Saturday, January 5, 2019

Freetown State Forest

The Freetown-Fall River State Forest, near Freetown Massachusetts, has a reputation for being one of the eastern U.S.'s true hot spots for the just plain weird. All manner of strangeness is alleged to occur here, from the ghost stories that I love so well to the presence of strange folkloric creatures, and both cult activity and UFO sightings are ubiquitous.

Off the top, I will note that many of the stories that I have seen attribute some of the weirdness here to the strained and often violent relationship between the Native American population and the various white settlers. I am going to avoid bringing that up except for where it is particularly relevant for three reasons: 1) the "cursed by a shaman", "Native American burial ground," and other such type explanations are, frankly, overdone and played out, and usually indicate a lack of imagination on the part of the storyteller; 2) as I work with Native American leaders as part of my day job, I have a lot of conversations about oddball topics that bother them, and they have often brought up that these stories can be irritating because they are often more connected to beliefs about the perceived alienness of Native Americans than to anything that is actually happening; 3) because I have access to archaeological and ethnographic records archives, I have been able to look up what is actually located at various locations where all manner of Native American sites are said to be be the cause of hauntings...and there is pretty much never anything to the stories.

The Forest covers around five and a half thousand acres of land, and has numerous unpaved roads and paths running through it. It is popular with hunters, campers, hikers, and other outdoors folks. The forest falls within an area that many paranormal enthusiasts call the "Bridgewater triangle," a portion of southeast Massachusetts where all manner of weirdness is said to occur. As put by Mysterious Universe:

The forest sits squarely within the infamous “Bridgewater Triangle,” a 200 square mile area within southeastern Massachusetts that is the epicenter of a mind boggling array of inexplicable bizarre phenomena reported since colonial times, including strange creatures, Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, specters, ominous black helicopters, mysterious orbs of light, strange disappearances, giant snakes, poltergeist activity, and cattle mutilations, to name but a few. The exact boundaries of the Bridgewater Triangle are nebulous, but were perhaps most clearly laid out by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in his book Mysterious America: The Ultimate Guide to the Nation’s Weirdest Wonders, Strangest Spots, and Creepiest Creatures. Coleman defines the Bridgewater Triangle as being comprised of the towns of Abington, Rehoboth and Freetown at the points of the triangle, and Brockton, Whitman, West Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, Bridgewater, Middleboro, Dighton, Berkley, Raynham, Norton, Easton, Lakeville, Seekonk, and Taunton inside the triangle. Within this cauldron of weird occurrences, Freetown State Forest is said to be the most active; a veritable wellspring of the weird and bizarre.When discussing the numerous cases of strange phenomena within Freetown State Forest, it is hard to even know where to begin.

So, let's start with the general weirdness of the forest, shall we. The forest is alleged to be the location of all manner of Satanic and/or occult activity, with rumors of cult rituals, animal and human sacrifices, and the summoning of demons and spirits. The presence of "occult" graffiti (from images I saw, most likely from kids who saw their older brother's heavy metal album covers) is frequently used to back up claims of cult activity. The area is also reputed to be the sight of a large amount of violent crime, including murders, and one doesn't have to look far to find a list of bodies said to have been found within the forest (I have not been able to actually fact-check any lists, though, so I have no idea what, if any, truth there is to these claims).

UFOs are also said to be frequent visitors to the area. As noted below, Ronald Reagan of all people is reputed to have seen one here in the 1970s. There seems to be little specific information on them, but they are definitely part of the folklore.

And where there are cults and UFOs, what else do you always have?  That's right, cattle mutilations! Allegedly two incidents of cattle mutilation occurred in the late 1990s, with internet lore attributing them to cult activity. Rumor holds that there were other, earlier episodes as well, though I couldn't find any specifics.

Finally, the area is said to be rife with bigfoot sightings. While this is interesting to many, I am more of a ghost guy than a bigfoot guy (or UFO guy, for that matter), so I will note this and move on.

Now on to the specifics.

For starters, the Forest is reputed to be a refuge of the Pukwedgies, a race of dwarf/troll-like creatures around 2-3 feet tall, who are said to glow some of the time. The creatures are known from stories told by Wampanoag peoples, but are similar to dwarf-type of creatures found in folklore throughout the Americas (and, really, throughout the world). The Pukwedgies seem to delight in frightening people, playing pranks, pushing, throwing rocks, and the like. They have been said to get more vicious, though, attacking people with spears and knives, pushing people off of cliffs, and allegedly luring people into the forests to their deaths.

Continuing with the folklore, there is a rock known as Profile Rock, AKA Joshua's Mountain. The rock looks like a stylized profile of a human face (really, it is pretty cool, look at the photo below). Local lore claims that Native American lore holds that this is the image of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, and that it stands where the chief's son died - but the truth is that the profile was created by activities in the 19th century, likely involving dynamite for construction and/or mining. Personally, I think this looks more like a Yeti in a Darth Vader costume. Regardless, people report hearing voices, feeling sinister presences, and even seeing evil-looking (though surprisingly non-specific) apparitions here. In addition, the apparition of a lone man is said to appear atop the rock, sitting and looking out, and there are rumors of ghostly warriors that dance around the rock. The location has been subject to a large amount of vandalism, and clean-up efforts appear to be a never-ending chore.

Let us now move our tour to the former quarry of the Fall River Granite Company, where the 80 foot drop down is topped by the Assonet Ledge, AKA The Ledge. It is said that people who visit here are overwhelmed with a sense of dread, which may contribute to the allegedly high number of suicides that take place here - and one of the suicide victims, a woman who waited for her boyfriend who never showed up, is said to now be a ghost that haunts the ledge. It is also alleged that then-California Governor Ronald Reagan was flying over the ledge in a Cessna when he spotted a UFO (though I am skeptical of this sort of claim for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that planes move fast and even if he did see a UFO, there's no reason to think he was over this specific spot). Oh, and naturally this is said to be the location of all manner of Satanic Activity.

Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder (measuring roughly 5 feet by 9 feet by 11 feet) covered in all manner of symbols and drawings. The rock was described by Cotton Mather in the 17th century, and at the time lay in a creek bed. It has since been moved to Dighton Rock State Park. The inscriptions have attracted a good deal of attention over the years, with people attributing them to everyone from Phoenicians to Vikings. I am not an expert in Eastern US Rock Art, but I am an archaeologist, and based on what I have been able to find, the carvings on the rock, while unusual and ornate, are nonetheless not out of the wheelhouse of most Native North American groups, and indeed some of the panels have been shown to be remarkably similar to local native rock art. Additional carvings may have been made by settlers from the 17th century onwards. Most of the "oh, aren't these mysterious" writings regarding the rock art appear to be based on pre-20th century assumptions about the "primitiveness" of Native Americans, the same assumptions that prevented people from recognizing them as the builders of other words, it's mostly racist and garbled nonsense.

Finally, on our little travelogue we come to the Hockomock Swamp. Although not entirely located within the Forest (the swamp's 16,950-acre size dwarfs the forest) it is nonetheless adjacent to the forest, and likely deserving its own entry. As I think I will give it its own entry down the road, I will only briefly touch on it here and note that early settlers called it "The Devil's Swamp," and that all manner of weird creatures, ranging from bigfoot-type beings to red-eyed dogs to a pterodactyl-type flying creature have been spotted here, and it is reputed to be the haunt of many a spirit.

Commentary: There is a lot going on here, but there is one type of event that often comes up in discussing the Freetown State Forest that I have only briefly touched on in this entry. Most of the online discussion I have found bring in numerous murders in the area over the years. I will not be discussing these, as most of those for which information is readily available are recent enough that many immediate family and friends of the victims are still alive. While I doubt that I get enough circulation to grab the attention of any of those impacted by the murders, I find it distasteful to use someone else's family tragedy to gain cheap thrills. When something has retreated enough into the past and acquired enough folkloric baggage for it to no longer cause hurt to living people, then I am comfortable discussing it. But these cases are not appropriate for a blog meant for fun.

As rich as the stories here are, there are certain trends that are readily visible. The first is that much tends to be made of the conflict between the native Pocasset Wampanoag people and the European settlers that began to push in during the 17th century. While this history is notable and important, from a ghost story standpoint, it is also something of a red herring - there is little land across the Americas that much the same story could not be told about. It seems to be brought in here both because of the local folklore regarding the Pukwedgies, and because, as is often the case, non-Native American people tend to feel very comfortable blaming strange things on "those mysterious Indians."

Another thing that I notice is that many of these stories seem to be very much an artifact of the 1970s and 1980s. The focus on Satanic cults sounds to me much more like the typically misleading and hyperbolic accounts that were common int he media during my childhood and teen years than anything that actually occurred (seriously, the story of the man int he cabin could have been ripped right out of many of the stories told in my own town ont he other side of the country, every one of which was eventually proven to have either neither happened or have been a gross distortion of something much more mundane). And, it is worth noting, some of the more lunatic fringe elements of the religious right in the U.S. made great efforts to promote these ideas among law enforcement - while most law enforcement officers recognized this nuttiness for the paranoia that it was, a few succumbed, which likely explains much of the stories presented about Freetown.

Sources: Mysterious Universe, New Bedford Guide, Freetown State Forest Website, Lore PodcastAtlas, American Heritage

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