Adirondack Experience acquires pistol of legendary Long Laker Mitchell Sabattis
By Philip Terrie
It was the golden age of Adirondack sport. The lakes were full of trout, the woods full of deer. The carnage of the Civil War was over. Urban men (and a few women), many of whom barely knew one end of a rifle from the other, set out for the spectacular lakes of the central plateau. They hunted and fished, and they lounged around the fire in front of a bark lean-to.
They required a guide, a local man who could lead his clients to hot spots for fish and game, could supply and carry a guideboat, and could generally keep his clients healthy and well fed before sending them back to the metropolis. Some of these guides became legendary: Alvah Dunning of Raquette Lake and Harvey Moody of Saranac Lake, for example. But none achieved quite the reputation of Mitchell Sabattis of Long Lake.
An Abenaki Native American, Sabattis was born in Parishville in 1824 and was one of the first settlers on Long Lake. By the 1840s, when urban sportsmen were beginning the decades-long process of mythologizing their camping expeditions in wilderness adventure narratives, Sabattis was already known as a reliable guide. Joel T. Headley, whose “The Adirondack: or Life in the Woods” (1849) was hugely popular, hired Sabattis sometime in the ’40s to guide him through what was then an unmapped, mostly unexplored wilderness paradise.
It’s hard to tell from Headley’s description of Sabattis how much is accurate and how much reflects the stereotyping of Native Americans that permeated Eastern white culture by midcentury. Native Americans, diminished in numbers by war and disease, their patrimony stolen in fraudulent land deals, were no longer an impediment to white expansion, and their reality was often erased by the stock figures romanticized in James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales and a shelf of other novels, stories, and poems—from William Gilmore Simms’s “The Yemasee” to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Headley’s portrait of Sabattis is a familiar mix of unconscious racism and admiration for the “noble savage.” What are we to make of Headley’s declaration on parting from Sabattis, “I … shook his honest hand with as much regret as I ever did that of a white man”? In the very same breath, Headley goes on to depict a man of such sterling character that the account seems lifted from Cooper: “I shall long remember him—he is a man of deeds and not of words—kind, gentle, delicate in his feelings, honest and true as steel.” Is Headley’s Sabattis a flesh-and-blood man? Or is he a clone of Cooper’s Chingachgook? Sabattis’s Long Lake neighbors apparently knew him better; he was a pillar of his church and was elected to numerous town offices.
When they parted, Headley gave Sabattis a few personal items “as mementos of me.” These included a “canister of powder, a pocket compass, and a small spyglass.” The bestowal of gifts on a much-appreciated guide was not unusual, and the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake has recently scored a talismanic example, a pistol presented to Sabattis in 1867.
It’s an 1851 Colt Navy, a popular pistol produced for military and civilian markets through 1873. The serial number on this pistol identifies it as new the year it was given to Sabattis. The backstrap, the brass piece in the handle, is engraved: “MITCHELL SEBATTIS FROM H.B.P. J.S. F.I.M. 1867.” The misspelling of his name might be the fault of the engraver, or perhaps the clients never saw his name in writing.
The condition of this pistol is shaky. Nothing is missing, but the iron is highly corroded, and the breech, just ahead of the cylinder, has been blown out. A friend of mine, an expert on firearms of the Civil War era, speculates that an obstruction in the barrel caused a mishap. Sabattis may have kept it for sentimental reasons but put it aside in a damp environment. There is no trail between Sabattis’s home in Long Lake and the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, dealer from whom ADKX bought it.
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Laura Rice, the museum’s curator, surmises that the initials are of three clients who, like Headley, wanted to thank Sabattis with something more lasting than the daily wage (about a $2.50 per day) that they paid him. Rice called it an exciting acquisition: “A gift to a guide from his grateful clients makes it interesting, but the pistol’s dedication to one of the most respected and sought-after Adirondack guides of the 19th century makes it even more so.”