Friday, May 29, 2009

The Legend of Princess Snowbird

As some of you may know, my very first job ever was as a tour guide at Seneca Caverns in Riverton, WV. Since those days, the caverns have gone through some changes, and no one I knew then even works there anymore. It wasn't the best job in the entire world, but I think it had something to do with my interest in becoming a storyteller.

Every day, I had at least five different audiences (my record was 8), who were interested in different things. They were from all walks of life, all regions of the world, and many different religions - which often made for some creative thinking about how to best describe the age of the cave, and what it was that I was supposed to call the "Devil's Kitchen" - the lowest point in the cave. But I digress - the Seneca Caverns were the winter home of the Seneca natives, who lived in the area of West Virginia where I grew up. Some people have studied them and claim they were not Seneca, but Delaware, but I'll call them the Seneca for the sake of the story.

The average temperature of WV hovers around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is about what the cave stayed at. You can imagine that during the long, cold winter of -9 or so below, 55 would feel pretty darn good if you built a fire. Which they did, in the "Council Room" of Chief Bald Eagle.
However, the best story from the Seneca natives comes from Seneca Rocks, WV. If you don't know, Seneca Rocks is 900 feet of vertical stone in Seneca Rocks. It was a landmark used by humans since antiquity, and there are artifacts there to prove it. During WWII, it was used as a training ground by US troops going to Europe. Today, there is a visitor's center and you can visit mostly anytime during the tourist season. The rocks are open year-round, and there is a walking trail to the top.

However, Princess Snowbird needed no trail. It was told that she was one of the first natives to actually climb the face of the rocks with her bare hands - and that accomplishment, along with her legendary beauty, made her a most desirable bride. But Princess Snowbird was not an easy catch, as the story tells:

The Betrothal of Snow Bird, Princess of the Seneca Indians

The only daughter of chief Bald Eagle and his wife, White Rock, was a daughter - Princess Snow Bird. As a young girl, she played at the base of these towering rocks, often gazing at their topmost peaks and longing to be able to climb to the tallest of them. As a young woman, she became the most beautiful of all the maidens of the Senecas. Her rank and beauty brought many men from her tribe and neighboring tribes courting her for a bride.

The rivalry caused her to face the serious problem of choosing a mate. When the day arrived to choose a husband, seven young warriors, all suitors for the hand of the Seneca princess, assembled in an open space and arranged themselves in a semi-circle facing the mighty rocks. The faint-hearted had dropped from the contest, not daring to face the ordeal to which they were sure they would be subjected.

Silence reigned on all sides. This rush of expectancy was on all until the beautiful Princess Snow Bird clad in the royal garb of her tribe, moved swiftly and gracefully into the circle and faced her prospective partners. She lifted her hand and silence fell upon the assembled.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I have watched yonder rocks push their rugged summits into the heavens and many times I have longed to be able to climb to their topmost crags. There have I spent the happiest, the most enjoyable days of my life. Of all the Seneca Indians, I am the only one who has accomplished the feat. One day, about a moon past, I decided upon a contest, a trial of bravery and endurance. You will soon engage in this contest, and to the successful one of you, I will give my hand, my heart, and my life."

Princess Snow Bird set out on the journey, followed by the seven braves. Upward they climbed, the sure-footed maiden always leading.

As the climb became more and more difficult, three of the seven turned back, dispirited and disappointed. Another followed to the fifth pinnacle and then wearied of the struggle and gave up. A fifth man crumpled in a heap near the same pinnacle and was rescued from death by the fourth, who led him back to safety. The two that remained followed closely in the footsteps of the maiden.

Finally, with renewed determination, they set out on the last and most dangerous stretch of the journey, the princess - as always - in the lead. At last she reached the summit and turned to look for her most persistent suitor. He was only a few feet below her. In this moment of waiting, his foot slipped on the ledge of rock.

The maiden hesitated for a fraction of a second. Was he not the bravest and strongest of the Senecas? Where would she ever find his equal? So with the alertness and strength of her young arms, she caught the falling brave and drew him to safety and to herself. Long they sat together talking of their future, and then as darkness approached, the two lovers descended by the trail at the rear of the gigantic rocks.

Later, they stood before Chief Bald Eagle and White Rock. The great chief conferred upon his newfound son-in-law the authority to become his successor as chief of the tribe. He, along with Princess Snowbird, were set to live a long and prosperous life together as leaders of their tribe.

I cannot remember - although I once knew - the name of Princess Snowbird's husband. It was part of the "spiel" on the tour of the caverns. Perhaps I will remember it sometime and post it here.

The future of the Senecas was not to be, however. Shortly after the betrothal of Princess Snowbird, European settlers began moving into the area. Skirmishes with the Europeans left the tribe decimated and scattered - Princess Snowbird and others moved further west to join up with other tribes that had joined the Iroquois confederacy. Her father, Chief Bald Eagle, was killed in battle. I do not know what became of Snowbird's mother or husband, and I leave that to your thoughts.

It is interesting to me, that this story still remains in my mind. As one of the first stories I ever heard, it set me on a lifetime of gathering stories and learning about places. I know the story is a bit hokey, and has no doubt been twisted over the centuries into what it is today - but it's still a great story. It is amazing to me as well, that the main character - a woman - is made to be so powerful. This is one part that makes me believe that it is a true tale - in part because it reflects the power with which Native Americans imbued the women. Europeans, as a patriarchal society, did not necessarily view women in this light.

So the next time you are in Pendleton County, and you see Seneca Rocks, remember the story of Princess Snowbird. She was one powerful lady!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Red-Headed Man

This post involves a story that was passed on to me by Kurt McCoy, whom some of you may know wrote that great book "White Things: West Virginia's White Monsters" which is available on eBay for a paltry $10. I suggest you pick up a copy. It is a very good read!

This story is one that comes close to home for me, quite literally. Kurt is another WV ghost/monster story collector, and came across this story while working on his current book about WV's water monsters (apparently there are more than the Ogua).

The Red-Headed Man is a story set in the colonial days of WV, way back when it was still known as western Virginia. This story takes place at Fort Cobun, which was located near Dorsey's Knob in Morgantown - which I can see from my backyard. That is why I say it is close to home for me.

Fort Cobun was built in 1770, near Dorsey's Knob (above), and I'm sure that it's foundations lie somewhere beneath the old Morgantown Mall or the Giant Eagle. So much for saving history. Sometime, I'm not sure when, as I have not researched this story thoroughly, the fort was attacked and overrun by a Native American raiding party.

During this raid, many settlers were killed or kidnapped. One of those was to become known as "The Red-Headed Man". I've not found his name, if in fact it was ever known, but he was a soldier. He was kidnapped by the natives and carried to an area near the base of Dorsey's Knob. There, the natives tied him to an "X"-like cross they had staked into the ground. While tied up, the natives also scalped him - and did not stop at the top of his head. Instead, they scalped him down to his neck, and he subsequently bled to death from the wounds.

Since that time, there have been sightings of the "Red-headed Man" near Dorsey's Knob in Morgantown, which is now a local park area. Many people have told stories about being parked up at Dorsey's Knob, which has a reputation for a makeout spot, and encountering the specter. He is clothed in his colonial uniform, and his head is blood-red, with his veiny flesh still unhealed even in death. It is said that the "Red-headed Man" grabs unsuspecting people by the scalp and face, attempting to replace his lost skin with theirs.

There is protection against the "Red-headed Man" however - many visitors, even to this day, carry a small, handmade cross (basically two sticks tied with twine) on their windshields. Apparently, the "Red-headed Man" still fears the apparatus to which he was tied and tortured on - even in a miniature version.

I think of this story every time I look out across the yard, and I wonder if the "Red-headed Man" is still out there, or if somehow he has finally gone to rest.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Way of the Willow

This post was inspired by my recent thoughts about trees. There's a saying in my family which I doubt that anyone outside the family knows about.

Every now and then, you'll hear someone in the family say, "It's went the way of the willow" or in vernacular, "It's went the way of the willer". Now most of you have some clue to what that means, but not where it comes from. I'm sure you've caught on to the meaning, that whatever it was is not around anymore - it's gone the way of the willer.

Well, here's the story: When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my family was living in Monkeytown, right up that holler road that's pictured on the sidebar here. Our house was on the same side of the crick as Granny's, where she lived with her youngest son - our great-uncle Dagwood. Between our two houses stood a giant old weeping willow tree, that was planted next to the old spring. The spring had by this time gone out of use, but the water from it still seeped up out of the ground all the time and the willow tree of course loved it. It was a huge old tree - not as big as the white oak in my picture, but it was at least forty feet tall, with weeping branches that dragged the ground in the summer. It was one of the most beautiful trees I'd ever seen - and weeping willows are one of my favorite trees.

Well, anyway, one summer I remember reading in my bedroom during an evening rainstorm. For a while we were on the porches talking and watching it rain, but the thunder and lightning kicked in and we ran inside. I remember Granny had been sitting on her porch too - the yard between our houses was only about a hundred feet or so, with the willow in the middle over the old spring.

Well as I was reading, there was a huge crash, the power went out, and everyone was yelling and running - the old willow had fallen.

A gust of wind had caught it's upper branches, and the soggy ground had given way. It fell straight down between the houses, missing them both. Of course it clipped the power lines in half, and it took a while before power came back to the holler.

It didn't matter really, because we were all mourning the loss of the willow. It was like losing a family member - someone who had always been there, standing guard over us all.

A surprise was beneath the willow, however. When it fell, the tree revealed a giant stone - so large that Granny said it was the base of the mountain and could never be moved. That proved true a few years later when we flattened out part of the yard with a bulldozer - and two dozers, one on each side of the rock, couldn't get it to budge. So my mother named the rock "Old Abe" after Abe Lincoln - since it was so steady and hardheaded.

So the willow is gone now, but Abe is still there, holding up the mountain. Years later, my family replanted a weeping willow in the same place as the other one. It was done not only to replace the missing tree, but to deal with some rather unruly "neighbors". That's another story altogether. Here is the replacement tree, and Old Abe. There's a rail fence there now, too.

Now you'll know, if you hear one of my family say "It's gone the way of the willer", the story behind it. Of course, like all sayings there are now other versions. "It's gone the way of the wizard" - as in the Wizard of Oz, and "the way of the weasel", which is my brother's favorite. His hobbies include studying ferrets and weasels - the mustelid family.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Naming the Tree

Here's something maybe some of you can help me with. There is a giant old white oak tree in the backyard - it's on the corner of several property lines with myself and three neighbors, so it's really unknown who's tree it is. I've taken Franklin for walks around this giant - it's over fifty feet tall (much taller before it's top broke out).

Ravens love to nest in its branches, and I'm sure it is over 300 - maybe 350 years old. One of the neighbors said she had always liked this tree, and it had been there since she was a child. That was over fifty years ago, she said. Once it even self-combusted, and the inside ignited. The fire department came and put out the tree, but no one would allow them to cut it down. Everyone likes this old tree, and since it is so far from anyone's home, there is no danger of it falling on anything.

In the top of the tree there is a huge hole, like a single eye, and I like to think of this tree as having a real soul - a real personality. I do believe in tree and plant spirits - it's part of my culture. This tree is one of the oldest spirits I've come across - and it's hard to believe I discovered it in the midst of Morgantown.

The thing I am requesting your help with is naming this tree. I think it is a shame that the tree doesn't have a name - of course, I've thought of the usual:

"Albus, The White Oak" and "Cyclops"

But I'm hoping that one of you can help me come up with something maybe a bit more creative and original.

I guess "Ravenscroft" isn't too far off either. Any ideas?

Down the Staircase

Hello everyone - its me, tardy again with another post. I honestly have a very good reason this time. Actually, two very good ones. On last Sunday night, I had a fall down my staircase (never wear socks on hardwood floors). I was able to catch myself about the 6th step, but I bounced quite hard until then. I have bruises still (one quite large purple one you know where). I also knocked my right elbow pretty hard and scraped the backs of both my calves, so I was in pretty bad shape afterwards. All of that is feeling better except for my rear.

If that weren't enough, I also caught the worst end of the winter cold you can imagine - it was so bad that I was laid up all week, unable to go to work or do anything around the house. I even thought maybe it was swine flu, but my doctor told me it was only a severe cold. On top of that, my allergies are killing me - ai yi yi!

It's been raining here off and on for the last couple of days, so maybe the best way for me to spend it was in bed or laid out on the couch. Franklin has been, I must say, quite the nursemaid. He's always there to warm up a cold lap or nap along beside me. I've never woken up this last week and him not be there next to me.

Now if I could train him to cook and clean...

I will be up and running again soon. I hope to put up a really good post I've been writing in my head for over a week now. It's about this place: