Friday, October 20, 2006

Souvenirs of Yesteryear: The mysterious stone piles - By Donald Windsor, Deputy Historian of Chenango County

(Sent in by Norman Muller)
Of all our souvenirs, the most mysterious are the stone piles. They remain a mystery because there is no written documentation describing who built them, why they were built, or when. Their name is unfortunate, because they are not piles of stone but rather neatly laid stacks of stone. I perpetuate the name to stay consistent. The piles of stone that farmers accumulate when they clear their land are just heaps of rubble; they are not the same thing.

Our local stone piles range in size from about two feet in diameter up to about thirty feet and from just about a foot or two high up to a towering twelve feet or so. They are usually cylindrical, but come in all shapes. Some resemble truncated cones; others are cuboidal. Some are laid atop slabs of protruding bedrock and extend the shape of the underlying slab.

Stone piles are found along the New York-Pennsylvania border all the way from Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean and along the eastern seaboard from Maine down to Georgia. They have been reported north to Onondaga, Oneida, and Oswego counties. There are at least two hundred sites along our Southern Tier. A single site near Ellenville in Ulster County has over three hundred piles. Locally I have photographed stone piles in Chenango, Madison, Otsego, Delaware, Broome, and Tompkins counties.

In 2000, I published a 28 page article on the stone piles of Chenango County. Eleven sites were known at the time. Since then, I have located at least a dozen more. Some sites contain only a single pile; others have several. In that article I listed all the possible speculations about who might have built them and why and when. While I do not have room here to list them all, my favorite speculation is that stacking stones was a task assigned to old men, to give them something to do. I like this hypothesis because it gives me something to look forward to. In my Souvenirs article of October 3, 2001, I featured a stone pile which was probably a surveyor's monument on the Plymouth-Pharsalia town border.

The biggest mystery is not so much the who, why, and when, but rather the complete absence of any mention of them in any of our early historical records. Indian mounds were mentioned several times, but not stone piles. If the settlers built them, they did not write about it, or more precisely, no writings survived that we know. I say "we" because other folks are also looking. If the settlers did not build them, they never mentioned finding them either. Perhaps they were built after the settlers, but then too, no one wrote about it. The early diaries seem to go into elaborate detail about all sorts of other things, from bodily malfunctions to neighborhood squabbles, but, alas, not stone piles.

The photo shows some stone piles in a remote area of the Melondy State Forest in the Town of Afton. This one or two acre site has over two dozen piles clustered together, each less than a stone's throw away from another. They are all somewhat similar, three or four feet tall and four to six feet in diameter. They are not set out in any apparent pattern. I intend (someday) to draw an accurate map of the area and scrutinize it more thoroughly. (It's on my list of things to do.) This Afton site is the largest in Chenango County.

The stone piles themselves are mysterious enough, but the locations of the sites are even more mysterious. About six miles to the east-southeast of this Afton site is another one in the Town of Masonville in Delaware County which also contains about a two dozen piles of similar shapes and sizes. I have been recording the exact latitude-longitude coordinates for stone pile sites with my global satellite positioning device so that (someday) all of these sites can be accurately plotted on a map. Perhaps a widespread pattern will be noticeable.

However, this may be an exercise in futility, because so many of these stone piles have already been destroyed. Vandalism, recycling, and selling are the main reasons for their demise. We have so many interesting things here, it is a tragic shame that we are unable to retain them. Nevertheless, we have to try. Any readers with stone piles on their property are encouraged to notify me so that I can record their location, take some measurements, and snap some photos.


Geophile said...

Obviously I missed the boat while in Ulster County. There's more than the ice caves around Ellenville, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Historical documents mentioning rock piles or stone cairns are relatively rare but do exist. I have compiled an extensive bibliography with brief quotations of the relevent materials from historical documents, archaeological reports, & anthropological materials. The bibliography can be viewed at

James Gage

Anonymous said...

The stone piles you found in Chenango County (Afton NY) were almost certainly center supports for long houses. There has been a ton of Native relics found near and around that site.

There is also a small spring and feeder creek at that site, several relics found in creek bed and all the way down the mountain side to Melondy Hill. It would be interesting for a College or Archaeologist to commit to a dig of the site around those stone piles. There is a large piece of Onandaga Chert in the middle of one of those stone piles that was found by a relative of mine, they never disturbed it just took pictures.

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