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Solved: The mystery of Pennsylvania's rock cairns

Hidden in the woods throughout Pennsylvania are countless man-made rock piles. These mysterious structures can be found in a variety of shapes, from beehive-shaped mounds to neatly-stacked piles. They appear to be quite old, which has led to numerous theories on their origin, ranging from the mildly plausible to the downright ridiculous.

The most mundane explanation is that these rock piles were created by 18th and 19th century farmers and pioneer settlers attempting to clear their planting fields. Others have suggested that the mysterious cairns are monuments or markers created by Native Americans. Still others claim that Pennsylvania's man-made rock piles are relics of an ancient, unknown civilization, comparable in size and construction to other mysterious cairns that have been discovered in Wales and Ireland.

These rock cairns can be found throughout the state, but the most well-known examples are found in the remote wilderness of Susquehanna County. Other cairn fields have been discovered in Berks County, and as well as in several remote regions of the Poconos.

If these stone structures had been built by farmers and pioneers, why are they often discovered in out-of-the-way places far from any existing clearings? And why go through all the effort of stacking them in an orderly manner?

It is also not uncommon to find evidence of other man-made structures in the vicinity of a cairn field, such as the remnants walls. In fact, the stone walls and mounds that are commonly found in the New England forests are well known, and have been studied by archaeologists and historians for nearly a century. Just like the researchers who study the cairn fields of Susquehanna County, they have not been able to solve the mystery.

I have studied various rock cairns in Pennsylvania for several years, and after much study I believe that there is a logical, obvious-- and rather important-- reason why these odd structures were built.

I devoted three years of research to one particular cairn field in a very remote and heavily-forested region of Centre County, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been documented by any other historian. I prefer to keep its location a "secret" for now, because I am still in the process of conducting research and would prefer not to have the site trampled and contaminated with the trash of curiosity-seekers. Or worse, having the unusual structures destroyed or vandalized. Of course, I take no credit for "discovering" the cairns. I'm sure others have seen them and have found them as interesting as I have.

As to the site I have just mentioned, it contains approximately 30 stone cairns of various shapes and sizes, spread throughout an area roughly half the size of a football field. It is flanked on two of its four sides by a low, crudely-built stone wall (see below photo), and sits about 50-60 yards west of a mid-19th century homestead, which appears on the 1861 H.F. Walling map of ------ Township, Centre County.

Remnants of a stone wall at the Centre County cairn field site

As to the adjoining 19th century homestead, it was the site of a home built by an Englishman who emigrated to Philadelphia. After several decades as a successful Philadelphia merchant, he relocated to Centre County and established a saw mill and a lumber operation. Records also indicate that he was a highly-regarded sportsman and an avid hunter.

However, the homesteader was not a farmer. Other than perhaps a small garden, the land was not suitable for any type of cultivation. Further evidence of this can be seen by examining aerial photographs of the region which were taken throughout the 1930s and 1940s by the USDA. As you can see by the photo below, taken over Schuylkill County in 1939, old, overgrown farmland can be identified by a change in coloration (the photo shows a farm that was abandoned sometime around 1880 or 1890). Black and white USDA photos taken over the Centre County cairn field and the 1861 homestead site show no evidence of the land ever having been cleared during the previous 78 years.

Outline of 19th century farmland still visible

This, of course, rules out the popular theory that Pennsylvania's man-made wilderness rock piles were the result of farmers clearing stones from their fields.

So, why then, were they created?

By looking at the aerial photograph of the Centre County site, taken in November of 1938, you can see that the cairns are bordered on 3 of 4 sides-- to the east and west by the remains of a stone wall, and to the north by a dirt road. To the south of the cairn field is a gentle slope that eventually rises up to a mountain.

I excavated three of the 30-plus cairns, finding no evidence of man-made materials. The soil pattern beneath the cairns indicate that the soil had not been disturbed. Sweeping the entire cairn field on multiple visits with a metal detector equipped with an 8.5" x 11" Double-D search coil failed to turn up any metal objects-- not even a single iron nail.

However, a sweep of the woods to the south of the cairn field turned up three lead musket balls, indicating that many, many years ago rifle shots had been fired from the cairn field into the dense woods.

This suggests that rock cairns might have played an important part in the lives of 19th century woodsmen, pioneers and settlers-- as hunting blinds.

There is additional evidence that supports this theory. In many of the Pennsylvania cairn fields I have investigated, the forest density within the area of the cairn field noticeably less than the density of the surrounding wilderness. This indicates that smaller trees, shrubs and brush were cleared away during construction, with the larger trees being left behind as cover. By clearing the ground of brush and debris, a hunter could move about with greater stealth.

Two small rock mounds at the Centre County site. Note how the forest beyond is more densely vegetated.

Susquehanna County rock cairns. Like the cairns in Centre County, the vegetation is less dense than the surrounding woods, and they are also built on a slope.

Another thing that many cairn sites in Pennsylvania have in common is that they are built on a slope, not far from a water source. The aerial photo of the Centre County site shows that there is a spring and a small stream beyond the dirt road to the north of the cairn field. Deer and other game, coming down from the mountain in order to drink at the stream, would have passed right through the area where the cairns are located.

Centre County

A spring also exists at the Susquehanna County site

One can easily imagine how important it would have been for settlers and homesteaders to maximize their hunting ability, especially in regions where the soil quality and topography would have made farming an impossibility, such as the site of the Centre County cairns, where the nearest village was four miles away. Every effort that could have been made to maximize a settler's ability to put food on the table would have been made. His very survival, and the survival of his wife and children, depended on it.

And one can easily imagine a pioneer settler in 1860, hunkering down behind a rock pile, steadying his musket atop a stony plateau and taking aim at a whitetail deer. But then the deer moves behind a grove of pine and the hunter no longer has a clean shot. What does he do? He slowly stalks over to another rock pile, a smaller one perhaps. The deer does not hear him-- for the ground has been cleared of twigs and fallen branches. He moves to the next cairn, silent as a ghost. Now he is kneeling and the barrel is resting on the mound at just the right angle. He now has a good, clean shot and he takes it. The animal jumps, bursts into a sprint, then collapses to the ground. It's not a giant deer by any means-- just a 70-pound doe. But, after dressing, it should yield about thirty pounds of meat. He smiles and breathes a sigh of relief. Life has come to an end for one of God's creatures, but now life can continue a little bit longer for others.

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