Patucket Falls by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Essay

MANY years ago I read, in some old chronicle of the early history of New England, a paragraph which has ever since haunted my memory, calling up romantic associations of wild Nature and wilder man:–

“The Sachem Wonolanset, who lived by the Groat Falls of Patucket, on the Merrimac.”

It was with this passage in my mind that I visited for the first time the Rapids of the Merrimac, above Lowell.

Passing up the street by the Hospital, a large and elegant mansion surrounded by trees and shrubbery and climbing vines, I found myself, after walking a few rods farther, in full view of the Merrimac. A deep and rocky channel stretched between me and the Dracut shore, along which rushed the shallow water,–a feeble, broken, and tortuous current, winding its way among splintered rocks, rising sharp and jagged in all directions. Drained above the falls by the canal, it resembled some mountain streamlet of old Spain, or some Arabian wady, exhausted by a year’s drought. Higher up, the arches of the bridge spanned the quick, troubled water; and, higher still, the dam, so irregular in its outline as to seem less a work of Art than of Nature, crossed the bed of the river, a lakelike placidity above contrasting with the foam and murmur of the falls below. And this was all which modern improvements had left of “the great Patucket Falls” of the olden time. The wild river had been tamed; the spirit of the falls, whose hoarse voice the Indian once heard in the dashing of the great water down the rocks, had become the slave of the arch conjurer, Art; and, like a shorn and blinded giant, was grinding in the prison-house of his taskmaster.

One would like to know how this spot must have seemed to the “twenty goodlie persons from Concord and Woburn” who first visited it in 1652, as, worn with fatigue, and wet from the passage of the sluggish Concord, “where ford there was none,” they wound their slow way through the forest, following the growing murmur of the falls, until at length the broad, swift river stretched before them, its white spray flashing in the sun. What cared these sturdy old Puritans for the wild beauty of the landscape thus revealed before them? I think I see them standing there in the golden light of a closing October day, with their sombre brown doublets and slouched hats, and their heavy matchlocks,–such men as Ireton fronted death with on the battle-field of Naseby, or those who stalked with Cromwell over the broken wall of Drogheda, smiting, “in the name of the Lord,” old and young, “both maid, and little children.” Methinks I see the sunset light flooding the river valley, the western hills stretching to the horizon, overhung with trees gorgeous and glowing with the tints of autumn,–a mighty flower-garden, blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, Frost; the rushing river, with its graceful water-curves and white foam; and a steady murmur, low, deep voices of water, the softest, sweetest sound of Nature, blends with the sigh of the south wind in the pine-tops. But these hard-featured saints of the New Canaan “care for none of these things.” The stout hearts which beat under their leathern doublets are proof against the sweet influences of Nature. They see only “a great and howling wilderness, where be many Indians, but where fish may be taken, and where be meadows for ye subsistence of cattle,” and which, on the whole, “is a comfortable place to accommodate a company of God’s people upon, who may, with God’s blessing, do good in that place for both church and state.” (Vide petition to the General Court, 1653.)

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In reading the journals and narratives of the early settlers of New England nothing is more remarkable than the entire silence of the worthy writers in respect to the natural beauty or grandeur of the scenery amid which their lot was cast. They designated the grand and glorious forest, broken by lakes and crossed by great rivers, intersected by a thousand streams more beautiful than those which the Old World has given to song and romance, as “a desert and frightful wilderness.” The wildly picturesque Indian, darting his birch canoe down the Falls of the Amoskeag or gliding in the deer-track of the forest, was, in their view, nothing but a “dirty tawnie,” a “salvage heathen,” and “devil’s imp.” Many of them were well educated,–men of varied and profound erudition, and familiar with the best specimens of Greek and Roman literature; yet they seem to have been utterly devoid of that poetic feeling or fancy whose subtle alchemy detects the beautiful in the familiar. Their very hymns and spiritual songs seem to have been expressly calculated, like “the music-grinders” of Holmes,–

“To pluck the eyes of sentiment,
And dock the tail of rhyme,
To crack the voice of melody,
And break the legs of time.”

They were sworn enemies of the Muses; haters of stage-play literature, profane songs, and wanton sonnets; of everything, in brief, which reminded them of the days of the roistering cavaliers and bedizened beauties of the court of “the man Charles,” whose head had fallen beneath the sword of Puritan justice. Hard, harsh, unlovely, yet with many virtues and noble points of character, they were fitted, doubtless, for their work of pioneers in the wilderness. Sternly faithful to duty, in peril, and suffering, and self-denial, they wrought out the noblest of historical epics on the rough soil of New England. They lived a truer poetry than Homer or Virgil wrote.

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The Patuckets, once a powerful native tribe, had their principal settlements around the falls at the time of the visit of the white men of Concord and Woburn in 1652. Gookin, the Indian historian, states that this tribe was almost wholly destroyed by the great pestilence of 1612. In 1674 they had but two hundred and fifty males in the whole tribe. Their chief sachem lived opposite the falls; and it was in his wigwam that the historian, in company with John Eliot, the Indian missionary, held a “meeting for worshippe on ye 5th of May, 1676,” where Mr. Eliot preached from “ye twenty-second of Matthew.”

The white visitants from Concord and Woburn, pleased with the appearance of the place and the prospect it afforded for planting and fishing, petitioned the General Court for a grant of the entire tract of land now embraced in the limits of Lowell and Chelmsford. They made no account whatever of the rights of the poor Patuckets; but, considering it “a comfortable place to accommodate God’s people upon,” were doubtless prepared to deal with the heathen inhabitants as Joshua the son of Nun did with the Jebusites and Perizzites, the Hivites and the Hittites, of old. The Indians, however, found a friend in the apostle Eliot, who presented a petition in their behalf that the lands lying around the Patucket and Wamesit Falls should be appropriated exclusively for their benefit and use. The Court granted the petition of the whites, with the exception of the tract in the angle of the two rivers on which the Patuckets were settled. The Indian title to this tract was not finally extinguished until 1726, when the beautiful name of Wamesit was lost in that of Chelmsford, and the last of the Patuckets turned his back upon the graves of his fathers and sought a new home among the strange Indians of the North.

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But what has all this to do with the falls? When the rail-cars came thundering through his lake country, Wordsworth attempted to exorcise them by a sonnet; and, were I not a very decided Yankee, I might possibly follow his example, and utter in this connection my protest against the desecration of Patucket Falls, and battle with objurgatory stanzas these dams and mills, as Balmawapple shot off his horse-pistol at Stirling Castle. Rocks and trees, rapids, cascades, and other water- works are doubtless all very well; but on the whole, considering our seven months of frost, are not cotton shirts and woollen coats still better? As for the spirits of the river, the Merrimac Naiads, or whatever may be their name in Indian vocabulary, they have no good reason for complaint; inasmuch as Nature, in marking and scooping out the channel of their stream, seems to have had an eye to the useful rather than the picturesque. After a few preliminary antics and youthful vagaries up among the White Hills, the Merrimac comes down to the seaboard, a clear, cheerful, hard-working Yankee river. Its numerous falls and rapids are such as seem to invite the engineer’s level rather than the pencil of the tourist; and the mason who piles up the huge brick fabrics at their feet is seldom, I suspect, troubled with sentimental remorse or poetical misgivings. Staid and matter of fact as the Merrimac is, it has, nevertheless, certain capricious and eccentric tributaries; the Powow, for instance, with its eighty feet fall in a few rods, and that wild, Indian-haunted Spicket, taking its wellnigh perpendicular leap of thirty feet, within sight of the village meeting- house, kicking up its Pagan heels, Sundays and all, in sheer contempt of Puritan tithing-men. This latter waterfall is now somewhat modified by the hand of Art, but is still, as Professor Hitchcock’s “Scenographical Geology” says of it, “an object of no little interest.” My friend T., favorably known as the translator of “Undine” and as a writer of fine and delicate imagination, visited Spicket Falls before the sound of a hammer or the click of a trowel had been heard beside them. His journal of “A Day on the Merrimac” gives a pleasing and vivid description of their original appearance as viewed through the telescope of a poetic fancy. The readers of “Undine” will thank me for a passage or two from this sketch:–

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“The sound of the waters swells more deeply. Something supernatural in their confused murmur; it makes me better understand and sympathize with the writer of the Apocalypse when he speaks of the voice of many waters, heaping image upon image, to impart the vigor of his conception.

“Through yonder elm-branches I catch a few snowy glimpses of foam in the air. See that spray and vapor rolling up the evergreen on my left The two side precipices, one hundred feet apart and excluding objects of inferior moment, darken and concentrate the view. The waters between pour over the right-hand and left-hand summit, rushing down and uniting among the craggiest and abruptest of rocks. Oh for a whole mountain- side of that living foam! The sun impresses a faint prismatic hue. These falls, compared with those of the Missouri, are nothing,–nothing but the merest miniature; and yet they assist me in forming some conception of that glorious expanse.

“A fragment of an oak, struck off by lightning, struggles with the current midway down; while the shattered trunk frowns above the desolation, majestic in ruin. This is near the southern cliff. Farther north a crag rises out of the stream, its upper surface covered with green clover of the most vivid freshness. Not only all night, but all day, has the dew lain upon its purity. With my eye attaining the uppermost margin, where the waters shoot over, I look away into the western sky, and discern there (what you least expect) a cow chewing her cud with admirable composure, and higher up several sheep and lambs browsing celestial buds. They stand on the eminence that forms the background of my present view. The illusion is extremely picturesque,– such as Allston himself would despair of producing. ‘Who can paint like Nature’?”

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