Cornelis Labden's Leap by G. T. Ferris


A Legend of 1645 Retold

The scene was only thirty miles from New York, on the shores of Long Island Sound. At the time of which we write it was a sweep of dense forest.

Outside of the block-house, built where the Myanos River enters a bay of the Sound, one September day in 1645 walked two elderly men, grizzled of beard and soldierly in bearing. Broadswords swung from their cross-belts and huge pistolets were stuck in their girdles. These were famous fighting men in New England history, Daniel Patrick and John Underhill. Bred to camps, they had chafed under Puritan laws, and had finally deserted the older settlements. Indeed, Captain Patrick had been the leader of the little colony which had made this beautiful place its home.

“I tell thee, John, I trust not the savage any longer. Ponus hath been as surly as a bear with a sore head of late. I fear the Sagamore plots evil.”

“Belike you are right, good Captain,” said Underhill, “and we must match craft with craft.”

“Rumor hath it, too,” said Captain Patrick, with growing trouble on his face, “that strange runners have been back and forth during the month at the Sinoway village. We cannot look to our English friends for help, since we signed the pact with his Excellency Governor Kieft, accepting the rule of New Netherland. If an outbreak occurs, it must be from the Manhattans that relief will come. But look! there rides Dutch Cornelis with a bale of peltries to his crupper.”

Among a few Dutch who mingled with the English of the settlement was Cornelis Labden, a bold hunter and trapper, who, unlike the rest of the colonists, got his livelihood by the fur-trade. He sold his pelts at the Dutch trading-post about seven miles west, just over the line which now separates New York from Connecticut. Thither he was riding when accosted by the two captains. Cornelis was noted for his daring and skill in woodcraft, and had always lived on specially friendly terms with the Indians, as was, indeed, his interest. His log house was built on the brow of a great precipice of beetling rock one hundred feet or more in height, in the heart of a gloomy forest two miles from the outskirts of the settlement. The spot is still known as Labden’s Rock, and the writer has shot many a squirrel there in woods still solemn with deepest shadow. Here Cornelis lived with his English wife and two children, Hans and Anneke.

“Well met, Cornelis,” said Patrick. “We were holding counsel concerning our Indian neighbors. What think you of their peaceful purpose?”

The Dutchman shook his head. He was a man of few words. “Der outlook ist pad, Cabdain. Dot yoong Gief Owenoke say to me toder day, ‘Cornelis, Indian’s friend, bedder go ’way. Indian very angry at bale-faces.’ Owenoke’s vader, Ponus, means misgief. But no tanger dill der snow vlies. Der Indians, if dey addack, waid dill grops all in.”

“You are bound, I suppose, to Byram Fort with your peltries. Tarry awhile, and carry me a letter for the Governor. I will write it forthwith.” Captain Patrick disappeared in the block-house, and wrote to the Dutch Governor as follows:

To his Excellency, Wilhelm Kieft, Governor-General of New Netherland at New Amsterdam, greeting:

“This in haste:—Whereas it cometh to me with some surety that the savages on our border plot an early outbreak, I would urge that a company of musketeers be sent to the trading-post at Byram to protect the outlying country. Thence sure help may reach this settlement. Once the savages break loose they will ravage the region for many miles with torch and tomahawk. I would entreat your Excellency to act right speedily in this affair. Cornelis Labden, who is well skilled in Indian matters, bears this letter.

“Daniel Patrick.”

 It will be seen by this that Captain Patrick did not share the confidence of Cornelis. But all the people were very busy afield at that time gathering their crops, and they were loath to think that danger was pressing. The women and children, however, were gathered every night in the block-house. It may be that this measure of care on the part of the settlers quickened the action of the Indians in the fear that their purpose had been discovered. Within three days the outbreak came. The forest was glowing with all the rich hues of autumn, when through its arches burst at different points bands of naked warriors, painted with as many colors as the leaves themselves, and yelling their shrill war-whoops. Every colonist amid the yellowing corn-stalks of the fields had his firelock close at hand. They all skirmished back through this cover and across the rye and buckwheat stubble towards the block-house, firing and loading as they ran. Yet several fell under the cloud of arrows before the fugitives reached the little fort. The two captains, each with a party of men, charged the savages fiercely on either flank as they leaped into the open, and drove them back with heavy loss. The settlers then withdrew behind the palisades, awaiting attack.

The red besiegers, having exhausted their arts of attack and met with heavy loss, for musket-balls told with terrible effect against flint arrows, determined to starve out the little garrison. It was on the morning of the third day that a rider galloped furiously from the west to the bank of the Myanos, where the log bridge had been destroyed by the Indians. Dutch Cornelis had ridden daringly through the midst of them. A band of howling braves swarmed almost at his horse’s tail. He leaped his beast into the river amid the whizzing arrows, several of which stung both steed and rider sharply. Captain Underhill, with a score of colonists, sallied out from the palisades, driving the redskins from their front and opening a heavy fire on those lining the opposite bank. Under cover of this Cornelis landed safely. He had been sent on from Byram to New Amsterdam with Patrick’s letter, and it was only by hard spurring that he had made such speed in return. He brought the good news that even then a company of Dutch musketeers was on the march.

The women and children trooped out of the block-house to hear the tidings. Cornelis cast his eyes over them with agony stamped on his usually stolid face.

“Mein vrouw! mein gildren!” the Dutchman groaned. “What for you leave dem to de mercy of de savage?” with a look of fierce reproach at the two English captains.

“MEIN VROUW! MEIN GILDREN!” THE DUTCHMAN GROANED

“Nay! nay! Cornelis, blame us not,” they answered, almost in a breath. “We were sharp beset. ’Twas not easy to gather in all the outlying people in season. There be others as well not saved in the block. The savage, too, is far more friendly to you than to us English. There’s right good hope that at the worst the lost are but captives.”

This cold comfort seemed to madden the bereaved man. Muttering to himself in his own tongue, and darting wild looks around, as if his brain were turned and he were about to run amuck, he suddenly sprang on his horse, which panted there, fagged and dripping.

“Oben der gate!” he shouted, in a tone so commanding that, though several tried to seize his horse’s head by the bit, fearing some act of desperate folly, others unbarred the entrance. Cornelis dashed through as swiftly as an Indian arrow. Two miles of clearing and forest lay between him and his cabin. The way was thick with savages thirsting for blood. Cornelis spurred on, numb to all sense of danger. The smoke even yet curled from the embers of smouldering homesteads at every turn. But he saw only one house in his mind’s eye—that was a cabin perched in the midst of a clearing on top of a great rock, with flames bursting from its roof; he heard but one sound—the shrieking of wife and children in their last peril.

Perhaps it was the wild gestures of the rider, signalling as if to unseen beings, the motions of a maniac, which barred any pursuit at the outset, for the American Indian as well as the Mohammedan of the East fancies the madman under the protection of God; perhaps it was that many of the savages felt more kindly to Cornelis than to other whites. It was not till he neared the base of the precipice, on the crest of which he had built his home, that he saw six Indians on his track, leaping at a pace which outran the strides of his weary horse.

The Dutchman turned in his saddle, and his unerring aim dropped one of the pursuers; then he urged his way amid the gloom of the great trees up the hill. When he gained the clearing at the top he saw what had once been his happy home, now only a pile of cold ashes and half-charred logs. He had no time to search if by chance there might yet remain some ghastly relic of those he had loved and lost. The red men were upon him, running as fleetly as stag-hounds, for now they were on the level.

They were sure of their prey. A triumphant whoop rang out. Tomahawks whizzed through the air, one of them striking Cornelis in the shoulder, as the savages pressed on at top speed. The white man laughed loud and long with a laughter that filled the forest with shrill echoes, and motioning to them as if he were their leader, leaped his horse from the top of the terrible rock, crashing through the branches of trees down, down a hundred feet. The human hounds so hot in the chase were going with a rush which could not be stayed, and they too plunged to death in the pathway of their victim. Cornelis escaped with broken limbs, though his horse was killed, and all the Indians perished but one, who saved himself by clutching at the limb of a tree. He fled and carried the story to his tribe.

With the coming of the Dutch soldiers the settlers were strong enough to scatter their assailants. But most of the colonists, discouraged, drifted away to the New Netherlands or to the more easterly settlements. It was not till two years later that a force of Dutch and English stormed the Sinoway village and crushed the power of the tribe, after which the town was successfully settled.


Ten years have passed. The skill and toil of the whites have swept away the scars of Indian warfare. Pleasant homes rise amid smiling fields of maize and rye. One summer day, Cornelis Labden, a helpless cripple and almost half-witted, sat on the porch of Captain Underhill’s house, smoking his long Dutch pipe and looking at the shining waters of the Sound. Here or in the good Captain’s hearth-corner he would doze and mumble all day long summer and winter. An Indian youth, nearly grown, walked up the lane and stood before this poor wreck of a man. Cornelis shut his eyes, and waved him off as if to drive away some thought that troubled his weak brain.

“Lapten, me find Lapten,” said the Indian, whose blue eyes and brown hair were queerly amiss with the copper skin, the breech-clout, and the moccasins of the savage.

The sound of the voice stirred Cornelis strangely, and as if by some instinct he spoke in Dutch. The lad listened eagerly, for the words seemed to be half known to him, and he repeated them. Cornelis watched him with an intent look, like the gaze of one just awakened from a long sleep. He trembled, and for the first time in years intelligence burned in his eyes. Without another word he led the Indian lad within and began to rub the skin of his face with soap and water, and in a few moments the clear white was shown. While he was thus engaged over the unresisting youth, Captain Underhill entered.

“Cabdain, Cabdain,” said Cornelis, with a shaking voice, “mein Hans ist goom back. Done ye know yer old vader, leedle Hans? Vare ist Anneke?” And he threw his arms with a passion of sobs about the lad’s neck. This opened the gates of memory for father and son, and the identity was soon made clear. In recovering his son, Dutch Cornelis had also regained his reason.

By gradual questioning, the facts were fully obtained as the half-forgotten language of childhood came back. Hans and Anneke had been carried off by strange Indians of the more northern tribes, who had sent warriors to join in the Sinoway attack. The children had been separated, and Anneke was lost forever. As Hans grew up, forgetting much, he still remembered his father’s name and his white blood. He had finally escaped from his adopted tribe, and worked his way by a strange series of accidents and guesses back to the place of his birth. Such, in the main, is the legend of Labden’s Rock.