PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Native Americans guarded secrets of Standing Rock

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

Standing Rock, one of Kent's best-known landmarks, rises from the middle of the Cuyahoga River at the rear of the cemetery named for it.

The gray sandstone rock is 15 to 20 feet across the top and juts out as high as 20 feet above the surface of the river, although in recent years when the Cuyahoga was swollen by rain, there have been times when it has barely cleared the surface. During the Great Flood of 1913 it was two feet under water.

The stone formation has been a symbol of Kent for generations. In addition to the cemetery, a street is named for it. An arts organization and downtown jewelry store also bear its name. A short-lived Kent pickling works marketed a line of canned goods under the Standing Rock label in the early 20th Century.

The stone formation has had many names. Early historians referred to it as the Sentinel of the Cuyahoga. Even earlier, however, Native Americans called it Council Rock because it was a meeting place for the nomadic tribes who lived in this area before its first permanent settlers.

Christian Cackler Jr., whose 1874 memoir, "Recollections of An Old Settler," recounts tales of Portage County during the early 19th Century, recalled first setting eyes on Standing Rock in 1804, when he was a teenager.

"There were two trees on top of it, a hemlock and a pine," he wrote. "The top of the rock was higher than the banks on either side and covered with huckleberry bushes and moss.

"The Indians had felled a small sapling from the shore to the rock, forming what was called an Indian ladder, and by this means they could climb onto the top. Whenever an Indian family passed by here, they would climb on the rock and fasten a piece of bark to the hemlock, pointing in the direction they had gone," Cackler recalled. "There were many pieces still clinging to the tree when I first saw it."

The rock was a landmark along the Great Trail, an east-west passageway that Native Americans traversed that crossed Portage County through Palmyra and Edinburg, into Ravenna and Franklin townships and proceeding northwest to Sandusky. The Great Trail crossed the Cuyahoga near Standing Rock.

Among the Native American nations that gathered at the rock, and considered it sacred, were the Senecas, who had a large lodge near present-day Streetsboro, where many spent the winter. The Senecas, whose reservation is located in upstate New York, hunted throughout Portage County before being dispersed in the early 19th Century.

Charlotte Weaver, who was born in 1847 and became one of Kent's most knowledgeable historians, had a particular interest in Standing Rock and the Native Americans who gathered on it for council sessions, which they attended without firearms or other weapons.

"From correspondence with the officials of the Seneca Indian Reservation ... she learned that for many years a small group of selected Indians (three men and a woman) journeyed from the Salamanca Reservation to pay homage to this once famed meeting place," her grandson, Dudley Weaver, a noted historian in his own right, wrote in a 1970 publication of the Portage County Historical Society.

Mrs. Weaver hoped to learn more about the Indians, who apparently made an annual pilgrimage to Kent, but reservation officials declined to provide details of their visits. "But she did find out from other sources that they camped at Brady Lake," her grandson wrote, "and for the most part dressed like white folks."

Her curiosity was rewarded, in part, in July 1928, when an acquaintance who lived within sight of Standing Rock alerted her to the presence of a small group of Indians in tribal dress who had appeared at the rock, held a brief ceremony there that included prayers and chanting, "then disappeared single file, crossing the river on the old trail ford," Dudley Weaver wrote.

Mrs. Weaver located the Seneca visitors the following day at Brady Lake, but they were not forthcoming when she attempted to press for details of the rites they had held at Standing Rock. Running Deer, the leader of the group, said he had been taught from early childhood never to reveal or communicate any of the tribal vows, according to Dudley Weaver.

"He did say that the secrets of the Rock and its importance to his tribe and the Great Spirit who dwells there was passed from certain chiefs to their sons and on and on forever. The interview was over ... and my grandmother returned home and wrote her notes," he wrote.

Native Americans weren't the only ones who gathered atop Standing Rock. A 19th Century photo in the archives of the Kent Historical Society, which accompanies this column, shows about two dozen men and women on the rock. What they were doing there is lost to history.

The rock also attracted comparatively more recent visitors who made their mark on it -- quite literally -- to the dismay of history lovers. In 1970, the landmark was defaced with the Greek letters of fraternities and sororities whose members evidently had no problem wading into the river to paint Standing Rock. Civic leader Sam Apicello organized an effort to sandblast the rock, a three-hour process that restored its surface.

The Sentinel of the Cuyahoga remains an inspiring sight for those who come upon it at the rear of Standing Rock Cemetery. If the Senecas are still making an annual visit there, they've definitely been able to keep it a secret.

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