Waterway To ‘The Beautiful River’

Where the Chadakoin meets the future ... Photo by Sandy Robison

It’s a short river, not more than eight miles from the south end of Chautauqua Lake where it begins to the Levant juncture with Cassadaga Creek, but a mighty one, historically speaking. Without this tough, resilient river, the town of Jamestown may never have been built. For it was the Chadakoin that powered factories and attracted the first settlers here. This mysterious, fierce little river that ultimately wends its way to the Conewango and the Allegheny, and on to the Mississippi River.

Two hundred years before I was born in the summer of 1749, Celoron de Blainville left Canada and headed south for the adventure of his life. He had been commissioned to chart the waterways to the “beautiful river.” His journey changed the maps of America forever. Though he went in the name of New France, bringing lead plates to claim territory for it, all along his route, he did not end up winning it for France. What he did was greater: He opened the waterways which became the roads of opportunity for settlers who followed.

In our area, according to one biography and in his personal journals, Celoron travelled along the Lake Erie shoreline from Canada, portaged his boats at “Chatacouin portage.” We must remember too that the Seneca word for the Allegheny River is a word very like Ohio, and that is accurate, in its own way, because the Allegheny does find its way to the Ohio and ultimately to the Mississippi River. In that sense, these rivers are all one great water. A single waterway system to the Mississippi commences here at the southern end of Chautauqua Lake with our historic river, the Chadakoin.

In the documents of Celoron, including his personal journals, Celoron calls the portage, the lake and the river by the same name — perhaps a French version of the Iroquois Ja dah qwah. Celoron calls it the Chatakuin. Thus, the river and our lake stem from the same word by his accounts.

Guided by narrative histories from Native Americans who had portaged from the shores of Lake Erie to Chautauqua Lake for hundreds of years, Celoron de Blainville created what would later by termed the Portage Trail. He and his men took six days to complete the portage of boats and supplies up the tough, steep seven-mile climb to the shores of Chautauqua Lake near what is today known as Mayville. Celoron must have looked out over this lake of ours and smiled. Who knows what he said to his men, perhaps “Here, my friends, we begin our waterway to the Beautiful River!”

According to one biography of the soldier/explorer, Celoron and his 213 “soldiers and Indians” transported their boats onto the lake and poled and rowed down Chautauqua seeking a southern waterway to the Mississippi. Their hearts must have pounded in their chests. Imagine Celoron in his fancy coat with his long flowing hair, his moustache, a huge feather in his wide hat standing at the head of the voyagers as they traversed the lake, probably the first non-natives to do so. Celoron had some sense of this lake from Iroquois legend, from Algonquin memories shared in Canada. He knew it was Chautauqua or some form of that name, probably the word used at the portage, Chatacouin or as spelled in his own journal Chatakuin. Surely this is the source name for our lake and the river that flows out of it, one and the same. Celoron headed down this pristine lake, formed by several glacial gashes. His journal notes say at the outlet of the lake, he and his men found the remnants of an Indian camp near what is now the end of W. Eighth Street in Jamestown. Later they came to know the Native Americans had been frightened away by the size of group as it came down the lake towards them. He sent word by a Native American scout traveling with him that he meant no harm to them or anyone.

What he did for us was open our area to settlement, long after others had settled land farther west. If you stand on the corner of Jones & Gifford today, and look long up the outlet around the curve, you will see land and water wild as any waterway in America, and it looks much as it did when the great explorer stepped off his boat right there, by the old boat landing, in July 1749. The land is still wild. Snapping turtle heads still poke above Army green waters; the trees skirt the water and dip their roots in it. Odd creatures live along the shore. The land is swampy. It’s unsettled land still. It remains a fine wilderness all these years.

If you stand there, you are standing in history. It’s where the Frenchman Celoron de Blainville lived out his dream. As part of that dream, he created the portage trail and opened settlement to non-Native Americans here. At end of the lake, as he stood there in the muddy boat landing, did he ask, And where does this glistening river lead? Will it take me to the Beautiful River?

We rarely see the Chadakoin River. It moves furtively through our city, far below bridges, meandering behind buildings and even beneath buildings, sneaking its way south. We catch glimpses of it here and there, below First Street, at the juncture of Winsor Street, by South Buffalo Street weir. Now with the completion of the River Walk, you can stroll along its banks awhile from just above the Sixth Street Bridge to the beginning of the factory section. Mallard ducks claim the spot. It’s cool and pleasant on summer days. It is full of ice and fury in winter months. There it disappears again.

But make no mistake. It’s a fierce little river that has flowed from the southern end of Lake Chautauqua since the first glacial age. From there, it moves eight miles to confluence in Levant with little Cassadaga Creek, and together they become part of the Conewango, moving south, due south now, towards the great Allegheny. There Celoron must have stood and yelled Eureka. After leaving the outlet area on July 25, as recorded by his own hand, he writes, “On the 29th at noon I entered the Beautiful River. I had a leaden plate buried on which was engraved the taking possession of, which I made, in the name of the King, of his river, and all who fall into it.” From there, he headed south to confluence with the Ohio River and ultimately the Mississippi River. It was one continuous waterway journey from Chautauqua Lake.

Therefore, when we stand at the outlet by the old boat landing, we stand in history. The fierce and mysterious Chadakoin holds a unique and respected place in it.