The Lake Gun

The Lake Gun

THE LAKE GUN JAMES FENIMORE COOPER {Introductory Note: The "Lake Gun" though based on folklore about Seneca Lake in Central New York State (the "Wandering Jew" and the "Lake Gun") and on a supposed Seneca Indian legend is in fact political satire commenting on American political demagogues in general and in particular on the then (1850) Whig Senator from New York State William Henry Seward (1801-1872) who had served as Governor of New York (1838-1842) and would later become Secretary of State (1861-1869) under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. By 1850 Cooper feared that unscrupulous political extremists mobilizing public opinion behind causes such as abolitionism were leading America towards a disastrous Civil War. Cooper probably obtained his local lore about Seneca Lake while visiting his son Paul who attended Geneva College (now Hobart College) on Lake Seneca from 1840-1844.} The Lake Gun by James Fenimore Cooper The Seneca is remarkable for its "Wandering Jew" and the "Lake Gun." The first is a tree so balanced that when its roots are clear of the bottom it floats with its broken and pointed trunk a few feet above the surface of the water driving before the winds or following in the course of the currents. At times the "Wandering Jew" is seen off Jefferson near the head of this beautiful sheet; and next it will appear anchored as it might be in the shallow water near the outlet. {"Wandering Jew" = The medieval legend of Ahasueras who mocked Christ on his way to the cross and was condemned to live until Judgment Day is widespread throughout Europe though he was only identified as a "Jew" in the 17th century--students at Geneva College (now Hobart College) applied the name to a supposedly unsinkable floating log in Lake Seneca identified as the legendary "Chief Agayentha"; Jefferson = I have been unable to locate any "Jefferson" on Lake Seneca} For more than half a century has this remnant of the forest floated about from point to point its bald head whitening with time until its features have become familiar to all the older inhabitants of that region of country. The great depth of the Seneca prevents it from freezing; and summer and winter springtime and autumn is this wanderer to be observed; occasionally battling with the ice that makes a short distance from the shore now pursuing its quiet way before a mild southern air in June or again anchored by its roots touching the bottom as it passes a point or comes in contact with the flats. It has been known to remain a year or two at a time in view of the village of Geneva until accustomed to its sight the people began to think that it was never to move from its berth any more; but a fresh northerly breeze changes all this; the "Jew" swings to the gale and like a ship unmooring drags clear of the bottom and goes off to the southward with its head just high enough above water to be visible. It would seem really that his wanderings are not to cease as long as wood will float. {village of Geneva = now the City of Geneva at the northern end of Lake Seneca} No white man can give the history of this "Jew." He was found laving his sides in the pure waters of the Seneca by the earliest settlers and it may have been ages since his wanderings commenced. When they are to cease is a secret in the womb of time. The "Lake Gun" is a mystery. It is a sound resembling the explosion of a heavy piece of artillery that can be accounted for by none of the known laws of nature. The report is deep hollow distant and imposing. The lake seems to be speaking to the surrounding hills which send back the echoes of its voice in accurate reply. No satisfactory theory has ever been broached to explain these noises. Conjectures have been hazarded about chasms and the escape of compressed air by the sudden admission of water; but all this is talking at random and has probably no foundation in truth. The most that can be said is that such sounds are heard though at long intervals and that no one as yet has succeeded in ascertaining their cause. {"The Lake Gun" = The "Lake Gun" or "Lake Drum" is a mysterious booming sound occasionally heard on Lake Seneca (and on neighboring Lake Cayuga) which has been given a variety of scientific literary and legendary interpretations.} It is not many lustrums since curiosity induced an idler a traveler and one possessed of much attainment derived from journeys in distant lands first to inquire closely into all the traditions connected with these two peculiarities of the Seneca and having thus obtained all he could to lead him to make the tour of the entire lake in the hope of learning more by actual personal observation. He went up and down in the steamboat; was much gratified with his trip but could see or hear nothing to help him in his investigation. The "Gun" had not been heard in a long time and no one could tell him what had become of the "Wandering Jew." In vain did his eyes roam over the broad expanse of water; they could discover nothing to reward their search. There was an old man in the boat of the name of Peter who had passed his life on the Seneca and to him was our traveler referred as the person most likely to gratify his curiosity. Fuller (for so we shall call the stranger for the sake of convenience) was not slow to profit by this hint and was soon in amicable relations with the tough old fresh-water mariner. A half-eagle opportunely bestowed opened all the stores of Peter's lore; and he professed himself ready to undertake a cruise even for the especial purpose of hunting up the "Jew." {lustrum = a period of five years; half eagle = a U.S. gold coin worth $5.00} "I haven't seen that ere crittur now"--Peter always spoke of the tree as if it had animal life--"these three years. We think he doesn't like the steamboats. The very last time I seed the old chap he was a-goin' up afore a smart norwester and we was a-comin' down with the wind in our teeth when I made out the 'Jew' about a mile or at most a mile and a half ahead of us and right in our track. I remember that I said to myself says I 'Old fellow we'll get a sight of your countenance this time.' I suppose you know sir that the 'Jew' has a face just like a human?" "I did not know that; but what became of the tree?" "Tree" answered Peter shaking his head "why can't we cut a tree down in the woods saw it and carve it as we will and make it last a hundred years? What become of the tree sir;--why as soon as the 'Jew' saw we was a- comin' so straight upon him what does the old chap do but shift his helm and make for the west shore. You never seed a steamer leave sich a wake or make sich time. If he went half a knot he went twenty!" This little episode rather shook Fuller's faith in Peter's accuracy; but it did not prevent his making an arrangement by which he and the old man were to take a cruise in quest of the tree after having fruitlessly endeavored to discover in what part of the lake it was just then to be seen. "Some folks pretend he's gone down" said Peter in continuation of a discourse on the subject as he flattened in the sheets of a very comfortable and rather spacious sailboat on quitting the wharf of Geneva "and will never come up ag'in. But they may just as well tell me that the sky is coming down and that we may set about picking up the larks. That 'Jew' will no more sink than a well-corked bottle will sink." {picking up the larks = "When the sky falls we shall catch larks" is an old proverb meaning that an idea or suggestion is ridiculous} This was the opinion of Peter. Fuller cared but little for it though he still fancied he might make his companion useful in hunting up the object of his search. These two strangely-assorted companions cruised up and down the Seneca for a week vainly endeavoring to find the "Wandering Jew." Various were the accounts they gleaned from the different boatmen. One had heard he was to be met with off this point; another in that bay: all believed he might be found though no one had seen him lately-- some said in many years. "He'll turn up" said Peter positively "or the Seneca would go down bows foremost. We shall light on the old chap when we least expect it." It must be confessed that Peter had many sufficient reasons for entertaining these encouraging hopes. He was ...