Glocester’s mysterious Indian grave

Cool. How many blogs get to have their first entry dated February 29?

GLOCESTER, Rhode Island — Out here in the boonies we’ve had record winters for snowfall the past two years. Last year we got way too much. This year we hardly got any. Last year we broke the official record for complaints about the weather. This year everyone’s afraid to say anything because they don’t want to jinx it.

At the moment, snow’s coming down thick as pancake batter. Someone must’ve said something.

Other than today, almost every day this month brought us springlike warmth, snowless ground, and views through leafless trees, and I took advantage of it with several hikes not far from home. Yesterday I went to Bowdish Reservoir to search for an Indian grave.

Bowdish once was a swamp, but someone built a dam in the mid-1800s and turned it into one of the prettiest bodies of water in the state. It probably powered a few small mills, too, but those are long gone. Campsites are the only industry there now, along with a pair of restaurants barely clinging to existence and a biker bar jampacked with patrons every night but Monday. Houses line different areas of the shore, some large and balconied, others little more than two-room tents made of cedar shingle. But for the most part, the 226-acre lake is surrounded by peaceful woods. And boulders. Enough boulders to make your own planet.

I got to Bowdish through the George Washington Management Area access road off Route 44, West Glocester. The trail starts out from the left side of the state boat launch. It’s marked with a white rectangle and makes a one-and-a-half mile loop along shore and hillside thick with skinny oaks and twisted laurel.

Halfway along the trail, in a level stretch on rising ground, I found the Indian grave. It blended in with the glacial rubble that littered the site and easily could be missed. It seems likely the monument was built from the materials at hand.

Indian grave near Bowdish Reservoir, Glocester, RI

The headstone, if it can be called that, stands more than 30 inches tall and is inclined slightly forward and to the left. It’s hard to say if there ever had been an inscription on the face of the stone. Many early headstones in rural Rhode Island—of settlers as well as Indians and slaves—were unmarked field stones.

The most peculiar feature of the monument, I think, is the circle of stones extending west-northwest from the headstone. There seems to be a cavity in the ground inside the circle, a pit of soft leaf mold. The circle measures 60 inches outside diameter.

Considering the soil, it’s odd  there would be a burial here. Nearly all the ground in the vicinity of the site is composed of rocks interlocked with rocks, which makes shoveling a hole big enough for a body almost impossible. (Not that I’ve tried burying one there.) Also, the site doesn’t appear to have been chosen for its view, since there are better prospects just a few hundred feet away.

With all I’ve read about Indians allegedly paying close attention to directions and astronomical alignments, I was surprised the headstone faced WNW at 298 degrees, a compass point with no obvious significance. I suppose someone is likely to claim that the direction puts the spring sunrise at the back of the headstone, but that sounds like a real stretch to me.

As it stands, I have more questions than answers about this Indian grave. What was his or her name? When did he or she die? Was he or she a wanderer or the putative owner of this spot of land? Was the body cremated or interred either as a corpse or in a casket? Since the area was claimed by Narragansetts, Wampanoags, and Nipmucks, we can’t even guess which tribe our Indian claimed as his or her own.

If I get any answers, I’ll post them here. If not, our Indian grave will just have to be filed among the many enduring mysteries of New England’s past.

____________________

Update, January 30, 2014: Nearly two years later, I still haven’t met anyone who knows something about this odd little monument. At separate times I’ve talked to three park employees, the area’s longtime environmental enforcement officer, and crowds of local history buffs. The unanimous response to my questions: “Never heard of it.”

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4 comments

  1. Bill Eccleston · · Reply

    Just read this. Never seen it, but am familiar with nw RI woods since youth. Looks like a fire pit with a backstone to reflect the heat. There were two early subsistence industries in these woods: cordwood cutting and cobble making. In the Buck Hill woods five miles to the north of Bowdish I have found the remains of a half dozen cordwood campsites with fireplaces all of style that is more elaborate than what appears hear, but I would still guess that this was built for the same purpose. If you found cobbles, rejects or good ones nearby, that would nail it. If there are no cobbles, purpose of the stonework then becomes more speculative. But I would lean on a camp thesis before speculating on Indian burial. A poor region for settlement, and though we do know from Roger’s William’s accounts that Indians went from the shore into the interior in the winter to hunt deer, working from small hunting camps, we don’t know how they built their fires. Anyhow, the fire thesis could easily be proved or disproved by testing the soil for carbon. Perhaps a visual would be good enough for that.

    Anyhow, interesting blog. Enjoy it!

    1. I agree, Bill. The biggest mystery about this simple stone structure is why it was called an Indian burial in a Rhode Island hiking book. I have asked half a dozen DEM workers at Bowdish who have no idea what I’m talking about, even though there’s a wooden sign pointing to the “Indian grave” on the trail. There is no carbonized soil or stone indicating fire. But the stony ground is hardly conducive to the burial of a corpse, let alone an urn. This reminds me of the stories of mad murderers and hunchback monsters we heard at Boy Scout camp – once the tale is made up, it’s too good to let facts get in the way.

  2. Jessica · · Reply

    I am curious what this is, as I have a similar structure in my back yard. Looks identical. We abut a state park and just recently cleared some land for grass area. We have run into this and are not quite sure what to make of it.

    1. I’ve spotted a few others myself, including one along Haystack Trail in Glocester’s land trust at Sprague Farm. I’m inclined toward Mr. Eccleston’s suggestion of a firepit except I’ve never seen charred rock. Maybe they served as hunters’ chairs, with a sturdy back stone to lean against and a circle of stone to sit in, lined with hemlock branches, leaves or furs. But I’m just guessing on that chair idea. Never saw a hunter make or use one.

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