Pabos: A Long Way From Home
On the edge of a lawn on County Road 42 in Fishers, New York is a seven foot pyramid built in 1959 to honor a man named Pabos. Pabos was a Basque explorer who traveled deep into the wilderness of North America only to die here 400 years ago on June 10, 1618, a little more than two years before the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth. His grave is one of the oldest known European graves in North America. That his final resting place was here in this Rochester suburb is fascinating. That he is remembered at all is an accident of history.
The Basques are people from the region in Spain that borders France. They were focused on commerce, not settlement, and were very active fishing, whaling and trading in the Gulf of St Lawrence in the 15th and 16th centuries. They would sail over from Spain and establish semi-permanent fishing and hunting camps in that great estuary, fishing for cod and hunting whales for a century before Jacques Cartier explored the St Lawrence River and claimed the northern lands for France. The Basque traded with local tribes and learned to speak their languages. Over the decades they moved further and further inland up the St Lawrence River, eventually reaching Lake Ontario and beyond. Like his fellow Basque explorers, Pabos was likely looking for new fishing grounds, tribes to trade with and for the elusive Northwest Passage to Asia. He likely followed the shoreline of Lake Ontario to Irondequoit Bay and then up Irondequoit Creek to see where it would take him. Pabos may have been the first white man to walk through the old-growth forests that covered Western New York in 1618. How he died is lost to history, but disease, illness, accident and violence claimed many explorers and the native tribes they encountered along the way. Smallpox and other diseases brought by early visitors decimated local tribes well before the first permanent European settlers arrived.
Almost two centuries before Victor, New York was incorporated as a town in 1812 and laborers started digging the Erie Canal something took the life of Pabos in this remote corner of Upstate New York. What we know is he wasn’t alone. Someone in his party buried him 300 feet from this monument and marked his grave with a limestone gravestone engraved with his name and the date of his death. And it was there that Pabos rested in peace, lost to history until his grave was discovered in 1907 by Fred Locke, inventor of the porcelain insulator. Locke was digging for clay when he unearthed the limestone marker of Pabos’ grave. Had Pabos been laid to rest a few hundred feet away, his grave may never have been unearthed. Lost forever to the accumulation of sediment, or covered over by the construction of Wangum Road or the Auburn and Rochester Railroad.
The larger pyramid monument that sits alongside Wangum Road was built and dedicated in 1959 after a decade of extensive research on Pabos by George Sheldon. That dedication was noted in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on June 10, 1959. Sheldon and the local Boy Scouts built this pyramid and placed the plaque to honor Pados. The actual gravesite sits 300 feet away from the pyramid on private property. Portions of the trail he walked his final steps on still exist to this day.
Pabos thus lives on because someone in his group carved his name and date of death on a piece of limestone, and someone stumbled upon that limestone 289 years later, and someone a generation after that dedicated ten years of his life researching the Pabos and how he came to be in this place, and with the support of the community dedicated the pyramid monument that marks this path through history. Ironically, the person who survived and paid tribute to him with the carved gravestone is lost to history. Yet they set in motion the series of events that bring us to this moment, 400 years later, acknowledging a Basque explorer who died alongside a creek deep in the wilderness far from home.