‡‡‡‡‡‡Old Ya-Gao-Tah’s Tale white canoe
Yon Rainbow, circling great Niagara’s brow,
Tells, children, of a chieftain’s awful vow;
Hark to its tale of sadness and of love,
All other legends of our race above:
The story of Wenona’s White Canoe,
The grand devotion of her lover true,
The fate that swept their youthful lives away,
Marked by Niagara’s Rainbow to this day.
For know, my children, in the days of yore,
Or ever white man’s foot had pressed this shore,
In forest deep and dark our fathers dwelt,
Before the Manitou devoted knelt,
Craved His protection and His mighty aid
Against the foe and famine — to Him prayed
When pestilence up-raised its baleful head,
Swelling the gruesome ranks of warrior dead.
But comes a day when prayer and offering fail,
When medicines of wise men naught avail,
When through the tribe, with footsteps grim and gaunt,
Stalk the twin spectres, Pestilence and Want.
In terror then, around the council fire
Gather the chiefs, their head Wenonah’s sire;
“What can we offer Thee, Oh! Manitou?”
Speaks the Great Spirit then: “The White Canoe!”
Full well they know the precious sacrifice
Demanded, but, though terrible the price,
To save the few still left it must be paid —
Niagara’s Water-god the fairest maid
Of all the tribe as offering must claim —
Her sacrifice to cleanse the tribe of blame.
Who shall it be? Alas! there is but one
On whom the lot can fall! The deed is done!
Like arrow to the mark each glance now turns
Toward fair Wenonah, and her sire’s heart yearns
At thought that she – his dear – his only child,
Must seek her fate beneath the waters wild.
Stately he rises in his place: “Nay! nay!”
He cries, “If naught but that our doom can stay,
We’ll brave the famine’s pestilential breath,
Till all the tribe lies stark and cold in death!”
Up springs Wenonah: “Father! hear me speak!
Though but a woman, think me not so weak
That I would shrink, a coward, from flood or fire,
To save my tribe! My blood is thine, my sire!
Lead on, Oh! warriors, to Niagara’s Fall
Its might shall not my woman’s heart appal!
Farewell, my sire! Uncas, my love, farewell!
Great Water-god! sound thou Wenonah’s knell!”
And now, through leagues of forest have they tracked
Their mournful way toward the Cataract.
Before that band of dusky warriors grim
Stalks, stern and silent, the gaunt form of him
Who, savage chieftain of a savage race,
Yet, sorrow pictured in his warrior face,
Now, torn with anguish, offers up his child,
A sacrifice unto the waters wild.
Amid the circle of her dusky maids,
Wenonah treads the darksome forest glades,
The fairest of her tribe — her Nation’s pride —
While Uncas walks dejected by her side.
And though her own brave eyes are filled with tears,
She strives with cheerful word to calm his fears,
But nought can give his troubled spirit rest,
Or loose those savage lips, with grief compressed.
Now, as she hears Niagara’s deep boom,
A premonition of her dreadful doom,
Reverberating through the forest aisles,
Up in her lover’s face she faintly smiles,
And whispers of that land beyond the grave,
That bourne of maiden pure and warrior brave,
Where she, though now torn weeping from his side,
In the Great Spirit’s home may be his bride.
The White Canoe receives its precious freight
Of flowers and fruit, and clad in mimic state,
Reclines amid the bloom, Wenonah fair —
Most luscious fruit, and fairest blossom there.
The warriors grim, smile on such beauteous bribe,
To lure the spirits’ blessing on their tribe,
And all save Uncas gaze with eager eye,
As bark and burden down the current fly.
But not alone must poor Wenonah brave
That dreadful vortex, for, though nought can save,
A love there is, death even cannot part,
And such the love that fills brave Uncas’ heart;
A single stroke and they are side by side,
Alone — together — ‘mid the boiling tide!
Hand clasped in hand as plunging o’er the brink —
Heart throbs with heart as in the flood they sink.
The striken warriors turn in mute dismay,
Then silent — saddened — take their homeward way,
And on their heads, from out the cloudless blue,
The spray-drops fall, tinted with rainbow’s hue
“The Spirit weeps,” they cry, “for Uncas brave —
The Spirit’s bow lies upon Uncas’ Grave!”
And still the mists from her vexed bosom rise,
Niagara’s tears for Love’s great sacrifice,
And still o’er Uncas’ grave the spirit’s rainbow lies.
Source: Willard Parker. Niagara’s Rainbow: The Legend of the White Canoe. Conshohocken, PA: Willard Parker Publishing Co., 1922.