The Indian Farmer
have been some farmers around here who were Indians. They might have
pretended to be European but, when they went to farming, they
would have made an effort to use the land in a way consistent with
traditional beliefs - especially where rock piles were concerned.
It is even possible that the increased production of waste rock due to
farming occasionally led to an
increased production of rock piles.
For example:I am
climbing Patch Hill in Boxborough and noticing the terracing on the
southeastern side and thinking there must have been orchards here. And
then along some of the parallel ridges of the terracing I come across
rock piles that could just be from rocks pulled out during the digging
of the terrraces. But then I come across other rock piles made from
ledge rock - from rock broken off from a ledge
and then built into a pile. When
I get to the top of the rise and find a carefully built rock pile I
think: yes field clearing but also something more. I conclude it is not
a normal farm. Why couldn't it have been an
Indian doing the farming as a laborer or as a landowner? The
theory of the "Indian Farmer" says that I don't
have to choose between the practical agricultural explanation for a
rock pile and a
ceremonial one because they
are not mutually exclusive.(Indeed, ceremony should never be considered
alternative to the practical.) It is quite possible for an Indian to
have owned a
farm and been a farmer and I feel confident that there were Indian
Farmers, at least in the orchard towns to the west of here like
Bolton, Stow, and Harvard.
Here are some stories about how old the piles are and
made them - whether farmers, labourers, or people who came back after
the farmers were gone and the orchards and pastures had returned to
being woods. The idea that someone came back later, an
"invisible Indian", has been suggested at different times to
explain recent ceremonialism. There does need to be some explanation
recent ceremonialism. Mavor and Dix (1) discuss
prayer seat structures
incorporating modern materials or comparatively young trees which, they
say, were put there by Indians who continue to live in these towns.
Also in a recent screening of a documentary film by Ted Timreck, one of
the interviewees in the film said that Indian Farmers would dismiss
piles as "just field clearing" and then would turn around and have a
ceremony there. So the ideas and observations about the Indian
Farmer are percolating up to the surface with other people studying
rock piles. All of
these ideas and theories try to explain and see ceremonial rock use as
with recent times.
Dating Rock Piles
There are examples of rock piles made from rocks which
were split using a steel drill. The first picture shows a rock fragment
with four steel drill holes sitting next to a smaller rock on a
support. In the second picture, you can see the drill
holes along the near edge of the support rock:
Both example occur near other rock piles. The first occurs
near rock-on-rocks and the second occurs near some effigies. Since it
is assumed that the steel drill was not introduced here until the
these piles are no older than the colonial time frame, no more
than 400 years old - a pretty crude
estimate but a firm one. So far, there is not much evidence for rock
piles being older. Some
are deeply buried
under leaves, roots, and dirt. Others look quite weathered. They could
be thousands of years old, but I have
no direct observations to report, and no dating technology to apply.
Various techniques have been proposed for dating rock piles but, so
far, none have
been applied to piles around
here. They include soil dating, measurement of surface exposure for the
rocks, and Carbon 14 dating of organic material from within the rock
some of these methods in other parts of the country, researchers have
evidence of rock
piles up to 2,000 years old (2).
At the other extreme, I have seen a very fresh looking rock pile
near the road in Carlisle which was properly placed where water
was coming out of the ground. But the individual rocks in the pile were
brownish rather than gray. Since rocks come out of the ground as
brownish and then turn gray after several years of
exposure, I concluded the pile was less than
twenty years old. Lichen growth, which is what turns the rocks
an unreliable indicator of age, but its absence suggests an extremely
This tree is probably around fifty years old.
We are told (Mavor and Dix, again) that
sometimes trees were bent or deliberately knotted near places of
ceremony. Here are
pictures of one tree that was knotted. In the background of the second
picture you can see a platform pile.
Evidence of recent
Twice in the last year I came across rock piles close to
abandoned, falling down log cabins. In both cases the piles
were so close to the cabin I could not imagine a person living there
who was not also actively using the rock piles. One
example was in Falmouth at the edge of the Long Pond conservation land.
When leaving Falmouth headed north on Rt 28, the last right hand turn
before leaving town is an entrance to utility buildings associated to
the park. Back behind there is an abandoned cabin, only a few feet
away from a number of small rock piles made from pairs of small cobbles
on support rocks. I looked underneath one cobble and noticed that there
was still lichen underneath it, growing or maybe dead. How long does it
take for lichen to die, dry out and blow away? I do not know. The
lichen was black but still there, and I am pretty sure the pile was
recent. In addition, the pairs of cobbles seemed a little peculiar;
they were not "Twins" in the sense that is familiar to me (as described
here). On the other hand
the piles are located
at the very top of a little gully that curves around and down to join
one of the ponds adjacent to Long Pond and this seems like exactly the
correct location for rock piles - at the highest point and beginning of
a watershed. So the piles were slightly peculiar in design but
traditional in placement. The area where Rt 28 leaves Falmouth heading
back north seems to have a lot of recent ceremonial stone work. My
guess it that the person who lived in this cabin is responsible for it.
An old propane tank beside the cabin indicates it was abandoned no more
than 30 years or so ago. It would not be too hard to find the
name of the person who lived here.
I found a second abandoned cabin, near the edges of Wolf
at one of the headwaters of Beaver Brook in Boxborough.
I was exploring
a small rock pile site when I noticed the cabin. A few feet away
from it were "normal" rock piles and split wedged rocks as well as a
pile which incorporated a folded piece of drainpipe:
Just some trash near an abandoned log cabin? The backyard of a current
across a stone wall from this little site. Could they be responsible
for this construction with a bottle and some kind of automobile
Other times you come across rock piles right next to some tar paper and
trash and other signs that someone might have had a little shack in
the woods. I should take more pictures of these when I see them. They
might be part of the story. It makes me think back to when I was a kid
in the 1960s and you might see a pack peddler walking by, offering to
sharpen knives. Or a homeless person. Maybe some of them were Indians.
Here is a bolt and ceramic connector sitting
on a rock. It might be junk but, on the other hand, these parts are
used in conduction of electricity and they were deliberately
placed on a rock several yards from the road and a telephone pole which
employed the same types of parts. In the second picture, the large
piece of glass
from the bottom of a bottle looks ceremonial - in fact this pile is
dozens of others and is almost certainly ceremonial.
Another example of recent ceremonialsm is found near the Acton "Potato
Cave". For several years someone has been moving rocks around there,
making piles and creating split-wedged rocks. New things appear from
time to time, things which are not quite right and not quite in the
correct place. Once I saw a rock pile built on a tree stump. Twice I
have stumbled across a new pick-axe with a
handle and a bright new blue painted pick head. I saw the same pick-axe
different places hidden in the bushes. To be clear: someone today is
out in Acton moving rocks around and leaving traces of ceremony.
worries me a little because it is a recent activity
taking place near older cermonial sites. Perhaps it is
correct, perhaps it is respectful, perhaps it is more knowledgable
about these things than me. And perhaps whoever is doing it has
much more right to be there than I do. I still see it as confusing
the record. A rock pile on a tree stump doesn't seem right.
There are examples of recent
'ceremonialism' in the woods which come from the Pagan and Wiccan
belief systems. I find more troublesome the residual mess
these actrivities. For example this little stone pyramid sitting in
the ashes from a small fire suggests something Lovecraftian and
Or these little stone circles with a larger standing stones at the
You could put a lot of work into trying to determine the differences
called "wannabe" structures and the real ones. How exactly do you tell
the difference? In general, the answer would come from observing enough
the landscape to be able to recognize which structures are the most
Things that are rare, recent, or noticeably out of place are most
Accommodation by European
There is anecdotal evidence that some European landowners had
arrangements with Indians allowing them to visit and continue using the
land. For example, Doug Harris of the Narraganssett
Tribal Historic Preservation Office, relates that such agreements
constituted the accepted means for protecting ceremonial sites.
the old arrangements have been forgotten by the younger generations
of landowners and this necessitates a new initiative by the Indians.
They are determined to
work directly with local towns to preserve ceremonial sites. This is
the subject of a United South and Eastern Tribes Resolution (3). I am
happy to be able to make the point that the Indians are better judges
of what is of ceremonial significance to them than is the
Massachusetts Historical Commission.
When you explore a site with a large number of rock piles you see
something that is hard to ignore. I think it would be impossible for a
landowner to not notice a hilltop, on the property, covered with
rock piles. Or, how could the farmer at Patch Hill not notice an acre
of land covered with these? They fill all the space within a quadrant
between stone walls.
So then, what are we to make of the biggest sites in Harvard,
Stow, Acton, Carlisle? I think it is likely the landowners condoned the
use of their land for rock pile building, or respected the piles if
they were already there. After all, some landowners came from countries
in Europe, such as Sweden,
with existing traditions of respecting rock piles.
Perhaps they simply were not into vandalism and left the rock piles
alone. There certainly was a tradition of leaving the Indian graveyards
alone but, today, where are those graveyards? What did they look like?
Something that still puzzles me, though, is a couple of cellar holes in
Woods in Concord, where there are rock piles directly adjacent to the
cellar holes. The history of the people who lived on these properties
is known (See J. Walter Brain's articles and website
(4)) and they are certainly not reported to have been Indians. One
cellar hole belonged to Boaz Browne - and this family seems to trace
England. Boaz married a Katherine Bateman - from an old Concord
family. A second cellar hole belonged to Samuel Kibbe - and this family
traces back to England but I am suspicious that here we might have an
"invisible" Indian. In both cases their yards today are as
noticeable for the rock piles as for the cellar holes. This is not rock
piles off in some distant field but right at the doorstep. So either
they made the piles or Indians came back afterwards and used the same
places to build rock piles. For example at Kibbe's cellar hole, there
is a stone "U" enclosure at the high point looking back down over the
Look around near it and the source of the rock used to make the
enclosure is easy to see: they were borrowed from an adjacent stone
wall. To me this suggests this "U" was built later than
the house site.
I am also pretty suspicious of Patch Hill in Boxborough. Walking there
heightened my sense of the mixture of farming and ceremonial practices,
too interwoven to try to pull apart. But the Patch family appears to
have immigrated to Massachusetts as religious dissenters, and there is
no obvious connection to Native American ceremonialism. Beaver Brook
Boxborough is another place where there are lots of curious and
possibly recent stone structures. It looks like an Indian Farm and
also a place visited more recently. Perhaps someone's descendants are
keeping the place up.
Stories from the 1960s
As far as I can tell from the age of things, there were still people
actively practicing rock pile ceremonies as recently as the 1960s. That
is about the age of some of the fallen down cabins I have seen.
same date occurs in these stories:
Story #1: A friend and I are walking in Littleton and meet a fellow
about our age who is also out walking. My friend mentions that we are
out looking for "Indian Stuff", and the fellow says: he is too but this
is the first time he ever met anyone else out doing that. Then
he told this story: When he was a boy he lived in
Chelmsford just over the line from the Great Brook Farm in Carlisle.
As a boy he played with his friends in the woods there (in the 1960's)
in one place near some "bumps" [mounds] in the woods they would
occasionally run into an old man who was doing something "systematic"
and "ceremonial". The old man told them: "You kids watch out when you
are playing here. This is a special place". The same old man used to
come talk to them when they were fishing in the stream there and ask if
they were catching anything. The old man and the boys seemed to share
an understanding of keeping out of sight from the farmer.
Story #2: I am
visiting a elderly lady in Stow to try to help with protecting the
large glacial erratic uphill from her property. She is talking about
all sorts of Indian related things in her neighborhood and mentions
another lady who lives just north of her and who has a property deed
described one corner of the property as "20 yards from the Indian
Spring". Apparently this spring is still there and when the woman was
younger, in the 1960's, Indians still would come once a year to visit
and to leave pots and pans buried a few inches underneath the pine
Story #3: I went
down to talk to the Stow Historical Commission, after talking to the
lady of the previous story. At one point I made a
reference to the two above stories, saying that I believed Indians had
been coming back to the woods here are recently as the 1960's. When I
mentioned this, one of the
Commission members (a guy perhaps about my age, perhaps a bit younger,
sorry I did not get his name), said: When he was a kid he had a friend
who told a story about a "pit" where the kids would go out drinking.
One time he went there and there was an old man there smoking a pipe.
The old man said: "This is a very important ceremonial place...don't
tell anybody." The kids would usually leave all kinds of trash around
the place and once in a while it would get cleaned up. It would get
trashed out again and then get cleaned up again.
So that is three versions of the same story. Anecdotal support for the
idea of the invisible Indian and the Indian Farmer, as well as
the estimate that Indians were still performing some ceremonies around
here in the 1960's.
My own story from the 1960s is that I was watching Cowboys and Indians
on the new black and white TV. Little did I suspect that there might be
real Indians out behind my house. And it
wasn't just me watching TV. The grandson of the Indian was watching the
But today he is kicking himself and wishing he listened more
carefully when grandaddy was telling those stories.
(1) Manitou - The Sacred
Landscape of New England's Native Civilization. James W. Mavor,
Jr. and Byron E. Dix. Inner Traditions International, Ltd. One Park
Street Rochester, VT 05767 (1989)(pp. 263-264)
Investigation of Two Stone Mound Localities, Monroe County, Georgia
Richard W. Jeffries and Paul R. Fish (1978) University of Georgia
Laboratory of Archeology Series, No. 17.
(3) Resulution No.
Landscape Within Commonwealth of Massachusetts. United
South and Eastern Tribes.
(4) The Estabrook Woods Cellar Holes
by J. Walter Brain Originally published
simultaneously in The Concord Journal, of Concord, Massachusetts, and
The Lincoln Journal, of Lincoln, Massachusetts, in two parts, Part I on
July 12, 2001 and Part II on July 19, 2001. Copyright 2001. Online at