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Stories from the stones: Acton’s Trail Through Time reveals its Native American and settler past

The woodland path of the Trail Through Time in Acton is broad and easy to walk.
The woodland path of the Trail Through Time in Acton is broad and easy to walk.David Lyon

ACTON — We almost missed the stones altogether. Who could blame us? We were enjoying a well-blazed trail through open woods as the autumn sun poured through the remaining oak and maple canopy. Let’s face it, stone walls in the New England woods are hardly a rarity. And fallen leaves obscured more subtle clusters of stones from collapsed cairns. They were hiding in plain sight.

But we were walking the Trail Through Time, a remarkable volunteer community project showing how to read the landscape and decipher hints of how people have inhabited it over the centuries. So, when we came to the glade where clumps of stones sat near the trail, we were literally stopped in our tracks by a museum-quality explanatory panel.

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Still evolving, the Trail Through Time is an easy 2-mile loop that could make a good family outing on Thanksgiving weekend. It passes through woodland conservation land along the banks and marshes of Nashoba Brook. Rustic footbridges span the brook, boardwalks cross the wet spots, and explanatory panels illuminate how Native Americans and European-descended settlers left their marks. The carefully placed panels direct attention to the stone evidence of those who went before, but they do it without sapping the woodlands of their majesty, and, yes, their mystery. There are no Thanksgiving narratives here — just an even-handed accounting of different peoples in the same landscape.

The principal access point for the trail is a parking lot at the end of Wheeler Lane off Route 27 in North Acton. Thomas Wheeler Jr. established a farmstead here in the 1720s. The stone foundation of his farmhouse marks the trailhead. We followed the trail clockwise from the parking lot and quickly reached the brook where a footbridge uses what are presumed to be Wheeler’s stone abutments for an 18th-century crossing. As we rose up the bank, we were at the terminus of the Old Road to Concord, built to connect Concord Towne (as Acton was then called) with Wheeler’s gristmills and sawmills on the brook.

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Unlike the linear account of a history book, the trail intermingles time periods and cultures. We had not gone very far before we encountered our first Native American site, the Blueberry Stone Pile Cluster. The clumps of rocks were neither the refuse of field clearing nor the latter-day arrangements of whimsical hikers. We were looking at what is known in the Algonkian language as Káhtôquwuk, a stone pile grouping often created to memorialize an important event, person, or death.

Prior to the bloody conclusion of King Philip’s War in 1676 , this area was primarily inhabited by people of the Massachusett confederation, likely the Nashobas. The Trail Through Time project has involved archaeologists and representatives of surviving tribes to tease out the significance of Native American stone constructions along the trail.

A chipmunk peeks out from this Native American ceremonial structure.
A chipmunk peeks out from this Native American ceremonial structure. David Lyon

As we continued, we started to look at every clump of stones or tumbledown wall with new eyes. Some stone structures in the woods, for example, might have been constructed as part of a ceremonial or astronomical complex to mark such events as sunrise or sunset at the solstice. Looking for the difference between a stone wall (indicating farmland) and a stone line (indicating a ceremonial site) was a revelation in seeing the landscape free of cultural blinders. The United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., in fact, has designated this area as part of a sacred landscape that also extends to several nearby towns.

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Less subtle stone ruins along the trail, however, attest to the farming and early industry of the area with foundations of a pencil factory (contemporaneous with the one not far away operated by the family of Henry David Thoreau) and a peculiar stone foundation of what was probably an 18th-century ‶pest house″ for sick people to be quarantined in the woods. (Plagues are always with us, apparently.)

The Nashoba Brook Stone Chamber is one of the least understood structures along the trail. It is unclear which culture — Native American or Euro-American — actually built it. The roof of the artificial cave dug 17 feet deep into the drumlin hillside consists of massive stone slabs covered with earth. The chamber resembles several others found in areas used by Northeastern Woodlands tribes. Settlers appear to have used the chamber in the 18th century, possibly as an adjunct to a blacksmith’s foundry, and it may have been a 19th-century ice house. We rather like the air of mystery that lingers. Bring a flashlight, as kids will definitely want to explore.

This enigmatic site is also a good place to turn back and retrace the trail if you want to avoid a narrow and sometimes wet track that stretches about a quarter-mile along the uneven shore of Nashoba Brook marshes. If you do persevere, the reward is a broad woodland trail to complete the loop, ending back at Thomas Wheeler Jr.’s cellar hole.

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Trail Through Time, Wheeler Lane, North Acton. Open daylight hours. Free. Trailthroughtime.info.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.


Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com. David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.