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Sa-Sa-Na Loft, Owego, NY’s Adopted Indian Maiden

Linda Roorda

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On a hill looking south over Owego stands a white marble obelisk, visible from across the river when the leaves are down.  Its prominence denotes the Evergreen Cemetery, and specifically marks the grave of a young Mohawk Indian maiden.  The site chosen for her memorial displays a stunningly beautiful panorama of the town below as the Susquehanna River wends its way through the midst of what was once thick virgin forest.  And it’s not too difficult to imagine the Native Americans who once lived and traveled this waterway through our beautiful and fertile land.

 

The elegant 17-foot tall monument was erected by private donations from the good people of Owego and other cities after the young woman’s death.  Her epitaph reads:  “In memory of Sa-Sa-Na Loft, an Indian Maiden of Mohawk-Woods, Canada West, who lost her life in the Railroad Disaster at Deposit, N.Y., February 18, 1852, Aged 21 years.”  [Searles, p.29]

 

A carved wild rose with a broken stem and missing leaf adorns the back of the monument.  Facing west are the words, “By birth a daughter of the forest, By adoption a child of God.”  Sa-Sa-Na is buried at the foot of this elegant monument, facing the sunrise to the east.  [Searles, p.29]

 

Several websites about Sa-Sa-Na include the words from a poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” with claims it is a Native American prayer.  This poem, with its origins in dispute, was confirmed in 1998 by Abigail Van Buren to have been written by Mary Elizabeth Frye in 1932:  "Do not stand by my grave and cry... I am not there, I did not die." 

 

Many are the visitors who have reported hearing a voice softly singing while they sit upon a bench in front of the wrought-iron fence which surrounds and protects her gravesite.  If the singing be nothing more than leaves gently swaying in the breeze, the ambience denotes a quiet and peaceful setting.

 

Sa-Sa-Na (Indian equivalent of the English Susannah) Loft was a direct descendant of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), the Mohawk chief who had caused much fear and destruction during the Revolutionary War.  With the colonists’ revolt against the British Crown, most of the Iroquois nation felt their alliance with Britain was key to stemming the tide of colonists who were taking more and more of their ancestral lands.  Maintaining his ties to the Crown, Brant (commissioned a Colonel) led numerous attacks on various communities within New York. 

 

When the war for independence began, many of the Iroquois nation in the Mohawk Valley region of New York removed to what was called “The Mohawk Woods” in the township of Thayendanegea/Tyendinaga on Canada’s Salmon River.  The Loft family, living near Canajoharie, was among those fleeing the Mohawk Valley for the safety of Canada.  [Searles, p.8-9] 

 

After Britain’s loss to the upstart American nation, more Iroquois resettled on Canadian soil given to them by the British Crown (as did white Loyalists from within New York State).  On May 22, 1784, twenty canoes holding fifteen Indian families under Capt. John Deserontyon landed on the shore of the Bay of Quinte for their land reserve of 92,000 acres.  The township of Tyendinaga (i.e. Thayandanegea, Joseph Brant’s Mohawk name) is west of Kingston in Hastings County; specifically, it is west of Deseronto and east of Belleville along the Salmon River on the northeastern end of Lake Ontario.  Others followed Joseph Brant to what became known as Brant’s Ford on the Grand River, now Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  This community is about 25-30 miles west of Hamilton and Burlington, both of which are situated on the far western shores of Lake Ontario. 

 

A venerable warrior and revered chief of his people, Joseph Brant was born somewhere along the Ohio River in 1742.  His father died when he was still an infant, while his widowed mother, Owandah, raised her family with, presumably, assistance from their tribe in colonial New York.  Mary/Molly Brant, Joseph's older sister, became the common-law wife of Sir William Johnson.  As the British Superintendant of Indian Affairs, Johnson played a major role in supporting the Crown during the late 18th century in the province of New York.  He was also an instrumental force in helping educate the illiterate young Brant.  At age 14, Brant left home to become a student at Moor’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut (the forerunner of Dartmouth College) under Dr. Eleazer Wheelock.  Returning home with an education, Brant attained new roles in leadership of the Iroquois and as the head of his own family.  After the deaths of his first two wives, Peggy/Margaret and Susannah, he married Catherine Croghan in 1780 with whom he raised a family of seven children.

 

With his natural abilities well suited to the role of chief and leader of the Iroquois nation, Brant was instrumental in securing peace treaties after the Revolutionary War between the United States government and other Native American tribes.  Having already proven himself a worthy warrior not only by his bravery in battle but as a leader of his people, he now proved his prowess as politician and diplomat.  But, more importantly, Brant also encouraged his people to settle their disputes and end the warfare against the ever-expanding white frontier settlements.  He then devoted the balance of his life to missionary work, including the raising of funds to build the first Episcopal church in Canada. 

 

Appreciating his own education, Brant believed there was much to learn from the whites and their patriarchal society, which differed from the traditional Indian matriarchal society.  He felt strongly that, for the Indians to survive, they would need to incorporate more of the methods used by whites not only in their agricultural future, but in virtually every other aspect of life.  Having become a Christian (Anglican/Episcopalian) and a Freemason, Brant also believed in educating their own youth so that they, too, could succeed like the white man as the world around them continued its progressive change.

 

His last words to his adopted nephew show how committed he had become to the intellectual and spiritual advancement of his own people:  “Have pity on the poor Indians.  If you have any influence with the great, endeavor to use it for their good.”  Brant died on Nov 24, 1807 at his home in what is now Burlington, Ontario.  He is buried at Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks (originally St. Paul’s, built in 1785), the oldest Protestant church in Brantford, Ontario, with a memorial statue erected in 1886 to his memory. 

 

And into this heritage was born Sa-Sa-Na Loft.  From a Canadian biography of her brother, George Rok-Wa-Ho Loft, four children were born to Henry Loft and his wife Jemima (or Ya-Go-We-A, also their youngest daughter’s name).  Direct descendants of Brant, the Loft children’s maternal ties were of the unmixed Mohawks living in the township of Thayandanegea/Tyendinaga near the Bay of Quinte.  Henry’s father, David Loft, was a St. Francis Indian (Abenaki tribe) while Jemima was a Mohawk. 

 

Sa-Sa-Na’s older brother, Rok-Wa-Ho (George Rokwaho Loft), married Ellen Smith, also a Mohawk.  They were parents of Frederick Ogilvie Loft and William Loft, both of whom have continued Brant’s legacy in promoting the betterment of the Mohawk Indians as a whole. 

 

Growing up on the reservation known as The Mohawk Woods in the township of Tyendinaga on the Salmon River in Ontario, Canada, the Loft children received a good education through the work of the local mission school.  Understanding the importance of meeting the spiritual needs of his people, Brant had had several books of the Bible translated into their native language, including Genesis and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, along with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and other Christian writings.  Through the local mission’s efforts, the Loft family and children also converted to Christianity.

 

With the two older Loft children having been educated at the mission school several miles away from home, they then taught Sa-Sa-Na at home.  The wife of the Episcopal minister in Kingston also gave music lessons to train Sa-Sa-Na’s beautiful voice, who in turn taught her younger sister, Ya-Go-Weia, all she knew. 

 

In their longing to help provide a quality education and to Christianize more of their people, Rok-Wa-Ho and his two younger sisters, Sa-Sa-Na and Ya-Go-Weia, commenced a singing tour throughout New York state.  Since their oldest sister was married at the time, she remained home with their widowed mother.  Traveling to raise funds to help educate their people, their efforts were rewarded in helping to eventually build a church within their own community. 

 

On February 15 and 16, 1852, the Loft siblings arrived at Owego, New York where the sisters gave two concerts, and received a warm welcome from the townspeople.  Sponsored by Judge Charles P. Avery, they stayed as guests at his home on Front Street in Owego, along the Susquehanna River.  Avery was a man with considerable interest in preserving local Indian history within colonial Tioga County, and thus his eager support of the Lofts.

 

The siblings next traveled east to Deposit.  At the Oquaga Theater, they gave another sacred concert on February 17th.  They were well received at both towns just as they had been at other stops throughout New York, and were greatly admired for their efforts to assist their indigent nation back home.

 

In Deposit the next day, February 18th, while their brother purchased tickets at the station, the sisters boarded the passenger train and took their seats.  Unbeknownst to everyone, just eight miles away on the same track, an engineer lost control of his freight train at “The Summit” [also called Gulf Summit], the peak of a steep downgrade [from my knowledge of the area, I presume this to be part of the summit of Belden Hill on Rt. 7.]  Knowing what the end result would be, the engineer jumped the train as it gained unrelenting speed on its headlong run down the track covered in snow and ice.  Hearing an alarm sounding for the fast-approaching runaway train racing toward their standing train, both sisters managed to jump from their car onto the station platform.  Unfortunately, as she jumped, Sa-Sa-Na lost her balance and fell backward onto the car they’d just left, being crushed and scalded to death as the freight train crashed at that very instant with a horrendous slam and explosion of steam.

 

The Owego Gazette for Thursday, February 19, 1852 included this brief notice:  “Frightful Rail Road Accidents.  Deposit 18, 1852.  Freight Train East ran in to mail train going east at this station today, and one person, the elder Indian girl killed.  One lady from Great Bend badly scalded.  One man badly injured.  Freight train coming down the summit became unmanageable.  No others injured.”  [Both Miss Susan Wisner, 18, of Goshen, Orange County, NY and Patrick Moony from Susquehanna, PA died soon afterward from their injuries.  [Searles, p. 105-107, The Deposit Courier, Feb. 21, 1852.]

 

Sa-Sa-Na’s funeral was held in Owego on February 20, 1852 “with impressive services at the Episcopal Church, and at the grave [with] Rev. Mr. Watson officiating.”  [Searles, p.108, The Owego Gazette, February 21, 1852] 

 

A lengthy obituary of Sa-Sa-Na by the Hon. Charles P. Avery was included in the small handbook, “Memorial of Sa-Sa-Na.”  [Searles, p.83]   A poem written by W. H. C. Hosmer titled simply, “Lament of Sa-Sa-Na” was read at her funeral.  [Too lengthy to include here, it can be located online.]  The obituary, sermon and poem were included in an 1852 memorial pamphlet which was entitled, “To the memory of SA-SA-NA- LOFT, noble, lovely, self-devoted – early mourned; and to those who love and cherish her memory, these brief pages are dedicated.”  [Published at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.] 

 

Great crowds gathered to show their grief in support of the surviving siblings.  They had become very fond of the three Indian youths and their endeavors to raise funds for the education of their tribe.  The deeply saddened Rok-Wa-Ho is quoted as saying, “One half the burden of the load is lifted from our hearts” following the great kindness shown to them by Owego’s citizens.  [Searles, p.33, excerpt from Star-Gazette Sunday Telegram, May 19, 1985]

 

A memorial service subsequent to that in Owego was held at St. Thomas’ Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on February 29, 1852, with a sermon given by the rector S. H. Norton.  He referenced Ecclesiastes 3:4:  “A time to weep and…a time to mourn.”  [Searles, p.89, from the booklet “A Memorial of Sa-Sa-Na, the Mohawk Maiden…”]

 

“The Deposit Courier” of Wednesday, February 25, 1852 included a poem “In memory of Miss Sasaneah Loft, the Indian Singing Girl, a victim of one of the late fatal accidents on the N.Y. and Erie Railroad:

‘To her Father, the ‘Great Spirit,’

The forest child has fled; -

Sharp was the arrow, brief the pang

That laid her with the dead!

But yesterday, and she was here

Gay as the fawns that bound

In sportive grace and joyousness

Her woodland home around…

Long, long, in sylvan solitudes

Will sound the tale, I ween,

How the Great Spirit called to heaven

Their bright, accomplished queen.’

From the Oxford Times, Feb. 21, 1852.”

[Searles, p. 118, The Deposit Courier]

 

Intending to return his sister’s body to Canada for burial, Rok-Wa-Ho was persuaded by Judge Avery to allow her remains to be placed in the Avery vault at the Presbyterian Church on Temple Street.  A committal service for her was held the following spring at Evergreen Cemetery on the hill above Owego. 

 

With letters of administration from Surrogate Court, Judge Avery sued the railroad company on behalf of Sa-Sa-Na’s family.  Receiving a payment of $2000.00 in September 1852, he turned the money over to the Loft family.  Upon receipt of these funds, they were then able to provide for “publication of religious books, in the Mohawk language, for the education and Christianization of the Mohawk people at the reservation in Canada.”  [Searles, p.25-26, from Deposit Courier Magazine, March/April 1957.]

 

To provide a monument at Sa-Sa-Na Loft’s burial site, the Owego women raised funds locally and from communities as far away as Albany, Auburn, Binghamton and Oxford where the Loft siblings had given concerts.  When sufficient funds were received, a beautiful white marble obelisk was purchased at cost, $201.58 (for a monument valued at the substantial sum of $400), from the Owego Marble Factory of G. W. Phillips who obtained the shaft and bases from Vermont’s Rutland Quarry.  This monument was erected in May 1855 as a lasting memorial to the young woman with whom the community had fallen in love.

 

Little known to the rest of the world, Mohawk Indians apparently arrive each spring at Evergreen Cemetery to pay their respects to the memory of Sa-Sa-Na.  At times, the chief attends in full Indian dress.  “As is the custom of the Indians they arrive and leave quietly and, unless someone happens to be in the vicinity of the monument at the time, no one is the wiser for their tribute.”  [Searles, p.8-9, “Still visited by Her People, the Saga of Sa-Sa-Na Loft”  in “An Owego paper, date unknown, from the scrapbook of Ruth S. Tilly.”] 

 

How fitting that, at least in the past, a quiet and unassuming tribute has been paid each year by the Mohawks to the memory of Sa-Sa-Na, one of their own… a moving tribute to a kind and compassionate young woman who ventured forth with the simple and noble ambition of raising funds to further educate more of her beloved people… her enduring legacy.

 

And so, closing my eyes, I visualize the solemn occasion as the chief arrives bearing a visage of serenity.  Slowly and quietly he walks to the edge of Sa-Sa-Na’s grave.  Head bowed, he pauses to contemplate… and to remember all he’s heard about this young woman in stories passed from generation to generation.  As he lifts his eyes toward the sun, his own face shines with a joy for one so young whose tender heart touched so many… one whose life ended far too soon… but one who left a lasting legacy of love and concern for her people.  And with hands raised to the sky, he thanks the Great Creator for blessing their nation with the beauty of Sa-Sa-Na’s life.

 

MAIN SOURCE (other websites on request):  “Sa-Sa-Na Loft, Owego’s Indian Maiden, A Historical Anthology,” compiled by Marilyn T. Searles, 2001 (held at Coburn Library, Owego, New York).



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