A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
Do not Stand by my Grave and Cry...
A monument to a loved one, a tribute to a community.

It was a cold winter morning, February 17, 1852. Three young companions, two sisters and their older brother, were travelling through New York's Southern Tier and had spent the previous two days in Owego. This morning the trio made their way across town to the railroad station and boarded a train for Deposit, where they would spend the night before moving on.

The monument to Sa-sa-na Loft at Evergreen Cemetery in Owego, New York.
The white obelisk can be seen for miles from Route 17, below.

The next day when the mail train arrived at the Deposit station, most of the passengers got off to have dinner before continuing their journey. While the two sisters boarded the train and took seats in the rear car, their brother went to the office to buy tickets.

Then it happened - an alarm was frantically shouted out that a runaway freight train was racing down the steep grade into town at terrific speed - it was headed directly toward the station. A collision with the mail train was imminent.

After clearing "The Summit" and starting down on tracks covered with snow and ice, the heavily loaded freight train raced out of control. The engineer jumped to safety as the locomotive continued its eight-mile descent into town with ever increasing speed and momentum.

The two sisters tried to get away. "Both reached the platform of the station, but by some mysterious providence, the elder sister fell back upon the doomed car, which was then crumbling under the iron blows of the uncurbed engine. Her death was instantaneous." This account describing the death of 21-year-old Native American Sa-sa-na Loft, appeared in the 1852 publication: "A memorial of Sa-Sa-Na the Mohawk Maiden."

The Lofts were of the Mohawk tribe who, a generation earlier, at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, relocated from Canajoharie in New York's Mohawk River Valley, to a reservation on the Salmon River in western Canada.

The Loft children were well educated. For several months Sa-sa-na lived with the reservation minister's family where she was tutored in English language and Christian beliefs. She took music lessons and by many accounts developed a beautiful singing voice. At age 21, Sa-sa-na, with her brother Rok-wa-ho and sister Ya-go-weia, left their widowed mother and eldest sister in Canada to travel to the United States where they would give concerts to raise funds for educating their people.

A prominent Owego citizen, Judge Charles P. Avery, helped sponsor the Loft family's visit to Owego, where they performed two concerts before moving on to their next stop in Deposit. Judge Avery, having an interest in Native Americans and their history, entertained the family at his home during their brief stay in town.

When news of the tragedy reached Owego, Judge Avery made arrangements to have Sa-sa-na's body returned to the village and temporarily interred in the Avery family vault. Although her brother planned to return her to Canada the following spring, the citizens of Owego had been so touched by the young girl's visit just days before, they persuaded Sa-sa-na's family to allow her to be buried in the village.

A campaign was launched by church and women's organizations to raise money for a monument, which was completed in May of 1855.

The 17-foot white marble obelisk was placed at the highest point of Evergreen Cemetery in Owego. Engraved on the front are the words: "In memory of Sa-sa-na Loft, an Indian maiden of Mohawk Woods, Canada West, who lost her life in the railroad disaster at Deposit, N.Y., Feb 18 1852. Aged 21 years." On the back is a single wild rose with stem broken and one missing leaf, and on the west side: "By birth a daughter of the forest, by adoption a child of God." Sa-sa-na was laid to rest at the foot of the monument, on the east side.

Over time the engravings have deteriorated, so in 1972 a bronze plaque was added repeating the sentiments. Today, pennies, a heart-shaped locket, and feathers, are scattered over the plaque - tokens left by visitors in honor of Owego's adopted daughter.

The view from Sa-sa-na's monument is one of the most spectacular to be found in the Southern Tier. Across the valley, mist-covered hills roll-on endlessly, in front of them the majestic Susquehanna River winds from east to west as far as the eye can see, and directly below is the historic village of Owego, a patchwork of roof tops, church steeples, the county courthouse, and Court Street bridge. In all seasons of the year, as picturesque views go, it just doesn't get much better than this!

Looking beyond the view from this secluded and peaceful setting one sees something even more spectacular, the overwhelming compassion and love of a community for a visitor it hardly knew.

For just two days in the winter of 1852, a 21-year old girl passed through town. During two brief concerts she spoke and sang simple songs. She moved her audience, and then she moved on.

Just two days later Sa-sa-na Loft was tragically killed and without hesitation the townspeople adopted the young stranger that had entered their lives. How remarkable it is that in that brief moment in time she made such a profound impression on this community - an impression that continues even now, a century and a half after her death.

Standing at Sa-sa-na's monument, looking out at the breathtaking view I am reminded of a verse from a Native American prayer: "Do not stand by my grave and cry. I am not there, I did not die." This monument, erected by the citizens of Owego, continues to keep the spirit of Sa-sa-na Loft alive.

Sa-sa-na's monument can be found in Evergreen Cemetery, East Avenue in Owego. To learn more about Sa-sa-na Loft and the monument, visit the Tioga County Historical Society Museum and Library, 110 Front Street, Owego, 607-687-2460.