Sunday, October 04, 2009

Dear Massachusetts Historical Commission

Dear Massachusetts Historical Commission,

I am writing in regards to an item in your FAQ located on the Review and Compliance section of the Massachusetts Historical Commission website. ( Here is the entry in question:

I’m concerned that stone piles in a project area may be Native American grave markers. What should I do?
Piles or continuous walls of fieldstones are common in rural Massachusetts wherever there are rocky soils. When historians and archaeologists have conducted thorough, professional research into such stone piles, they have invariably shown that these features are not associated with the Native American settlement of Massachusetts. When it is possible to determine their origin, stone piles prove to be related to agricultural activities such as clearing of fields for pasture or cultivation, and/or marking property bounds during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pursuits that were once much more common in what may now be residential suburbs. Because stone piles or walls often marked property lines or boundaries between different land uses such as pasture and woodlot, they are often in a linear row or other geometric pattern, some of which may be consistent with cardinal compass points, solstice sunrises or sunsets, or other celestial phenomena.
I am quite concerned that the above entry from your FAQ discourages developers and property owners from investigating potentially important archaeological sites. Furthermore, the entry is a professionally irresponsible generalization which paints a broad brush across the entire Massachusetts landscape. It is not only historically inaccurate, flying in the face of overwhelming historical evidence, but it also directly contradicts the Commission's own mission to identify, evaluate, and protect important historical and archaeological assets of the Commonwealth.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence we have proving that some piles of stone in Massachusetts could be Indian in origin comes to us from the mid-18th century and Dr. Ezra Stiles.

"Mr. Williams told me that on the Road from Sandwich to Plymouth there is a large Stone or Rock in a place free of stones; and that the Indians immemorially have been used, whenever & as often as they pass this large Stone, to cast a stone or piece of wood upon it. That Stones not being plenty, pieces of Wood is most commonly used, & that there will once in a few years be a large Pile on the Stone, which is often consumed by the firing of the Woods for Deer. That the Ind.s continue the Custom to this day, tho’ they are a little ashamed the English should see them, & accordingly when walking with an Eng. They have made a path round at a quarter Mile’s Distance to avoid it. There is also at a little Distance another Stone which they also inject upon, but pass it with less scruple; but are so scrupulous that none was even known to omit casting Stone or Wood on the other. The Indians being asked the reason of their Custom & Practice, say they know nothing about it, only that their Fathers & their Grandfathers & Great Grandfathers did so, and charged all their Children to do so; and that if they did not cast a Stone or piece of Wood on the Stone as often as they pass by it, they would prosper, & particularly should not be lucky in hunting Deer. But if they duly observed this Custom, they should have success. The English call them the Sacrificing Rocks, tho’ the Indians don’t imagine it a Sacrifice – at least they Kill & offer no Animals there, & nothing but Wood & Stones." (Stiles [1762]1916:252)

Dr. Stiles gives us a great deal of information concerning the Indian practice of casting pieces of stone or wood upon a sacred boulder. I think it is vital to note how secretive the Indians were and how they continued to guide Euro-Americans away from the site for as long as they could. They apparently succeeded in keeping the site hidden clear into the mid-18th century in fact.

Another stone monument unquestionably erected by Indians in Massachusetts was such a remarkable structure that an entire mountain was named in its honor - Monument Mountain. The stone heap was first recorded in 1734 by John Sergeant.

"There is a large heap of stones, I suppose ten cart-loads, in the Way to Wnahtukook, which the Indians have thrown together as they have pass'd by the place; for it us'd to be their custom, every time any one pass'd by, to throw a stone upon it. But what was the end of it they cannot tell; only they say their fathers us'd to do so, and they do it because it was the custom of their fathers." (Sergeant (1734)1911:24-25)

The practice apparently continued into the 20th century in Massachusetts. Dr. Frank G. Speck witnessed the custom first-hand at Mashpee, where he snapped a photograph of a memorial brush heap. (Speck 1945:19)

The region's historical records are teeming with similar reports of stone-and-brush-piling by Native Americans during and beyond the Contact Period. (Jeune [1656]1898:24-25, Hawley [1794]1968:59-60, Belknap 1831:167, Simms 1845:632, Caulkins 1878:37-38, Halsey 1901:24, Speck 1945:21-23)

But Native American stone-piling activities in Massachusetts weren't limited to large monumental heaps of stones and brush. Reports can be found in the record of smaller stone piles that mark Indian graves. A traditional story of the Wampanoag, as recorded by Gladys Tantaquidgeon at Aquinnah, tells the story of the untimely death of an Indian mother and child, whose resting places are marked by a heap of stones. (Simmons 1986:139)

But this is not the only report of stones either used in or piled on top of graves in the region. (Putnam 1913:224, van der Donck [1655]1841:201-202, Tooker 1896:59, Marye 1920:118, Williams 1833:136, Field 1819:85, Barber [1836]1999:199, Ipswich [1667]1913:400, Moorehead 1922:90, Webster [1788]1962:621, Cothren 1854:88, Houghton 1922:65, Hall 1907:78, Randall 1873:13)

Even further evidence exists that Indians in the region built their sweathouses of stones. In the mid-17 Century, Roger Williams recorded how such sweathouses were built:

"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." (Williams [1643]1968:236)

That description was repeated by Cotton Mather in Massachusetts decades later:

"Their hot-house is a little cave, about eight foot over . . ." (Mather [1702]1855:558)

In Williams's description, it is important to note the use of the words, "cell or cave," and that the sweathouse was, "made," on the side of a hill. Sadly, there are no further descriptions of what materials were used to make those sweat-houses. However we can look to other sources from the region for some insight. In Mohegan territory we find the following description of a peice of land:

"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)

Note that the description is a, "heap of stones," much like one would find if a, "cell or cave," constructed of stone collapsed in upon itself over time. Certainly sweathouses constructed of stone are not unknown to Eastern Woodlands ethnography. At the turn of the 18th Century, John Lawson recorded how the Saponis constructed their sweathouses:

"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)

We also find hints of stone-constructed sweat lodges in traditional Indian stories handed down from generation to generation. Charles G. Leland collected such a story from the Mi'Kmaq in the late 19th Century.

"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)

But memorial piles, graves, and sweat-houses are not the only recorded stone constructions created by Indians in the region. There are also reports of fish weirs constructed of stone (Read 1892:14, Rau 1884:200-201, Beauchamp 1897:76), and even Indian barns or storage pits made of stone:

"On Broad Rock Farm, some of the land owned by College Tom, and still in his family, two of the Indian caches for corn can still be seen. They were small hollows in the ground roughly lined with stone, not more than a foot deep at present; perhaps three feet long and two wide." (Hazard 1893:111)

Most remarkable, however, are the reports of stone forts in the region. Queen's Fort, still extant in Rhode Island, is on the National Register of Historic Places as the site of a Narragansett Indian fort (Potter 1835:84). It features stone walls and enclosures built by Indians. Another site in Rhode Island, called Rolling Rock, also features stone walls at a site known to be Narragansett in origin. We also find a similar report of a stone fort in nearby Connecticut:

"Sir I heare a report of a stonewall and strong fort in it, made all of Stone, which is newly discovered at or neare Pequot. I should be glad to know the truth of it from your selfe, here being many strange reports about it." (Pynchon [1645]1985:12)

But no matter what anyone might believe about the history of piled stone on the Massachusetts landscape, one thing is for sure -- the Indians themselves know that many stone structures on the landscape were built by their ancestors. They are fighting for the protection of culturally significant stone structure sites all over the Eastern Woodlands, including in Massachusetts. In 2007, the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. passed USET Resolution 2007:037 calling for measures to increase awareness and protection for, "sacred ceremonial stone landscapes found in the ancestral territories," of USET, Inc. member tribes. Both the Mashpee and Gay Head tribes of the Wampanoag Nation are members of USET, Inc.

In light of the overwhelming evidence that Indians in Massachusetts did indeed pile, stack, and build with stone in historic times, and that such sites have archaeological and historic value, I ask that you remove the aforementioned entry in your FAQ. Furthermore, I request that you consider creating a new entry that gives accurate and factual information concerning the historic Indians in Massachusetts and their use of stones.

I urge you to hire experts in this field -- more and more professional archaeologists are emerging everyday to study this forgotten field. I implore you to help guide property owners and developers at discerning colonial stonework from Native American stonework. Stop the destruction of sacred sites. Keep the bulldozers from obliterating the history of a culture and people on our land. We have no idea what amazing discoveries await us.

James Porter


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