Schunemunk Mountain is the highest in Orange County, at 1,664 feet. Despite its relatively modest height, it’s a reasonably tough mountain, which may explain why it was reputed to be a Lenape stronghold called “Maringamus’ Castle,” as well as the last refuge of Tory outlaws such as Jacob Rose (Roosna), as well as the notorious Claudius Smith.
The mountain is a geological oddity, boasting a summit of extremely old “puddingstone” – a magenta-ish conglomerate peppered with very large white pebbles that were shorn off by the last ice age glaciers, so they look like embedded oval tiles. The mountain’s name is said to mean “Excellent Fireplace” in Lenape, giving rise to the unsubstantiated claim that many Lenape chiefs were buried – or cremated – there. Certainly, it’s a peak shrouded in legend – much of it deeply unpleasant. To begin with, its creeks drain into Moodna Creek, whose name is said to be a corruption of “Murderer’s Creek.” Its legend was first told in John Pierpont’s 1828 National Reader. In a tale typical of the bloodthirsty offerings typical of 19th-century children’s literature, Naoman, a friendly elder of the tribe, shows up at the house of settlers named the Stacys. When Mrs. Stacy asks him why he is so quiet, he refuses to answer, telling her that she can’t keep a secret because she is a woman, and a white woman at that. Eventually, however, he admits that his people plan to massacre the white settlers. Prevented from escaping by a series of mishaps, the Stacy family is captured and pressed to reveal who betrayed the tribe by warning them. Mrs. Stacy proves Naoman wrong by refusing to betray him, even when her children are threatened with death, prompting Naoman to admit his treachery. All is for naught, however, and both Naoman and the family are massacred.
Nathaniel Parker Willis, who is most famous for being the highest-paid magazine writer of his day, tells a more garbled version of this tale in his 1854 book, Out-doors at Idlewild, (his 14-room, Calvert
Vaux-designed “cottage” overlooking the Moodna, so named because the people who sold him the property claimed it was “an idle wild of which nothing could ever be made”). Early on in his book, Willis claims that “Murderer’s” is in fact a corruption of “Moodna,” the name of a local Indian chief – or maybe of “Merdner,” the creek’s the first English settler. Several hundred pages later, however, Willis changes his mind and claims that Moodna was in fact the heroic Naoman himself.
Most experts today dismiss any of these etymologies, along with Naoman’s story, and prefer to concentrate on the known historical figure of Maringamus, a Waoraneck leader, popularly considered the area’s “last Indian Chief,” whose “wigwam” (which most agree probably meant an entire settlement) is cited as a landmark in many eighteenth-century deeds and treaties. Other sources mention “Maringamus’ Castle,” on Schunemunk. If such a castle it existed, it most likely referred to a Lenape settlement on the mountain’s north end, but it is tempting wonder whether the unique “Megaliths” on the mountain’s top were in fact a Lenape fortification.
Certainly, the climb up Schunemunk is enough to make you understand why it was often used as a defensive retreat. The many climbs from the North end are
described as “moderate,” and indeed they are, if you are experienced hikers. However, while certainly not dangerous, Schunemunk is a step beyond the average weekend trip. On Christmas break, we took the “Sweet Clover” route up the East Ridge, and found ourselves slipping and sliding on the combination of melting ice and dried leaves on a very steep trail. And the scramble along the ridge line wasn’t all that much easier. Still, the view at the top is well worth the effort.
The mountain’s most notorious occupant, Claudius Smith, provides even more reason to brave the mountain in the cold weather. A notorious Tory bandit, whose treasure is still said to be hidden somewhere on the peak, he contemptuously kicked off his shoes before he was hanged, saying, “My mother said I would die like a trooper’s horse, with my shoes on. I will make her out a liar.” Those boots, according to legend, were responsible for the deaths of the three men who tried to wear them after his death – each of them succumbing in turn to a rattlesnake bite that mysteriously pierced the leather. And while we can’t verify the story of Smith’s “haunted boots” from personal experience, we can attest to the fact that a lot of snakes come out during the summer to enjoy the warmth of Schunemunk’s many rocks. So if you share Erica’s conviction that if it’s a snake, it’s poisonous and dangerous, as well as just plain creepy, you might prefer to hike this mountain in the wintertime, too.