In Episode 328 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore some ancient petroglyphs along the Connecticut River in Bellows Falls, Vermont. These carved faces have perplexed locals for centuries. Who put them here and why? Are they ancient Abenaki graffiti? Do they mark a sacred place? Or could they have out-of-this-world origins?
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[RIVER RUNNING BY]
RAY: We’re standing on the banks of the Connecticut River here in the small town of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Right above us is the Vilas Bridge. And about 200 feet behind us is the state of New Hampshire. The Connecticut River defines the state border between the two states here.
JEFF: We’re technically on a small island that’s formed in the middle of the Connecticut River, but today there’s so many small bridges connecting this island to both sides of the river that you’d hardly know it was an island unless you looked at a map.
RAY: Right. There’s a bunch of rocky outcroppings and giant boulders all along the river’s edge here.
JEFF: And those rocks are exactly what we’ve come to see, Ray. Look over there…
RAY: Okay. I see some strange markings carved into the rocks. Circles and dots and things like that.
JEFF: We’re here in Bellows Falls, Vermont, exploring those ancient petroglyphs that may have an out-of-this world meaning…
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to the New England Legends podcast where we explore ancient mysteries, roadside oddities, ghosts, monsters, true crime, and all manner of weirdness in the northeastern United States. We’re glad you’re with us on our journey to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time.
JEFF: That we are! And we can’t do this without you. So many of our story leads come from you! Please reach out to us anytime through our Web site where you can also find links to see my on-going story tour, to see Ray’s band the Pub Kings, and a link to buy my new book: The Fright Before Christmas which is almost completely out of stock except for the audiobook version.
RAY: We’ll explore these strange petroglyphs in Vermont right after this word from our sponsor.
[RIVER FLOWING BY]
RAY: Okay, Jeff. The rocky cliff we’re standing in front of isn’t very high. Maybe 30 feet tall or so, but it’s not a sheer cliff face.
JEFF: No. It’s a bunch of broken rocks and boulders. There are parts you can climb up pretty easily. Let’s get a little closer.
RAY: Okay, we’re looking at some of these engravings near the bottom. They look like faces. Not exact circles, but face-like shapes. Almost like a guitar pic. With two dots for eyes, a small straight line for a mouth, and a couple of them have what looks like two antennas sticking out of the tops of their heads.
JEFF: Like emojis from the ancient past.
RAY: That’s exactly what I was just thinking!
RAY: Okay, a little more about the town of Bellows Falls here in southeastern Vermont. The town was first settled by colonists in 1753 and named for Colonel Benjamin Bellows who owned a lot of property here. The nearby Bellows waterfalls powered early industries in town which helped the region grow. This town was also the site of one of the nation’s first canals. The canal was built between 1792 and 1802 to help get Connecticut River boat traffic through the area.
JEFF: The Connecticut river was like an early highway. Goods and people could move many miles easily. And while the town of Bellows Falls grew up, theses faces on the rocks stood watch. While they were first discovered by colonists around the time was first settled, it was in 1789 that these strange markings first received some serious study.
RAY: So let’s head back to 1789 and explore these ancient mysteries.
RAY: It’s the summer of 1789 here in Bellows Falls, Vermont. George Washington just took the oath of office to become the first president of the United States back in April. The United States is still a very new idea and country.
JEFF: And though much of the northeast and on down the eastern seaboard has been colonized by Europeans for well over a century, there are still plenty of unexplored corners and great mysteries all over the country. One of those mysteries are some strange markings on the outcropping of rocks near the Connecticut River here in Bellows Falls.
RAY: Eventually word about these carvings reaches the ear of Rev. David McClure of Dartmouth College. He’s intrigued enough to take a boat down the Connecticut River to the town of Bellows Falls.
JEFF: When Rev. McClure first sees these carvings, he’s perplexed. He hadn’t seen anything like them before. He observes that the faces are life-sized, simple ovals with markings for eyes, nose, mouth, and maybe ears. He also notes that some have lines sticking out of their head that could be feathers, horns, or some kind of rays.
RAY: The markings are crude. Like the way I might draw a stick figure. There’s not a lot of detail here.
JEFF: Rev. McClure notes that there are records of seeing these petroglyphs from the earliest days of the town’s founding. So locals knew about them, but they figured the Abenaki people must have done it.
RAY: There’s only one problem with that idea.
JEFF: What’s that?
RAY: While it’s true the Abenaki people lived here for thousands of years, they didn’t tend to carve up rocks. Otherwise, we would see glyphs like this everywhere.
JEFF: That’s true. And while there are some reports of strange markings on stones throughout New England, they’re few and far between.
RAY: Rev. McClure estimates that these carvings are between 300 and 3,000 years old.
JEFF: That’s a pretty wide berth. Which still begs the question: what do they mean?
RAY: Rev. McClure, perhaps speculating from his ethnocentric and religious background took the lines off the top of the faces to mean horns, and perhaps this was viewed as some kind of dark place with evil spirits present. Maybe the faces are here to warn others.
JEFF: Others point out that this area has great fishing opportunities. Maybe some of the Abenaki people came here to fish and out of boredom, took to carving into some of the rocks.
RAY: Like some kind of ancient graffiti?
JEFF: Maybe. But as you pointed out, we don’t find sites like this all over. Which makes this mystery endure. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay… there’s a lot more to say on this. Though Rev. McClure was the first to write about these petroglyphs way back in 1789, others came to study them over time as well.
RAY: They sure did. In 1857, ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft studied the glyphs and suggested they depict a battle scene.
JEFF: It doesn’t look like a battle to me. It’s just faces. I get no sense of conflict in them.
RAY: In 1858, historian Benjamin Hall wrote about the Bellows Falls petroglyphs and said he thought they represented a chief and his tribe. And that this place must have been the site of an important event that was immortalized in stone.
JEFF: In more modern times, thanks to the influence of shows like Ancient Aliens, others suggested maybe these petroglyphs depict visitors from another planet with antennae on their heads. And maybe those are helmets instead of faces.
RAY: That feels like a reach to me. But then again, it feels like there’s no way we’ll ever know for certain who put these here and why.
JEFF: With certainty? No. We’ll probably never know. In the 1990s, co-authors William Haviland and Marjory Power who wrote the book The Original Vermonters, studied the Bellows Falls petroglyphs. They believe this location was a scared place for the Abenaki, that shaman came here to enter a trance-like state and see visions. Perhaps they carved those visions on the rocks in front of them.
RAY: Back when David McClure saw these petroglyphs in 1789, he only described three faces. But in reality there are about 24 of them. Though over time there’s been dumping of other rocks here, erosion, and so on, so some were lost.
JEFF: We also need to report that what we’re seeing today isn’t totally accurate.
RAY: What do you mean?
JEFF: In the 1930s the Daughters of the American Revolution hired a stone mason to come here and deepen the existing glyphs.
RAY: Ohhhh no.
JEFF: So I’m sure some guess work and liberties were taken. The carver did his best to preserve, but the job required him to forever alter the petroglyphs.
RAY: So while these glyphs today are probably close to what they looked like a few centuries ago, it’s not exact.
JEFF: Nope. Erosion has been a factor, which is why the stone mason was hired in the 1930s, but now we’re looking at a tracing of a drawing and trying speculate why someone did this here and why.
RAY: And with nothing but theories suddenly we find ourselves saying… we’re not saying it’s aliens… but it’s aliens.
JEFF: But probably not aliens. But still strange and old. And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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To see some photos of the Bellows Falls Petroglyphs, both today and from when they were photographed in the late nineteenth century, click on the link in the episode description, or head over to our Web site and click on episode 328.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.