While many of the narratives of preternatural events recounted by Clark, Schoolcraft and others, in which the name of Hiawatha occurs, are merely adaptations of older myths relating to primitive Iroquois or Algonkin deities, there are a few which are actual traditions,
though much confused and distorted, of incidents that really occurred. Among these is the story told by Clark, of the marvelous bird by which Hiawatha's only daughter was destroyed. Longfellow has avoided all reference to this preposterous tale; but to Mr. Clark, if we may judge from the fullness and solemnity with which he has recorded it, it appeared very impressive. 1 According to his narrative, when the great convention assembled at the summons of Hiawatha, to form the league of the Five Nations, he came to it in company with his darling and only daughter, a girl of twelve. Suddenly a loud rushing sound was heard. A dark spot appeared in the sky. Hiawatha warned his daughter to be prepared for the coming doom from the Great Spirit, and she meekly bowed in resignation. The dark spot, rapidly descending, became an immense bird, which, with long and pointed beak and wide-extended wings, swept down upon the beautiful girl, and crushed her to atoms. Many other incidents are added, and we are told, what we might well believe, that the hero's grief for the loss so suddenly and frightfully inflicted upon him was intense and long protracted.
That a story related with so much particularity should be utterly without foundation did not appear probable. It seemed not unlikely that a daughter of Hiawatha might have been killed at some public meeting, either accidentally or purposely, and possibly by an Indian belonging to one of the bird clans, the Snipe, the Heron, or the Crane. But further inquiry showed that even this conjecture involved more of what may be styled mythology than the simple facts called for. The Onondaga chiefs on the Canadian Reserve, when asked if they had heard anything about a strange bird causing the death of Hiawatha's daughter, replied at once that the event was well known. As they related it, the occurrence became natural and intelligible. It formed, indeed, a not unimportant link in the chain of events which led to the establishment of the confederacy. The catastrophe, for such it truly was, took place not at the great assembly which met for the formation of the league, but at one of the Onondaga councils which were convened prior to that meeting, and before Hiawatha had fled to the Caniengas. The council was held in an open plain, encircled by a forest, near which temporary lodges had been
erected for the Councillors and their attendants. Hiawatha was present, accompanied by his daughter, the last surviving member of his family. She was married, but still lived with her father, after the custom of the people; for the wife did not join her husband in his own home until she had borne him a child. The discussions had lasted through the day, and at nightfall the people retired to their lodges. Hiawatha's daughter had been out, probably with other women, into the adjacent woods, to gather their light fuel of dry sticks for cooking. She was great with child, and moved slowly, with her faggot, across the sward. An evil eye was upon her. Suddenly the loud voice of Atotarho was heard, shouting that a strange bird was in the air, and bidding one of his best archers shoot it. The archer shot, and the bird fell. A sudden rush took place from all quarters toward it, and in the rush Hiawatha's daughter was thrown down and trampled to death. No one could prove that Atotarho had planned this terrible blow at his great adversary, but no one doubted it. Hiawatha's grief was profound; but it was then, according to the tradition of the Canadian Onondagas,--when the last tie of kindred which bound him to his own people was broken,--that the idea occurred to him of seeking aid among the eastern nations. 1
Clark's informants also told him much about a snow-white canoe in which Hiawatha-or, rather, Ta-oun-ya-wa-tha-made his first appearance to human eyes. In this canoe the demigod was seen on Lake Ontario, approaching the shore at Oswego. In it he ascended the river and its various branches, removing all obstructions,
and destroying all enemies, natural and preternatural. And when his work was completed by the establishment of the League, the hero, in his human form of Hiawatha, seated himself in this canoe, and ascended in it to heaven, amid "the sweetest melody of celestial music."
The nucleus and probable origin of this singular story is perhaps to be found in the simple fact that Hiawatha, after his flight from the Onondagas, made his appearance among the Caniengas a solitary voyager, in a canoe, in which he had floated down the Mohawk river. The canoes of the Caniengas were usually made of elm-bark, the birch not being common in their country. If Hiawatha, as is not unlikely, had found or constructed a small canoe of birch-bark on the upper waters of the stream, and used it for his voyage to the Canienga town, it might naturally attract some attention. The great celebrity and high position which he soon attained, and the important work which he accomplished, would cause the people who adopted him as a chief to look back upon all the circumstances of his first arrival among them with special interest. That the canoe was preserved till his death, and that he was buried in it, amid funeral wails and mournful songs from a vast multitude, such as had never before lamented a chief of the Kanonsionni, may be deemed probable enough; and in these or some similar events we may look for the origin of this beautiful myth, which reappears, with such striking effect, in the closing scene of Longfellow's poem.
181:1 "Onondaga," Vol. I, p. 25.
182:1 This account of the events which immediately preceded Hiawatha's flight differs somewhat from the narrative which I received from the New York Onondagas, as recorded in the Introduction (p. 22). The difference, however, is not important; and possibly, if it had occurred to me to inquire of these latter informants about the incident of the bird, I might have heard from them particulars which would have brought the two versions of the story still nearer to accord. The notable fact is that the reports of a tradition preserved for four hundred years, in two divisions of a broken tribe, which have been widely separated for more than a century, should agree so closely in all important particulars. Such concurrence of different chroniclers in the main narrative of an event, with some diversity in the details, is usually regarded as the best evidence of the truth of the history.