Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Native American Legends of Pelham's "Rising Sun Rock" and "The Living Water" Spring

There once was a natural spring on the grounds of the Priory in Pelham Manor.  According to long-standing tradition, the spring was frequented by Native Americans in the region who named it "The Living Water."

The Living Water spring, according to this tradition, was an important source of fresh water that was only a few hundred feet away from "Rising Sun Rock," another important Native American site in Pelham Manor according to tradition.  Rising Sun Rock, also known as "Sunrise Rock," sat atop the high rocky knoll at the end of today's Pelhamdale Avenue near the entrance to the New York Athletic Club complex on Travers Island.  The knoll itself is known as the "Haunted Cedar Knoll," reputedly the site of ghostly war dances on moonlit nights of headless Native Americans who were killed in a terrible battle long ago.

Satellite Image from Google Maps With Arrow Showing
Location of the Rocky Knoll Known as the "Haunted Cedar
Knoll" on Which "Rising Sun Rock" Once Rested.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

A story long has been told that in 1801, an elderly Native American visited the nearby home of a member of the Roosevelt family and explained that he was on a pilgrimage to the Rising Sun Rock.  He claimed that he was following what long had been the custom of "Indian fighters" to ponder the rising sun from the rock to ready themselves for death.  

Rising Sun Rock, according to tradition, had a sunset counterpart located in today's Bronxville.  Native Americans purportedly paid homage to the setting sun from a rock on Gramatan Hill in Bronxville known, appropriately, as "Sunset Rock."  

The Living Water Spring, reputedly an ancient watering hole for local Native Americans, was located on the grounds of today's Priory.  The Bolton family named the spring "St. Mary's Spring" and built a quaint stone structure above the spring which formed a small lake on the grounds.  

St. Mary's Spring with Stone Structure Built by the Bolton
Family Above the Spring and the Small Lake Formed by
the Spring.  Photograph by William R. Montgomery Taken
on June 19, 1926.  Courtesy of The Office of The Historian
of the Town of Pelham.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Although the spring, lake, and small stone structure built by the Boltons no longer exist, it is possible to pinpoint their location from a map published in 1914.  That map, a detail of which appears below, shows that the lake and spring were located in an area now dotted with homes along Shoreview Circle.  The small lake extended from west to east and was longer than it was wide.  The stone structure was built on the northern shore of the small lake.  (Thus, William R. Montgomery seems to have taken the photograph above while standing on the southern shore of the small lake looking across the water toward the small stone structure on the northern shore.  

Detail from 1914 Map Showing the Lake on the Priory
Estate and a Yellow Reference on the North Shore
of the Lake Indicating the Location of the Small Stone
Structure Built Above St. Mary's Spring.  Source:  Bromley,
G.W., "Pelham. New Rochelle." in Atlas of Westchester
County, N.Y. Pocket, Desk, and Automobile Edition, Vol.
I, p. 132 (NY, NY:  G. W. Bromley & Co., 1914).
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

According to one published account, the small lake was used for ice skating during the winter by students of the Priory School for Girls during the 19th century.  The students also reportedly were fond of sledding down the long hill between the Priory and the lake in the snow.  

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Distinguished Guests Entertained By Mrs. Birney At Historical Luncheon, The Pelham Sun, Nov. 15, 1940, p. 12, cols. 3-4 ("William R. Montgomery contributed a brief sketch of Pelham's early history touching on the early Siwanoy Indians who inhabited this part of the country and who left us as a legacy some of the most beautiful trees in the East.  Mr. Montgomery pointed out historic points of interest, such as the spring of 'Living Water,' on the grounds of Bolton Priory and the Sunrise Rock nearby where the Indians were accustomed to greet the rising sun with prayer.").

Indian Life In Pelhams Is Described At D.A.R. Meeting -- Town Historian Gives Interesting Talk At Meeting of Knapp Chapter; Indicates Indian Relics, The Pelham Sun, Oct. 26, 1934, p. 4, cols. 5-6 ("The custom of the Siwanoy Indians, who dwelt in this part of the country, was to greet the rising sun on the 'Haunted Cedar Knoll,' which is located at the entrance to the New York Athletic Club.  They awaited the setting of the sun from the Gramatan Hill in Bronxville, which was known as Sunset Rock.").  

Early History of Pelham Is Told By Historian at Pelhamwood Meeting -- William R. Montgomery Tells of Foundation of Pelham Traditions and Shows Early Views of Town, The Pelham Sun, Feb. 1, 1935, p. 6, cols. 4-5 ("He sketched briefly over the coming of the Rev. Robert Bolton to Pelham to establish Bolton Priory and Christ's Church.  In the pictures which he displayed were several interesting scenes showing the beautiful gardens on the Priory property, the old St. Mary's Spring, a favorite drinking place of the Indians. . . . Of particular interest was the story about the visit of an Indian Chief to the home of Albert J. Roosevelt, overlooking Long Island Sound in 1801.  'This member of the Siwanoy Tribe,' said Mr. Montgomery, 'made his pilgrimage to the Rising Sun Rock, on a knoll overlooking Long Island Sound, adjacent to what is now Travers Island, because this had been the custom of all Indian fighters before they went to the happy hunting grounds.'").

Lindsley, Emily Earle, The School for Girls at Bolton Priory, The Pelham Sun, Dec. 1, 1933, Vol. 24, No. 37, p. 2, cols. 4-5 ("The girls had various outdoor sports; archery, now again popular, was one, and in winter, fine coasting and skating.  St. Mary's Spring, covered by a small stone building, still standing, supplied the water for a charming little lake, down to which the joyous coasters made high speed.").  

BOLTON FAMILY SUBJECT OF TALK BY MONTGOMERY -- Town Historian Is Speaker at First in Series of Historical Mornings Sponsored by Knapp Chapter, The Pelham Sun, Jun. 10, 1938, p. 5, col. 1 ("Mr. Montgomery told his audience something of the old Spring on the Priory grounds.  This spring was called by the Indians, 'the living water.'  The Rev. Robert Bolton had a stone house built over it and called it St. Mary's Spring.").  

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