American Folklore and Cultural Knowledge: ‘The Building May Perish, but the Thought, the Legend, Lives On’

The Legends of the Nittany Valley feature only a small sampling of the total number of indigenous American Indian and Anglo-European settler legends collected or written by Henry W. Shoemaker, the first official Pennsylvania state folklorist. While folklore itself has been a part of the human experience from our earliest days, the formal study of folklore remains relatively new. Penn State has been a leader at the intersection of American literature and folklore, with Penn State’s Folklore Studies Program launched in 1972. Folklore and the passing along of oral traditions, legends, and stories—tales where fact, fiction, and memory converge—remains an essential part of every culture. Henry Shoemaker delivered the following address, entitled “The Importance of Collecting Indian Legends,” before the Twenty-second Annual Convention of Keystone Library Association in Altoona, Pennsylvania on October 26, 1922.

Miss MacDonald, Ladies and Gentleman:

I rather suppose that this topic was assigned to me as it relates to a subject that does not cause added work for librarians, and takes the seekers afield rather than to the bookshelves. After the legends are compiled and gotten into books, they find their way to the libraries and take their place alongside the works of science, art, general literature and fiction. It is hard to think that the work of collecting Indian legends in Pennsylvania has been only so sparingly attempted, that the vast bulk of the tales are no doubt now gone beyond recall. The history of the Indian tribes whose members had inhabited our native state for centuries, was in oral form, and handed down by them to the first white settlers, some of whom were adopted or married into the tribes. These pioneers in turn passed them on to their descendants, from generation to generation, with no thought of ever publishing them, until the present day of machinery and rush and roar came on, and interest in quiet moments around the inglenook ceased and many Indian legends found an apotheosis of oblivion.

It would be strange if librarians of library attendants counselled would-be readers of Indian lore and colonial history to go out and try their hands at collecting some similar information first hand; yet that they could do and to the future benefit of the history of the state, after their readers had absorbed all the published history available. Collecting history is only a form of constructive reading, putting to the best account the training and order gained by patronage of libraries. It is the fruit of the tree, so to speak, of the history student, also a relaxation for the historical bookworm.

Your speaker has always been fond of the study of the history of all countries, yet too much of it hardly brought a proper relaxation from the ardors of a business life, so he has gradually evolved himself into a collector at first hand of Indian legends, folk-lore, ghost stories, old songs, old proverbs, hunting tales, stories of the old lumbering and rafting days and the like. For instance, last Sunday afternoon, in the beautiful atmosphere of an early Indian summer calm, he drove from his home, up among the hills, to a comfortable mountain cabin, to secure the words of two ancient ballads, which he had heard sung during the summer, in a more or less fragmentary form. One of them surely goes back to the eighteenth century; the other is of the last century, but both seem worthy of preservation, if they are not already in print somewhere. Reading good books stimulates the taste for research and original compilation. Without libraries there would be no incentive to trace out the stuff of which books are made.

The Indian history of Pennsylvania is at best fragmentary. Probably Dr. Donehoo, our gifted State Librarian, knows more of it than any other man. Doubtless some so-called Indian history is legend, but there are hosts of legends which do not come anywhere near to history, and are within the reach of everyone and anyone who desires to recover them. There is no closed season on legends. You can hunt them twelve months in the year, and the best ones are found — contrary to game laws — after dark, when the lamplight and the firelight make the old people mellow and responsive. It would be truly wonderful, in your speaker’s estimation, if a collection of old-time legends or folk-lore could be collection in the vicinity of every town where there is a library. Possibly much of it might never find its way into print or into the hands of a publisher, but in manuscript form, deposited with a discerning librarian, it would be safe for the years to come, and a valuable corollary to the local history. And it would need not be limited to one manuscript. There could be a dozen or a score, or as many as there are seekers after the old-time romances. The lives and loves of our Indian ancestors — we say this with a full knowledge, for there is much of Indian blood in many of us; more than some suspect — are worthy of knowing more of. The stories are startling, especially when they come to us by the merest chance. The other day your speaker received a letter from a lady residing in the western part of the state, who desired to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but her supposed bar sinister was an unnamed Indian ancestress. The story she told was a pitiful one; later generations, risen in affluence and social position, had felt ashamed of this strain of aboriginal blood to the extent that they had even obliterated the Indian woman’s name from all the family records. Yet was not she an indispensable link in joining the Daughters of the American Revolution? The lady thought your speaker was an “authority” on Indian legends, and could identify this particular Indian female by the tale which she unfolded. It appeared that a family of sturdy pioneers who settled on the upper reaches of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River had a son who became enamored of a beautiful Indian maid, who camped in the neighborhood of their clearing. The family strenuously opposed their son’s union with a so-called “savage” to such an extent that he fell into a decline and apparently died. He was laid out in his best suit of clothes and in due season buried. The faithful Indian maid, who watched his demise from a respectful distance, possessed serious doubts that his spirit had taken flight. “Only a love trance,” said she; “one never really dies of love; there must be life still.” The night after the funeral the brave girl crept out to the little hillside cemetery, which overlooks the West Branch, and by the light of the moon, like a harpy or a vampire, crouching there, dug up the unfortunate lover in his best suit of broadcloth — or whatever it was they wore in those remote pioneer days. By blowing her breath into his lungs, she brought him back to consciousness; so much so that they were able to walk hand in hand back to his parents’ cabin and enjoy a good breakfast. After this startling episode the grateful old folks relented and the resurrected lover was married to his devoted Indian sweetheart, attired in the same black suit in which he had been laid out for burial. It seems tragical that later generations forgot their very debt of being to the Indian girl and erased her name from the family Bibles and albums. Let us hope that it will come to light, for no less an antiquarian than the venerable John H. Chatham, Bard, Naturalist and Historian of Central Pennsylvania, has undertaken the task of unravelling the skeins of this tangled romance. Does anyone present know this Indian maiden’s name? Dr. Walker L. Stephen, brilliant herbal naturalist of Reading, in an address this past summer to members of the Williamsport Garden Club, which was attended by several librarians now in this audience, told an Indian legend of Berks County which did not have such a happy ending. A young pioneer girl along the Blue Mountains had been left to guard the younger children while her parents journeyed to a distant part of the county. It was after the Indian invasions of 1755 and 1763, but it was deemed prudent always to have a loaded rifle and discharge it at an Indian who came within gunshot.

One night the dog barked, and, looking out of the window, the girl perceived what seemed to be a redskin moving stealthily among the waving tassels of the corn field. Satisfied that he intended to murder, pillage and burn, she coolly took aim and with a howl of pain a big Indian leaped into the air and fell down among the cornstalks. She left him there moaning softly until morning, when she ran several miles to the nearest neighbor, who hurried back to scalp the bold and wicked savage. They found him dead and cold, but by the side of him lay a small earthen pot of honey, overturned, which told the story. Once a year the Indians visited their mother’s graves to place a pot of honey on them to sustain their spirits while they waited for the canoe which some day would carry them across the broad water to the distant shore where all is as it should be and where there is eternal sunshine and reunions. Evidently the Indian’s mother was buried in that cornfield, so they dug a grave for him there, and perhaps, after all, in death he was the victor, for instead of dying on the Ohio or Eau Claire, he would rest forever close to his beloved mother. Such is the pathos and touching interest of the Indian legends that can be had for the asking from the grand, good old people of highland and lowland Pennsylvania. There are tales that would serve as plots for novels or historical romances—shall they be allowed to lapse and languish, or can they be garnered?

What is unrecorded history today may fill the library bookshelves of tomorrow, so that this outdoor world of legends is only the librarian’s workshop.

The librarians, though they handle the finished product of the historian’s perseverance and skill, may still have a hand in bringing in the raw materials. This means a closer co-operation with influences outside and apart from the library walls, a broadening of the sphere of influence of library extension. It is the outside, legendary oral form of human annals that lasts longest. How sad to stand within the four roofless walls of a ruined library such as the one at Timgad, in Mauritania. Not a vestige of book or manuscript or parchment left. Only the tablet of pink marble telling of the donor’s business successes and his generosity in giving it to the city—now all dead and still these two thousand years. Yet the history of Timgad lives on among the wild tribesmen in the surrounding hills and in books and manuscripts thousands of miles away. The building may perish, but the thought, the legend, lives on. It is hard to blot out a thought once launched. It is dangerous to launch a bad one. Let us hope that this modest inspiration or thought, now expressed, to collect more of our unwritten history of Pennsylvania, will open up new and happy channels of research and indirectly create wider opportunities for the use and benefits of libraries and the able and cultured men and women who direct their destinies.

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