Did Indians witness the creation of Walden Pond?
by A. Richard Miller
with help from Henry David Thoreau, and perhaps from ancient Native Americans
17417 visits since 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 Henry David Thoreau I'd read of an old Indian legend, that Walden Pond once was a high hill that suddenly fell into itself to form the pond.

That is 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.

What's more, it's what did happen. Geologists have since come to understand the formation of these kettle ponds (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 Sudbury burst, dumping its rocks nearby and its sand miles downstream. Jill and I live atop that sand; geologists call it "the Great Sand Plain of Framingham".

And why is that great pond outside our windows? Because of giant ice blocks that remained behind under the insulating sand, during long decades of slow melting at the end of our last Ice Age. Blocks 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.

So I'm 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 here.  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):


Some have 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 youth -- 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 vice 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 conjectured that when the hill shook these stones rolled down its side and became the 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 mentioned, who remembers so well when he first came here with his divining-rod, saw a thin vapor rising from the sward, and the hazel pointed steadily downward, and he concluded to dig a well here. As for the stones, many still think 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 full 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, moreover, there are most stones where the shore is most abrupt; so that, unfortunately, it is no longer a mystery to me. I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality -- Saffron Walden, for instance -- 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 5, Solitude.

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".

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