Friday, December 30, 2016

New England Sweat-Houses

by James D. Porter

In 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 how ancient sweat-houses were built in New England.

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 was 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 [1643]1968:236)
Williams stated only a few facts about the construction of a sweat-house, but he never mentioned the materials used. He summarized the size, shape, and described the structure 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

Dutch lawyer Adriaen van der Donck gave us a bit more detail when he described the sweat-houses he witnessed in present-day New York City. He wrote that the local Manhattan Island Indians constructed their sweat-houses out of clay.
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 [1655]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)

Apsáalooke Sweat-House
Museum of the American Indian

The type of construction mentioned by Gyles, with skins and mats covering a small hut, were like the sweat-houses John Josselyn described in his narrative Two Voyages to New-England, only the material used was bark rather than skins or mats. Josselyn explained that such sweat-houses were made in haste when an Indian was suffering with disease.
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 [1663]1865:103) 
Yurok Sweat Lodge, California
from American Sabbatical

We also have a description from the Reverend Samuel Niles of sweat-houses he witnessed on present-day Block Island. His account differed in no large way from the others in New England, but he was the only English writer to describe them as a, "vault."
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 [1760]1837:194) 
Hoopa Valley Sweat Lodge, California
Edward S. Curtis, Library of Congress

Again, we look to Johnson's Dictionary to give us some possible insight to what Niles may have been trying to describe.
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

And still yet we find another type of construction described by English explorer John Lawson while among the Saponi in North Carolina. Although not an account from New England, Lawson's description offers insights into the method of construction for sweat-houses in a nearby people of Eastern Siouan language and a Southeast Woodlands culture. Considering the paucity of information on sweat-house materials and construction in New England, Lawson's account may have some value here.
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

It is notable that both Lawson and Niles described the structures as ovens.

It appears evident from the historical record that the method of sweat-house construction was dependent upon the purpose of the sweat, as well as the available labor and materials. During sickness and times of distress, a wetu covered with bark was sufficient. In times when speed and convenience were required, perhaps while traveling or hunting, a simple framework with mats and skins could be erected. With more time and available local clay, a more permanent and elegant structure could be made. With no available clay, abundant stones could be used. It seemed there was no singular way that sweat-houses were built.

Stone Chamber, Massachusetts
WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

Land records have given us only tantalizing clues into the nature of these historic sites. In the following entry from Connecticut, the record describes a heap of stones on a lot, but no other details were given.

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)
Was this, "heap of stones," the remnants of a great hearth that contained the fire? Or was it a heap of heated stones? Or could it have been a pile of rubble where a stone-built sweat-house caved in upon itself? The historical record is unclear.

Stone Chamber, New York
Poughkeepsie Journal

Native people themselves passed down information from generation to generation in oral histories. The following example collected by folklorist Charles Leland shows a hint of a stone-built sweat-house in the 19th century mythology of the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Tribes in New Hampshire and Maine.

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
Ceremonial Landscapes
There was at least one traditional Mohegan story that included a beehive-shaped chamber of stones. Inside the chamber of stones, the cultural hero Granny Squannit recovered from illness.
They were in the realm of the Little People. Weegun led her to a beehive shaped chamber of rocks. Inside, a very old woman lay in bed, very ill. The Makiawisug told the medicine woman that this was Granny Squannit, who must be made well. (Makiawisug n.d.:Heritage)
Considering the entirety of facts, stone chambers found in New England cannot be ruled out as aboriginal sweat-houses. In fact, these structures are the only examples we know that satisfy Williams's description of a cell being, "made on the side of a hill," or Niles's use of the word, "vault." Stone sweat-houses would also be the only construction material that could have survived the centuries. If sweat-houses were made of stone in New England, they might look exactly like some of our enigmatic stone chambers.

Greer's Chamber, Maine

A conclusion cannot yet be reached with certainty that any of these stone structures in New England were sweat-houses built in antiquity. But if we follow the ethnohistorical data, there is a possibility that some of them could be exactly that. Each structure deserves further investigation to see if protection is warranted, and for further identification of similar sites.

Destroyed Stone Chamber, Massachusetts
BUTLER, Eva L. 1945. Sweat-Houses in the Southern New England Area. In Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, vol. VII, No. 1 (October 1945), pp. 11-14. Andover: Massachusetts Archaeological Society.

DRAKE, Samuel Gardiner. 1846. Tragedies of the Wilderness. Captivity of John Gyles. Chapter V. pp. 91-93. Boston: Geo. A. & J. Curtis.

JOHNSON, Samuel. 1756. A Dictionary of the English Language. London: W. Strahan.

JOSSELYN, John. [1663] 1865. An Account of Two Voyages to New-England. Boston: William Veazie.

LAND Records. vol. IX, p. 149. City Hall, New London, CT.

LAWSON, John. 1709. A New Voyage to Carolina. London.

LELAND, Charles G. 1884. The Algonquin Legends of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

MAKIAWISUG or the Little People. (n.d.) In Heritage. The Mohegan Tribe official website. Retrieved August 15, 2007.

NILES, Samuel. [1760]1837. A Summary Historical Narrative of the Wars in New-England with the French and Indians. In Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. VI. 3rd Ser. pp. 154-279. Boston: American Stationers' Co.

VAN DER DONCK, Adriaen. [1655] 1841. A Description of the New-Netherlands. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, 2d Ser., Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton & Company.

WILLIAMS, Roger [1643] 1963. Key into the Language of America, J. H. Trumbull, ed. In The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Vol. I, pp. 61-282. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc.

Photo Credits

Modern Cherokee Clay Medicine Lodge from Earth Medicine Blog

Apsáalooke Sweat-House Museum of the American Indian

Yurok Sweat Lodge, California from American Sabbatical

Hoopa Valley Sweat Lodge, California Edward S. Curtis, Library of Congress

Beehive Hut, New Hampshire Dierdre C. Yelp

Hermit Cave, Connecticut from Stone Wings

Stone Chamber, Massachusetts WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0,_Acton_MA.jpg

Stone Chamber, New York Poughkeepsie Journal

Stone Chamber, Rhode Island Ceremonial Landscapes

Greer's Chamber, Maine NEARA

Destroyed Stone Chamber, Massachusetts NEARA