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The Legend of The Sassafras Monster

Native Americans -- like many indigenous cultures -- believe in the spirits of nature and so the natural world inspires them. It would come to pass that many, if not most of their myths and legends would been passed down and ingested by "white" settlers who decided it was easier to conquer "Native Americans" then co-exist in their natural world. And with any myth or legend, sometimes the facts get twisted and  turned into something that the original story teller, or witness as it may have been, never intended to share with anyone else for fear that the myth or story would become true. Such was the "myth of the Sassafras Monster." But I digress... one must first understand that this story starts with nature and in particular a tree -- the sassafras albidum also called Ague Tree. A species of Sassafras tree native to eastern North America, from southern Maine and southern Ontario west to Iowa, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas. It occurs throughout the eastern deciduous forest habitat type, at altitudes of sea level up to 1,500 m. It's aromatic leaf, bark and root are used as a flavoring, used in traditional home medicine, and as a tea. It was once used to flavor root beer, too. And for certain Native American tribe, it was part of their sacred rituals. It was believed that essence of sassafras could bring health and wellness and offer safe passage during certain "manhood" rituals. And this is where my "monster" story begins.

I grew up in Northeast Ohio and heard about the Sassafras "monster" from my Grandfather Mac, my mom's father. He had heard about the "monster" from his grandfather who had fought alongside some of the Chippewa during the Civil War. One of the Chippewa braves had heard about a strange ritual from his father who was a member of the tribe where the legend began.

Grandpa Mac told my brother David and I the story one dark and stormy Halloween eve. I had just turned thirteen and my younger sibling was ten.

The year was 1777, a year removed from 1776 and the new Americans "declaration of independence" from their British tormentors; it was the first year of nationhood. The country was giddy with the future. But what of our Native American brothers and sisters? How would it impact their daily lives, their rituals, their journey? What would become of their freedoms?

It was late spring during the month of May. Outside a small village in Ohio, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, a river very much needed by the Chippewa (Ojibwe) tribe for their livelihood. It was not only their fresh water supply, but it was bountiful with fish and fowl. It also served as part of a young brave's rite-of-passage manhood ritual. For example, in many Native American cultures, the transition is often ceremonial, featuring some feat of bravery or strength against pain, such as success in a first hunt, or surviving painful tattooing or piercing. But the Chippewa's "Vision Quest" / Right of Passage was something that could provoke fear even from the older braves that had endured the ritual many decades previous. Just as important as the quest, the young Native American boys were forbidden to share their "journey" with any of the other boys about their experience for the rest of their lives. Only the elders were permitted to discuss things with them.

During the typical vision quest, a young boy fasts, prays, and seeks his spirit helper which usually presents itself as an animal, and which becomes the young boy's lifelong aide and guide. In some places, vision quests are supervised by, or discussed afterwards, with elders. Many tribes would include local terrain -- hidden caves, small islands in the middle of lakes, remote wooded areas removed from their tribe's camp -- as part of the vision quest. The Chippewas favored a certain tree indigenous to the region of their river and water camps. The mighty sassafras. It was that genus of tree that was included in their "brave" ritual. Legend has it that a young brave-to-be was strapped to the trunk of the largest sassafras tree found many, many miles from their camp. And only on a "new" moon night. The darkest night of the lunar cycle.

In the early dawn light of one of the darkest days of a late spring day in May a young Chippewa boy known as Broken Tooth from the Sandy Lake Chippewa tribe and son of Biauswah, the chief of the Sandy Lake Chippewa, was summoned before his people. Today he would begin his journey into adulthood and the beginning of his quest to become a "brave." He was led from the camp by a "guide" --  Ahmik  (aka Beaver) -- with only a few meager provisions for their two-day long journey into the thickest and darkest region of a heavy forest far from the safety of their encampment. That thick forest could spook even the bravest Chippewa as many believed that the "lost" ghosts of their ancestors and spirit beasts haunted that forest.

When the young brave was far enough away from their teepees, his "guide" would locate the biggest sassafras tree he could find and at dusk lash the young pre-teenager to the trunk of the tree. He would be left alone for the entire evening, left alone to summon his spirit animal for protection from the ghosts and real life predators (bears, mountain lions, etc.) roaming the forest. A fire was built to help illuminate the area and to keep any feral beasts away. Moreover, the fire also helped the nearby guide navigate the darkness of the forest if he needed to "assist" the young brave-in-training especially if he heard a cry for help. Rare that a guide was ever summoned as that could have been construed as a sign of weakness during a rite of passage.

But on this particular vision quest, only an hour from daybreak, a faint cry from Broken Tooth was heard by his guide Ahmik. Startled, Ahmik cautiously made his way towards the "tree" in case a bear might be lurking nearby. Imagine his shock when he arrived at the tree just as dawn was starting to rise and Broken Tooth was not there. Yet the twine that had lashed Broken Tooth to the trunk of that massive tree remained tight and unbound. It was if the young teen had been swallowed whole by the sassafras for nourishment. The tree's knotted face looked down on the brave as though it was smiling at him; holding some dark satisfying secret.

Broken Tooth's body was never found, ever. Not a trace. Ahmik was convinced that the sassafras had indeed consumed Broken Tooth. And that his soul was damned to haunt that forest for eternity! In fact, that tree was never used for any Chippewa rituals ever again. And before the year was out most of his tribe fell victim to a smallpox outbreak that would wipe them out. The few who survived were convinced that a Broken Tooth Sassafras curse caused their demise.

For my tough-as-nails grandfather Mac that "tale" provoked a rising curiosity and a need to test his own mettle, try his hand at self-exiled bravery. It was a hot summer morning in August 1913, a new moon loomed after dusk. He convinced some of his young teenage friends to go camping at an old hunter's camp near Chippewa Lake in northeast Ohio. It was a magical place that his father had brought him to a few years before to go deer hunting. On the hike out to the camping site he shared the "Broken Tooth" story with his cocky pre-pubescent friends. They were in no mood for make-believe, but they still remained intrigued by the promise of testing their "manhood." One in particular, the toughest of the lot -- Colin O'Hurley -- taunted the group that it was all a myth and that my grandfather was looking to prank them. But Grandfather Mac remained steadfast and threw it back at Colin, stating that he was "probably too chicken to be lashed to a mighty sassafras tree on this moonless night." The other boys joined in and dared Colin to take the "sassafras" challenge. If he was indeed the toughest amongst them, he would certainly let them tie him to a sassafras in the middle of the woods. Colin laughed them off, stating it would be easy-peasy.

After finally arriving at the old cabin the boys quickly set up their temporary camp -- built a fire, spread out their sleeping bags, smoked some cigarettes, ate some beans from a can, and started teasing Colin about tying him up. Mac pulled out some clothing line rope from his rumsack and smiled menacingly at Colin. As there was still a few hours of summer daylight, Mac suggested they hike a few miles down from the cabin near an old abandoned stone quarry tucked away in a wooded area. He was certain the quarry would be lined by a few dozen sassafras trees! The boys pressed Colin until he finally agreed.

They couldn't wait to tie up the cocky Colin and leave him to "satisfy the hunger of the sassafras monster." They built a fire for their friend, teased him some more about wetting himself in the middle of the night, lashed him to the tree, and left their friend all alone in the fading dusk light.

They laughed and joked all the way back to the cabin, certain that Colin would be taught a lesson, knock his ego down a few pegs...

In the wee hours of dawn the boys awoke in the cabin, quickly got dressed, and set off to "rescue" Colin. But a pea soup-thick fog had descended over the wooded region and it hindered their ability to travel with speed and ease. From their approaching vantage they could barely make out which sassafras tree that had been used. Pressing on they finally spotted that beastly tree. But they could not make out if the ropes still entwined their brave comrade. As they stumbled forward they yelped for Colin, announcing their arrival. Suddenly some faint moaning could be heard and the noise stopped the boys cold in their tracks. They cautiously moved towards tree. A few weak embers glowed in the remaining ashes of the fire that had built the night before.

As they circled towards the front of the tree, they stopped dead in their tracks...

The ropes clung tightly to the trunk of the sassafras tree yet their beloved comrade was gone! They were stunned. They started screaming for him. But Mac was frozen. His mind racing. Could it be true? Was Colin swallowed by that hideous tree?

They searched that quarry and surrounding forest for most of the day calling out for their "brave" friend, praying he might be hiding from them. That he had somehow pulled the most amazing prank of all. When it became apparent that he could not be found the boys returned to their cabin and nervously agreed that they would have to summon help. They quickly packed and hiked to the local sheriff's office. Thinking it was all a hoax the sherif was slow to respond to their search and rescue request. But ultimately search parties were deployed and once the local authorities realized that their friend was indeed missing a call was put into the local FBI field office to investigate Colin's disappearance. Mac and his friends were all subjected to heavy interrogation, too. But the boys never deviated from their story. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, but alas no clues to Colin's disappearance were ever uncovered.

A year later Colin's parents held an empty casket service for their missing son. The boys were devastated.

Colin's case remains unsolved to this day. In the end everyone who'd gone camping on that tragic night believed that the "sassafras monster" must have swallowed their friend and that his restless spirit still haunts the forest around Chippewa Lake.

Regardless of the veracity of the myth, I shudder every time a new moon descends upon the land. And I never venture into a forest were a sassafras tree might be looming. Especially on a new moon night!

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