Native Insight: There must be Native American petroglyphs left to find in our valley


Recorder Staff

Published: 01-24-2018 8:00 AM

Petroglyphs and pictographs here in the Pioneer Valley? Well, there is no question they were here. Now we’re left to ponder how many are still decipherable and where do you suppose they reside? The answer is that one never knows.

According to Edward F. Lenik, author of “Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands (2002),” the most likely sites are around water. These shamanistic images show up throughout the Northeast, around lakes and ponds and especially near important riverside gathering places at waterfalls and mouths of rivers, where you’re apt to find carvings of fish, eels, serpents, thunderbirds, effigies, maybe deer or elk or moose, scratched into large stones and ledges, including midstream outcroppings splitting a river, and others jutting far out from the shoreline to provide natural entry and exit points for ancient canoe travelers. Remember, rivers like the Hudson, Connecticut, Merrimack, Penobscot, Saco and many others were our native peoples’ interstate highways when Europeans arrived on the scene.

Other likely petroglyph sites are watersheds draining into the major arteries, especially those that dump in near important seasonal fishing sites. The problem is that these images, which can date back thousands of years, are by now worn or covered with moss, lichen or you name it, and not something your average person is apt to recognize when fishing, canoeing, hunting or hiking along such streams. The same can be said of ledge overhangs known as rock shelters, particularly those situated along the ancient Lake Hitchcock shoreline, as well as mountain caves, many of which could be hidden under rockslides. Even so, although there is probably undiscovered art out near, few folks who tour our high, lonesome ridges and peaks have an eye for it.

“You want to find rock art?” says paleontologist R. Michael Gramly of North Andover. “I could show you a waterfall in Berlin, N.H., where there could be some. The problem is that you’d have to be a rock climber and risk your life to find it. Primitive man knew the terrain and could access the most inaccessible places.”

Waterfalls were places of “high spirit” on the Native American landscape, thus the rock art and often-associated burials that exist on adjacent well-drained bluffs rimming such sites. At such sites, natives believed in the existence of shared supernatural powers between their “Earth Mother” and her underworld. Also, cliffs and caves were decorated with rock art, which, along with birchbark scrolls, were the only known written language of our native people prior to the Historic Contact period and subsequent “Praying Indian” towns that developed a written language overseen by Congregational clergy.

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Likely local sites containing rock-art include the Pocumtuck Range, Rocky Mountain, Mount Toby and especially the majestic natural waterfalls that once separated Turners Falls and Gill, plus that special site just downstream that is today called Rock Dam. I’ll never forget the day I took worldly rock-art scholar Duncan Caldwell to the North Sugarloaf shelf-cave I got to know as a boy. Before we got there, we stood atop a high cliff overlooking South Deerfield and Caldwell was intrigued. At the cave, he insisted on working his way back toward the cliff base to search for rock art. I can’t imagine there were never petroglyphs or painted pictographs around the shelf-caves on Sugarloaf or North Sugarloaf, both potential seclusion chambers for deep-history medicine men, who would isolate themselves in high places during their spirit quests. These spiritual leaders and healers would fast and remain in meditative seclusion until visited by an animal spirit. Then they’d return to their village with the spirit of a bear, wildcat, wolf, eagle or maybe a rattlesnake or copperhead. Such places were typically decorated with rock art, maybe perishable red ochre paint, which may be long gone from the red sandstone.

I wonder how carefully the Sugarloaf cliffs overlooking Sunderland have been scoured for petroglyphs or pictographs? How about Toby? There are many ledges, boulders, caves and waterfalls up there. But, in my own opinion, the most logical place for rock art to have existed here in Franklin County has to be the section of the Connecticut River between the Millers and Deerfield River outflows. There was at one time, without question, rock art somewhere near what was called Burnham’s Rock and the Flume on the Riverside Gill side. Now, that section of the river is inundated by the Barton Cove impoundment behind the Turners Falls dam, and much of the ledge that once split the river was blasted away during different construction projects between the 1860s and 1960s. This place of high spirit had to have petroglyphs.

While it’s suspicious that no rock-art was ever mentioned by early chroniclers of the great falls above the outflow of Fall River at the sharp left-hand turn in the river, the likes of Rev. John Williams may not have studied the area closely. Then again, he may have known some petroglyphs that remained unrecorded because they were symbols of a pagan culture. Later, construction companies building the dams, the canals, the railroad and various riverside factories would have made no effort to preserve reminders of “savage” culture. In their opinion, and even in the opinion of many folks today, it was c’est la vie to a vanished, primitive race that supposedly knew not how to utilize its many resources and was better forgotten anyway.

Bellows Falls, a similar ancient fishing site upstream on the same river, is littered with rock art. Google “Bellows Falls petroglyphs” if you’re interested. The photos and sketches are there to study. Not only that, but there are interesting legends about a long-lost cave containing artifacts, rock art, a potential important burial and protective spirits up near the peak of Fall Mountain, which overlooks Bellows Falls from the New Hampshire side. There, rock slides are said to have obliterated a once-obvious cave opening. When I encouraged a well-connected friend to enquire if the State of New Hampshire had any information on that archaeological site, he put out a query and the silence was deafening. It’s the kind of response that may suggest there’s an answer the state archaeologist is not eager to share with the public.

Lenik shows ancient Indian rock art in our neighboring southern Vermont towns of Guilford, Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. Given the proximity, why not Vernon Falls, Turners Falls, South Hadley Falls and Enfield Falls? Why not Chicopee Falls or at deep-history fishing sites up the Westfield River drainage? It’s true that dams have blasted away and/or submerged much Indian rock art throughout our valley, including Indian Rock found recently just above Brattleboro Retreat by Rockingham, Vt., scuba diver Annette Spaulding, who devoted 40 years of diligent searching in her spare time. Spaulding’s discovery could be the tip of the iceberg. There must be other Native American petroglyphs to be discovered in remote places.

Someone just needs to strap on their hiking boots or scuba tanks and find them. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to learn what’s buried beneath Barton Cove’s riverbed silt?

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: Email: