Thursday, May 05, 2011

stone heaps or cairns

“First. Beginning with the stone heaps or cairns, we are informed that they were either intended to commemorate some notable event, as a treaty of peace,* a victory, the settlement of a village, the passage of a war party. or else they were thrown up as landmarks, or as memorials over the dead. They seem to have been very widely distributed throughout the area of the United States, as they are to be found as far to the eastward as New England; § they are more or less numerous in New York, * throughout the Ohio Valley,! and the States still further to the south,  whilst iu the West they are known to have been erected, within the present generation, by "tribes living in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas."§ In point of size there is a wide difference among them. A large majority consists of not more than "two or three cart-loads of stone," though Squier speaks of one situated near the Indian trail that led from the Shawnee village at Chillicothe to the mouth of the Scioto River as being rectangular in shape, and originally quite symmetrical in outline, and measuring 106 feet long by 60 broad, and from 3 to 4 feet high.

Where intended as memorials of the dead they are sometimes piled up over a single corpse, or they may serve to mark the site of one or more of those general interments, when the dead of an entire village or a clan, for a number of years, were collected together and buried in one common grave. This latter form of burial was not confined to any one family or stock of tribes, but seems to have been common to all, and was always attended with great ceremony. The Jesuit Fathers Breboeuf** and Lallemant ft give us very full and home, buried him with great solemnity, and ever after when they passed that way, visited tlie spot, usually singing a mournful song, and casting stones upon it."*

Among the tribes of the Algonquin family, as well as among those inhabiting the Gulf States, and which, for the sake of convenience, we have called the Appalachians, the custom of erecting these stone heaps or cairns seems to have been more or less prevalent. Vander Donck tells us that the Indians of New Netherlands buried in graves, above which "they placed a large pile of wood, stone, or earth," and around this "they placed palisades resembling a small dwelling.^

In Virginia, according to Capt. Smith, the Powhatanic tribes had certain altar stones which stand "apart from their temples, some by their houses; and others in the woods and wildernesses; where they have had any extraordinary accident or encounter. As you travel by them they will tell you the cause of the erection, wherein they instruct their children; so that they are instead of records and memorials of their antiquities."! In Lawson's account of his journey through the Carolinas he speaks of a " sort of tomb; as where an Indian is slain, in that very place they make a heap of stones (or sticks, where stones are not to be found); to this memorial every Indian that passes by adds a stone to augment the heap, in respect to the deceased hero."§ The Cherokees, as we have seen above, also buried their dead in this same manner; l
and among the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and tribes belonging to the Creek confederacy, with whom Adair lived and traded for so many years, it was not unusual, in the woods, " to see innumerable heaps of small stones in those places where, according to tradition, some of their distinguished people were either killed or buried till their bones could be gathered; there they add Pelion to Ossa, still increasing each heap, as a lasting monument and honor to them and an incentive to great actions."

 United States Congressional serial set: Issue 3001 - Page 576
1892 - Free Google eBook - Read
239, says: "Sometimes they raised heaps of stones over the bodies of distinguished chief's."


pwax said...

Really unclear why this is not well known to people considered knowledgeable about American prehistory.

The real mystery is not the rock piles but why they are so wholly neglected. Of course that is not really a mystery, since the reasons were plain enough: eurocentrism, prejudice, and land grabbing. But it is a case study in that sort of thing and -weirdly- here we are re-constucting the obvious.

Norman said...

Another fine resource for the history of cairns, and one not known by myself.