by Jim Porter
"And I have heard it reported from credible persons, that (whilst I was there in the Countrie) there happened a Terrible earthquake amongst the French, rending a huge rock asunder even to the center, wherein was a vast hollow of an immeasurable depth, out of which came many infernal spirits." (Josselyn 1865:48)John Josselyn reported the unleashing of infernal spirits when a huge rock split in half during an earthquake in what was presumably present-day Maine. While the quote is easily dismissed as a quaint superstition of the past, it may be one of the earliest contact-period references tying together Native American spirituality and stone. Josselyn made his second reference some time later when he described the reciprocal relationship the local Indians had with their healing spirit:
". . . if the sick recover they send rich gifts, their Bowes and Arrows, Wompompers, Mohacks, Beaver skins, or other rich furs to the Eastward, where there is a vast rock not far from shore, having a hole in it of an unsearchable profundity, into which they throw them." (Josselyn 1865:104-105)But Josselyn was by no means the only European to record this type of worship to a spirit dwelling inside stone. The first such reference belongs to the Jesuit priest and missionary Jean de Brébeuf. While among the Hurons, he recorded the propitiation of a spirit in the hollow of an important rock:
". . . they hold that in the hollow of this Rock there is a Demon, who is capable of making their journey successful; that is why they stop as they pass, and offer it Tobacco, which they simply put into one of the clefts, addressing to it this prayer, Oki ca ichikhon condayee aenwaen ondayee d'aonstaancwas, etc., 'Demon who dwellest in this place, here is some Tobacco which I present to thee; help us, guard us from shipwreck, defend us from our enemies, and cause that after having made good trades we may return safe and sound to our Village.'" (Brébeuf 1898:165)The practice was apparently fairly widespread. For example, John Lawson reported a very similar practice among the Saponis and Tutelos along the border between North Carolina and Virginia at the start of the 18th Century:
"The next day, we went over several Tracts of rich Land, but mix'd with Pines and other indifferent Soil. In our way, there stood a great Stone about the Size of a large Oven, and hollow; this the Indians took great Notice of, putting some Tobacco into the Concavity, and spitting after it. I ask'd them the reason of their so doing, but they made me no Answer." (Lawson 1709:57)
Lawson's report shows more than just a similar practice among Eastern Siouan people. It also indicates some level of secrecy in regards to the ritual. The Indians accompanying Lawson wouldn't divulge the reason for their offering. Such secrecy is an indication of the depth of self-preservation so strongly ingrained in Indian society even at a date so early in the 18th Century.
Traces of similar beliefs can be found in the folklore and oral traditions of the Indians in the Northeast. Noted anthropologist Frank Speck collected a folktale at Scaticook in the early 20th Century about a ghost dwelling in a hole in a rock. Whiskey replaces tobacco as the offering of choice in this more modern retelling. But the essential elements are present, as one would expect to find in oral traditions passed down from generation to generation over three centuries.
"This is the story of Peter Sky. They said that he lived north of here. He used to go by a swamp that lay near a road. One dark night he and some one else went to town and got some whisky. Then they came down that road until they reached the swamp. They took their whisky down there and began to drink when they had found a nice place to sit on. Soon they fell to quarreling over their whisky, and in the fight that followed Pete was killed. The other Indian got away and was never heard of again. But the next day some people coming by found Pete's body there and a rock with a hole in it close by. That rock was never noticed much by the Indians thereafter until one dark and foggy night, when some of them went down to the swamp on their way home to drink something they had bought. They heard noises from the rock, and one of them poured some of the goods into the hole. Immediately there was a voice from the rock. It called for more, and they kept on pouring whisky in until the voice was the voice of a drunken man. The rock will 'holler' now on foggy nights if you pour whisky into it." (Speck 1928:278; Simmons 1986:125)
As John Josselyn reported in the 17th century, the spirits dwelling inside a rock or boulder can be unleashed should the rock be split in half. One story collected by Speck indicates that Pauwaus among the Mohegan may have spent time in the woods at night splitting stone. Since the story was collected decades after the widespread religious conversion of the 19th Century, the Pauwau has been turned into an evil spirit to be feared, and the place where he once practiced his spirituality is a place to be avoided.
"A ghost still holds forth on the steep hillside among the rocks. Some of the Indians, in fact most of them, have at one time or another heard the clinking maul and wedge of someone splitting stone there on dark nights." (Speck 1928:254)
"Dr. Speck the Old Indian Stone Cutter has been dead over 30 years and when the moon is full he comes out to work and you will have to pass right by the quarry where he works and you will be sure to hear him. We think you had better stay with us tonite!" (Simmons 1985:157)In this Seneca myth published by Jeremiah Curtin, we learn that the power to split stone came from the most powerful spirits themselves:
"The man gave his hatchet to Stone Coat, who looking at it, rubbed the edge of it with his hand and without knowing it, gave the hatchet such power that it was harder than anything else in the world. 'Show me what you can do with this thing,' said Stone Coat. The man struck a rock. The rock split open. Stone Coat was terribly frightened. He thought that the power came from the man. 'This man,' said he in his mind, 'is as strong as we are. Maybe he can kill us.'" (Curtin 1922:510)
One of the most well-known split-boulders in New England's Indian Country is one once revered by the Wampanoag. During later historic times, the boulder would play a prominent role as a boundary marker separating Indian land from English land on the island of Martha's Vineyard.
"An arbitrarily chosen trail led us winding through scrub pine and oak trees, past the weed-choked foundations of a colonial-era farmstead, and up a gradual peak, until it ended at a boulder split by a deep diagonal crack sitting atop a wooded hill. This landmark, our tourist literature explained, was called Waskosim’s Rock and figured prominently in the oral tradition of the island’s Indians . . . A classic New England stone wall extending from the boulder into the forest added a poetic element to the scene . . . With the hilltop juncture of Indian and English symbols piquing my imagination, at first opportunity I asked a 'Vineyarder' about the place, sparking a conversation that went something like this: 'Oh, the wall,' he answered, 'that’s the Middle Line.' 'The Middle Line?' 'That’s right. It divided whites and Indians in the old days. We built half,' he said, referring to the colonists, 'they,' the Indians, 'built the other. Before that, the rock divided two tribes.'" (Silverman 2004:xix-xx)
"WASKOSIM'S ROCK and MIDDLE LINE were boundaries that divided Wampanoag land from Mayhew land for about ten to twenty years. Middle Line was a straight line drawn from Waskosim's rock across the Island to Menemsha Pond. Looking toward Menemsha Pond, the land on the right was Wampanoag and the land on the left was Mayhew. Today, Waskosim's marks a different boundary between the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury. Waskosim means 'new stone' in Wampanoag." (Waskosim's (n.d.):Chilmark)Although the evidence is not conclusive, there are still traces that can be gleaned from the records that give us some indication of what Indians might have believed about spirits dwelling in rocks during the contact period. We can even find some indications that Indians may have actually split stones apart for ritual purposes.
Despite the early secrecy and scant information about how Indians were using stones as part of their spiritual practices, there is some agreement between the traces we find in historical records, folklore, and oral traditions, and the impressive number of split-filled and split-wedged boulders we find at stone structure sites. The connection seems to be more than just coincidence.
BRÉBEUF, Jean de.  1898. Hurons. In The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610—1791, Vol. X. Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers.
CURTIN, Jeremiah. 1922. Seneca Indian Myths. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company.
JOSSELYN, John.  1865. An Account of Two Voyages to New-England. Boston: William Veazie.
LAWSON, John. 1709. A New Voyage to Carolina. London.
SILVERMAN, David J. 2004. Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community Among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600–1871. New York: Cambridge University Press.
SIMMONS, William S.; Frank G. Speck. 1985. Frank Speck and "The Old Mohegan Indian Stone Cutter". In Ethnohistory, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring 1985), pp. 155-163. Durham: Duke University Press.
SIMMONS, William S. 1986. Spirit of the New England Indian Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984. Hanover: University Press of New England.
SPECK, Frank G. 1928. Native tribes and dialects of Connecticut: A Mohegan-Pequot diary. In Forty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1925-1926. pp. 199-287. Washington: G.P.O.
WASKOSIM'S Rock. (n.d). Nashawahkamuk (Chilmark). In Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head - Aquinnah official website. Retrieved February 11, 2008. http://www.wampanoagtribe.net/Pages/Wampanoag_Way/chilmark
Very nicely done Jim!
There's a very large split boulder I know of, marks of a stone drill all along the split - just below where a tiny little stream is diverted and bordered on each side by zigzag rows so that it flows around (what I'm pretty sure are) the burial grounds mentioned in Cothren. I once showed it to Peter and Norman many years ago. I'll have to take some pix of it before the greenery starts to cover it all up and post it up...
A very insightful and well developed synopsis of the information on split rocks, I have encountered one in Norwell MA, with a small stone stone circle around it, it is small, but very different than the stones near-by. Good Work. Dr. Fred Meli.
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