Those looking for an authentic look at the Sleepy Hollow of legend could do little better than to take a hike in Rockefeller State Park Preserve. The 1,233 acre park is bordered on one side by the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Old Dutch Church of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame, as well as connecting to the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park. The result is a healthy patch of wilderness in the midst of Westchester county, a stone’s throw from the Hudson River. The trails are certainly better kept than they would have been during the time of the Revolution, but otherwise it provides a glimpse of why Sleepy Hollow was named Sleepy Hollow.
“I recollect that, when a stripling, my first exploit in squirrel-shooting was in a grove of tall walnut-trees that shades one side of the valley. I had wandered into it at noontime, when all nature is peculiarly quiet, and was startled by the roar of my own gun, as it broke the Sabbath stillness around and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes. If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.”
From The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Irving makes a cryptic allusion early in his tale … “Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson.”
According to the Sleepy Hollow storyteller, Jonathan Kruk, this high German doctor was none other than a thin, frail looking woman who appeared in Sleepy Hollow around 1770 by the name of Hulda. Drawing on the writings of Edgar Mayhew Bacon in the Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow as well as other sources, Kruk names Hulda as this mysterious high German doctor. The residents of the time had another title for her … Hulda the Witch.
Hulda is in fact a German name, made popular by the Brothers Grimm in their collected fairy tales. But originally Hulda was a pagan deity of the Germanic tribes, which would have stretched into the lands of the Dutch ancestors of Sleepy Hollow. In fact, belief in Hulda was so ancient that it predated other pagan deities such as Thor and Odin. As Christianity usurped the pagan pantheon in Europe, the deities went underground as it was, continuing to live in folk tales of the region. Hulda was associated with basket making and weaving, two arts associated with witchcraft at the time, so Hulda became known as a witch, albeit often a benign one.
It’s understandable that the residents of Sleepy Hollow would cast a wary eye on the strange older woman with dark set eyes who came to settle in the wilds, particularly as Hulda was known to weave exquisite baskets, of peculiar technique. Perhaps wary is too light a term, as the minister of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow declared Hulda to be a witch and forbad any of his parishioners to have any dealings with her.
Some believed that Hulda had spent some time living with the Native Americans of the area, perhaps having been kidnapped by them as a child, for she was able to communicate with some in a language of a tribe long gone from that part of the country. So the only way Hulda could trade was with the Native Americans, who perhaps had more respect for the woman, for she lived in a hut just below Spook Rock, which also makes an appearance in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Spook Rock was legendary from the earliest days of white settlement, a tradition which stretched into the folklore of the Native Americans. A large boulder sitting atop a hill, now graced with its own trail, Spook Rock Trail in Rockefeller Preserve, it was a gathering place for councils where leaders of the tribe would gather. Council rocks were chosen in part because they were believed to hold sacred powers, and Spook Rock was no exception.
Bacon writes of a young Indian’s experience in the area, “One night a young Indian returning late from a hunt and passing near the council rock, was surprised to see lights moving in that direction, while at the same time his ears were assailed by the sound of musical voices. Not being ignorant of the sacred character of the place and the miraculous things that had occurred there, his curiosity was at once aroused and he crept cautiously from tree to tree till he came upon a sight of extraordinary interest. A dozen girls, beautiful beyond anything that the young man had ever imagined, were dancing on the surface of the rock. Linking hands, and leaning far outward in the rapid figure, they seemed to tread on the very edge of the stone, if indeed they touched anything more solid than the air at all. To the bewildered and delighted watcher they were like a ring of forest leaves that have been caught up and whirled around by the wind.”
“Their voices were as sweet as their bodies were beautiful and graceful, and no one could have mistaken them for anything less than celestial, even if there had not been, in the centre of the circle around which they danced, a great basket, which, as every one knows, is the approved vehicle when heavenly maids pay a visit earthward.”
“The scene was lit by unearthly flambeaux that flared among the trees like Will-o’-the- wisps. The singing and the dancing grew wilder and madder and more fascinating every moment, till the solitary spectator forgot himself and gave a cry of admiration. In a moment, half frightened and half laughing, the bevy scrambled into the basket, with little screams and pretty panics, like girls that would fain go a-slumming and retreat at the first sight of a tipsy man. In they crowded, hugger-mugger, higgledy-piggledy, all but one, who lingered a moment and looked back. She was the most beautiful of them all. Then, in a moment, she took her place, or rather was dragged in by the rest and, amid a chorus of laughter, they were all whisked out of sight and the young Indian was left standing alone in the dark woods. Directly over the rock, as he followed the basket with his eyes, a large star was shining, and he knew, of course, that it must be their home.”
Now in love with the celestial maiden, the young man returns and managed to ensnare the woman, who submits to his love. They have a child and live what seems to him to be a contented life, though in truth, the woman is still called to join her sisters. A short time later, the woman answers the call of her sisters, intending to be gone and back without the husband even knowing. But time is different among her sisters than on Earth. Without the mother the baby dies. The father goes hunting and never returns. Their lodge decays and falls to nothing but a pile of sticks. The woman returns believing a few hours have passed, but in reality it has been years. Bacon continues …
“She found the empty lodge sticks with astonishment. Even the grass was growing rank where she had lain by the side of her husband and baby only a few hours before. Something must be wrong. She had mistaken the place and would search for her home.”
“Up and down the Pocantico woods — you may meet her any .spring night, for doubtless she is looking there still for the lost lodge.”
Not that Hulda shunned the Dutch residents of Sleepy Hollow. On the contrary, when one fell ill, they would find a basket of herbs at their door to help procure a cure. As doctors at the time in this place were scarcely existent, Hulda was likely the most capable physician in the area. And though the Dutch didn’t admit to it in church, they welcomed Hulda’s remedies, which usually helped afford a cure, and returned the favor by leaving gifts at the door of her hut.
When the Revolution began, Westchester’s loyalties were split. The southern part of the county was across the river from Manhattan, which was a thriving English settlement, and were thus more likely to have loyalist or Tory sympathies. The fervent of Revolution gripped the north of the county, and in between, in the area of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown you had the Dutch, who despite losing their territory to the English tried to walk a fine line of neutrality. As a result, the area was a frequent target of raids by both sides.
As the British first marched on Tarrytown, Hulda rushed to lend her musket and her services to the militia, who turned her away and surrendered the town without firing a shot.
But on a subsequent raid, as the militia formed a line, this time determined to stop the British, Hulda joined the ranks. The British, stopped by the ranks of militia faced off with the line, and an impasse began, with neither side seemingly willing to take the first shot.
Hulda took the honors and the lead, drawing the British into the forests of Sleepy Hollow and away from Tarrytown, which afforded time to hide ammunition and weapons, as well as stores of food which the British were intent on taking.
It’s said that Hulda’s skill as a crack shot brought the focus of the skirmish on her, and the redcoats exacted their retribution. When the British marched back to their boats on the Hudson, the militia found that their only casualty had been Hulda, whose lifeless body was found on the woods of what is now Rockefeller Preserve.
Still afraid from her reputation, at first the soldiers were hesitant about picking up her body, thinking instead to leave it for the wolves and other scavengers of Sleepy Hollow. But eventually it was decided to take her to her hut. When they arrived there, they found a Bible, proving her Christian beliefs, as well as a will, which deeded her possessions including a small amount of gold, to widows of the Revolution in the area.
Now considered a heroine, the pent up goodwill of the citizens of Sleepy Hollow poured out, and it was decided to give her a home in the Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow Burial Ground. Still the minister was hesitant to give Hulda a plot, but eventually agreed to let her be buried in an unmarked grave near the north side of the Old Dutch Church.
Was Hulda a witch? In the beliefs of the day, one can easily say yes. The difference between an herbalist and a witch was essentially the degree of success they found in their practice. Often times it took only one failure resulting in death for a wise or cunning woman’s reputation to make the slight shift from healer to witch. As Hulda was certainly a skilled practitioner in the healing arts, made potions and pastes to enact cures, the case can be made that what separates Hulda from a whole-hearted proclamation of witch was the manner of her death. She died a hero, rather than from a noose or bonfire, and as such achieved a reputation as perhaps a white witch, worthy of her ancient namesakes.
Still, hiking Witches Spring Trail in Rockefeller Preserve endows you with a sense of mystery and wonder befitting the darkest of tales from the Brothers Grimm. The trail takes you along a meandering brook, and those who keep a close eye and wander a ways from the trail will come upon a spring that feeds the stream, and perhaps the remnant of an ancient stone wall, finding themselves in the yard of Hulda the Witch. With Spook Rock looming above you, it’s easy to find the wonder of the area which inspired Irving’s most famous tale, and the landscape where perhaps America’s most enduring urban legend was born.