“You sure you know where you’re going?” Haylee asked as I turned onto the narrow road leading northward out of Jersey Shore.
“I’m positive,” I replied as we passed under Route 220 and followed the road that paralleled Nichols Run. I had gone roughly a mile when the brown stone came into sight. It sat on the hillside on the right side of the road, overlooking the road and Nichols Run.
I pulled to the edge of the road and turning on the hazard lights, we got out and walked over to the stone. The memorial had been fractured and was now held together by a wooden frame. At the top of the stone was a red plaque with the words from the stone recorded on it.
I listened as Haylee read the stone. “Shawana / Daughter of Old Nichols / A friendly Seneca / the last Indian girl in the / West Branch Valley / Died February 1855 / Age 16 years.” She paused for a moment. “That’s sad.”
“What else does the stone say?” I questioned.
She repeated a couple of the listed facts before adding: “Isn’t Shoemaker the guy you don’t like?”
“Yes,” I replied. “You have to question his writings and version of history – it isn’t always correct.” Although many of Shoemaker’s stories have become a part of regional lore, his romanticized writings have created an alternate version of regional history that is not supported by facts or by anything outside of his own imagination.
“So is Shawana correct?”
“He writes about Shawana in El Dorado Found,” I replied as I recalled the information he presents in the book.
Shawana was one of the two daughters of Old Nichols, a one-eyed Seneca who once called the West Branch Valley his home. Old Nichols took his name from Major James Nichols, one of the Fair Play Men and signer of the Tiadaghton – also known as the Fort Horn – Declaration of Independence. Old Nichols was a loyal servant of Major Nichols.
Even after the Seneca were pushed out of the region, Old Nichols and his two daughters – Shawana and Iona – would travel from the Allegheny Reservation in New York State to a place near the headwaters of Nichols Run every autumn. Here they would spend the winter, with Old Nichols weaving baskets and doing odd jobs for locals. When the snow melted and spring in the air, the trio would return to New York until autumn arrived.
After the death of Shawana, Old Nichols and Iona, his other daughter, left the valley never to return. According to Shoemaker Old Nichols died of “a sudden attack of pneumonia”.
“That’s really not a good story,” Haylee responded.
“Shoemaker also talks about Shawana in North Mountain Mementos,” I added. The story is recorded in “The Summons.”
The story, according to Shoemaker, involves Jake Van Etten, a local lumber boss, and the strange event that happened to him one New Year’s Eve. Van Etten stayed at the camp while the rest of his men went to the Short Mountain Hotel in Orangeville to attend a sledding party.
As darkness descended upon the land, Van Etten found a piece of wood and sat down in front of the stove and began to carve.
Outside the wind picked up, bringing with it a storm. The candle that lit the room went out, but it did not bother Van Etten who continued to carve by light of the fireplace. Soon the sound of sleet hitting the roof filled the room.
As he sat there, his mind wandered to his younger years, to the beautiful young girl with dark, mesmerizing eyes he had fallen in love with. Before he was able to express his feelings, she had died of pneumonia and been buried by the roadside of Nichols Run.
Van Etten wondered what would have happened had he gone back and married Shawana. Would she still be alive had he told her of his love for her?
As it approached midnight, the storm silenced and in that moment Van Etten heard a soft voice calling out from the adjoining bunk room. He sat up in the chair and listened, positive he had heard the soft voice call out, “Jacob.”
Believing the voice was coming from the bunkroom, Van Etten relit the candle and searched for the source of the voice. He carefully searched the bunkroom, but found nobody there. Pushing it aside as his imagination, he returned the candle to the card table and sat down in front of the fire.
Van Etten had almost drifted to sleep when he heard the soft name call out his name. Once again, he searched the bunkroom to find a source for the voice. He found nothing and believed that the voice was somebody outside returning from the party at Orangeville.
Listening, he heard the voice calling out to him once again. He grabbed his coat and cap and ran out into the storm, searching for the source of the voice. Van Etten had soon wandered away from the building, pushing his way through the knee-deep snow.
He had gone a short distance when he heard a loud noise. The sound reverberated in the gorge and the ground shook. A landslide wiped out the building he had been in only moments before.
When the other men arrived back at the ruins of the camp, they were surprised to see Van Etten had survived the disaster. He was convinced the reason he survived the disaster was due to the ghost of Shawana. Due to his thinking about her earlier in the night Shawana’s spirit had returned to summon him away from the disaster.
“That’s really not that good of a ghost story,” Haylee responded. “Do you think it’s true?”
“I have my doubts, but interestingly, the story of Shawana has become a part of regional lore.” I paused as a car drove slowly past. “But then again, most of his stories have become an important part of the region’s lore.”
With those thoughts in mind, we walked back to the vehicle leaving the marker for Shawana in the quiet of the hollow.