Once upon a time, there was a people who lived on the shores of a great lake. These people had a good life because of the abundance in the area: There were plenty of forests for foraging and sourcing wood; there were plenty of fish in the water; and the land was good for their small farms.
The lake was also incredibly beautiful. Sunsets were particularly beautiful, and the people would sit outside their homes and watch the sun sink over the waves every evening.
Soon, they were paddling out in their canoes to watch the sunset from the water.
Soon after that, it was suggested that the people should go to seek the place where the sun sank into the water; for there, it must be extraordinarily beautiful. The idea was debated, and discussed, and decided upon. The people would seek the place of the sun’s setting.
The people set off in their canoes, paddling efficiently through the waves of the lake. Before long, the waves grew choppier. As the people paddled on, the waves became higher and higher. A great wind rose up, and threatened to tip the canoes. The skies grew dark, and their way became treacherous.
“The Spirit of the Lake!” one of the people exclaimed. “The Spirit of the Lake does not wish us to see where the sun sets, and has become angry with us!”
As this realization dawned on the rest of the people in the canoes, some of them started calling out to Manitou. The plea spread among the others, and soon all the people were calling out to the Great Spirit to help them.
The Great Spirit, hearing their cry, immediately moved to save the people. To save them from the thrashing waves, the Great Spirit threw his left arm out into the lake. Between his arm and the shore, the waters calmed, and the people were able to steer their canoes into the safe haven the Great Spirit had created.
For years after that, the arm of the Great Spirit remained in the water, and the people always had a safe place to shelter them from the furies of the Spirit of the Lake.
This is the origin story of Presque Isle, as told by the Erielhonan. The Erielhonan were a group of Native Americans who were a part of the Iroquois Nation, and they lived in and around the area that is now Erie, Pennsylvania. In fact, it’s from the Erielhonan that we get the names of both the city of Erie and Lake Erie. The Erielhonan were wiped out as a culture group in the mid-17th century due to wars among the Native American tribes, but individual survivors sought shelter with friendly tribe groups, and their stories continued to be passed on through the generations.
Presque Isle, meaning “almost an island” in French, is a peninsula that juts out from the mainland just west of Erie, PA. It’s pretty much just a big sandbar – the grounds are ever-shifting with the currents of Lake Erie. The little spit of land served an important purpose – first for the Erielhonan, then for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812, and today for the people of Erie – by creating a barrier between the mainland and the harshness of the lake. And if you look out from the hilltop at Erie Land Lighthouse, it looks just like an arm stretched out into the water.