|"Mud Pond in the foreground and pristine Onota Lake beyond...."
Photo Credit: Walking Man 24 7
Writing to Nathaniel Hawthorne on October 25, 1852, Herman Melville recommended the new book by "Godfrey Greylock":
If you come across a little book called "Taughconic"—look into it and divert yourself with it. Among others, you figure in it, & I also. But you are the most honored, being the most abused, and having the greatest space allotted you.— It is a "Guide Book" to Berkshire. --Melville's Correspondence
Godfrey Greylock was the pseudonym of J. E. A. Smith. As noted in a previous post, Taghconic connects the romantic natural setting of Lake Onota with Indian lore about sacred white deer. The 1852 Taghconic volume is too late to be a source for Melville's 1850 essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," but Melville's metaphor of Truth as a "scared white doe" or "sacred white doe" seems informed by the same local knowledge and traditions of Berkshire County in western Massachusetts.
Text below is from Taghconic (Boston, 1852) by Godfrey Greylock [J. E. A. Smith]. Both the 1852 edition and revised 1879 edition are digitized by Google Books and available in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
... It was this point which the Indians called Onota, whence the earlier settlers extended the name to the whole lake. There are a couple of legends about this Onota, perhaps worth the telling. The first is well authenticated, and the other not improbable, as legends go.
Legend of the White Deer.
There is hardly a country where a deer ever trod in which there does not linger some legend of one or more of these graceful animals, either wholly or in part of a supernatural whiteness. It is a fancy which seems to spring spontaneously in the rich soil of a woodman's imagination. The "White Doe of Rylston," and Bryant's "White-footed Deer," will occur to every one, as instances of the use to which these traditions have been put in poetry. Traditions with very similar incidents and catastrophies are said to exist in almost every tribe of North American Indians, and among others, those of the Housatonic valley.
A gentleman tells me that in the "old witch times," there were no firmer believers in supernaturalisms than the people who lived about Onota; one of whom was his own grandfather. This worthy old gentleman—dead long since, but then a middle-aged man—coming in from an unsuccessful hunt, saw a white deer stooping down to drink, at Point Onota. Instantly his rifle was at his shoulder, but, before he could pull the trigger, his dog howled and the startled deer disappeared.
The marvellous story of the White Deer immediately occurred to him, and it entered into his head that his dog was bewitched, or rather that an old hag who lived in the neighboring woods had assumed the shape of the dog—which, among other devilish freaks, she had the dangerous reputation of being able to do. With never a doubt, therefore, that he was all the while belaboring the old witch, our disappointed hunter belabored his poor beast until the woods howled again. This done, he posted away to the cabin of the old crone and demanded that she should show him her back, on which he did not doubt he should find the marks of the blows he had inflicted upon his miserable hound. Of course the old lady was in a tempest of wrath when she learned the errand of her visitor; and it is believed my friend's grandfather made a retreat more discreet than valiant, under a shower of blows from that notorious article of household furniture which was supposed to serve its mistress the double purpose of a broom by day and an aerial steed by night, and which now answered another very excellent turn.
Another gentleman, to whom I mentioned this anecdote, tells me an aboriginal legend of this same White Deer.
" Long before the Englishmen set foot in the Housatonic valley," he said, " the Indians used to notice a deer, of complete and spotless white, which came often, in the Summer and Autumn months, to drink at Onota. Against this gentle creature no red man's arrow was ever pointed; for, in their simple faith, they believed that with her light and airy step she brought good fortune to the dwellers in the valley. 'So long,' the prophecy ran, 'So long as the snow white doe comes to drink at Onota, so long famine shall not blight the Indian's harvest, nor pestilence come nigh his lodge, nor foemen lay waste his country.' In the graceful animal the tribe recognized and loved their good genius. He among them who dared to harm her would have met swift punishment as a sacriligious wretch and traitor."
Thus protected by the love of her simple friends, year after year, soon as the white blossoms clothed the cherry, the sacred deer came to drink at her chosen fountain; bringing good omens to all, and especially to the maiden who first espied her glittering brightly among the foliage. Finally she brought with her a fawn, if possible, of more faultless purity and grace than herself; and that year more than the usual plenty and happiness reigned round the lake. Not long after this, the first French and Indian war broke out, and a young French officer — Montalbert by name — was sent to incite the Housatonic Indians to join in the league against the English Colonies.
In his sacred character as an ambassador he was welcomed to their lodges, had a seat at their council fire, and listened eagerly to their wild and marvellous tales. Among others he heard the story of the "White Deer; and however incredulous of her sanctity, sufficiently admired the descriptions of her beauty. Among those reckless and ambitious adventurers who set up the standard of France in Canada, it was a passion to carry away some wonderful trophy of the forest domain, to lay at the feet of their sovereign. Even the persons of the savages had thus been presented at the Court of Versailles, and royal favor had not been niggard in rewarding the donors of the more unique and costly trophies of barbaric splendor.
It was for such reasons that an uncontrollable desire to possess the skin of the White Deer took possession of Montalbert. He already enjoyed, in imagination, the reward which could not fail him who brought so rare and beautiful a peltry to the splendid Louis.
Not fully aware of the veneration which the Deer received from the natives, he first offered liberal rewards to the hunter who should bring to him the coveted spoil. For half the proffered price the chiefs would, perhaps, have alienated their fairest hunting-grounds; but the proposition to destroy their sacred Deer was received with utter horror and indignation. It was gently hinted to Montalbert that a repetition of the offer might ensure him the fate he designed for the Deer.
But the Frenchman was not of a nature to be so baffled. He had noticed that one of the native warriors— Wondo, by name — was already debased by the use of the white man's fire-water, of which Montalbert possessed a large supply. Concealing his purposes for a time, the adventurer sought out this Wondo, and shortly contrived to foment the poor fellow's appetite to such a degree that he became the absolute slave of whoever had it in his power to minister to his desires.
When the hunter was thought to be sufficiently besotted, Montalbert ventured to propose to him a plan to secure the skin of the White Deer. Depraved as he had become, Wondo at first recoiled from the thought, but appetite at length prevailed and he yielded to the tempter.
Years of unmolested security had rendered the Deer so confident in the friendship of man that when at last treachery came, she proved an easy victim. Before conscience could awaken in the sacrilegious hunter, the gentle animal was taken and slain, and the illgotten fur was in the possession of the white man.
No sooner had Montalbert secured his prize than, concealing it in his baggage, he set out for Montreal; but the legend hints that he never reached the French border, and the beautiful skin of the Indians' sacred Deer never added to the splendors of French royalty.
Among the natives, the impious slaughter was not suspected until the fire-water of the slayer was expended, and a returning consciousness compelled him to confess his deed of horror, and to meet the speedy vengeance which atoned for it.
Long and earnest were the supplications which the frightened natives sent up to the Great Spirit, that He would avert from the tribe the punishment due to such a crime; but the prosperity of the tribe never again was what it had been, and its numbers slowly wasted away.
Yet it is said that when they had become very few and feeble, a white deer again came to drink at Onota, and that same year the Missionary, Sergeant, first proclaimed the truths of the christian gospel among these hills, and the red Indian learned to know the white man's God.
There are many hints of dim legends like these about Onota, — both of the early settlers and their predecessors. One, who at this day looks upon its beautiful scenery and breathes its pure air, can well feel why life used to cluster thickly around its shores.
--Taghconic; or Letters and Legends about our Summer Home at Hathi Trust Digital Library1852 Taghconic, catalog record at Hathi Trust
1879 Taghconic, catalog record at Hathi Trust (revised subtitle: The Romance and Beauty of the Hills)
Related posts on Melvilliana:
- Forced to fly: Dryden's Hind and Melville's doe