Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chamber Rock- Bournedale, Ma

I guess I am doing a short series on historic Massachusetts rocks. Maybe I’ll try to catch another for next week.

Chamber Rock, or as it has historically been called, Sacrifice Rock, was a somewhat frustrating historical study. I have never run across an object with so many honorable mentions in historical texts which still remains more or less anomalous. I still have a lot of questions about the rock, even after a week’s worth of research.

Chamber Rock lies right at the entrance of Chamber Rock Rd in Bournedale, Ma. Although, the boulder is called Chamber Rock now, because of the cave like formations its split created, it was once known as Sacrifice Rock, because of the legends of Native American ritual human sacrifice attributed to it. In fact, it still sits on the edge of Sacrifice Rock Woods in Bournedale.

Although the site has a definite lack of historical evidence to support even its original name, it is connected to an abundance of legends. These legends are interesting in that the two main versions reflect both a Christian and pre-Christian perspective on the origins of the shape of the rock.

In addition, the second version of legend surrounding Chamber Rock seems to actually be an origin story regarding why and how so many of the native tribes of the Cape area became Christianized during the early colonial period.

The first legend about this giant rock is actually not the most popular version, but it seems to have Wampanoag origins, so it might actually be the older of the two. This particular take on the story comes from a bulletin of the Massachusetts Archeological Society entitled Indian Rocks of Cape Cod, written by Howard Torrey.

As the legend states, in Ancient times, the people of Comassakumkanet (modern Herring Pond) were troubled. Their squash and beans would not grow and even their corn was dying. No rain had come in a month and their shaman’s prayers and incantations were unable to help. The people feared the coming of winter because they had not been able to store any food.

Because of the drought, they believed that the Thunder People were angry with them. So the Sachem of the tribe called together his councilors and his shaman. Among the leaders of the tribe it was decided that a great sacrifice must be made. It had to be a very important sacrifice. In fact, it had to be human sacrifice.

A victim was chosen from among captives taken from a raid on a distant village. There was a huge flat boulder in the village which had been used as a natural stage during traditional ceremonies and important tribal rites. This boulder was chosen as the site for the sacrifice.

The victim was brought to the top of the boulder and tied in place. Dry kindling was piled up beneath him. Great storm clouds began to gather in the sky, so the people believed the ceremony was already working.

The entire tribe, including the Sachem and the shaman, gathered around the boulder in prayer. The shaman held a torch, ready to light the dry wood beneath victim. As the shaman stepped forward the storm suddenly broke in a blinding flash of lightening and a deafening roar. The ground shook around the people and dust and debris filled the air.

When the dust cleared, the tribe saw that the great boulder had been split in half. All the village leaders lay dead, scattered around the boulder. Amazingly, the victim remained unharmed.
A split in Chamber Rock- Was it caused by lightning?
The people interpreted this as a sign from the Thunder People that human sacrifice was unacceptable. This news spread throughout the Wampanoag region and the practice of human sacrifice was ended. The boulder remains as a testament to those who would doubt this.

In this version, the story seems to be used to explain why the Wampanoag tribe did not perform religious human sacrifice. However, I could not find another resource that even indicated that the local tribes had ever done so.

The second version of this story has more of a Christian influence, but ultimately has the same moral lesson. I obtained this version from Scott Corbett’s An Informal History of Cape Cod: Cape Cod's Way.

In this version, an early colonist of Sandwich by the name of Richard Bourne was traveling through the village of Bournedale when he accidently came upon a group of Wampanoag in the midst of sacrificing one of their own on top of a large boulder.

Bourne was familiar with the native language so he screamed to the natives to stop what they were doing in the name of God. He explained to them that there was no need to sacrifice because he believed Jesus had made the ultimate sacrifice for mankind already. When natives refused to end the ceremony, he called upon God to stop them. The Almighty apparently answered his prayer. In a flash, a bolt of lightening crashed down into the middle of the natives.

The bolt of lightening split the rock in half and killed a number of the local tribe members. However, the intended sacrifice victim remained unharmed. After seeing such an awesome display of power from the Christian God of the Englishmen, many of the local Wampanoag converted to Christianity and became Praying Indians. From among these converts Richard Bourne was able to open the First Indian Meeting House in Plymouth colony.

Both of these legends left me with more questions than I actually began with. Each story states that Chamber Rock had once been a site used for human sacrifice. However, these stories don’t seem to match historical evidence. Certainly the local tribes of this area had a tradition of sacrifice to their deities, but what this actually meant is a little unclear.

Luckily, there are other sites close by which were used for a similar purpose. According to Native Plymouth Tours, there are at least two other rocks currently called “Sacrifice Rock” in the town of Plymouth, only a few miles north of Bournedale.
Early colonists knew about these sites and wrote about them. Human sacrifice, though, did not seem to be part of the tradition. According to Ancient Landmarks of Plymouth:
"Sacrifice Rocks- Of these there are two, and both on the easterly side of the Sandwich Road . . . These rocks, still covered with small branches, remain as monuments of aboriginal religious rites. Like the Manittoo Asseinah, or Spirit Rocks of the western Indians, they have always received the homage of branches from the natives."
So, it seems as though a traditional Wampanoag sacrifice was made by placing a branch upon the rock, not by opening the throat of a human victim. These sacrifices were made to appease or make a connection with the native concept of the Manitou, which in Algonquian culture sometimes represented the balance of life and death in the universe, but could also represent the spirit within any given object. These Sacrifice Rocks were areas where this connection with Manitou was particularly strong.

There are other sources which seem to mention Chamber Rock (when it was called Sacrifice Rock) specifically. In his book In Olde Massachusetts: Sketches of Old Times and Places During the Early Days of the Commonwealth Charles Todd seems to refer to chamber Rock, though not in name. Todd quotes a missionary from Mashpee named Gideon Hawley:

"We have a sacrifice rock, as it is termed, between Sandwich and Plymouth, to which stones and sticks are always cast by Indians who pass by it. This custom or rite seems to be an acknowledgment of an invisible being, we may style him the unknown God, whom the people worship. This heap is his alter. The stone that is collected is the oblation of the traveler, which if offered with a good mind, may be as acceptable as a consecrated animal."
Hence, it seems even in Bournedale the site was not historically used for human sacrifice. Rather, it was an alter for sticks and stones to be laid upon. Other historical sources only mention its existence as a landmark, but say nothing of its history.

In at least the second version of the legend, Richard Bourne plays a star role. Of him, there is no lack of history and supporting evidence. According to the History of Richard Bourne and Some of His Descendants, Richard was an Englishman who first immigrated to Lynn, Ma between 1625 and 1630.

Of course, the town of Bourne would eventually bear his name when it separated from Sandwich in 1884. However, in 1637 Bourne came from Lynn to the new settlement of Sandwich with the first few settlers. He became a distinguished citizen and served as representative to the General Court of Massachusetts from Sandwich for 15 years.

Bourne was most well known for his work among the local tribes of the Wampanoag Confederacy. With his own funds, he purchased land for the tribe he called the South Sea Indians. He provided that this land could not be taken from the natives unless all tribal members consented. This land ultimately became part of the town of Mashpee. Richard Bourne also learned to speak the local dialect of Wampanoag. It was through this mastery of the native language that he once saved the town of Sandwich from an angry group of local native warriors. When no one else could, Bourne was able to talk the group out of attacking.

Bourne also acted as a missionary to the native people. He was able to translate a written copy of the Lord’s Payer into the Wampanoag language. Along with Thomas Tupper, he also opened the first Indian Meeting House in the Plymouth colony, of which he became the pastor in 1670. The site where the meetinghouse originally stood is now called Burrying Hill and still bears a plaque dedicated to the original native church and burial ground.
Burrying Hill- Bourndale Ma
In fact, it was partially this connection which Richard Bourne built with the native groups of Sandwich and Mashpee which allowed these towns to be a safe haven for the colonists during the King Philip’s War and prevented the native groups of these areas from joining Metacom’s warriors.  

An additional amazing tale is told of Richard Bourne and his work as a native missionary. This legend comes from Massachusetts: A Guide to its Places and People.

According to this legend Richard Bourne got into an argument with a Wampanoag Pow-wow, which is similar to a shaman or religious leader. The Pow-wow lost his temper in the argument and cast a spell on Bourne, which caused his feet to sink into the ground and become stuck. The two agreed that neither would move from that spot until one had beaten the other in a contest of wits and endurance. The contest lasted for 15 days, during which time a white dove descended daily from the sky to deliver a cherry to the mouth of Richard Bourne. Apparently the Pow-wow had no such help. Unable to cast a spell on the dove and weak with thirst and hunger, the shaman dropped to the ground with exhaustion and Richard Bourne was once again a free man.

The tale goes on to say that one of the cherries from the dove fell into a local bog during the contest of wits. This cherry turned into the cranberry, which is still widely grown on Cape Cod.

So, not only can Richard Bourne be credited with shattering Chamber Rock and Christianizing the Cape’s Wampanoag population, but he can also claim credit for bringing the cranberry to the Cape (at least in myth). However, it seems in both legend and history, Bourne was a pretty influential person in early Massachusetts.

As I said, I still have questions about Chamber Rock. Did tribes within the Wampanoag Confederacy once perform human sacrifice? Was Chamber Rock really an area used for this sacrifice? Two separate questions for which I have no definite answer.

Considering all the legends surrounding this site, it seems like it deserves at least a closer look. However, according to the Massachusetts Archeological Society in Indian Rocks of Cape Cod, there is really no archeological evidence to support that native tribes used this area at all.

In addition, this source states that Chamber Rock was probably not split by a lightening strike (sadly). Rather, it was split when it was deposited by the last glacier to pass through this area, and then widened by further freezing and thawing action. Not quite as exciting.

So, perhaps Chamber Rock was once an important religious site for tribes in the Wampanoag Confederacy. Maybe natives even performed or attempted to perform human sacrifice at this site. But, it seems also quite possible that natives and early Yankees just liked to have a story for every large strange shaped rock they saw. They're kinda like me in that way I guess.
One of the dark chambers within Chamber Rock


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  2. Thanks for reading and for the compliment. I am currently working on a story that has somewhat stumped me, but a new post should be up this weekend. If you subscribe to the site, you should be notified of new posts. Have a great day and keep reading.

  3. I really enjoyed the read. Thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks for reading it. Chamber Rock was odd for me because I still had a lot of unanswered questions about its history. I still hope to find some of those answers in the near future.

  4. i live on yearling run rd, it connects to chamber rock road. me and my friends always go on the rock and around it to see of we see any bones or anything like what teens like to do. reading this has sparked my imagination on all the cool stuff that has gone on around the area of my house like 400 years ago. thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading the article. I thought Chamber Rock was pretty interesting. I am planning another trip to Bourne to see another legend of Bournedale, the Bourne Stone. It comes from that same area and seems to be quite a mystery. Thanks for stopping by and keep looking at all the interesting historical stuff around you.

  5. Replies
    1. Thanks for the compliment. I hope to continue my research this month. Keep coming for updates.