A water gap is a site where a river cuts through a mountain ridge rather than being diverted by the barrier. In the case of the Ridge and Valley section of the Appalachians, water gaps cut through long ridges. These mountain ridges focused migration and transportation routes through these gaps. Usually the existence of a water gap is an indication that the river preceded the topography around it. In other words, the river established its course, and as tectonic forces acted upon the land, the river cut down through the underlying rock layers, cutting through the ridges as they formed or became exposed by erosion. Perhaps the most famous water gap is the Cumberland Gap which Daniel Boone identified as a route for European migrant through the Appalachians and into what is now Kentucky.
I visualize the water gaps in the Appalachians as funnels through which Europeans spread into the central plains of North America, displacing Native Americans. Had all of the eastern United States been flat plains, this displacement might have happened even more quickly. The mountains served as a barrier until the routes through the water gaps became known.
I have read several books lately on the eras of European settlement and Native American displacement that took place in the Midwest and Great Plains from several points of view. Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires places Laura Ingalls Wilder and her writing in the context of the history of the settlement era in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Kansas. It includes instances of interaction with Native Americans, the period of the Sioux uprising in Minnesota, and the Ingalls being pushed back from settling on Native American land in Kansas. The Heart of Everything that Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is the story of the Dakota (Sioux) Chief Red Cloud. Here is the story of the tribe being pushed out of Minnesota, withdrawing to Montana, and ending up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Red Chief was a very violent and aggressive warrior, but when he went east and saw the numbers of Europeans that were there, he was a pragmatist and came to terms with the reality that faced them rather than fight to the bitter end.
I’m unsettled by all these stories because they involve my story as well and I’m not sure what to do with this history. But I begin my journey with a hike at the Delaware Water Gap. At the Delaware Water Gap, the Delaware River cuts through Blue Mountain, one of the main ridges and major barrier to westward migration. My daughter and I hiked up the ridge to get a view of the water gap. We stood at the top and thought about a time in 1775 when my ancestor, Benjamin Gilbert, took a portion of his family and settled in the wilderness on the other side of Blue Mountain.
Gilbert’s friends and family were concerned about his safety, but because he was Quaker and had good relations with Native Americans, he thought he would be fine. What happened next is recorded in a published narrative. On April 25th, 1780, the family was taken as prisoners by a group of Native Americans. Their homesteads were plundered and burned and eventually members of the family were separated and adopted into different bands. They experienced hardship and violence. The English negotiated the release of Benjamin and some family members at Niagara in June of 1780 and then sent them to Montreal as King’s prisoners. Benjamin died enroute to Montreal. The family continued to work to get the rest of the family released and the last member was released June 3, 1782 after which the group was allowed to return to Pennsylvania.
So much incongruity comes from these interactions across the cultural gap—one captive wrote with affection many years later about her “adopted” Native American father and maintained some contact with him. One descendent of this family went back to the site on the far side of Blue Mountain to live. This line of the family eventually migrated to eastern Ohio and then John Curry, my great, great grandfather migrated to central Minnesota immediately following the Sioux uprising in the area. My father told me that the settlers in John Curry’s community had a place where they would all go when there were rumors of another uprising. And my father also said that my great, great grandfather had a Native American site on his land and he insisted that it be respected.
Even the capture narrative has an introductory disclaimer while the narrative itself goes on to describe traumatic events. It states:
Hence it will be proper to make some allowance for the prejudices which then existed toward the uncivilized aborigines of the wilderness, whose passions were then wrought up by the aggressions of the white inhabitants—and the scenes of warfare between the colonies and the mother country…When “the revolutionary war began, the poor Indians hardly knew what part to take, fearing they would lose all their country in the quarrel between nations of white people.” Many of them took side with the British, or it was so considered—and hence the Americans by means of general Sullivan and his army drove them from their homes, and destroyed their crops and settlements along the Susquehanna and Genesee rivers. This exasperated the Indians, and they again sought retaliation “by killing and taking into captivity the white inhabitants” along the frontiers of Pennsylvania, New York, &c. —among these the Gilbert family were a part of the sufferers. It is believed the Indians who committed these depredations were ignorant of this family being Friends or Quakers, the peaceable descendants of William Penn—and friends to the natives (4-5).
My hope is that the incongruity that underlies my family’s interactions across the cultural gap between Europeans and Native Americans reflects a, cross-generational and on-going tension and discomfort as we struggle daily with issues of injustice, mutual understanding, and respect. My older daughter’s name, Marie, embodies my own journey. Marie is my middle name, but my daughter is named after Marie Dupre, a Houma tribe member, who welcomed me, cared for me, and served as my cultural translator when I had the privilege of working for the tribe. She was my bridge as I moved through the metaphoric water gap from my world to the Houma Tribe’s world. She was my guide in my journey in uncovering the ridges and valleys and cultural layers below the water’s surface. The world needs more such guides through the water gaps.