February 08, 2016

The Devil Tries to Kill A Minister, or Why There Are So Many Rocks in New England

Here in New England we are blessed to live in a landscape filled with rocks. If you like giant house-sized boulders, or even just medium sized rocks, you'll find plenty to love in this part of the country.

But where did all these rocks come from?

Maybe I should rephrase that question as "Where the hell did all these rocks come from?," since folklore lays the blame on the Devil.

Not all of New England is rocky. Although the Cape Cod town of Bourne has lots of large rocks, the outer tip of the Cape - Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown - has almost no boulders at all. Once again, the Devil is to blame.


The story goes something like this. Way back in the 1600s, an English missionary named Richard Bourne was active on the southern part of Cape Cod, helping to found towns and doing God's work in the New World. Naturally, Richard Bourne drew the ire of the Devil. The Devil lived on Cape Cod and didn't like goodie-goodies anywhere near him.

One night while Bourne was sleeping the Devil crept down from the outer Cape to the missionary's hut. He leapt upon the sleeping minister, planning to crush him with his demonic super-strength. To the Evil One's surprise, Bourne successfully fought him off, even though the minister was not particularly large or strong.

"You won this time, Richard Bourne, but I'll be back," the Devil said. "Just you wait!" He stomped away to regain his strength and scheme.

Several nights later he came back to Bourne's dwelling, and once again the minister fought him off.  Once again the Devil stomped off, vowing to return.

This went on for several years, but the Devil was never able to harm Bourne because God was on his side.

Finally, the Devil realized he had to change his plan. He gathered up all the rocks he could find on the Outer Cape and put them in his big leather apron. Then he set off for Richard Bourne's house. He was going to dump all the rocks on the minister while he slept and crush him.
The Province Lands in Provincetown: a lot of sand, but no boulders...

As the Devil slowly waked down the Cape, carrying hundreds of boulders in his apron, a chickadee flew at him from out of the woods. The swift little bird flew around the Devil, mocking his plan to crush the minister.

"Richard Bourne defeated you before, he will defeat you again!" the smarmy little bird sang.

The Devil swatted at the bird, but chickadees are fast and it flew out of his reach. Then from a distant tree branch it sang it's mocking song again.

The Devil does not have a very good temper, and he was furious that such a tiny little bird would mock such a magnificent demon as himself. With a  howl of fury he ran towards the chickadee.

As he ran he tripped over a tree branch and fell. All the boulders he was carrying in his apron spilled out and rolled across the landscape. This area is now the rocky town of Bourne.

With a big sigh the Devil walked back to the boulder-free Outer Cape, where he's remained ever since. Even a fallen angel knows when he's been beaten.

This story appears in Elizabeth Renard's book The Narrow Land (1934) in a section called "Tales of the Praying Indians." Praying Indian was a term that referred to Native Americans in New England who were early converts to Christianity, and the Christian content of this story is quite strong (if you didn't notice). 

It probably has its origins in earlier pre-Christian Wampanoag legends, though. Many stories have survived telling how the Wampanoag deity Maushop, who was gigantic in size and strength, created rock formations and ocean channels. Some of them are even very similar to the one told in Renard's book. For example, in one Wampanoag tale Maushop is building  a bridge to Cuttyhunk when a crab bites his toe. Maushop drops his rocks and storms off angrily. Those rocks now form a sunken reef.

Me and some rocks in the Blue Hills.
However, anthropologist William Simmons notes in his book Spirit of the New England Tribes that Wampanoags on Cape Cod weren't the only ones telling tales about the Devil dropping rocks from his apron. The Reverend William Chaffin of Easton, Massachusetts claimed that the boulders in that town also fell out of the Devil's apron, and I've read something similar in Clifton Johnson's book What They Say in New England. So it seems like Yankees of English descent were also giving supernatural explanations for the rocks that litter the landscape.

Here in the Boston area, we have a type of stone called puddingstone (aka Roxbury conglomerate) that looks like an old-fashioned lumpy pudding with dried fruit in it. In his 1830 poem "The Dorchester Giant" Oliver Wendell Holmes humorously claims it was formed when a family of giants flung their pudding all across the landscape.

They flung it over to Roxbury hills,
They flung it over the plain,
And all over Milton and Dorchester too
Great lumps of pudding the giants threw;
They tumbled as thick as rain.

Giant and mammoth have passed away,
For ages have floated by;
The suet is hard as a marrow bone,
And every plum is turned to a stone,
But there the puddings lie.

He wasn't serious, but it's interesting that he also proposed a supernatural explanation.

We know now that New England's rocks were deposited by melting glaciers, but the old myths and legends are as much part of the landscape as the boulders themselves.


Rich Clabaugh said...

Devils and Giants, oh my! I'm much more partial to the folktale explanations about rocky New England! Thanks for another fun post Peter!

Unknown said...

Lincoln Newton Kennicutt includes a story about Hobamock pitching boulders off Mt. Wachusetts in a game of quoits, explaining how certain boulders came to be where they currently are https://books.google.com/books?id=8WkTAAAAYAAJ&pg=PT28&lpg=PT28&dq=quoits+wachusett&source=bl&ots=rloOjI8b_Y&sig=8mThi8EuFiCSN-KOPHRlrEZS62E&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjnufLM_-_KAhXK1h4KHSqgACsQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Unknown said...

Oops, I misspelled his name - it is Lincoln Newton Kinnicutt. Here is a shorter URL version of the giant link above - https://goo.gl/JsMTji

Kinnicutt also includes the following comments in his "Indian Names of Places in Worcester County, Massachusetts" (1905):

"Hobomoco, Hobomoc.

A pond in the northwestern part of Westborough near the
Boston & Albany Railroad.

/Hobhamoco/ was the Indian god of Evil, or Devil. In Wood's
N. E. Prospect he is called /Abamocho/ (pt. 2, chap. 8). In
many Indian legends his name occurs. In West Millbury there
is a large upright flat rock called /Hobhamoco/'s quoit, which by
Indian tradition /Hobbamoco/ attempted to throw from Wachusett
mountain into Manchaug pond, and failed by about half a mile.
The hill near the pond in Westborough was supposed to be one
of his dwelling places.

There is another pond in Westborough which was called
'Hobbamocke', from some supposed infernal influence, which a
man was unhappily under nigh that pond, from morning till the
sun set" (Mass. Hist. Soc.'s Collections, series 2, vol. 10,
p. 84)."


Peter Muise said...

Hi Rich! Thanks for the comment. Maybe this story would make a good topic for one of your comics?

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks a lot for those links. Really interesting! Kinnicutt's Christmas book is a weird mix of fairy tale, history, and folklore. I bet there are lots of other similar stories about the landscape out there in obscure old books (or is that "obscure olde bookes?"). Thanks again!