Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading a Woodbridge Landscape (Part One)

All too often, it’s difficult to find that someone from the past has taken the time to write down anything at all, much less observations about Indian structures made of stone.

Except of course, Ezra Stiles (1727-1795).

Mavor and Dix brought Stiles up in Manitou; the Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization, introducing him at the beginning of Chapter 7. They say he “was one of the few people of his time to have recorded stone structures known to be of Indian origin (169).”

Above: Stiles map of (Indian) Lodgements used by the Regicide Judges of New Haven CT from http://books.google.com/books?id=MBIPAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0

Mavor writes that he and Dix were particularly interested in “Indian stone gods” that Stiles found, collected, wrote about and illustrated that they felt might have been “the New England equivalent of Hopi spirit stones (found) at places we considered sacred to Indians.”

In the spring of 2009, I found myself working down in Woodbridge CT near a few of the places where Stiles found and wrote about the stone structures – and one of the “Indian god stones” as well.” By coincidence I found that most of these places are now Town Properties, open space land preserves complete with trail maps. The other great coincidence was that my friend Peter used to live on the edge of one of those preserves.

I was easily able to find an on-line edition of Stiles “A history of three of the judges of King Charles I” that chronicles Stiles efforts to find the hiding places of the Regicide Judges in 1661.

Stiles writes: “Let us now trace out these exiled pilgrims in their several retreats, migrations, and secret residences.— To begin at New-Haven where they…retired from town, to the west side of a rock or mountain, about 300 feet perpendicular, commonly called the West-Rock.”

This is a rather famous spot, subject of paintings (Including this one on a cigar box), and presently a CT State Park (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Rock_Ridge) and I did drive up there one day to look at the Judges Cave, a rather disappointing site that people seem to have confused with a trash receptacle. It’s also hard to get to from the center of town, up a sheer rock wall where people often get trapped on, illegally hiking or rock climbing. I had to drive around the east side of the ridge to get there.

I was more often than not parking at my job location on the old Litchfield Turnpike, just south of the Darling House and the Bishop’s Trails Preserve, at the “southern extremity of West-Rock…about two and a half miles N. W….parrallel with the West-Rock…an interjacent bottom, or plain, three miles long, containing a thousand or twelve hundred acres of excellent land, which Mr. Goodyear, a rich settler, had bought of the town, and on which he had planted his farmer, Richard Sperry, which farm Richard Sperry afterwards became possesed of, and now for above a century it has gone by the name of Sperry's Farm,” or so president Stiles believed.

(Stiles later writes that Sperry’s Farm became the property of Thomas Darling, Esq. whom Stiles describes as a “gentleman…a man of literature and solid judgment.”)

“On this tract Mr. Goodyear had built Sperry an house,” Stiles tells us, one of “the only two houses in 1661 west ward from New-Haven, between this West Rock and Hudsons River, unless we except a few houses at Derby or Paugasset. All was an immense wilderness. Indeed all the environs of New-Haven was wilderness, except the cleared tract about half a mile or a mile around the town, which was laid out and built with 100 or 120 houses on a square half mile, divided into nine squares...”

Stiles sort of contradicts himself then by telling us, “Let it be observed that at this time, about 3 or 400 acres westward of the town was cleared in a common field, called the ox pasture,” describing the land around the Sperry Farm. What Stiles doesn’t say is that these places may have already been cleared by Native Americans, New Haven originally known as Quinipiac, marked as such on Dutch and other early maps. The “ox pasture” may well have been a cleared meadow or “intervale,” maintained by Indian burning, just as were many high elevations where “the Indians always burned rings or tracts on those summits, to give a clear view for hunting deer…”

Durrie painting from 1850’s, hayfields and sheep pastures at the foot of West Rock Ridge, looking toward Westville section, East Ridge in the distance. I don’t see the church marked on the map:

Stiles writes:”I have described their first residence in the Cave on the Rock. Mr. Sperry told me of two others, one about two miles north, and the third at the Lodge and Fort, so called, about four miles north-west in the wilderness. These I afterwards visited…”

So did I…(to be continued)


  1. Off topic: let's celebrate your blog's birthday too.

  2. The road where I lived: Rock Hill Road was called that because the judges' rock was in the hilly woods beyond, I think to the west of the end of the road.

    And since no one alive will remember it, let me mention here that there was an old still built into the rocks in the brook behind the Pratt house, I think to the south of the end of the road.

  3. Thanks Peter - I didn't even realize that off-topic fact!
    Was this still near a spring, possibly the stone worked one Stiles mentions???