A poetical legend of the Indians of Niagara Falls

The guide related to me another story in which my readers may be interested, as it is one of the poetical legends of the Indians. It took place in years now long gone by, when the Indians worshipped the Great Spirit where they beheld such a manifestation of his power. Here, where the presence of Deity made the forest ring, and the ground tremble, the Indians offered a living sacrifice once a year, to be conveyed by the water spirit to the unknown gulf. Annually, in the month of August, the sachem gave the word, and fruits and flowers were stowed in a white canoe, to be paddled by the fairest maiden among the tribes.

The tribe thought itself highly honoured when its turn came to float the blooming offering to the shrine of the Great Spirit, and still more honoured was the maid who was a fitting sacrifice.

Oronto, the proudest chief of the Senecas, had an only child named Lena. This chief was a noted and dreaded warrior; over many a bloody fight his single eagle plume had waved, and ever in battle he left the red track of his hatchet and tomahawk. Years rolled by, and every one sent its summer offering to the thunder god of the then unexplored Niagara. Oronto danced at many a feast which followed the sacrificial gift, which his tribe had rejoicingly given in their turn. He felt not for the fathers whose children were thus taken from their wigwams, and committed to the grave of the roaring waters. Calma, his wife, had fallen by a foeman's arrow, and in the blood of his enemies he had terribly avenged his bereavement. Fifteen years had passed since then, and the infant which Calma left had matured into a beautiful maiden. The day of sacrifice came; it was the year of the Senecas, and Lena was acknowledged to be the fairest maiden of the tribe. The moonlit hour has come, the rejoicing dance goes on; Oronto has, without a tear, parted from his child, to meet her in the happy hunting-grounds where the Great Spirit reigns. The yell of triumph rises from the assembled Indians. The white canoe, loosed by the sachems, has shot from the bank, but ere it has sped from the shore another dancing craft has gone forth upon the whirling water, and both have set out on a voyage to eternity.

The first bears the offering, Lena, seated amidst fruits and flowers; the second contains Oronto, the proud chief of the Senecas. Both seem to pause on the verge of the descent, then together rise on the whirling rapids. One mingled look of apprehension and affection is exchanged, and, while the woods ring with the yells of the savages, Oronto and Lena plunge into the abyss in their white canoes. [Footnote: I have given both these anecdotes, as nearly as possible, in the bombastic language in which they were related to me by the guide.]

This wild legend was told me by the guide in full view of the cataract, and seemed so real and life-like that I was somewhat startled by being accosted thus, by a voice speaking in a sharp nasal down-east twang: "Well, stranger, I guess that's the finest water-power you've ever set eyes on." My thoughts were likewise recalled to the fact that it was necessary to put on an oilskin dress, and scramble down a very dilapidated staircase to the Cave of the Winds, in order to "do" Niagara in the "regulation manner." This cave is partly behind the American Fall, and is the abode of howling winds and ceaseless eddies of spray. It is an extremely good shower-bath, but the day was rather too cold to make that luxury enjoyable. I went down another steep path, and, after crossing a shaky foot-bridge over part of the Grand Rapids, ascended Prospect Tower, a stone erection 45 feet high, built on the very verge of the Horse-shoe Fall. It is said that people feel involuntary suicidal intentions while standing on the balcony round this tower. I did not experience them myself, possibly because my only companion was the half-tipsy Irish drosky-driver. The view from this tower is awful: the edifice has been twice swept away, and probably no strength of masonry could permanently endure the wear of the rushing water at its base.

Down come those beauteous billows, as if eager for their terrible leap. Along the ledge over which they fall they are still for one moment in a sheet of clear, brilliant green; another, and down they fall like cataracts of driven snow, chasing each other, till, roaring and hissing, they reach the abyss, sending up a column of spray 100 feet in height. No existing words can describe it, no painter can give the remotest idea of it; it is the voice of the Great Creator, its name signifying, in the beautiful language of the Iroquois, "The Thunder of Waters." Looking from this tower, above you see the Grand Rapids, one dizzy sheet of leaping foamy billows, and below you look, _if you can_, into the very caldron itself, and see how the bright-green waves are lost in foam and mist; and behind you look to shore, and shudder to think how the frail bridge by which you came in another moment may be washed away. I felt as I came down the trembling staircase that one wish of my life had been gratified in seeing Niagara.

Some graves were recently discovered in Iris Island, with skeletons in a sitting posture inside them, probably the remains of those aboriginal races who here in their ignorance worshipped the Great Spirit, within the sound of his almighty voice. We paused on the bridge, and looked once more at the islets in the rapids, and stopped on Bath Island, lovely in itself, but desecrated by the presence of a remarkably hirsute American, who keeps a toll-house, with the words "Ice-creams" and "Indian Curiosities" painted in large letters upon it. Again another bridge, by which we crossed to the main land; and while overwhelmed at once by the beauty and the sublimity of the scene, all at once the idea struck me that the Yankee who called Niagara "an almighty fine water privilege" was tolerably correct in his definition, for the water is led off in several directions for the use of large saw and paper mills.

We made several purchases at an Indian curiosity-shop, where we paid for the articles about six times their value, and meanwhile our driver took the opportunity of getting "summat warm," which very nearly resulted in our getting something _cold_, for twice, in driving over a stump, he all but upset us into ponds.