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