Stepping among the stones at Rhode Island’s Canonchet Preserve
It’s almost impossible to go for a hike without stumbling upon old stone walls. By some estimates, more than 100,000 miles of them weave through the forests and fields of New England – enough to circle the globe four times.
Walls were not the only stone structures friends and I came upon one rainy day last week, while rambling for miles through the Canonchet Brook Preserve in Hopkinton, R.I.
Immediately after setting out on the Canonchet Brook Trail off Route 3, less than four miles east of the Connecticut border, Maggie Jones, Andy Lynn, Phil Plouffe and I crossed a stream on a bridge built with seven massive granite blocks.
More huge slabs had been laid on either side of the water, forming a sluiceway that once served a now-abandoned mill. Elsewhere, we saw stones piled atop one another in odd formations.
It’s no wonder that The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages the 780-acre preserve in partnership with the Hopkinton Land Trust, says Canonchet “contains some of the best examples of colonial and pre-colonial stone work in Rhode Island.”
Many had been built by colonial farmers to mark property borders, contain animals, or simply clear the land for farming, but there’s ample evidence that other structures, including stone mounds and so-called “serpent walls,” were constructed much earlier by Native Americans.
I learned about serpent walls a couple years ago while hiking with writer-photographer Mark Starr of North Stonington, author of the book “Ceremonial Stonework: The Enduring Native American Presence on the Land.”
Mark had explained that indigenous people frequently arranged rocks to pay tribute to such spiritual icons as serpents, whom they believed traversed between the living and netherworld. So named because they resemble snakes, these walls often point to water sources or cracks in the earth, he said.
Andy noted that Canonchet’s assortment of sculpted and piled stones, some of which form rounded, almost urn-like shapes, “make no sense as remnants of abandoned farms. These are not stones discarded by a farmer clearing a field. They are all that seems left of an untold and mysterious past and people that lived on the land before colonists and farmers introduced right angles and European rationality to the ordering of stones.”
The preserve has a much more gruesome Native American connection. It is named for Canonchet, a Narragansett Sachem who led tribal troops in their fight against English colonists during King Philip’s War, which raged from 1675 to 1676. Though it lasted only one year, that war is considered one of the bloodiest conflicts per capita in U.S. history.
The English had enlisted indigenous allies, including Pequots, Mohegans and Niantics, to help capture Canonchet in 1676. According to published accounts, he was turned over to Capt. George Denison and taken to Stonington for execution.
After he was shot, drawn and quartered, Canonchet was decapitated; his head then was presented to colonial leaders in Hartford.
Such violent horror is hard to envision when visiting his namesake nature preserve, the embodiment of tranquility.
Five miles of trails pass over Canonchet’s undulating terrain that ranges from swampy lowlands to a forest dominated by oaks, tulip poplars and white pines.
During our soggy hike, bright green mosses and lichen that clung to rocks “really pop out,” Maggie noted.
The preserve is part of an expansive swath of protected land between Rhode Island's Rockville Management Area and Connecticut’s Pachaug State Forest. The Nature Conservancy’s Ell Pond Preserve and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Long Pond Woods Wildlife Refuge lie just to the north.
The Nature Conservancy also notes that Canonchet Brook and Tomaquag Brook – both tributary streams to the Wood-Pawcatuck National Wild and Scenic River system – originate here.
As often is the case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.