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!


Nance said...

I enjoyed this story of the Princess Snowbird. I will share this with my 4 (soon to be 5) granddaughters. Thanks so much.

Jason Burns said...

Great Nance! I hope they enjoy it!

By the way, if you send me your address, I will send you some irises.


Nance said...

605 N Chestnut St
Creston, IA 50801

Bless your heart.

I will send you some flowers (to be determined) in return! seeds or "starts"

Mellow said...

My name is Joan Whitcomb and I want to thank you for telling that story I am a decendant of princess sonwbird an that story sheads more light on my ancestry and why I am the way I am thank you again -joan

Anonymous said...

That was a great story! My West Virginia studies teacher had told part of the story and i got really interested in it so I looked for the whole story on the internet. Once I began reading the story I could help thinking about what it would be like to visit Seneca Rocks.

EminDenver said...

When I was a young man, in the mid-1970's, a small group of students from IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) would make the trip to Seneca to climb/cave/hike. We made the trip as often as we could, as it was the highlight of the Outing Club trips. We read this story around the campfire at almost every trip. Of course, we added to the story over time and came up with our own version - usually involving the death of one of the braves and how "his body was never found!" We thoroughly enjoyed the story and I have now passed it on to my kids. I'm not sure where we picked it up, but I believe it was written on some form of tourist information, or maybe it was in the climbing guide book. Back in those days the little town was called the "Mouth of the Seneca."

Mark Geyer, Denver, Colorado

robert suarez said...

Blogger Mellow said...

My name is Joan Whitcomb and I want to thank you for telling that story I am a decendant of princess sonwbird an that story sheads more light on my ancestry and why I am the way I am thank you again -joan

November 23, 2009 at 1:07 AM

HI my name is Robert Suarez and i am a Reincarnation of princess snowbird husband and my wife Kelleya is a Reincarnation of princess snowbird and theirs more to that story that was just how we met and how we got married and our happy parts of our story there is more to it then what was past down. and if you go there you might be able to hear the drums of our wedding day. but to tell the rest of the story for the story teller. yes we where happy together but with our tribes it was short lived they began to fight so we did the only thing that we knew to make tham stop and that was for me and her to jump off of the top of Seneca mountain but now knowing that did not work and that her mom who i love as well and i still rember her drum beat that she show me she end up dieing of depression because of loss of her daughter snowbird. so now we are going to re turn there to visit our past life and all the spirits that are there to this day so you can say we are planing to go back home to visit.

robert suarez said...

About Chief Bald Eagle, was killed in battle that he blamed my tribe for our death when that was not the case at all we died to stop the senseless fight over a disagreement the 2 fight was because of death because how her dad was they continued to fight.

Mona Eagle said...

My parents are from Braxton County WV. I was raised in the Eastern Panhandle, Martinsburg area. My Father would take us through Smoke Hole Caverns and Seneca from the Eastern Panhandle to Central WV to visit his parents and my Mother's family. My Father told me a legend of the Seneca Rocks. When I was young there were two pointed rocks in the center of Seneca Rocks. My Father said the legend was that the two rocks were a white man and an Indian Chief shaking hands. As I got older one of the rocks fell. Supposedly the white man. Years later the Indian chief fell. As I look at pictures of today I can still visualize the two men standing at the peak of the Seneca rocks and the story my Father told me. It's sad that it fell. I told the story to my children when they were young. At that time the rocks were no longer there. The chief may have been there, but I don't think so. I enjoyed reading your story. Thank you.

Mona Eagle said...

By the way. In 2007 I moved one of my daughter to Braxton when my son went to college in N.C. We've lived in Central WV since.