Last week I discussed one of the Arkansas legends that appeared in His Promise True; this week I’ll talk about another that is not as well-known as the legend of Petit Jean. This week I’ll investigate the background of the legend of Dardanelle Rock, another of Stewpot’s “Indian tales.”
Dardanelle Rock is another geological feature along the Arkansas River, a little less than 20 miles upriver from Petit Jean Mountain (as the crow flies). The rock is a large, isolated slab of sandstone that juts at a 40-degree slant about 300 feet above the riverbank (Owen). Not far away (about 7 and a half miles) is the second of the Arkansas “tri-peaks,” Mount Nebo.
As with Petit Jean, the origin of the name “Dardanelle” is a matter of conjecture. On the surface, the most obvious explanation seems to be borrowing from the more famous Dardanelles in Turkey; some people say the imposing rock on the riverbank reminded explorers and settlers of the terrain of the Dardanelles. My inclination is to be a bit skeptical about that; how many of the men who explored and settled Arkansas Territory would have ever seen the Dardanelles? (Of course, I guess it would only take one, who could then share his label for the landmark with others.) Another story (probably the one most likely to be true) is that the settlement near the rock took its name from a French family named Dardennes. The family is mentioned in Thomas Nuttall’s journal of his travels in Arkansas Territory in 1819 (Dardanelle).
My favorite explanation for the name comes from a story the New York Times reprinted from the Arkansas Gazette in 1873. The story goes that two hunters were running from the Osage and camped for the night on top of the rock. They agreed to take turns sitting guard. During the night, one of the men woke and found the other, who was supposed to be on guard duty, sleeping. He woke up the snoozing guard, who replied he had been sleeping “Je dors d’un oiel” (meaning “with one eye open”). I don’t speak French, but I can guess at the pronunciation enough to see how the name “Dardanelle” might have come from the phrase.
The most far-fetched story about the origin of the name, in my opinion, is that the rock is named for an Indian warrior. I don’t remember where I first heard the story that I worked into my novel, but a website by the Dardanelle Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution recounts the basics of the story. A Cherokee chief named Dardanelle was wounded in a battle with the Choctaws, and while recuperating, fell in love with the lovely maiden Leonietta. They agreed Dardanelle would stand on top of the big rock at sunset, and she would wave her cloak as a signal to him that she would elope with him. However, she never showed, and the distraught Dardanelle threw himself from the top of the rock into the Arkansas River.
For a number of reasons, I believe this story is nothing more than romantic fancy. For one thing, from what I’ve found in my research, the Cherokees and the Choctaws never engaged in battle, at least not in Arkansas. The Cherokees did have pretty significant conflict with the Osages in the 1810’s, but the story disregards history in favor of using two Native American tribes white audiences would be familiar with. A second problem is the logistics of Dardanelle throwing himself from the peak of the rock into the river. Dardanelle Rock is set back from the riverbank by around 100 yards (I would guess it’s that far – I’m not great with distances). That is the case today, with the modern-era river, which has been dammed to give it a more stable water flow year-round. I am guessing the Arkansas River was probably smaller in the early 19th century, meaning Dardanelle Rock would have been even farther from the water. Chief Dardanelle would have had to have quite a dramatic arc on his leap to have made it from the rock to the river to drown himself.
Finally, there’s a version of the story published as a poem in the book Pictures and Poems of Arkansas, which was published in 1906. The poem was written by Annie Robertson Noxon, who apparently had a career writing these sentimental pieces. A Google search of her name brings links to several poems, including two titled “October” and “Peace” in the July-December 1875 issue of Peterson’s Magazine. There’s also a brief news item in the New York Mirror of the late 1880’s that notes, “Mrs. Annie Robertson Noxon, wife of manager Harry (?) Noxon, made her husband a brief visit recently [he was apparently a manager of an opera house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa]. Mrs. Noxon is employed in reporterial duty on a New York daily.” It seems Mrs. Noxon wrote not only poetry, but also dramatic pieces, including a two-act comedy called “Pledged, or Fun in a Pawn Shop,” which received a less-than-glowing review in the New York Clipper dated November 15, 1884. Mrs. Noxon, who lived in St. Louis according to the Clipper article, may have visited Arkansas at some point, where she might have seen Dardanelle Rock, which was enough to set her romantic imagination to work. Here is a brief excerpt from Mrs. Noxon’s poem, The Legend of Dardanelle Rock:
Where bold Arkansas’ yellow stream/Winds southward to the sea,/There lies the dark and bloody ground/Where fell the Cherokee.
In numbers weak, in fury strong,/They held their vantage well;/And loud and shrill the war-cry rang/Where strode young Dardanelle.
By birth, a king, by prowess, chief,/He dared the invading foe;/And many a brawny Choctaw brave/By him was stricken low.
But in a fatal hour he met/And loved an Indian Maid;/Leonietta–fairest flower/That bloomed in sun or shade.
Well, you get the drift. It goes on for several more stanzas from there.
I hope I’m not throwing a huge, wet blanket on the romantic hearts of any readers out there. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good romantic legend as much as anyone. And the legend doesn’t have to be true for me to love it. As JK Rowling had Albus Dumbledore say at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “Of course it is happening inside your heard, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Dardanelle. (n.d.) Arkansas Ties [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.arkansasties.com/Yell/Structures/Dardanelle/Dardanelle.htm.
Dardanelle Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. (1997, April 12). Chapter History. Retrieved from http://arkansas-dar.org/dardanellerock.htm.
Noxon, A.R. (1906). The Legend of Dardanelle Rock. In Pictures and Poems of Arkansas, ed. O.C. Ludwig. Sketch Book Pub. Co. Retrieved from Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=KPQTAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA84&lpg=PA84&dq=legend+of+dardanelle+rock&source=bl&ots=-vMqthnLaz&sig=YUZMXmHd2XCa5mfgQeqgPydCsTs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Q_QUU6SDFaSI2gX9uYGYCA&ved=0CG0Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=legend%20of%20dardanelle%20rock&f=false
Owen, D.D. (1860). Second Report of a Geological Reconnaissance of the Middle and Southern Counties of Arkansas. Philadelphia: C. Sherman & Sons. (accessed through Google Books)