Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Old Indian Path

Several weeks ago, in that odd season between the end of winter and the beginning of spring, after the last snow had melted but before wildflowers and tree leaves had broken bud, I decided to take a hike through history on the old trail over Bald Eagle Mountain.

Centuries ago Native Americans regularly traveled long distances, in our area from what we now call Chesapeake Bay to central New York’s Finger Lakes and beyond. Apparently there were regular journeys of many hundreds and even thousands of miles. Stone artifacts whose origin can be determined have been found at long distances from where they were initially obtained.

There was an extensive network of trails regularly used to make these journeys to both trade and raid. In our area most of the trails followed the river or major streams – the terrain was easier, there was more food available and semi-permanent villages as well as temporarily occupied sites were located there.

The river has some major bends in its course so that actually following the river would sometimes entail a long walk to not get very far. In those situations people on foot often took shortcuts across the intervening landscape.

One of those shortcuts went up and over the ridge – a climb of almost 1,200 vertical feet, followed by a descent of 400 feet into a high valley, then up 200 feet to a saddle in another ridge and finally a descent of 1,100 feet down to the river. The shortcut would have taken about nine miles off the journey between two points along the river.
The old path in the high valley
Before and after the American Revolution a large number of settlers moved into the area; a gristmill was built where a stream at the northern terminus of the shortcut entered the river. Settlers in the big valley south of the ridge began using the old Native American path up and over the ridge. Grain was taken to the gristmill on packhorses and the ground product returned the same way.

At lower elevations the old path was widened enough over the years that it could accommodate wagons, but up on the ridges and in the high valley there’s no evidence that it has ever been anything other than a path for humans and horses. The county history that was written in 1892 mentions the old path and goes on to say that “It was a famous path in Indian times and was much traveled, and over it many white prisoners, including women and children, were hurried along into captivity.   

Today in places the old path is hard to follow in dense head-high patches of mountain laurel. But, on the ridgetops and in the high valley hikers and hunters have kept it open and it’s easy to follow. Worn deep in places, it’s a reminder of days and people long gone, an interesting hike, and an entry into some remote country.

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