Did Indians witness
creation of Walden Pond?
by A. Richard
from Henry David Thoreau,
and perhaps from ancient Native Americans
010226; last updated 150224.
(Note: This page includes Thoreau's hypothesis for the origin of the name, Walden. My own hypothesis follows)
For years I
tried to relocate a curious quotation. Somewhere in the writings of
Thoreau I'd read of an old Indian legend, that Walden Pond once was a
hill that suddenly fell into itself to form the pond.
curious in several ways.
Great mythic traditions seek out the mysterious and contradictory: Life
after death. Virgin birth. Creation myths. Miracles are common threads
of the most enduring
stories across our world's many cultures. A hill transformed to a deep lake
surely is one of these totems.
it's what did
happen. Geologists have since come to understand the formation of these kettle
(and here I include the chain of ponds that we call Lake Cochituate).
Lake Cochituate was
created long ago when a debris dam at the south end of glacial Lake
burst, dumping its rocks nearby and its sand miles downstream. Jill and I
live atop that sand; geologists call it "the Great Sand Plain
And why is
that great pond outside our windows?
Because of giant ice blocks that remained behind under the insulating
during long decades of slow melting at the end of our last Ice Age.
so large that the sand deposited around and over them, and didn't cave
into their vast, melted depressions until, perhaps, centuries later.
That's how one builds a kettle pond.
fascinated by that Thoreau
fragment of an old Indian legend. Were
humans watching and
listening, on that dramatic day when Walden Hill became Walden Pond?
Or did later
Native Americans deduce how kettle ponds are formed, before European
geologists did the same?
Or, is it
just a great story, which happens to coincide?
I don't know.
But I have tracked
down my remembered story in Thoreau's writings, and I share it
It's from Thoreau's "Walden, or Life in the Woods" (Chapter
9, The Ponds),
written in 1846 (the same year in which construction began, to raise
Lake Cochituate nine feet and transform it into the first public
drinking water reservoir for Boston):
been puzzled to tell
how the shore became so regularly paved. My townsmen have all heard the
tradition -- the oldest people tell me that they heard it in their
-- that anciently the Indians were holding a pow-wow upon a hill here,
which rose as high into the heavens as the pond now sinks deep into the
earth, and they used much profanity, as the story goes, though this
is one of which the Indians were never guilty, and while they were thus
engaged the hill shook and suddenly sank, and only one old squaw, named
Walden, escaped, and from her the pond was named. It has been
that when the hill shook these stones rolled down its side and became
present shore. It is very certain, at any rate, that once there was no
pond here, and now there is one; and this Indian fable does not in any
respect conflict with the account of that ancient settler whom I have
who remembers so well when he first came here with his divining-rod,
a thin vapor rising from the sward, and the hazel pointed steadily
and he concluded to dig a well here. As for the stones, many still
that they are hardly to be accounted for by the action of the waves on
these hills; but I observe that the surrounding hills are remarkably
of the same kind of stones, so that they have been obliged to pile them
up in walls on both sides of the railroad cut nearest the pond; and,
there are most stones where the shore is most abrupt; so that,
it is no longer a mystery to me. I detect the paver. If the name was
derived from that of some English locality -- Saffron Walden, for
-- one might suppose that it was called originally Walled-in Pond.
And who is Thoreau's "ancient settler"? You can meet him in the
second-from-last paragraph of Chapter
My (Dick Miller's) alternate hypothesis for the origin of the name, Walden:
Thoreau suggested, "Walled-in Pond". I suggest that Walden Pond's name may have evolved from "Walton",
an English place-name traced back to the (1087) Domesday Book's
"Waltuna", which in turn is thought to trace back to an earlier name
meaning "Walled Farmstead".