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.AN INDIAN TRAIL
IT was a strange coincidence. A farmer living near by employed an Indian from the school at Carlisle, and now that the work of the summer was over, this taciturn youth walked daily over a hill to a school-house more than a mile away, and the path leading to it was an Indian trail.
Not long since I met the lad on this very path returning from school, and when he passed I stood by an old oak and watched him until lost among the trees, walking where centuries ago his people had walked when going from the mountain village and rock shelters along an inland creek to the distant town by the river.
As you looked about from the old oak there was no public road or house in sight; nothing but trees and bushes, huge rocks, and one curious jutting ledge that tradition holds is a veritable relic of prehistoric time, — a place where council fires were lit and midnight meetings held.
Whether tradition is true or not, the place was a fitting one whereat to tarry and fall a-thinking. Happy, indeed, could the old oak have spoken.
Many a public road of recent date has been built on the line of an old trail, as many a town and even city have replaced Indian villages; but take the long-settled. regions generally, the ancient landmarks are all gone, and a stray potsherd or flint arrow-point in the fields is all that is left to recall the days of the dusky aborigines.
Only in the rough, rocky, irreclaimable hills are we likely now to be successful, if such traces as a trail are sought for.
It was so here. Bald-top Hill is of little use to the white man except for the firewood that grows upon its sides and the scattered game that still linger in its thickets. As seen from the nearest road, not far off, there is nothing now to suggest that an Indian ever clambered about it. The undergrowth hides every trace of the surface; but after the leaves drop and a light snow has fallen, a curious white line can be traced from the base of the summit; this is the old trail.
It is a narrow path, but for so long a time had it been used by the Indians that, when once pointed out, it can still be followed without difficulty. It leads now from one little intervale to another: from farmer A to farmer B; but originally it was part of their long highway leading from Philadelphia to Easton, perhaps. It matters not. Enough to know that then, as now, there were towns almost wherever there was land fit for dwellings, and paths that led from one to the other. It is clear that the Indians knew the whole country well. The routes they finally chose resulted from long experience, and were as direct as the nature of the ground made possible.
The study of trails opens up to us a broader view of ancient Indian life than we are apt to entertain.
We find the sites of villages on the banks of the rivers and larger inflowing streams; travel by canoes was universal. No locality was so favorable as the open valley, and here the greater number of Indians doubtless dwelt. But the river and its fertile shores could not yield all that this people needed: they had to draw from the resources of the hills behind them. They soon marked the whole region with a net-work of trails leading to the various points whence they drew the necessities of life. The conditions of the present day are laid down on essentially the same lines as then.
An Indian town was not a temporary tent site, or mere cluster of wigwams, here to-day and miles away to-morrow; nor did these people depend solely upon the chase. Beside the trail over which I recently passed was a great clearing that had been an orchard. We can yet find many a barren spot that is rightly known to the people of to-day as an Indian field. So persistently were their cornfields cropped that at last the soil was absolutely exhausted, and has not yet recovered its fertility.
There was systematic bartering, too, as the red pipe-stone or catlinite from Minnesota and obsidian from the more distant Northwest, found on the Atlantic coast, as well as ocean shells picked up in the far interior, all testify. There was also periodical journeying in autumn from inland to the sea-coast to gather supplies of oysters, clams, and other "sea food," which were dried by smoking and then "strung as beads and carried as great coils of rope" back to the hills to be consumed during the winter.
Many small colonies, too, passed the winters on the coast in the shelter of the great pine forests that extended to the very ocean beach. It was no hap-hazard threading of a wilderness to reach these distant points. The paths were well defined, well used. For how long we can only conjecture, but the vast accumulations of shells on the coast, often now beneath the water, point to a time so distant that the country wore a different aspect from what it now does; a time when the land rose far higher above the tide and extended seaward where now the ocean rolls resistlessly.
Returning inland, let us trace another of these old-time paths from the river-shore whereon the Indians had long dwelt, over hill and dale until we reach a valley hemmed in by low, rolling hills.
It is a pretty spot still, although marred by the white man's work; but why was it the goal of many a weary journey?
Here is found the coveted jasper, varied in hue as autumn leaves or a summer sunset. The quick eye of some wandering hunter, it may be, found a chance fragment, and, looking closer, saw that the ground on which he stood was filled with it; or a freshet may have washed the soil from an outcropping of the mineral. Who can tell? It must suffice to know that the discovery was made in time, and a new industry arose. No other material so admirably met the Indian's need for arrow-points, for the blades of spears, for knives, drills, scrapers, and the whole range of tools and weapons in daily use.
So it came that mining camps were established. To this day, in these lonely hills, we can trace out the great pits the Indians dug, find the tools with which they toiled, and even the ashes of their camp-fires, where they slept by night. So deeply did the Indian work the land wheresoever he toiled that even the paths that led from the mines to the distant village have not been wholly blotted out.
The story of the jasper mines has yet to be told, and it may be long before the full details are learned concerning the various processes through which the mineral passed before it came into use as a finished product. Much vain speculation has been indulged in; the fancied method of reducing a thick blade to a thin one has been elaborately described, although never carried out by any human being; in short, the impossible has been boldly asserted as a fact beyond question.
The Indian's history can be read but in small part from the handiwork that he has left behind.
One phase of it, in the valley of the Delaware, is more clearly told than all else, — the advance from a primitive to a more cultured status. There were centuries during which jasper was known only as river-pebbles, and its discovery in abundance had an influence upon Indians akin to that upon Europe's stone-age people when they discovered the use of metals. At least here in the valley of the Delaware this is true.
It is vain to ask for the beginning of man's career in this region; what we find but hints at it. But he came when there were no trails over the hills, no path but the icy river's edge; only as the centuries rolled by was the country developed to the extent of knowing every nook and corner of the land, and high-ways and by-ways became common, like the roads that now reach out in every direction.
A "trail," then, has a wealth of meaning, and those who made it were no "mere savages," as we so glibly speak of the Indians, thanks to the average school-books.
The haughty Delawares had fields and orchards; they had permanent towns; they mined such minerals as were valuable to them; they had weapons of many patterns; they were jewellers in a crude way, and finished many a stone ornament in a manner that still excites admiration. They were travellers and tradesmen as well as hunters and warriors.
Although my day's search for relics of these people had yielded but a few arrow-points, potsherds, and a stone axe, when I saw the Indian on his way from school, walking in the very path his people had made long centuries ago, the story of their ancient sojourn here came vividly to mind in the dim light of an autumn afternoon, when a golden mist wrapped the hills and veiled the valleys beyond, and I had a glimpse of pre-Columbian America.