The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 5, 2008


The Tophet Swamp mystery: devils and Indians in Colonial Massachusetts

Boudillion, a local historian from Littleton, spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Carlisle Historical Society on November 20. Excerpts from his talk appear below. Carlisle’s Tophet

A tangle of trees, mossy logs and other vegetation is reflected in the murky waters of Carlisle’s Tophet Swamp. This photo was taken from the boardwalk on the Tophet Loop Trail. (Photo by Marjorie Johnson)

Swamp is located in Great Brook Farm State Park.

Something very strange was going on in Colonial Massachusetts. For some reason the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony had a habit of naming their swamps “Tophet,” which is an Old Testament name for “fiery hell.” But Tophet is confusing when applied to swamps, which are watery places, and fieriness seems oddly inappropriate.

Since the Puritans could have simply named the swamps “Hell Swamp” (the lone example is in Plymouth County), a number of questions arise: Why choose Tophet to best describe a swamp? Why “Tophet” and not just “hell?” What is so “fiery” about a swamp anyway? And why are Tophet-named swamps found only in Massachusetts.

Tophet Swamps: unique to Massachusetts

Of the 16 recognized Tophet place-names, 12 of them are in Massachusetts, and eight of these are swamps. Only one Tophet Swamp is not in Massachusetts (it’s in Ipswich, N.H.). These Tophet names originated in the Puritan world of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was chartered in 1629 and included what is now Maine. Yet Tophet place-names do not occur there – they occur only in the lower part of Bay Colony, which is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Tophet Swamps in Massachusetts

The eight known historical Tophet Swamps in Massachusetts are located in Westminster, Fitchburg, Shirley, Littleton, Carlisle, Lexington, Lynnfield and Lynn. In addition, there is a Tophet Brook in Adams.

Not surprisingly, some of the Tophet Swamp designations have fallen out of use or have been reassigned to other geological features. For instance in Littleton the name “Tophet Swamp” is no longer used and the swamp is now nameless, although the chasm in which it resides still called Tophet.

Although there are a few Tophet-named places outside of Massachusetts, my research indicates that naming Massachusetts swamps “Tophet” is related to Massachusetts Bay Colony’s obsessions with and fear of Indians and devils. My first inkling of an Indian connection began when I placed the initial Tophet Swamp locations on a map of Massachusetts and observed that they fall along Route 2 and are spaced out in 10- to 20- mile intervals. Route 2 is the old Mohawk Trail, which in Massachusetts Bay Colony times was the major Indian trail – a literal thoroughfare – running east-west across Massachusetts. Since the Tophet Swamps fall on this line and at regular intervals, I suspected that a historical mystery was hidden therein.


There were three indigenous inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay Colony that the Puritans did

Today's Tophet Swamp does not resemble that of Pruitan times, when Indians held rituals and lit bonfires there. The swamp is anything but a hospitable environment, unsuited for a hike or nature walk. (Photo by Marjorie Johnson)

their best to rid themselves of: the wolf, the rattlesnake and the Indian. All three were associated with swamps. So closely were the Indians associated with swamps that the English in King Philip’s War in 1675-76 began using the term as a verb. The uprising Indians were described as having “swamped themselves in a great Spruce swamp.”

It had long been a habit of the Algonquin-speaking Indians of Massachusetts to use swamps as “Refuges for women and children in Warre,” choosing “hideous Swamps & obscure unaccessable places, of which the Country is Full.” But swamps were more than just refuges to the Indians in times of unrest. They were traditional villages of long standing. For example, it is recorded in 1637 that the Pequots had a village in a swamp between the Thames and Connecticut Rivers.

The Puritans: an Old Testament people

The Puritans were a grim and dour lot, governed by religious leaders who drew their ecclesiastical law and inspiration from the Old Testament. It is not surprising that the Puritans, living in this society, would identify the Indians with the devil and his works. The Puritans were devoted to the ideal of raising a spiritual Zion, a “City upon a Hill,” dedicated to Almighty God, and carved out of the pure new lands of the New England forest. They considered anything that stood in the way of this Great Work to be instruments of the Adversary. And nothing stood in their way more than the Massachusetts Indians, “despised as heathens” and “children of the devil.”

The Puritan religious leaders spoke out against the devil and his Indian accomplices, and none more passionately than Cotton Mather, who around 1650 wrote in a letter that, “All is diabolical among the Indians” and that “our missionaries have little luck.” In his book Memorable Providences (1689), he wrote that, “the Indians worship the devil, and in their Powwows, often raise their masters in the shapes of bears and snakes and fires.”

Tophet in Puritan sermons

The Old Testament of the Genevan Bible was the primary inspiration of Puritanism, and most of their scholarly thought and sermons revolved around a hell of fire and brimstone. The Puritan Ecclesiastics of New England were literally obsessed with hell, and as such were

The sign near the end of Wolf Rock Road points to the trail, from which you can see Carlisle's Tophet Swamp. (Photo by Marjorie Johnson)

familiar with the Old Testament word “Tophet”; as a synonym, it was used in numerous sermons. An excellent example is Thomas Vincent’s 1670 sermon Fire and Brimstone in Hell, to Burn the Wicked, in which he wrote: “but here hell is called Tophet, in allusion to that place, because of the shrieks and cries which the damned shall make there are worse than the children did in Tophet, when they were sacrificed by their cruel parents.” [Tophet is a place in the Valley of Hinnon, south of Jerusalem, associated with the worship of Molech, where human sacrifices were made.]

So the Puritan use of Tophet indicates a fiery place filled with the shrieking and yelling of the damned. It is not used to indicate a place of child sacrifice; rather, the cries of the sacrificed children in the historical Valley of Hinnom are used as an allusion to the anticipated shrieks of the damned in hell.

Spells and rituals in the swamps

Swamps were not only Indian dwelling places, but were also the abode of shamanic ritual and vision quest. The Indian Powahees (powwows) were the shamans of the Massachusetts tribes and wielded power second only to the Sachem chiefs.

Passaconnoway, the powerful shaman-sachem of the Pawtucket Indians, “worked his spells in the swamps near his settlement [in Amesbury] for three days and nights in an effort to rid the region of the white man,” according to Mavor & Dix in Manitou. Skinner in Tales of Puritan Land records Passaconnoway’s midnight spell-working at Barrow Hill (in a swamp in Amesbury), “which was said to be the meeting-place for Indian powwows and witches, and at late hours of the night the light of fires gleamed from its top, while shadowy forms glanced athwart it.”

We can see the relationship between the wood-fueled fires in hell and shrieking of the damned, and the wood-fueled bonfires in the swamps and shrieking of the heathen. In fact, that both locations are also called Tophet fairly demands that such a relationship exist.

What were the Massachusetts Indians doing in the swamps that so incensed the Puritan ministers? In short, they were “worshiping the devil.” Hobomock was one of two principal deities of the Algonquin-speaking peoples of New England. He was seen and prayed to but was not a devil (the Indians had no devil figure). Rather, he was a dark and powerful side of nature.

Indian encampments in Tophet Swamps

I gave considerable time and effort to finding historical and archeological evidence of Indian habitation in the various Tophet Swamps. This turned out to be very difficult to do, and I was only able to find two examples.

The first example is from Littleton’s once-named Tophet Swamp, which is situated in a ravine (Tophet Chasm) at the northern end of Oak Hill. An article in the Lowell Sun (date unknown) reported that “hikers on the trail about 30 years ago found arrowheads, probably made by the area’s Nashoba Indians.” The trail in question runs along the edge of the swamp at the base of the chasm.

The second is not archeological but historical evidence. This is a notation on the Donald Lapham map of Carlisle in Carlisle, Composite Community (1974) that marks a location as “Indian Worship Site (trad.).” This site, when placed on a modern map, is on the northern edge of the swamp near the Chelmsford line. That it is labeled as a worship site is significant to our developing theory on Tophet Swamps.

Time and development alter swamps

I would like to find further examples, but there is little reference to the Tophet-named swamps in the historical record, and today’s Tophet Swamps are more marshy than swampy, which makes archeology nearly impossible. The Tophet Swamps of today are not those of Puritan times. The water table has risen or lowered in some places, agriculture has drained portions of swamps, development has filled in other areas, roads have intersected them, and ponds have formed where the beaver has returned. Today, many of the swamps are treeless, open, water-filled marshes – for example, those in Westminster, Shirley, and Lexington. Those least affected by time and development are the wooded Littleton, Carlisle and Lynn swamps.

The Indians are thought to have employed water-level management in the swamps to create islands for habitation. Such management would have disappeared with the Indians. These islands, which were the habitable portions and vision-quest sites, were probably submerged in the treeless, marshy swamps and incorporated into Colonial farmlands.

A new theory

My theory addresses two questions: why Tophet-named swamps are laid out on the Mohawk Trail, and why they are named Tophet.

A closer examination of the east-west locations of these Tophet Swamps reveals that they fall nearly exactly on Route 2A, not Route 2. (Adams, the exception, is slightly removed.) This is significant as Route 2A is a more precise reflection of the Mohawk Trail than is Route 2. As previously recounted, it was Indian practice to camp in swamps. This, taken with the fact that the swamps fall on the Mohawk Trail at regular intervals, suggests that these were the regular camping stations on the trail.

Considering that in King Philip’s War the Indians used the swamps more extensively than at any other time, perhaps they were used as an Underground Railway of sorts. As recounted by Major James Chudworth to Josiah Winslow on July 20, 1675, “They fly before us from one swamp to another.”

Replotting the swamps

Extending the Tophet Swamps eastward from Littleton, Carlisle does not fall on Route 2A or even Route 2, yet is still on the almost arrow-straight east-west line that the Tophet-named swamps follow. However, the next Tophet Swamp, Lexington, dips southward toward Boston. Leaving Lexington aside for the moment, I took a closer look at the map to see where the Tophet Swamps seemed to be headed. This appeared to be straight toward Naumkeag (Salem, Massachusetts), the seat of the most powerful Massachusetts Indian tribe before their decimation by 1620 through war and disease.

I plotted the theoretical route eastward and looked for large swamps along its path. A large swamp in Lynnfield called Cedar Swamp caught my eye. Further investigation revealed that “Cedar Swamp” had originally been Tophet Swamp, and adjacent to it had been a Tophet Hill which had once had a working mine called Tophet Hill Mine. This was still not close enough to Naumkeag in Salem for my liking, so I looked closer still. This time I was rewarded with a reference to “Tophet Ledge,” an edifice towering above a swamp in Lynn, now called Weetamoo Ledge.

This brings the route as traced by the Tophet Swamps directly into Naumkeag, the seat of Nanepashemet, the most powerful sachem of the Massachusetts Indians. Since the Mohawk Trail was the main east-west Indian thoroughfare, at its eastern end some part of it would have extended to the seat of Indian governance of the Massachusetts Indians. That its entire route is marked with Tophet Swamps along regular intervals suggests that they were used as important camping or wayfarer sites. However the Tophet Trail ran, there is a deeper and more significant level associated with these swamps.

Ritual and spirits of fire

It is easy to conclude that similar to Hobomock swamps, the Tophet Swamps were named after the Indian religious activity that occurred there. The Puritan use of “Tophet” should be our guide: shrieks and fires. This would indicate a certain style of ritual involving singing, yelling and dancing around a large bonfire.

Certainly these swamps would get a reputation for shrieking and fires. The light of bonfires at night and the sounds of shrieking would have been seen and heard from afar. Fire would seem to be the most powerful component of the Tophet mystery. Therefore, I think the Puritans chose “Tophet” rather than “hell” to describe the activity in these swamps.

Perhaps it is this fire – the Indians’ supernatural “masters” conjured up in flame – that so horrified the Puritans. To the Puritans this would be the devil himself, but to the Indians it was perhaps “spirits or disembodied souls,” or even Hobomock himself. ∆

Selected References

James Truslow Adams, The Founding of New England (1921)

Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702)

Mavor and Dix, Manitou (1989); Native American and White Cedar Wetlands (1985)

Jill Lepore, The Name of War (1998)

Charles M. Skinner, Tales of Puritan Land (1896)

Robert Ellis Cahill, Curious Customs and Cures (1990)

About the author

Dan Boudillion maintains an avid interest in historical research as well as the unusual and forgotten tales of Massachusetts. His articles and photography have been published in a number of magazines, and he was a contributor to the recently published book, Weird Massachusetts.

He can be reached at

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito