Just about every national park unit of any size or age evokes at least one or more “urban legend,” tall tales that are widely accepted as true, but alas, for a good story, are not.
Battlefield parks are particularly susceptible to urban legends as they produce strong emotions. Hardly a day goes by at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor that some irate taxpayer does not demand that the NPS “tell the truth” that not only did President Roosevelt know the exact date of the Pearl Harbor attack, but that Roosevelt planned the whole darned thing to draw us into World War 11.
Then there was the persistent rumor that Japanese sugar cane workers cut huge arrows in the middle of Oahu cane fields to direct apparently slow-witted Japanese pilots to Pearl Harbor (how the Japanese managed to negotiate miles of trackless ocean is not discussed).
The passage of time only enhances some urban legends; as in the case of the "Golden Cannon" of Saratoga. It seems that in the closing hours of the Battle of Saratoga, British General Burgoyne realized that all was lost and that it was important that the army’s pay chest not fall into the hands of the rebels. Therefore, he ordered the gold coins to be stuffed into a cannon and the cannon barrel buried at an unspecified location, reachable only by a complicated and cryptic map that was inconveniently lost. (According to wet blanket park interpreter Joe Craig, it seems that Burgoyne sensibly paid his troops before the capitulation). This bit of information has not stopped folks with metal detectors from attempting midnight archeology in an attempt to find the storied cannon.
The Pony Under The Bed
Morristown, New Jersey, was the site of two winter encampments of George Washington’s Continental Army. The winter of 1779-80 was the coldest in living memory with the starving, ill-clothed American army of some 10,000 being kept busy with raids and counter-raids between themselves and British foragers.
Out of those desperate times came the urban legend of little Tempe Wick. She was the daughter of a middle class farmer, a sort of innocent bystander in the Revolutionary War. The Wick farm was located in the middle of George Washington’s encampment at Morristown.
Now did little Tempe save the life of George Washington? No.
Well then, did she carry a message to Congress through British lines telling Congress to send supplies? No.
What then did she do?
Well, Tempe saved her pony!
Is that all?
Now neighbors, that’s more than enough if you’re a pre-teen American girl. Little girls (and some big ones) love horses more than they love George Washington, his army, or even Congress. It’s important that you realize this fact. In the 1850s, a children’s writer did a story about a little girl who saved her pony from being requisitioned by a British foraging party by hiding the pony under her bed. This simple story has resonated down through time.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Morristown National Historical Park and the Wick farmhouse, which is still standing. A ranger was giving a talk on how the various 18th century farm and kitchen implements were used to a group of middle schoolers. He asked if there were any questions. One girl asked to be shown the bed under which Tempe’s horse had been hidden.
The ranger sighed wearily.
“I’m afraid that story is not true.”
The girls looked disappointed.
The ranger strove for a teaching moment.
“Do any of you have horses?” A few hands raised. “Do you think you could train your horse to lie quietly under a bed?” The girls giggled and agreed in the negative. “Also” asked the ranger “What are horses guaranteed to do?
“Poop!” chorused the little boys, (who can be counted upon to cut to the scatological)
“Do you think that the British soldiers might have smelled the horse poop?"
“Yes,” everyone chorused.
“Also, why did the British want horses?” After some discussion, it was agreed they needed them to pull heavy cannon and wagons. “Can a pony do that?” No, the British were not in the market for ponies.
Later, I complemented the ranger on introducing deductive reasoning to the children.
“The problem is that the local schools teach the story as the gospel truth!” He chuckled resignedly.
Egyptians In The Grand Canyon
Every so often, the folks at the Smithsonian or Grand Canyon National Park are asked when the NPS or the Smithsonian are going to reveal the location of a mysterious lost city in Grand Canyon National Park that dates back to the ancient Egyptians.
Well, it says so right in the Phoenix Gazette of April 5, 1909 in a several-page article, which describes the adventures of a couple of Smithsonian professors on an expedition in Grand Canyon, who stumbled on a cave entrance which led to a vast, man made cavern holding mummies, tools, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and so on.
It is a rather convincing article, but the date should give it away. Obviously, the authors planned that the Gazette should publish it four days earlier on April 1, but something delayed publication, and staff at Grand Canyon and the Smithsonian are bothered to this day.
Then there is our very own creation myth, The Yellowstone Campfire, in which it was alleged that the “discoverers” of Yellowstone were gradually converted to the idea of the “World’s First National Park” while they sat around a campfire.
It's a charming, uplifting story that seems to have no basis in fact, but was repeated like scripture through several generations of NPS bureaucrats.
The alleged words of Chief Seattle were harder to kill than kudzu. They were supposed to be the ironic reply of a Northwest Coast Chief to the demands of an American President.
Although there were rather glaring internal contradictions in Chief Seattle’s Reply (His people were Salmon people rather than buffalo people and the railroad had not penetrated to the Puget Sound area in the 1850s, yet he supposedly mentioned seeing "a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie," among other warning flags,) the document was undeniably moving, and if Chief Seattle didn’t say such things, well he darn well should have!
The Reply of Chief Seattle went round the world and was copiously quoted and reprinted. I recall seeing Chief Seattle quotes in New Zealand national park visitor centres.
Turns out the Reply of Chief Seattle was the work of a well-meaning television producer who needed a “hook” for an environmental program. The producer’s words were put in mouth of Chief Seattle, who was an actual historical personage.
Was any harm done? Hard to quantify. While the sentiments were lofty, the false attribution called into question the reliability and integrity of the environmental movement. (Understandably, Rush Limbaugh and other anti-environmentalists had a field day).
And Then There Was Grey Owl
Sometimes however, a legend that has feet of clay turns out to have a life of its own.
When Parks Canada’s beloved naturalist, The First Nations Person (Canadian for Native) Grey Owl, passed away in 1938, it was revealed that his real name was not Grey Owl, but Archie Bellamy, an Englishman who immigrated to Canada in 1906, immersed himself in woodland Indian lore, married an Indian and gradually became in his own mind, an Indian. He began to pass as an Indian and began to write about the Canadian wilderness and the necessity for its preservation. He lectured in England, charming the little girl who is now Queen Elizabeth II and winning friends for the Canadian environment.
Although there was some initial anger at his impersonation, Canadians have come to accept that he meant no harm and his pioneer nature writings have earned him a place in Canadian environmental literature. Parks Canada preserves his cabin in Prince Albert National Park, reachable after a 20-kilometer (one way) pilgrimage hike.
So, some park legends meld into the truth.