New England Sweat-HousesIn her seminal work Sweat-Houses in the Southern New England Area, historian Eva L. Butler only hinted at the various construction methods used by the native people to build their sweat-houses. Due to the paucity of information, historians are generally unsure of the exact construction methods used.
It is obvious from the evidence that several distinct types of construction were used in the building of sweat-houses in this area . . . The accounts also indicate that sweating was produced by different methods, although some lack of uniformity in this as well as in the particulars of construction may be due to neglect on the part of the observer to include sufficient detail. (Butler 1945:14)The earliest description of sweat-houses in New England is from Roger Williams who lived among the Narragansett in present-day Rhode Island.
Pesuponck; a hot house. This hot house is a kind of little cell or cave, six or eight feet over, round, made on the side of a hill, commonly by some rivulet or brook. Into this frequently the men enter, after they have exceedingly heated it with store of wood, laid upon a heap of stones in the middle. (Williams 1968:236)Williams stated only a few facts about the construction of the sweat-houses but he never mentioned the materials used. He summarized the size, shape, and described it as a, "little cell or cave." Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary may give us insight into what these words may have meant to 17th Century Englishmen.
CAVE n. s. [cave, Fr. cavea, Lat.] 1. A cavern; a den; a hole entering horizontally under the ground; a habitation in the earth . . . 2. A hollow; any hollow place . . . CELL n. s. [cella Lat.] 1. A small cavity or hollow place. 2. The cave or little habitation of a religious person. 3. A small and close apartment in a prison. 4. Any small place of residence . . . (Johnson 1756:cave, cell)
|Modern Cherokee Clay Medicine Lodge|
from Earth Medicine Blog
Their sweating places are made of clay, and enclosed tight in the earth, with a small entrance to admit the patients within the apartments. (van der Donck 1841:208)Captive John Gyles, however, described a different type of sweat-house among the Penobscot in Maine.
They accordingly prepared many hot stones, and laying them in a heap, made a small hut covered with skins and mats; then in a dark night two of the powwows went into this hot house with a large vessel of water, which at times they poured on those hot rocks, which raised a thick steam. (Drake 1846:91)
Museum of the American Indian
Their manner is when they have plague or small pox amongst them to cover their Wigwams with Bark so close that no Air can enter in, lining them (as I said before) within, and making a great fire they remain there in a stewing heat till they are in a top sweat . . . (Josselyn 1865:103)
|Yurok Sweat Lodge, California|
from American Sabbatical
They were made as a vault, partly under ground, and in the form of a large oven, where two or three persons might on occasion sit together, and it was placed near some depth of water. (Niles 1837:194)
|Hoopa Valley Sweat Lodge, California|
Edward S. Curtis, Library of Congress
VAULT §, váwlt, or váwt. n. s. [voulte, Fr.; volta Ital.; voluta, low Lat.] A continued arch. Burnet A cellar. Shak. A cave; a cavern. Sandys. A repository for the dead. Shakspeare. (Johnson 1756:vault)
|Beehive Hut, New Hampshire|
Dierdre C. Yelp
Near the Town, within their clear'd Land, are several Bagnios, or Sweating-Houses, made of Stone, in Shape like a large Oven. These they make much Use of; especially, for any Pains in the Joints, got by Cold, or Travelling, (Lawson 1709:49)
|Hermit Cave, Connecticut|
from Stone Wings
|Stone Chamber, Massachusetts|
WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0
Daniel Comstock in 1730 deeded to his son John, land on the Thames River in what is now the town of Montville. It was 'a piece of meadow, to witt, fresh meadow at a heap of stones at a place called the Hot House.' (Land IX:149; Butler 1945:11)What was this, "heap of stones," mentioned in the New London land records at this place called the, "Hot House?" Was it the remnants of the great hearth that heated the stones for the steam? Or was it the used stones themselves showing the action of the heating and cooling? Or could this, "heap of stones," have been a pile of rubble where a stone-built sweat-house caved in upon itself?
|Stone Chamber, New York|
Now the Bear, who had a frame as hard as a rock, felt sure that he could endure anything that a gull could, especially to become a white bear. So, with much ceremony, the Great Enchanter went to work. He built a strong wigwam, three feet high, of stones, and having put the Bear into it he cast in red-hot stones, and poured water on them through a small hole in the roof. Erelong the Bear was in a terrible steam. (Leland 1884:191)
Stone Chamber, Rhode Island
|McIntosh Chamber, Vermont|
|Greer's Chamber, Maine|
There are many questions, few solid answers, and a community of professional archaeologists who advise governments and influence municipal policies, but who seemingly have little interest in investigating these structures. There are no laws protecting them on private land and what secrets they hold are lost to the bulldozer with every new development.
|Destroyed Stone Chamber, Massachusetts|