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The Indian legend of explorer LaSalle's fateful encounter with the evil spirits residing in the Devil's Hole in the Niagara River gorge a short distance north of the great cataracts of Niagara is fairly well known.

But the late city historian Edward T. Williams retold the legend as a factual story emanating from a federal writers project that, under the direction of Lester Herzog, then-WPA's state administrator, was compiling an American guide to local history. The WPA, a make-work project to create jobs during the Great Depression, hired field research workers to uncover many forgotten or little-known items of local interest.

Williams, writing on July 7, 1936, chose the Seneca Indian legend of the Devil's Hole as his local topic to preserve for future generations.

He wrote, "In 1669, there came to the Niagara river Robert Cavalier de LaSalle who in the succeeding 18 years was to be Niagara's most frequent visitor. He was the fifth white man to set foot on Niagara County soil."

On one of LaSalle's trips along the lower river, Williams wrote, he and his Seneca guide came upon "the huge cavern in the cliff of the gorge below the whirlpool, which is known today as The Devil's Hole."

LaSalle, being a naturally inquisitive explorer, looked into the cave and wanted to enter. But, Williams wrote, "his guide, seeking to dissuade him, related to him the following story, a tradition which has been handed down among the Senecas for generations."

In beginning the legend, the guide said, "The Great Spirit loved his red children and gave them this country for their sole use and enjoyment."

He noted that as the falls receded from Lewiston back to their modern position due to erosion, the cave eventually became exposed to the rapids and the evil spirits could get out.

Then, he said, "the red man became bad and vexed the Great Spirit with their war parties."

As Senecas passed the cave in their travels, they heard "noises of thunder, shrieks and groans from this dark den." This excited the curiosity of the young men and one of the warriors "insisted upon examining the secrets of this dark prison house."

The guide continued, "Armed for the battle, he descended with much difficulty and we never saw him more.

Thus were our fathers convinced the Spirit of Evil lived in this hole and that the fate of the red man depended upon his not being disturbed."

Williams wrote:

"'Such,' declared Garonkouthie, his guide, 'is the tradition of our race. Judge then, my white brother, whether you could disturb the Evil Spirit of this abode and not suffer the penalty.' LaSalle said he respected the Indian tradition and would not enter the cave.

"However, curiosity got the better of him and he returned a few days later to explore the forbidden cavern.

"Inside, he came upon a hole filled with ice and then he heard a whispering voice speaking in the Iroquois language. The voice told the explorer to 'return to your home in Canada and wealth, honors, a long life of usefulness shall be yours and when death comes, generations of your descendants shall follow you to your grave, history shall transmit your name to posterity as the successful founder of a great empire.

"'Proceed to the west and although gleams of hope may, at times, shine in your path, ingratitude and disappointment will be sure to meet and follow you until treacherous murder shall end your days remote from human habitation without the shelter of even a wigwam of a friendly red man. The eagles of the desert shall strip the flesh from your bones which shall lay bleaching under the tropical sun, unburied and unprotected by the cross you now so devotedly cherish.'"

LaSalle, regretting that he tempted the fates, quickly left the Devil's Hole. Then the string of misfortunes began. Some of his men had deserted and returned to Montreal. Williams wrote that LaSalle passed the Devil's Hole 10 times in the next 14 years and by that time he found that "all of his fortune was gone, his Indian Empire in Illinois was wiped out entirely."

He returned to France to seek another royal stake to start a colony in Louisiana. This time he sailed to the Gulf of Mexico, hoping to enter the Mississippi from the south, but he overshot the delta and set out on foot to find the river.

In accord with the evil spirit's prediction, LaSalle was murdered by one of his own men in a wild forest not too far from the Mississippi River he was seeking. His dead body was abandoned in the woods by his companions.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 25, 2011