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Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Liesby Ginger Strand
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Americans call Niagara Falls a natural wonder, but the Falls aren't very natural anymore. In fact, they are a study in artifice. Water diverted, riverbed reshaped, brink stabilized and landscape redesigned, the Falls are more a monument to man's meddling than to nature's strength. Held up as an example of something real, they are hemmed in with fakery -- waxworks, haunted houses, IMAX films and ersatz Indian tales. A symbol of American manifest destiny, they are shared politely with Canada. Emblem of nature's power, they are completely human-controlled. Archetype of natural beauty, they belie an ugly environmental legacy still bubbling up from below. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to how America falsifies nature, reshaping its contours and redirecting its force while claiming to submit to its will.
Combining history, reportage and personal narrative, Inventing Niagara traces Niagara's journey from sublime icon to engineering marvel to camp spectacle. Along the way, Ginger Strand uncovers the hidden history of America's waterfall: the Mohawk chief who wrested the Falls from his adopted tribe, the revered town father who secretly assisted slave catchers, the wartime workers who unknowingly helped build the Bomb and the building contractor who bought and sold a pharaoh. With an uncanny ability to zero in on the buried truth, Strand introduces us to underwater dams, freaks of nature, mythical maidens and 280,000 radioactive mice buried at Niagara.
From LaSalle to Lincoln to Los Alamos, Mohawks to Marilyn, Niagara's story is America's story, a tale of dreams founded on the mastery of nature. At a time of increasing environmental crisis, Inventing Niagarashows us how understanding the cultural history of nature might help us rethink our place in it today.
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With wit and passion, Strand (Flight: A Novel ) explores the history of Niagara Falls and shows that the famous natural wonder is in reality a prime example of man's manipulation of nature, constantly exploited to attract tourists. In the 19th century, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, appalled by the crass commercialism of souvenir shops, ugly signs and cheap attractions, pledged to restore Niagara to its natural beauty; instead, he created a fake wilderness. In the 20th century, humans learned to control the falls by harnessing them for electric power, and this led to what is for Strand the most shocking fakery: the water going over the falls is manipulated for greater output in the daytime-to impress visitors-and turned down at night to generate more power. In addition, the capacity to generate large amounts of hydroelectricity has made Niagara Falls a prime spot for industries that manufacture electrochemical products and for nuclear weapons facilities; the author paints a vivid picture of a region awash today in toxic waste and radioactive contaminants. Strand's provocative and iconoclastic book says much about how America has dominated nature, despoiled it and shrouded the offense in myth. 8 pages of color photos not seen by PW . (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Environmental writer Strand approaches the subject of Niagara Falls with respect and enthusiasm and proceeds on an interesting but meandering journey of research and lore. Niagara's place in popular culture and offbeat history is her topic, and it leads her anywhere and everywhere. The reader is taken on a tour of Native American mythology, museums and sideshows, tightrope artists, fugitive slave history, the honeymoon industry, and urban decay. It is a whirlwind, to say the least. Although the topics are fascinating in their relation to Niagara, their overabundance leaves the reader more than slightly bewildered. Strand finds her strongest voice when examining the efforts of early and modern developers to landscape a natural phenomenon into a tourist attraction. The tension between nature's beauty and its potential power is clear when she describes how engineers have continually tried to manage Niagara for hydroelectric power. For another view of Niagara's multifaceted past, see Pierre Berton's Niagara: A History of the Falls. Overall, a minor purchase in libraries where interest warrants.
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Beauty, Power, and Lies
By Ginger Strand Simon & Schuster
Copyright © 2008
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Down the Memory Hole
I went to Niagara because I wanted to laugh at it. I was a college student, and I considered the Falls no more than a kitschy spectacle, a chance to soak in a heart-shaped Jacuzzi and get some really awful souvenirs for my irony-adoring pals. My college boyfriend and I pulled into the parking lot of the tackiest motel we could find and prepared our world-weary smirks. We had quarters for the vibrating bed, a cheap camera to document our glee. And then we got out of the car. To this day, I remember the stationary blast of sound that filled the air, even though the Falls were nowhere in sight. In spite of myself, I was impressed.
Years later, I went back. I had moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, moved on from the college boyfriend and cycled through a series of jobs -- proofreader, box-office manager, teacher, copywriter -- to see which might leave me time to finish the novel that was slinking around in my head. I found myself with two weeks open in my calendar, and I suggested to my boyfriend, Bob, that we rent a car and take a road trip around New York looking at hydroinfrastructure.
I love hydroinfrastructure -- water tunnels, reservoirs, canals, sewers, aqueducts -- I find all of it inspiring, a testament to humanity's ability to come together in the interest of higher ideals like cold drinks and hot showers. Luckily, Bob doesn't mindindulging my arcane obsessions -- he's a bit of a hydrogeek himself, so off we went, using a road map to pinpoint hydro hotspots. We started off in the Catskills, visiting New York City's water supply. Then we drove north to the Erie Canal -- still, I am happy to report, open for business, though it's largely tourist cruises and pleasure boats today. Following the Erie Canal, we wound up, as did its earliest passengers, at Niagara Falls. And there we visited the Adam Beck Power Plant, on the Canadian side. The Beck plant offers a tour. They take you inside through a tunnel that smells of ozone and let you look through glass windows at giant, whirring generators while the guide unfurls the mysteries of turbines and transformers for the rapt crowd. It was on this tour that I first heard about the waterfall's hours of operation -- it gets turned up during the days in summer for the tourists, and turned down at night so it can generate more power. Go at 7 a.m., the guide suggested, and watch the water being dialed up. In other words, Niagara Falls, if not turned off and on like a faucet, is turned up and down like a fancy massaging showerhead. I was taking notes -- I always take notes on vacation; otherwise, how do you remember stuff? -- but at that point I stopped scribbling and just grinned like a maniacal toddler.
Every American feels something for Niagara Falls, but from that point on, I was obsessed. I began to visit Niagara whenever I had an opportunity. I stayed in hotels on both sides, from Ontario's shiny new Radisson to New York's decrepit Travelodge. I got up on cold mornings to run along the riverfront and stayed up on warm nights to lose at blackjack. I interviewed local historians and park workers and engineers. I got the phone number of a Canadian Mountie. I traced the path of the explorer La Salle as he and his band of idiots toiled up the Niagara Escarpment and built the first European ship on the upper Great Lakes, guarding the work site at night because angry Indians were trying to burn "the big canoe." I bought gas and cigarettes from Smokin Joes Trading Post on the Tuscarora Reservation. I don't smoke, but they were a dollar a pack.
I hung around the public library bugging the librarians, until, exasperated, they left me locked in for the evening. I stayed in a trailer campground in Canada and tromped all over Brock's Monument, searching for the cenotaph of the war hero's horse. I was self-appointed inspector of wax museums, halls of fame, haunted houses, historical societies, scenic tunnels, and the Evel Knievel Museum and Pawn Shop, surveyor of aquariums, water parks and boat rides. And of course, I spent hours gazing at falling water, following the sheets of liquid that hold their shape and then disintegrate, the hypnotic contortions of the mist, the bubbling, gymnastic upper rapids and the frothy race of the lower, all of it creating a fuzzy, wraithlike picture, because Niagara, like Mount Everest or the Mississippi River, is one of those places with so many meanings layered onto it, it's almost hard to see. The Greeks had a god named Proteus, who, if you grabbed him, started endlessly changing shape -- a serpent, an eagle, a lion -- in the hope you would startle and let go. That's Niagara, always in motion, always transforming, and never just what it seems. A seal. A salmon. A buffalo. A two-headed calf, a two-legged dog. A baby with three ears.
Case in point: Niagara Falls. Three entities go by that name. Two are towns, one in New York State, one in Ontario. Niagara Falls, New York, is by general agreement a mess. The river above the Falls is lined with factories, many of them shuttered. Almost half the population and more than half the jobs have decamped since 1950, and it shows. Housing stock is crumbling, and the center city is a study in urban decay: empty lots, boarded-up businesses, foreclosure signs. The roads are potholed, the sidewalks cracked. Someone's usually pushing a shopping cart down the street. The area around the Falls is a jumble of failed attempts at urban renewal -- a bankrupt mall, a foreclosed Native American museum, a shoddy row of cheap attractions, handmade signs and pushcarts selling samosas and souvenir sweatshirts. If you can figure out which way the riverfront is, you'll notice the view is blocked by a giant parking ramp and a smattering of hotels, not fancy ones, but the kind that try to temper their bland mediocrity with the word "inn." Days Inn. Comfort Inn. Quality Inn.
The vast majority of American tourists, faced with this national embarrassment, head straight for the border. Things are different in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Along their riverfront, the Canadians have made parkland: a strip of violently landscaped formal gardens offering access to Canada's classic panoramas and regularly spaced snack stands. Above the park, perched on a steep ridge, is an area about ten blocks square, packed solid with hotels, casinos, souvenir shops, observation towers and franchise restaurants. There, on Clifton Hill -- "Niagara's street of FUN!" -- you're hit with a loud, lurid onslaught of over forty attractions. You have the IMAX Theatre, the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, the Movieland Wax Museum, the Niagara SkyWheel, Dinosaur Park Mini Putt Golf and Ghostblasters, a haunted house merged with a laser tag game. The ghosts spook you and you shoot them.
The two Niagaras wink at one another across the gorge, the contrapuntal faces of globalism: on the Canadian side, the monotony of our worldwide monoculture, the proliferation of malls and brands and franchises proclaiming globalism's intent to make every town look the same, from Benares to Boise. The soul-sapping boredom of it all is reflected in its urgent spawning of ever-more-extreme cheap thrills. Meanwhile, across the river in America, you see globalism's economic underbelly: crumbling row houses, unemployment offices, and defunct factories parked on EPA-designated brownfields, the sediment of a century's toxic runoff. Rising up from the desolation is the one shiny thing on the New York side's skyline, the new Seneca Niagara Casino, a hopeful mirage where grannies, suburbanites and cash-strapped locals -- two-thirds of whom subsist on public assistance -- unload lives of quiet desperation, quarter by quarter, into the slots.
Poised between these two worlds, oblivious, inexorable, is the third Niagara Falls: the waterfall. Hundreds of millions of gallons plunge every minute over a 176-foot ledge, as Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie -- one-fifth of the world's freshwater -- drain into Lake Ontario and out to sea. It roars, day in, day out, untouchable and untouched by the incursions around it. Nothing -- not the tacky plastic fun park of Canada's family heaven nor the hard-at-the-heels squalor of New York's economic hell -- can ruin one of the world's prime natural wonders. Or so we're told.
Guidebooks today are quick to deride Niagaras one and two, but they are unanimous in declaring the waterfall splendid. "Nearly everyone who sees Niagara Falls is struck by the wonder of it," proclaims Fodor's. The authors describe the tawdry surroundings, but assure the reader that "the astounding beauty of the Falls remains undiminished, and unending." Undiminished indeed: the waterfall is diminished by anywhere from one-half to three-quarters, depending on the season and time of day. Some guidebooks admit this, but they tell you not to worry. The Lonely Planet guide cites the stats on diversion, but assures us "the falls themselves are amazing." Nature, it seems, can't be harmed by a few miles of kitsch, or the diversion of a little water.
This situation is not new. A hundred and fifty years ago, guidebooks also assured visitors that the tacky tourist carnival flanking the Falls did not impinge on their glory. The great wonder, it's true, was surrounded by Chinese pagodas, dancing pavilions, camera obscuras, Indian bazaars, and sideshows featuring counting pigs and a man named Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. This carnival, every guidebook assured you, would ruin your experience of the Falls. But if you ignored it, if you went instead to the correct places and gave yourself up to the contemplation of canonized vistas, your experience of Niagara would be sublime. Writers, artists and intellectuals joined guidebook authors in directing visitors' steps and sentiments away from the tacky and toward the transcendent. Ever since its debut as America's tourist icon, Niagara has built a reputation that depends on separating its natural wonder from the artificial accretions around it.
But here's what I learned at Niagara: the distinction is false. Niagara Falls as a natural wonder does not exist anymore. Manicured, repaired, landscaped and artificially lit, dangerous overhangs dynamited off and water flow managed to suit the tourist schedule, the Falls are more a monument to man's meddling than to nature's strength. In fact, they are a study in self-delusion: we visit them to encounter something real, then observe them through fake Indian tales, audio tours and IMAX films. We consider them a symbol of American manifest destiny, yet we share them politely with Canada. We hold them up as an example of unconquerable nature even as we applaud the daredevils and power-brokers who conquer them. And we congratulate ourselves for preserving nature's beauty in an ecosystem that, beneath its shimmering emerald surface, reflects our own ugly ability to destroy. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to the ways America falsifies its relationship to nature, reshaping its contours, redirecting its force, claiming to submit to its will while imposing our own upon it.
My purpose in going to Niagara was to think about nature, and I ended up obsessed with human things. The suicide hotline phones dotting the rapids. The senior housing complex with views of Love Canal. The diner across from the public library called The Why. The wax museum with a room dedicated to the three women who embody the ideal feminine: Mother Teresa, Princess Di and Julia Roberts. The Cave of the Winds -- not a cave, but a tunnel blasted out of the rock and a boardwalk taking you into the waterfall's spray. The giant power tunnel intakes, gleaming like outsized radiators, guarding the underwater voids where two scuba divers were sucked to the grating by water entering the tunnels and held there until they drowned.
And the landfills. Niagara's landfills are spectacular: mountains of made land, rising out of the earth, gently breathing their methane, almost beautiful in their grassy silence. One of them is so large it looms in the distance from the highway exit, and as you drive from Wal-Mart to the outlet mall, the landfill hulks along in the background, a constant companion. The people of Niagara Falls must unconsciously look for it, the way the Swiss glance up at the Matterhorn, or the citizens of Portland, Oregon, locate Mount Hood: Where's the mountain? There it is. I'm home.
There's a standard set of stories about Niagara, recounted in tourist guidebooks and scholarly tomes, and trotted out every few years in an educational documentary that begins and ends with sweeping helicopter shots of falling water. Meanwhile, much of the real story of America's best-known landscape goes untold, and as I began to trace it, I often felt like I was entering Bizzaro World. From a French fur trader with an iron hand to the Army Corps of Engineers reshaping the riverbed, Indian casinos built on brownfields to 280,000 radioactive mice buried at the Falls, many of Niagara's stories are like the drums secreted in its landfills: shoved out of sight, covered over to look presentable, and driven by with glazed eyes, a quick flick of the radio volume. Oh that -- just drive around it. Once, when I was asking too many unanswerable questions in the Local History section of the Niagara Falls Public Library, librarian Maureen Fennie held up a hand to stop me. "They've put it all down the memory hole," she told me, "and they're not letting it out."
This book documents an obsession. An obsession with the things Niagara has been made to mean throughout the relatively short time it has lived with people -- nature, America, power, beauty, death. An obsession with the ways in which the history of Niagara Falls is a history of falsification, prevarication and omission. An obsession with going down the memory hole and retrieving what's buried there.
Why did I become obsessed with Niagara Falls? People ask me that all the time. Niagara has a lot to tell us about nature, but while I care deeply about the environment, I have never been what you call a nature-lover. I never know what kind of tree or bird I'm looking at, woods and their denizens make me nervous, and I don't like being cold, damp, tired or too far from a person with a cocktail shaker. Given a choice between an exhibit of German Expressionist paintings and a hike up some soul-stirring hill, I'll take the thick brush strokes and green faces every time. My college boyfriend -- the same one who took me to Niagara -- once refused to speak to me for a full day because I declined to hike in the Rockies with him and instead read a Russian novel in the car. "There are things you can't read in books," he fumed, and I remember really meaning it when I said, "Like what?"
But I learned a lot at Niagara, about the natural world and about that human-made idea, "nature." My interest was piqued at first, I think, because I grew up in Michigan, another once-storied, now-shabby corner of the Rust Belt where nature was both monarch and slave. Since 1999, I have lived in Lower Manhattan, and that resonates with Niagara too; often as I walk from my home to the nearest bookstore in search of some account of canal building or the fur trade, I pass the carnivalesque strip of souvenir stands, camera-toting tourists and information booths along the edge of what they now call Ground Zero and I think about how meaning gets layered onto a place.
Mostly I became obsessed with Niagara because I am an American, and although it sits mainly in Canada, Niagara Falls has a lot to tell us about America. Its story is a primer of American history -- Indian treaties, conflicts with Britain, the Civil War, the industrial age, the ad age, two world wars, one cold war, environmentalism, globalism. For many years, Niagara was nature, and America was nature's nation. And then the Falls came to stand for power, just as America began discovering its own. It was industry during the rise of industrial America and capital of kitsch when American culture doubled over on itself and turned pop quotation into art. It was America to the European, freedom to the enslaved, opportunity to the impoverished and downfall to the ambitious and proud. Niagara is constantly reinvented, and if nations can be said to have national talents, America's is self-invention. It's what makes people like W.E.B. DuBois and Marilyn Monroe -- two Niagara fans -- possible, and it's also what gave us slavery, the Bomb and Love Canal -- all things that unfolded, in part, at the Falls. It's all too easy, history reminds us, for self-invention to slip into self-delusion. Put on an act for long enough and it's hard to remember what's real.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. When General Leslie Groves, manager of the Manhattan Project, witnessed the explosion of the world's first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, he thought of Blondin crossing the Falls on a tightrope. Why did he think of America's most famous natural wonder as he experienced humanity's violent mastery of nature? Niagara overflows with meaning. The waterfall is the landscape. But the waterfall is also the Bomb. The waterfall is Marilyn, both siren and machine. The waterfall is the light, but at the Cave of the Winds, to see it you pass through darkness. The memory hole feels like a dark cavern, but light that makes us close our eyes is darkness to us. I went into the waterfall and the spray made me blind. I went to the waterfall because I wished, deliberately, to see.
Copyright © 2008 by Ginger Strand
White Man's Fancy, Red Man's Fact
Most Niagara books begin in the clear light of geology: sunlight glinting off glaciers, water chiseling a gorge. We'll start in the half-light of myth.
A long time ago, the Indians who lived at Niagara Falls were suffering a devastating plague. People were dying in droves. Hoping to end the carnage, they made sacrifices to the gods. They began with fruits, flowers, the choicest morsels from the harvest. They sent meats and tobacco in canoes over the Falls. Nothing appeased the angry gods. Finally, they decided to sacrifice the most beautiful young maiden in the village. The girl, Lelawala, was packed into a white canoe with a cornucopia of other tasty treats and sent crashing down to her doom. But wait! Instead of hitting the water below, she was caught by the powerful Thunder Beings who live behind the waterfall. There, she learned the cause of the deadly plague that was killing her kinsfolk: a noxious-breathed serpent was poisoning the water. She returned to her village with the news that they must vacate the toxic town. They packed up and left, but the giant snake pursued them, so village warriors -- with some help from the Thunder God -- killed it. Its body, squirming in its death throes, formed the brink of the Horseshoe Fall.
This "legend" used to be told by the recorded audio on the Maid of the Mist tour boats as they nosed their way into the spray below the Falls. It appeared in guidebooks, picture books and regional histories. It found its way into movies about the Falls and was depicted on T-shirts, coffee mugs and shot glasses. To this day it's plastered all over the Web, and postcards showing the Maid are still a staple of Niagara souvenir stands. They usually show a well-formed Indian maiden, often topless, standing up in a canoe as it plunges over the brink. She looks noble and nubile at the same time. In some early versions, the Indian maiden forms a diptych with a naked water sprite writhing in the misty water, apparently meant to personify the Falls. The pair is labeled "White man's fancy; red man's fact."
By 1996, Native Americans had had enough of white man's fancy passing for red man's fact. The region's Senecas, they pointed out, had never practiced human sacrifice. Nor had any of the Iroquois Confederacy's six nations, who call themselves the Haudenosaunee, nor any other Native American people known to have lived in western New York. So why would they have included it in their folktales? The story was clearly a fake. And it was not just inauthentic; it was offensive.
"We're portrayed as savages," Bill "Grandpa Bear" Swanson, executive director of the state American Indian Movement, told the Buffalo News. "This has got to stop." Allan Jamieson, director of Nento, a native arts and culture group, called the story "racist propaganda," and Richard Hill, an artist and American studies professor, declared it "a racial stereotype." A group of Indians announced they would begin picketing the Maid of the Mist tour boats unless the fake legend was dropped.
The Maid of the Mist Corporation objected. "To accuse us of racism is outrageous," said Christopher Glynn, a vice president. He explained why the corporation didn't want to drop the story: "We are not real anxious to change what we've been doing for a hundred years."
The protesters held their line. If the tour boat operator would not ax the fake myth, they would picket the boat launch in two weeks. Their timing was perfect. It was September, and Regis and Kathie Lee were headed to town, scheduled to shoot their popular morning talk show at the Falls. Faced with the vision of a flood of bad press swamping their boats, the Maid of the Mist Corporation decided to jettison the Maid. James Glynn, company president, was dispatched four days later to announce the corporate change of heart.
"We are very sensitive to the concerns of Native American people and want to ensure that we do not portray their heritage in an inappropriate manner," he told reporters. The legend was struck from the recorded audio.
All myths are in some sense fictions, of course, but this one is a fake even as myth. The history of Niagara is a history of elisions, artifice and outright deception, so it seems appropriate that its originary myth would be made-up. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, a mythology reflects its region. And yet, the more I think about the Maid of the Mist, the more I begin to feel that somehow this odd, obnoxious, prurient fake legend gets something about Niagara exactly right. It has much of Niagara's story in it: the community in crisis, the displaced Indians, the power in the Falls, the poisoned water, even the sacrificial victim for a dying town -- these may not be Indian themes, but they are some of the deepest and most continuous Niagara themes. Could there be -- despite Indians' protest to the contrary -- a Native American kernel in this spurious tale? At some point, I become convinced that if I can untangle the threads of the fake myth, I'll have a key that will unlock a storehouse of hidden history.
I should stop here and admit that I have a bit of a problem dropping things. In the course of looking into, say, the history of a museum at Niagara, I will hear from a librarian that the museum's collection has been bought by a Toronto art dealer. I will start calling and emailing that art dealer until he agrees to let me come and visit his collection, at which point I will drive the nine hours to Toronto and spend two days at his house -- to his great surprise -- reading all of the letters he's written and received about the collection. And while I'm there he will show me an electric chair he believes was looted from the Auburn State Prison, though the Auburn Prison electric chair is said to have been destroyed in a 1929 riot, and I will drive nine hours home and the very next day crash my computer downloading newspaper articles off LexisNexis that have accounts of the riots at Auburn Prison with maps that might potentially show the extent of the damage and whether the chair could have been salvaged.
I haven't yet figured out the truth of the chair, but the New York State Archives has some prison account books I'm planning on taking a look at the next time I happen to be passing through Albany.
In any case, this is what happens with the Maid of the Mist story. I keep digging deeper into the fake myth, and I keep finding further levels of fakery. Which means that I have to keep going. Eventually, I find myself at the American Antiquarian Society, looking into Native American history at Niagara.
The American Antiquarian Society is an institution as adorably uptight as it sounds. Founded by Isaiah Thomas, Revolutionary printer of the Massachusetts Spy, it's a private library incorporated to "encourage the collection and preservation of the antiquities of our country, and of curious and valuable productions in Art and Nature that have a tendency to enlarge the sphere of human knowledge." I love the "art and nature" bit -- in addition to books and papers, the Antiquarian Society used to have a natural history collection: rocks, minerals, shells, butterflies, taxidermied animals. They offloaded it years ago, when it became no longer correct to conflate the works of man with the works of the natural world. This is something that happened at Niagara too, but I'll get to that later.
A Palladian brick building on a hill in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Antiquarian Society's collection comprises miles of rare books, diaries, letters, sheet music, postcards, prints and other assorted detritus (they call it "ephemera") of everyday life in America from Columbus through 1876. They have handbills, advertisements, school certificates and even a paper-doll collection. Best of all, there's a bevy of librarians who actually know about all these things and love to tell you about them. When I was there, another reader asked to see some items in the board game collection, and there was much excitement and joy among the librarians upon delivering them up. Not many people, it seems, take the time to appreciate the board games.
On the down side of being a reader at the American Antiquarian Society is their draconian list of rules. Every day upon arrival, you sign in with a frock-coated attendant (I mean it -- a frock coat!) and then hand over everything that to my mind makes historical research fun or even possible -- cups of coffee, salty snacks, iPods, cell phones, candy, almonds, pens. You put all those things into a locker and go into a high-ceilinged, octagonal rotunda topped with an oculus and ornamented with the usual portraits of sternly disapproving founders. You fill out little slips in duplicate requesting the materials you want to see, which are then brought to you on carts along with white gloves for handling them and foam cushions for the books to lounge on while you read them. You, I might note, are sitting on a very hard chair, and if you squirm around too much, the portraits glare at you harder.
At the American Antiquarian Society, I start reading the earliest print accounts of the Falls, keeping an eye out for serpents and nubile maidens. The oldest print mention of the Falls is by French explorer Samuel de Champlain; he heard about the big waterfall around 1615 but didn't bother to go see it, though he noted it on his maps. The first European to see and then describe the Falls in print was Louis Hennepin, a Flemish Recollect priest who accompanied the explorer La Salle there in 1678. Hennepin describes the Falls in his 1683 account of that visit, Description de la Louisiane. (The whole New World, or at least their part of it, was Louisiana to the French at that point.) Fourteen years later, Hennepin published a revised and expanded version of his report on the New World, this one called A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America.
Hennepin, like other early travelers, notes that the area is heavily populated by Native Americans, but makes no mention of myths or stories attached to the place. Priests were too focused on Christianizing the Indians to be interested in hearing their heathen tales -- in fact, they did very little asking about the native culture. They seem to have walked into Indian villages already in mid-sermon. The poor Indians probably couldn't get a word in edgewise.
Hennepin does say that the area is rife with snakes, even though on his first trip he tromps the entire length of the Niagara River without ever seeing a single one. He describes the dry space behind the Falls' sheet of water, and claims it is where "the Rattle-Snakes retire, by certain Passages which they find underground." Since he didn't see a single snake or go behind the Falls himself, it's reasonable to suppose his native guides may have told him this. But the local Indians don't live at the waterfall. "'Tis reasonable to presume," Hennepin concludes, "that the horrid noise of the Fall, and the fear of these poisonous Serpents, might oblige the Savages to seek out a more commodious Habitation."
In Hennepin's second volume, there's an interesting note about waterfalls and sacrifice. "Some have taken notice," he tells us of Indians, "that when they meet with any Cascade or fall of Waters, which is difficult to cross, and apprehend any danger, they throw a Beaver's Skin, Tobaco, Porcelain, or some such matter into it by way of Sacrifice, to gain the Favour of the Spirit that presides there." It's a rare attempt on the part of the self-important priest to understand where the locals are coming from, and it doesn't last long. For the most part, his descriptions of Indians are limited to graphic and probably exaggerated accounts of their supposed barbarity. The Iroquois, for instance, he declares to have exterminated "more than Two million of Souls" in their extended territory. The New York Public Library has George Bancroft's personal copy of Hennepin's book in their Rare Book Room, and the eminent nineteenth-century historian has underlined "Two million" and made a marginal note: "Absurd exaggeration." He isn't alone in doubting the priest. Among the French, Hennepin garnered a reputation as "Un Grand Menteur," a Big Liar.
Not that other writers of the period are much better; few early accounts of exploration give us a real sense of the native inhabitants of the so-called New World. We don't even really get a very strong sense of who the people living in the region were, let alone their feelings about Niagara. From Champlain, we learn that the inhabitants of the Niagara frontier around 1600 were Indians called Onguiaronon, or People of Thundering Waters ("Niagara" is a mispronunciation of Onguiara), which suggests they held the Falls in high esteem. Early historians claim the Onguiaronon venerated the Falls enough to bury their most respected chiefs there, but it's unclear if that's true. Only a few bodies have been found.
The French called the Onguiaronon the "Neutrals," because they remained neutral in the wars between Algonquian Indians of the Great Lakes region and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy of New York. Apparently, this neutrality didn't help them much; in fact, their role in Niagara history is to give the place its name and then be exterminated. Sometime around 1650, Senecas are said to have killed the last of their men and adopted the remaining women and children, as was customary. No doubt the Onguiaronon, like all northeastern native peoples at this time, had already lost much of their population to European-introduced diseases such as measles, smallpox and influenza. The fact that no separate Onguiaronon identity remained in Seneca culture suggests they may have been closely related to the Senecas in the first place.
When the last of the Onguiaronon became Senecas, they also became members of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, most often translated as "People of the Longhouse." This political alliance, the oldest continuously operating form of government on the continent, was centered then, as now, on the council fire at Onondaga, New York. There, the Grand Council of Chiefs meets yearly, as decreed by the Haudenosaunee law of governance, the Great Law of Peace. In the days of the earliest European explorers, the Haudenosaunee comprised Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas and Mohawks, hence the alternate name Five Nations. (In 1720, the Tuscaroras would be added to the alliance, after being driven out of their North Carolina home by colonists, and the confederacy would come to be known as the Six Nations.)
"The whole reason the Senecas were placed in this area was to be guardian of the waterways," Darwin John tells me by phone. I'm in Niagara Falls on a brief jailbreak from the American Antiquarian Society, enjoying dangerous vices like eating and talking on the phone. Darwin and I were supposed to meet on Goat Island, because Darwin is in the Falls on business -- he is energy planner for the Seneca Nation of Indians. But he lives 90 miles away, on the Cattaraugus Reservation, and when he arrived in Niagara Falls, he realized he had forgotten my cell phone number, so he simply took the walk around Goat Island himself. He seems perfectly cheerful about it when I call him later, back in Cattaraugus. The Seneca Nation has recently been involved in relicensing talks for the Niagara Power Project (about which more later) and Darwin wants me to understand the Senecas' longstanding connection to the region.
"If you look on our emblem, it says Keeper of the Western Door," he explains. "That, within the Six Nations, is a very important role, because the Western Door was back then the transportation route for other tribes to come into the area, and for us to move out of the area. Senecas were known throughout the Midwest, the South and the East for trading with other tribes out west. Niagara was the doorway to our area and our exploration going as far west as the Mississippi delta and points in between."
The Western Door, he explains, does not just mean the Niagara River. "There are actually a couple of doors," he says, "the seaway trail coming from points west on Lake Erie and into the Niagara region. It was a transportation route. Ellicott Creek, Tonawanda Creek: all of these were areas the Senecas had lived in since time immemorial. All these waterways and trails and transportation routes were well used and well known and that's why we protected them. They were an important gift given to the people by the Creator."
I ask Darwin John about Seneca stories associated with the region, and he tells me a version of the serpent story that doesn't involve maids or sacrifice.
"According to our creation story," he says, "Thunder Beings were trying to remove a serpent that had been terrorizing the area, and during the struggle they threw down the huge snake and that carved out the horseshoe shape of the Canadian Falls. He was placed in the underworld, and the route to the underworld was through Devil's Hole State Park. There's a cave there and that's where the snake passed on his way to the underworld."
The benevolent Thunder Beings behind the Falls are a popular part of Niagara lore for Indians and non-Indians alike. Standard histories, guidebooks, IMAX films and souvenir shop fripperies often feature them. For the Indians, it's a concise way of talking about their ancient spiritual connection to the area. But as I listen to Darwin, I find myself wondering what the locals really thought of Niagara before the French arrived eager for beavers. Their view of the place may have been more similar to the European one than is commonly thought. Even the story as Darwin tells it -- the brink of the Falls being formed by an evil serpent -- suggests that although the Senecas may have valued waterways, they didn't much like waterfalls.
In this, they would have been in agreement with the Europeans. When Indians first brought the Europeans to Niagara, the newcomers considered the waterfall frankly hideous. Louis Hennepin fills his account with a sense of awestruck terror. The journey is treacherous and the cataract itself terrifying. The precipice he calls "horrible," the water in the Falls he sees foaming and boiling "in the most hideous manner imaginable," the noise of it all is "outrageous, more terrible than that of Thunder." In short, he declares, "when one stands near the Fall, and looks down into this most dreadful Gulph, one is seized with Horror, and the Head turns round, so that one cannot look long or stedfastly upon it." In the engraving made to illustrate his account, this effect on viewers is shown. The waterfall -- heightened by the priest's famous imagination -- plunges viciously downward in the middle ground, while four figures occupy the foreground. One sits with arms outspread, as if trying to gauge its breadth; one clasps his arms across his breast as if in awe; a third stands with arms raised high in what looks like worship, while the fourth turns his back on the scene, covering his ears in a pose of sick despair, as if he can't bear to look or listen for one second more.
Did the early Senecas like this monster of nature? In a creation story found in most credible collections of Seneca mythology, the earth is created by two brothers, sometimes called Inigorio, or Good Mind, and Inigorhatea, or Bad Mind. Good Mind creates the sun, the moon, stars, plains, rivers, lakes, useful animals and people. Bad Mind creates everything that gives us grief: snakes, reptiles, ravines and of course, waterfalls. The early explorers found the whole Niagara region to be rife with Bad Mind's handiwork: they complained bitterly of the rattlesnakes, the insects, the impossible gorge and its difficult terrain. The Senecas no doubt traveled more easily, and they weren't freaked out by rattlesnakes, but for them too the Falls must have been a pain to get around. All of the waterways Darwin mentions to me -- the seaway trail, Tonawanda Creek, Ellicott Creek -- are routes used to bypass Niagara Falls.
What's certain is that the Senecas understood how important Niagara was to controlling the area around it. In fact, that's one thing the Maid of the Mist story seems to tell us: that getting control of whatever power, good or evil, lives in the waterfall could easily be the key to survival. The Europeans understood this as soon as they arrived at the Falls; pretty much the first thing they did was try to wrest control of the area from the Senecas. Hennepin's explorer boss La Salle saw the Falls and decided they were just the place to build a fort and a ship. The Senecas were decidedly unhappy about that; they saw the scheme for what it was. He was planning to sail right through the Western Door without knocking.
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, is one of those guys who has left his name plastered all over our nation. Anyone who's taken LaSalle Street to Chinatown in Chicago, or visited La Salle, Minnesota; La Salle, Michigan; La Salle County, Texas; or La Salle, New York, now incorporated into Niagara Falls, knows his name. If they know little more than that, it's not their fault: when I start reading up on La Salle, I quickly realize that he's one of history's most perplexing characters. Considered a brilliant pathfinder by some and a bumbling idiot by others, La Salle is painted as either hero or villain, depending on the writer's personal view. Born in Rouen to a wealthy, middle-class family, he was ordained as a priest, but quickly decided to leave his order, citing "moral weakness." La Salle fans say he made that up just to escape a dull monkish life; La Salle critics say it's one of the few times he ever told the truth.
La Salle arrived in Montreal in 1667 and made his first trip to Niagara in 1669, on his way to find the Ohio River, which he thought might lead to the fabled Northwest Passage to China, or maybe offer up a better route to the Great Lakes region than the icy, rapids-filled St. Lawrence River. Detractors and fans agree that this journey didn't go well. La Salle claimed to speak the Iroquois language, but according to his priest on that trip, René Brehant de Galinée, he was lying and furthermore had no idea where he was going. For this reason, he and most of his party ended up cooling their heels about 80 miles east of Niagara, waiting for a nonexistent guide.
French and English history texts never specify the Indian town La Salle visited, but the Seneca oral tradition names it as Ganondagan. The main Seneca village of the time, Ganondagan was a hilltop town near the northwestern shore of Lake Canandaigua, one of New York's Finger Lakes. It held 150 longhouses and an estimated 4,500 people, at that time about four times the population of a small town to the southeast recently renamed New York. La Salle arrived at this thriving metropolis with gifts and, of course, a demand. He required a guide who knew the Ohio territory. The Senecas agreed to provide one -- they had captives from the region on hand -- then showed no inclination to follow through on the offer. La Salle and some of his men spent four weeks as guest-prisoners of the Indians, during which Galinée gives no account of maidens being sacrificed or Thunder Beings in the Falls, though he does describe his horror when their Seneca hosts decide to honor the Frenchmen by torturing and eating a prisoner. This little spectacle -- if indeed it happened -- would have been part of the highly codified rituals of Haudenosaunee warfare, a point missed by the self-righteous priest. Nor did he and La Salle pick up on what was no doubt meant to be a less-than-subtle message: don't mess with Senecas.
Ganondagan is a New York State historic site today, a stunning spot perched on a still-bucolic hill. Its reconstructed longhouse, surrounded by acres of milkweed dotted with butterflies, looks as if it were dropped there by a time-traveling UFO. Interpretive trails tell the story of the town's 1687 destruction by the French. Visiting there one morning on my way home from Niagara Falls, I ask the Native American guide about La Salle's visit.
"La Salle was a very pompous person," he tells me, shaking his head, as if the French explorer only left town last week. "The Seneca sachems didn't like that kind of attitude."
La Salle never adjusted his attitude, though eventually he got the hint at Ganondagan. He announced he was giving up the mission to explore the Ohio River valley, at which point the Senecas let him and his men go. Once out of their sight, La Salle faked illness for the benefit of his own crew. Promising to make his own way home, he encouraged them to proceed with the mission. Thus freed of his bothersome train of priests and helpers, he disappeared into the North American wilderness for a year. Historians believe he wintered at the mouth of the Niagara River, building a small fort there, which the Senecas promptly burned when he left. He later claimed to have discovered the Mississippi River during that time -- beating rival explorer Louis Joliet to the punch -- but this has never been verified. Joliet gets credit for "discovering" a river the Indians had known about for centuries.
(In one of my favorite stories from this time period, La Salle actually ran into Joliet in the woods one day. I find this image hysterical: it's as if the forests of North America were so crawling with fur-hungry explorers you couldn't throw a rock without some voyageur yelling "Merde!" As soon as that image popped into my head, I laughed out loud. I actually got into trouble at the American Antiquarian Society for giggling too much: the exasperated historian at the desk next to mine finally threw down his pencil and cried, "Fine, you win. Tell me what's so funny." History is full of horrors, but it has a lot of hilarious moments too, and I'm convinced you have to laugh at them -- but I'm digressing.)
La Salle turned up at Niagara next after taking a trip back to France, during which either through eloquence (fans insist) or bribery (critics counter), he received letters of nobility and a charter to explore the land between Florida and Mexico and build forts for the French king. This time, he brought with him a new crew: a posse of raw recruits fresh from France and even more bumbling than he was. But he also had one able lieutenant who would become his loyal companion: Chevalier Henri de Tonti.
I adore Henri de Tonti. An Italian by birth, he had signed on as a soldier in the French army, where he lost a hand to a grenade (legend holds that it got mangled in the explosion and he sawed it off himself). Tonti's icy bravery quickly earned him a fearsome reputation among the Indians. At one point, he walked through a haze of arrows and bullets into an Iroquois camp only to be stabbed in the chest, and he barely blinked -- just began haranguing them for breaking the peace. They were so impressed by his fortitude they immediately ran and got someone to fix him up.
Besides fearlessness, Tonti's claim to fame was his prosthetic appendage and his penchant for using it as a weapon. Some historians describe the prosthesis as a metal hand clad in a glove; others say it was a hook. One intriguingly calls it an "appliance" and assures readers Tonti was handy with it. Indians called him "the man with the iron hand," and an early French historian declares that Indians feared Tonti because he "often knocked their heads and teeth with a blow from the fist" of his metal member. He's a sort of real-life, more effective Captain Hook. He actually looks like Captain Hook: in his most common portrait, he wears a ruffled, gold-buttoned dress jacket, and his long, aquiline nose and sharp black eyes are framed by a long mass of wavy black hair. All he lacks is the ticking crocodile following him around.
La Salle, of course, saw Niagara Falls and immediately figured out that anyone who controlled that point controlled trade in the upper Great Lakes. Canoes on their way from the Great Lakes to Upper Canada could be stopped at the portage. Furthermore, the lakes above the Falls offered access to thousands of miles of fur-filled woods inhabited by Indians who would sell those furs at cheaper prices if they didn't have to paddle to Montreal. All the explorer needed was a fort where he could build a ship. But that was exactly the problem: as his previous experience testified, fort-building didn't sit well with the Indians. Constantly on the verge of war with the French, the Haudenosaunee were suspicious of military outposts in their territory. Besides, they wanted to control French access to the West and its beaver pelts. Already in the seventeenth century, beavers were scarce along the eastern seaboard. When they weren't at war with the Indians further west, the Haudenosaunee served as middlemen between them and the French. They disliked the idea of a big boat that would allow the French to trade directly with their enemies, or worse, make political alliances with them.
Still, La Salle wanted Haudenosaunee permission to build his boat, so while he was in Montreal with Tonti sorting out his business affairs, he sent his agent La Motte back to the Senecas to ask for permission to build a "great wooden canoe" on the river above the Falls. La Motte met with elders, handed out gifts, and promised that if they could build a fort at Niagara, the French would give the Senecas better prices for their furs than the English -- who had recently wrested the Hudson River valley fur trade from the Dutch. The Senecas weren't having it. The goods the English traded for furs were generally cheaper and better than what was on offer at French posts -- and unlike the priest-ridden French, the Brits were usually allowed to sell the Indians rum. More importantly, the Senecas were not about to simply hand over the Niagara portage. They were the keepers of the Western Door, not the French.
But La Salle was determined. He and Tonti sailed for Niagara. They sank their ship on Lake Ontario and lost most of their shipbuilding supplies, but somehow managed to get there in one piece. As soon as he arrived at Niagara, La Salle went to the Senecas himself, taking Tonti with him. This time, for some reason, the Senecas grudgingly agreed to let the French build a boat. La Salle and Tonti repaired immediately to the mouth of Cayuga Creek -- the very spot where William T. Love would later dig a canal that would make his name a byword for environmental disaster. La Salle pounded in the ship's first bolt with great ceremony, then scrammed back to Montreal, where, even though creditors had seized his possessions, he undoubtedly spent a much more comfortable winter than the shipbuilders, left to labor under Tonti's watchful eye.
That winter on Cayuga Creek, hundreds of miles from the nearest fort, the small band of voyageurs built the first sailing ship to ply the upper Great Lakes. Winter on the Niagara frontier is moderated by its position between Lakes Erie and Ontario, but it still must have been difficult, lonely work. Living in bark huts, subsisting on parched corn, venison and whitefish, the men toiled away with paltry materials to build a small but sturdy ship. Hennepin led prayer meetings on Sundays and holidays, where the crew relaxed by singing Gregorian chants. Meanwhile, small bands of suspicious Senecas lurked ominously about, marveling at the mad Frenchmen and plotting to burn the "big canoe." The blacksmith was attacked, and protected himself with a red-hot poker. The Indians, who were always short of good metalwork, had been falsely promised a permanent blacksmith on the site, and Hennepin reports that one day he accompanied Tonti to the mouth of the Niagara, where Tonti "pretended to mark out a house for the blacksmith" for the benefit of the watching Indians. Even Hennepin seems to feel slightly ashamed of the subterfuge. "I cannot blame the Iroquois," he remarks, "for not believing all that had been promised at the embassy of the Sieur de La Salle."
When the ship was built, they named her the Griffon, broke a bottle of spirits over her prow and promptly moved aboard to protect themselves from the stewing Senecas.
In August 1679, La Salle returned and launched the Griffon from Niagara Falls, sailing across Lake Erie, up Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac and down Lake Michigan. Perpetually in debt, the explorer loaded his new ship with furs and sent her home to his creditors while he forged onward into the Great Lakes region. The Griffon's return journey was never completed; somewhere along the way, she sank below the waterline of history and into the depths of myth. Exactly what happened is not known: the ship was lost in a storm, or perhaps destroyed by the unhappy Haudenosaunee, or maybe, as La Salle came to believe, it was scuttled by a thieving pilot and crew. Its wreck has never been positively identified. La Salle went on to establish more forts and trek down the entire Mississippi River, claiming it and its watershed for France in the usual way, by burying commemorative plates in the ground. Pompous as ever, he was hounded by jealous Jesuits, badmouthed by rival explorers, and frequently deserted by his own men, who tried to kill him by putting hemlock in his salad. Only Tonti remained loyal. Finally, La Salle went back to France, outfitted four ships, and returned to try to find the mouth of the Mississippi via the Gulf of Mexico. He got lost, missed the river delta and landed instead in Texas, where he wandered fruitlessly, losing men to Indians, disease and alligators (the ticking crocodile at last!), before his crew finally mutinied and killed him. "Te voilá, you great Pasha, Te voilá!" his murderer cried as he shot him. The mutineers left his body unburied for the wild animals to eat.
Today, the working-class neighborhood in Niagara Falls near where the Griffon was built is called La Salle, but the man himself remains a mystery. Was he egomaniacal or bravely ambitious? Eloquent or cruelly violent? An idiot or a genius? But as inscrutable as La Salle is to us, the Senecas in his story are even more so. Why, after refusing to give La Motte permission for the "big canoe," did they change their minds? Did they truly take a liking to La Salle, or did they fear his iron-handed sidekick? Were they convinced by the eloquence the pro-La Salle historians attribute to him, or did they secretly plan on scuttling the braggart Frenchman's ship? Did they even really say yes? Their real story is more lost to us even than La Salle's. We don't even know their names.
Shortly after La Salle lost the Griffon, a man named Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire arrived on the scene, assigned to improve French relations with the Iroquois. The Senecas decided relations would best be improved by burning Joncaire at the stake, and they kidnapped him to that end. They ended up adopting him instead. Legend has it they changed their minds when he bloodied the nose of the guy tying him to the stake: the Senecas were big fans of bravado. Of course, our authority for this story is Joncaire himself, so things may have unfolded in a slightly different way. In any case, Joncaire made himself popular with the Senecas, and by 1720, he convinced a breakaway group of them to let the French build a trading post -- not a fort -- below the Falls. Building a fort on the Niagara peninsula would have clearly been in violation of the 1701 treaty between the French and the Haudenosaunee, as well as the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which set the boundaries between French Canada and British New York. So Joncaire's trading post was a simple wood-bark outpost. Then, as the trade war with Britain was heating up, the sneaky French went right ahead and built a fort, which they called a "House of Peace," disguising it to look like a fancy trading post. Weapons were stored upstairs; cannons were neatly hidden in the attic. It was located on the spot where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, the better to interdict canoes heading across the lake to English trading posts farther east. To lure the Indians to trade there, they even relaxed their rules against selling them rum.
What came to be called Fort Niagara was critical during the French and Indian War, which historians now like to call the Seven Years' War, to reflect the fact that it was actually a world war. The standoff in North America began in 1754, when a French expedition kicked some British fort-builders out of the Ohio River valley. The French then began to assert their claims on the entire Ohio River region; some of that commemorative tableware even turned up, intercepted at Niagara. The British resisted the claim, and battles for control of forts along the frontier ensued. Fort Niagara was besieged and eventually taken by the British in 1759 in a battle that gets reenacted annually on the very spot where it happened. With nearly 1,000 costumed reenactors turning up, it's the world's largest annual French and Indian War event.
Fort Niagara sits on a gorgeous piece of real estate, a high windy hill, overlooking the river mouth and the vast, glittering lake. When I arrive on day one of the reenactment, the whole place is swarming with French officers, Redcoats, rugged militiamen and Indians. A row of white tents hugs the garrison walls, and people scurry in and out among them. A posse of Redcoats is preparing for a council with the Indians. The head Indian, painted entirely black on one side, is wearing a loincloth, knee-high boots, and a tuft of feathers that looks like a cardinal and a blackbird fought to the death on his scalp. A sweaty soldier runs by, knees high, holding a musket over his head and chanting "I will not call the captain fat!" Clearly, these folks take their reenacting seriously.
Inside the fort, French soldiers are marching in formation and firing muskets, while fabulously got-up Indians -- none of whom appear to be actual Native Americans -- are charging visitors for posing in photos. On the center lawn, a lively market is spread out, and tourists in shorts and T-shirts mingle with reenactors in heavy wool jackets as they inspect leather goods, fondle linens and eye knives, hatchets and guns. Children scrabble about the ankles of bonneted women. A lone musician plays airs, a cup set out at his feet.
Fort Niagara is spectacular, its grounds perfectly groomed, every brick lovingly restored in an outburst of patriotism between the world wars. Standing there with the French and Indian War about to be acted out in real time, I realize that this conflict, which I always considered a dull chapter in high school history texts, was actually a thrillingly critical moment in the struggle for North America. Here are French, British and Iroquois soldiers ready to kill each other over a tiny spit of land, but what's at stake is really how the New World will look. Will it slouch around in cafés, drinking vermouth and smoking Gitanes, or will it purse its lips and drink tea with dry, unappetizing biscuits? The visitors, clambering onto the fort walls to see the assault, also seem to sense how much hangs in the balance. Families hoist cameras and slather sunscreen on impatient children. Down below, on the field of battle, white tents billow like sails. Indians dart here and there while the French crouch behind a berm, about to lose control of the continent. Anticipation rises from the ground with the smell of newly cut grass. Finally, some shots ring out, a crackly smattering, like fireworks. A haze of musket smoke wafts up as the British appear from behind the treeline, playing "Yankee Doodle" on a fife and drum. Round two in the reshaping of North America has begun.
Around the time of the French and Indian War, a story turns up that shares some elements with the Maid of the Mist tale. J. C. Bonnefons, a French soldier posted in the New World from 1751 to 1761, relates a "common report" of an Iroquois who, when his canoe is drawn into Niagara's ineluctable rapids, simply wraps himself in his blanket and rides down to his doom. The story is retold frequently in Falls narratives. By 1835, when it gets added to the second edition of Horatio Parsons's popular Guide to Travelers Visiting the Falls of Niagara, the author is quick to say that he believes the story to be fake, merely "a stereotype Indian story, told as having happened at all different falls in the country."
The stereotype of the "doomed Indian" was popular in the colonies, and later the young United States, because it downplayed the colonists' role in a people's extermination. "Removing" the Indians wasn't such a bad thing if they were already destined to vanish simply because their culture was inferior. The "doomed Iroquois" on the waterfall, and the Maid of the Mist who picks up his disappearing act, performs this particular white man's fancy as red man's fact: once he sees the inevitable fact of his demise looming ahead, he quietly and stoically goes to his end.
Later on, when Indian removal became national policy, the story took on unsavory aspects. Parsons's 1835 "doomed Indian" has a new accessory -- a bottle of whiskey:
A story has frequently been told of an Indian, who fell asleep in his canoe some miles above, and awoke in the midst of the rapids; perceiving that all efforts at escape would be vain, he turned his bottle of whiskey down his throat, and composedly awaited the awful plunge.
The image of the "drunken Indian" was key to nineteenth-century justifications for removal and treaty-breaking. Indians were lazy drunks, the line went, who would simply let the land go to waste, instead of improving and farming it like white folks would. (Never mind that Europeans introduced them to liquor in the first place.) It was practically a moral duty to take their land away, and using treaties and money to do so quickly devolved into using guns.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson pushed his Indian Removal bill through Congress, making the relocation of all southeastern Indians official government policy. In exchange for their productive farmland, they were to be given some nice property in Oklahoma. In 1838, three years after Parsons sent his doomed drunk over the brink, 17,000 Cherokees were ousted from their ancestral homes in Georgia and made to walk 800 miles west. After four thousand died on the way, the forced march was named the Trail of Tears. At Niagara that year, corrupt sachems were liquored up and tricked into selling off most of what remained of Seneca lands in the region, against the will of the majority, in the fraudulent Buffalo Creek Treaty.
Guidebooks continued telling the drunken Indian story. By 1842, in C. D. Ferris's Pictorial Guide to the Falls of Niagara, the drunken Indian has been given a mate, and the whole episode has become an unsavory joke:
Tradition tells many a tale of persons going over the Falls; and among others, of an Indian and squaw, in a canoe, who were drawn into the rapids, and hurried down to destruction. It relates, that the Indian, when he found it impossible to escape, coolly laid down his paddle, and taking up a bottle of whisky, which had been the object of the voyage to procure, deliberately applied it to his lips, and kept sucking away, until he was himself sucked in, by the overwhelming flood; and, thus in a spiritual way, introduced himself to the world of spirits. Whether or not, he took a drop too much, it is impossible to say; but of this we are certain, that he was loath to lose a drop. The poor squaw paddled away till the last, and that was the last of both.
What's interesting is that even before the Maid of the Mist legend appears and sends a doomed maiden over the brink, the demise of the Iroquois is being associated with Niagara Falls. It's not just coincidence. After the French and Indian War, the balance of power shifted, in ways that were very nearly disastrous for the Haudenosaunee. Central to this loss of power and influence was what happened at Niagara. There the Haudenosaunee lost control of the Western Door, and with it, lost much of their world.
The heart of the Maid of the Mist legend is Indian displacement. When Lelawala comes back with the news about the poisonous snake, the whole town packs up and leaves. This aspect of it, at least, seems to reflect Indian reality. I'm convinced of this even more when, back at the American Antiquarian Society after my brief jailbreak, I find Henry Schoolcraft's 1846 Notes on the Iroquois. Schoolcraft, an ethnologist and superintendent of Indian affairs who marri ed an Ojibwa woman, was the first European to attempt an anthropological study of the Haudenosaunee. In his surprisingly readable book, I find a Seneca tale about a poisonous snake that sounds like it could be the real kernel in the Maid of the Mist tale.
The Senecas, this story tells us, first lived in a village at the head of Lake Canandaigua. One day a young boy from the Canandaigua village found a small two-headed serpent. He caught it and kept it as a pet, feeding it the flesh of birds and small mammals. It grew, needing larger and larger meals, until eventually it became so big he was forced to hunt deer for it. Too big to live in the longhouse, the snake took up residence on a nearby hill, sometimes coming down to play in the lake.
The townspeople began to fear the two-headed snake. They resolved to move to get away from it, but when they woke the next day, the serpent had surrounded their village with its body, placing its open mouth at the gate. Anyone who tried to escape was eaten. Eventually, only one warrior and his sister remained. In a dream, the warrior was told to fledge an arrow with a hair from his sister and aim for the serpent's heart. He did it the next day, and the serpent was mortally wounded. In its death agonies, it rolled down the hill and into the lake, where it vomited up the heads of the people it had eaten. Those heads are now the stones that mark the bottom of Lake Canandaigua. The warrior and his sister moved the council fire to the western shore of Seneca Lake.
This tale sounds like a credible Seneca story to me; as soon as I read it, I'm convinced I've found the truth at the bottom of the Maid's fake legend. But it also sounds like a nice metaphor for what life must have felt like to the Senecas in the eighteenth century: like being hemmed in by a beast with two heads. Throughout the period, as the British and French struggled for control of North America, Indians were caught in the middle. It was in many ways a position of power -- with diplomatic skills honed over centuries of Iroquois League politics, the Haudenosaunee were especially good at playing rival nations off each other to their own advantage. But theirs was a precarious position, and the Indians constantly worried that both nations' assurances of friendship were really just empty promises that would vanish once either side got the upper hand. Which is exactly what seemed to happen when the British won.
Though they had spent much of the previous century and a half at war with the French, many of the Haudenosaunee would have preferred to see a French victory. They had always respected French military power, and felt they had hammered out a fairly stable relationship with Onontio -- their name for the French colonial governor. Furthermore, the French and British seem to have adhered to national stereotypes in colonizing North America. When not putting the torch to Indian towns, the French were colonizers in only the loosest sense; as long as the furs were coming in and the Jesuits were totting up enough souls, the rank and file hung out with the Indians, smoking and intermarrying with them, and engaging in the gift exchanges that were central to Native American cultures. They occasionally put on big shows of sovereignty -- heavy on the feasting and fashion -- but the Indians actually enjoyed the spectacle, because the French didn't seem to despise them.
The English, on the other hand, marched into North America to the tune of "Hail Brittania." They made no secret of their distaste for Indians, and the first North American governor after the French and Indian War, General Jeffrey Amherst, took what one historian calls a "shopkeeper's approach" to managing the colonies. One of his first moves was to slash the budget for gifts. He refused to engage in conciliatory gestures toward the Indians, instead treating them like subjugated savages. Relations between the English and Indians soured so quickly that the Indians couldn't help but feel the French had sold them out: rumors circulated among Indians that the French and British, like a two-headed snake, had actually staged the entire Seven Years' War just to extinguish the natives.
The way the British behaved after winning the war with France feels unnervingly familiar to Americans of the early twenty-first century: they entered a nation claiming they had no desire to dominate it, then acted like swaggering conquerors. They deposed a military bureaucracy built on cronyism and installed profiteering cronies of their own, refusing to hold their troops accountable for appalling behavior and making no bones about being more interested in profits than lasting peace. As a result, they provoked an insurgency.
In 1763, dozens of Indian nations attacked British forts and villages in a loosely coordinated effort to eject the British from the Great Lakes region. They managed to take every British fort in the area except the ones at Niagara, Detroit and present-day Pittsburgh. The war has gone down in history as Pontiac's Rebellion, named for the charismatic Ottawa chief who led the siege of Fort Detroit. But the first war belts -- wampum beaded with symbols calling for an uprising -- were actually sent around by some Senecas from the Geneseo region just south of Niagara. They were concerned about losing control of the Western Door.
Historians see Pontiac's Rebellion as a defining moment in the history of British-Native American relations. It's when things became really ugly: both sides succumbed to fantasies of genocide. The Indians, determined to kick the Europeans off the continent for good, laid waste to settlements. On the British side, Governor Amherst infamously condoned handouts of smallpox-infected blankets to besieging Indians at Fort Pitt. Writing to the colonel sent to relieve the fort, Amherst declared "You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race." He then went on to lament that they were too far from England to obtain some good hunting dogs to finish the job.
Ignoring the breakaway group of Senecas who had sent out war belts, the Haudenosaunee stayed technically neutral in Pontiac's Rebellion. It was an uprising of the midwestern Algonquian Indians. Nevertheless, some of the Senecas, especially on the border between Algonquian and Iroquois lands, took part in the skirmishes breaking out all over the Great Lakes region. One of these skirmishes happened at Niagara and has entered Niagara lore as a bizarre, ahistorical story of Indian barbarism. This is the famous Devil's Hole Massacre, in which a group of 300 Senecas, Ojibwas and Ottawas attacked a supply caravan at Devil's Hole, about four miles below the Falls.
Devil's Hole -- the place -- comes up a lot when you talk to Native Americans; it seems as important as the waterfall in Indian lore. In Darwin John's story, it's where the evil Falls serpent goes down a hole into the underworld. It's also where the Senecas lost title to Niagara Falls. The person who made that happen was an adopted Mohawk sachem named William Johnson.
William Johnson, like La Salle, is a complicated figure, equal parts hero, opportunist and cad. An Irish gentleman dispossessed by the Protestant ascendancy (his family was Catholic), he came to the British colonies to make his fortune. He turned an estate in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York into a miniempire, in part by insinuating himself into the Haudenosaunee world. He learned the Mohawk language as well as the culture's rituals, eventually becoming an adopted Mohawk sachem. He had a couple of wives and a few more mistresses who bore him scads of children, but the woman he seemed most attached to was a Mohawk clan mother, Molly Brant, mother to eight of his kids. Britain's point man with the Indians, he insisted on fair treatment for his Haudenosaunee friends. Johnson led the British forces that took Fort Niagara in the Seven Years' War; his British and Iroquois troops completely devastated a French relief regiment that outnumbered them. His business success -- his estate ultimately comprised about 400,000 acres -- also hinged on his Haudenosaunee connections. But in 1764, he held a huge treaty convention at Fort Niagara, where he negotiated a treaty with the Senecas that gave control of the Western Door to the Brits. His pretext was the massacre at Devil's Hole.
Devil's Hole is about four miles north of the Falls, downstream on the Niagara River. It's an impressive spot, a semicircular natural amphitheater carved out of the gorge cliff in flaky striations. A path leads down along the cliff face to a trail at the river's edge. You make your way down through the crisp scrub, the rocky face of Devil's Hole looming ever higher above you, until at bottom you break through the Arcadian woods to face the noise and fury of the Whirlpool Rapids. It's stunning.
September is especially beautiful in the Niagara region. The haze of summer sweeps out of town with the tourists and the landscape takes on a timeless, pastoral sheen: leaves settling into their brilliant autumn palette, clear fall light casting the cornfields in a golden glow, apples punctuating spiky trees with heavy, red dots. As they made their way down the Niagara Gorge rim from Fort Schlosser, just above the Falls, on the morning of September 14, 1763, the members of a British wagon train may have admired the Niagara frontier's beauty. They were escorted by 25 regulars, but no doubt they were still nervous. Portage master William Steadman had recently begun the use of Conestoga wagons -- the famous "prairie schooners" used by pioneers -- on the portage, and the local Senecas who had previously done all the portage's heavy lifting were unhappy at losing their jobs. So when they began peppering the caravan with bullets from the forest along the trail, it was partly an act of war allied to Pontiac's Rebellion and partly a really dramatic instance of labor unrest.
It was over quickly. The wagon train was caught between the forest and Devil's Hole: when around 300 armed Indians came charging out of the woods, many horses went over the ledge in panic, dragging their wagons with them. The people who weren't shot were tomahawked. Steadman escaped (the Senecas later deeded him some land, they were so impressed that he survived their onslaught), and the story tradition later inserts a drummer boy who falls over the cliff and survives when his drum straps catch in a tree. The Indians hung around long enough to dispatch 75 of the 85 troops who came rushing up the gorge from the outpost at Lewiston, a mile and a half away. Then they disappeared into the woods, where they continued a reign of terror for weeks afterward, sniping at people and cows in the region and plotting to take Fort Niagara.
The Devil's Hole Massacre quickly became a standard part of Niagara lore. The creek that seeps out of the rock face at Devil's Hole and drains into the Niagara River became known as Bloody Run. The massacre itself, stripped of its historic context, entered regional history as a thrillingly awful example of Indian barbarity with no apparent cause. Nineteenth-century guidebooks all narrate it, but make no mention of Pontiac's Rebellion or Indians losing their livelihoods. Orr's 1842 Pictorial Guide to the Falls of Niagara is typical:
Men, horses, wagons, cattle, stores, all in one promiscuous mass were forced over the bank, and dashed to pieces on the rocks below, while the fiendish yells of the savages drowned their shrieks and groans, and thundered from the rocks and cliffs above, wild, terrible, triumphant!
Traditionally, tourists love thrilling episodes where "savages" cruelly attack "men" just for the sake of violence. William Johnson was more pragmatic. He saw the Devil's Hole Massacre as a chance to wrest Niagara once and for all from the Senecas, thus ingratiating himself with the British government. At the 1764 treaty convention at Niagara Falls, he successfully divided the Indian nations, making treaties with each separately. From the Senecas, he demanded the biggest concession: what became known as the Mile Strip. It was actually a strip four miles wide, running the entire length of the Niagara River, two miles on each side. The Senecas threw in all the islands in the Niagara River, deeding them to Johnson personally. Ever the loyal subject, he turned them over to the Crown.
Seneca history -- in which they lose the land around the Falls -- seems related to the Seneca serpent myth -- in which the poisonous serpent's attack means that the village must move. The serpent myth seems to have been geographically mobile; versions of it turn up that are set in other places besides Canandaigua. There's a serpent in Lake Ontario, and Henry Schoolcraft, in Notes on the Iroquois, even relates a similar story about the Chippewa River, near Niagara Falls. The Indians in that story move to Buffalo Creek (near present-day Buffalo) and the serpent follows them, at which point the Great Spirit zaps it with lightning. Similar serpent myths show up in many folklore books by Indians, always involving displacement. Seneca scholar Arthur Parker even includes "thunderer wars upon horned snake" as one of the major themes of Seneca folklore in his 1923 Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. A likely predecessor to the Maid of the Mist story, it has almost every key element: the deadly serpent, the Thunder God's help, the village that must move, the serpent's dead body causing a natural feature. It's only missing one thing: the maid.
As far as we know, the sacrificial maiden makes her print debut in 1850 in Burke's Descriptive Guide, under the heading "The White Canoes: An Indian Legend." It's easy to see how such a story tickled the fancies of its audience. It's mildly salacious in a prudish Victorian way: Burke says breathily of his tasty maid that "like a rose, she opened all her beauties to the maturing breath of Nature." In Burke's version, Lelawala's father rows himself over the Falls after her, a sentimental touch nineteenth-century audiences would have loved. The following year, the story appeared in an anthropological study: Lewis Henry Morgan's League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois.
Morgan's hefty tome, published in 1851, is still considered the classic text of Iroquois ethnohistory. This is weird, given that Morgan was a lawyer whose interest in Iroquois culture began when he and some friends founded a literary and social men's club in Rochester called the Grand Order of the Iroquois. The gentlemen in the fraternity took Iroquois names, performed "Iroquois" ceremonies, and gave each other lectures on Iroquois culture. No doubt they had secret handshakes and used Iroquois words to tell dirty jokes in polite company. There's something Tom Sawyerish about the whole endeavor. Nonetheless, their constitution, penned by Morgan, declared their purpose was "to encourage a kinder feeling towards the Indian, founded upon a truer knowledge of his civil and domestic institutions, and of his capabilities for future elevation." This language later became the preface to his monumental study.
Morgan's prediction of the Indians' "future elevation" reveals his racist conviction that they must aspire to be like white folks, but to give him credit, he did do his best to build a "truer knowledge" of Iroquois life. He was very fortunate to meet -- in a bookstore, the story goes -- a highly educated and brilliant young Seneca man from the Tonawanda Reservation, Ely Parker, who would later join the staff of Ulysses Grant and become a brigadier general in the Union army. The terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox were handwritten in his elegant script, and probably composed by him too. Parker would also become a Seneca sachem, and in 1869, Grant would appoint him the first Native American commissioner of Indian affairs. With Parker as his collaborator and interpreter, Morgan collected more data than anyone had ever put together about the social organization, political practices, domestic habits and stories of New York's Haudenosaunee. One of the stories he included in League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee is the story of the Maid of the Mist. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with human sacrifice. Rather, Morgan's luscious maiden paddles to her own death because her family is forcing her to marry an unpleasant old Indian.
The "suicidal bride" version of the Maid of the Mist tale is historically just as popular as the sacrifice version: in fact, along with another variant in which the maid paddles herself to her death because she's a three-time widow, it is often presented as the more politically correct, "authentic" version of the tale. It's the one that appears in ABC-CLIO's 1992 Dictionary of Native American Mythology, and that comes to dramatically re-created life in the most-watched IMAX film ever made: Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic, playing since 1986 at the Niagara Falls IMAX Theatre. Suicide, with its noble overtones, is presumed to be less insulting to the Native Americans than the notion that they took part in human sacrifice.
The problem is, neither of these more "authentic" suicide versions rings true either, given the kinship structure and cultural traditions of the Haudenosaunee. A mythology also reflects its culture, and these stories just don't. The "forced marriage" idea is particularly anachronistic: all of the Six Nations were highly matrilineal. Not only were women always free to refuse a marriage, but marriage wasn't even as central to female identity as it is traditionally in European culture. By all accounts, the Haudenosaunee treated marriage rather lightly: husbands and wives retained their matrilineal clan affiliations, and unhappy marriages were easily dissolved. They were, in fact, so sensible about marriage that Morgan claims love and passion must have been unknown to them.
But the thing that makes the suicidal maid look really unlikely to have an Indian source is the fact that she was already a stock character. Sexy squaws had been killing themselves for decades by 1850 -- on the American stage. Another take on the "dying race" myth, hugely popular "Indian plays" proliferated in theaters while the real Indians were being edged into the wings. We have records of at least fifty Indian plays that were performed between 1826 and 1860. They nearly always focused on a female protagonist, often Pocahontas. These beautiful, softhearted babes of the woods, precursors to Disney's animated sexpot, starred in what were basically sentimental novels spiced up with Indian characters. In Lewis Deffebach's 1821 play Oolaita; or, The Indian Heroine, for instance, a young maiden's father tries to make her give up the noble young warrior she loves and marry a conceited old chief. The old Indian hires assassins to kill his young rival and puts out the word they have succeeded. The news, though false, causes loyal Oolaita to leap to her death rather than marry her lover's killer.
The Indian plays could be seen as technicolor versions of the "doomed Indian" in his canoe. Awash in sentiment about children of nature and hopeless love, they are full-length versions of the vanishing Indian story. The most famous of them, Metamora, was a long-running star vehicle for the popular actor Edwin Forrest. Lewis Henry Morgan undoubtedly saw or heard of them.
At this point in my research, I'm convinced I have it all figured out. For his 1851 Maid of the Mist story, Lewis Henry Morgan took the traditional Seneca serpent tale -- probably from Schoolcraft, whose book Morgan owned -- and slathered on a tragic maid straight from the era's popular melodramas. Then he peppered the whole thing with the notion of the "vanishing race" by moving it to Niagara Falls, where there already was a "stereotype story" of an Indian and his squaw going over the brink. Since Morgan was working on League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee for years, and presenting bits of his research at public lectures and meetings in the secret Iroquois clubhouse, no doubt word got out and some guidebook writer stuck it in his Niagara Falls guide even before League was published. I leave the American Antiquarian Society feeling triumphant: I have traced the sources of Niagara's fake myth.
"Where did the Maid of the Mist legend come from? Ely Parker," Joseph Bruchac tells me over a bowl of French onion soup. "He was really fond of telling that story."
Ely Parker? The brilliant Seneca sachem? I choke on my Gruyère.
An Abenaki Indian, Joseph Bruchac is what the nineteenth century, or the folks at the Antiquarian Society, would call "a man of parts." Writer, editor, publisher, scholar, educator, storyteller, musician, flute-maker -- he seems to throw himself with vigor into every aspect of native lore and culture. He has advanced degrees in literature, and among his seventy-plus books are several collections of Iroquois and Abenaki tales, which is why, one gray Tuesday, I travel up to Saratoga Springs to talk to him about serpent myths, folklore and the Falls. The fog is heavy on the Hudson as the train slithers along its shore, following the only Amtrak route that offers not only stunning Hudson River views, but the chance to roll right through the middle of a maximum security prison -- Ossining, previously known as Sing-Sing, and home (incidentally) to Old Sparky, the Auburn State Prison electric chair's identical twin.
"Sing-Sing is a Mohawk word originally," Bruchac tells me within minutes of picking me up at the station. "The town changed its name to Ossining because it was tired of being associated with the prison. Then the prison changed its name too."
Joe is a tall, solid man with kind eyes and an air of extreme composure. We settle in at a popular spot downtown, and as we sit among Saratoga's ladies who lunch, he drops his Ely Parker bombshell. Parker, Joe tells me, was considered one of the most learned and articulate men of his generation. Conversant in both European letters and Iroquois languages and lore, he contributed so much to Morgan's book that in dedicating League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee to Parker, Morgan called it "fruit of our joint researches."
But Ely Parker, a Seneca raised on the Tonawanda Reservation, an Indian who practiced law but was not allowed to pass the bar, circulating the obviously fake Maid of the Mist legend?
"How do you know?" I ask, having managed to swallow my soup.
"All the Indians know that," Joe says.
If Parker is the source of the suicidal bride story, that makes it an "authentic" Seneca story. But why would he relate a story that seems to be so at odds with Haudenosaunee traditions and reality?
"Stories are told for a certain reason," Joe tells me, smiling in the way teachers smile when they know more than they're saying. "Sometimes it's because you need to hear them."
Or because you can hear them. As much as I don't want to see even Morgan's slightly improved version of the Maid of the Mist story as an authentic tale, the idea of it coming from Parker makes sense. Good story collectors know that a story is always changed in the telling, and that change has a lot to do with who's listening. Ely Parker was as educated in the European tradition as his nonnative hearers; no doubt he went to the theater too. Can we blame him if he shaped the story to appeal to his particular audience? Because if he was the source of the suicidal bride, he was certainly playing to popular tastes. I mention the Indian play tradition to Joe and he laughs.
"It's the 'lover's leap' story," he tells me. "It comes up again and again in American culture. Like that old Johnny Preston song 'Running Bear.' Do you know it?"
I do not. He starts singing. Running Bear, it seems, loves Little White Dove, but things don't go so well.
"And then these fake-sounding tom-tom things come in, oompa, oompa..." The tom-toms startle a few of the lunching ladies and they look at us, forks poised over chopped salads. Joe's wife Carol, who has come along, laughs and eats the orange slices off his plate.
I realize in an instant that I have simplified everything. It would be easy to see the "lover's leap" tale as pure white man's fancy, a substitution of European clichés for authentic Indian tales. But the reality is more complicated, and it reveals the entwined nature of two cultures we think of as separate. When Europeans arrived in North America, they adopted many native ways of being in the world, just as the Indians adopted European goods and practices. Together they created a unique frontier culture historian Richard White names "the middle ground." As the United States came of age, the "middle ground" was replaced by a more Europeanized culture, and Indians were relegated to history books, reservations and Westerns. Like the natural world, they were domesticated: contained, controlled and dominated, even as their former "wildness" was romanticized in myth. But what the Maid of the Mist story reveals is that many Indian influences remained -- we just lost sight of their Indian-ness. The maid is a hybrid, the love child of European literary convention and Native American folklore, traditions introduced to one another, perhaps, by a Seneca sachem steeped in classical learning.
"When you come to Niagara Falls, you come to the end of the land," Joseph tells me. "To some, it's a metaphor for what happened to the native people." For some reason, it makes me think of the snake Darwin John mentioned, and its plunge down to the underworld at Devil's Hole. Like the serpent, the native tradition didn't disappear; it just went underground.
I bring up the Canandaigua horned-serpent story, and its migration to Niagara.
"Oh, that myth is not about Niagara," Joseph declares immediately. "That's a story about contact."
Blindsided again. Contact? The story seemed so folkloric, so primal somehow. Schoolcraft presented it as an originary tale. And yet it makes perfect sense. The two-headed snake -- France and Great Britain -- is small at first. The Indians feed it and it grows larger. Some Indians fear it; others want to continue placating it. The fearful are proved right at last when, with complete ingratitude for earlier care, the serpent begins to destroy the Indians.
"Contact works its way into native traditions in a lot of ways," Joseph tells me. "I've heard that story interpreted again and again by tribal elders, and it's always about contact. And it's not about Niagara, it's about Canandaigua, because that's where they made the treaty that drew a line down the center of town: on one side, Indians; on the other, whites." But of course, at Niagara too the Haudenosaunee were turned on by a snake they had fed.
"In native culture," Joseph says, "stories have two purposes: to entertain, and to educate or inform. They're used as a means of child-rearing and as a means of societal balance. When a story no longer has either of those qualities, something has been lost."
I'm taken by the idea of nineteenth-century ethnologists collecting "ancient myths" from a primitive people, only to have those "primitives" tell them morality tales worthy of Aesop. You want a story? Here's a story about what you've done to our world. And the eager ethnologists wrote it all down, without ever realizing that they were hearing not some primal fairy tale but a modern-day "J'accuse." Red man's fancy, it seems, can also be taken as white man's fact.
On the train home, with night falling on the beautiful Hudson River valley and some newly released residents of Ossining engaging in fisticuffs in the aisle, I gaze out the window and think about America and its first peoples. They, like the waterfall at Niagara, have traditionally been seen as outside history. Their culture is unchanging and eternal, and any "civilizing" or "Europeanizing" acts on their part are inauthentic. To freeze a culture -- or a natural wonder -- like this is to kill it, to deny its status as a living, constantly changing entity. A culture, like a waterfall, is not a thing: it's an event. Today, Americans shake their heads and sigh at past horrors like the Trail of Tears, but to see Native American history as a laundry list of crimes perpetrated by the government on a passive people adds one more crime to the list. And it continues a narrative tradition in which Indians, like the landscape, are only there to be acted on by the colonists.
"The history of Indian-white relations," writes Richard White, "has not usually produced complex stories. Indians are the rock, European peoples are the sea, and history seems a constant storm."
The Onondaga longhouse contains a four-foot-long wampum belt made in 1692. Its design is simple: two parallel rows of purple wampum shells are separated by white shells. The belt is called the Kas-wen-tha or Guswenta belt. It was made to record and commemorate a treaty with early Dutch settlers, and its meaning is straightforward: the two cultures, Indian and European, shall travel side by side, like brothers, without ever meeting. The Indians, in their birchbark canoe, will maintain their customs and ways, and the Europeans, in their sailing ship, will maintain theirs. Neither will interfere with the other's path, or seek to board the other's boat. A person attempting to stand with one foot on each boat will fall between them and drown.
And yet, that's exactly what the most fascinating characters in American history have done: Irish baronet and adopted Mohawk William Johnson, his Mohawk wife Molly Brant, soldier-scholar-sachem Ely Parker, even the ridiculous Lewis Morgan, donning his feathered cap and playing powwow, like one of Peter Pan's lost boys joining the Red Men's dance. William Johnson, who perhaps had his feet most firmly on both boats, fell into the waters of fiction. History can't contain him; he becomes instead an imagined character, turning up in novels by James Fenimore Cooper, James Kirk Paulding and Robert Louis Stevenson. Myth may not be true, but it's often good at describing new worlds and new possibilities.
"Contact was not a battle of primal forces in which only one could survive," writes White. "Something new could appear." That something was American history. Nowhere is that clearer than at Niagara, where the threads of separate histories are woven together too tightly to be broken apart. Indian and European may be on separate lines, but both lines share the same belt. Today the fate of Niagara Falls, New York, may hang on the ability of the Senecas to revive the economy with a downtown casino: some of the very land William Johnson forced the Senecas to yield was recently given back to them by the State of New York. Now tourists at the Seneca Niagara Casino can buy Native American dreamcatchers, drink cappuccinos in a marble lobby, and enjoy clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, Maryland crab cakes and a 24-ounce porterhouse at a steakhouse called the Western Door.
The Maid of the Mist myth continues to be told, though it now includes culturally sensitive caveats about the difficulty of identifying authentic native tales. The American Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation tells the "desperate widow" version on their Web site, calling it "a dim reflection of the richness of Niagara's native culture." Here is how it begins:
When people knew the wholeness of the world, they knew that all are one with the world. They spoke with the earth and the sky, and knew them as themselves. The sun, the moon, and the stars spoke with them, and people were one with them. They knew the animals and the plants as their brothers and sisters. The thunder taught them about what is and what will happen. People knew all these things, and knew the wholeness of the world. But people forgot. The earth and the stars and the animals and the Thunder continued to talk to them, but people didn't always listen....This story tells about the last time that the Thunder ever spoke to a human.
The Haudenosaunee had -- and have -- a complex and politically sophisticated culture. Even in the dim reflection of their history we can glean from early accounts, it's clear they recognized the political and commercial value of the Falls, and fought hard to maintain control of that asset. Still, they are used to this day to represent humans in a "natural" state, people listening to the voice of the landscape in prelinguistic, Edenic wholeness. Early pictures of Niagara almost always included an Indian or two. Like the waterfall, they were symbols of the New World's wildness, a wildness just waiting to be tamed. Envisioning the landscape in this way was the first step toward mastering it, just as imagining Native Americans as "nature's children," subjects of a world not ordered by humans, was to take the first step toward genocide. To envision some people in a state of nature, while others partake of human time, is to justify extermination as merely progress. Welcome to history; here's your prize: a smallpox blanket and a gun.
As the nineteenth century began, settlers, land speculators and entrepreneurs would arrive at the Falls and begin the process of taming the landscape. The myth of Niagara's wildness would become increasingly difficult -- and necessary -- to maintain.
Copyright © 2008 by Ginger Strand
Excerpted from Inventing Niagara by Ginger Strand Copyright © 2008 by Ginger Strand. Excerpted by permission.
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Ginger Strand, the author of the novel Flight, has published essays and fiction in many places, including Harper's, the New England Review, and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.
Karen White has been narrating audiobooks since 1999, with more than two hundred to her credit. Honored to be included in AudioFile's Best Voices and Speaking of Audiobooks's Best Romance Audio 2012 and 2013, she is also an Audie Award finalist and has earned multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards.
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Ginger Strand has written a book worthy of its magnificent subject, and reading it is like looking behind the curtain of falling water (or behind the curtain of Mme. Tussauds House of Wax). It is obvious how much foot-pounding, face-to-face research was involved, which set this work apart from much of today's non-fiction. I admire her effort and skill. Moreover, the author's voice comes through so clearly and wittily. I hope she will do an audiobook, which would make miles on the New York Thruway pass by more enjoyably. If not an audiobook, I'll settle for a live reading someplace; maybe Goat Island?
Thoroughly researched, briliantly synthesized, this is the story of America through the mist of Niagara, and how we got to where we are today electrically, chemically, culturally, industrially and ecologically, just to name a few implications for our future as a planet. All written in a captivatingly entertaining style that almost turns the pages for you.