The Signal Tree

THE LAND was shaped and ready for men ... real men.

The Indians of the Cuyahoga valley came in two waves. The second wave will seem almost contemporaneous, so much more recent and vivid than the first. There are men alive today in northeastern Ohio who can bring out old letters from great-grandparents they remember, letters speaking of workaday relationships with Senecas, Mohawks, Wyandots, Ottawas, and Delawares.

However, before these tribes came, the Cuyahoga valley belonged to a grand and ancient race so remote in time that not even the names of their greatest men come down to us. They are vague in our texts and museums. Yet there remains a mystic and living link which thrills the blood if the mood is right. If you drive Peck Road in Cuyahoga Falls to the Goudy Farm, you come to the Signal Tree. Youíll know it immediately, for I do not believe you will ever have seen one like it anywhere. Correction - you may have seen one in a public park.

It probably canít last much longer; parts of it are already dead, and you can see where it has shed dead limbs before. The sap flows to parts of it through a hollowed trunk. This tree has a massive four-foot trunk like other multi-hundred-year-old white oaks you have seen. But at the very base, growing out horizontally on either side, are two massive arms. Symmetrically they grow out perhaps 13 feet, then both make a sharp right-angle upturn and grow straight up alongside the main trunk.

This three-pronged oaken candelabrum marked the Indian trail to the Old Portage Path. And as you stare, you get an uncommonly strong relationship to another time and another race of men and women.

You know that tree was made in only one way. An Indian had to reach down to a small triple-shooted oak sapling, break the two side branches just so, and bind them in elbow position, but what will take your breath: That same tree which was alive when the Indian touched it is partly alive today when you touch it. It is the strongest sensation of a handshake across hundreds of years. Of course, the handshake from us might not be returned.

The Cuyahoga valley is an Indian story, but a sad one.

Long before real white settlement began along the river, the French Jesuits found an intelligent and powerful people along the south shore of the lake which they named for them - the Eries.

The specialists who can read bones today say these Indians were a tall, gaunt and handsome people. The men who can read artifacts say they were formidable in war. Those who can read shrines say they were not inclined toward worship of any gods, but that they had the gentleness of undisputed power.

Though they fronted the entire south shore of the lake, the Cuyahoga valley walls centered their civilization. Whoever owned the Cuyahoga valley controlled the Portage Path, the driest and most direct path south to the head of the Tuscarawas on which men could float to the Ohio, thence to the Mississippi and the Gulf. Just south of the Portage, moreover, lay 64 small lakes for bass, pickerel, fowl, elk, and bison.

The steep banks of the Cuyahoga gave the Eries foundations for fortifications, watchtowers and signal stations. They were Indians who built rather complex works, planned for war. One sign is that just west of what is now Akron, in the middle of the Copley Swamp, was Fort Island. On it they built what was obviously their defense line against major attack. And such an attack did come.

About two miles south, on the west side of that swamp, they built a stone signal light on the highest rise. The Jesuit journals report that this signal could be seen the length of the Portage and from Fort Island and from the highlands of what is now Wadsworth, also from Kointown, a capital village of the Eries.

From Kointown, the Erie fortifications ran south by west through Richland County, all in communication with the Kointown signal light tower. Another signal fire north at Point Lookout was visible, the Jesuits believed, from the mouth of the Cuyahoga. Standing on the ground myself, I must assume this meant only that a reflection against low clouds was visible in certain weather. But the report does appear in several places and seems accepted without demur by scholars.

The Eries placed their forts at the heads of streams, and their village walls were always about ten feet high with pickets on top.

Fathers LeMoyne, Claude Dablon, and two other Jesuits left us our principal eyewitness records. They listed 28 Erie villages and 12 fort towns, and these contained an estimated population of 12,000, of which 4,000 were believed to be warriors. They had the confidence and power of entrenched people, for they had apparently lived along this shore for 300 years when a major and brutal war suddenly burst upon them.

When a few Jesuits came through their country, the Eries refused their Christian religion, but learned some of their language.

Watching from Canada, the English were fearful of a race possessed of so many virtues, not the least of which was understanding French. They were also nervous because the Eries held so aloof, preserving a strong nationalism. The British therefore distributed guns to their own allies, natural enemies of the Eries - the formidable Five Nations, the upper New York State Indians: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onandagas, Cayugas, and Senecas.

The mission was to destroy the Eries.

The Five Nations mounted a massive attack out of New York along the south shore of Lake Erie, debouching from Conneaut. They had three advantages, a vast force of 40,000, the big thunder of firearms, and recent fighting experience.

Using their canoes as scaling ladders, they stormed the Erie forts, swarming over the walls. The opening engagements were brutal and swift. Apparently hundreds of Erie prisoners were taken. For decades after the initial assault, Jesuit priests wrote in their journals of the burning of Erie prisoners in the Five Nationsí villages. It has been reported that they let the child prisoners grow up, and then burned them year by year.

Fort after Erie fort fell along the lake in the first year, and then the war settled down to a grinding drive up the Erieís last-ditch bastion, the Cuyahoga. Of course the Eries could always have run south. But artifacts lining the Cuyahoga valley tell of a tree-to-tree grudging withdrawal, consuming years. Erie babies grew to warriors during this long retreat.

The cataclysmic last stand took place on an open plain below Copley Swamp.

Some Eries escaped, but their defeat was so complete that no major Five Nationsí occupation force remained along the Cuyahoga; yet islands of Senecas and Ottawas did remain. And some Delawares came up from the south.

These Indians, much better known to us, were loosely grouped under the leadership of an Indian named Seneca. Before these Indians really became involved in living with the settlers along the Cuyahoga, they had an opportunity to watch the white manís treatment of a special group of Delawares who entered the Cuyahoga valley.

To the mouth of the Cuyahoga, in 1786, came a most unusual Indian pilgrimage.

Two ruddy German missionaries, David Zeisberger and John Heckwelder, had converted a band of Delawares to Moravian Christianity down on the Muskingum River. Although history loudly commends these two missionaries for arming the Indians with Christianity, Chief Seneca, with considerable justice, pointed out that they actually disarmed the Indians. The Moravian Indians became scorned by their own cousins who drove them off the Muskingum. They returned, only to be sadly defeated.

The survivors regrouped with Zeisberger and Heckwelder 200 trail miles away on the banks of the Sandusky River from which they were again driven out by Delawares.

Zeisberger and Heckwelder have been nearly canonized leading the Moravian Indians to the Cuyahoga, whence they hoped they would ultimately return to the Muskingum. But these missionaries were no heroes to Seneca.

The sick and aging Moravians were floated into the mouth of the Cuyahoga on the Northwest Fur Companyís vessel, Mackinaw. The physically fit made their way on foot overland.

While the two bands of Delawares camped at the mouth of the Cuyahoga, Zeisberger set out south to find a more protected site. In two days he returned and led the sad procession to the mouth of beautiful Tinkerís Creek where it enters the Cuyahoga south of present-day Independence. The ruins of an abandoned Ottawa town were visible here. The Moravians moved in, made improvements and called the settlement Pilgerrh.

Then word went all the way up to the head of the Cuyahoga that a band of hymn-chanting Delawares was taking the leavings of the Ottawas and, instead of building a watchtower and picket wall, were building a church, the first on the river.

The leadership, to whom history has been so kind, now performed strangely. Heckwelder and Zeisberger had previously accepted gifts of rations and clothes from other Moravian missions farther east in more civilized Pennsylvania. But now they felt they had imposed on these other missions, and before their own Moravian Indians had a chance to harvest their first yearís crops, they had become nearly destitute for food.

The U.S. Congress voted them 500 bushels of corn but it was shipped in error to Fort McIntosh on the Muskingum. In October, Heckwelder left Zeisberger in charge and returned East in answer to a call to do other Moravian work. In November, Zeisberger was sick and a young assistant, referred to as Brother Williams, inherited the leadership.

The Moravians completed the construction of the chapel. Then in the month we call December, three militiamen rode up from Cincinnati to inform the Moravians that they were on soil belonging to Connecticut.

When the snow thawed, the Moravians moved again, but not to the Muskingum, because friends among the Delawares there warned them away. The Delawares would not risk the continuation of this kind of missionary work.

Seneca and his Indians along the Cuyahoga watched all with contempt. There was an especially good reason for their distrust, however, of the whites. While it is true that some of the first white men to reach the Cuyahoga were peaceful missionaries and commercial fur traders, most whites going as far west as the Cuyahoga were that quasi-military breed of Indian hunters and scouts of changing allegiance.

There was a type of frontiersman who served importantly in the development of the nation almost by accident. High motives have been attributed to these men, and they were indeed heroic. However, they could rightfully be called professional Indian haters. They served as scouts, runners, informers, and military officers, but their official status was generally vague. Like Revolutionary War Capt. Samuel Brady they each seemed motivated by personal or family injury from Indians.

These were lonely men who had suffered much from the Indians in a thin wave of prefrontier exploration. They became Indian killers like Simon Girty, Captain Brady, Captain Delawn Mills of Portage County, Jonathan Williams of Deerfield.

One of the fiercest of these men was Captain Brady. He is already a part of the story of the American frontier; but, especially in one particular weekís work, he became famous in the Cuyahoga story.