It’s probably no surprise that I’m a big fan of our public library. Not only because I’m involved with their Memoir Project, which helps Fultonians preserve recollections of our city, but also because I’m a regular library patron. I find it amazing that, in 2019, I can still visit the library and borrow books for free. Is there anything else in today’s money-obsessed world that offers such value?
Those of us who’ve been carrying stacks of Fulton Library books home for years know that when we open each one we’ll see a familiar image on its inside front cover: the library’s bookplate. You might not even notice it, since it’s been used to identify books that are part of our library’s collection for over 80 years, but, as I recently learned, the bookplate is pretty special.
Those familiar with Fulton history will understand why the bookplate celebrates our city’s strong ties to Native American culture. Among the images found on the plate are a Native American in full ceremonial dress, a tribesman navigating the Oswego River, several animals that were sacred to local tribes and a phrase in Native American dialect.
How did these specific images come to represent our library? I found the answer in an old issue of The Fulton Patriot. In an article about the bookplate, its creator, Henry Pelouze de Forest, described its origins.
Mr. de Forest, Fulton-born, was actually Dr. de Forest, and he’d had a successful career as a surgeon in New York City. But the good doctor never forgot his Fulton roots, and in 1930 he was asked to create the bookplate for his hometown’s thriving library. (According to de Forest, the creation of the plate was actually a combined effort of several Fultonians and its supporters.)
Along with his medical expertise, Dr. de Forest was also a historian and he wanted the tribute to his birthplace’s library to reflect its rich Native American heritage. De Forest was well aware that the area we know as Fulton was once a gathering place for Central New York tribes. He explained some of this history in the Patriot article:
“The Iroquois Nation or ‘People of the Long House,’ as they described themselves, consisted originally of five tribes…the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas and the Senecas….During the Revolution, the Oneidas were the only ones who took the part of the colonists and at the close of the war with England, to reward their Indian allies, [they were] granted…large tracts of land.” Some of that land would one day become the city of Fulton.
Living with those tribes was a Church of England priest, Father Joseph W. Smith, who wrote a book about the natives’ way of life, including traditions and legends passed down from generation to generation. Many of those stories revolved around the Oswego River, which tribes used for transportation and recreation. Dr. de Forest’s bookplate includes two paintings of our city’s mighty river: Indian Point and Pathfinder’s Island, by Fulton artist Darwin Styles, and painter Robert Orr’s portrayal of a Native American’s canoe trip over Fulton’s Oswego Falls.
Robert Orr’s artistry shows up on the bookplate again with his drawings of local tribes’ sacred animal totems: Turtle, Beaver, Heron, Eel, Bear, and Deer, all which once were found in the Fulton area. Orr drew them on a “wampum belt,” which were used by tribes as trade for needed supplies. De Forest included a second belt, known as “the Peace Belt,” showing the white man and the Indian clasping hands.
On the bookplate, the two belts meet at a photograph of an Iroquois in full dress. Dr. de Forest obtained the photo from a Mohawk with ties to Fulton named Os-Ke-Non-Ton, or “Running Deer.” Os-Ke-Non-Ton was a noted Native American singer who’d given concerts in the Fulton area, often on the shores of Lake Neatahwanta. (He was also credited with cutting the piece of birch bark used as background for the bookplate.)
In the Patriot article, de Forest noted the challenge of finding just the right words to complete his bookplate’s message. He knew he wanted a phrase of original Onondaga language, but, being untrained in translation, he wasn’t sure how to obtain one.
“To find an educated man of today of the Onondaga race familiar with the two languages was by no means an easy task,” de Forest explained. “But finally, at the suggestion of Miss Evelyn Lee Messenger, former Fultonian, who has taken much personal interest in the perfection of the bookplate, I wrote to Dr. Arthur C. Parker [Director of Rochester’s Municipal Museum], a full-blooded Onondaga [who] gave me most cordial cooperation.”
Through Parker’s assistance, de Forest was able to find the ideal statement to forever link our library with its Native American roots: Ongwe oweh oadeh sigwa….deh weso sigwa neh ga-ya-dos-hah dio—The Iroquois Trail Is Long, But No Trail Is So Long As That Made By A Good Book.
All de Forest’s work to create his history-worthy bookplate would have been for naught if he hadn’t been able to find financial support for its production. As the Patriot article stated, it was through “the generous and public spirit of Mr. & Mrs. George Gaylord Chauncey, who donated 250 dollars,” that artists could be paid for their work. Also critical to its success were Jesse Anthony Morrill, who created the printing press template from which the bookplates were mass produced. William Fraser Dickson, a New York City native who attended school at Fulton’s Falley Seminary, paid for the production of the first 2,000.
According to current Fulton Library staff, about 2,000 bookplates are affixed to new books each year. One by one, those books are borrowed from the library and keep us company for a few weeks in our homes. There, we Fultonians enjoy hours journeying on the long trail of what reading a good book offers us.