The Life and Times of Kateri Tekawitha – Tekakwitha’s Spring

Tekakwitha's SprintIn the valley of the Mohawk, near the present great highways of the State of New York, is a quiet forest nook, where a clear, cold spring gurgles out from the tangled roots of a tree. Connected with this spring is the story of a short girl-life, pure, vigorous, sorrow-taught. It is written out in authentic documents; while Nature, also, has kept a record of an Indian maiden’s lodge beside the spring. There on the banks of the Mohawk River, at Caughnawaga, now called Fonda, in Montgomery County, dwelt the Lily of the Mohawks two centuries ago, when the State had neither shape nor name. She saw her people build a strong, new palisaded village there. She saw, though at rare intervals, the peaceful but adventurous traders of Fort Orange, and the blackgowns of New France pass in and out on friendly errands. Mohegans came there also in her day to lay siege to the village, but only to be met with fierce defiance and to be driven back. Marks of that very Indian fort can still be found at Fonda, where the Johnstown Railway now branches from the New York Central, and turns northward along the margin of the Cayudutta Creek. The smoke of the engine, as it leaves the town of Fonda, mounts to the level of a plateau on which the Mohawk Castle 1 stood. The elevated land, or river terrace, at that point is singularly called the “Sand Flats.”

A rude fort of palisades, well equipped for defence, was completed about the year 1668 on a narrow tongue of this high terrace, between the Mohawk River and the creek. The approach to it is very steep; but in one place a wagon-road winds up the hill to what is now a field on Veeder’s farm. Here unmistakable signs of Indian occupation are to be found. A spring is close at hand in a clump of trees. The castle at that spot was known as “Caughnawaga,” meaning “At the Rapids,” – a name still applied to the eastern part of the present town of Fonda. The Mohawk River runs swiftly as it passes this spot, and large stones obstruct its course. The spring at the castle site on the west side of the creek is Tekakwitha’s spring; for there beside it she grew to maidenhood, behind the shelter of the palisades, and beneath the shadow of the overarching forest. Tekakwitha was the Lily of the Mohawks, and afterwards known as “La Bonne Catherine.”

In the Mohawk Valley, the great artery of our nation’s life, the tide of human travel now ebbs and flows with ever-swelling force; here the New York Central Railway levels out its course of four broad tracks; here the great canal bears heavy burdens east and west; here the West Shore Railway skirts the southern terrace; here the Mohawk River winds and ripples, smiling in an old-time, quiet way at these hurrying, crowded highways. They have wellnigh filled the generous roadway, cut through high plateaus and mountain spurs in ages past by this same placid river. That was in its younger, busier days. Now it idles on its way from side to side, among the flats or bottoms, with here and there a rapid, till at last it gathers force at far Cohoes for one great plunge before it joins the Hudson. Then the mingled waters of the two rivers sweep on past the stately Capitol, where once the Indian trading-post, Fort Orange, stood. From Albany, the broad-bosomed Hudson bears floating palaces and long lines of canal-boats strung together like great beads of wampum. Let its current move them southward, while we turn back to the valley whence these strings of wampum came. Let us follow up the windings of the Mohawk River westward. At Schenectady it lingers among islands in pretty, narrow ways, where college boys can take their sweethearts rowing. Right playfully it kisses the feet of the old Dutch town in summer, and in winter its frozen bosom sounds with the merry thud of the skater’s steel. Farther west the valley narrows, and on a height near Hoffman’s Ferry, Mohawk and Mohegan fought their last fierce battle. Tekakwitha heard their war-whoop at the castle of Caughnawaga, just before the final conflict came; but she never saw Fort Johnson, which is higher up the river. Old Fort Johnson is too modern for our story. Amsterdam now looms up an important factor in the valley. Two centuries ago a joyous stream cascading down to meet the Mohawk was its only landmark. Tekakwitha knew the spot, however, and had good reason to remember it, as we shall see. Westward still, and up the valley from Fort Johnson, a broader gleam of water comes in sight. It is where the Schoharie River creeps in from the south between the dripping archways of a bridge, over which canal-boats pass. Here the Mohawk shows its teeth in a ridge of angry rapids; and here we enter what was once the home country of its people, the fierce Mohawks. We are near the spot where brave Father Isaac Jogues, the discoverer of Lake George, was killed, in 1646. In the southwest angle of the Mohawk and Schoharie Rivers, on the upper terrace, higher than the modern hamlet of Auriesville, was the eastern castle of the Mohawks, known to Jogues as Ossernenon. 2 Here three times the hero-hearted blackgown came; first, a mangled, tortured captive, dragging out the weary months in slavery until the Dutchmen at Fort Orange ransomed him; next, as an ambassador of peace, bearing presents, making treaties; and lastly, as envoy of the Prince of Peace, and wedded to his “spouse of blood,” – for so Jogues styled his Mohawk mission. Never was a truer bridegroom, never stranger wedding rites. Bits of his flesh were cut off and devoured, while the savage high-priest cried, “Let us see if this white flesh is the flesh of an otkon [spirit or devil.]” “I am but a man like yourselves,” said Jogues, “though I fear not death nor your tortures.” His head was placed on the northern palisade, looking toward the French frontier, and his body thrown into the stream; but his blood and his earnest words sank deep into the land and the hearts of its people. From Jogues’ mystic union with the Mohawk nation, trooping from the “Mission of the Martyrs,” came the Christian Iroquois. One of these – a bright soul in a dusky setting, and a flower that sprang from martyr’s blood – was Tekakwitha. She grew up, says one who knew her, “like a lily among thorns.” Ten years after Ondessonk 3 had shed the last drop of his blood to make these Mohawks Christians, she was born among the people who had seen the blackgown die, in the Village of the Turtles, – some say in the “cabin at the door of which the tomahawked priest had fallen.”

This same stronghold of the Turtles was rebuilt higher up the river during Tekakwitha’s lifetime. Near Ossernenon, the earliest known site of the Turtle Castle, there is a great bend or loop in the Mohawk River and Valley. It extends from the mouth of the Schoharie River on the east to the “Nose” near Yost’s and Spraker’s Basin on the west. The Nose is at a point where river, railways, and canal are crowded in a narrow pass between two overlapping ridges of high land. “Two Mountains approaching,” or Tionnontogen, the Indians called it; and there behind the shelter of the hills, they built their largest and best fortified town, the Mohawk capital or Castle of the Wolves. Other villages and their central Castle of the Bears, called Andagoron, they also built and rebuilt within the great bend. At its northern point, where the river now flows between the high-perched Starin residence and the town of Fonda, the next important railway-station west of Amsterdam, are the rapids and the large stones in the water which gave rise to the name of Caughnawaga. From the hills at Fonda one can see for miles both up and down the river.

Here, as has already been said, just west of Fonda, on the north side of the Mohawk is the Indian village site where Tekakwitha lived. Here is the beautiful hill that was once crowned by the palisaded castle of Caughnawaga. It is a spot that any one who lived there must have loved. To-day the plough turns up the rich soil where long Indian cabins stood, and what we see are only darkened patches left to tell us where the hearthfires of the Mohawks burned two hundred years ago. These patches of dark soil still glisten with the pearly mussel-shells brought up by the Mohawks to their village from the river that still bears their name. The pipe-stems sold to them by the Dutch are strewn in fragments through the field. From graves near by, thrown out on the roadside by the spades of workmen loading their carts with sand, the author has seen Indian bones, more crumbled than the silly beads and rusty scissors buried with them, which they bought so dearly. In a wood near by, on the brow of a ravine, there is a row of hollow corn-pits where the Caughnawaga people stored their charred corn. Low down in the fertile river-flats, southward from the ancient village site, a sunburned farmer, owner of both hill and valley, still works with horses and with iron implements the very corn-fields that the squaws hoed with clumsy bone-tools. This once castled height breaks abruptly on its eastern side to let the Cayudutta Creek wind through. It hurries by on its way to meet the Mohawk, and then lags through the flat, lost to sight just long enough to pass round the skirts of the Ta-berg, or Tea Mountain. This in a grassy cone topped with pines, and so named by Dutch settlers who there in wartimes made a tea from a wild plant. It partly blocks the entrance to the pretty Cayudutta valley, and separates it from the modern town of Fonda; but the farmers’ daughters and the village people who now live in sight of Fonda Court House know well the little valley of the Cayudutta. Any one of them can point out its brightest gem, the never failing spring that issues from a set-back in the hill and so regular in shape as to suggest an amphitheatre. This spring wells out from under an old stump hidden in a clump of trees, whose topmost branches are below the level of the castle site. Its waters rest a moment in a little shady pool, a round forest mirror; then brimming over, break away and wander down the steep descent to the creek. The path to the spring leads downward from the higher ground above it, known as the Sand Flats. The field where the castle stood is now often planted thick with grain; but when this has been cut and the ground again ploughed, the Indian relics are readily found. At any season of the year, however, the limpid spring that has not ceased to flow for centuries will serve to indicate the spot.

The Mohawk Valley from Fonday, New York, Tekakwitha's Birthplace in the DistanceStanding then, at the brink of this spring in the Mohawk Valley, let the reader cast a look backward, and over the intervening space of two hundred years, to the days of Tekakwitha. Let it be understood, however, that while the imaginative faculty is thus to be called into play, it is not for the contemplation of an imaginative but of a real character. For whatever side lights may color the narrative, they are used to bring out, not to impair, the picture. Many details of time and place, of manners and customs, of dress and the arts of industry, will be woven into an actual scene, rather than given in a tedious enumeration.

The scene about to be described and others which follow depicting the early life of Tekakwitha are not to be found actually recorded in so many words in the history of her life and times, yet they must have occurred; for they are based on the known facts of her life as related in various official and private documents, together with such inferences only as may fairly and reasonably be drawn from those facts when brought under the strong light of contemporaneous records.

Above the spring at Fonda, on the high plateau where is now the well-tilled farm, stood, two centuries ago, the log-built palisades of ancient Caughnawaga. In tall and close-set ranks they serve to hide from view and shield from ambush the long, low Indian houses, twenty-four in number. “Double stockaded round, with four ports,” as when the traveller Greenhalgh saw the place in 1677, “and a bow-shot from the river,” stands the strong Mohawk castle. The blackened stumps that now dot the sunny hillside of the Cayudutta change into the old-time, mighty forest, and present a scene that is full of life; for down a well-worn footpath come the Indian girls to fill their jugs at the spring, – afterwards to be known as Tekakwitha’s Spring.

These dusky Caughnawaga maidens have the well-known Indian features strongly marked, – the high cheek bones, the dull red skin, and soft dark eyes; but Tekakwitha shields hers with her blanket from the light. Unlike the rest, there is an air of thoughtfulness about her and a touch of mystery. Excessive shyness in the Lily of the Mohawks is strangely blended with a sympathetic nature; and with a quiet force of character she leads their chatter, half unconsciously, to channels of her own choosing.

“A manuscript of the time,” says Shea, “describes the Indian maiden with her well-oiled and neatly parted hair descending in a long plait behind, while a fine chemise was met at the waist by a neat and well-trimmed petticoat reaching to the knee; below this was the rich legging and then the well-fitted moccasin, the glory of an Iroquois belle. The neck was loaded with beads, while the crimson blanket enveloped the whole form.”

This, in general, is the costume of the merry group with Tekakwitha at the spring. The upper garment, however, is a kind of tunic or simple overdress; nor can it be said that all are equally neat in their appearance. Some have their dark, straight hair tied loosely back and hanging down, or else with wampum braided in it. A few are clothed in foreign stuff, bought from the Dutch for beaver-skins and worn in shapeless pieces hung about them with savage carelessness. On their dark arms the sunlight flashes back from heavily beaded wrist and arm bands, begged or borrowed from their more industrious companions. Not like theirs is Tekakwitha’s costume. It is made of deer and moose skins, – all of native make, and stitched together by a practised hand, as every one of the pretty squaws well knew. Her needle was a small bone from the ankle of the deer, her thread the sinews of the same light-footed animal, whose brain she mixed with moss and used to tan the skins and make the soft brown leather which she shaped so deftly into tunic, moccasins, and leggings. Her own skirt was scarce so richly worked with quills of the porcupine as that of her adopted sister there beside her, though both were made by Tekakwitha’s hands.

The Indian girls about her like her for her generous nature and her merry, witty speeches. She makes them laugh right heartily while she stands waiting for her jug to fill up at the trickling spring.

These daughters of the Iroquois are bubbling over with good spirits, and their pottery jugs with water, when all at once they spy a band of hunters coming homeward down the Cayudutta valley from the Sacondaga country. Knowing there is one among them who but waits his chance to lay his wealth of beaver-skins at Tekakwitha’s feet and take her for his wife, they turn girl-like to tease her; but the quick and timid orphan, dreading the license of their tongues, has bounded up the hill, and hastens to her uncle’s cabin with her jug, leaving her companions to bandy words with the young hunters as they stop beside the little pool for a draught of refreshing water.

Of all the people in the ancient Caughnawaga village, the only story that has been written out in full and handed down in precious manuscript, brown with age, is the story of her who bounded up the hill and left her comrades at the spring. In a double sense she left them. She was far above them. She stands to-day upon a mystic height; and many, both of her race and our own in these our days, do homage to her memory.

May her home at Caughnawaga, high above the stones that lie embedded in the Mohawk River, and close beside the spring that trickles downward to the Cayudutta,4 soon become familiar ground to all who honor Tekakwitha!

  1. The Indian forts or palisaded villages, called “castles” by the early Dutch settlers of New York State, were stoutly built of logs and bark, and were effectual barriers of defence until the artillery of the white men was brought to bear upon them.
  2. Megapolensis, the Dutch dominie at Fort Orange, who befriended Jogues, the French Jesuit, in his captivity, writes the name of this Mohawk town or castle, Asserue or Asserne. It was just at the spot where a shrine has been recently elected to honor the memory of Isaac Jogues and of his companion Réné Goupil, both of whom were tomahawked in that vicinity by the Mohawks.
  3. Jogues’ Indian name.
  4. See Appendix, Note A, where in a letter dated March 3, 1885, General John S. Clark, of Auburn, New York, the well-known archaeologist, mentions this spring as marking the site of Gandawague (or Caughnawaga) on the Cayudutta Creek, northwest of Fonda, New York. For date of the removal from Auriesville to that site, see his letter of 29 June 1885, also given in Note A, with other proofs as to the location of Mohawk villages at the time of Jogues and Tekakwitha.