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Volume 37 Issue 8 • June 14 - 20, 2007 now in our 37th season

The View from Altar Rock

by Frances Kartunen

As one proceeds outbound on Polpis Road, after the well-marked turn-off to the University of Massachusetts Field Station on the left, the much less well-marked Altar Rock Road turns off to the right.  Along the unpaved road, beyond where it crosses the bicycle path, there are two grassy parking areas, both on the left.  Ahead, the white cone of a navigational beacon for aircraft serves as a landmark.  Built just short of the top of the hill where Altar Rock is located, the cone—sitting on its gray-shingled base—is not a thing of beauty.  It is to be hoped that advances in technology will render it obsolete and when that day comes, it will be removed and its footprint on the fragile heath land remediated.

On the top of the hill, beyond the beacon, is a cleft stone that was probably deposited there by the melting glacier that created this landscape.  This is Altar Rock.  Over the years it has been joined by a collection of boulders that have been trucked there from the sandpits and cranberry bogs to the southeast.  These relocated glacial erratics, as they are called, simultaneously serve to discourage parking on the top of the hill and to provide seating for people who have walked up from Polpis Road.

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the Reverend Ferdinand C. Ewer spent three summers tramping over the island, taking measurements in order to produce a map of Nantucket.  Ewer fretted that he didn’t have proper instruments for surveying and predicted that his calculations would probably be found faulty.  More precise measurements have since borne out Ewer’s prediction. He concluded that Sankaty Head, visible off to the east was about 85 feet above sea level; that Folger’s Hill, lying closer by, was higher than Sankaty; and that the hill crowned by Altar Rock—Macy’s Hill as it was then called—was slightly higher than Folger’s Hill. Altar Rock does not, after all, sit at the island’s highest point, but it is one of the highest points, and it commands a splendid view in all directions.

To the north lies the upper harbor, the barrier beach of Coatue, and beyond that the Chord of Bay.  To the east the land stretches to the open Atlantic.  To the west the contours of the hills eventually disappear into pinewoods.  To the south the land drops to cranberry bogs and one large kettle-hole pond, another glacial feature.

Ewer waxed rhapsodic.  “Can there be anything more exquisitely blue than the waters of Gibbs’s Pond!” he exclaimed. “Is there anything that will compare with the vast expanse of bog that stretches away to the South! Is there anything more charming than the ‘Split Rock,’ that trenchant rock which crowns the lofty western brow of Macy’s Hill!”

Back when the rock stood alone, unattended by companion boulders and a navigational facility, it stirred the imagination of many.  Whether or not it had been held in reverence by the Wampanoags before the arrival of English settlers in 1659, once the name Altar Rock was bestowed on it, it was perceived as an ancient religious site.  Lately all sorts of solstice, New Year’s, and Easter observances have been conducted there.

It is well to be a bit skeptical about legends surrounding the spot.  One of these is that a decade before New England was wracked by King Philip’s War, Philip himself came to the island to personally take the life of a Harvard-educated Wampanoag preacher named John Gibbs at Altar Rock, or perhaps to drown him in Gibbs’s Pond.  The story goes that Philip was thwarted in his plan, and that he then fled to a waiting canoe on the south shore, the route of his flight being known to this day as Philip’s Run.

There was indeed a man who exchanged his name Assassamough for the English name John Gibbs, but he was not among the handful of Indian boys who were educated at Harvard.  It appears that Metacom, the Indian leader whom the English had renamed Philip, did come to Nantucket to punish Assassamough/ John Gibbs for some infraction and that he was bought off by the English. “Run,” however, is an old English word for stream, so the notion of King Philip fleeing for his life is likely apocryphal.

That said, one can stand at Altar Rock and gaze in the direction of Gibbs’s Pond and Philip’s Run and know that these are names attached to indigenous men who really did live in the 1660s and who had some sort of fraught encounter right here on Nantucket.

Ferdinand Ewer published his map of the island in 1869, and it has been republished many times since.  By 1869 no descendants of the native people who had lived on Nantucket in the days of Metacom and Assassamough remained on the island.  Their presence lived on only in the abundance of their place names that Ewer incorporated into his map.  Where had he come by his knowledge? “My information, such as it is,” he wrote, “is simply that which almost any Nantucketer has, who has ranged the Island with gun in hand, or with fishing pole and basket.”

He indicated on his map that a cluster of ponds to the west of Altar Rock were the “Pout Ponds,” and on recent maps that spelling lives on despite the probability that “Pout” was a typographical error.  To Nantucketers ranging about with guns, fishing poles, and picnic baskets the little kettle holes were known as the Poot Ponds (and—by the early 20th century—as the Foot Ponds).  “Poot” was the Wampanoag word for whale, and the legend is that whales could swim under the island from Nantucket Sound to the ocean off the South Shore, rising to spout and breath in the little Poot Ponds.  The story, which was said to date back to the 1760s when there was still a living Wampanoag presence on the island, was published in the Nantucket Inquirer on Feb. 28, 1829.

Ewer wrote that his wife was impatient with his effusions over the landscape of the Middle Moors, pointing out that its “lofty” elevations were no more than a hundred feet above sea level and that there was nothing rugged, dramatic, or majestic to be found there.  Ewer acknowledged that she was right, and yet for him the view from Altar Rock was moving and sublime, and so, in fact, it is.

Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, is available at bookstores and from Spinner Publications, New Bedford. Look for Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket in bookstores this summer.

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