Legend of Lake Sacandaga
During the late 18th century and early 19th century many settlers arrived in an area we now call the Town of Lake Pleasant, located in the Adirondack Mountains. An old Mohawk Native American, who called himself Captain Gill, was a local trail guide to these people. Captain Gill would help these early settlers discover the local lakes and mountains of this mysterious region, plus he would show them fishing and hunting spots.
Even though Captain Gill lived among these early settlers, he would still preserve the customs of the Mohawk people. Captain Gill lived in a wigwam located near the outlet of the lake, Lake Pleasant. With him lived his wife, Molly, and her daughter, Molly Jr. He would make it clear that Molly Jr. wasn’t his daughter, even though Captain Gill would raise her as his own.
Captain Gill wasn’t just known for his knowledge of the Adirondack Mountains, but also for his skill in storytelling. He would tell hunting parties the history of his people and other nations of the Iroquois while venison roasted over a fire. It is said that one story he may have spoken of was about a lake located in the Town of Lake Pleasant. During this time, the settlers called the lake Round Lake, but today it’s known as Lake Sacandaga. The legend kept the Iroquois’ enemies away from the region for a long time. The story went something like this:
A long time ago before the Europeans came to this part of the world, there was a tribe whose name has been forgotten over the years. This tribe lit their council fires on top of a hill between two lakes in the mountains of the Mohawk hunting grounds. It was then believed the source of the Hudson River began here, and the hill is where the Hamilton County seat now stands.
There came a winter that was so cold and harsh, and not a drop of snow fell upon the ground. Much vegetation was frozen to its roots. The deer and moose migrated to the Mohawk Valley where food was abundant. Fish seemed to disappear from the lakes, and food was impossible to find.
The tribe was afraid to look for food outside their region, for they were surrounded by hostile tribes. Whole families died of starvation and diseases. The tribe was in desperate need of help.
A council fire was held one evening during early spring. The young men urged that the tribe secretly head west toward Lake Ontario, where wild rice was brought by a runner of a distant nation. The elders didn’t like the idea of leaving their homeland. They didn’t believe the young men and their tale of these great gardens. The chief said the winter famine was a scourge the Master of Life inflicted on his people for their crimes, and if they ran away from their punishment turmoil will follow them. Spring had come and food will be available again.
With great anger, a young warrior jumped to his feet. “They must die,” he said. “They must die for their crimes in which they have just confessed. With their death will come food for our children. These old men will only slow us down on our journey anyways.” With a quick swing the young man buried his tomahawk in an old man nearest him. Other young men followed his example and soon seven old tribesmen were killed.
Then there was a silence of horror and the young men realized the evil they had done. As tradition of the tribe, great reverence was made. They decided to purify their crimes by offering the bodies of the seven murdered men to the Master of Life. The young men beheaded the bodies and burned them. With the heads they planned to tie their hairs together like a chain and throw them into Lake Sacandaga.
The young warrior who started the massacre led a group of canoes to the center of the lake. Each canoe had a head, and when they reached the designated spot all the heads were passed to the leader. The young man created the chain by tying the locks of the heads together. With a large stone the heads were slowly guided into the lake and began to sink to the bottom.
This did not please the Master of Life. When the young man received the last head, his canoe began to sink. While in panic his feet became entangled in the chain of heads, and the man began screaming as he sank into the water. The others became so frightened they quickly paddled to shore.
The next day, a few bubbles were seen rising to the surface of the lake. The second day, a sullen blot remained. The third day, the blot took a greener hue and strands of black marbled its surface. On the forth day, these marks began to tremble. By the sixth day, a monstrous head floated on the water, its huge eyes watched the guilty young men on shore. On the morning of the seventh day, a pair of broad wings, ribbed like those of a bat, with claws appended to each, had grown from the head.
As the young men watched, the wings flapped a few times upon the waves, and the head rose slowly from the lake. The tribe fled in panic as the head followed. Wherever they ran, the monster was behind them and glared at them.
One legend says the Master of Life kept the young men forever young so they would continue to suffer. They ran toward the prairies out West. It is also said the head turned them to stone, explaining why there are upright stones standing around the nearby lakes. As the years went by, erosion smoothed the stones into the shape they are now. When the Mohawks began hunting in the mountains near the lake, they say around the time of the Equinox they have seen the flying head return to its birth place.
However there is another Iroquois legend that tells the story of the flying head, which they called Kanontsistontie. The creature lived in caves because it didn’t like the sun. On stormy nights it would come out of its den and hunt for food. Even though the head didn’t have a body it was four times taller than the tallest man.
The creature’s skin was covered with black thick hair. Its skin and hair were so thick no weapon could harm the flying head. When it flew, the creature could hover like a bee, dive for its prey or just soar through the sky. The bat-like wings grew from behind its cheeks. The flying head’s mouth was full of fangs instead of teeth.
One night a tribe fled their village and hid, for they had heard the Flying Head was seen. A young mother and her baby stayed behind, for she said to herself, “Someone must stop the evil beast, and I should be the one.” Inside a longhouse the woman sat beside the hearth, building a fire. She began heating some large stones within the flames. As she was doing this, the flying head poked through the door.
The woman pretended not to see the creature. She also pretended eating the red glowing stones, by picking them up with a forked stick and placing them near her mouth and then dropping them on the ground. She then said out loud, “These taste so good. No one has ever tasted meat like this.” When the Flying Head heard this it became very hungry. The creature went inside the longhouse and, with one gulp, swallowed all the glowing hot stones.
The Flying Head gave a great scream that echoed through the valley. Its screams caused the earth to shake, and the trees to tremble. It kept screaming as it flew away into the mountains. Never again was the Flying Head seen.
Even though this legend is hard to believe, most legends are based upon truth. For one thing, there could have been a tribe that lived in the Adirondacks year-round. Also, some historians believe most mystical monster legends are based upon eyewitness accounts of believed-to-be gigantic, extinct reptiles known as dinosaurs.
The description of the Flying Head sounds very similar to a flying reptile in the pterosaur family called a Dimorphodon. Surprising enough, to this day some people think the hill just west of and behind the Hamilton County Courthouse, where the legend says the forgotten tribe’s village was, is cursed. Many times there have been attempts to build hotels there.
The first was built in 1880 by Silas Call, which he called Kun-ja-muck Inn, though many knew it as Call’s Hotel. Eventually it was owned by J. Thomas Stearns, who called it Sacandaga Lake Hotel. Hunting and trail guides were available at $3 a day. Hotel rates were from $10 to $15 per week. The hotel burned to the ground in 1904. The golf course that was built for the hotel still exists.
J.D. Morley purchased the vacant site and by 1907 re-built the Sacandaga Lake Hotel with a capacity of 250 guests. Morley sold the hotel to John A. Cole in 1909. In 1915 the hotel was sold to a syndicate with stockholders and known as the Morley Adirondack Hotel Company. In preparing for the opening for the 1916 season a fire in the kitchen got out of control and the hotel was consumed by flames.
The Hamilton Inn was soon constructed on the same site and ready for occupancy in 1917. It was first re-named the Morley Hotel but later sold to the Adirondack Club and re-named Hamilton Inn. Later a large garage was constructed to house patrons’ automobiles.
In the 1930s a group, including Malcolm Atterbury, purchased it and later sold the building to William and Sarah Osborne. In November of 1947 this too burned to the ground. All that is left of this hotel is the stone walkway that can be seen from State Route 8.
It is also believed the Flying Head will rebirth if the folks of Lake Pleasant become immoral and anger the Master of Life. Whether the Iroquois legend is true or not, or if the sacred hill is cursed or not, the story of the Flying Head is the genesis of Lake Pleasant’s rich history, and one of that carries answers to the mysteries of its unique origin.
By AARON WEAVER