Heat and electric light are generally accepted as modern conveniences, but it wasn't even easy for to get water for past generations of New Englanders, many of whom had to haul buckets of water from streams or rivers. Some lucky people had wells on their property, but getting a well was no simple task. It was difficult and potentially dangerous, so people didn't want to waste time digging where there wasn't any water underground. How then to make the important decision of where to put your well?
Many farmers and property owners consulted a dowser, someone who would use divination to find objects hidden below the earth. Dowsing has been documented back to Germany in the Renaissance, and can be used to find buried treasure, precious metals, petroleum and water. Dowsers carry an object in their hands that points mysteriously downwards when they are standing over the buried item.
Although some modern dowsers use a metal rod or pendulum, dowsers in North America have traditionally used a forked witch-hazel branch to find buried water. I'm not sure why this particular shrub is supposed to be better at finding water than other types. Perhaps it's because it has the word "witch" in its name, connoting magical power?
Frank Smith describes a traditional New England dowser in his 1914 book Dover Farms. In Which Is Traced the Development of the Territory from the First Settlement in 1640 to 1900. The dowser, named Joseph A. Smith, lived in Dover in the 1800s.
He often cut a fresh witch-hazel rod, but sometimes employed split whalebone. In using the divining-rod the legs were held in the hands, and when a spring or vein of water was crossed, the point would turn down; the power was often shown in the cracked bark of the stick when resistance was offered.
Frank Smith writes that Smith the dowser was sought out by local farmers when sinking wells, and that he could "unerringly locate springs of water" and even estimate the number of feet that would have to be dug before water was hit. He also writes that dowsing probably operates on the same principals as magnetism or electricity.
I think it's interesting that Smith sometimes used a whalebone instead of a y-shaped branch. At first I pictured him dowsing with a giant whale rib, but realized he was probably using a smaller piece of whalebone from a women's corset.
I think modern science is a little skeptical of dowsing, but there is a society for modern dowsers in Rhode Island.
Interestingly, a groups of dowsers in Vermont founded an apocalyptic church in the 1700s. Their rods foretold earthquakes, avenging angels, and naked young ladies. At least two of their predictions didn't come true.