The Legend of Chocorua
Mount Chocorua has been called the most picturesque mountain in New England. Its unique configuration has been likened by various writers to a "fortress," a "castellated promontory," a "striking sentinel," and a "breaking wave."
The easternmost peak of the Sandwich Range, its dramatic profile is easily recognizable, a towering point of granite rising sheer against the sky, whose distinctive appearance alone would make it memorable. It has also been rendered memorable by innumerable stories, poems and paintings, and as a destination sought by countless hikers and blueberry pickers.
But Chocorua is more than a mountain. It is also a legend.
Back in the early to mid- 1700s, Chocorua was not yet the name of a mountain. It was the name of a real person. (The mountain doubtless bore another designation, receiving its present name at some time subsequent to the events we are about to relate.)
Chocorua the person was a Native American chief who some accounts say had remained behind after many of his tribe had moved to St. Francis in Canada after the 1725 Battle of Lovewell's Pond in Fryeburg, Maine. While his story varies according to who tells it (and many do), all versions agree that he met a tragic end atop the mountain which now bears his name.
The bare-bones story seems to be that Chocorua entrusted his young son to a family of local settlers named Campbell, with whom he was on friendly terms. In one version, the occurred while Chocorua was absent on a visit to St. Francis; in another, he was still present in the area. In either case, his son died while visiting the Campbells, presumably from accidentally ingesting some poison that had been prepared for a troublesome fox.
On learning the unhappy news, Chocorua blamed the settlers and slew Campbell's wife and children in revenge. Seeking revenge in their turn, Cornelius Campbell and several other men pursued Chocorua, who took refuge on the mountain, fleeing to the summit, where they followed and shot him. (In some versions, Chocorua was not shot but hurled himself into the void.)
With his dying breath, the story goes, Chocorua cursed the white men, threatening that his curse would remain with them long after he himself was gone.
"May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in the clouds and his words are fire! May lightning blast your crops! Wind and fire destroy your homes! The Evil One breathe death on your cattle! May panthers howl and the wolves fatten on your bones!"
Such, the legend tells us, were his final words.
For long years thereafter, the area's small colony of hardy pioneers is said to have experienced a succession of devastating reverses of the kind Chocorua had named. According to one writer, "The tomahawk and scalping-knife were busy among them; the winds tore up trees, and hurled them at their dwellings; their crops were blasted, their cattle died and sickness came upon their strongest men." Wolf and bear raids on livestock were also blamed on Chocorua's curse.
It is a matter of record that cattle in the town of Burton at the mountain's base did regularly sicken and die of a strange disease, which settlers attributed to Chocorua's malediction. The disease was known as "Burton's Ail," and in 1833 townspeople went so far as to change the town's name to Albany, in hopes of disassociating it from its reputation as a killer of cattle. (Fruitlessly, it would seem, since Benjamin G. Willey, writing his "Incidents in White Mountain History" more than 20 years later, reported that "to this day, say the inhabitants, a malignant disease has carried off the cattle that they have attempted rearing around this mountain."
Ultimately, it was discovered that high concentrations of muriate of lime in the local water supply were responsible for the suffering and death of Albany's cattle. A simple antidote consisting of carbonate of lime administered in the form of soapsuds or alternatively, meadow mud, put an end to the problem. The cattle ailed no more, and the superstition died.
One of the most dramat-ic accounts of the Chocorua legend is a long poem quoted in full in "The History of Carroll County." Another colorful account was that of Lydia Maria Child, quoted in Starr King's "The White Hills" in 1859 and elsewhere thereafter.
Mrs. Child's somewhat chauvinistic report describes the incident in florid prose. According to her, Cornelius Campbell was a man gigantic in stature, powerful in intellect and superior, if reclusive in nature — a man who had fled to seek his destiny in the New World. His wife, Caroline, we are told, was extraordinarily beautiful, possessing a strong character and an elevated mind — a worthy mate of such a "master spirit."
Chocorua, on the other hand, had "a mind which education and motive would have nerved with giant strength, but, growing up in savage freedom, it wasted itself in dark, fierce, ungovernable passions."
When his son died, says Mrs. Child, "jealousy and hatred took possession of Chocorua's soul. He never told his suspicions; he brooded over them in secret, to nourish the deadly revenge he contemplated against Cornelius Campbell."
Thus, "Cornelius Campbell left his hut for the fields early one bright, balmy morning in June. Still a lover, though ten years a husband, his last look was turned towards his wife, answering her parting smile; his last action a kiss for each of his children. When he returned to dinner, they were dead — all dead!"
She described Campbell's almost insane grief ("Home had been to him the only verdant spot in the desert of life. In his wife and children he had garnered up all his heart. And now they were torn from him..."), the pursuit of Chocorua to the mountaintop, and his death there. It is she who gives us the purported words of Chocorua's curse quoted above.
Willey takes a kinder view of Chocorua. He sees him not as a villain, but as a victim pursued by "a miserable white hunter" keen to collect the bounty offered for Indian scalps.
"To the highest point (Chocorua) had climbed, and there he stood, unarmed, while below, and within gunshot, stood his pursuer. He plead(ed) his friendliness to the whites, and the harmless, scattered conditions of his few followers. But the hardened hunter was unmoved; the price of his scalp was too tempting; gold plead(ed) stronger than the poor Indian. Seeing that he should avail nothing, the noble chieftain, raising himself up, stretched forth his arms and called upon the God of his fathers to curse the land. Then, casting a defiant glance at his pursuer, he leaped from the brink of the precipice on the south side to the rocks below."
Other writers have told the story with differing details, but only Mrs. Child leaves us with an interesting conjecture.
Not entirely content with the scientific explanation for the dying of the cattle, she probes the metaphysical, and wonders whether "Chocorua's dying curse...and into the mountain and poisoned with muriate of lime the springs from which the Burton cows (drank)," or whether it was 'The muriate of lime at the base (that) generated the story of the sachem's imprecation on the summit."
The mystery of why the cattle died may have been solved with soapsuds and mud — or it may not. Perhaps Chocorua, looking down from some Happy Hunting Ground, simply decided that his revenge was complete at last.
We will never know.
Perhaps his spirit, now at peace, stills hovers over the mountaintop — smiling enigmatically.
The above story by former Mt Ear Ear staff writer Gabrielle Griswold originally appeared in the Mountain Ear in 1997 and we re-run it now to remind our readers that the peaks that surround us all have a tale of their own to tell.