The Many Legends of Pipe’s Cliff

Pipe’s Cliff is the name given long ago to a series of sandstone bluffs that can be seen from Pleasant Valley Road less than a mile north of Malabar Farm State Park.  The ridge runs along the north side of the road for several hundred yards, and is most easily viewed during the season of the year when trees are empty of leaves.

Pipe’s Cliff is such a dramatic and beautiful site it deserves a good story—and it has accumulated a number of them.  Actually the place has so many stories that it is difficult to know which tale—if any—might be true, or based on something sort of real.

Most of the stories appeared in print for the first time as elements of a novel published in the 1850s—so it’s not hard to surmise that they may have originated in the imagination of a melodramatically inspired author.

These stories include the romantic tragedies of sweet Onalaska: the Indian princess whose untimely death is commemorated for generations by the sandstone crag serving as her epic headstone.  And the old chief, whose name serves to identify this picturesque ridge at the side of Pleasant Valley: the venerable Captain Pipe.

It all makes for memorable reading in the somewhat sentimental tradition of 1800s American Literature, and the novel, Philip Seymour; or Pioneer Life in Richland County, sold out every edition for 50 years.

Inspired by the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper, local author Rev. James M’Gaw knew he could immortalize the legends of the Mohican area by publishing an adventure/romance tale.

His 1858 novel, Philip Seymour; or Pioneer Life in Richland County was published serially at first in a Mansfield newspaper, and later in increasingly ornately bound volumes through the next 50 years.

His writings established the stories of Pipe and Onalaska for generations to come.

Pipe the Chief

The story starts with Captain Pipe—which can be confusing in itself because Pipe’s son also called himself ‘Captain Pipe’ after the old man’s departure, so scanning documents of frontier archives that make no distinction between father and son, it looks as if the chief lived for about 120 years.

The Pipe who we are concerned with—who left his name on the cliffs—was born in Pennsylvania in the 1720s-1740s.  We find him in the US History books during the American Revolution as a chief of the Wolf Clan of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribe, struggling to remain neutral in the war between US Colonials and the British.

He was present among all the dignitaries when treaties were signed between his tribal leaders and both US and British sides of the conflict, though he wisely never affixed his name to any document in official alliance with either side.

When the war got personal however, and it was people of his own tribes’ villages who died, he stepped into the war personally as a noted instigator at the famous ‘burning-at-the-stake’ death of Colonel Crawford in 1782.

By the time European settlers were establishing the grid of Richland County over top of the tribal lands around 1803-1810, Pipe and his hunting parties were a familiar sight around the Forks of the Mohican, and well known to pioneers as a friendly neighbor. 

As leader of the Wolf Clan he is said to have claimed that he could outrun any animal in the forest—except the wolf.  His name derived from his tribal nickname, Hopocan, which translated as Tobacco Pipe.  In our area of the state he is remembered as Pipe, though in eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania he is known as Hopocan.

When the War of 1812 brought bloodshed into his backyard at the nearby Battle of Copus Hill, he knew that his days of peace and quiet were over, and he disappeared into the western wilderness.  The annals of American History took no more notice of him, and officially he was never heard of again.

The story persisted, however, among farmers in Pleasant Valley, that once a year, in the early autumn, he was seen to be standing high atop the cliffs overlooking Switzer’s Creek.  A woman from Lucas reported that she spoke with him there once, and he told her he was 100 years old.

The reason for his annual visits to ‘Pipe’s Cliffs’ is the subject of another tale.

This photo of Pipe’s Cliff was taken in the 1890s when the site was still something of an outing destination and picnic spot.  A close examination of the picture reveals a person standing at the summit looking down, in the same place where Captain Pipe is said to have been seen during his yearly pilgrimage to this place sacred to him.

Onalaska’s Tower

Legend has it that old Pipe came back every year to the same place in order to pay homage to Onalaska.  Depending on which tale you read, Onalaska may have been an Indian Princess, his sister, or his daughter.

One particular cliff in the ridge—known as Onalaska’s Tower—was the site held sacred by the old man because that was where she died.  The exact means of her demise is always the plot of the story, and you are free to choose your version of history according to your taste in historical fiction.

Tale One

In the 1780s, when the frontier settlements in western Pennsylvania were harried from continual raids by Ohio Indians, they sent out a reprisal army to mount a campaign intended to wipe out the strongholds where Indian terrorists were known to fester.

One of the scouting parties wandered up Pleasant Valley, and fired on a group of tribal folk seen standing high atop a valley cliff.

One of the bullets—the fatal shot—pierced the heart of Onalaska who fell from the precipice to the rocks below.

Onalaska’s Tower, near the scene of her death and dedicated to her memory, rises sharply like the prow of a ship above the forest floor.

Tale Two

In another version of the tale, Onalaska stands at the edge of the cliff, with her bundled child in her arms, gazing out over the valley below with a troubled heart.

Having witnessed so much of the struggle between her people and the Europeans, encroaching ever-westward on sacred tribal lands, she can recognize the futility in further hope because it is only a question of time before the pleasant valley below her is deforested, cut up into parcels, and planted in neat rows of crops.

Onalaska looks at the child in her arms as she envisions the future in which this child will live her lifetime—a life of humiliation and exile.  In a moment equally imbued in horror and exaltation she leaps off the cliff to the rocks below so that she and her babe might together enter the happy hunting grounds of paradise.

The story of Onalaska’s fall, variously recounted as a mishap of war or a melancholy self-destruction, was given a new interpretation in the late 20th Century by Native American spiritualists who said, “Her death was a tragedy only if her body was all she had.”

In Memory

So if you were standing in the moccasins of old Captain Pipe, which story would you choose to remember at the base of your cliff?  Probably neither.

And if you were a historian during the Gilded Age of America, hoping to attach a mythic quality to a Richland County scenic landmark, which story would you promulgate?

And if you were a novelist in Early America writing in the heroic style and temperament of the 1850s, how could you not weave a tale of pathos and tragedy around a beloved location?

When you’re driving down Pleasant Valley road, take a look at Pipe’s Cliffs and see if the scene doesn’t conjure a want of passionate tales of vanished eras.

The long ridge of sandstone outcroppings that has come to be known as Pipe’s Cliff reaches its terminus, and is easily recognized behind Pleasant Valley Lutheran Church.

Interestingly enough, one of the plants found in the woods below Pipe’s Cliff is the curious wildflower known as Indian Pipe.
Unlike most plants, Indian Pipe has no chlorophyll, the substance that makes plantlife green.  Most people assume it is a fungus.
Also known in folklore as Ghost Flower or Death Flower, it’s qualities as a folk remedy are said to heal the broken heart of those mourning the loss of a loved one…certainly appropriate to the legends of Pipe’s Cliff.

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