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HomeNL-2014-08 Maid of the Mist

Maid of the Mist
August, 2014
by John Rich

Every month during my internet searches for material to be used in the creation of this newsletter, I run across some interesting things about canoeing.  This article is about one of those interesting stories which I found just by happenstance.  And it all started with my search for an unusual image to be used to add spice to the home page of this August edition.  I was searching for a quality image of silent screen star Pearl White standing up in and paddling a canoe.  The search terms "Pearl White canoe", however, also led me in another direction.  It seems that a "white canoe" has quite a legend associated with it.  Let me tell you about that.
If you've ever visited or read about Niagara Falls in New York, you've probably heard of the "Maid of the Mist" boat tours that operate on the lower side of the falls.  For $17 you get a half-hour boat tour up to the base of the falls to experience the thundering roar of the huge volume of cascading water, along with a cheap raincoat to keep you from getting soaked in the mist which rises up from the base of the falls.  These boat tours have been in operation since as far back as 1846.  "Maid of the Mist" is the name of the boats, and if you do an internet search on "Maid of the Mist" that's about all you'll find - the Niagara boat tour.  But have you ever wondered from where that name "Maid of the Mist" originates?  Well, read on...

"Niagara" means "thundering waters" in the Iroquoian language, in reference to the extremely loud noise made by 85,000 cubic feet per second of water falling 167 feet over the falls.  Any visitor to the falls knows that the sound of the water is extraordinarily loud. For centuries, the Iroquois Indians believed that the sound of the waterfall was the voice of the great spirit of the waters.

Niagara Falls with a Maid of the Mist boat tour

The story goes that up until the mid 18th century the Iroquois living near the falls sought the favor of the Water Spirit by sacrificing a maiden each year. They dressed a chosen virgin girl in furs and beads and placed her in a white canoe decorated with fruits and flowers. The canoe was then pushed out into the Niagara river, and sent over the brink of the massive water falls. The girl in the canoe must have been terrified with fear, but to be sacrificed was a great honor, and the act insured an easy afterlife for herself, as well as good things for her tribe whom she left behind.
The picture below is a best selling Niagara Falls postcard from 1907 called the "Legend of the White Canoe, Niagara". This iconic image promoted the Maid of the Mist legend.  You'll notice that the maiden is not wearing any furs in this image, and that was probably to sell more postcards.

In the late 1600's white Christians began to try and convert the Indians to Christianity, and condemned their practice of sacrificing a virgin over the falls in exchange for favorable treatment from the Water Spirit.  This could have been a tough sell given how the Christians told their own story of how Christ sacrificed himself for the sins of humanity.  

About that same time, Iroquois chief Eagle Eye's 15-year-old daughter Lela-wala was chosen for the annual summer sacrifice.  Eagle Eye was devastated, as Lela-wala was his only child, and his wife had recently passed away.  On the fateful day, Lela-wala appeared in the ritual garb and walked to the beach without fear to enter the white canoe and do her duty.  Chief Eagle Eye disappeared into the woods in his terrible grief, unable to participate.  As his daughter floated by in the white canoe, Eagle Eye, overcome with sorrow, darted from the woods, jumped into his own canoe, and followed his daughter over the falls.  And that too is shown in the postcard image, above.
To this day many Iroquois people believe that after their death, they are changed into pure spirits of strength and goodness. They live within the falls and add their voices to the roaring music.  Chief Eagle Eye is the ruler of Niagara Falls, and Lela-wala is the Maid of the Mist.
And now you know, the rest of the story.  The original Maid of the Mist is not a boat packed with tourists - it is Lela-wala.

For more reading with two additional alternative versions of the legend, no less tragic, see:

The author, John Rich