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History and Mystery


Kanawha Valley.


The West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society,


DR. J. P. HALE, President,

JANUARY 19th, 1897. 


The W.VA. Historical and Antiquarian Society.





Kanawha Madonna


History and Mystery


Kanawha Valley.

The known history of this Valley covers but a short period of time.

It is less than 150 years since the advent of the present white race. With this we are all familiar; and I need not dwell upon it, but profound mystery enshrouds all antecedent time, and the unknown history of the preceding race or races—one or many—who, in turn, have occupied this beautiful Valley, living out their life dramas here, loving, hating, struggling, hoping, dying, as have those who followed them.

They knew nothing of the art, preservative of arts—printing. The only records of their life work left here, are earth mounds and enclosures, stone mounds and cairns, stone wall enclosures, flint and stone tools and implements, for the chase, for war and for husbandry; some rude pottery, a few pictured rocks, their many graves, and, so far as we know, one isolated specimen of their handiwork in wood-carving; which last is so unique and interesting that I shall attempt to describe it with some particularity.

Having heard wonderful accounts of a carved wooden figure, statue, image, idol, heathen god, or whatever it may be called, said to have been found in an almost inaccessible hole in the high cliffs, some miles above this city, I was tempted to go up and see it for myself and satisfy my own curiosity, half suspecting that others had been, and fearing that I was about to be, the victim of a huge practical joke. What I saw, however, was so different from what might have been expected, that I shall give a history of its discovery, as I learned it; substantially as follows:

Master Frank F. McConihay, a handsome and intelligent lad of 15, with three other, smaller boys—Frank being the eldest, the leader of the party and the hero of the find—started out from the little village of Lewiston, 12 miles above this city, for a Sunday evening's boyish scamper in the woods, and to hunt the early wild flowers for the girls.

They climbed the high mountain just back of Lewiston, to a line of cliffs which cap the mountain, which is here very steep and rough; rising to about 900 feet above the river level.

The cliffs are of coarse sand stone—known, geologically, as the "Mahoning-sandstone"—with innumerable holes, cavities and crevices in the face, caused by the unequal disintegration of the harder and softer portions of the rock.

The attention of the boys was attracted by a horizontal crevice appearing in the face of the cliff, which is about 40 feet in height; the crevice being near midway up the cliff.

Its apparent inaccessibility stimulated the natural curiosity and love of adventure of boys of their age, and they determined to reach and explore it, if possible.

At one end of the cliff they found a dead tree blown down, but leaning against the cliff; on this they climbed up to the horizontal crevice which they were able to follow, by narrow foot-holds for some distance, when they came to the limbs of a small chestnut tree growing up near the face of the cliff; by the aid of these limbs, as supports, they advanced a few feet further, when the crevice opened up wider, giving room to crawl through it and pass an angle of the cliff, beyond which there was scarcely any foot hold, and absolutely no hand hold.

By leaning closely against the rock above, they picked their way cautiously on scanty footing, until they rounded another angle of the cliff, where they discovered a cavity running into the rock, into which they crawled, feet foremost, Frank leading the way, and where, to their great astonishment, they found this wooden image, lying on its back, with a flat stone, about 4 inches in thickness, lying on it, extending from the nose to about the knees.

This the boys lifted off; and boy-like, threw it down the cliff, breaking it to pieces.

This flat stone was also sandstone; but of different colour and texture from the stone interior of the cavity, and was evidently taken there from without, with much trouble, to lay over the Image when it was deposited.

Within the cavity, beside the image and its overlying flat stone, there was found nothing, except the skeleton frame of a dead worm, an inch or so long, and half a dozen or a dozen dry leaves, probably blown in by the wind.

The image was lying about north and south; the head to the south and near a smaller hole or extension of the cave, but the entrance was too small to admit the image.

How the boy got the image down, it is hard to tell; Frank says he hardly knows, himself; but where he could not get it outside to carry it along the face of the cliff, by the narrow footways, he—with the aid of his companions— slid and shoved it along between the upper and nether faces of the crevice until they got it to a safe footing, when, by the aid of the growing chestnut limbs and the fallen tree, they finally, with much labor, got it to the ground, and thence down the mountain to his home.

Having beard this interesting narrative of the boy's adventure, I determined to go myself, to see this curious cavity in which this mysterious image, or idol had so long lain, hidden from the world.

I was warned that, although the supple-jointed and sinewy-limbed boys had gotten to it safely, a man could hardly reach it without ladders or scaffolding; but, I started, Frank leading the way, with two or three others accompanying, carrying a rope, to let down from the cliff top to steady me, when there was nothing to hold to. I climbed the 900 feet of precipitous mountain with much labor and fatigue.

Getting to the cliff, I climbed the fallen tree, thence along the face of the cliff steadied by the limb of the chestnut, thence crawling through the crevice after the manner of a snake or lizard, emerged on the front face of the cliff.

I looked down to the broken rocks at the base 20 feet below. The wind was blowing briskly, coming with frequent sudden gusts which might easily unsettle ones equilibrium. I was afraid to trust the rope from above; and, considering discretion the better part of valor, I retraced my steps to solid ground, and returned to the village.

It is a curious fact that the mouth of, or entrance to, the cavity in which the image was found can not be seen from the bottom or top or either end of the cliff; it can only be seen when you have gotten to it.

The statue, when erect, stands upon a pedestal and holds in its arms an animal pressed against its breast. The whole figure—statue, pedestal and animal—are of one piece, carved from a solid block of wood, a section of a tree.

The pedestal is 13 inches in diameter and 8 inches high, with a round hole through the center, 4 inches in diameter at the bottom, and 3 inches at the top. It is suggested that this may have been for hoisting it on a totem pole as do the native tribes of Alaska to this day.

The statue has no feet, the figure joining the pedestal at the ankles; from this point to the top of the head is 3 feet, thus making it 3 ft. 8 in. from the bottom of the pedestal to the top of the head. The head, from front to rear, is 6 inches; from side to side, about the same, and from top of head to chin, 7 inches, across the shoulders 11 inches; across the hips 9 inches; through the chest—front to back— 6 inches.

The figure stands about three-quarters face front, looking a quarter face to the right. The animal in arms is 14 inches from head to tail. The weight of the whole is about 50 Ibs.

It is difficult to tell of what wood the figure is carved; some think it is locust, some pine, some ash, and some other woods; my own opinion is, that it is chestnut, and I am strengthened in this opinion by the fact that the little insect borers have punctured it with innumerable little round holes from the size of a pin to the size of a quill; but mostly the size of a knitting needle.

It is well known that chestnut timber is very liable to be attacked and much bored by these little worms.

The general appearance of the statue gives the impression of a strong, erect, square shouldered, heavy-set figure, fairly well proportioned, except for the apparent shortness of the legs, and stumpiness of the figure, from the lack of feet.

I examined the surface of the figure carefully to see if I could discover any evidence of the use of edged tools; but the slowly, though surely, knawing tooth of time has so far rounded the sharp angles and toned down the rough contours that it is impossible, now, to tell whether it was carved with metallic tools or fashioned by the slowly cutting and abrasive action of flint implements, or some other, now unknown tools, wielded by some now unknown race.

The features of the statue are now no longer distinctly recognizable; the elevations and depressions at the proper places in the face are only suggestive of the more distinct features that doubtless once existed.

The right ear has decayed and is gone; the whole right side shows more decay than the left; the left ear is sound and stands out in full relief.

The body, generally, is sound, and emits a resonant, woody ring when struck.

Where the surface lines of the body cross the grain of the wood, the softer, cellular, woody fibers, between the harder annular growths, having somewhat wasted away, has left the latter standing in relief, giving the surface a ridgey, corrugated appearance.

The hands, if fully formed, have now decayed and wasted away to mere shapeless stubs.

The animal carried in the arms and against the breast probably had some important significance; possibly a peace offering intended for sacrifice.

Opinions differ as to what animal is intended to be represented. A lamb is at once suggested, but it may, possibly, have been a buffalo calf. It has a decidedly bovine head, and the hump on the shoulders between the neck and the back, is strongly suggestive of the lines of a buffalo's back. Buffalo were abundant here when the whites came to the valley, and, presumably, had been from indefinitely remote times.

When, by whom and for what purpose this image was carved and who secreted it in this almost inaccessible place, are impenetrable Kanawha Mysteries. Its appearance, as above stated, gives the impression of very great age.

In Josh Bell County, in Kentucky, in 1869, a wooden image was found, under circumstances very similar to those connected with the discovery of the Kanawha image. It was hidden away in a dry cave in the rock where it was not likely to be found. It was carved from pine, and in head and body is about the size of ours; but it is without legs or feet. It is preserved in one of the public institutions of the State.

It is believed to be very old; but, like ours, there is no clue to its age or history.

This valley has only been settled by whites since 1773-4.

I think it altogether improbable that this Kanawha image has been carved within that time.

The Cherokees were probably the last of the Indian tribes who had a settled residence here, and they had been driven out by the more northern tribes centuries before the white man came, and had settled in S. W. Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, &c., leaving this portion of western Virginia, like Kentucky, a debatable territory, used alike by the northern and southern tribes for hunting and fighting—a "dark and bloody ground."

No one will, probably: attribute the carving of this image to the Indians; they were not given to such work.

In remoter, pre-Columbian times, the Mound Builders— that mysterious people about whom so much has been written and so little is known with certainty—had a strong lodgment in this valley and Ohio, as is evidenced by the numerous mounds and other earth and stone works, and extensive burying grounds they left, indicating a large population.

These people, although they are supposed to have attained a higher advance towards civilization than the later Indians, have left no evidence that they ever indulged in the character of work that produced this image. Then if neither the whites nor the Indians nor the Mound Builders carved the image by whom could it have been done?

There was a tradition among the Indians of the Ohio valley, in the last century, that in the long, long ago, how many moons they knew not, a race of white or light colored people, in large numbers, coming originally from the east, had dwelt in this valley, and along the Ohio river; but had been gradually driven westward by their more war-like neighbors; their numbers being greatly diminished as they went, until, in a pitched battle near the falls of the Ohio, they were nearly exterminated; when the remnant, of a few hundred, took refuge on an island some distance below the falls; where their enemies, following up their advantage, again attacked them in force, and slaughtered them to a man. Color is given to this story by the fact that the early white settlers found vast numbers of bones on this island.

Gen. Geo. Rodgers Clark says that Tobacco, a noted Indian Chief, related this story to him; a Sac chief told the same to Col. Joe Daviess; and Cornstalk and other Indians told it to Col. Moore and Col. McKee at Point Pleasant. (See Collin's History of Ky.)

Paddy Huddlestone, one of the early settlers here in the last century, and who died not many years ago, said the Indians told him that this valley had long before been occupied by a white race.

Who these people were, where they came from and what degree of civilization and art they possessed can never be known; but they offer one more to the list of possible authors of this image, however improbable either, or all of them may seem.

For want of a more plausible theory this ill-fated and lost race of white or pale faces, may also be credited with the possible authorship of an ancient, extensive and unique stone work, up the river some 20 miles above where, this wooden image was found.

On a well marked natural bench of a high ridge which runs back from the Kanawha river, nearly at right angles, between Armstrong and Loup creeks, and about 1000 to 1200 feet above river level, was built a rough stone wall, of undressed and unjointed stones, without cement or mortar.

This wall, for two miles or more, faces the river on the front end of the mountain, which is very steep and difficult of ascent, runs up the creek along the bench, thence through a low gap in the ridge to the corresponding bench on the other side of the ridge, facing the other creek, and back again to the river front; in all, some seven or eight miles in circuit; of an irregularly, elliptical shape; with a cross wall dividing the enclosure into two.

The wall was, originally, six to seven feet in height, and nearly as wide at the base; but, from its great age, and partial disintegration of the stones, most of it has tumbled down; forming—as it were—a winnow of stones on the site of the original wall.

Near the center of the enclosure are the remains of what are supposed to have been two round towers, probably twenty or more feet high, and twenty feet in diameter; these, like the walls, are now in ruins.

It is difficult even to conjecture the purpose and use of this curious work, and at such a place. There is, within the inclosure, one spring; a small, but everflowing stream of water.

Along the river front, at the base of the mountain, is an extensive burying ground.

The mode of burial was peculiar and entirely different from that of the whites, the Indians or the Mound Builders.

The bodies were deposited about four feet underground, horizontal from the hips down, and at an angle of about 30 from the waist up, and all facing the east.

This is a significant fact and points strongly to the idea that they may have been sun-worshippers or descended from sun-worshippers.

Captain Page carefully examined a number of these skeletons, measuring the bones and facial angles of the skulls, and found that they conformed much more nearly to the white race than to the Indian.

There was a pile of stones over each grave, but below the surface; there was nothing on the surface to indicate the existence of a grave.

Query? May not these stone piles, and the whole valley thereabout, have been covered by the deposits of the successive floods in the river? just as the Nile Valley is known to be raised two or three inches in a century by the successive annual overflows of the Nile? If this suggestion should be well founded, it indicates that a very long time has elapsed since these graves were made, as the Kanawha does not, like the Nile, overflow its banks every year—sometimes not for many years.

On the west side of Kanawha river, opposite Point Pleasant, is a circular stone wall, about 200 feet in diameter, and about six feet in height. This wall was built on the alluvial bottom and the stone must have been brought from the neighboring hills. The wall is almost entirely covered by the slow accretions of soil from overflows of the river—Nile like—though it is said the elevation has been scarcely, if at all, appreciable since it has been known by the whites. The existence of the wall was unknown until the river encroachments cut into it, not many years ago.

The C. & O. R. R. grade cutting unearthed many skeletons from the ancient cemetery above mentioned, and excavations for other purposes, many more.

An interesting description of these works was written by Capt. Page, of Ansted, some years ago, and they were afterwards visited and examined by Col. Norris, agent of the Smithsonian Institute.

A few miles below this wall, on another high ridge just above Paint creek, is a similar work, but much smaller.—There is also an extensive cemetery at this place.

There is a tradition that after this valley was settled by the whites, intelligent Indians passing this way from the west (probably deputations to Washington) stated that they knew of the existence of these stone works, but knew nothing of their origin, purpose, use or history.

Neither the Indians nor the Mound Builders, so far as I know, left any works of this character. Their origin and use will probably ever remain among Kanawha's insolvable mysteries.

Many persons who have seen the wooden image, above described, are disposed to doubt its great age, because of its fair state of preservation; they consider wood too perishable a material to attain very great age; but they seem to forget that wood, if kept dry, or from alternations of wet and dry, will last almost indefinitely.

Many old and wealthy families, especially in Europe, have household furniture hundreds of years old; and the wood in many ancient buildings, public and private, is many centuries old.

A public building in Japan which contains the art treasures and curios of the Micado, has been in use for that purpose, over 1200 years.

This building is of wood and is still sound and well preserved, although Japan is quite a damp climate.

The wood in a temple in India is known, historically, to be over 2000 years old.

The distinguished Egyptian explorer, Flinders Petrie, and also the Rev. Dr. De-Hass of our own state, found in the old tombs of Egypt wooden images or statuettes, which resemble this image, and which date back 3000 years or more; and the unnumbered thousands of wooden mummy cases are, many of them, still older.

There is preserved in Egypt, a fine wooden statue with crystal eyes, claimed to be the likeness of an important official who has been dead 6000 years.

The eminent French explorer and archeologist, Le Plongeon, who spent ten or twelve years, among the ruins of Yucatan, found a wooden lintel over a door in the ruins of an old temple which he has reason to believe to be over 10,000 years old; so there is nothing in the appearance or condition of this Kanawha image, or statue, to negative the theory of its very great age.

The purpose and use of the image, like its origin and age, are included among the Kanawha Mysteries.

Whether it was a primitive, crude effort at artistic expression on the part of some ancient amateur sculptor, without other object than simple practice, to improve his skill, or whether it symbolized some superior being, god or spirit, ruler or hero, or whether it was an ordinary man, bearing some sacred animal—lamb or calf, bull, ox, goat or cow—which was in some way related to some of their creeds, religious worships or sacrificial rites, it is now impossible to tell.

Man seems naturally to be a religious animal, and through all stages of his progress from animalism up to the highest state of civilization, prone to acknowledge and worship something superior to himself.

Very early, men worshipped the sun and moon, fire, air and invisible spirits, good and bad; later, they created for themselves images of wood or stone, clay or metal, symbolizing the forms, powers and attributes of their gods and heroes, and worshipped them. Among these images have been the human figure, with many variations; animals, such as the bull, the cow, the ox, the lamb, the cat and others, as well as birds, reptiles and even bugs, as the sacred scarabaeus of Egypt.

It is curious to note what a variety of forms these human symbolical figures have taken.

The ancient Japanese worshipped a war-god which was a human head only; the ancient Hawaiians had a war-god with head and neck, but no body. The Bushmen and some other African tribes worshipped an image or idol with head and body, but no legs; the Kentucky image has head and body, but no legs.

Our Kanawha image has head, body and legs but no feet.

The Polynesians had stone images without feet; the images found in the ancient Egyptian tombs, were complete, including feet; and the ancient Hindoo gods had multiple heads and limbs.

In a recent illustrated magazine article on Idols and Idol Worship Among Savage Tribes in Various Quarters of the Globe, about one third of the images represented are without feet. This prevalent type of footless idols is very significant, and must have some important meaning; but what, we do not know.

If this valley was ever inhabited by an ill-fated race of pale faces, as tradition tells us, is it impossible that they may have brought with them from their ancient homes, far away in time and distance, traditions of their ancestral religious beliefs and rites? and among them the worship of a sacred ox, or sacred humpbacked cow, or golden calf, or a goat for sacrifice, or a lamb, emblem of innocence and peace.

In primitive ages, when men worshipped the sun and moon and stars, the early astronomers mapped out the starry heavens into groups or constellations with a fancied resemblance to beasts and men and monsters. Within one of the prominent constellations, known as "Ursa-Major," or the "great bear," there is a lesser constellation called "Auriga," said to represent a youth carrying in his arms a goat. Can this Kanawha image possibly relate back to that ancient myth? Can this image symbolize Auriga and his goat.

May not some wandering clan or lost tribe of these ancient people have found their way to this continent over the now "lost Atlantis," or otherwise, ages before Columbus, long before Leif Erickson, and long before any other comers of whom we have any knowledge or tradition, and founded a "lodge in this vast wilderness?" If so may they not have carved this image of Auriga, with his goat in arms to symbolize an ancient myth and perpetuate, the remembrance and mode of worship or sacrifice, of their ancestors? If so, it was doubtless reverenced as a sacred treasure—a sort of "ark of the covenant"—as it were, and when an inexorable fate pursued and persecuted them, and drove them from this Eden of theirs, it was but natural that they should secrete this sacred object in some out-of-the-way, secret, dry—and as they hoped—undiscoverable place of safety, possibly hoping that, in some happier time in the future, they might return and reclaim it.

M. Le Plongeon, the eminent explorer and archaeologist, thinks he has discovered the key to the mysteries of the hitherto unread inscriptions on the old temples and tombs of Central America. He claims that he has gathered from these inscriptions, that thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Central Americans, both then highly civilized peoples, had intercommunication with each other over a continent since submerged, extending from the east coast of Central America nearly to the entrance of the Mediterranean. He believes—and he and Ignateus Donnally are not alone in believing—that the lost Atlantis is a veritable truth and not a fable.

Prof. Wilson of the Smithsonian Institution has recently written a book on his investigation of the "Swastica Cross;" one of the oldest symbols and ornaments known to man.

He finds it on the walls of Troy, on the Coins of Babylon, among the ornaments of the Buddhists and Brahmins in India; on the Porcelain of China, among the works of the Mound Builders of Ohio and Tennessee and woven in the blankets of our western Indians. He finds it among the remains of all people, of all ages, in all countries.

In India, thousands of years ago, the ancient Aryans left other symbolical carvings representing one of their forms of worship. Strangely enough, duplicates of these carvings in stone have been found in the ruins of Yucatan and Honduras; and more recently in Arizona. Archaeologists say that these stone carvings in these several widely remote localities are identical in form, and prove an identity of purpose and use, that is: to symbolize a form of religions worship.

If the "lost Atlantis" theory is conceded, the intercontinental communication between these widely remote countries in long past ages, becomes a simple proposition, and easily explains these common-symbols in both hemispheres representing a common worship.

We are not limited, however, to the Atlantis theory for a possible means of inter-continental communication. Geology teaches us that beside the slow changes of surface constantly in progress, there have been other important elevations and depressions of the land surface of the globe; some of these comparatively recent, geologically speaking; though very remote when measured from any of our historical datum points.

Whatever may have been the routes, or the methods, or the dates of communications, there are many evidences on this continent of very early communications with the eastern hemisphere, of which we have no historical record.

May we not, then, admit at least the possibility that some adventurous rovers, maybe from the plains of ancient Syria or Chaldea, the home of the old shepherd kings and the Patriarchs, where devout astronomers studied the Heavens, and grouped the constellations, and the early astrologers read their life histories in the movement of the planets and the twinkling of the stars, may have found their way to this vast continent, and some pious member with artistic taste, and versed in the traditional lore of his far away ancestors, and among others the tradition of Auriga and his goat, carved this rude image that stands before you?

However all this may be and whatever may be the true history of the mystery, it may be assumed that the people who fashioned and secreted this mysterious image have perished from off the earth, and their names and history been blotted from the memory of men, while the image has survived, well preserved, to be discovered at this late day, by the unpremeditated and unreasoning whim and curiosity of an impulsive boy; and the discovery only then made possible by the accident of a fallen tree having lodged beside the cliff in such a manner, and at the only place along the whole cliff which would have enabled the boys to reach the crevice, which, being followed, led to the cavity, invisible until reached, which contained this image;—certainly this is a curious combination of favoring circumstances leading to a totally unlooked for result.

This image is now preserved in the rooms of the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society, loaned by the discoverer Master F. F. McConihay.

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