Looking for references to anything that even remotely suggests stone constructions made by Native People along the Housatonic River system, I long ago came across this paragraph by the Rev. Sam Orcutt. He quotes Mr. J.H. Trumbull in “Indian Names,” and inserts it into his chapter “History of Stratford,” contained in “A History of Bridgeport” written in 1889:
“In June, 1727, a highway was recorded as lying “ upon Pissepunk hill; and about 1710, John Pickett had laid to him ‘lying on the southwesterly side of Pissepunk brook.’ ” Pissepunk is an Indian name. “ It doubtless came from an Indian ‘hot house,’ somewhere on or near this hill. ‘This hot house is a kind of little cell or cave, six or eight feet over, round, made on the side of a hill, commonly by some rivulet or brook; into this frequently the men enter after they have exceedingly heated it with store of wood, laid upon an heap of stones in the middle.”
To me, it sounds like a description of a stone construction, buried somewhere under all those quotation marks. I felt that sooner or later I’d find something similar in the uplands above an area of my town still known by it’s Native Place Name, “The Fresh Water Fishing Place.”
The use of the sweatlodge across North America is, as they say, well documented. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s documented well. In Driver’s “Indian’s of North America,” under the heading of Sweathouses, in chapter eight on “Housing and Architecture,” the author describes two types of such constructions, as well as two types of “sweating inducement,” direct fire and water vapor produced by pouring water on hot stones.
Direct-fire sweathouses in Alaska were subterranean earth covered log houses with a tunnel entrance, much like dwellings were constructed. He then states that the “direct – fire sweathouses of California are surprisingly similar.” He details a daily sweat as a group affair, to “feel good.”
Water Vapor sweathouses, although sometimes of a permanent nature, were usually the small, domed pole and hide, bark or mat covered structures, used for sacred purposes of healing and purification.
He ends the section by saying, “Among the Delaware, each village apparently had an earth-covered sweathouse entered through a hole in the roof, and a crier invited the entire populace to come and sweat.”
This invites a mental picture of a kiva-like structure. Mavor and Dix in “Manitou: the Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization,” compare photographs of New England’s numerous mysterious “stone chambers” to (multi-purpose) Hopi Kivas and Hopewellian burial chambers, as well as a brief mention of chambers built by Archaic Maritime People of Labrador. They go into detail about the similarities in construction methods through out the book. Photos of some of these chambers can be found in the Neara on-line photo gallery, as well in “Manitou.”
“What Cheer, Netop?” is a booklet of selections from the 1643 book entitled “A Key into the Language of America” by Roger Williams, translated and edited by Hadassah Davis in 1986 for the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. On pg. 35, under the heading “The Sweatlodge,” I found Williams wrote of the “Pe’suponck / sweatlodge.” Once again it is described as “a kind of cave or cell, built on the side of a hill. It is six or eight feet across, and usually situated near a stream. It is prepared for use by building a fire on top of a pile of stones. When the stones are heated through, they put the fire out, while the stones continue to hold their heat. At this point between ten and twenty men enter the lodge, having left all their clothes at the door, with one person to guard them. They then sit around these hot stones for an hour or more, taking tobacco, talking and sweating together. Their sweating has two benefits; it cleanses the skin and it cures some diseases. When they come out of the sweathouse, summer or winter, they plunge into the stream to cool off. Though it seems amazing, they do not seem to suffer from the sharp change in temperature.”
Davis adds below the translation: “Sweat lodges were used by several groups of Indians, among them the Nipmucks of Massachusettts. They built ceremonial stone sweat lodges, called pesu-poncks, that were used for purification rituals: and many of these chambers can be found near Nipmuck villages (Nipmuck Indian Council of Chaubunagunamaug).”
Besides those references from what became Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Schagticoke Elder Trudie Lamb Richmond makes many references to the use of sweat lodges in her lectures and writings about the surviving Native American People at her reservation also on the Housatonic River near Kent, CT. She makes it clear that the sweat lodge was and continues to be to be a very important part of Native American Culture in Western Connecticut. In “Enduring Traditions,” edited by Laurie Weinstein in 1994, she writes of the clan leader Mauwe or Hungry Bear’s skills at canoe making and the building of sweat lodges. From detailed Moravian diaries kept at Schagticoke, she adds “that although many Schagticokes converted to the Moravian faith, periodically they announced they would be absent from vespers on a given evening because they would be going to the sweat lodge.”
Mohegan Elder Gladys Tantaquidgeon, in “Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians,” writes of the familiar sapling and hide or mat covered sweatlodge. As a footnote, she adds Moravian missionary John Heckewelder’s observations of a “sweat-oven.... generally at some great distance from an Indian village...the women have their separate oven in a different direction.... The Men generally sweat themselves once and sometimes twice a week... the publick cryer going his rounds, calls out Pimook! ‘Go to sweat!’”
Heckewelder’s choice of the word “oven”- the same word that Orcutt uses - is interesting to me. Europeans used concepts familiar to them to describe the new and different things they found in the “New World.” Caves, cells, and ovens all bring to mind stone (or bricks as in a Dutch Oven) rather than a wood and hide construction. “Rude huts,” “hide tents,” and “domed bark houses” are usually the descriptions applied to the dwelling structures we know as “wigwams.” With that in mind I include these two definitions:
ov·en (ùv¹en) noun
A chamber or enclosed compartment for heating, baking, or roasting food, as in a stove, or for firing, baking, hardening, or drying objects, as in a kiln. [Middle English, from Old English ofen.]
Dutch oven noun
1. A large, heavy pot or kettle, usually of cast iron and with a tight lid, used for slow cooking.
2. 2. A metal utensil open on one side and equipped with shelves, placed before an open fire for
baking or roasting food.
3. A wall oven in which food is baked by means of preheated brick walls.
In the spring of 1996, I was shown what is known locally as the “Indian Cave.” It’s a little over two miles up river from the floodplains that were the cornfields used by a band of local Native Americans whom local history documents as living there between 1659 and the early 1700’s. A tributary branch of the river that flows through the floodplain, known as the East Spring (or Sprain) Brook, cuts through a large outcrop of bedrock, “ a great distance away”, creating a zigzag ravine shadowed by hemlocks. Boulders in the stream create many pools, the largest of which was right below “Indian Cave,” before an intense summer thunderstorm caused flooding that filled the pool with stones and debris. I tended to think of it as “Plunge Pool” and imagined people leaving the Pissepunk and jumping into this pool. The “cave” is on the west bank, about six feet above the brook. It bears some resemblance to an overhanging glacial cave, perhaps a very small “rockshelter” in the approximately forty-foot almost vertical rock face. There are no marks of any metal stone cutting tools or drills but I think it possible that it may have been quarried to its present size. From the brook to the floor of the “cave” there appears to be rows of stone piled and even chinked with clay (there was a large deposit of clay a short distance upstream) that still remains deep within this sort of “retaining wall” just beyond the drip line of the overhang. The deep pool below the “cave” seems filled with stones that fell from the wall over time, as if the “cave” itself was walled at one time.
I don't think the cave was a direct fire sweatlodge. I can imagine that up in these “sheltered vallies” were lots of people who didn't travel too far in the winter from the Fresh Water Fishing Place in the Middle (There's a modern earth-sheltered house very close by, cliff dwelling inspired). I can imagine a Sacred Path from Pissepunk to a fire, kept going all winter perhaps, to keep the chamber hot. I think it would take a long time to heat up the whole stone thing, but it would also hold the heat along time too..
A small sapling and whatever you use for a cover Lakota Inipi gets hot quickly. The first time water is poured on the first eight red-hot stones to create steam it certainly feels hot. But it's nothing compared to when the Fire-keeper walks the Path from Fire to lodge, adds the last four stones, and water is poured on those (My friend's first sweatlodge he made in CT was based on his Lakota traditions - except that we used my old pool cover - and we would have rolled in the snow afterwards except there wasn't any).
Mention of the use of clay in the materials covering a sweatlodge is made in “Native American Sweat Lodge” by Joseph Bruchac. He quotes Pieter De Vries writing in early 1600’s:
“When they wish to cleanse themselves of their foulness, they go in the autumn, when it begins to get cold, to make, away off, near a running brook, a small oven, large enough for three or four men to lie in it. In making it they first take twigs of trees, and then cover them tight with clay, so that smoke cannot escape. This being done, they take a parcel of stones, which they heat in a fire, and then put in the oven, and when they think it is sufficiently hot, take the stones out again and go and lie in it, men and women, boys and girls, and come out perspiring, that every hair has a drop of sweat on it. In this state they plunge into the cold water; saying that it is healthy, but I let it’s healthfulness pass; then they become entirely clean, and are more attractive than before.”
I found a few more mentions of the word “Pissepunk” in different sorts of “CT Place Names,” such as this definition: “Pissepunk-Indian - i.e. Hothouse Swamp. Pishponk. Narra. pesuppau-og, "they are sweating." (Huden). He talks of a place name in Old Lyme, listing it as “Pissepunk, East of Smith Neck; (Eastern Conn.), i.e. Hothouse Swamp.
Two other people seem to mention the same cave:
Shelton - Pissepunk Brook mentioned, 1710; P. Hill in 1727, P. means Indian hothouse, small cave in side of a hill near a brook, (Trumbull, p. 51). Also Pishponk. (Pisseponk)
Stratford - N of village, S of TRU SE corner and Merritt Pky., Wilcoxson, p.264. "Name derived from a hot house on or near the hill." (Steele)
Besides those, I found another reference to an “Oven” in a copy of an article given to me by a very active member (and a heck of a nice guy) of the Watertown CT Historical Society, Mr. Jeffery Grenier. The article mentions “Crump’s Oven” in Canton Center CT. It’s not much of a mention, just a photo and a poem. I include it here since it’s shape reminds me of the large boulder pictured as figures 4 and 5 in Norman Muller’s “Stone Rows and Boulders” in NEARA's On-line Magazine.
Looking at all the photos in the Neara Gallery, there certainly seems to be a lot of stone chambers in New England. Reading the earliest of written documentation from the “New World,” the use of sweat lodges or “Ovens” seems pretty widespread. It’s how Native People took baths in the winter, as well as kept healthy. There are many accounts of “Sweat Doctors” whose expertise revolved around the use of the sweat lodge in their cures.
I’ll suggest that a very likely use of some Stone Chambers some of the time might be as sweat lodges. It seems to be the simplest explanation of one aspect of the mystery of Stone Chambers.
Astronomical alignments and shafts of sunlight on Solstice and/or Equinox in some chambers nowhere near habitation sites in many different places across Turtle Island do seem to suggest that there’s more to it than the simple sweat lodge explanation.