Mishebeshu In Montague?

An underwater panther in Montague? Well, bear with me. An adventure, indeed.

Credit Acton kayaker Al Peirce with the interesting May 20 discovery, made while killing time awaiting takeout following his maiden Deerfield River paddle.

Launching from Montague, across from the Deerfield’s dangerous Connecticut River confluence located between the General Pierce and bicycle-path bridges, Peirce had maneuvered more than a mile upriver when obstructed by shallow water requiring walking. He briefly pondered towing his craft upstream through the riffles, but it was getting late. Instead, he called it a day. Why not return for another voyage under favorable flows?

Reappearing at the mouth of the Deerfield, hugging the East Deerfield shore, after riding the downstream flow – Bingville to the left, East Deerfield right – Peirce looked across and noticed a couple of men standing on the Montague side near where he had put in. With evening approaching, they were exercising their dog by tossing a ball into the river for retrieval.

Reluctant to engage in conversation during the height of state’s COVID-19 distancing measures, Peirce decided to paddle a short distance down the Connecticut on a temporary reconnaissance mission. That’s when he came upon his exciting discovery, not far upstream from an island and across from an agricultural shelf known in Deerfield annals as Sheldon’s Field. The plot forms the town’s northeast point overlooking the mouth of its namesake river. Just downstream, clinging to the Connecticut’s East Deerfield shoreline, lies exposed, red-sandstone bedrock known historically as Sheldon’s Rocks.

Timing was everything concerning the sighting.

“Had the western sun not been at a perfect angle to illuminate it through a gap in the foliage, I would have never noticed it,” recalled Peirce, who, curious about what looked like a manmade squiggle on an obscured standing stone, turned his kayak around and paddled upstream to investigate.

Vessel beached, Peirce walked to the stone, parted the wide green leaves covering most of its face, and was amazed by what he saw. It was more than a little squiggle. Much more. Staring him in the face was a well-executed petroglyph of a strange creature he thought could be a resting deer with a snake or eel beneath it. Wanting to share images, he took several digital photos with his Canon Point-and-Shoot camera before paddling back to his launching site, which, to his relief, was vacant, the path to his vehicle clear. Yup, time to return to his riverside campsite off Meadow Road in Montague. There he would spend the night alone in a tent, his wheels of curiosity humming.

Questions swirled. How old was this carving? Who made it? What did it mean? Could it possibly be unknown to locals? Could it have been recently unveiled by flood erosion? All were questions capable of keeping a thinking man awake nights, tossing and turning in possibilities. Yes, he had work to do – the kind he loves.


Joining the Chase

Now, fast-forward six days, to the morning of Tuesday, May 26, noontime approaching. I was sitting at my desk crafting the opening paragraphs of a column, when a sudden distraction flashed in the lower right-hand corner of my laptop screen. Outlook was alerting me to Peirce’s email. He’d found an online column of mine expressing confidence about the existence of ancient petroglyphs and pictographs still to be discovered in our slice of the Connecticut Valley. He wondered if I was familiar with his Montague find.

“It looks like a Native American petroglyph,” he wrote. “Though partially hidden by vegetation, it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t have previously seen it at some point. I’ve attached photos.”

I studied the series of shots and was intrigued by the carving, which I immediately recognized as the mythical underwater panther – Mishebeshu is one of many spellings – of Native American cosmological lore. The horns and long tail were dead giveaways.

Wow! Talk about a show-stopper. The column I was writing became temporarily irrelevant. My focus broken, there was a bigger fish to fry.

My initial reaction was that the image looked too good, maybe a bit too crisp and clean to be hundreds of years old. But what did I know? No petroglyph expert, it was time to reach out. I forwarded the photos to two trusted friends and experts, Peter A. Thomas and R. Michael Gramly, a pair of sage, PhD archaeologist/anthropologists with decades of field experience and knowledge. What were their thoughts?

The first to respond was Gramly. His email arrived that evening from Tennessee, where he was overseeing the follow-up archaeological excavation of a 13,000-year-old mastodon site.

“Yes,” he wrote. “It appears to be a Piasa or underwater panther – equivalent to the Chinese dragon. Such animals lurk near deep holes and water vortexes.”

I immediately Googled “underwater panther,” and struck gold. There is much online information on this mythical beast, most commonly associated with Ojibwa and other Great Lakes tribes.

Thomas, catching up on yard work at his northern Vermont home, didn’t respond immediately. But he did chime in a day or two later on the phone. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he moved straight to the point.

“Where did you come up with that petroglyph?”

“A kayaker found it on the Connecticut River.”

“Interesting. Usually, when I’m shown something like this, my reaction is, ‘Ehhhhh?’ Not so with this. I’d like to see it.”

Having studied the photos carefully, Thomas cited a couple of potential problems with the execution. First, the glyph’s straight edges and depth suggested metal tools to him. Second, such carvings are not typically found on standing stones, but rather on river, lake, and bayside ledge. Yet he still believed it could be an important discovery dating back to the Colonial Contact Period, maybe even a smidge earlier. Metal trade goods had surely found their way to our slice of the Connecticut Valley decades before the Agawam Plantation (Springfield) was founded in 1636; and even if it had been carved for spiritual posterity by some post-King Philip’s War indigenous straggler, perhaps a shaman, it would still be a remarkable discovery.


A Dark Portal

Gramly’s most authenticating observation was the underwater panther’s association with water vortexes, better known in laymen’s terms as whirlpools. A short distance upstream from the carving, there is just such a deadly feature. In fact, not only is it a dangerous whirlpool, it may well be the most dangerous whirlpool in the 400-mile-long Connecticut Valley. Although I know of no way to confirm that, I do know this hazardous site has claimed many lives in my lifetime. The swirling vortex is created by the collision at an odd angle of two powerful natural forces – the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers – capable during high-water events of swallowing a canoe and spitting it out.

Such dangerous whirlpools were viewed as portals to the underworld in worldwide hunter-gatherer cultures, including those of North America’s Eastern Woodlands. So, no doubt this one would have been known to our earliest indigenous paddlers, who recognized it as a perilous place of high spirit inhabited by dark underworld and water spirits. The underwater panther was the lord of the underworld, known to reside in oceans, lakes, whirlpools, deep pools, treacherous rapids and caves. In a foul mood, this lurking creature was known to emerge from the depths to pull swimmers and boaters to drowning death. Thus, the carving had context, always important in such matters.

Something that gave the panther even more context at this site was the fact that it also stood near a documented Connecticut River ford, or footpath crossing, at adjacent Sheldon’s Rocks. The Native attackers of the infamous Sept. 19, 1677 Ashpelon Raid on Hatfield and Deerfield used this very crossing on their retreat home, up the Connecticut Valley to Canada with colonial captives. So, not only did this warning sign stand a short distance below a treacherous whirlpool; it also stood near the crossroads of two major travel arteries, one by land, the other by water. Yes, an appropriate site to post a warning. But how old was it? That was the salient question – one that only a field trip could reconcile.


Warning Flags

First, a little more on the underwater panther itself. The Peirce images in the hands of Gramly, Thomas and myself spurred independent research by all of us, with communication flying back and forth. Plus, without revealing the precise location, Thomas and Gramly both sent the images to rock-art scholars for additional feedback, among them University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Megan Kassabaum and former Maine State Archaeologist Bruce Bourque. Thomas had discovered an informative video by Kassabaum about the underwater panther and queried her, while Gramly thought it wise to run it past Bourque, a longtime friend and colleague who’s seen many Maine petroglyphs. Everyone agreed the carving was worthy of professional, on-site evaluation.

I watched Kassabaum’s video with interest, and it led me to my study to see what I could find in my bookshelves. Poring through sources I owned, they were helpful in identifying additional sources to probe. My search started with Michael Angel’s Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives of the Ojibwa Midewiwin, then moved to Brian Swann’s trilogy on Native American Literature.

Then I purchased two compilations of scholarly essays online – Ancient Objects and Sacred Reals: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography and Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. A third source, Theresa S. Smith’s The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World goes into great detail, plus provides the best explanation of the underwater panther’s link to the Midewiwin.

Out of the focused reading arose growing suspicions in my mind about the source of the Montague petroglyph. Though the horned, long-tailed image fit the mold, it became clear to me that it was essentially of Central Algonquian iconographic form, especially that of Great Lakes tribes, not our own Eastern Algonquians.

In New England, the lord of the underworld was the related Great Horned Serpent. Despite their different appearance – one with legs, the other without – they were the same beast playing the same cosmological role: in perpetual warfare with thunderbirds, lords of the Sky World in the indigenous Eastern Woodlands realm.

Although the regional preferences didn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that the Montague carving had been executed by an indigenous carver of Connecticut Valley heritage, it did raise warning flags.

According to indigenous creation lore, many Central Algonquian people were ancient migrants from the Great Salt Water of Dawnland. Thus, the people most associated with underwater-panther imagery had their deepest roots on the East Coast and may indeed have left such an image hidden somewhere in New England before migrating west. Still, I could find no New England examples of an underwater panther, just serpents.


Closer Inspection

In the process of trying to set up a field trip with Thomas, Peirce and myself at the very least, I fired off a cautionary email to Thomas on the morning of June 7 indicating that I wanted to eliminate one last potential source who could know something about the carving. This person is a Native American woman who ran a hilltown summer camp to which I had sent my grammar-school sons. Despite long ago hearing through the grapevine that she now lives in the same neighborhood as the petroglyph, I never dug deeper. I was, however, quite sure she was not originally from New England.

So, I had to rule her out before spending another second trying to arrange a field trip.

Well – Bingo! – as it turned out, the local underwater panther graces this very woman’s private, secluded Connecticut River “beach.” The descendant of 19th-century Miami chief Little Turtle (Michikinikwa in her native tongue), she grew up in Chicago and used to visit the Alton, Illinois piasa image adorning cliffs overlooking the upper Mississippi River.

Her brother, Long Arm, carved the image in 1990. He was living with her at the time after retiring from the US Marine Corps. He brought the stone to her property from Northfield, carved the panther on its face, and buried it upright on her small, sandy beach.

She was a gracious hostess to me and Thomas during a two-hour, June 12 visit to her home. We enjoyed a warm chat with the property owner in her cozy library before walking to the beach to see the panther. Close inspection of the stone revealed drill holes indicative of modern quarrying. Plus, Long Arm carved a discrete, tell-tale Marine anchor on the back to mark it as a modern creation.

So goes the tale of Montague’s mysterious underwater panther.

Looking back, my ears still ring with Gramly’s exasperated telephone scolding that occurred early during our many discussions. When, for the umpteenth time, I repeated an “if it’s real” disclaimer to preface a question about the petroglyph, Gramly would have none of it.

“Why do you keep doubting it’s real?” he barked. “Trust me. No white man carved that panther.”

Once again, my scholarly friend was right on the mark. Indeed, the panther did have a Native American creator, despite being executed much later than we had hoped.

Yes, the image was crafted by an upper-Midwest Miami warrior of aristocratic Great Lakes heritage – a man who placed it on his sister’s private beach in an appropriate location. Whether he was aware of the whirlpool and ancient ford is irrelevant. It is what it is – just another uncanny example of Native intuition.


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