the use of any means that lay within his reach. This graceless man had been moved to attempt to conquest of Lotowana’s heart, simply by a banter of a Dutchman at a primitive tavern, where they were enjoying the sweets of the proverbial beer and pipe. The Dutchman had offered to wager 1,000 pieces of crown gold that Norsereddin could not win the affection of Lotowana from her troth, and although the proud Egyptian scorned the regard of the Indian girl he declared that he would take the wager and make the one who offered it rue his presuming folly.
"Norsereddin repaired at once to the mountain and spent six months in hunting, fishing and shooting with Shandaken, improving the while every opportunity to engage the favor and confidence of the chief and his people. By his seductive manners he was able to make fair progress as far as the chief and others were concerned, but with the dusky damsel he was assured by no such measure of success. In fact, while he evidently failed to awaken any tender regard for himself in the heart of the girl, he found to his chagrin that his own heart was becoming enchanted by her winning graces. So now Norsereddin had a double stimulus to the prosecution of his design, a thousand crowns of gold and a wife, that if he could not introduce with pride to the circle of his Egyptian friends, he could take delight in here amid the seclusion of the new world. He at last asked for the hand of Lotowana, but great was his mortification when he found himself rejected. Repeated assertions of his love, which were now made in all sincerity, were met by steadfast refusal, until his wounded spirit was aroused to its former imperious and haughty mien, but to his remonstrances the old chief replied: "Go, my son, there are smiles for thee among the daughters of thine own race, they are fair, and will rejoice in thy coming. The child of the red men would not forget her home. She has been nursed amid the voices of the forest, and the tall trees have cast their shadows upon her soul as over a pure stream. The music of their leaves has lulled her for many moons, and her heart is full of their strange language. Her dreams have been haunted with the croak of the raven and the scream of the panther, and still she has slept in security under the branches of the tall oak, until the images of the forest have become as apart of her own being—she would not forget them, and would sigh to return. Let my son but reflect, too, that the sunlight of her spirit falls toward the camp of the Mohawk, and its shadow, even now, darkens in his own pathway. The light of the glad sun, which proceedeth outwards continually, is the truth of the Manitou, carrying joy to the hearts of his people. It returns not, like a false light, ere it has fulfilled its promise, but goes on into the darkness beyond the world, gladdening it with hope. Shandaken would have his word like the truth of the Manitou. It has sown joy in the heart of one, let it not return unfulfilled, that the finger of scorn should point at him, and shame come upon him in his old age.
Norsereddin in reply attempted to justify the breach of honor which he had urged Shandaken to commit, but this only called out a more indignant reply for the chief. Finding himself hopelessly foiled, the Egyptian became enraged and attempted to strike down the chief upon the spot, but Shandaken hurled him away with such force that he fell upon the rock almost insensible, and the Indians who were near, following up the movement, drove Norsereddin from the camp. The latter now vowed revenge, and gave his mind to the conception of a plan, which, having devised, he forthwith proceeded to put into operation.
By the help of an old domestic he obtained the fang of a serpent, and securing it upon a piece of wire, he arranged it in a very pretty little box in such a way that when the box should be opened the wire would spring out an strike the fang into the hand of the person holding it. To make its work doubly sure and effective he charged the point also with some powerful mineral poison. Thus provided he set out for the Indian camp on the day preceding that set for the marriage festival of the lovely Lotowana with her Mohawk chief.
The summer was in its full bloom of richness, and nature smiled in the freshness of her garb of verdure and hazy purple. Every feature of the landscape seemed to flush with conscious joy, but the heart of Norsereddin comprehended it not, for it was absorbed in the execution of a diabolical purpose of revenge. On reaching the mountain he greeted Shandaken with this cunningly devised address: "Brother, I have come far this morning to greet you with the words of kindness. Let us be friends. It is not meet that you, who are a prince among your people and I, who am the scion of a race of kings, should be at enmity or war. If I have done any thing that has offended you, forgive my rashness, and charge it rather to the sudden heat of blood than any settled purpose to do you wrong. The Dawn of Day was beautiful exceedingly—I was blind and frenzied—that passion is now dead, or lives only in my recollection of its folly. Let us forget the past, and as we once were so let us be friends again. Here is a casket, and there are jewels in it that would grace a diadem. I have brought them for Lotowana, the loved child of the Wagbinga chieftain, ere she departs from the wigwam of her father. Let her accept them as a peace offering from her brother, so shall he remember her with gratitude, and invoke a blessing on her in her new home. Go, give them to the maiden, and I will depart with the breath of peace upon my lips."
To the Shandaken replied: "It rejoices our hearts that our brother says peace. We harbor no evil against the pale-face—he is our friend; and as the mist of the morning fades before the sunlight, so melts our anger before the smiles of our brother. We accept the gift he has brought for the young maiden, as a pledge of his friendship, and are glad that he will bury his anger. It is good—let there be peace, so shall we think of him with kindness; and when he departs from us our blessing will follow him."
Norsereddin, having delivered his message, retired without delay, while the chief went to deliver the casket to his daughter. She at once opened it, and in doing so was wounded by the fatal dart. Screaming with pain she called her father, who examined the infernal machine and saw through the scheme of which they had been made the victims. So effectual was its action that, notwithstanding all possible efforts were made to counteract the poison, the expectant bride in a few minutes lay dead at the feet of her father. Twenty warriors at once set out in pursuit of the wretched deceiver. Mounted on trusty horses, they sped down the mountain side and across the slopes with the swiftness of the whirlwind. But little did they gain on the fleet-footed charger of Norsereddin until the latter, when near the Kalkberg, stumbled and fell. To extricate himself from the entanglement of this position and remount took time that gave the pursuers advantage, and before he could regain his flight he was overtaken. The Indians now pinioned him, placed him on his horse, and proceeded with him back to their camp. A consultation was held and it was decided that he should be committed to the flames. The spot selected was upon the flat rock in Pine Orchard, but a few feet from the edge of the precipice. Over-whelmed by the prospect of death before him, he plead wildly for mercy, but he plead in vain. The pile of fagots was prepared, the victim thoroughly bound and place upon it, and the torch applied. As the hungry flames which were his winding sheet, lapped around the body of the helpless wretch and intensified the surrounding darkness, the savages danced around it, while their shouts of exultation mingled with the wails that the agonies of death wrung from the victim of his own revenge.
The body of Lotowana was buried amid the mourning of her friends; and on the following day Shandaken removed from the spot, to which he never more returned; while the ashes of Norsereddin were left upon the rock untouched, to be scattered hence by the four winds of heaven.