The considerable body of local legend attributed to the area’s pre-colonial native inhabitants presents an interesting puzzle for any Berkshire folklorist to ponder. Early European settlers had some contact with so-called “Stockbridge Indians” – Mohican (sometimes called Mahican) combined with sundry remnants of related tribes- continuously for more than sixty years, and certainly there was a great interchange of stories and cultural ideas. Unfortunately, the majority of the staple Native legends recycled in Berkshire histories and travelogues were not recorded in print until nearly a century after the last of the Stockbridge Mohicans had migrated out of the area. One of the results of this is that much of the existing body of native lore sounds… rather white.
One legend in particular strikes me as a particularly illuminating example of a nucleus of information about indigenous life, embellished by a thick layer of old-fashioned Yankee Puritan storytelling. I am referring to an old tradition surrounding the spot known as Wizard’s Glen, off Gulf Road in Dalton. This gorge, with its rugged jumbling of heaped rock was described by Godfrey Greylock in 1879 as being “as though and angry Jove had here thrown down some impious wall of Heaven-defying Titans. Block lies heaped upon block; squared and bedeviled, as if by more than mortal art…”
Wizard’s Glen draws its name from the belief that this place was a sacred haunt for generations of local Indian shamans, a place of power where they conducted rituals and communed with their spirits. In particular, it was said that they were working incantations to Hobbomocco, the “spirit of Evil.” One broad, square rock with crimson became known as Devil’s Altar, and it was here, rumor had it, that the tribal sorcerers offered up human sacrifices. The crimson stains in the stone were said by early townspeople to be bloodstains, from the many victims ritually slaughtered there.
Several sources from the late 19th and early 20th centuries relay a story attributed to a Dalton man named John Chamberlain. Chamberlain, as sources have him, was “no lover of the Indian race,” which may help to explain some of the content of this legend. The tale itself, as Chamberlain is said to have related it personally, is as follows. Sometime around 1770, he had been hunting and after chasing a deer a great distance, finally slew it around dusk, within the area of the Glen. As he was tending to his kill, a heavy thunderstorm came suddenly, complete with driving rain and hail. He stashed the deer under one boulder and slunk himself into the recess under another. There he tried to catch a little rest while he waited out the storm. He had a clear view of the Devil’s Altar, and as he dozed he tried to put out of his mind the stories he’d heard of the terrible rites that were sometimes conducted here.
The storm was getting progressively worse, with huge claps of thunder blasting overhead. It grew louder and louder until one enormous explosion of lightning lit up the entire night. At that moment, Chamberlain saw the Devil appear right in front of his eyes. The Evil One was sitting on a broken crag directly ahead, looking accommodatingly Western European in his chosen form, replete with wings and horns and hooves- though Chamberlain later opined that the devil had very Indian-like facial features. Around his head a wreath of lightning gleamed, illuminating the scene around him. He was attended by various hideous wraiths, ghosts, imps of hell, etc, in a myriad of grotesque shapes.
A young, nude native girl was brought forth. Shrieking and fighting, she was slowly edged closer to the stone altar, upon which she was hurled viciously. The wizard danced around her for several minutes, finally raising his ceremonial axe for the ritual’s culmination. As the maiden looked away, her eyes locked with Chamberlain’s, who was so moved that he felt he had to intervene. Climbing up from his hiding place, he raised his Bible- which he happened to have one him- into the air, and in Biblically dramatic fashion, spake the great Name of God. A deafening boom of thunder sounded, lightning split the sky a thousand ways, and when it died off the whole mob had gone and he was alone in the darkness. When morning came, he was prepared to chalk up the experience to dreaming, if it were not for the disappearance of his deer.
Obviously, the story is not to be taken as a literal version of a real event. Even as an item of mythology, it lacks great dimension or meaning. The whole narrative is a bit too simple and convenient, the forces in conflict too black and white and the action slightly too camp; stylistically, it seems reminiscent of certain Bible stories, or of Lovecraft, as cranked out by Roger Corman.
Though my prevailing suspicion is that this incident is a fabrication, the more general rumors about the spot may reveal some actual truth about the culture of the Indians who lived here in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the “crimson stains” in the Devil’s Altar are in fact iron ore deposits, and there is no evidence that any Native American group in this part of North America ever conducted any form of human sacrifice, it is likely that Wizard’s Glen was of some kind of ritual importance to the area’s natives. Hobbomocco, too, is a real Algonquin deity- and it seems to me that it is a clash between two different ways of looking at this figure that is behind the flavor and longevity of this local myth. In the basic Algonquin view of the cosmos, Hobbomocco (also known as Hobbamock, or Abbomacho) was associated with darkness and with night. His name is related to all Algonquin words for death and the dead. He is not directly analogous to the Christian Satan- God’s Accuser. In their worldview, Hobbomocco is not representative of any conflict with the god of nature and creation; rather, he is one side of nature, a sometimes dangerous source of visions and power, which shamans, or powwows, can gain through communing with.
The story of Wizard’s Glen that emerged as the final product of the friction between these two cultural ideas is one in which only a fractional nod to the subjective reality of the civilization on which it is based; emblematic of a social process in which the sensational aspect of the legend are promoted, while the context is devalued and discarded. That is one interpretation. The reader inclined to make a special trip to the Glen, surrounded by echoes while looking up at the spread of mystical rubble, is bound to come up with his or her own interpretation.