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(A reworking of an old talk I gave at the North Jersey Highlands Historical Society's annual conference, October, 1995.)
THE CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF BEAR ROCK AND ITS ENVIRONS
Bear Rock stands at the heart of the Pyramid Mountain Natural and
Historic Area (part of the Morris County, New Jersey park system),
serving, today, as a boundary stone separating the municipalities of
Kinnelon and Montville. It is an enormous glacial erratic deposited in
the intervale between Mine Ridge and Pyramid Mountain during the last
ice age. It forms a double rockshelter by virtue of a deep niche in its
eastern side and an upward sloping overhang on the western side--the
latter formed when a huge slab of the rock split off and fell to the
ground, providing a bulwark for the western shelter./1/ Here, on an
ancient trail /2/ between the Rockaway and Pequannock river systems,
Bear Rock was employed as a hunting lodge by the Indians of northern New
Jersey for thousands of years./3/ Just fifteen minutes away, on foot,
atop Pyramid Mountain, is an unusual rock formation known, locally, as
Tripod Rock. It consists of a huge boulder held aloft by a stand of
three smaller stones. This, too, is a glacial formation./4/
Bear Rock in the valley, Tripod Rock on the mountain--the former
well-known, the latter obscure--each possessed more than practical
significance for the indigenous people of New Jersey--those who held
this land the longest. To understand that significance, in the absence
of documentary records, we must turn to a discussion of stone as a
manifestation of spiritual power among the Lenape, and try to see these
monoliths and their surroundings through Lenape eyes.
Stone has been universally regarded as an especially revelatory signpost
of the sacred. This has been clearly and concisely explained by the
late Mircea Eliade, Historian of Religion at the University of Chicago.
He epitomized his findings, as follows:
"The hardness, ruggedness, and permanence of matter was in itself a
hierophany [that is, a manifestation of the sacred--R.W.] in the
religious consciousness... And nothing was more direct and autonomous
in the completeness of its strength, nothing more noble or
awe-inspiring, than a majestic rock, or a boldly-standing block of
granite. ...man finds in it an obstacle--if not to his body, at least
to his gaze--and ascertains its hardness, its roughness, its power.
Rock shows him something that transcends the precariousness of his
humanity: an absolute mode of being. Its strength, its motionlessness,
its size and its strange outlines are none of them human; they indicate
the presence of something that fascinates, terrifies, attracts and
threatens, all at once. In its grandeur, its hardness, its shape and
its colour, man is faced with a reality and a force that belong to some
world other than the profane world of which he is himself a part."/5/
Lenapes perceived the spiritual power inherent in stone and bestowed the
honorific title, "Our Grandfather," on some rocks./6/ Among them, as
among other Algonquian peoples, certain peculiar rocks and boulders were
recognized as the haunts or habitations--or even the embodiments--of
powerful spirits. Brian Leigh Molyneaux has written:
"The Ojibwa of the Upper Great Lakes regarded unusual rocks and other
atypical features of the landscape as the dwelling places of
And, in his study of Lenape religion, Mark R. Harrington wrote:
"Certain localities, it is said, were thought to be the dwellings of
local genii, to whom offerings were occasionally made, especially such
places as displayed curious or unusual natural features, while even
certain stones were said to have an animate principle or indwelling
The idea that a particular rock or stone regarded as sacred achieved
that status because of its association with supernatural beings--and
that that association was suggested by features the rock or stone
exhibited--was a concept deeply ingrained in the Lenape religious
attitude. One need only consider the various "Spook Rocks," "Standing
Stones," "Indian Heads," and so on, that dot the landscape of the old
Lenape homeland and other areas of the Northeast, to see how pervasive
this idea was./9/
Contemplation of the stony contours of certain rocks may reveal the
likeness of a figure or face. Lenape belief dictates a taboo against
looking too long at such features, for they may begin to talk, and that
may be for evil./10/ On the other hand, those seeking a vision may
receive what they desire from the spirits animating these forms./11/
Remember the famous Delaware story, wherein seven prophets transform
themselves into seven stones. Some "pure youths" discovered them on a
mountain ridge "among rocky cliffs" and gained access to their wisdom.
However, this allowed others (presumably unqualified to receive visions)
to find their hiding-place, whereupon the stones changed, first into
evergreens, then into stars, in order to escape these other folks./12/
It was also "among the rocks on a hill" where the Lenape first
encountered that powerful "Mask-Spirit," Mizinkhoalikun, who told them
how to obtain his power, which included the ability to cure
diseases./13/ Mizinkhoalikun means "living solid face"/14/--strongly
suggesting its prototype was one of these stone countenances.
Besides those imprinted with these more or less distinct features, other
rocks declared their spiritual natures by displaying different
remarkable traits. For instance, a depression in the top of a rock
marked that rock as spiritually "charged," since rainwater collected in
such a hollow was thought to have special curative properties./15/
Not unlike a shrine in a grotto, some rocks featured sidelong cavities
(recessed nooks, niches, coves or "caves"); and like the rockshelters
occupied by men, these too were "peopled"--by spirit-beings:
Manittowak, tutelary deities, or "little people." At these openings
offerings of tobacco were sometimes made. When such rocks were situated
along heavily travelled paths, the "spirit-in-residence" might take on
the character of a watchman or sentinel, who it was highly ill-mannered
and dangerous to pass without proffering some ritual gift. Such was the
case with "Spook Rock," located near Tallman, Rockland County, New
York./16/ (It might also have been true of the "Spook Rock" which once
stood at the entrance to the pass between Copperas and Kanouse
mountains,/17/ called the Pequannock Water Gap.)
Perhaps the grandest example of this type of "spirit rock" was in the
"four openings" in the rocky cliffs overlooking the Delaware River.
Lenape folklore cites this place as the entrance to the abode of the
"twelve little women," who keep watch on the traffic in and out of
Delaware Bay. Their "uncle" was a great sea serpent, who swallowed
those who were intractably insolent to his "nieces." It was customary
(and probably advisable!) to leave valuables at the "cave"
entrances--for "safekeeping." A quantity of fish was also extracted from
the fishermen--which, though seemingly excessive, ensured a good catch
in the future./18/
While the openings found in some rocks revealed their sacred character,
the coverts used by human beings were no less sanctified. The
"House-Spirit" was one of the great "demigods" of the Lenape
pantheon./19/ In addition, "temporary shelters" were conceived of as
"original houses," placed on Earth by the Great Spirit, at the
beginning, for the Indians' use./20/ Being among the first created
things, a particular sanctity would be attached to them. Rockshelters
are not "accidents" of Nature!
Isolated rockshelters were primarily employed as temporary quarters for
hunters and their families. However, young people in hopes of receiving
a "guardian spirit" by means of a vision,/21/ and shamans desirous of
communion with the spirit-world,/22/ found the sacred precincts of these
spiritually "charged" stone houses a very favorable environment for
finding what was sought.
The uses of Bear Rock and the reverent regard in which it must have been
held are confirmed by the evidence of archaeology and ethnology. Tripod
Rock is a nearly unique formation in the land of the Lenape. It surely
exhibits all the characteristics which mark a sacred stone. It is
nothing, if not "atypical," "curious," and "unusual;" its form suggests
a huge lumbering quadruped when viewed from the south, and a great
perched raptor with wings outspread, or a giant tortoise head, when
viewed from the north. (These observations come from one with only a
fraction of the imaging ability possessed by those immersed in the
Lenape world-view.) It provides a sheltered "dwelling" space (for
spirits--not men) beneath its massive capstone. But, most important of
all, is its relationship with Bear Rock. Here, we have a 400,000-lb.
boulder /23/ "hoisted" above the bedrock by a trio of stone "bearers:"
up on the heights where the Mask Spirit, the Thunders and the Little
People dwell/24/--in palpable counterpoise with Bear Rock, just below in
the valley, next to the trail where the humans live and travel.
Together, these two giant lithic focal points constitute dual centers of
spiritual power, which radiate in all directions and overlap by virtue
of their close proximity--a sacred zone enhanced by the presence of a
waterfall, bobcat dens and “caves”/25/--
"...one consistent with hunting and gathering peoples who conceived of
sacred places as the fortunate conjunction of meaningful features in the
The Indian people who employed Bear Rock as a base camp for their
hunting expeditions in the surrounding forest did not spend what leisure
moments they might have enjoyed without conversation. Exemplary tales
of fabulous beasts and famous hunters would, no doubt, be favorite
themes of the storytellers./27/ These stories were not told solely for
entertainment--important as that was. These tales helped to instill and
reinforce the qualities of bravery, mutual cooperation and cautiousness,
so necessary for survival in the wilderness. Furthermore, a hunter
confronting a wounded bear, a cornered mountain lion,/28/ a hungry wolf
pack, or a venomous pit viper, would be better prepared and less likely
to panic, having gained the knowledge that the dangers he encountered in
the woods paled by comparison with those faced by his storied ancestors.
One fabled monster known by various names to the Indians, in most of the
Northeast, was the Big Naked Bear./29/
There is absolutely no doubt that the legend of the Big Naked Bear would
have been rehearsed at Bear Rock. Most people, today, know this story
from Daniel Brinton's paraphrase, but the earliest recorded account
comes from the pen of John Heckewelder--Moravian missionary to the
Delaware Indians, from 1771 to 1786--in a letter he wrote to Benjamin
Smith Barton, M.D. This letter was published in the Transactions of the
American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, in 1799. Here is
"I have now to communicate to you, what came to my knowledge respecting
an animal, which the Mohican Indians called Ahamagachktiat Mecehqua, and
the Delawares (if I recollect right) Amangachktiat. The Big Naked Bear.
Their reports run thus: That among all animals that had been formerly
in this country, this was the most ferocious. That it was much larger,
than the largest of the common bears, and remarkably long-bodied: all
over, (except a spot of hair on its back of a white colour,) naked.
That it attacked and devoured man and beast, and that a man, or a common
bear, only served for one meal to one of these animals. That with its
teeth it could crack the strongest bones. That it could not see very
well, but in discovering its prey by scent, it exceeded all other
animals. That it pursued its prey with unremitting ravenousness, and
that there was no other way of escaping, but by taking to a river, and
either swimming down the same, or saving one's self by means of a canoe.
That its heart being remarkably small, it could seldom be killed with
the arrow. That the surest way of destroying him was to break his
back-bone. That when a party went out to destroy this animal, they
first took leave of their friends and relations at home, considering
themselves as going on an expedition, perhaps never to return again.
That when out, they sought for his track, carefully attending to the
course the wind blew, and endeavouring to keep as near as possible to a
river. That every man of the party knew at what part of the body he was
to take aim. That some were to strike at the back-bone, some at the
head, and others at the heart. That the last of these animals known of,
was on the east side of the Mohicanni Sipu. (Hudson's River) where,
after devouring several Indians that were tilling their ground, a
resolute party, well provided with bows and arrows, &c. fell upon the
following plan, in which they also succeeded, viz. knowing of a large
high rock, perpendicular on all sides, and level on the top, in the
neighbourhood of where the naked bear kept, they made ladders, (Indian
ladders) and placing these at the rock, they reconnoitred the ground
around, and soon finding a fresh track of the animal, they hastily
returned, getting on the top of the rock, and drawing the ladders up
after them. They then set up a cry, similar to that of a child,
whereupon this animal made its way thither, and attempted to climb the
rock, the Indians pouring down their arrows in different directions, all
the while upon him. The animal now grew very much enraged, biting with
its teeth against the rock, and attempting to tear with its claws, until
at length they had conquered it."
"The history of this animal used to be a subject of conversation among
the Indians, especially when in the woods a hunting. I have also heard
them say to their children when crying: 'Hush! the naked bear will hear
you, be upon you, and devour you.' From the nature of their
conversation on this subject, I was led to believe the story had
foundation. Old Indians whom I questioned on this matter, assured me it
was fact, relying on the authenticity of their forefathers' relations.
Further reports respecting this animal have in part slipped my memory,
wherefore I omit making any mention of the same."
"If hereafter, I shall have an opportunity of getting further
information respecting the naked bear; I will freely communicate the
same to you."/30/
More than twenty years after this account, Heckewelder did relate some
further information regarding the naked bear, which noticed:
"...a tradition which the Indians have of a very ferocious kind of bear,
called the naked bear, which they say once existed, but was totally
destroyed by their ancestors. The last was killed in the New York
state, at a place they called Hoosink, which means the Basin, or more
properly the Kettle."/31/
The Pompton Indians, whose territory, during the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, included the Bear Rock area,/32/ were
Lenape-speaking Indians /33/ of Munsee Delaware and Mohican
heritage./34/ Originally inhabiting lands east of the Hudson River,/35/
they surely knew the story related by Heckewelder, concerning the Big
Naked Bear. This is the kind of lore once told at Bear Rock.
/1/ Schrabisch, Max, "Indian Rock-shelters in Northern New Jersey and
Southern New York," in ANTHROPOLOGICAL PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF
NATURAL HISTORY, VOL. III, New York, 1909, pp.149-150. Also,
Schrabisch, M. and Skinner, A., "A Preliminary Report of the
Archaeological Survey of the State of New Jersey," in GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
OF NEW JERSEY, BULLETIN No.9, Trenton, NJ, 1913, p.72. And, Schrabisch,
M., "Bear Rock, A Prehistoric Landmark," in PATERSON MORNING CALL,
Paterson, NJ, February 17, 1923.
/2/ Schrabisch, ibid., 1923. Payne, C. and Wassmer, L., BUTLER, NEW
JERSEY, Butler, NJ, 1951, p.124.
/3/ Lenik, Edward, Letter to Lucy Meyer, April 1, 1986. Kraft, Herbert,
cited in Hayden, Gary, "Proposed Park Could Save Pyramid Mountain," NEW
JERSEY OUTDOORS, VOL.14, No.5, Sep.-Oct., 1987, p.6. And, NEW JERSEY
CONSERVATION FOUNDATION 1990 ANNUAL REPORT, p.12.
/4/ Hoeferlin, W., HIKERS REGION MAP, NO.13, POMPTON HILLS - BUTLER,
N.J., 1968. Meyer, Lucy A., KINNELON: A HISTORY, Kinnelon, NJ, 1976,
pp.184, 186, 192-3.
/5/ Eliade, Mircea, PATTERNS IN COMPARATIVE RELIGION, New York, 1958,
p.216, copyright by Sheed and Ward, 1958.
/6/ Tantaquidgeon, Gladys, FOLK MEDICINE OF THE DELAWARE AND RELATED
ALGONKIAN INDIANS, Harrisburg, PA, 1972, p.23.
/7/ Molyneaux, Brian L., "The Lake of the Painted Cave," in ARCHAEOLOGY,
July/August, 1987, p.21 - Used by permission.
/8/ Harrington, M.R., RELIGION AND CEREMONIES OF THE LENAPE, New York,
/9/ I have in mind such places as Spook Rock, West Milford, NJ; Spook
Rock, Tallman, NY; Spook Rock, Hudson, NY; Indian Head, NH; and the four
"Standing Stones" mentioned by Heckewelder, in his NAMES WHICH THE LENNI
LENAPE OR DELAWARE INDIANS GAVE TO RIVERS, STREAMS AND LOCALITIES, etc.,
Bethlehem, PA, 1872, p.43.
/10/ Speck, F.G., A STUDY OF THE DELAWARE INDIAN BIG HOUSE CEREMONY,
Harrisburg, PA, 1931, p.37.
/11/ Tantaquidgeon, op.cit., p.8.
/12/ Speck, op.cit., pp.171-3. Tantaquidgeon, op.cit., p.114.
/13/ Harrington, op.cit., pp.158-9.
/14/ Harrington, ibid., p.32.
/15/ Tantaquidgeon, op.cit., p.40.
/16/ Salomon, Julian Harris, INDIANS OF THE LOWER HUDSON REGION: THE
MUNSEE, New City, NY, 1982, pp.9-12.
/17/ The "Spook Rock" in West Milford, NJ was removed to make room for
NJ Route 23, in the 1930's. A photograph of it can be seen at the
Butler Museum, Butler, NJ.
/18/ Bierhorst, John, THE WHITE DEER AND OTHER STORIES TOLD BY THE
LENAPE, New York, 1995, pp.99-104.
/19/ Wallace, Paul A.W., INDIANS IN PENNSYLVANIA, Harrisburg, PA, 1981,
/20/ See Heckewelder, John, AN ACCOUNT OF THE HISTORY, MANNERS, AND
CUSTOMS OF THE INDIANS WHO ONCE INHABITED PENNSYLVANIA AND THE
NEIGHBOURING STATES, Philadelphia, 1819 & 1876, p.401. (However, I see
"lennigawan" as nothing more than "original house." There is no need to
derive this word from "lennikby.")
/21/ Harrington, M.R., THE INDIANS OF NEW JERSEY: DICKON AMONG THE
LENAPES, New Brunswick, NJ, 1963, pp.160-5.
/22/ Molyneaux, op.cit., p.22.
/23/ Gannon, Bill, "Morris 'Stonehenge,'" in THE SUNDAY STAR-LEDGER,
November 9, 1986, Section 1, p.58.
/24/ "Mask Spirit" - Harrington, op.cit., 1921, pp.36-7. "Thunders" -
Hulbert, A.B. and Schwarze, W.N., DAVID ZEISBERGER'S HISTORY OF THE
NORTHERN AMERICAN INDIANS, Columbus, Ohio, 1910, p.147. "Little People"
- Witthoft, John, THE AMERICAN INDIAN AS HUNTER, p.10.
/25/ Meyer, Lucy, personal communcation.
/26/ Molyneaux, op.cit., p.25.
/27/ See Heckewelder, John, TRANSACTIONS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL
SOCIETY, VOL. IV, Philadelphia, 1799, p.261.
/28/ Heckewelder, ibid., p.262.
/29/ Witthoft, op.cit., p.7.
/30/ Heckewelder, TRANSACTIONS, op.cit., pp.260-2.
/31/ Heckewelder, HISTORY, MANNERS, etc., op.cit., p.255, note 2.
/32/ Philhower, Charles A., "The Indians of the Morris County Area," in
PROCEEDINGS OF THE NEW JERSEY HISTORICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 54, No. 4,
October, 1936, pp.255-6.
/33/ Goddard, Ives, "The Ethnohistorical Implications of Early Delaware
Linguistic Materials," in MAN IN THE NORTHEAST, Vol. 1, 1971, pp.19-20.
/34/ Heckewelder, John, "Notes, Amendments and Additions to
Heckewelder's History of the Indians, manuscript, n.d., quoted in
Brinton, Daniel, THE LENAPE AND THEIR LEGENDS, Philadelphia, 1884,
/35/ See Goddard, Ives, "Delaware," in HANDBOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN
INDIANS, Vol. 15, Washington, D.C., 1978, p.214.
Thank you Sir.
I know this orginal post is quite old by now but I enjoyed reading it so much that I figured I would take some pictures of Bear Rock specifically to share with the community here. These were taken about a month ago and sadly its taken me this long to post them online. The area is a favorite of mine, however on most nice days there are too many people traversing the trails looking for fairies or portals to other worlds at tri-pod rock, right up the hill from bear rock. Most of the hikers pass by Bear rock and just marvel at its size and continue on to tri-pod rock which is the more well known attraction these days. If you have the chance to get out to the site and see it for yourself, climb on the rock and note the ampi-theatre affect the surrounding hills have on the site. You can make animals noises and scare all the new agers up at tri-pod rock, haha...not saying I do this ever. The dogs in the shot are mine and are there for perspectives sake. The larger tan colored one is a 110lb cane corso. The last picture is of the "fire remnants on the underside of the larger shelter, the ground is also still quite black from fires throughout the ages.
Many thanks for the great shots of Bear Rock--where I spent many a day, some years past. I didn't notice any fairies there, myself; although, I can't say whether or not any of them saw me!