The Legend of the White Canoe by William Trumbull

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The American Falls From Prospect Point, by F. V. Du Mond. Taken from The Legend of the White Canoe.

“Long before the solitudes of western New York were disturbed by the advent of the white man, it was the custom of the Indian tribes to assemble occasionally at Niagara, and offer sacrifice to the Spirit of the Falls.
This sacrifice consisted of a white birch-bark canoe, which was sent over the terrible cliff, filled with ripe fruits and blooming flowers, and bearing the fairest girl in the tribe who had just attained the age of womanhood.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡I. PROEM.

MID the rush of mighty waters, in the thundering cataract’s roar,
Where Niagara’s streaming rapids down in headlong torrent pour ;
Where the serried waves like chargers madly leaping to the fray,
Fling aloft their snowy crests and toss their manes of flying spray,
Rearing, plunging, onward urging — Nature’s glorious cavalry !
Where th’ eternal sweep of waters like the unending surge of time,
Pulsing, throbs in rhythmic measure to a wondrous strain sublime :
Dwells, so ancient legends say, the mighty Spirit of the Falls,
Who from out the tumult, hoarsely, for unbounded homage calls.
Here the children of the forest, spellbound by that deafening roar,
Stopped to gaze with listening wonder, in the simpler days of yore ;
Awe-struck, gazed in silent worship, well beseeming Nature’s child,
As in chase they roamed the plain, or tracked in war the pathless wild :
And as often as they listened, on the voices of the flood
Deep were borne the Spirit’s mutterings, calling fierce for human blood ;
Ay, and sacrifice more cruel in that cry they understood :
Gift of Nature’s choicest treasure, peerless budding womanhood !   

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡II. WENONAH.

FAIREST of the laughing daughters by blue Seneca’s rippling tide,
Was the Indian maid, Wenonah, sturdy Kwasind’s joy and pride :
Eyes of laughter, like the sunshine dancing in her native lake,
O’er whose depths, anon, fleet shadows chasing cast their trailing wake ;
Lips of tempting ruddy hue like mountain berries gleaming fair ;
Raven locks, whose glossy lustre shone like dark-stemmed maidenhair ;
Whilst rich mantling color tinged an olive cheek, whose crimson flush
Vied with flaming woodland leaves when touched with Autumn’s scarlet blush.
And the music of her laughter, when amid the joyous throng,
She, hailed Queen by all the maidens, led with merriest quip and song,
Fell in sweetest rippling cadence, sounding thro’ the leafy way
Like the purl of hidden brooklet murmuring soft in distant play ;
As in freest fancy roving, far removed from cares or strife,
With fresh eager zest exulting in youth’s bounding sense of life,
Bright she moved, a winsome picture, framed by Nature’s matchless art
In all scenes of joy and beauty royally to bear her part.
Yet to scenes of mirth not solely was her sunny presence lent ;
Truer was her simple nature, to a nobler purpose bent :
Only child of widow’d father, hers the sacred heritage,
With the charm of winning girlhood, to make bright his lonely age.
What tho’ ardently, nay fiercely, for her smiles the young braves strove
In all feats of savage daring — none as yet might claim her love ;
She, with roguish, artless spirit, laughing in her gay caprice,
Found in loving, filial duty surer joys of heart-whole peace.
Just as when some sturdy giant of the forest, bending low,
Bows before the axe and toppling falls with mighty crashing blow,
Clinging tendrils, newly springing round the shattered trunk are seen
Swift to hide its prostrate ruin ‘neath a veil of living green,
Guarding, shielding, closely nestling to their riven parent stock,
Like mute sentient creatures fearful of rude gaze or heedless mock :
So the maid her lonely father tended with fond, jealous pride,
Steadfast, faithful to her trust, where none might woo her from his side.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡III. THE COUNCIL.

GATHERED is the warriors’ council. Thro’ the shadows of the night,
Darkly gleams each dusky figure in the camp-fire’s fitful light.
Slowly round the silent circle moves the red-pipe’s gleaming bowl,
Thro’ whose clouds each wreath’d sage, peering the dark future to unroll,
Draws a drowsy, sweet contentment, for the moment, o’er his soul.
Now, the brooding hush is broken ; grave attention holds the band,
For the Med’cine-man is speaking of the want throughout the land;
Slow, in subtle craft, contrasting with the wealth of happier days
Present dearth of fish and venison, withering blight upon their maize.
Well he speaks! His halting manner but betrays the deeper art
Of his cunning soul vindictive ; which full oft had conned this part,
Since that day when in dim forest glade Wenonah spurned his quest,
And with flaming scorn repelled the love his suppliant words confessed.
Little recked the fearless maiden in that lonely, fateful hour,
Dark appeal, mute, threatening gesture, hints of baleful fetich power ;
For while untaught reason wavered, blindly groping toward the light,
Woman’s faultless intuition read his lying heart aright !
“Senecas ! Twice the rolling Autumn, with deep-laden malice fraught,
Years of blight and wasting sickness to your golden maize hath brought.
Yet again the dread plague threatens ! Speak, deluded, hapless race,
Will ye, reckless, longer trust th’ uncertain product of the chase ?
Hunted, driven, the startled red deer, fleeing, vanish from your sight !
Hark, the cry of fenland wild-geese, parting on their southward flight !
E’en your lake trout, lurking wary, yield but scanty livelihood—
Will ye see your children starving ? Answer, Senecas ! Is it good ?
Listen! To your dreaming Meda, while in troubled sleep he lay,
Came the Spirit of the Waters, wreathed in billowy clouds of spray : —
‘Wherefore do My children shun Me ? Where the grateful offering rare
Of the maid and first-fruits choicest, which they once were wont to bear ?
Has prosperity thus turned them from the faith of simpler days ?
Let them heed, lest FAMINE seal My warning blight upon their maize ! ‘
So He spake, with muttered thunderings, leaving me as one for dead.
Need I counsel ? Heed the warning ! Yet delay not ! — I have said.”
Ceased the speaker, ‘mid a silence, chill, foreboding as the grave,
Save where some sage, nodding grayhead growl of half- conviction gave,
As at grim want’s threatening horror, fear, by ghastly memories fed,
Woke to flame the smouldering embers of a cruel faith nigh dead ;
Or perchance, some young brave, chafing sore in hot, rebellious mood,
With the first warm flush of manhood ‘gainst a bygone creed of blood,
Carried past his wiser fellows, borne by love’s impetuous stream,
Muttered curse both deep and savage on the Meda’s boding dream !
But all eyes were fixed on Kwasind, Strong Man, warrior proved and true,
Whose brave heart, where others faltered, never fear nor weakness knew ;
Hero of a thousand conflicts, scarred in visage, proud of mien,
Foremost ever in rude battle, chase, or stirring council-scene :
And their eyes were fixed upon him with a deep, expectant gaze,
Watching for some answering signal which their sinking hearts might raise ;
Hope and terror strangely blended in that wistful, furtive stare,
Not unmixed with curious pity for a father’s mute despair !
Long they sat, in silence waiting. Neither word, nor sign, nor glance
From the Sachem came in answer to their wondering look askance.
— Ah ! the nameless, unseen terror of that shadowy Spirit-land,
With its spectral shapes and phantoms, — who its power can understand ?
Now, in sudden wrath he starts at thought of pity from the rest,
Crushes down the welling tumult surging thro’ his anguished breast,
Cloaks ‘neath stoic, outward calm the grief he struggles to control —
Lest perchance he may betray the finer feelings of his soul !
There he sits, all wrapped in silence, strangely mute, impassive grown,
Drawn each stern and rigid feature like carved lines of chiselled stone ;
Iron will and haughty spirit bravely answering to repress
Quivering lip and trembling eyelid, — signals of his deep distress.
See ! he meets their searching glance with head erect and flashing mien ;
Slowly gazes round the assembly with unflinching air serene :
Victor in th’ unnatural conflict ; love and nature, both defied ;
Slave to coward superstition ; thrall of idle savage pride !

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡IV. KWASIND.

NOR when, once the conclave over, striding back in anger wild
To the hut, where all unconscious of her fate, his darling child
Rose to greet his late home-coming, — did his flood of grief long-pent,
In a burst of manlier feeling find, e’en then, its fitting vent :
But in tones of measured calmness, self-repressed, and sternly brief,
He made known his tidings bitter to her gaze of wondering grief ;
Nay, to that grim ordeal, harshly, bade her nerve her trembling frame,
For the welfare of her people, for the honor of his name !
Yet, in lonely midnight vigil, when beneath the unwonted strain,
Baffled nature rose rebellious, throbbing fierce in secret pain,
Vowed he threat of direst vengeance, breathing forth an ominous hiss
‘Gainst the doting, idle dreamer: — “Curse him, he shall die for this ! ”
Or as tenderer feelings, rushing with tumultuous ebb and roll,
Stirred to ruth the deep recesses of his inmost troubled soul,
Pity for her youth and beauty, doomed thus soon to fade and die,
Found expression mute yet touching, in a long-drawn secret sigh.
Or he dwelt on her obedience, on her silent fortitude,
Bowing to his will submissive, ‘neath a blow so harsh and rude :
And it called to mind her mother, gentle slave of days long fled,
Slain, alas ! in hostile foray ere her noon of life had sped.
How might she have met this trial ? — What her thought of him, who must
In the pride of false endurance, thus betray a father’s trust ?
Till proud spirit, bowed in anguish, brooding thro’ the silent night,
Staggered ‘neath the strong temptation of a swift, inglorious flight.
Then, a sterner mood returning, pride resumed its wonted sway ;
Bade him heed the tribe’s opinion ; pictured what his braves might say :
While he strove, with specious reasoning, which he well knew for a lie,
To assuage the qualms of conscience — outraged nature’s stifled cry !
Her obedience ? — but th’ expression of a flattered vanity
At the tribute of the council’s silent unanimity !
Or if here, too, justice triumphed, muttered with contemptuous thought :
” After all, she ‘s but a woman !” — and in this a respite sought.
So the days dragged slowly onward, days of strife and varying mood,
As he watched her steadfast bearing from his gloomy solitude :
And one morn, the treacherous Meda, slain by hostile, unknown hand,
Slow was borne into the village by the young braves of the band.
None mistrusted sullen Kwasind, when the funeral throng drew nigh,
Or, at least, none cared to question with that scowling warrior by.
But th’ event was soon forgotten ‘mid the press of other calls,
And the stir of preparation for their long march to the Falls.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡V. THE SACRIFICE.

COME, at length, the fatal evening — for such purpose, all too soon !
— On a scene of matchless glory slow uprose the harvest moon :
Crested wave and shimmering islet, bathed in flood of golden light,
Caught and threw its tremulous radiance far adown the wind-kissed night ;
Soft the mellow moonbeams glinting thro’ the leaves on isle and shore,
Spread beneath, their quivering fretwork, interlaced with shadows o’er ;
Now, the full orb’s splendor shining, woke to brilliant glistening play
Myriad hues of emerald richness, showers of sparkling diamond spray.
On the cliffs beyond the cataract, ranged like sentinels on high,
Giant trees stood darkly shadowed, spectre-like against the sky;
Far beneath, the seething river, wrapped in deepest midnight gloom,
Flowed with cruel, swirling torrent thro’ the gorge — a fitting tomb !
While, like ponderous portals clanging ‘twixt these scenes of death and life,
Boomed the Falls, their bellowing echoes telling of a ceaseless strife ;
Riven, torn in wildest fury, lashed to foam and clouds of spray,
Like some clamorous monster raging for its long- expected prey.
From the shore, in jarring discord with the spirit of the hour,
Shouts of revelry invaded its sublime, mysterious power :
Man, the slave of passions rude, in superstition’s yoke enthralled,
Marred the face divine of Nature, by her grandeur unappalled.
— There they danced in wild carousal, thro’ that glorious moonlit night,
Love and friendship all forgotten, in their orgies’ fierce delight ;
Thinking thus, poor simple children, best the dread wrath to assuage
Of that Spirit dark, whose roaring told of boundless, sullen rage.
Hark ! a distant shout. Swift following, comes a momentary hush.
Then, their ill-timed revels quitting, to the river’s bank they rush :
Up the stream all eyes are straining, toward yon faintest speck of white,
Where the frail birch onward dancing, flashes in the moon’s pale light ;
Large, now larger, grows the object ; till at length the kneeling form
Of a maid is seen, her tresses blowing wildly in the storm ;
Clasped her hands, her lips half-parted, staring down the angry stream
As if spellbound by the horror of some hideous nightmare dream !
At that sight, their spell is broken.   Cheer reverberates on cheer,
Till the answering banks re-echo like a scoffing, mocking jeer.
Louder still their cries redouble, as the skiff with frightful lunge
Leaps in where the steadier current gathers for its final plunge.
Passed the head of low-crowned Iris ! Luna gleams ! — But what is this ?
Why this stillness, broken only by the thunder of th’ abyss ?
Why this sudden pause from shouting, and that swift-averted gaze
To yon point where, circling, eddying past the shore, the current plays ?
Leaping from the mainland outward, darting, bounding o’er the tide,
Shooting straight to meet its fellow, — lo ! a second skiff they spied.
Mark the dripping blade flash brightly, scattering drops of silver light,
As the shallop plunges, lurches, forward urged by desperate might !
See ! it nears ; they strike ! — Defiant, stands a swaying, stalwart form ;
Poises high the useless paddle; hurls it at the ravening storm !
While an arm protecting, shielding, round the startled maid is flung : —
“‘T is her father ! Kwasind ! Kwasind ! ” bursts in frenzy from the throng.
Ay ; ‘t was Kwasind ! Love, triumphant over every fear and doubt,
Love had won the final victory, putting stubborn pride to rout.
By that one brief glance at meeting, in his tender yearning eyes,
Clear she reads the pregnant meaning of that love-wrought sacrifice : —
Not forgotten, not forsaken, in that lonely, bitter hour!
Then, tho’ certain death await her, answering to his love’s strong power
Leaps the light of new-born gladness in her eyes ! — With quickened breath,
Clasped as one, they pass the portal to the shadowy realm of death.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡VI. EPILOGUE.

AND in after years, at nightfall — still the Indian legends say —
When each swift revolving Autumn brings again that fatal day,
From Niagara’s brow, a shallop thro’ the dusk is seen to glide,
Stemming with unwavering course the mighty flood’s on-rushing tide. ;
Till, a jutting headland reached, it swerves, and nears the northern strand,
Where a slight form, dimly shadowed, on the bank is said to stand :
There, its strange freight once embarked, it veers, and downward thro’ the night
Bears the spectral, kneeling figure of a maiden robed in white.
And as often as the phantom nears the head of Luna’s shores,
From the bank, another shallop leaps to meet its gliding course ;
Swift by frantic stroke impelled, it intercepts it near the brink,
Where in strong love clasped together, father, daughter, fading sink :
And as surely as they vanish, louder roars the Spirit gray ;
Higher yet, like incense rising, waft the rolling clouds of spray ;
Whilst the moon, her pale face veiling high in Autumn’s cloud-flecked skies,
Mourns the unending expiation of that cruel sacrifice.

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Source: Trumbull, William.  The Legend of the White Canoe.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

This book-length poem has been scanned by the Internet Archives site, and is available for viewing here

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