The Mystery MoundsJan 01, 2023 09:55AM ● By Carrie Hagen
For years, Tioga County hunters have protected the locations of ancient aboriginal stonework in once-remote parts of the woods. Although they reach heights of several feet or higher, the cone-shaped stone mounds—known as cairns—are so camouflaged into the landscape that they startle those who come across them. Locals know of developers who have destroyed the pillars, treating them as random piles of rocks that obstruct the landscape. Others, recognizing the cairns as centuries-old artifacts, have protected them by keeping quiet about their precise locations. This method of preservation has deterred vandals, but it has also hidden relics of the area’s rich Native American history from the public eye, leaving only those with access and curiosity to uncover the cairns’ purpose. Such a quest occupied one grouse hunter in Charleston Township for decades. (Names of some people and places are withheld to protect these cairns.)
The hunter first encountered the rock formations on a retreat decades ago. Walking the woods behind his rental cabin, he came across a tall, austere-looking arrangement of stones. Before long he saw another pile, and then another.
“What are these things?” he remembers asking.
Close inspection revealed that the rocks surrounded and supported cavities, some of which held fragments of animal bones, decaying organic materials, and shards of pottery, pipes, and beads. The structures seemed to be types of monuments. But to what or to whom? Enchanted, the hunter felt drawn to the stonework. On subsequent trips, he combed the forest for as many cairns as he could find. A walk of one property revealed twenty-eight separate stone mounds. He asked locals what they knew of the structures. The owner of his rental said that they were connected to ancient Native American rituals. Others had heard this, too. Nobody, however, seemed to know exactly who had constructed the cairns, or when and why. One thing was obvious to the hunter—those who owned land on which the cairns rested did not want to draw the attention of looters or trespassers.
The grouse hunter’s search for an origin story was fruitless for years. Until one day, when he walked into an unrelated retail business meeting in Northampton County. Hanging from an office wall were framed images of familiar stone piles.
When asked about the photos on his wall, Fred Werkheiser, the meeting’s host, identified himself as an amateur sleuth of aboriginal stonework. His cairn interests had begun years before. In a former life, Fred drove trucks for 7-Up, and it was on rural delivery routes through Pennsylvania that he noticed stone piles in forest clearings. He developed an eye for spotting cairns—both on the road and at home in the Lehigh Valley. Using his free time to canvass the woods, he found more of the stonework in Northampton and Monroe counties. He recognized familiar patterns and placements, but he didn’t know what he was looking at, who built it, or why. In a time before internet search engines, Fred’s hunt for information took him into libraries and bookshops. Answers started coming when he visited an antique shop in the Poconos and picked up an old book of regional history. Its pages held a photograph of the stonework that had fascinated him for years, and with it, descriptive information.
“Holy hell!” he thought out loud. “I’ve been looking for something like this for years!”
The book gave Fred more of a working vocabulary for the cairns, words that he used to trace readings on aboriginal architecture, conduct interviews with architectural historians, and converse with local history enthusiasts. While books on the topic were not as prolific as he had hoped, and architectural historians seemed indifferent to his questions, Fred did come to understand more about the creators, purpose, and placement of the stonework. He started asking friends and acquaintances whether they had ever noticed stone piles on their own or on neighboring land. Too often, the answer was the same.
“Yeah, but they’re torn down now.”
“Yeah, blown up with dynamite.”
But, questions also introduced new leads. An Emmanuelsville farmer spoke of remnants on his property. In Berks County, a man invited Fred to see what he considers one of Pennsylvania’s most important archaeological sites: twelve to fourteen hillside acres covered with cairns and stone walls. Some of the structures stood ten feet tall. By then, Fred had connected with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania and their then-chief, Bob Redhawk Ruth. On a site visit with Fred, Chief Redhawk Ruth commented on the large number of native medicinal plants that grew throughout the landscape.
This Land Is Not Your Land
In a 2007 interview with The Morning Call Bob Redhawk Ruth estimated that ninety percent of native sites in Pennsylvania had been destroyed or damaged. Fred became convinced that a large part of this ruination was due to ignorance. His interest in ancient stonework became a mission of historic preservation.
“People have these places,” he reflects today. “Nobody knows what they are, and so they rip them down.”
Together with Donald Repsher, a friend, regional historian, and Presbyterian minister, Fred published what he had struggled to find when he first began scouting cairns: a compilation of research and writings that traced the cairns’ origins and place in tribal societies. Documentary Evidence of Aboriginal Stonework in the American Northeast came out in 2005. Using the work to start a public awareness campaign, Fred mailed information to landowners with cairns on their properties in order to strengthen support for historic preservation.
At their initial meeting, the grouse hunter listened as Fred confirmed and supplemented what he had gathered from conversations in Tioga County. Native Americans, most probably the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware Indians), had created the stone monuments centuries before.
Originally from homelands that extended along the Delaware River from modern-day New York to Delaware, the Lenape were Algonquin-speaking people who identified with one of three tribal clans—the Turtle (Unami), the Turkey (Unalachtigo), and the Wolf (Munsee). It was the Lenape with whom William Penn famously made a peace treaty in 1687 in Lenapehoking (modern-day Philadelphia), the spiritual and physical home of the Unami. The agreement promised to honor the indigenous peoples’ claim to their ancestral lands in the wake of European immigration.
In less than fifty years, William Penn’s sons and business associates retracted this land agreement, sold the Lenape’s ancestral grounds to Europeans, and forced the Native Americans westward. Migrating through Pennsylvania into Ohio before moving further south or northwest, the tribal clans ultimately resettled in several government-approved areas—two in Oklahoma, one in Wisconsin, and two in Ontario.
This diaspora of the Lenape in the first half of the eighteenth century is largely why Fred struggled to find any information about aboriginal stonework. Those Lenape who stayed in Pennsylvania hid their identities, afraid of repercussions or further forced removal. From one generation to the next, families spoke of their heritage privately, kept their ancestral rituals alive in private group gatherings like powwows, or never spoke to their children about their true identities. Oral histories became silenced, and artifacts unrecognized. For a period of 200 years there was no continuous, formal Lenape “tribal entity” in Pennsylvania.
Here, Fill Out These Forms
Today, the Keystone State is one of thirteen that does not acknowledge the presence of a single Native American tribe within its domain. To claim official tribal status, a people would need to submit an application, one that meets very specific requirements, to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Such paperwork calls for expensive legal counsel and a trove of historical evidence that documents, among other things, the applicant group’s continuous residence within the state for over a century.
Amanda Funk, co-founder of the Widoktadwen Center for Native Knowledge in Reading, says that the “whole lot of red tape” involved in applying for Native status is evidence that “the government is threatened by native sovereignty.” Tribal sovereignty brings numerous privileges—in addition to validating a people’s history and culture, it includes benefits such as tax exemptions, access to grants, and health coverage.
In 1998, the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania formed as a non-profit corporation to promote cultural awareness and historical preservation. Like other groups, LNPA has tried and failed to get federal acknowledgement. Such efforts draw the ire of the Delaware Nation and the Delaware Tribe of Indians, both headquartered in Oklahoma. Spokespeople for both Lenape nations have told press outlets, including Mountain Home, that groups like the LNPA are fraudulent “Corporations Posing as Indigenous Nations” (CPIN) that take resources from those whose ancestors were forcibly removed from the state. Reasoning that tribal societies migrated as a collective people, these tribal nations say that should anyone of Lenape descent have stayed behind, they would have assimilated into another society.
Lenape women most certainly did. Revered among their people for their wisdom and intuition, many Lenape women married immigrant German farmers and immersed themselves in the Pennsylvania Dutch community. This union allowed Lenape bloodlines to stay close to their ancestral homeland, even if, due to caution, children never learned their maternal heritage. That was the case in Fred’s family. Years after he first felt a powerful attachment to the cairns on his rural 7-Up delivery route, he learned they were in his blood.
Raised in a Pennsylvania Dutch family, Fred knew about his German heritage, particularly in farming matters: since 1850, his family had operated the same farm. But it wasn’t until he turned fifty that he learned he had Lenape blood as well. Reading through diaries in a farmhouse attic, he learned that his great-great grandmother had been born into the Munsee clan. At some point in her adult life, she committed suicide, and the family spoke of her no more.
“On the day she killed herself,” reflects Fred, “everything was erased.”
Solving the Puzzle
After his business meeting in Northampton County, the grouse hunter’s next trip to Charleston Township had a specific agenda. He knew that Fred strongly suspected it was the Turtle clan of the Lenni Lenape who had created the cairns that fascinated him. Although Fred hadn’t yet studied Tioga County’s indigenous architecture, he felt confident that the grouse hunter’s descriptions matched the characteristics of the images framed in his office. And he knew how to make sure they did.
In the eighteenth century, those Lenape who made their homes in northcentral Pennsylvania had to navigate dangerous Iroquois territory. A confederacy of six separate Indian nations—the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras—the Iroquois held territory across New York state and into northern Pennsylvania. To avoid a land war, the Five Nations gave the name “Tioga” to an area along the Susquehanna River that marked a southern boundary to Iroquois territory. An Algonquin word meaning “entrance,” Tioga was an approved, guarded entry point for Lenape crossing into the land. Land north of the dividing line was Iroquois territory; what lay south belonged to the Lenape.
As they had in Lenapehoking, their ancestral homelands, the Lenape established sacred ground where they perceived spiritual imagery in the natural world. Revering the life force flowing through the earth, indigenous people hold sacred the sustainers of the life cycle, thus equally honoring humans, animals, minerals, and organic material. Wherever the Lenape recognized the shape of an exalted being in the landscape—for example the outline of a turtle, turkey, or wolf in tree bark or a knotted root—they read the location as holy, an intersection of the physical and spiritual worlds, and identified it with a marker such as stonework. These stone piles served as gathering places for mourning or celebrating. Some cairns honored the dead as burial mounds. Others served a utilitarian purpose as scientific instruments: within these rock formations, the Lenape crafted openings that aligned with the sun to measure solstices and equinoxes, indicators of seasonal changes that drove planting and harvesting. Shaping these monuments to fit the terrain, the Lenape built them near river tributaries in dense parts of the woods, accessible to tribal members yet hidden from those unaware of how to track the sacred grounds. The Turtle clan, Fred knew, used a bent sapling tree to indicate direction, serving as one such clue.
To see if his instincts were correct, Fred suggested that the grouse hunter go on a tracking exploration. The two men exchanged personal phone numbers, and Fred offered further guidance over the phone. Following the cues, the hunter started at the site of the most well-preserved cairn. He walked a gradually expanding radius around the stones in search of a bent tree that was once a young bent sapling. He found one that leaned in the direction of the cairn. Then he turned his attention toward the ground, knowing that, if Fred was correct, the cairn would stand near the image of a turtle found nearby. Some might say that the chance of finding a centuries-old turtle outline in the woods would be quite low. But the grouse hunter believed he just might come across it. And he did. In an area of the forest he had traversed many times, he noticed a huge boulder covered in moss. A tree appeared to grow directly from the center of it, something that distracted attention from the boulder’s place on the forest floor. Standing a few yards away, an observer can see how the green moss that covers the top of the boulder highlights its shape—a turtle’s shell. At the ends of the boulder, smaller rock formations clearly resemble a turtle’s webbed feet and head. The effect was astonishing. After years of inquiry, the grouse hunter had answers to his questions about the creator, the origin story, and the purpose of the cairns.
Indigenous activists and groups in Pennsylvania today focus on promoting cultural awareness and preserving the land. In 2007, the Morning Call reported on Lenape efforts to block contractors from destroying sacred grounds. And a decade before, in 1997, Lenape activist Joseph Windwalker led a local group in stopping the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation from constructing a highway on a route through Tioga County that would have endangered plant and animal species and destroyed Native lands. Joseph worked meticulously, raising awareness through conservation meetings, joining forces with environmental action groups, garnering support at powwows, producing petition after petition, securing hundreds of indigenous and non-Native American signatures, writing hundreds of letters, and making countless phone calls. He lives now in New York with his wife, Sandra Windwalker. Both remember the campaign to change PennDOT’s mind very well—the road was built, but along an alternate route.
“That highway would have cut through the wetlands,” says Sandra. “It endangered blue heron and other endangered species.”
Together, the couple worked to conserve natural springs and wildlife. They hosted tribal meetings in their home, taught people what plants and leaves to gather for food and for medicine, and offered workshops on topics like tribal music and instruments. Until the pandemic began, the Windwalkers did what they could to educate young people near their Corning home, which included offering hands-on lessons at a local environmental center on Native American history, language, and craftsmanship making use of traditional components such as feathers, leather, and loom work.
“Very often, there is a ‘they were, they did’ attitude in people’s minds about Native Americans,” Sandra says. “For some people, they are learning that we are still here. We are sharing about our history, the good and the bad. Hopefully they will want to understand what they see and search for more information themselves.”