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In the 1800s, notable criminal Sile Doty most likely brought a stolen horse to this cave near Hillsdale.
Mark Naida | Col­legian

As stories have their way, they get bigger, taller, more true to the intent of the sto­ry­teller than to the facts. In local legends, there is often a point of ref­erence. Some­times it is an island, a hill, a burial ground. In this case, there is a cave.

On a cold day in early Feb­ruary, the snow obscured the cave’s entrances, which were out­lined in thick blue ice. The Lost Nations Game Area in Hillsdale County falls silent when hunting season ends. The creaking of one tree scraping against another in the wind is the only sound. Under­neath the red oak, sugar maple, and beech trees all bereft of leaves for the season, there is no rustling of leaves. The snow soaks up all the sound.

Sile Doty’s Cave near Pittsford, Michigan, is named after the infamous thief and mur­derer. The entrance is by a stream that winds through the bottom of a ravine. According to a Natural Fea­tures Inventory pre­pared by the Michigan Department of Natural Recourses, the cave has two dis­tinct caverns and three entrances. A dome in the back of the cave hangs almost too low for an average-height man to stand upright. In the winter, ice crowns the entrances and branches into the sand­stone gravel that covers the floor of the cave.

The cave was not always this size. It used to be large enough to house horses. The Natural Fea­tures Inventory said “a larger cave also occurred in the vicinity but was destroyed to prevent the local brigand Sile Doty from using it to hide stolen horses in the mid-1800s.” The res­i­dents of the area feared Doty so much they attempted to destroy his hiding places, knowing that they could never capture him for very long.

Doty was a self-pro­fessed criminal. Born in 1800, he began stealing  horse­shoes and penknives at a young age just for the thrill of it. Entering his teen years in Bangor, New York, he began to steal animals from the traps of fur trappers. He sold the furs through an extensive network of thieves in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

He robbed banks, broke into homes, and traded on the black market. A thrill seeker, he even­tually led slaves to freedom in the abo­li­tionist era, not out of moral concern, but out of hunger for chal­lenge.

In 1846, Doty landed himself in jail for stealing a large number of buffalo robes and several sets of harness. He escaped from jail and fled to Mexico, joining the war effort and stealing from both Mex­icans and American sol­diers in his patho­logical pursuit for adventure. In his life of crime, he lied, coun­ter­feited, stole, and even mur­dered a man named Lorenzo Noyes in Steuben County, Indiana, only about 40 miles from Hillsdale.

In August 1849, he found himself in jail again in Hillsdale for robbing a peddler. Doty had been acquainted with the town since its ear­liest years. The railroad had reached the town only six years ago and had undergone tremendous pop­u­lation expansion. In many ways, it was a pioneer town, and Doty admired it. In his auto­bi­og­raphy, Doty always refers to the “con­genial” cit­izens and “kindred spirits” with whom he became acquainted when he visited.

In 1866, after having been con­fined to a cell for 15 years in the State Prison in Jackson, Michigan, Doty was a free man.

Shortly after leaving prison, Doty wrote in his auto­bi­og­raphy, “Life of Silas Doty, 1800 – 1876: A for­gotten auto­bi­og­raphy; the most noted thief and daring burglar of his time,” that he “… went to Cold­water, walked into Lawyer Parson’s barn, saddled his horse and led him out past the house to the street, while they were yet up, got on his back and rode off … For three days I kept this horse secreted in the southern part of Hillsdale County, no one in that region sus­pected that I had such a thing as a horse.”

Without men­tioning the cave specif­i­cally, he sug­gested that he hid a large animal without notice on someone else’s land in a location which coin­cides with the cave, near the border of Pittsford and Jef­ferson town­ships in the southern part of the county.

That passage is Doty’s only mention of hiding horses in the county, but as the legend of Silas Doty developed, the number rose, the cave grew, the horses became more thor­oughly bred. In a book pub­lished by the Hillsdale County His­torical Society, titled “150 Years In the Hills and Dales,” the author recorded this legend alongside the history:

“It is also said that if you go to his cave at night you will find a dead fox and some black walnuts. If you look real hard you will see the ghost of Silas Doty that is said to haunt the cave, and he is smiling.”

According to Tom Ford, the super­natural seems to per­meate that patch of woods near Pittsford, Michigan. In an article from the Toledo Blade pub­lished in Feb­ruary 1989, Ford wrote that  “Two squirrel hunters, in the woods Feb. 6, said they came across extra­or­dinary foot­prints that have author­ities thinking the area is inhabited by either the fabled bigfoot creature or clever pranksters … ‘The tracks we found ran right up to the entrance of Sile Doty’s cave,’ Sergeant Wilmer said. ‘Then they con­tinued on.’”

Legends need a point of origin: the echo of a horse’s heavy breathing in a ravine, a cave large enough to enter, a few sets of inhuman foot­prints. These points allow the mind to under­stand both the truth of the story and expand it into myth. The genesis is simply that a thief once rode a horse to a cave in Southern Michigan and now people can speak about how Doty’s ghost and bigfoot ren­dezvous in the very same cave.

Song­writer Bob Dylan wrote in his song, “Girl from the North Country,” a few lines that could be said by Doty himself, or howled by his ghost into the dark ravine.

“So if you’re travelin’ in the

north country fair /

Where the winds hit heavy

on the bor­derline /

Remember me to one who

lives there.”

  • Robert McFate

    Might have ben bear tracks.

    • Chrystal Rosen­berry

      We don’t have bears in pittsford. I have camped at the cave sight a couple times and have never noticed any­thing para­normal. Although someone did set a trap for big foot! Lol… The trail that leads to the cave is located on Skuse Rd.

      • philochs65

        A bear was seen near Lansing, it’s only a matter of time we have them around here, if not all ready.

      • Fred Hudson

        It is a nice place to camp. Well it was 10 years ago. Now it will be overrun

  • Chris Decker

    I read years ago of a judge who ordered a cave south of Pittsford to be sealed so as not to be used by high­waymen as a staging point for their thievery. That par­ticular cave, it was said, was lost to history and has never been found since. The cave’s as they exist today do not reflect the massve size needed to stable a good number of horses.

  • Jane M. Dillon

    My Grand father’s family used to live in those caves out in lost Nations. Then my great Grand­father died and my grand­father and sibling were farmed out to uncles and aunts. I have never visited the caves. But I figure that if fam­ilies could live in them then they should be large enough for horses. My great great grand mother was Hulda Tripp, from Tripp road.