Upstate New York is still rich in supernatural folklore. People who know Native American people or their tradition will know how common reports are of the mystery-lights they call “Witch Lights.” Most often the legends presume these head-high, head-sized, usually slow-moving lights are the markers or even the astral forms of witches. The lights themselves are the subjects of enough tales and reports, but they are occasionally associated with other classic elements of Iroquois tradition, including haunted sites and Little People – the North American Fairies. Sometimes, too, the cultures cross, and people of other ancestry experience fixtures of Native American legend. Some tales even make the papers.
In the winter of 1887-88 northern Genesee County was abuzz with sightings of strange nocturnal lights on the Peanut Railroad line between Corfu and Indian Falls. The Batavia Daily News even ran a report about them, including the experiences of a Batavia resident besieged by hordes of them during one evening carriage ride. The reporter claimed to have seen one himself while driving his horse and cart north from Attica. He spotted it first on the Central Railroad when he was just north of Alexander. The light followed him and kept up with him almost to his home in Batavia. From a distance it looked “like the headlight to a locomotive,” though it was not as bright. The reporter got into his house without other incident, and the light drifted off and disappeared into the woods as if it had tired of him and was off for new sport.
Unless you care to challenge the witnesses’ intelligence and credibility completely, don’t suggest fireflies or “swamp gas” for these manifestations. I see no account for the matter except to say that testimony had been made of something mysterious. This isn’t the first time that strange lights have been spotted on Western New York tracks, either. I’ve heard Witch Light stories before about tracks that cut through the Tonawanda Reservation. (I don’t know yet if these are the east-west ones of the old New York Central Line, which I believe are still active, or the earlier-mentioned north-south tracks of the Peanut Railroad that may once have cut through the Tonawanda Rez. They would be only green channels through the landscape now.) “The Girl Who Fed the Witch Lights” is one of those tales, and it’s appeared earlier on my website. On May Eve at the Spirit Way Project conference in East Aurora I fell into conversation with a young man who had a strange tale of his own about train tracks, mystery lights and the Tonawanda Reservation.
My witness – call him Chris – had been married to a Seneca woman. In 2005 they and their two children were at an outdoor family gathering on the Tonawanda Reservation. Late in the day the couple’s boy and girl, then seven and five, went off with some Reservation children near the train trestle, a hundred or so yards from the site of the cookout. As his wife and mother-in-law cleaned up in the house, Chris had some relaxing moments outside, watching the slow merge of day into night.
Just before full dark his two children came back. The five-year-old girl didn’t have much to say for herself, seeming bemused, even as if she had a secret she didn’t want to share; but the boy was beside himself. “Dad! Dad! There are people that live by those tracks! Little people!” For his age, he was quite descriptive. He talked about playing with them and listening to them. They were wonderful friends, full of tricks and fun. They told him about the sounds the animals made and what they were saying by them. They made life in the woods seem like a never-ending amusement ride. He was also fascinated. He was old enough to have a picture of reality and to fall into wonder at the violations of it. No one at school had told him that the world contained Little People.
The boy’s Seneca grandmother came out in the middle of this conversation, caught the drift, and quickly fell into sternness. She scolded both children and told them not to be playing with Little People. Her attitude was as if ‘they ought to know.’ Then she turned to the parents. “Take them home, and don’t say anything more about this.” The White father found it all puzzling. It was just children telling tall tales…
Two dozen miles away the dad spent one of the worst nights of his life. Every five minutes he jump-started. It wasn’t exactly material sounds that woke him, just… the sense “that something was in the driveway.” Time after time he got up to peer out the broad second-floor window. He never saw anything. Another room overlooked the spot: the children’s second floor bedroom.
In the morning the seven-year-old described a remarkable night of his own. “Dad! The Little People came to see us! They were outside all night in the driveway! They were trying to get us to come out and play. I really wanted to, but I was really good. I remembered what Gramma told us. I didn’t think you wanted us to go out there, either, Dad.”
The father told all this to the grandmother as soon as the children were off to school. Within hours a Reservation healer arrived at the couple’s house. He commenced a ritual about the site, offering tobacco outside and going through every room with a smudge of sage. The father had the sense that ceremonies may have been conducted elsewhere, too. It felt like a team operation.
That was the last any of them said or saw of Little People. Even in daylight the family’s children stayed away from the woods near the questionable trestle, and before long they’d completely forgotten the incident. One night, though, the father was again sitting outside his mother-in-law’s house at twilight and remembering the strange tale from years before. Something caught his eye: odd lights in the foliage by the spot toward which the children had gone years before. They were delicate, fist-sized, incandescents, moving in a leisurely fashion a foot off the ground in open spaces, and as seamlessly through the patches of dense brush as if they could both fly and climb lightly. He realized he had been seeing them for some time without noticing. Their texture was odd, too. They were too dense and constant to be fireflies, and they stayed too low to the ground. They lasted as long as he looked. He could think of no natural explanation for them. He was faintly tempted to stalk off after them and challenge their mystery. He does not remember why he did not.
Eventually the grandmother told her White son-in-law why the Reservation folks were so on edge about Little People. Only a few years before a Reservation boy of about the same age as his own had disappeared under similar circumstances and been lost for three days, apparently in the natural environment. That seemed the only possibility for where he had been; they had turned the Reservation upside-down looking for him, that’s for sure. Everyone was glad just to have him back when the boy made his reappearance by walking up to someone’s house. There were curiosities, though. For someone lost in the woods, he was pretty clean and well cared for; even his hair had been combed. Other than looking a little bewildered and not remembering much about where he’d been, there was another oddity: He could speak fluent Seneca.
“Miracle tales” about Witch Lights and lost children are not uncommon, either in the old literature or in contemporary gossip; but a couple things here are interesting. Off the top, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard a witness describe these mini-lights. Witch Lights are usually pictured as at least the size of human heads and at about the same altitude. They’re also attributed to witches and wizards. Here the mini-lights seem clearly associated with the Little People. The most marvelous thing, though, is the add-on comment at the end, about the boy returning with the gift of speaking in Seneca, an old language that only handfuls of people speak any more. It’s also a subtle and outrageously complex lingo that one does not learn in a long weekend. Finally, the Seneca language is exclusively used in incantations and magical spells, and in particular certain power-words and phrases from the old forms of it. One senses that there may be a hidden, archaic form of Seneca that contains its most mystical concepts. When a passerby overhears the folkloric “talking animals” as they converse with each other, it’s most always in one of the old Iroquois tongues, typically Seneca in Western New York. The White guy who told me this story had no idea of its relevance.