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Perpetuating American Traditions for Future Generations

Ticonderoga’s Indian Pageant, A Historical Account

Ticonderoga’s Indian Pageant, A Historical Account

The following undated personal narrative,  authored by Arthur A. Carr, speaks to his remembrance in the birth and development of the Indian Pageant, held at the Forest Theater in Cook’s Grove, Ticonderoga.  NY.  This writing and associated photographs are from a large collection on this subject held in the Ticonderoga Historical Society’s archives.  It is part of a larger Arthur Carr Family Collection donated to the Society over many years.

"The Hunt"  A scene from the Forest Theater

“The Hunt” A scene from the Forest Theater

“Having been connected from the beginning with the effort that came to be known as the Ticonderoga Indian Pageant, and as it now is a thing of the past, it seems proper that as I prepare from the files of the Society and from other sources (a) historical deposit that something be, by me, recorded.

Mr. Stephen Pell came to the family home at Fort Ticonderoga every summer during his life.  For several generations the Pell family had owned the wide acres on which the ruins of the old fort stood.  In the 1920s Stephen Pell became most interested in the restoration of the fort and in the community as a place to live.  In order to widen his acquaintance in the neighborhood he joined the Grange.  One of the active and leading members of that organization at the time was T. J. Cook most usually call(ed) Tom Cook.  He sensing the difficulty of the city bred Mr. Pell was having in making easy acquaintance with the rural group in the Grange, took particular notice of him and made much effort to have him feel at home among the country folk.  This gained a friend for Tom Cook.  One that for the remainder of his life was such.  The one mutual interest of Stephen Pell and Tom Cook was the Indian.  Expressing a desire to know more about the original inhabitants of our valley Tom found himself in the fall of 1930 with an armful of books which Mr. Pell brought to him before his return to his winter home in New York City.  These were loaned for the winter.  When they were returned in the spring Tom’s appetite for knowledge of the Indian, especially the Iroquois was aroused indeed.

Previous to this Tom and I had become fast friends largely through a mutual fascination for the woods and mountain trails many of which we had tramped together in company of such others F.G. Thomas, F. D. Hawksley, Westill Densmore, Walter Johnson,  and Frank and Brydon Locke.  During the summer of 1931 Tom had much to say about his discoveries in the Pell books on Indians.  One day, probably in July, he was discussing the ceremony of the Iroquois held in mid-summer at which he thanked the Great Spirit for corn, concluding with a feast upon the roasted green ears.  We fell to wondering if the simple ceremony could not be reproduced with spiritual profit by contemporary folk.  The result of this conversation was the bringing together of perhaps  six or eight of the group that had fared forth together many times along the woodsy trails of our hills, for a corn roast and trial of this ancient ceremony which Tom had found preserved by an early writer who had observed it among the Iroquois before their contamination by white culture.

Thus on an August evening in 1931 was started, unconsciously, an affair that came to have wide interest and influence.  We few men found the ceremony performed in the quiet calm of the forest some miles from a highway on the Cook farm strangely moving.  It wa not difficult to get the group together the following year.  Meanwhile Tom’s interest in the Iroquois flared to white heat.  He  read everything that he could find on the Iroquois.

There were at the time in Ticonderoga four elderly men who were great friends and who in their second boyhood had great fun in a pseudo fraternity of the four which they called an Indian tribe. The four were F. T. Lock, W.W. Jeffers, Rev. Willard Harmon, and L. F. Perry.  Taking the initial two letters of the four surnames they named their “tribe” Lojehape.  I think it was the following year that we invited this “tribe” to join us in the observance of the Iroquois feast.  The ceremony we again found moving and the fellowship about the fire on into the soft August night most pleasant.

By this time Tom’s reading had given him an exalted idea of the worth of the primitive Iroquoian culture and fired him with a desire to let the world know about this thing hidden under our scramble for dominance.  More than this Tom had become greatly grieved at the wrongs done the Indians.  Wrongs in land deals as well as wrongs almost inherent in the impact of our culture upon theirs.  It must have been in 1933 that we invited in our women, put on a primitive feast with only foods such as the Iroquois might have served on birch bark plates, etc.  As I remember it was here that Tom began telling something of the life and culture of the Iroquois. This led, the following year, to an enactment, in a very modest way, of some possible scenes from primitive Iroquois life.

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About here came into our group a young historian who came to Ti as Curator of the Headquarters House of the New York Historical Society. (New York State Historical Association) (Headquarters House  — Hancock House, present home of the Ticonderoga Historical Society) Edward Alexander was extremely personable, fun-loving, and much interested in the reconstruction of primitive culture.  Through the interest of Ed. Alexander and Dr. Fox and the organizations that they influenced, this thing which had meanwhile grown each year, gained much publicity and wide interest.

The eating part of the feast soon had to be eliminated.  I think that we had no feast after the one that attempted to duplicate a primitive one.  The Indian scenes were enlarged.  Mostly they were a sort of tableau.  Not having time to train actors the meaning of the scenes was explained by word of mouth from the side.  We found this most effective by alternating the narration between Tom and I, placed behind trees on either side of the small staging space.  The whole being lighted by a small fire.

By 1936 the attendance had become so great that the small space with a backdrop of slab-built palisades was greatly inadequate.  At this time Mr. H. Germain Slocum, was much interested in archeological work in this valley.  Becoming acquitted with the project at Tom’s woods, he threw his efforts and much-needed financial support behind it.  Much more elaborate scripts were produced.  Mr. Slocum built a stadium among the forest trees to seat some 2500 people, and in 1937 a society was organized to care for the vastly expanded activities.  This was incorporated as “The Society for the Preservation of Indian Lore” with Mr. Slocum as its head.  The record of the society can be traced through its preserved minute book.

At the beginning, the narrations and the early scripts were conceived by Tom and largely phrased by me.  As the thing developed increased business pressure prevented my being very active in either writing or staging the pageant.

The zenith of the activity and influence of this “folk festival” probably came about (in) 1950.  It attracted much learned interest among archaeologists, historians, and writers.  The bulk of those attending were people spending their summer vacation in this region.  There was never any great local support by way of attendance.

No Pageants were produced in the years 1943, 1944, 1945 as (the) war effort restricted both interest and gasoline for travel.

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Soon after the erection of the large stadium and its becoming known as “The Forest Theater” it attracted the attention of Mr. Ray Fadden of Hogansburgh, NY.  Ray was then a teacher in the Reservation School, and himself of Mohawk blood on his mother’s side.  More than this he was and is a fanatical champion of Iroquois culture and rights.   Through his influence the annual “Pageant” became well known among the present day descendants of our ancient (P)eoples, many of whom have attended.  One of the most stirring occasions known to me was at one scene where the ancient wrongs of the Indian were being depicted and one of the Older Indian observers sat in the audience with tears streaming down his face.  Even until the close of the many years of effort Ray saw to it that some descendants of the Iroquois nation participated in every pageant as dancers fo the traditional dances and singers of authentic Iroquois songs.

Tom’s purpose in the beginning was to rescue from oblivion some of the dignified and solemn ceremonies of the Iroquois.  As his enthusiasm grew this became a crusade to acquaint our generation with the erroneous conception current as to our primitive people, and to right in some small way, the sins of the white man upon the red. Personnally I feel that these purposes were accomplished beyond all our knowing or intent.  The dramatic lessons taught at these pageants were as pebbles thrown into a quiet lake whose ripples  move out in ever-widening circles.  This effort here at Ticonderoga has sparked many others similar in nature.  The Wild West Show, The Indian Medicine Show and their ilk have been supplanted by earnest attempt to show the indian as he truly was, an unusual stone age man whose culture was almost lost because he possessed no written language.

"A slight  opening in the forest wall.  Entrance path to the Indian Pageant

“A slight opening in the forest wall. Entrance path to the Indian Pageant

In my opinion the attraction of these pageants was not the narration or the scenes depicted or the lessons attempted, but rather a combination of things that created a mood.  It was theater at its best but not altogether theater of the stage.  On arriving at the Forest Theater one was directed not into an imposing building but into a slight opening in  the forest wall.  Usually the mid August night was warm.  Insects strummed their night songs as you wound your way along the woodsy path to which the opening gave access.  No straight, level path was this but with several turns and dips and arises.  At each turn and otherwise as needed was a small fire to give just enough light to aid our feet upon the tail. Usually near the fire was a youth or maiden dressed as would have been an Indian on similar duty of fire tending.  So one went forward and soon found himself entering the stadium. No blaze of glory here, the entrance was at the edge of the tiered seats and between high palisades, some 15 feet apart and unlighted.  Enough light was reflected in from the lights spotting the stage end of the enclosure.

This stage contributed to the mood, not raised but being the earth itself.  It was backed up by a representation of the inside of a palisade enclosed Indian village.  This stage included the entire front of the theater.  Entrances were small opening in the palisades, shielded by more palisade set back sufficiently to allow exit and egress.  Except in the center this large stage space was filled with people of all ages and both sexes, going slowly about or busy with the many tasks that might have engaged the daily efforts of these people.  These goings continued throughout the evening regardless of the action at center stage, except as the workers stopped to watch dramatic incident, or at times take part in the episode.  All these things developed, not from technical skill, but from an inherent feel for the fitness of things, would so unconsciously affect a person as to put him back in time and place to make him a participant in the action which took place.  True theater, I am concvinced.

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Many have been the people involved in these things.  Knowing that I will do injustice by failing to mention some who should have notice I nevertheless will record those who I remember as having significant parts.  Besides those already mentioned there were early, Rev. Howard Farnsworth, F. Allen Wickes, Loiuis C. Jones, Berne A. Pyrke, and later his daughter in law and grandchildren.  Then  came Theo Kleffle who art of brush and camera added much to our publicity.  Lois and Robert Klemm should be remembered for their generous contributions of many items of equipment as well as personal efforts.  George Spring labored as Secretary from the inception of the Incorporated Society and for many years lent his most careful diction and resonant voice as narrator.  Philip DeLano, Albert Nadeau, George Trombley, Col. James Haley, The Clarks, many members of the local clergy, James and Carroll Longergan and their brother Thomas who so dramatically portrayed the parts.  Literally hundreds of townspeople from all walks of life have assisted the production.

From the beginning the whole project revolved around Tom and Ether Cook.  Their efforts kept the affair going.  Their finances kept our credit good at times.  They received much honor and deserved it.  As age slowed their powers it became evident that the annual presentation would fade with them.  The last few years saw diminishing interest, diminishing  income, depleted reserves, greater difficulty in recruiting local help for the production and much reduced attendance.  In 1961 Ethel Cook was in ill health, and Tom was handicapped by poor vision and hearing.  To assist, Fort Ticonderoga, under the management of Col.  Edward Hamilton took over the production, and at the close of the year the Fort Ticonderoga Association paid the deficit leaving  the Society exactly on balance financially.  This seemed an excellent time to write finis to a unique, colorful, and to my mind, valuable enterprise.  This has been done.

During the final years of the pageant Mrs. Jane Lape has borne the brunt of casting, rehearsals, and in general management of the actual pageant.  Miss Marjorie Murray has been of great assistance also in this work.

Sic tansit gloria mundi   (So passes away the glory of the world.)”

This article first appear in the Ticonderoga Historical Society’s publication – “Patches and Patterns Extended,” Winter/Spring 1994 Issue.  Selected copies of this publication and other “Indian” theme books are available in our Olde Post Office Gift Shop.  The Exhibit Room has a Bark Long House, with artifacts from the Indian Pageant.  Foot note:  The original  Indian Pageant ended in 1961.  At a later date, a different version with a  smaller performance format was held on the Community Building grounds for a few seasons.

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