Tophet Swamp lies in the shadows at the bottom.The mystery of Tophet Chasm is twofold. One mystery is about how it was formed. Its origin 25,000 years ago in the glacial era intrigues many interested in geology. Writing in 1924, W.O. Crosby and Irving Crosby identified Tophet Chasm as one of several keystone faults in Massachusetts. In 1956, R.J. Lougee wrote about a spectacular waterfall from Glacial Lake Nashua that he believed eroded the bedrock on Oak Hill thus forming the chasm. Even now, the mystery remains because geologists are still undecided on how this unusual landscape came to be.
The other mystery of Tophet Chasm is the part it played in human history. How it was used by Native Americans in the 10,000 years since their ancestors came here is unknown. There are, however, some clues from Native American culture. There is a belief that spirits, good and bad, inhabit the world and are in control of the forces of nature and the fate of individuals. Native Americans paid close attention to pleasing good spirits and warding off the bad. Their shamans were specially prepared to contact and appease these spirits through rituals, many of which involved fires, drumming, dancing, chanting and shouting. Rituals often took place at night and preferably in swamps.
The likelihood of shamanistic rituals taking place in this area is supported by what we know of Nashoba Indians living here when English Puritans arrived. A shaman named Tantamouse lived in Nashoba Praying Indian Village where Indian quest sites existed. Although shaman rituals or powwowing were forbidden by village laws, Tanatamouse was known by the Indians (and later by the English) to continue serving as a shaman. Perhaps Tophet Chasm with its swamp and unusual configuration was a site he would prefer to use for rituals.
The other connection between Tophet Chasm and shamanistic rituals is its name – Tophet. Puritans used the word, meaning “fiery hell” from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
Tophet was the place near Jerusalem where ancient peoples sacrificed their children by burning. To the Puritans, Tophet was an apt name for the alarming fires and loud shrieks and drumming that took place in swamps – frightening sights and sounds to English settlers who feared for their lives and whose religious views considered Indians to be possessed by the devil. Local historian Daniel V. Boudillion identified twelve places named Tophet in Massachusetts, eight of which are swamps. Several Tophet Swamps, including the one in Littleton, are located along the Mohawk Trail (roughly Route 2A) spaced 10 to 20 miles apart.
In the 1600s, the Native American way of life changed dramatically and tragically. Indian populations had already been decimated by infectious diseases brought by Europeans. The ever-increasing number of people arriving from England coveted the seemingly-unoccupied land for their own purposes. Relations between two peoples living in close proximity, with disparate languages, cultures, and customs of land use, became fraught with misunderstandings, distrust, fear, hatred, and violent conflict.
During King Philip’s War in 1675/6, there was open warfare between English settlers and Wampanoag Indians and their allies. Eventually after tragic losses of life on both sides, settlers gained land as Native Americans lost their traditional way of life and control of all but a small portion of their former homelands. The name, Tophet Chasm, is a reminder of that tragic era.
This event is coordinated by the Littleton Conservation Trust and Historical Society, and co-sponsored by the town’s Conservation Commission and Historical Commission.
The event is part of Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area’s 2016 Hidden Treasures Program – over 60 partners hosting 100 FREE events from Saturday, May 14 through Sunday, May 22. Learn more at http://www.discoverhiddentreasures.org. Freedom’s Way works in partnership with the National Park Service.
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