As our country was fighting to be free from the Crown of England, there were many hardships brought on the Iroquois by whites living in New York State. As more and more people came to America for a better life, the Iroquois were crowded out. This also caused trouble within the Iroquois Nations. Some tribes, such as Mohawk and Oneida sided with the British, others with the American Patriots.
Mohawk Joseph Brandt, (Thayendanegea) led the fight against the whites along the Susquehanna, Delaware and Mohawk Rivers. Brandt was a highly respected leader, highly educated and military strategist. Eventually, after the war, Clinton and Sullivan drove the natives out of New York, burning their food stores and homes in the dead of winter.
The Mohawks retreated north to a settlement in Canada along the Salmon River. Canada gave the Mohawk people these woods as a gift because they had joined sides with the Crown.
It was there the Mohawk people found peace at the Bay of Quinte. A mission church was planted, and the people became more formally educated. From that time on, Joseph Brandt led the education among his people. They learned English and gained knowledge of the Great Spirit, God. During that time, Joseph wrote down the language of the Mohawk.
Many years later it was Joseph’s granddaughter Sa-Sa-Na, who traveled to America with her older brother, Rok-Wa-Ho. Along with their younger sister Ya-Go-Weia, the young women gave singing concerts. Their goal was to raise funds for translating the Bible and educational materials in the Mohawk language.
The three had traveled by train from Albany and were received in Owego by their friend Judge Charles Avery. Avery was well educated, and respected in the town. He took a great interest in history and the accounts of the New York State natives.
Avery brought them from the train to his home for a great feast and comfortable lodgings after the cold train ride.
Even though that February was harsh, the folks in town came out on two nights to hear the concerts in the Owego Hall. Positive entertainment was always welcomed in the long winter months.
The trio was well received, as they had been on other occasions. Sa-Sa-Na was especially well liked. Both of the young women sang but it was clear that Sa-Sa-Na made the deeper impression. Her clear voice was beautiful and her singing came from deep within. Her voice carried throughout the hall and left them spellbound with songs of faith.
The family of three lodged at the home of Judge Avery and sang at the Owego Hall the second night before leaving on the train for Deposit the next day. Even for the short ride they covered their legs with a quilt they carried with them. Trains were notoriously cold, and passengers had to dress warmly.
Sa-Sa-Na and Ya-Go-Weia gave a concert one night only at the Oquaga House. Again, it was was packed with many people, despite the deep cold of February. After the girls sang, Rok-Wa-Ho reported of the settlement in the Mohawk Woods. He thanked them for coming to support their education and translation of books into the Mohawk language.
The next morning, the 18th of February 1852, was colder than they remembered. Everything was in a deep freeze. The passenger train fired up and was sitting by the depot. Many folks were in the depot having a bit of lunch before departing the town. Ya-Go-Weia and Sa-Sa-Na boarded the back of the train to take their seats as Rok-Wa-Ho went inside to purchase their tickets.
Suddenly, a Conductor named Henry Masterson sprang for the engine of the train, shouting warnings. He had been sitting in the depot and either saw, or heard a freight train on the same rails, coming at a great speed. People began rushing to the depot windows, others climbed down hurriedly from inside the passenger train. Mr. Masterson jumped on the train and sprang the engine forward with a jerk.
Rok-Wa-Ho ran to the train. From the back of the train, Ya-Go-Weia jumped with her hands out, and in the same motion grabbing her brother’s hand he pulled her off. Quickly, Sa-Sa-Na jumped next, but slipped and fell back into the train just as the freight train hit with a mighty ear-splitting crash.
Rok-Wa-Ho saw the fear in her eyes as she fell back. He grabbed for her, but she was gone so quickly. There was nothing he could do.
Splintered boards flew haphazardly, the boiler burst and hot water shot in the air. Someone still on the train screamed as wheels screamed their own, metal on metal grinding.
Rok-Wa-Ho jumped back as the debris flew all around him. He turned and looked around him in disbelief. Where was Sa-Sa-Na? Where was Ya-Go-Weia?
He looked back at the crash site and tried to find his sister, but the grizzly site was too much for him. It didn’t seem real, and suddenly he felt enveloped in a fog. He looked again for Ya-Go-Weia and found her on her knees swaying back and forth in a mournful cry. She seemed to be in a fog also, but then he felt chill on his cheeks. Rok-Wa-Ho wiped tears from his eyes and gently helped Ya-Go-Weia to her feet. He took her inside to put her by the fireplace and some of the men came to talk with him.
What had happened? Did the brakes fail? Where was the engineer of this freight train?
Rok-Wa-Ho went with the men to find Sa-Sa-Na but they were without hope. She had been crushed between the colliding trains. Two others died from burns within the train.
The conductor of the freight train, after losing control of the train on the long downhill grade, jumped from the train and let it crash into the passenger train. Due to his negligence, Judge Avery saw to it that the railroad was held liable. A settlement of $2,000 was made to the Loft family.
The NY and Erie Railroad ran along these hills. The grade was gradually up and down, but without brakes the train only took on speed.
Judge Avery arranged for Sa-Sa-Na’s body to come back to Owego and it was held in his family vault. A memorial service was held in Owego, which stirred the hearts and sympathies of those who knew her. The family announced that money from the railroad would be used to publish religious and educational books in the Mohawk language, so fulfilling the purpose of their journey.
Rok-Wa-Ho and Ya-Go-Weia stayed with the Avery family until they could travel back to Canada. In April Rok-Wa-Ho had written a friend saying they were “in deep affliction for the loss of our dear beloved sister, Sa-sa-na,” yet they had not been at home. They had remained with friends at Grand River.
Eventually Avery persuaded the family to let Sa-Sa-Na be buried in the Evergreen Cemetery on the hill overlooking the Susquehanna River.
Sa-Sa-Na had left such an impact on the people of Owego, that the women began a fund to raise money to build a monument for Sa-Sa-Na’s grave. The monument stands seventeen feet tall, with a rose, broken stem and leaf gone. The inscription is:
“By birth a daughter of the forest, by adoption a child of God.”
Today, 165 years later, people are still drawn to the monument of Sa-Sa-Na on the hill by the woods.