• Mystery is written in rocks of Bellows Falls
     | June 21,2009

    When the Reverand David McClure of Dartmouth College ventured down the Connecticut River to the area now known as Bellows Falls in 1789, he was on a scientific mission.

    As a natural philosopher, what we might today call a scientist, McClure was interested in stone carvings that he had heard about from a local young man. The carvings, cut into an outcropping on the Vermont side of the river, depicted a series of faces.

    "The figures have the appearance of great antiquity," McClure wrote, noting that the British colonists who settled the area a half-century earlier had observed them. The faces were life-sized images, consisting of a simple oval with markings for eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps ears, McClure wrote. Some had lines sticking out of their heads that observers would take to be feathers, horns or rays.

    McClure's was apparently the first written account of the carved rocks, which have been described as the oldest pieces of art in Vermont. How old? The answer, like so many others about the carvings, is open to debate. Though experts agree that the carvings were made by American Indians, they are unwilling to ascribe a specific date, or even era, to the petroglyphs, literally "stone carvings." They could be anywhere from 300 to 3,000 years old.

    The written observations of McClure and subsequent visitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are invaluable, because they offer snapshots of these artifacts, which have been changing over time. If descriptions of the petroglyphs have varied since McClure's visit, so too have the interpretations of their meaning.

    McClure saw something sinister in the faces. He believed that the American Indians who carved them were marking the spot as "the residence of evil spirits." English traveler Edward A. Kendall visited the spot in 1808 and saw something benign. He imagined them to be the result of "idle hours spent among these rocks." (The section above and below the falls was a productive fishing area.)

    A half century later, in 1857, Henry Schoolcraft, an ethnologist and geologist, visited the site and decided the carvings depicted a battle scene. The following year, historian Benjamin Hall wrote that the petroglyphs represented an Indian chief and his tribe, and were carved to mark an important event.

    In 1994, anthropologist William Haviland and researcher Marjory Power wrote that the site at the falls was a sacred location visited regularly by Native American shamans, who would enter a trance there and record their visions on the rocks.

    Some of the carved faces are superimposed over others. Haviland and Power argued that because "it is virtually impossible for individuals in trance to look at a surface without seeing their visions projected on it, new visions would appear as projections either over or next to ones already carved."

    More recently, in 2002, archaeologist Edward Lenik wrote in his "Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands," that the carvings were the efforts of American Indians to connect with the spiritual power present at the site.

    Not only is the meaning of the carvings much debated, so too is the number of carved faces. When the Rev. McClure visited in 1789, he described only three faces. Today, about two dozen are visible. Did McClure see others, but decide to write only about three that caught his eye? Did he fail to notice others, were they covered in some way, or were they carved after his visit?

    The carvings are in two clusters. An Amherst College professor photographed one of the groups in 1866. Two carvings can be seen in that photo. A visitor to the site in 1907 wrote that those petroglyphs had nearly been destroyed the rock face is frequently underwater in spring and scoured by rocks and grit. In 1928, another visitor wrote that the petroglyphs were gone. But a researcher in 1931 wrote that he could still discern two petroglyphs. In 1995, 11 were noted.

    Part of the reason that more carvings can be seen today than a century ago is the work of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The organization, in a misguided effort to save the petroglyphs, hired a stone carver to deepen the markings he saw on the wall. So, in a sense, the original carvings are gone and researchers have been left to try to determine what was there before the carver set to work.

    Some untouched petroglyphs might still exist, however. Large boulders dumped at the site in about 1890 to prevent erosion along a railroad line might be protecting some petroglyphs.

    The Bellows Falls carvings are among only two or three known ancient American Indian petroglyph sites in Vermont, according to State Archaeologist Giovanna Peebles. Another well-known set was carved along the West River in Brattleboro, but is now underwater because of the construction of the Vernon Dam.

    Other possible American Indian petroglyphs have been found in such far-flung places as Guilford, Jericho and Swanton.

    The exact location of the petroglyphs is a sensitive subject among Native Americans, says Abenaki Chief April St. Francis Merrill. "It is considered a sacred place to us," Merrill said. "That's why we don't really like to give directions. As far as we are concerned, (the petroglyph sites) are all legitimate."

    The number of stone carvings in the Northeast as a whole, which has several dozen, is miniscule compared with the number discovered west of the Mississippi more than 15,000. One possible reason, suggests Peebles, is fairly simple. Before European settlers invaded Vermont, the region was thickly forested, with some trees reaching 5 to 6 feet in diameter. "In an environment where you had so many trees, it may not have been as functional to carve on rock," says Peebles.

    In fact, Edward Kendall, the English traveler who visited Bellows Falls in 1808, described seeing such a tree in Weathersfield. The trunk of the pine, which is surely long since gone, bore carvings on all four sides. Three of the sides had carvings of a single person each. The fourth showed a pair of people, which Kendall took to represent a mother and child.

    That interpretation fit what Kendall had been told: that the carvings were made by an American Indian to depict the birth of a child born in what is today Vermont. Kendall said the mother had been kidnapped during the 1704 raid on the village of Deerfield, Mass., and had given birth while being marched toward Canada. He seems to have his facts tangled here. He was apparently referring to a similar story about the birth of a child to a mother who was being marched north after having been kidnapped in 1754 in Charleston, N.H.

    Despite Kendall's apparent confusion, he may well have seen a carved tree. But it's the messages recorded on the rocks that have survived for us to see.

    Mark Bushnell's column on Vermont history is a weekly feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine. He can be reached at vermontpastlane@gmail.com.

    MORE IN Movies
    More Articles
    • VIDEOS
    • PHOTOS